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MOVIES : Minnesota Maniacs

The Coen brothers' latest film, 'Fargo,' skewers their Midwest roots, by way of their requisite black humor and a little postmodern gore.

February 25, 1996|Claudia Puig | Claudia Puig is a Times staff writer

Ethan Coen is finishing one of his brother Joel's sentences. Again. Then, minutes later, Joel returns the favor.

They are discussing the characters in their latest film, "Fargo," a black comedy based on a real-life incident about a bungled kidnapping plot masterminded by an otherwise nondescript Minneapolis car salesman.

"We were so intrigued by the fact that this happened in the Midwest that it made us immediately interested in the story," says Joel Coen, who along with his brother is a Minnesota native. "A crime of passion combined with the [bleak] landscape and this Scandinavian lack of emotional display. . . ."

"Lack of display, more than necessarily lack of emotions underlying it," Ethan qualifies.

Then each co-defends a charge that the film, which opens March 8, could be interpreted as condescending to the Midwestern natives it chronicles.

"It's true that you're laughing at them and some of the things that they do, but that isn't to say that it's derisive, necessarily," Ethan explains. "We're from there and some of the traits that are sort of amusing are traits we share. And certainly you're allowed to laugh at yourself and that doesn't imply condescension. . . ."

"It's just that our movies are frequently hard to categorize," interrupts Joel. "They're not comedies and yet you're free to laugh. So, that makes people uncomfortable somehow because they want an unvarnished comedy if they're going to be sitting in a movie theater, laughing."

"Otherwise they start to doubt themselves or their responses," Ethan adds. "They don't trust themselves to go with it, if they're not being given cues as to how they're supposed to behave."

No one could accuse the brothers Coen of taking their filmmaking behavior cues from standard Hollywood fare. Rather, the Coens have always trusted themselves to go with their creative urges. What has emerged is a quirky, dry-eyed body of work that is hard to classify, though much of it is typified by their trademark sense of dark humor, attention to detail, gory realism and dead-on characterizations. Despite their wide-ranging plots and genres, Coen films all have an identifiable stamp.

Their first film was "Blood Simple," a slow-paced Texas gothic film noir, followed by the goofy, breakneck-paced "Raising Arizona" starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. Their subsequent films were the gangster art film "Miller's Crossing"; "Barton Fink," the story of a '40s Broadway playwright lured out to Hollywood; and their most lavish project--"The Hudsucker Proxy," a cynical yet Capra-esque fairy tale.

It is unusual that the pair have managed to remain very independent filmmakers in a very dependent Hollywood universe.

Also, the New York-based brothers--Joel is 41 and Ethan 38--have an unusually intertwined, symbiotic relationship in a business that focuses on the individual.

But working together is how it works best for the pair, who jointly conceive, write, direct and produce their films.

Though both names are credited as screenwriters on their films, Joel is usually listed as director and Ethan as producer. In reality, the divisions of labor are not that neat.

Indeed, they write together, procrastinate together, go to the same movies and are both even simultaneously raising sons--Joel's is 16-month-old Pedro and Ethan's is the newborn Buster. (Joel is married to actress Frances McDormand and Ethan to film editor Tricia Cooke.)

The two are reserved, but wittily engaging and--perhaps unusual for siblings--they seem to get along famously.

"Pedro Coen," muses Ethan. "Joel says he's got to be a performance artist. And Buster won't be able to run for president. The name just doesn't inspire confidence.

"What would his slogan be?" says Joel. " 'Buster Coen: A Man You Can Trust.' 'Buster Coen: It's Time for a Change.' "

The pair erupt into contagious, though low-key, laughter.

"They are always together on set," says Steve Buscemi, who with his role as the kidnapper Carl Showalter in "Fargo" has been in four Coen films. "Usually Joel is the first to say something, but Ethan is always there and adds to what Joel says. If there is a disagreement it is never anything major. They have a very easygoing, compatible relationship. They really listen to each other and support each other."

The Coens began their cinematic partnership when both got out of college. After Joel graduated from NYU Film School, he began working as an assistant editor on low-budget horror films. Ethan was killing time working as a statistical typist when they decided to collaborate on a script.

"I didn't really have career ambitions," says Ethan. "Film wasn't something I studied in school. I was doing statistical typing, so writing movies seemed certainly more interesting than that. I had been typing rows and columns of numbers. I got to actually write words. That was the initial appeal."

The result was 1984's "Blood Simple."

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