If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen one or more films by Joel and Ethan Coen. This isn’t to shame anyone who hasn’t, but let’s be realistic here- the Coens and their films inhabit a very large space in the popular consciousness, and with good reason. Their creative path is both envious and precarious, a story with as many ups and downs as one of their own films. They were able to parlay early indie success into decades worth of distinctive studio cinema, and their mid-2000s critical stall-out set them up to rebound with some of their best work yet.
Given their popularity, it’s easy to think there isn’t a ton of fresh ground to cover. Attracting all this attention the way they do, the Coens have been called a lot of different things that are untrue. In various articles, reviews, tweets, Letterboxd comments, etc, I’ve seen them referred to as: secretly racist, secretly right-wing, hacks, the best filmmakers of all time, the most American filmmakers, etc etc. I’m not really going to engage too much with these claims, as I don’t see them as either the saviors of cinema nor the downfall of it, and honestly, I’m not super concerned about what their politics are (although they are pretty transparent about them).
What I do think is true about the Coens is that they are mean as snakes. Their films are populated by morons of such magnitude that you could make the argument the Coens have complete contempt for all humans. I don’t think they have contempt, I just believe they’re pragmatic in showing how inept and evil people can really be. The cruelty that befalls most of the characters in their films often feels completely excessive yet utterly appropriate, whether at the hands of man, God, or circumstances.
I tend to view the Coens films through three different lenses- farce, mystery, and tragedy. If you’re new to the Coens, I hope this guide gives you a good path to enjoying some of the better pop films of the last 30 years. If you’re well-versed, I hope this gives you a new prism to look through when evaluating these films.
Farce: The Big Lebowski and Hail, Caesar!
Being the great screenwriters they are, the Coens are often looked at as examples for how to craft tight and straightforward scripts. However, their comedies are generally exempt from this. Their two best comedies feature big ensemble casts, esoteric references and constant cultural landmarking, and loose odysseys through moral tests.
The Big Lebowski is just as shaggy and confused as its central character, Jeff Bridges’ The Dude. A movie so dense it’s inspired philosophical treatises and so convoluted that the plot falls apart as soon as you try to explain it, this is for my money the best Coen brothers comedy and one of their best movies. They decided to follow up the minimal battle of good and evil of Fargo with a rambling two hour excursion through Los Angeles that takes the model of decades of noir and flips it inside out with stoner logic and incredibly rich side characters.
Twenty years later, Hail, Caesar! came along with an even bigger cast and an even more disconnected set of vignettes to riff on old Hollywood and the way we portray God on screen. In the protagonist Eddie, the Coens explore their well-trod ground of monotheism and the general struggle with it, with maybe the funniest exploration of it in one particular scene with three preachers and a rabbi. Eddie’s own inability to experience God through anything other than the films he helps create drives home the central idea behind the film itself- that Movie Magic can be a saving force all its own.
Mystery: No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple
In 2007, the Coens bounced back from a couple of unsuccessful studio pictures with their most resounding success. No Country for Old Men is their only film to win either best picture or best director, and its place in the canon was immediate. The stark, dry noir makes the Texas desert look like a foreign planet, and Javier Bardem’s savage performance elevated the film from a typical literary adaptation into the realm of modern masterpieces.
But the Coens were no strangers to noir- in fact it was really more a return to form. Their first film, 1984’s Blood Simple, lays the groundwork for their love of mystery and cat-and-mouse thrillers. Frances McDormand (frequent collaborator and Joel’s wife) is running from her abusive husband, and the film contains the same blend of horror aesthetics, silent stretches, and the creeping bleakness of certain death that made No Country an instant legend. There’s few debut films that so clearly contain the seeds of everything to come for a director, and if you’re more interested in smart and earthy mysteries, Blood Simple is a stellar step into that space.
Tragedy: Inside Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man
In their tragedies, the Coens allow the violence and insanity of the worlds they create to inspire confusion and angst in their characters more than they are played for laughs or dramatic effect. These films feel more like being beaten down slowly, and they steer clear of any easy resolution.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen film I was most personally affected by on first watch. Tracing the story of a middling folk singer in early-60’s New York, it’s tough for me to not see myself and the people I work with in this story of busted dreams and washed up music careers. Shifting away from the neat lens of usual cinematographer Roger Deakins, Bruno Delbonnel paints the film in inky grays and smeared visuals. Oscar Isaac sells the film with a performance that mostly smolders, increasing the power of his outbursts. The film loops back on itself at the end, using more abstract storytelling devices than typical for the Coens. The punishing end hammers home the film’s thesis- there’s no escaping your fate.
