Salute Your Shorts: The Coen Brothers' Short Films and Commercials

Movies Features The Coen Brothers
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Since the 1980s, pretty much every director has cut their teeth on short works before moving into features, whether it’s music videos, commercials, or even television. The Coen Brothers are an odd anomaly, though, creating their first feature a decade before delving into anything shorter. Sure, Joel made a film for his senior thesis and the brothers fooled around with a Super 8 camera while they were young, but Blood Simple effectively came right out of the gate, moving Joel from an assistant editor or production assistant into the director’s chair in a move that was more or less unprecedented and hasn’t been repeated since.

A good 14 years after Blood Simple was released in theaters, the Coens finally headed to the small screen for reasons that remain unclear. Money? Finally some creative control? Who knows what led them to creating commercials, but in 1998, Honda released a series of ads by them, first for the Accord and then for the Odyssey. Not available online anywhere, the Accord ad (ads?) remain mysterious. Apparently they spoofed movies, but which ones we don’t know, while the Odyssey’s ads offered a sarcastic take on lawyers bargaining over a client’s interests for a van. Both of these ad series sound interesting, as who wouldn’t want to see the Coens rip on genres rather than deconstructing them, but until Honda or perhaps the advertising agency RPA puts them online, who can say?

After another lengthy break, presumably they were off making movies or some such nonsense, the Coens made an ad for H&R Block focusing on the boredom of taxation. Its aesthetic is a bit reminiscent of The Hudsucker Proxy, but seems to also share some commonality with Ridley Scott’sc 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial, with its long rows of bored people in front of a man speaking. Even with its swooping wide angle lens shots, though, it’s not particularly Coensesque. Not much more than a footnote, even for their shorts.

The Coens’ two other 2002 commercials for Company Films are, at least, far more their style, though too short to really be noteworthy. “Two White Shirts” is, literally, just Christina Ricci and Dennis Hopper lounging by a pool wearing, you know, white shirts. The attitude of cool the ad’s infused with combined with a sarcastically pretentious tone is pretty memorable nonetheless. For an entire commercial in one take, that’s not bad. Their ad for Parisienne Cigarettes is the most identifiably Coen of their works, with a man making a fool of himself in front of a casting director yet unintentionally moving the director nonetheless. It’s a quick distillation of many of the Coens’ themes, and as far as commercials go, impressively original. It’s funny, but intentionally not made for laughs, which is a surreal tone particularly unusual for the medium, if not at all out of place in a Coens film.

Now, onto the part you’ve been waiting for: their shorts. Joel and Ethan’s first one was commissioned for the Paris, Je T’Aime project in 2006, which compiled short films by directors from across the world to highlight various parts of the city. One of the major draws of the film was the impressive directors who took part in the projects, one of the highlights being the Coens themselves. Invitations for the project were sent to many directors and were subject to approval by the film’s producers. Being the tricksters they are, the Coens figured that a segment on the first arrondissement which never actually reached the Tuileries Garden, the Louvre, or any other famous landmark would, needless to say, be rejected pretty much flat out. So they took some of the requirements given for the shorts, such as featuring Parisian landmarks and describing the city as being for lovers, and twisted them around, not thinking it would actually be approved.

Needless to say, “Tuileries” did end up getting made despite, or perhaps because of, the directors’ joke. Steve Buscemi (who else?) plays a hapless American tourist reading his guidebook waiting underground for the Parisian subway. Unfortunately, he ends up attracting the unwanted notice of nearby residents of the city and eventually is beaten up and, in all likelihood, infected with a virus. Its slapstick, quickly stylized comedy is most reminiscent of Raising Arizona, and while it’s not the most meaningful of shorts, “Tuileries” is an extremely jam-packed five minutes of hilarity. No one works better with the Coens than Buscemi, and the anarchic, anything-goes feel offers a refreshing alternative to their more exacting feature work. A common complaint of feature directors working on shorts is that it feels like they’re merely screwing around, but while that may be the case here, it's definitely not a bad thing.

Apparently the Coens were happy with working in such a short format because their subsequent short film was released less than a year later, almost simultaneously with No Country for Old Men. A part of the Chacun son Cinema (To Each His Own Cinema) compilation for Cannes 2007, the Coens here were asked to express their feelings about “their state of mind at the moment as inspired by the motion-picture theatre” in honor of the 60th anniversary of Cannes. Three minutes is a mighty short time to tell all that, though, which led to both some oddly touching films and some oddly clichéd films, as well as a few just plain oddities. The Coens somehow, though, managed to do a pretty good job doing just what the prompt asked them to.

“World Cinema,” their contribution, posits Josh Brolin entering a theater seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with only two films playing: Jean Renoir’s classic The Rules of the Game and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s critically adored Climates. He’s in a bit of a fix, though, as he’s never heard of either of the features. Luckily, a helpful ticket clerk (character actor Grant Heslov, director of the upcoming The Men Who Stare at Goats) is there to guide his choice and explain that they do, in fact, include “those them words up there to help follow the story along” (i.e. subtitles). Brolin decides on Climates and is suitably wowed, though soon disappointed to be unable to speak with the clerk about how good the film really was.

It’s a positive message about the state of world cinema, with Brolin’s cowboy just as enchanted by the foreign works before him as he would’ve been with anything else, commenting how there’s “a lot of truth” in Climates. But it’s also critical of the lack of knowledge we’re given about foreign films. Heslov’s clerk stands in for a knowledgeable film critic, but the interaction between him and Brolin is only in one direction. His advice is good, but Brolin is still off on his own at the end of the film missing the discussion he wishes for.

Also noteworthy about the short is that Brolin’s character in “World Cinema” seems to bear some striking similarities to another cowboy Brolin portrayed not too long afterwards. Anyone who fails to see the connection between his role here and his take on our 46th president in W. isn’t looking close enough.

Most recently, the Coens returned to advertising earlier this year for “Air Freshener,” a 30-second spot that offers an air freshener just as fresh as clean coal, which is to say: a black smog of death. A political spot rather than a product advertisement, it’s perhaps a bit too heavyhanded, but for its topic, that’s probably a good thing. This also means that by ripping down the genre of commercial it uses for its blunt point, the commercial is in a certain sense political satire in miniature. More than that, it’s a fun bit of goofiness that certainly gets its point across.

Also in Movies