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September 14, 2004

"Home Movies" at TNR

Fenster Moop writes

Dear Blowhards:

I've been a subsciber to The New Republic since the days when its visual appearance lent it a certain heavy, ponderous gravitas: cheesy paper, all black-and-white text and no ads. Andrew Sullivan, when editor, did his bit to make the place hipper (including more cultural reportage and high quality men's underwear ads on the rear cover), but the TNR brand still retains some vestigial Lippmanesque qualities.

As such, the term "The New Republic Online" seems slightly oxymoronic on the face of it. Perhaps I am an old fuddy-duddy, but, while I have no problem getting the news online from Slate or Drudge, I still feel I am supposed to go to a musty old library to read the latest issue of TNR.

But lo and behold, TNR Online is a pretty good site. One feature recently added that I have just noticed is entitled Home Movies. The idea is that, with Americans now spending twice as much on home videos as in theaters, the time is right for more DVD reviews. This is not a new concept--TNR would not want to break any new ground, I wouldn't think--but it is welcome nonetheless. Especially by me, since, while I am an old fuddy-duddy, I do have three youngish kids at home and find it hard to locate babysitters as much as I'd like. Therefore, "the movies" is, for me, synonymous with DVD rentals (in my case, Netflix).

Here's an interesting column (free registration required). In it, Chris Orr uses the occasion of the release of The Ladykillers on DVD to comment on the careers of the Coens. I think he is spot-on that the best descriptor of their output is "downward trajectory".

Indeed to my mind (and I am quite sure some of our readers will not agree with me, but that's the fun part of this site), I don't think Orr is quite harsh enough. He dates the decline "at least" from O Brother Where art Thou?, but I would push it back further, back to . . . maybe . . . um . . . Blood Simple . . . somewhere around there?

OK, that was their first film--and a terrific one at that. And I was so excited on seeing it that I determined I was going to see anything new they turned out. Alas, until recently, I did.

I don't share Orr's enthusiasm for their second, the overwrought and overdone Raising Arizona. And Miller's Crossing, while consistently interesting, was already pushing the pair's trademark preciousness so much into the foreground that it left room for little else. Ditto Barton Fink, Hudsucker, etc.

Some of these films seemed to want to be, in the fashion of Seinfeld, about nothing. But, no, to throw a bunch of negatives together, Seinfeld was never truly about nothing, I don't think. Beneath the sometimes creepy and odd behaviors were real people, in a manner of speaking. By contrast, I find much of the Coens work truly bloodless.

In fairness, I did think Lewbowski was a hoot and that Fargo was great fun, even if it reprised some of Blood Simple's black humor for a bigger audience. But even these suffered some, I think, from the Coen's trademark distance. Irony is good as far as it goes, but it only goes so far. As Fenster has remarked (paraphrasing Confucious): man who have tongue too firmly in cheek can sometimes find head up ass.

So sorry, I can't comment on Ladykillers. I fell asleep to O Brother, was bored by The Man Who Wasn't There and found Cruelty intolerable. It's Netflixable (to use Michael's term), but I'll take a pass.



posted by Fenster at September 14, 2004


"Go with the flow" is the key to enjoying the Coen brother's films.

Raising Arizona - Has anyone else captured white trash as well?

Hudsucker - Awful.

Lebowski - Heaven, for us laidback types.

O Brother - So so.

Purely subjective, of course.

Posted by: ricpic on September 14, 2004 3:05 PM

Are you sure the Coens are just not, well, wildly uneven? Perhaps it is my own white-trash taste, but I will have to confess to enjoying parts of "Raising Arizona" immensely (mostly anything to do with the ever-irascible Nathan Arizona, the most realistic portrayal of a small businessman I've ever seen.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 14, 2004 5:19 PM

F (and ricpic):

I expected people to dispute my sense of Arizona more than some of the others. Some of their other works seem to be exercises in abstraction, but I'll grant that Arizona aspires to real, actual comedy. And it seems to be the Coen film (other than Lebowski, which is also funny not "funny") that people seem really partial to in an emotional sense--they genuinely like it, not in quotes. So maybe I ought to give Arizona another whirl via Netflix--I found it strained when it came out (and a let-down after Blood Simple) but it's been a long time since I've seen it.