If there’s any film where fate is utterly inescapable, it is A Serious Man. It seems hard to top the absurdity of their minor comedies like Raising Arizona or Burn After Reading, but A Serious Man goes there, and with entrancing results. It’s become a meme in a way that a straight comedy typically would not; the film’s humor is only because it portrays all the unrealistic bad fortune as completely serious, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s confused gaze is the film’s anchor- there’s not much sense to be made of it. The film also engages with the Jewish faith the most explicitly of any Coen film. They approach their heritage with a questioning eye, lambasting religious institutions for their lack of answers and the way the Rabbis refuse any meaningful assistance.
The Coens’ tricky relationship with God and man animates much of their films, but I don’t want you to leave thinking of them as simply cynical. Even the biggest cynics have a soft side, which the Coens prove over and over again. As obsessed as they are with death, they’re equally concerned with the beauty of life, specifically new life that’s brought into the world. Some of their best characters beam with an honest glow, and they constantly argue in favor of doing what’s right over what’s easy. Even the death and violence that occurs always leaves room for the characters to mourn; nobody dies without leaving an impact on someone. It’s this belief that keeps me coming back to the brothers. As absurd as they think everything is, they’re even more committed to a deeply humanist method- if the people are interesting, it’s always a story worth telling.
Now that you have a good feel for Tarkovsky and his style, it’s important to go back to the beginning to see that vision in its earliest stages. Ivan’s Childhood was not initially a Tarkovsky film. Eduard Abalov, the initial director, abandoned the project not long after the first test screenings garnered some conflict between him and the Soviet Arts Council. Tarkovksy, upon learning of the abandoned project, applied to take over and was allowed to resume shooting the same month.
Despite the film beginning as the project of another, there is no denying that Ivan’s Childhood was very personal for Tarkovsky. There are a good number of moments throughout this film which hint at what is to come for our great director. In Sculpting in Time, he expands upon his growing hypothesis that the truth, that is to true experience as felt by the artist, is the very basis for their connection with the audience through their work. He writes:
“…I am firmly convinced of one thing (not that it can be analyzed): that if an author is moved by the landscape chosen, if it brings back memories to him and suggests associations… This will in turn affect the audience… Episodes redolent of the author’s own mood include the birch wood, the camouflage of birch branches on the first aid post, and the landscape in the background of the last dream and the flooded dead forest. [The dreams] are based on quite specific associations, too. The first, for instance, from start to finish, right up to the words, ‘Mum, there’s a cuckoo!’ is one of my earliest childhood recollections. It was at the time when I was just beginning to know the world. I was four.”
The sequences mentioned by Tarkovsky do indeed rise above the others, as do a few more which are not directly touched upon. Each of the four dreams exhibits that metaphysical quality that Tarkovsky would become known for, although somewhere along the way he concluded that a dreamlike quality need not be reserved for dreams only. Another sequence, in which the young soldier Ivan comes upon the destroyed house of a bewildered civilian, actually uses an atmospheric device which would be recreated almost directly in Stalker. The door of the man’s house, the only thing still standing besides the chimney, continually opens and closes in the threshold throughout the scene, filling the silence with a monotonous and repetitive creaking and knocking that becomes somewhat surreal in the midst of the rubble. If you screened Stalker before this, you might have noticed the striking similarity between this scene and the scene just before they reach the room, in which the shadow of an unseen door continually opens and closes, once again filling the silence with that jarring sound. Finally, the scene in which Ivan manically recreates an escape (perhaps his escape) from a concentration camp is truthfully among the most disturbing scenes in Tarkovsky’s entire career.
The two largest criticisms I found immediately with this film are as follows: the score, while not bad on its own, feels entirely too conventional and out of place. Tarkovsky would later become very in tune with the function of music in his films, but here, it is just off. Perhaps this is due to pressures from the council to be more conventional, a hopeless pursuit they would maintain until Tarkovsky left the USSR for good. Either way, there are a great many moments in which the effect would be tenfold were there atmospheric sound, or indeed even no sound, underneath. The pacing of this film is likewise wildly out of character for Tarkovsky. This is his shortest film coming in at ninety five minutes, and the contrast can really be felt. Again, this is most likely due to outside pressures, but nevertheless it becomes clear that Tarkovsky’s style requires a much slower, pensive pace. That said, the pacing issues are not entirely due to the sheer duration of the film alone. Mirror, for instance, is only thirteen minutes longer yet seems infinitely more contemplative. And after watching three of his more languid films back to back, these ninety five minutes go by in a flash, especially considering that in the later part of his career there will be singular shots that feel as if they go on at least that long.
