Two Jewish dudes win a prize

Ethan and Joel Coen have produced two works of art. Now they are in Israel as proud recipients of the Dan David prize.

Coen Brothers 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Coen Brothers 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Coen brothers have it, but they’re not giving it away. Notoriously diffident at interviews in general, at the press conference, award ceremony and symposium to mark their winning one of this year’s Dan David Prizes at Tel Aviv University, they were true to form. If you had never seen their movies but only saw them as they present themselves in public, you would think of them as your nerdy cousins, Ethan and Joel, the guys who stand on the side at family weddings and bar mitzvas and seem to be vaguely amused by the proceedings but are too shy to let you in on the joke. They’d like to tell you, they really would, but they just can’t quite explain it.
Ethan Coen, 53, born in Milwaukee and married to Tricia Cooke, who has edited several of their films, has been directing films with Joel, his older brother, since 1984, when they burst onto the scene with their neo-noir hit set in Texas, Blood Simple. Joel is married to the actress Frances McDormand, who starred in that film and several of their other movies – notably Fargo, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as a pregnant policewoman (and the Coens picked up an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). Although initially Ethan was credited as producer on their films and Joel as director, it has always been acknowledged that the two are a producing/directing/writing/editing team. For years, though, they used the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes as film editor in the credits.
They swept the Oscars in 2008 with their film No Country for Old Men, an adaptation of a complex novel by Cormac McCarthy, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay; one of their actors, Javier Bardem, won Best Supporting Actor. Their last film, the highly praised True Grit, starred Jeff Bridges as a Western gunslinger and earned 10 Oscar nominations.
Seeing them in the context of their Tel Aviv University press conference, you would never guess that their movies are considered some of the most original, audacious, unpredictable, funny and brilliant in American cinema, not to mention the most acclaimed. Or maybe you would. They have dominated the high end of American movies in an era during which the most successful and admired businessmen in the world were Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, and the literary lions were Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon. To call this era “revenge of the nerds” is a tired cliché at this point. But as much of American life has dumbed itself down, the Coens are leading the smart guys in the room to the front row, at least in the world of movie-making. They have made films of nearly every type: offbeat comedies of rural America (Raising Arizona), period gangster films (Miller’s Crossing), satires of Hollywood in the ’40s (Barton Fink), over-the-top remakes (The Ladykillers), and wild comedies with undertones of classical mythology (O Brother Where Art Thou?). They have also worked with some of the biggest stars in the business – Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Tom Hanks, to name a few – and have elevated actor’s careers like Bridges, whose role in The Big Lebowski was so perfect, it sent his career soaring.
The Dan David Prize Committee did not choose them simply because they are successful, but for the innovative, unclassifiable nature of their work. The Dan David Award is an unusual prize and Dan David, who attended the press conference and the award ceremony, is an unconventional man, the kind of eccentric you might expect to find in a Coen brothers movie. The prize, according to his foundation’s website, comprises “three prizes of US $1 million each... for achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact on our world. Each year fields are chosen within the three Time Dimensions – Past, Present and Future.”
One of these three “time dimensions” is generally awarded to someone in the arts, usually the “present dimension,” while the others tend to go to academics in science and the humanities. This year, the other winners were Prof. Marcus Feldman of Stanford University, for his research on evolution (the past), and professors Cynthia Kenyon and Gary Ruvkun, for their work on genetics and aging (the future). David, a businessman and inventor, was able to develop an innovative photographic technology decades ago after a wealthy investor gave him a loan just when he needed it most. He began awarding the prizes in 2002. It is a huge amount to be given with no strings attached; the only requirement is that recipients donate 10 percent of it to students in their field.
At the press conference, surrounded by his laureates, the Romanian-born David preferred to let them take center stage, saying, “They help us dream our future.”
Although there were several questions addressed to the scientists, all eyes were on the Coens. Responding to the classic Israeli question of whether this was their first visit to Israel, and if not, why it took them so long, Joel acknowledged, “It’s true. Our mother tried to convince us to come here for many years. She lived here before it was the State of Israel but... life intervenes.”
Asked about their plans for the visit here, which will be brief, Joel said, “We’re going to spend a few days at Tel Aviv University.”
Although their films are not explicitly political, it is de rigueur these days to ask all visitors if they were pressured not to come, to join in the boycott movement. Joel said, “Essentially no. But... I’m not going to say any more.”
He didn’t, but his brother did. Speaking of cultural boycotts in general, in response to another question, Ethan said he recognized that “people are responding to real problems in a way that’s heartfelt and that they think is appropriate.” He paused, then said quietly, “We obviously don’t agree.”
They aren’t here on a research trip, though. Asked whether they might make a film set in Israel or include Israeli characters in a movie, Ethan said, “As has been pointed out, we’re ignoramuses when it comes to Israel.”
His brother added, “We grew up in the Midwest. We write essentially and exclusively American stories. We wouldn’t write about Israel per se, not having experience of it firsthand.”
In the realm of American stories, the Coen brothers have been the leaders of the independent-moviemaking revival over the past two decades. Their films have been so successful that although they began working for the major studios early in their career, they have been able, unlike so many other directors, to keep their independence.
You’d have to look to filmmakers of much earlier eras, perhaps the French New Wave or Hollywood in the early ’70s, to find so much originality combined with such talent, a willingness to use both the most famous stars and utterly unknown actors, a black sense of humor, a flair for action sequences, an ability to move back and forth between contemporary movies and period pieces, and a determination never to repeat or be pinned down. Although they write all their own screenplays, they have in recent years shown a fearlessness in adapting difficult subject matter, most notably with No Country for Old Men.
