I have been reading Ronald Bergan’s biography of the Coen Brothers and – amongst a few stylistic tics – is a well developed examination of the process they have developed to produce their films.
One of the most surprising influences is Laurel and Hardy. Providing almost direct content at times (particularly for their scenes with more slapstick humor) rewatching the originals it is remarkable how this 1920s material still remains useful to the brothers today.
In Big Business (1929) we see an almost direct source for the scene in The Big Lebowski where some mistargeted violence from Walter results in the destruction of The Dude’s car. Even the LA streets of Big Business seem familiar.
Laurel and Hardy also have to look after an adopted baby (Raising Arizona), come close to falling off of skyscrapers (The Hudsucker Proxy), escape prison and climb out of the mud (Raising Arizona) – they also pretend to be African Americans as they escape through Southern cotton country, police on their heels (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?).
If you think about it, fat men are consistently funny in Coen Brothers films – falling Waring Hudsucker in Hudsucker Proxy, or just about any sight of John Goodman. Frequently we see a fat and skinny characters in a state of conflict (Walt and The Dude from The Big Lebowski, say).
Perhaps time lag is necessary – after all, how much more can a director draw from the sixties, seventies or eighties – and still hope to produce something original?
This objectivity through temporal displacement could even be seen as a key Coen brothers strategy. Nearly none of their films are set in the ‘present’ day (even The Big Lebowski backdated events seven years earlier, to the early 1990s, when it was seemingly irrelevant.
It will take me some time to pull apart the many threads in the book, so I will discuss more of it soon (and add a link to future articles).