After a pre-modern meditation in Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky turned his attention towards the distant future with the first of two forays into the science fiction genre. Science fiction has always been about exposing fundamental truths which science will never be able to cure and, more often than not, will manifest themselves further as humanity advances. It goes without saying that Tarkovsky was supremely interested in the human experience. He felt that western science fiction was too cold, sterile, and largely devoid of the humanism necessary to make depictions of the future relevant and truthful. Most famously, Tarkovsky said in reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, “[It] is phony on many points, even for specialists. For a true work of art, the fake must be eliminated.” For Tarkovsky, the focus of 2001 (and of western science fiction by and large) was placed entirely too much on technological advancement and aesthetic. Tarkovsky became determined to fix what he saw as flimsy pretension with his third feature, Solaris, based upon the novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem.
Tarkovsky’s disinterest in the glamour of futurism can be observed immediately. The future prescribed by Solaris is nothing close to the one foreseen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where the latter is clean, bright, and immaculate, the former is largely… the same? If it was not clear before, with Solaris it should be abundantly clear that Tarkovsky was never interested in science, precision, or technology. Deep space travel aside, the world of Solaris is devoid of almost any classic science fiction identifiers. The space station is messy, disorganized, with exposed wires and wood panelling. The scientists aboard are disheveled, manic, and unkempt. Almost none of the technical interest present in Lem’s novel made it into the film, but its absence is hardly felt. The futuristic setting of Solaris only serves to catalyze a different look into the question of humanity that Tarkovsky rehashed again and again, and as such requires none of the artifice one usually associates with the genre.
Unfortunately (but predictably), Tarkovsky once again faced pressure from the authorities to compromise his artistic vision. The Soviets’ State Commission for Cinematography objected greatly to, among other things, the references to God within the first cut of the film. It was this opposition to the spiritual and metaphysical that routinely placed Andrei at odds with the Council, which is not surprising considering that those two subjects are where the bulk of his interest was placed. However, Tarkovsky was able to circumvent most of the changes requested and saw his personal conception largely intact. For instance, the unnamed entity (referred to as such, despite clearly being an almost Lovecraftian god) which resides in the ocean of the planet Solaris is given sentience by the scientists aboard the space station to avoid the otherwise obvious implications of having a supremely powerful being with the ability to read one’s very soul residing at the edge of the universe.
Solaris is interested most of all in the idea of perception and what it means to be conceived of in the mind of another. And, furthermore, what part of a person is left with you once they have gone, either in the literal sense or in the sense of death? What starts as a seemingly detached analysis into the psyche very quickly becomes overwhelmingly human. We exist entirely because of perception, either by our own self-perception or the perception of another. But what does it imply when the way you are perceived is almost entirely up to that which is perceiving you? Following this chain of logic, how many versions of you exist? At least as many as the number of people you have encountered. And is any one depiction truly the correct one? Additionally, can the fragments of another soul that stick with you truly be them, or are they inevitably just another part of you?
The very powerful emotional impact of Solaris snuck up on me in a way I was not expecting. But by the end, that same truth by which Tarkovsky abides again and again becomes clear: true human connection is all that we have.
“Tarkovsky, who does not usually drink, got completely drunk and cut off the speakers at the restaurant, then began singing the theme of Seven Samurai at the top of his lungs. I joined in, eager to keep up.
At that moment, I was very happy to be on Earth.” – Akira Kurosawa, May 13, 1977.
In 1982, Comrade Andrei left the motherland and headed to Italy for the third time. He would never set foot in Russia again.
Nostalgia is the most autobiographical film Tarkovsky would ever create. The film is about a Russian poet, also named Andrei, who is researching the somewhat obscure medieval Russian composer Pavel Sosnovsky. Sosnovsky, like both of our Andreis, was exiled from his homeland of Russia to Italy. This film’s Andrei (hereafter referred to as Gorchakov to avoid confusion) travels to the town of Sosnovsky’s exile as a part of his study and succumbs to the overwhelming longing to be in his native land. Of the project’s conception, Tarkovsky writes, “I wanted to make a film about Russian nostalgia- about that state of mind peculiar to our nation which affects Russians who are far from their native land… How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalgia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear that painful malady within myself?”
Tarkovsky’s exile, while technically self imposed, was nonetheless a source of great pain for him. After clashing with, as he puts it, “certain official groups in the cinema”, Andrei decided once and for all that it would be impossible for him to continue to work in the USSR. The numerous confrontations between him and the various councils had become too problematic for him, and it was not until the completion of Nostalgia, which Soviet authorities prevented from winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, that Tarkovsky concluded the attempt to continue his work in Russia was impossible.
