What The Coen Brothers Teach Us About Keeping Genre Fresh

The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I was participating in a discussion about The Big Lebowski on a screenwriters message board. Someone claimed the movie was of no particular genre. In fact, that the Coen brothers never made genre movies.

I disagreed with that, of course. I pointed out The Big Lebowski most certainly fits into a genre, and not just a general one like comedy. The Big Lebowski is a detective noir in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

What’s that, you say? How can that be when the protagonist is a burned-out hippie whose only discernible activity is bowling?

That’s a big part of the genius of the Coen brothers.

Ethan and Joel Coen co-produce, co-write and co-direct their movies. From their first film they have been making genre films that don’t feel at all like genre films. Here are some examples:

Blood Simple – updated cowboy noir.

Raising Arizona – caper, with a baby taking the place of money or jewels as the object being stolen.

Miller’s Crossing – gangster movie.

The Hudsucker Proxy – screwball comedy in the tradition of Frank Capra’s Everyman Hero movies.

Fargo – police procedural. This movie is structured almost like an episode of the TV show Columbo. The first forty minutes are devoted to the crime. Then we’re introduced to the cop who is going to solve the crime.

O Brother Where Art Thou? – genre mish-mash of road movie (based on, of all things, Homer’s The Odyssey), 1930s social issue movie and musical. (Yes, MUSICAL. Just because the songs weren’t written for the movie doesn’t mean it’s not a musical. Most of the songs in Singin’ In the Rain were not written for the movie.)

Burn After Reading – spy thriller.

It’s no surprise that the Coens would do an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country For Old Men, as McCarthy writes novels with his own personal spin on genre, i.e. the serial killer, Western, and post-apocalyptic genres.

What the Coens do is keep their stories structured very closely to what one would expect in the respective genres. We expect a detective to investigate and solve a crime. We expect a caper to be about a group of people out to steal something (and for it to go terribly wrong at some point). We expect gangster movies to be about violence and betrayal.

Where they diverge from them is in the details. A hippie instead of a professional detective. An optimistic, pregnant police chief from a hick town, instead of a seen-it-all urban policeman or private detective. A drunken CIA operative writing memoirs nobody cares about instead of a spy on the run because he knows too much.

Aside from giving us unexpected characters, they use setting almost like a character. From how the characters talk, to the set pieces in the movies (desert in Raising Arizona, winter in Fargo) to where the characters hang out or work (the bowling alley, the gym, the cowboy bar) these elements help make something unique out of something very familiar.

The next time you’re feeling like genre stories all have to be the same, I suggest throwing a Coen brothers movie into the DVD player. Then think about how you can let your imagination help you take genre to a whole new place.

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