Posted by: fenster on September 14, 2004 5:30 PM

I'm an "Arizona" and "Fargo" fan, but I haven't enjoyed any of the others. My batting average with the Coens seems almost as bad as my batting average with Spike Lee, only one of whose movies I've enjoyed. Lots of attention-grabbing smartypants stuff, and no doubt a lot of talent, and god bless whoever wants to enjoy their work. But at a certain point I start to cut my losses. No more Spike for me, and it'll take some really enthusiastic recommendations from people I really respect to get me back to the Coens. Almodovar's another, come to think of it. I like everything up through "Women on the Verge," and haven't gotten more than a few minutes of pleasure out of everything he's done since. Did he give up some drug or other? And the critics are always announcing that he's back, or he's entered a wonderful new phase, or whatever. I watch a new Almodovar, and I just wish he'd go back on whatever drug he gave up. So, no more Almodovar for me either.

How much slack do y'all cut moviemakers? If one film in four is enjoyable, is that enough to justify keeping up with their work? One in ... ten? Are there any who you'll cut amazing amounts of slack? I love a lot of Robert Altman movies, but god knows he can go for years and years without hitting the target. But I get such a lot out of the movies of his I enjoy that ... well, it's not that I don't mind the others. But I'll put up with them, and stick it out to the next good one.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 14, 2004 5:55 PM

Although my friend Fenster is sure to think less of me when I say this, I have to admit that I love "The Hudsucker Proxy" unreservedly and quite uncritically. I'm incapable of explaining why; the damn thing just snuck around my powers of reason and tickled my funny bone.

Posted by: Jeff on September 14, 2004 6:50 PM

To my mind, Altman fits F's description of "wildly uneven" better than the Coens. I loved Nashville and Short Cuts--to whatever extent you can "love" such near-misanthropic displays of sad, jumbled humanity. But I long ago stopped running off to see an Altman movie just because it was an Altman movie.

I don't know which Spike Lee you favor, but I had the same reaction to my first Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) that I did to my first Coen: I was wildly enthusiastic. It was only later that I realized he had a pedantic streak. In answer to you question, I stopped cutting Lee a break some three or four films after Do the Right Thing, and pretty much have not returned.

Posted by: fenster on September 14, 2004 6:57 PM

I agree with Fenster and Michael about Lee. In addition to which I am infuriated by his caricatures of Italian-Americans. But one film, "Crooklyn," is a sweet ditty that I hope to see again someday.

With Altman, I'm not sure if it's unevenness, exactly, so much as decline. His earlier films were so fresh and inventive and, if misanthropic, good-humoredly so. I think specifically of "Long Goodbye" and "California Split," films I love for their cool-jazz languorousness, inventive camera-play, and, in "Long Goodbye," at least two scenes of stunning visual beauty in their color, movement, and what the French critics used to call découpage. I was a teenager when "Long Goodbye" came out, and there was something there that struck a deep chord. I think I saw it sixteen times. But I haven't seen it in years, and wonder how it holds up. He lost me somewhere, Altman did, and, like Fenster, I've long ceased running off to see his new movies.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 14, 2004 9:28 PM

chabrol? sayles? just stick with home movies :D cheers!

Posted by: glory on September 14, 2004 9:52 PM

Robert Altman's work has declined from its peak in the early 1970s, but it's risen since the late 1970s-1980s. The Gingerbread Man, Cookie's FOrtune, Dr. T and the Women, Gosford Park, and The Company are all very nicely made, generally enjoyable, lightweight movies. None of them are in the same league as 1990's Vincent and Theo--his last great film--but they're far better than his worst films. They're also a heckuva lot better than most films being made today by the other giants of 1960s-1970s film (Scorcese, Coppola, not to mention Godard). Personally, I prefer the more modest direction Altman's been going in to his jazzier, big theme stuff from the early 1990s (Short Cuts and The Player).

Posted by: J.W. Hastings on September 15, 2004 7:35 AM

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