Category Archives: The Director’s Chair

The Director’s Chair – Michael Bay

For the first couple entries in this series, I spotlighted filmmakers who are universally praised as among the best to ever step behind the camera.  Now, let’s take a look at a filmmaker with a somewhat different reputation in Hollywood.  Director Michael Bay is, putting it lightly, a divisive filmmaker.  On the one hand, he’s prolific, efficient, and has a distinctive style that sets him apart in the field.  On the other hand, he’s also brash, a show-off, and indulgent to the point of inanity.  Oftentimes, he’s labeled as the poster child for what is wrong with Hollywood, with his movies often being panned by critics for the crime of being overstuffed with Bay’s own unrestrained style.  But, at the same time, Michael Bay can’t just be dismissed as just another bad director.  The truth is, he does have talent as a filmmaker; it’s just not always focused on the right things.  He does know how to create eye-catching images, utilize complex on set special effects to spectacular effect, and more remarkably he manages to keep his movies under budget and on schedule.  That last aspect is probably what has kept him in good standing within the industry, because they know that he can deliver a product without worry.  And his films for the most part continue to reach an audience, even if they do appeal to some of humanity’s lowest cultural aspects.  His indulgences prove to be a blessing and a curse, as they allow his films to stand out, but also spotlight his sometimes not too appealing personal tastes.  All of this makes him a fascinating individual overall, and as a filmmaker, it’s interesting in seeing how his career defines the distinctive line between those who are storytellers and those who just make movies.

Bay himself is an interesting case of how Hollywood grooms talent over time.  After earning his degree in film-making from Wesleyan University, Bay made a quick rise within the industry, cutting his teeth on commercials and music videos.  His “Got Milk?” ads in particular launched him to national attention, which eventually led him to being assigned to direct a Will Smith vehicle called Bad Boys (1994).  From their, he made a steady stream of blockbuster hits including The Rock (1996), Armageddon (1998), and the sequel Bad Boys II (2003).  He also was assigned by Disney to helm their Titanic (1997) copycat Pearl Harbor (2001), which itself was deemed an indulgent failure.  But, it wouldn’t be until he teamed up with producer Steven Spielberg that he would find the production that would ultimately define his career in a nutshell.  That project was Transformers (2007), a movie that showcases all the good and bad aspects of Michael Bay as a director.  It’s a well constructed, but emotionally hollow and obnoxiously indulgent film, that mirrors exactly the kind of person that we imagine Michael Bay to be, and sometimes are confirmed as much by his own actions.  Essentially, what we see in Michael Bay is someone that has been shaped by the industry, instead of himself shaping it.  He has become a workman who fulfills the obligations that are placed in front of him, but never once pushes to do anything beyond that.  And the sad truth is that because of this, he has limited himself as a storyteller.  One wonders what kind of filmmaker he might have been had he not skyrocketed so quickly, and had been trying to hone his skills for years in order to gain notoriety.  It might of meant he would have taken far more risks over the years, instead of just returning to that Transformers well again and again.   In this article, I’ll be looking at the different aspects that define Michael Bay the filmmaker, and see how they represent the good and the bad throughout his career.

1.

“BAYHEM”

If there is one thing defines Michael Bay as a director, it’s his very clear love for mayhem on screen.  Whether it is overblown pyrotechnics, or whiplash quick editing, or CGI enhanced screen filler, he definitely tries to fill every frame of his movie with activity.  This use of cinematic overkill has even been given it’s own term called “Bayhem,” owing it’s namesake to him specifically.  While Bayhem does illustrate the directors prowess on a technical level, it is often the thing that many people also hate about him as a filmmaker.  It may seem like so much activity on the screen helps to give the movie more epic weight, but oftentimes, it purely just numbs the audience down when it’s done way too much.  It’s cool seeing an explosion happen for the first time, but when it’s the ten one you’ve seen in a row in one action sequence, then it just doesn’t feel special anymore. Truth be told, nobody films an explosion better than Michael Bay.  Utilizing multiple camera set ups and a variety of tricks like slow motion, he can turn what was a quick explosion on the set and make it feel much bigger on screen.  Some spectacular instances of this include actual pyro blasts set off on real WWII era warships in Pearl Harbor, as well as the desert fight out in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).  But, again, after you see one, you’ve seen them all, and too many in one film diminishes the returns over time.  The unfortunate result of Bay’s success, is that other filmmakers mistakenly believe that more “Bayhem” is exactly what their movies need too.  You see this in Transformer clones like Battleship (2012) and series reboots like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and Power Rangers (2017).  The problem is that no amount of onscreen eye candy can fix a hollow story-line, and Bay’s problem is that he often puts visuals ahead of narrative.  It’s overall a mistaken belief that a static screen creates a boring scene, and that more thing going on within the frame will correct that.

