Coen brothers are keepers of the flame for surreal films

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

THERE'S NO GETTING around it," Ethan Coen acknowledged. "We make kind of strange movies."

Call Ethan, 33, and brother Joel, 36, surrealist realists. Their four feature films -- "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing" and the new "Barton Fink" -- are considered bizarre, arty affairs by press, public and the Hollywood establishment alike. Yet they're arguably the best-respected independent filmmakers in the country; so much so that their last three movies were eagerly snapped up by a mainline commercial distributor, 20th Century Fox.

In an industry that deifies explicit storytelling and lowest-common-denominator appeal, the Coens' work remains independent, genre-bending and elusive. The characters they write are always mouthing phrases like "What's the rumpus?" and "You know the drill," but the ideas behind their movies are purposely kept muddy.

Yet, in their indirect way, the Coens' films seem to speak insightful truths that more prosaic productions fail to recognize. And the Coens just keep getting more and more praise for that. A number of reviewers dubbed "Miller's Crossing" the best of last year's mob of gangster movies. And in May, "Barton Fink" became the firstmovie in the 44-year history of the Cannes Film Festival to win three top awards, for best picture, directing and actor (John Turturro).

There's a Coenesque irony to that. "Barton Fink," which opens in area theaters on Friday, is a period drama that skewers both the crass commercialism of Golden Age Hollywood and the pretensions of supposedly more honest, Cannes attendee-like artistes.

Barton (Turturro) is an introverted New York playwright who, after some success with a Clifford Odets-style drama about the little guy, signs a contract with Capitol Pictures. Relocating to Hollywood during the sweltering autumn of 1941, he checks into the fetid, low-rent Hotel Earl, the better to stay in touch with the People. He's then bullied by the mercurial head of the studio (Michael Lerner, in a bravura performance that combines aspects of moguls Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn) into writing "a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery." But super-serious Barton doesn't know that drill and comes down with writer's block.

Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), Barton's jovial, insurance-selling neighbor at the Earl, does what he can to cheer up the glum intellectual. But whenever he tries to tell the self-styled poet of the common man what it's like to be a common man, Barton silences Charlie with pseudo-aesthetic rhetoric. Eventually, Barton is implicated in a ghastly crime, Charlie turns out to have an intriguing secret life, and a carefully -- wrapped box that could hold something the size of a human head comes into the writer's possession.

And Barton gets back to work.

"We weren't, consciously at least, trying to write something about our own experience with writer's block, or our experience in Hollywood," said Joel Coen, who is as tall and solidly built as his brother is short and rail thin.

"It's ironic that we did write Barton Fink when we were suffering from sort of a writer's block," Ethan added. "We were in the middle of writing 'Miller's Crossing,' which was going really slowly. It was frustrating for us, so we took a vacation from it in order to write this. 'Barton Fink' came quite easily . . .

". . . We wrote it in three or four weeks, while 'Miller's Crossing' was spread over many months, probably six or seven," Joel said, completing his brother's statement, as the two of them often do with an almost psychic seamlessness.

Most people who know the Minneapolis-natives-turned-New Yorkers marvel at their uncanny mental serendipity. For their part, neither brother can pinpoint who writes what in their scripts, and although Joel takes the directing credit and Ethan the producer's, they and their collaborators say they both perform the same tasks on the set.

"There's no division of perspective between them," said Goodman, who also appeared in "Raising Arizona." "It's always just very smooth sailing. The only difference in the way they work is that Ethan paces more."

But back to Barton.

Joel: "Barton was not conceived as a total jerk. I think that would be a ..."

Ethan: "A little hard on him?"

Joel: "A little hard on him."

"Well, he's certainly kind of full of himself," Ethan said.

"And yet, not a bad person. He's certainly earnest."

Every aspect of the movie, from the oppressive heat to his claustrophobic room to the unpredictable characters he meets, was designed for maximum Barton discomfort.

"We wanted to set up circumstances that conspired to torture this protagonist," Joel said. "We wanted him to be in an increasingly strange situation. It seemed appropriate that the writer's external reality be, in a sense, a surreal environment. As Hollywood can be."

Intentional ambiguity runs through much of the Coens' work.

It's what gives their films their compelling mystery, but it's also the thing people who don't like the Coens' movies find most maddening. The brothers have been accused of playing head games with their audiences, of never clearly explaining anything at all.

They say the rap is undeserved. "People are sort of put off by the idea of aspects of a story being ambiguous," Joel said. "They sometimes think you're withholding information that they need to enjoy or follow the story, or understand it at a really fundamental level.

Another earmark of the Coens' films are their eclectic combinings of comedy, violence and existential dread. In "Barton Fink," they mix these elements with more daring than ever. Primarily humorous for its first hour, the film takes a sharp turn toward horror in the stretch.

"It's another thing that makes people uncomfortable sometimes," Joel said. 'And it's a difficult thing to try to do; you're never quite sure how to handle it so that it will be a surprise when the tone of the movie shifts, but not seem to come completely out of left field.

"You want to prepare the audience for the fact that it's not simply a satirical comedy. We tried to give it an ongoing undertow of threat, so that when that threat becomes more explicit and the movie takes a darker turn, it wouldn't seem as if it was artificially imposed on the story. That's a hard thing to judge; you never quite know what the balance should be."

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