They surprised many in the movie industry when they chose another adaptation for their latest movie, True Grit. They have insisted that their version is not a remake of the original John Wayne film, but a completely new imagining of the book.
Asked whether True Grit was a departure for them, in that it was a more emotionally evocative film than their previous works, they were clear that any sentiment on screen was not from them.
“Whatever impact there is comes from the source material,” said Ethan. “Whatever good qualities you see on screen just come from a writer we admire very much, Charles Portis.”
The first version of the film “didn’t make much of an impression on us,” he said, and insisted that they had not seen it again when preparing their version.
Another surprise from the Coens in recent years was their 2009 film, A Serious Man, the Israeli title of which translated to A Good Jew. Although it deals with a milieu that the Coens know well from their own life – middle-class, Midwestern Jews in academia – they caution that the film is not autobiographical.
Asked how their Jewish background influenced that film in particular, Ethan said, “Who knows? We would speculate in an even less informed way than most people on that.”
While most of their films, particularly in recent years, have achieved too much success to be considered cult films, their 1998 movie The Big Lebowski, which was not a huge hit upon its release, has gone on to achieve unlikely cult status. The film, which stars Bridges as a Los Angeles stoner (known as “the Dude”), is a kind of neo-noir movie, in the tradition of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, but one that defies easy characterization. Like many of their films, it’s funny, satirical, insightful and violent, but, perhaps more than in their previous outings, it has characters the viewer comes to care about deeply.
Although it opened to lukewarm reviews and received no Oscar nominations, The Big Lebowski has become the cult film of the last decade, much as The Rocky Horror Picture Show was the ultimate midnight movie of the ’70s. Its devotees stage what are called Lebowski fests, where fans dress as the characters, attend screenings of the film and talk back to the screen, drink White Russians (the Dude’s favorite drink) and go bowling. There have been more than 20 such festivals held all over the US, and one in Britain. The film has always held a special appeal for Jewish fans, because the character of Walter (John Goodman) is a convert to Judaism who casually quotes Herzl – “If you will it, Dude, it is no dream” – and refuses to bowl in a Saturday tournament because he is “shomer f***ing Shabbos.”
That line may explain why audiences at the opening night of the 1998 Jerusalem Film Festival, always enthusiastic, burst into applause and cheers when The Big Lebowski was shown there. So it’s no surprise that plans are under way for an Israeli version of the celebration in Jerusalem on June 16. Those who have long felt that if they willed an Israeli Lebowski Fest, it would not be a dream, should check out the fest’s Facebook page at
Cinematheques throughout the country are also showing retrospectives of the Coen brothers’ films this month.
Perhaps understandably, the Coens have done nothing to encourage the phenomenon, although they have also done nothing to hinder it. Asked of their reaction to the fests – as well as the many books and blogs that try to elevate the Dude character to a lifestyle icon and inspire people to wear shirts that read “The Dude Abides” – they played it close to the vest.
After sharing a laugh with Joel, Ethan said, “You have me there, sir... We’ll take it... Although we don’t really know what to make of it.”
He did admit that “little bits of people we knew in Los Angeles” were pieced together to create the characters.
Asked whether they got royalties from the Lebowski Fests, they answered in the negative.
Like some of the greatest directors, notably Alfred Hitchcock, the Coens are famous for storyboarding their films, meaning they draw up storyboards that set out each shot in advance, almost like a comic or graphic novel.
“We have done that, and we still do,” said Ethan. “It’s a helpful way to decide how you are going to shoot everything before you are on the set, which isn’t the easiest atmosphere to think... We aren’t spontaneous. We overprepare.”
Asked whether they had seen any recent Israeli movies, Joel said they had seen a few, those that had gotten commercial releases in New York City, where the Coens now live. He mentioned Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir as one he had enjoyed.
One subject on which they were cagy was upcoming projects. The past four years have been an incredibly productive time for them, beginning with 2007’s No Country for Old Men. They followed it up the next year with the star-studded black comedy Burn After Reading, perhaps their most obviously political film, about CIA agents and other buffoons running around Washington, starring Clooney, Pitt, McDormand, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton. In another dazzling shift of tone, they made 2009’s A Serious Man, which transposes a kind of biblical tale of temptation, adversity and redemption onto a ’70s Midwestern Jewish family, and in 2010 they released True Grit. Although the latter didn’t win any of the 10 Oscars for which it was nominated, its cast, which mixed Coen veterans such as Bridges and Josh Brolin with Coen newbie Matt Damon and complete newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, drew great praise, as did its cinematography and haunting soundtrack.
Some directors might want to rest on their laurels, just a bit, after such a run, but the Coens do not. In fact, it’s easier to find out what they aren’t working on than what they are. They have long been rumored to have plans to direct a film adaptation of Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but Joel confirmed that while they had written a screenplay for it, they would not direct it. While a screenplay they were hired to write, Gambit, is going into production soon, Joel said they were no longer involved in it.
“We’re writing now, we have several ideas,” said Joel, but nothing they are working on will be in production for at least a year. They could confirm that they would not be directing any more novel adaptations or Westerns any time soon. And they were happy to put one rumor to rest – that their next film would be about a cat.
Asked about it, Joel laughed long and hard. “Where did you get that?” he asked. “That’s very funny.”
The reporter said he’d read it on the Internet, and Joel cleared up the source of the unlikely rumor. He said they had once been asked why the character General Sterling Price was not included in True Grit, since he appears in the novel.
“And General Sterling Price is a cat, so we said we didn’t include him because our next movie is all about a cat,” says Joel.
On one other point, too, they were quite definite: They are not planning to make a movie in 3D. Said Joel, “3D is mildly interesting in certain kinds of movies, but no, we’re not. No.”