2.

AMERICA

Every filmmaker has certain motifs that they like to return to over and over again, and Bay has his own as well.  If there is something that you can easily spot consistently throughout his movies, it’s the use of American iconography.  Bay steeps his films in heavy patriotic fervor, so much so that his movies are often criticized as being too “flag-waving” and sometimes even propaganda.  It’s not a bad thing necessarily to showcase the country you’re from in the best possible light; that’s his prerogative as a filmmaker.  But, again, like his use of cinematic mayhem, too much use of it eventually makes it feel hollow by the end.  Bay’s films are often carry over the patriotism further than what’s in the movie.  The American flag has been used several time as a background for the advertising of his movies, including the less reverential Pain & Gain (2013).  The only other filmmaker who uses the flag as much is Oliver Stone, but his intentions with the American flag are often meant to be ironic.  Still, Bay makes American iconography stand out in his movies, not just with the red, white, and blue, but also with it’s landscapes and landmarks.  He even set a whole movie within a famous American landmark with the Alcatraz set The Rock.  Perhaps Pearl Harbor demonstrates his Americana motif more than any other film, as it portrays everything about the places and people of it’s setting in a larger than life way.  The movie also demonstrates the very cozy relationship that Bay has with the armed services of the United States.  In exchange for a positive portrayal of the American military apparatus, Bay gets special access to film his movies with authentic military equipment and on location on their bases as well.  Some would say that makes Bay a propagandist, but at the same time, Bay is not deceitful in this aspect either.  He respects military men and women and tries to give them as heroic a portrayal as he possibly can.  One can’t fault his attraction to this motif, just the effectiveness that he utilizes it.

3.

MAGIC HOUR

If there is something that I can definitely praise Michael Bay for as a filmmaker, it’s his expert use of ‘magic hour” in his films, and his almost obsessive devotion to it.  For those who don’t know what “magic hour” is, it is the brief late afternoon span between say 5 and 7 pm when the lighting of the sun is just right to give a filmed image a distinctive, cinematic glow.  If a film is shot any earlier than than, like at “high noon” when the sun is at it’s brightest, everything will appear too washed out.  Michael Bay’s style has become unique in the industry because of how well he uses this “magic hour” to effect in his movies.  In fact, if you look at his entire filmography, you can easily see that the majority of his scenes are filmed in the “magic hour.”  Even morning scenes appear like they were shot in the late afternoon, just to give the movie the consistent look that Michael Bay desires.  And, for the most part, it works very well.  In the magic hour, Bay manages to balance light and dark in a more appealing way than it normally would if he shot the scene fully lit.  It also gives his movies a distinct feeling of atmosphere that also elevates the viewing experience.  In movies like Bad BoysThe Rock, and a few of the Transformers, he often uses “magic hour” as a way of conveying warm temperature, steaming up a scene to give his characters that extra element to work with.  It also gives Bay’s films an interesting hue of color that makes them feel distinct; not over-saturated with extreme high contrasted, but not washed out and pale either.  The only time I see the technique not used is in the night time scenes, which themselves are lit in a way that blends together with the “magic hour” moments.  So, despite Bay’s more unfortunate directorial choices, this is one that has actually benefited him as a filmmaker, and I hope that it’s a discipline that can extend to improve his other techniques.

4.

CGI… LOTS OF IT

One of the negative aspects of Michael Bay’s post-Transformers career trajectory is that it has made him far more reliant on CGI than he ever was before.  One wishes he would show more restraint and try more in camera effects like he had earlier in his career, because those scenes at least play to his strength as an expert in shooting pyrotechnics.  But, with Transformers, he began to look at CGI enhancement as a way of eliminating the middle man and giving his movies epic scale without ever having to set up the shot the normal way.  The unfortunate problem with this is that Michael Bay can’t compose a CGI template shot the same way that he can a practical effect.  He likes to move the camera around too much, and that impacts the way that we experience the CGI effect on screen.  Too often now we see his movies putting a lot of CGI activity on the screen without it ever leaving an impact on us.  The frantic camera movements combined with the overly animated effects also spotlight just how unreal the effects look as well.  You can tell that a lot of work went into creating the models of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, but we are never able to get a satisfyingly close look to appreciate them.  And Bay’s continued insistence on using CGI more in his movies often has the end result of looking cool, but never actually feeling cool.  This problem stems as far back as Armageddon, which itself suffered from too high a reliance on CGI effects.  Oftentimes, you couldn’t tell what was going on in a scene, especially when the characters are on the asteroid itself, because Bay never stops to let us appreciate the work.  My guess is that Bay is continually fascinated by the limitless potential of computer enhanced imagery, but he’s never picked up on learning the subtle applications that can make it work better.  Like everything else in his movies, it’s more mayhem masquerading as art.

