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Flavia Ferrucci

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Did Ethan Coen deliver the strangest screenwriting lecture ever?

The writer-directors maps out the past, present and future of cinema through its depiction of… surgery?

The announcement of Ethan Coen’s presence at the 2019 Rome Film Festival was accompanied by a vague statement that he would deliver a lecture on screenwriting – but he had something else in mind. Nobody knew what would happen. In the theatre where the talk took place, a single word occupied the screen, leaving people confused and puzzled: SURGERY!

As it turns out, Coen is genuinely amused by surgery as a narrative device in film. He took to the stage and selected clips from a bizarre and varied list of movies, ranging from the 1940s to contemporary Hollywood. He formed his nostalgia-tinged case to demonstrate how cinema’s approach to the subject has radically changed with time, and movie themselves have changed with it.

“What is more absurd than a man who gets surgery to change his face?”, asked Coen. This particular plot device, a staple in classic-era noir, seems to be the most fascinating to him. “You could have truly preposterous storylines and get away with it, but you can’t do that now”, he sighed. Yet the absurd premises of rigorously serious films such as Steve Sekely’s The Scar (1948) and John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), perhaps unsurprisingly, delight him no end.

The Coens’ own The Man Who Wasn’t There, from 2001, references this bygone era, specifically when Billy Bob Thorton’s character wakes up in the hospital. Coen said they wanted to achieve a true b-movie feeling, because well, they “Kinda like the old stuff”. Thorton is also the protagonist of another brief inclusion of surgery in the brothers’ filmography, as his character plays a surgeon in a TV show seen in 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty. The preposterous narratives seem to have migrated to soap operas, noted Ethan.

He then showed a clip from Randy Haines’ 1991 The Doctor starring Mandy Patinkin and William Hurt and noted that, while the approach to surgery had become realistic, this is yet another example of movies that don’t exist anymore. Just two characters living their lives – not something the studios are currently interested in.

This bizarre lecture ended with two extremely different films. When the clip from Takashi Miike’s masterful Audition played, loud comments, gasps and noises rose in the theatre. After all, one doesn’t expect to see graphic amputations during a lecture from one of Hollywood’s most brilliant screenwriters — who actually seemed to enjoy the reactions, joking that, “later scenes could’ve disturbed the audience even more!” (to a swell of nervous laughter). 

Coen made a very interesting, if tongue-in-cheek, case for this 1999 film being more relevant than ever. It sees a widower set up a fake movie audition to find himself a new wife and getting what he deserves. “That’s a #MeToo kinda story. And see, this is what happens!”. The explicit content of the clip prompted a brief debate on censorship. The brothers have never had anything censored by studios, but definitely and constantly censor each other in the filmmaking process.

Remember – the director’s cut of Blood Simple is shorter than the original one. Another one might be coming sometime in the future, as Coen said he recently rewatched a Barton Fink scene — the first meeting between John Turturro and the studio head — and while he found the performances to be great, he also was alarmed by some cuts that were “really loose”.

The last clip was from Paul Feig’s 2013 comedy The Heat, that features an “ultimately contemporary” take on surgery: Sandra Bullock’s character reads something on the internet and now feels like an expert ready to perform procedures. This more mainstream film led to a few comments on today’s landscape: “Hollywood is not and has never been a dirty word to me”, said Coen. However, when the inescapable Scorsese/Comic Book movies question arrived, he said he’s inclined to agree with him, not really focusing on the quality but more that, “it’s unfortunate” that those seem to be the only studio offerings these days.

As the talk came to an end, the conversation got more relaxed and, between declaring his love for Robert Bresson’s “hypnotic dryness”, he stated that “Idiots and things going wrong are what make the drama work” and how the movie of theirs he holds dearest is A Serious Man because it’s so connected to his childhood and “watching a movie is like going to a different world, so to recreate that world that doesn’t exist anymore except for me and Joel and people like us… there was something very rewarding about making it that separates it from the others.”

He also spoke of the film he really wanted to make but wasn’t able to in the end. He and Joel wrote an adaptation of James Dickey’s 1993 novel To the White Sea, and Brad Pitt was attached to star in it. It’s the story of a bomber who parachutes from his burning airplane into Tokyo the night before the bombing. The film almost got to pre-production but, as it was going to be a basically silent movie — there’s no dialogue to be had when you have a lone American in Japan during WWII — it turned out to be “unfeasible to make”. 

Coen described it as “Kind of adventure, survivor movie where the main character ends up not surviving,” and then concluded, “And that might be related to the fact that we didn’t get it made”. This unusual, unexpected lecture couldn’t have ended on a more perfect note than on Ethan Coen realising the absurdity of his own script.

Published 19 Oct 2019

Tags: Coen brothers Ethan Coen John Frankenheimer Robert Bresson Sandra Bullock

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