Nostalgia is Tarkovsky’s most muted, understated work. Initially, it stuck out to me as being lesser than his more popular films. However, upon rewatch, my perspective was altered greatly. Perhaps my understanding of him was not where it needed to be initially. But now, with a greater knowledge of both him and his life, it is possible that Nostalgia will become his greatest work in my eyes in due time. The atmosphere is the most cohesive tonally of all his works, arguably even more so than Stalker. Everything from the bleak, cold, foggy visuals to the distant and harrowing score create a singular, persisting image of alienation and yearning. It is with films like Nostalgia that Tarkovsky’s modus operandi is undeniably present. His experience, his pain, and the state of his soul permeate throughout every frame as the camera, totally unbiased, commits his condition to the celluloid.
The final film in our journey, The Sacrifice is a general thematic culmination of Tarkovsky’s work, an existential parable, and a sister-piece of Nostalgia. As far as final films go, I am hard pressed to find another that is as personal, prophetic, pressing, or honest. Furthermore, its connection with Nostalgia, while perhaps unclear at first, becomes much clearer upon further viewings. But beyond that, The Sacrifice is a worthy addition to The Canon™ for a multitude of other reasons.
This is the second film that Tarkovsky directed in a language other than Russian. The Sacrifice is often spoken about in the context of Ingmar Bergman, and for good reason; this film has much spiritual and practical overlap with the work of the great Swede. The film is in Swedish and was shot on the island of Närsholmen (Tarkovsky was denied access to Bergman’s legendary island of Fårö by the Swedish military). Furthermore, a few of Bergman’s frequent collaborators were involved in this film’s production, the most notable being Sven Nykvist, Anna Asp, and Ingmar’s son Daniel, among others. Erland Josephson, who plays Alexander and whom Tarkovsky directed as Domenico in Nostalgia, was also one of Bergman’s frequent collaborators.
While appearing as somewhat of a companion piece to Nostalgia, The Sacrifice was in Tarkovsky’s mind long before Nostalgia’s conception. “I was constantly preoccupied with the idea of equilibrium-” he writes, “of sacrifice, of the sacrificial act, the yang and yin of personality… the theme of harmony which is born only of sacrifice…” It could be this interest that catalysed the character of Domenico in Nostalgia, who expresses similar sentiments of sacrifice, love, unity, and the dangers of civilization. Domenico has much in common with The Sacrifice’s Alexander, in fact, although to expand too heavily on their similarities would inevitably be to spoil both films.
It is very clear that Tarkovsky’s own mortality was more present than ever during this film’s development. Tarkovsky’s illness from the production of Stalker was progressing. Not only that, it has just taken the life of Anatoliy Solonitsyn, a longtime collaborator and friend of Tarkovsky’s who appeared in most of his films. Of Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky said, “He died of the illness of which Alexander was cured and which a year later was to afflict me. I don’t know what this means. I only know that it is very frightening…” This awareness of death is not merely present in The Sacrifice. The film operates at the stake of global destruction and mutual nuclear annihilation while at the same time successfully conflating it with the mortal grievances of a singular man.
As is obvious from the title, this film is about sacrifice. “Every gift involves a sacrifice.” says the character of Otto, “If not, what kind of gift would it be?” But it is more explicitly the nature of sacrifice, not the sacrificial act presented, that this film is concerned with. Tarkovsky was very interested in the place of the individual within society, as is the previously mentioned character of Domenico. An early scene within The Sacrifice involves Alexander explaining his philosophy that any action, no matter how small, if done ritualistically, can change the world. Later, Otto comments that a cockroach would spend eternity circling around on a plate, never understanding the larger scope of existence, and still be happy. Alexander, Domenico, and Tarkovsky by extension, all see extreme value in humanity’s mundane existence. In the face of terminal illness and nuclear extermination (both of which were very real to Tarkovsky) the task of holding onto faith is made almost impossible. But it is this Herculean labor which everyone on the planet will wrestle with eventually.
What is this small existence for, and what is it worth? Would you give up your small part in it to change the world? How about to change one soul? Tarkovsky was of the belief that humans exist to create art, that art was done in service of the spirit, and that the connections of spirit between humans is vital in securing our existence. Tarkovsky writes as much in the final passage of Sculpting in Time, which I will leave below. All of the mentioned works can be found on the Criterion Channel. I hope this guide has been useful in kindling either a new interest or a renewed fascination in the works of this great mind. Above all, the project of Andrei Tarkovsky is the project of connection. Connection through experience, through spirit, through cinema, connection to our own existence and connection to the source of it. One of the greatest poets, filmmakers, and souls, his works will no doubt stand against the passage of time, as they have thus far, as they continue to shine a light onto the eternal plight of our kind.
“Finally, I would enjoin the reader – confiding in him utterly – to believe that the one thing mankind has ever created in a spirit of self-surrender is the artistic image. Perhaps the meaning of all human activity lies in artistic consciousness, in the pointless and selfless creative act? Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God”