5.

SELF-INDULGENT CHARACTERS

One other major complaint that Michael Bay has faced with every film is his serious lack of appealing characters.  In many ways, Bay likes to imagine every character in his films as an extension of himself.  They are often eccentric, cocky, have an air of superiority despite never earning it, a bit nerdy, and very self-involved.  Not all of Bay’s characters are unappealing though.  I found myself very much enjoying the quirkiness of Nicholas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed and the cockiness of Sean Connery’s Mason in The Rock, and the trio of Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie in Pain & Gain also proved to be a winning combination of Bay “bros.”  But, his style of characterizations only work when there is some other factor to balance them, like a more natural performance from a co-star or a supporting player.  But, when every character in the movie is cocky and brash, and very, very Bay-ish, then the movie suffers.  This is the big problem with the Transformers movies, because every character is an archetype, or even worse, a stereotype, which only makes them annoying and not redeeming.  The character of Sam Witwicky (played by Shia LaBeouf) may in fact be one of the least appealing characters ever committed to cinema, purely because both Bay and LaBeouf mistakenly thought that defining his character as this cocky, self-absorbed nerd would actually click with audiences.  It’s a bad sign when your main character is so unlikable that he’s completely written out of the series with no explanation.  Unfortunately, Witwicky is only one of a wide range of poor character choices on Bay’s part.  There has to be a balance of diverse personalities to make your cast of characters appeal to all audiences, but when you fall in love with only one type of personality (even worse, one that mirrors yourself) then you alienate large sections of your audience that are put off by that personality, and that’s an unfortunate defining aspect of Michael Bay’s films.

Michael Bay is certainly unique within the industry, which I guess is a triumph in of itself.  He manages to continually deliver large scale productions, but is often condemned for being too self-indulgent.  Nevertheless, one cannot take away the fact that he has skill as a filmmaker, at least when it comes to the production side.  For someone who creates these massive scale productions, it is pretty remarkable that he’s able to deliver them on time and under-budget nearly consistently.  One wonders if a messier, more craft obsessed approach might have made him a better storyteller.  His style is still distinct and surprisingly influential.  I’ve talked about the Bay affect on action films today, which has varying degrees of success.  Bay even has some surprising fans out there, including an arguably way better director like Edgar Wright, who cites Bad Boys II as one of his all-time favorite movies.  Wright even pays homage to the Michael Bay style with his spoof movie Hot Fuzz (2007).  I won’t lie; not everything that Michael Bay has made has been terrible.  I often find that he’s at his best when he’s working outside of his element.  One of his best films is the little seen and very underrated The Island (2005), which has Bay working with a complex sci-fi concept and centering it around characters played by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson that are not cocky and are actually worth caring for.  I kind of think that Bay missed the opportunity to improve himself as a filmmaker by latching on too quickly to success.  If he had been brought through the ringer in order to make it into the industry, he might have turned into quite an accomplished storyteller given his skill with the camera.  Instead, he’s become a product of the industry, someone there to churn out new product without ever taking any risks.  That’s why he continually keeps making the same movies over an over again, because he doesn’t want to disrupt his flow of work.  But as we’ve seen, a detour into the unknown has benefited him before.  In the end, he is a divisive figure in the industry, because he is the very representation of the mundane in the Hollywood machine.

