If You Haven’t Seen the Coen Brothers’ Short Films, You’re Missing Out
This is a good week. Not because tomorrow is Thank a Mailman Day (Thank you, mailmen!) and not because Saturday is Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day (Thanks, whoever thought of this extremely unhealthy idea!). No, this is a good week because there’s a new Coen brothers movie. It’s called Hail, Caesar! and it finds the Coens working in full-on comedy mode, telling the story of a single day at a ’50s Hollywood studio named Capitol Pictures, where a drunken movie star (George Clooney) gets kidnapped and the company fixer (Josh Brolin) has to figure out how to get him back. You can read my full review here, but here’s the tl;dr version: It’s funny and awesome.
As a result, there’s a lot of discussion about the Coens right now on social media and in movie theaters around the country. People are ranking their favorites (Inside Llewyn Davis!) and their least favorites (The Ladykillers!), and talking about their most overrated (Fargo?) and underrated (The Hudsucker Proxy!) titles. Just about all the Coens’ work is available in one form or another and there aren’t a ton of undiscovered or forgotten gems in their catalog. The exception might be the two videos I’m about to share with you, which are the Coens’ two short films, both of which are hilarious, and both of which are pretty obscure, unless you’re really into French anthology films.
The first and better of the two is called “World Cinema.” It was commissioned by the Cannes Film Festival as part of a short film collection called To Each His Own Cinema that celebrated the fest’s 60th anniversary in 2007. A roster of some of the world’s greatest directors (including David Cronenberg, Lars von Trier, Wong Kar-wai, David Lynch, and many more) each contributed a three-minute short inspired by “their state of mind of the moment as inspired by the motion picture theater.” The Coens’ film stars Josh Brolin, looking and sounding very much like his No Country For Old Men character but going by the name Dan, as he debates what film to watch at his local art house. He has to choose between Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates, and the short is mostly his conversation with the theater’s ticket taker (Grant Heslov) as he tries to make up his mind (with one subtle but notable surprise).
“Is there nudity?” “Partial.” “Uh huh.” Nobody cuts to the heart of things like the Coens.
I love the “What time do you get off work?” moment, too. And the ending is great as well. The other Coens’ short isn’t quite as lovely, but it’s still got some big laughs. It’s called “Tuileries” and it comes from Paris je t’aime, a 2006 anthology set in and around the City of Light. The Coens’ contribution stars Steve Buscemi as a hapless tourist who breaks a cardinal rule of the Paris Metro: Never make eye contact with any of the other passengers.
Perhaps this isn’t the most appropriate short for a movie that’s supposedly dedicated to the magic of Paris, but that’s part of why I like it; given the opportunity to participate in this longform celebration, the Coens surprised people with a slightly less fawning portrait. The way they tell the story visually is great as well; although this version of the short has Italian subtitles, the original print had none, putting you in Buscemi’s shoes as he fumbles to figure out just what the heck this angry Parisian is talking about. And the gag with the very specific insult that he finds in his Paris guidebook is killer.
Even at six minutes or less, Both Dan and Buscemi’s unnamed tourist are classic Coen brothers protagonists. Things work out badly for both of them, and it’s all about how they handle that disappointment.