The Coen Brothers: Filmmakers Out Of Time (Whether They Need To Be Or Not)

Michael Stuhlbarg in 'A Serious Man'. i i

hide captionA Serious Man, starring Michael Stuhlbarg, is only the most recent of the Coen Brothers' many period pieces. But is all the time-traveling really necessary?

Wilson Webb
Michael Stuhlbarg in 'A Serious Man'.

A Serious Man, starring Michael Stuhlbarg, is only the most recent of the Coen Brothers' many period pieces. But is all the time-traveling really necessary?

Wilson Webb

Careful observers of the career (use of the singular is entirely intentional) of Joel and Ethan Coen know that more often than not, they prefer to set their films in anything but the modern day. Said observers also know that sometimes that's just a dodge, a bit of extraneous whimsy thrown in by filmmakers famous for buying quirk by the bulk.

With the release of the 1960s-set A Serious Man, it seems like a time to take stock of the Coens' period pieces and try to determine once and for all if setting them in the past was really all that important. Some have plots that hinge on historical events or cultural trends, some have thematic elements best expressed against the backdrop of a different era ... and some are just the Coens being the Coens.

Please note the absence in this survey of Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Ladykillers (2004) and Burn After Reading (2008), all of which at least nominally seem to be set in contemporary America. (And yes, I'm aware that there's not an America at any point in the past, present or future that remotely resembles the worlds in which Raising Arizona and The Ladykillers unfold.)

It's worth mentioning Intolerable Cruelty, though, as it was set in the modern day while aching to be a 1930s-style screwball comedy. Perhaps that's why it was the Coens' biggest misfire. We're not saying, after all, that the Coens' tendency to mine the past was a bad one.

Miller's Crossing

Released in: 1990

Takes place in: 1930s (though Roger Ebert seems to think it's 1929)

Is that really necessary? Well, sure. It's a tale of gangsters, Prohibition and speakeasies. Once you start writing that story, the era pretty much locks into place.

Barton Fink

Released in: 1991

Takes place in: 1941

Is that really necessary? Absolutely. Even without viewing the film as a rise-of-fascism allegory (which the Coens would prefer you not, thank you very much), you've still got characters that parallel (if not outright signify) Clifford Odets and William Faulkner and a writer working within a golden-age Hollywood that's long gone. Considering all of the specific details gnawing at the edges of the story, Barton Fink might take place in the least arbitrary time period of any Coen Brothers film.

Hula hoops and bluegrass enter the picture, after the jump.

The Hudsucker Proxy

Released in: 1994

Takes place in: 1958

Is that really necessary? Kind of. Norville Barnes's invention of the Hula Hoop — sorry, spoilerphobes, but not only is the movie 15 years old, the big secret is revealed right on the movie poster and DVD box — demands a 1950s setting. But the tone of Arch Screwball (arch enough to need those capital letters) would be more appropriate for the 1930s, while the Art Deco design aesthetic bumps it back even further, to the late 1920s. So yes, the whole thing is a slumgullion of multiple eras. For a movie told largely as a magical fable, it's enough that The Hudsucker Proxy takes place in the Past. Again, with a capital letter.

Fargo

Released in: 1996

Takes place in: 1987

Is that really necessary? Yes, surprisingly. On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be any earthly reason why the story of Jerry Lundegaard's disastrous attempt to ransom his own wife couldn't have been given a modern-day setting. In their infinite whimsy, however, the Coens fed the public a baldfaced lie on the movie's release that it was based on a true story. The year was a specific enough detail to add to the deception, so that even if it didn't directly affect the story itself, it sure as shootin' added to Fargo's mystique.

The Big Lebowski

Released in: 1998

Takes place in: 1991

Is that really necessary? Nope. As befits the Coens' shaggiest-ever shaggy-dog story, when it takes place is ultimately irrelevant, referenced in a few ways on a few occasions but without any payoff to really justify it. Which, again, makes it entirely fitting in a movie that's nothing but loose strands.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Released in: 2000

Takes place in: 1937

Is that really necessary? And how. You may recall, dimly, that there was a soundtrack for O Brother that featured a whole bunch of American folk styles prevalent in the Depression-era South, including blues, spirituals and (especially) bluegrass. Well, not only was the movie full of music (so much so that it resembled an extended field recording), but one of its recurring motifs was the way that music acted as a connector and currency between friends and strangers alike. Plus, the Coens were pretending to rewrite The Odyssey, which certainly called for a period piece of some sort.

The Man Who Wasn't There

Released in: 2001

Takes place in: 1949

Is that really necessary? Maybe not! The Coens were clearly interested in working within the genre of film noir (and, briefly, cheapo exploitation sci-fi), and they seem to have set the film in 1949 simply out of blind reflex. But beyond that, with the peculiarities of the dialogue, the excited cartoonishness of the characters and the black-humored plotline, it might have just as easily been set in the modern day as Raising Arizona or (maybe more to the point) The Ladykillers were. But still in black and white, of course.

No Country for Old Men

Released in: 2007

Takes place in: 1980

Is that really necessary? No. I mean, this one isn't the Coens' doing, since they were adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel. But in much the same way that M*A*S*H never mentions that it's set during the Korean War (so as to subtly be about Vietnam), there'd probably be no way to know that No Country doesn't take place today if you weren't told about it directly. And don't give me this "Anton Chigurh's hair" business. That would've been weird in any era. Not that anybody would have told him.

A Serious Man

Released in: 2009

Takes place in: 1967

Is that really necessary? Could be. The theme of assimilation by American Jews (and the social and psychological tension therein) certainly had more resonance in the era that would produce Portnoy's Complaint. And Larry Gopnik's disapproval of the rock and roll his son listened to wouldn't exactly play in a modern setting. In the mid-'60s, however, the music was still new and capable of wedging open a generation gap between kids who'd grown up on the stuff and their parents who didn't even seem capable of understanding it. So even if it's just to take advantage of that small amount of tension, A Serious Man might have needed to take place Then, and not Now.

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