The Director’s Chair – Martin Scorsese

When we think of the quintessential film director persona, a few faces certainly come to mind.  Usually it’s a larger than life individual who wields a strong commanding presence, with a touch of god-like will that strives to make everything on camera perfect.  While there are some directors that shy away from the spotlight, a few do step forward and not only give a face to the directing profession as a whole, but also become celebrities in their own right.  Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock were certainly the first of many film directors to become familiar faces to the average audience members, but their ability to put themselves forward also accomplished something even more than just extra publicity.  It made the director more accessible, and showed that this was a profession that was more than just work, but also a way of cementing authorship for the films they make.  The idea of the auteur filmmaker rose out of this time, and audiences began to take note that there was value in the collective works of each selective director and that it sparked interest in many wannabe filmmakers to follow in their footsteps.  But, even more important than the celebrity status that a film director achieves is what they choose to do with it.  Certainly most successful filmmakers today want to tell stories that have meaning and can inspire something in the viewer, but there are also a few that like to step back and view the medium of film-making as a whole and show the worth that it has in itself, and how it’s a gift that needs to be cultivated and preserved.  And certainly no filmmaker today has championed film history and preservation as passionately as Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese came out of an era of film-making that was decidedly separated from the Hollywood glitz and glamour of the past.  This was an era of rebel film-making, putting emphasis on darker story-lines and far less polished and grittier imagery.  Scorsese, who grew up in a impoverished immigrant community in Queens, New York, certainly brought the roughness of life on the streets with him as he began his film-making career, but he also brought with him a sense of the magical escapism that Hollywood also instilled into him, as he has been a lover of all cinema from childhood.  He was of a class of filmmakers during this time who had been reared up with cinema and were keenly aware of concept of auteurship in film-making.  That’s why today when you watch a Scorsese picture, even in some of the earlier ones, you see an assuredness of style that is un-mistakenly tied to the person that he is.  And it helps that he has a distinctive personality too.  The fast talking, hyperactive director is such a great ambassador of the film director profession, because he so perfectly articulates his process of film-making and convinces us the absolute power that cinema can have.  What I love best about Martin Scorsese is how he’s not just a great filmmaker, but also a champion of the art, casting the spotlight on cinema from all around the world that normally might fall through the cracks, and also advocating strongly for the preservation of cinematic treasures.  With his latest and very ambitious new film, Silence, about to be released nationwide, I thought it would be fitting to examine his body of work as a whole, and spotlight the things that define what makes up a Martin Scorsese picture.

1.

THE CRIMINAL UNDERWORLD

Scorsese has worked within a number of genres, but if there was ever one that made up the vast majority of his body of work, it would be the crime genre.  In many ways, the first thing you think about when you think of a Scorsese movie is that it has gangsters and mafioso in it.  Scorsese may not have set out to become the go to guy for crime thrillers, but it’s something that he has certainly embraced over the years.  And it’s easy to see why; he’s just so good at it.  Certainly being raised in Queens may have given him some insight into this world.  Though his family largely spared him from gang violence, it’s probably very likely that he had run across a few members of the mafia in his youth.  And this insight helps to give him a different perspective on the genre.  Instead of just portraying violence for it’s own sake in his gangster pictures, Scorsese looks deeper into the culture of organized crime, and shows it as this fascinating world of different personalities, some more extreme than others, who approach the American dream in their own way.  Indeed, it’s the characters that really define a Scorsese gangster picture.  Just look at all the character dynamics at play in Goodfellas (1990); with Ray Liotta’a even tempered Henry Hill clashing so vividly with Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in the famous “do I look funny to you” scene; a role that won Pesci an Oscar.   Scorsese also looks at criminal behavior outside of the New York crime world of his youth and gave us an interesting history of the mafia in Vegas with Casino (1995), and also the sometimes too often blurred lines between the crime world and the law with his Oscar-winning The Departed (2006).  He also used his unique style to spotlight the blue collar crime world with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).  But, the great thing about his mark on this genre is that he doesn’t resort to making them action movies.  He instead attempts to tell the story of American crime in our modern age, and vividly portray all the different characters that inhabit it.

2.

PERFORMANCES OF CHARACTER

Like the worlds that he portrays on screen, the other thing that Martin Scorsese meticulously cultivates in his films are the characters.  What particularly interests him however are characters that feel like they are fully part of the world he is creating; characters who live, breathe and completely exist in the story.  For these characters to work as well as they do, it means that Scorsese needs to have actors that he can have complete confidence in.  That’s why I think he’s a director that likes to work with the same set of actors over and over again.  You certainly see this in his crime films, which usually has the same character actors like Pesci or Frank Vincent playing the same kinds of roles, usually because they are so good at fitting that type of character.  But even outside of the crime genre, you see a love of Scorsese’s for actors who disappear into their role.  It’s something that I’m sure he valued in the two time he’s worked with the master of method acting, Daniel Day-Lewis, who starred in The Age of Innocence (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002) respectively.  But there are two actors in particular that have especially defined his films over the years, and have been his two muses as it were.  They of course are Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio.  DeNiro was the face of Martin Scorsese’s early career, which focused more on the gritty underworld, with incredible raw performances as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980).  Both films in particular show the commitment to the role that DeNiro labored for, even to the point of transforming his physical appearance.  DiCaprio on the other hand is the perfect star for Scorsese’s newer era of more polished, matured era of film-making.  And in their work together, we see performance ranging from the reserved (Billy Costigan in The Departed), to the unhinged (Howard Hughes in The Aviator) to the completely bonkers (Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street) and all perfectly matched to Scorsese’s vision.  Keeping familial company with the same actors could become problematic for some filmmakers, but for Scorsese, it’s better to work with who you trust.

3.

