Miller's Crossing / Barton Fink

Directed by Joel Coen

> > Jun 2003

Miller's Crossing / Barton Fink - Directed by Joel Coen
By James KeastThe last two Coen brothers films currently unavailable on DVD finally make their appearance, and while their release continues the unfortunate trend of disappointing packages from these filmmaking geniuses, the films themselves remain stunning landmarks of their unrivalled career. Their partnership extends to all aspects of the filmmaking process — though in name, Ethan Coen acts as producer and Joel Coen as director on their projects. They write and even edit together, under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. Though these two films — the twisted gangster drama Miller's Crossing and the art house morality tale of Barton Fink — are now recognised as landmarks in their career, it is with these two films that Joel and Ethan Coen became "the Coen brothers." There's a revealing moment in the cast interview snippets included on the Miller's Crossing DVD, when Gabriel Byrne (who plays smart guy right-hand man Tom Reagan) claims that, until he saw the final product, he thought Miller's Crossing was a comedy. It reveals just one element of the Coens' magic — their ability to cross-pollinate genres not as an academic exercise, but as a storytelling device. They take a well-trodden genre picture (the prohibition-era gangster flick), populate it with unexpected characters and play it not as noir-farce but as a human story — with humour, yes, but also weakness, lending the entire project great dramatic weight.

The same approach is taken with Barton Fink — where John Turturro (as the titular Fink) takes his lefty Jewish New York intellectual high-mindedness to Hollywood. He'll take this crass medium of film and use it to elevate the common man to the status his intellectual prognostications have told him they deserve. Problem is, he has no contact with so-called common people, save a behemoth next door in the form of insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Barton Fink may be parody, but of what, you'll have to figure out on your own through the course of the film. It's also quite hilarious — with beautifully droll turns by Judy Davis, Frasier's John Mahoney, Steve Buscemi and wonderful performances by Turturro and Goodman. But again, it's not a comedy — at least not one that lives in the same universe as the speedy farce of Raising Arizona. This balance has, in fact, become the defining aspect of the Coens' filmmaking — nearly all their efforts since are either seriously character-driven farce (Hudsucker Proxy, Big Lebowski), or subtle, humorous explorations of drama (Man Who Wasn't There, Fargo). They manage this because Joel and Ethan Coen never, ever write in broad strokes. Through Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink specifically, their attention to detail grows immensely. They are not writing "a" character, they are writing this character, who is living this life at this time and whose motivations are thus. Barton Fink in particular, on DVD, is an excellent opportunity to highlight this — the ring of the desk clerk's bell, the whoosh of opening hotel doors and the squelch of peeling wallpaper all add up to a visceral, specific filmic experience, one that they've proven time and again they can deliver. What they have been failing to deliver, however, is good DVD issues of their catalogue, and while these two are better than some (Lebowski, Hudsucker and Fargo are all disappointments), they are still lacking. The best offering of the two comes with Miller's Crossing, in the form of a profile on then-cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black), who shot their first three films. His interview on their early filmmaking efforts just scratches the surface of what could be explored here. Brief cast interviews with Byrne, Turturro and Marcia Gay Harden whet the appetite but don't satisfy. And a selection of deleted scenes from Barton Fink adds mere seconds to scenes already familiar from the film. That said, for the work themselves these two films are well worth repeat viewings — you'll have to provide your own full-length commentary at home. Extras: Miller's Crossing: A conversation with Barry Sonnenfeld, cast interviews; Barton Fink: deleted scenes. (Fox)
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