THELMA SCHOONMAKER

Often times when you look at the closest collaborator that a director has, who’s the indispensable part of their team that makes the director’s style come through, it often comes down to either the writer or the cinematographer, because they shape the language and the look of any movie.  For Scorsese, his most essential collaborator has been his editor.  Mrs. Thelma Schoonmaker has edited nearly every single film that Scorsese has made, with Taxi Driver being the most notable exception.  Her influence can not be understated because her input into the movies is felt so strongly.  In particular, she is a master at with montage editing.  You see that in her work on Goodfellas and Casino, which have to convey time passage without losing the narrative flow.  The death montage from Goodfellas, which is set to the melody of Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” is a particularly great example of her work.  But her editing also provides some great insights into character, like the delirious moments of isolation seen in The Aviator (2004) or Shutter Island (2010), which perfectly underline the mental breakdowns of their protagonists.  She’s also a master of making the violence in the movies carry greater impact.  When a character dies in one of Scorsese’s movies, you feel the loss of life, because it often comes without warning.  It takes a keen eye for pacing to know when to shock an audience and when to hold off.  The shootings at the end of The Departed in particular are perfect illustrations of this, because Thelma does such a great job of making all the moments that come before the gunshots feel so relaxed.  Her slow motion stretching out of the boxing match in Raging Bull also carries that same impact, but in the opposite way.  That’s why every great Scorsese film is marked by the incredible work by Thelma Schoonmaker, who really stands as one of the greatest film editors of all time.  They complement each other perfectly and have been essential to bringing out the best in each other, as all the best film collaborators have done.

4.

 

CINEMATIC LITERACY

While not the first nor last filmmaker to emphasize the influence of cinema as a whole in his work, Scorsese nevertheless has been one of the most vocal in the field.  He has shown through both his movies and his advocacy that movies are his driving force.  He references other movies in his films all the time, either overtly or suddenly, and many times he will try to emulate another filmmaker’s style as a gesture to their impact on his own style.  I particularly noticed this after watching his new film Silence, which is thankfully playing early here where I live in Los Angeles.  The Japan set feature has many moments that feel very much inspired by the work of Akira Kurosawa, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that was intentional on Scorsese’s part.  He’s been a fan of Kurosawa’s work for many years and even got to act in one of the Japanese master’s last films (1990’s Dreams, where he played Vincent Van Gogh), so it’s not inconceivable that he looked to Kurosawa’s films for inspiration when making Silence.  There are other clever ways that Scorsese has worked his knowledge of film history into some of his own movies.  In The Aviator, there’s a subtle but noticeable trick he does with the cinematography that helps to convey the time period.  For the first hour or so of the film, the color is graded in a way to make it look like the two strip color processing of the early 1930’s, which made everything look awash in sick greens and tan-ish reds.  Only a student of film history, like myself, would notice the difference and I’m glad that he put in the effort to include it there.  Scorsese also made a film that more acutely spotlighted his passion for film in 2011’s Hugo, a surprisingly family-friendly effort for the director.  In Hugo, we see the growth of a young boy who discovers the magic of cinema and helps a long forgotten master of the art, Georges Melies, believe in himself again.  I have no doubt that Hugo was a personal statement for the director and it’s really encouraging to see him share that with a movie that can speak to audiences of all ages.

5.

 

RELIGION

If there is also another common theme that runs throughout his movies alongside violence and cinematic influences, it would be religion.  Scorsese himself has even stated, “My whole life has been movies and religion.  That’s it.  Nothing else.”  Naturally coming from an Italian immigrant family, the Catholic Church was a strong influence in his upbringing.  He even strongly considered joining the seminary to become a priest before a career in the cinematic arts came calling.  Even still, his Catholic faith remains a strong point of inspiration in his movies, sometimes focused on in surprising ways.  Though devout, Scorsese is not one to use his films to proselytize or preach.  Instead, he looks at religion from a very introspective angle, looking at the many good and negative things that faith brings to the world.  You see characters who deal with the conflicts of faith and real life in his crime movies like Mean Streets (1973) and The Departed (2006).  There are also films that very directly address man’s relationship with God in this world.  His first real statement on this was The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which was widely panned by religious organizations because of it’s perceived flawed and too human portrayal of Jesus Christ, which is a misreading of the film’s intentions entirely.  He also examined faith of a different kind with Kundun (1997), a movie about the early life of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.  And his new film, Silence, also focuses on religion, this time telling the story of two Jesuit priests trying to spread the faith in a part of the world that might never be able to accept it.  In all of these, you see Scorsese finding meaning in the complicated notions of religion and presenting an interesting voice that represents his own level of faith; one that is aware of it’s limits and interested in reaching for a deeper understanding.   His religious themed movies have a better grasp on religion overall than most other faith based films, so that is something that alone makes him a god send in the film community.

Even in these latter years of his amazing career, Scorsese is still a filmmaker that takes chances, which is itself something remarkable.  Just looking at something like The Wolf of Wall Street, you would think that it’s a movie made by some up and coming energetic hotshot and not from a seasoned veteran.  But, at the age of 74 as of this writing, Scorsese is not only slowing down, he’s revving up.  The Wolf of Wall Street is a manic, full of life cinematic wonder that perfectly resembles the energy of the man himself and the way he tells a story.  And it’s this kind of personal drive that he’s brought into every film he makes.  Scorsese is the kind of filmmaker that makes film-making look like the greatest job in the world.  It’s his love for trying new things and for being unashamedly in love with the medium of film itself that opened the door for other voices like Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, and a whole host of other self-reflexive filmmakers.  His passion for keeping the history of film preserved is something that has also earned him due praise and you can’t help but wonder what treasures we may have lost over the years had people like Scorsese not worked hard to save them.  In addition, his personality alone makes one want to keep up with his body of work and follow in his footsteps to making films themselves.  It just shows that if you want to make films that have a great sense of character to them, it helps to be a character yourself, at least one that everybody can end up loving in the end.  Whether he’s sharing his love for cinema, or showing the gritty reality of life in the criminal underworld, or giving a personal introspection into faith, Scorsese is without a doubt a master storyteller and one of the greatest filmmakers of our time or any time.

The Director’s Chair – The Coen Brothers

While film-making in general is a collaborative process, the role that takes the most prominence in the creation of a film is that of the director.  It’s the director who makes sure that everything captured in the camera’s frame is precisely in tune with the storytelling.  Primary among all their different tasks on the set is to guide the rest of the production team itself, ensuring that everything that the camera captures creates the perfect illusion of life.  This includes working with the cinematographer to determine how the film will be shot, dictating to the production designers what is needed on the set to fill each shot with foreground and background details, and of course, helping the actors find the motivation they’ll need to perform as their character within each scene.  It’s a multifaceted job that requires a lot of personal involvement, and that is why the director is often given the most important credit on a film.  Authorship in film-making often falls to the director, because they are the chief creative force behind each project.  In many cases, there are filmmakers whose style is so distinctive, that you can look at their whole body of work and see some chief characteristics that define it as a whole.  That’s why I wanted to start a new series for this site dedicated to looking at the distinctive film-making styles and cinematic breakthroughs made by some of the most celebrated filmmakers.  Entitled “The Director’s Chair,” my hope is to spotlight a different director in each entry of this series and spotlight 5 distinctive things about each one that has made them a special contributor to cinematic history, whether it be a distinctive trademark, a unique cinematic style, or just the impact that they have left on the industry as a whole.  And for the premiere article in this series, I decided to not just look at only one director, but instead spotlight two filmmakers that somehow have established themselves under a singular visionary style: the Coen Brothers.

Joel and Ethan Coen have worked together continuously for the last 32 years, beginning with their debut film Blood Simple in 1984, all the way up to their most recent film, Hail, Caesar (2016), and they plan on continuing to collaborate for many years to come.  They’re working relationship has been so close in fact, that they’ve often been jokingly referred to as “The Two-Headed Director.”  And it’s easy to see why.  While many other films that have been directed by two or more directors feel disjointed in their storytelling, every single Coen Brother movie is uniformly distinct and feels characteristically in line with every other movie they have made.  Sure, their style has evolved over the years, moving from the straight-forward thrills of Blood Simple to the complex, psychological tension of No Country for Old Men (2007), but the Coen Brother’s filmography has become something quite unique in the world of film-making that is purely of their own design.  One of the main reasons they have built such a unique body of work is mainly because of that close collaboration.  They write, produce and direct all of their movies, as well as work solely on the editing, under the pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes.  They also remain in charge of picking each of their projects; never taking on a commercial studio production and always working independently.  It’s worked out for the most part, apart from a few misguided speed bumps (2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s The Ladykillers).  Their ability to experiment in different genres has also given their filmography a nice bit of variety, even though their style remains the same.  And among their body of work, distinctive characteristics become apparent, and it’s those features that I want to elaborate upon in this article, and see how they define each of the different films that the Coen Brothers have made over the years.

1.

CHARACTERS

barton fink

If there was ever something that truly defined a Coen Brothers movie, it would be the unforgettable characters that populate them.  The Coens are masters of creating easily definable, enduring characters in their movies, and it’s mainly because their characters are perfect representations of every day human foibles personified in a single being.  Whenever we watch a Coen film, we always end up remembering these characters.  We don’t always remember their names, but we remember their personalities.  There are some extreme personalities that exist within their strange universe, such as John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998), or Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDunnough from Raising Arizona (1987), but the most endearing characters the Coen Brothers have ever created are the ones more grounded in reality.  One of their most beloved creations would have to be Marge Gunderson from Fargo (1996), played by Joel Coen’s own real life spouse Frances McDormand.  Marge, a pregnant small town cop in the American Midwest, is such a fascinating character in the movie simply by being so ordinary.  Her charm is not in being quirky, but by being the audience’s eyes into the crazy world that she stumbles into, and the more identifiable she is, the more we relate to her.  She’s just the average working class American hero, the kind of person who you’d want to meet in real life and listen to her stories, and that’s why we love her.  Another interesting aspect of Coen Brother characters is their often helpless situation.  The Coens had a religious upbringing in the Jewish faith, and while their movies aren’t based in religion, some biblical themes do manifest within their stories; in particular, the story of Job.  Like the biblical character, many of their characters often have to deal with situations well out of their control.  But while Job was shown mercy by God in the Bible, Coen Brother characters often left out to dry with no redemption or hope, like John Turturro’s Barton Fink or Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man (2009), or Oscar Isaac’s Llewellyn Davis in Inside Llewellyn Davis (2013).

2.

fargo

PITCH BLACK COMEDY

Another trademark aspect of the Coen Brothers’ movies is their incredibly dark sense of humor.  There are certainly some Coen Brother films that are more serious than others, but the one thing that defines them all is a twisted, often absurdist outlook on the world.  Oftentimes this is played off of the different quirks of the characters interacting with one another, but other times it’s because of the completely insane situations that the characters find themselves in.  Fargo is often cited as one of the perfect examples of a black comedy, and that’s due to the film’s horrific situation of kidnapping and murder being undercut by the silly personalities involved within it.  Any other filmmaker would have played a story like Fargo straight, but the Coens found the interesting angle of exploring how this situation would play out within this type of Western Minnesota community.  The backwaters setting and peculiar regional accent are certainly poked fun at within the movie (never in a mean spirited way though) and that helps the audience to find the humor in such a bleak story.  Some of the Coens’ more broader comedies also are injected with some horrifically dark moments, showing just how masterfully the Coens can walk the fine line between the unsettling and the hilarious.  A perfect example of that would be in the movie Burn After Reading (2008), where Brad Pitt’s dimwitted character Chad sneaks into the home of George Clooney’s equally dim Harry.  When discovered hiding inside a closet, the funny moment suddenly turns dark as the startled Harry shoots Chad in the head in a very grisly and graphic way.  By shifting the tone so dramatically, it actually punctuates the moment making it even more hilarious, just cause of the audacity of the Coens to go that extreme in the moment.  That’s why their comedy works so well, because of the fearless way that they shock our sensibilities in order to get a laugh out of us.

3.

no country for old men

SHOT AND REVERSE SHOT

Something about the Coen Borthers’ style that might not be apparent to most viewers right away is the masterful use of one of cinema’s oldest techniques.  Shot and Reverse Shot, or the practice of editing between characters to establish on-going action during scenes of dialogue, is a technique as old as cinema itself and is often taken for granted by most filmmakers.  The Coen Brothers on the other hand use this technique to it’s full advantage by crafting their movies around it.  Character interactions are key parts of any Coen Brother film, so it makes it more important to capture the little reactions each character makes in each scene, because it reveals a lot about them that the writing itself cannot tell.  The Coens capture this by changing the rules a little bit with their framing.  Most dialogue conversations between two characters in movies are usually done over the shoulder, putting both actors in the frame.  The Coens put the camera in between the characters and capture each actor in a single composition.  By cutting back and forth between the two actors, they are able to emphasize more of the reactions that each character gives the other in their conversations, and given the way they edit each scene, those different reactions can often determine the tone.  Probably the most brilliant example of this is the Gas Station scene from No Country for Old Men, where Javier Bardem’s villainous Anton Chigurh asks the petrified proprietor (Gene Jones) “what’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss.”  Apart from a single insert of a candy wrapper, every moment in this scene is in one-shots of the two actors.  The choices of how long to stay on each shot and when to cut back to the other determines the tempo of this whole scene, and it is a masterwork of building tension.  By determining which character is focused on in each shot, the Coens establish how important their reaction must be, and thereby reveal more about what each one of them is thinking.  By perfectly executing a technique that most of us take for granted, the Coens make their stories resound a whole lot more than they normally would, and it’s a testament to their skills as filmmakers.

4.

o brother where art thou

ROGER DEAKINS

The Coen Brothers often fill many of the most important roles themselves, but the one position that they rest heavily on the shoulders of someone else is that of the cinematographer, and they could not have found a better man for the job than Roger Deakins.  Deakins is, apart from the Coens themselves, the one most responsible for crafting the look of a Coen Brothers film.  Since first working with the duo on Barton Fink (1991), Deakins has been the cinematographer on almost all of their subsequent films.  And even the movies of their that he didn’t work on, like Burn After Reading (shot by Emmanuel Lubezski) and Inside Llewellyn Davis (shot by Bruno Delbonnel) still retain a Deakins inspired aesthetic to them, showing just how much the Coens value his input.  Roger Deakins style is a perfect match for the Coen Brothers, because it perfectly understates the style of storytelling they are after.  Deakins often muted colors and faded lighting helps to define the bleakness of the Coen Brothers’ world, and his extensive use of wide-angle lenses help to make much of the real world details of the settings part of the focus along with the characters.  It was because of him that the Coens put the camera in between the actors for their scenes of dialogue, because of his interest of showing the characters within their environment as part of each scene, making their uses of the Reverse Shot technique all the more effective.  I also like how his choices of color grading help to enrich the setting of each film.  When you look at the washed out colors of O Brother, Where art Thou (2000), or the Black and White photography of The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), you get a strong sense of a bygone time that these two movies are trying to invoke.  The Coen Brothers movies have a distinct look all their own, and it’s because of the valued input of a high class cinematographer like Roger Deakins that we can identify a Coen film from all the rest purely in a visual sense.

5.

the big lebowski

UNRESOLVED NARRATIVES

One of the things that I love about a Coen Brothers’ movie is the fact that they rarely play by the standard rules of storytelling.  Whereas most Hollywood films follow a simple three act structure, Coen Brothers movies tend to be much more flexible.  This is mostly due to the brothers’ writing style, which relies less on pre-planning and instead involves them just writing scenes out and letting the story build out of that.  This can be infuriating to viewers who just want a story to go somewhere familiar, but the way that the Coens build their stories as they go along actually feels very refreshing.  And the unique thing that I noticed about a number of their movies is that they don’t resolve themselves at the end; at least not in a conventional way.  Oftentimes, each story just seems to play out as a series of unfortunate events that ultimately change nothing about their main character’s life in the long run.  In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges’ Dude gets involved in a caper involving kidnapping and ransoms, but instead of him figuring the mystery out and triumphantly exposing the conspiracy around him, the whole plot ends up resolving itself without his help and he just goes back to the life he had before, apart from losing his car, his rug, and his friend Donny (Steve Buscemi) in unrelated incidents.  Burn After Reading goes even further by stopping the movie cold right after John Malkovich’s character murders Richard Jenkin’s character with a hatchet.  The scene shifts abruptly to J.K. Simmons’ CIA director literally closing the book on the crazy case told in the movie and simply asking, “What did we learn?”  Sometimes this unconventional route can be frustrating, like Josh Brolin dying off-screen in No Country for Old Men, but other times it can be provocative, like the ambiguous Tornado finale A Serious Man, and it’s that ability to not take the conventional route that makes the Coen Brothers movies memorable in the end.  I like that they don’t have to rely on happy endings, or have their characters transform by film’s end, because usually it’s those differences that make the story better.

It’s easy to see why the Coens are some of the most beloved filmmakers working today.  Remarkably, they are two minds that have created a singular vision and it’s one that has maintained it’s own, uncompromising character over several, now classic films.  They are celebrated the world over, with Joel Coen being the only 3 time winner of the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival (for Barton FinkFargo, and The Man Who Wasn’t There) and the duo being only the second team of Directors to ever win the award for Best Director at the Oscars for No Country for Old Men (the other two winners being Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, sharing for West Side Story in 1961).  The Coen Brothers have also had a long lasting legacy in cinema, with Fargo now adapted into a critically acclaimed series on FX.  The Big Lebowski is also considered today to be among one of the funniest and most often quoted movies ever made, also turning the Dude into a cultural icon in the process.  Regardless if you find their style appealing or not, each one of their movies is worth looking at; even some of the bad ones.  I particularly think that the back-to-back masterpieces of Fargo and The Big Lebowski perfectly illustrate the brilliance of the brothers at the peak of their craft.  The Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men is also a cinematic treasure worth experiencing.  And if you haven’t seen it already, please watch their newest film Hail Ceaser, which is a near perfect love letter to classic Hollywood that any film buff will enjoy.  Watching any film of theirs becomes especially interesting when you start to notice the common themes and stylistic choices that tie them all together, especially with their editing choices and their twisted sense of humor.  It’s filmmakers like them that make it so enriching to look at their body of work as a whole, which I hope to continue with more beloved filmmakers in future articles like this.