Iron Director: Scorsese v. The Coen Brothers

Back in December, I introduced a series here called Iron Director. In the first edition, I compared two directors who I became obsessed with last year- Francois Truffaut and Rainer Werner Wolfcastle, er… Fassbinder. I’m about due for another one of these entries. Lately, the question that’s been bouncing around my skull is “Who is the best director working today?”. It’s not an easy question to answer. There are tons of worthy candidates. The two names (or three, I suppose) that come to my mind instantly are Martin Scorsese and the tag team of Joel and Ethan Coen. If either Scorsese or the Coen Brothers have a movie in the theaters, I’m going to see it. It’s guaranteed. Unlike last time, when there were holes in my viewing experience for the two respective directors, I’ve seen everything the Coens have ever made except for one. The gaps for Scorsese are very minimal. So let’s take a look:

Martin Scorsese

What I’ve watched (Netflix rating, out of 5 stars, in parentheses)
Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (4 stars), Boxcar Bertha (3 stars), Mean Streets (4 stars), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (4 stars), Taxi Driver (4 stars), Raging Bull (4 stars), The King of Comedy (4 stars), After Hours (4 stars), The Color of Money (4 stars), The Last Temptation of Christ (4 stars), Goodfellas (5 stars), Cape Fear (3 stars), The Age of Innocence (3 stars), Casino (4 stars), Kundun (4 stars), Bringing Out the Dead (4 stars), Gangs of New York (3 stars), The Aviator (5 stars), No Direction Home (4 stars), The Departed (5 stars), Shutter Island (4 stars)
About those Netflix ratings- there’s a great deal of my level of enjoyment involved. You’ll never find me questioning the filmmaking brilliance of Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. They just didn’t resonate with me like a lot of other heavy-hitting, AFI Top 100-ish films in terms of enjoyment. In both cases, it was more like a 4.5 and I rounded down.

Special ingredients
So what makes Scorsese, SCORSESE!? If you’ve ever heard the man speak, you realize that he has an intense love of cinema, and a profound respect for film history. As such, you find elements of major film movements all over his work. For instance, Italian neo-realism plays a major role in a lot of his films. The majority of the extras in Goodfellas were people from his old neighborhood, friends, friends of friends, or even his own mother. He wanted to show New York, so he used real New Yorkers right out of his own upbringing. The same applies to the wildly underrated After Hours, along with just about every film he’s made in New York. There’s also French New Wave vibe to a lot of his work. His camera started moving some time in the late 60’s and never stopped. Again, I’ll use Goodfellas as my reference point- think of the impossibly long tracking shot as Henry Hill introduces Karen to his world, or the freeze frames. One of the reasons that I enjoyed Shutter Island much more than the average film-goer was the way he paid homage to Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and Kurosawa’s use of the elements to establish tone. The man knows his movies and you can be sure that whatever decisions he’s making, he’s making them from a highly-educated standpoint.

Scorsese’s realism is about more than just the characters. It’s a cliché at this point to refer to the “gritty realism” of his films, but it’s so very true. He was part of a wave of directors that shook up the status quo of old Hollywood by showing the grit and the grime of the streets, of the bars, of the dingy places that people don’t normally want to go. He (along with others) embraced the anti-hero and subsequently altered film history.

There’s also a surprising amount of diversity to his work, most notably in his films from the 80’s and mid 90’s. What you find is a gutsy sequel to The Hustler; two dark comedies, After Hours and The King of Comedy; a Victorian-era period piece, The Age of Innocence; a re-make of a thriller, Cape Fear; and profound views of two religious icons via Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ.

His films are deeply personal. You don’t make introspective films like Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ without putting your own stamp on them. Any one of his New York-based films could be about people he’s known in his lifetime. Roger Ebert’s book, Scorsese, points out that little Henry Hill in the beginning of Goodfellas, may as well have been little Marty Scorsese, peering out the window and mythologizing the people around him. One of the reasons I thought he could do so well with The Aviator is because his own obsession- film- would translate well into Howard Hughes’ OCD themes.

Last but not least, few directors represent Catholicism quite like Scorsese, albeit in his own unique way. The Madonna/Whore complex is on full display in all of his films- characters idolizing women… until they possess them.    

Best dish: Goodfellas
Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are right behind Goodfellas. If anyone wanted to tell me I should’ve chosen those two instead, I’d completely understand. For me, Goodfellas is a beautiful and uniquely American film. He’s taken the American experience (his own, by the way), and filtered it through the prism of film history. It’s truly impressive.

Worst dish: Gangs of New York
My first inclination is The Age of Innocence, which simply bored me to tears. But the film itself was well-made. I just didn’t enjoy it. Gangs of New York, on the other hand, felt clunky and forced at times.


Joel and Ethan Coen

What I’ve watched (Netflix rating, out of 5 stars, in parentheses)
Blood Simple (4 stars), Raising Arizona (4 stars), Miller’s Crossing (4 stars), Barton Fink (5 stars), The Hudsucker Proxy (4 stars), Fargo (5 stars), The Big Lebowski (5 stars), O Brother, Where Art Thou (4 stars), The Man Who Wasn’t There (4 stars), The Ladykillers (2 stars), No Country for Old Men (4 stars), Burn After Reading (4 stars), A Serious Man (5 stars), True Grit (4 stars)

Special ingredients
The Coens are the kings of the neo-noir. Just about every film they’ve ever made has featured some type of noir element to it. At the heart of their movies, they’re almost all mysteries or heists or thefts. But instead of the familiar dark, shadowy, rainy, cement setting, you get the barren Texas wasteland (Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men; or the harsh, whiteout landscape of Minnesota (Fargo); or Hollywood (The Big Lebowski); or the banal D.C. suburbs (Burn After Reading).

Like Scorsese, the Coens are also uniquely American. The tales they tell can only be found in this country. Barton Fink wouldn’t work anywhere else. O Brother, Where Art Thou is straight-up American Southern Gothic, featuring one grotesque after another; The Hudsucker Proxy works not as a generic send-up of capitalism, but rather the American brand of capitalism. You know, for our kids. Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. The Dude, or Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, is the epitome of California stoner cool. A Serious Man doesn’t work anywhere but the ennui-filled suburbs of 1950’s and 1960’s America.

Whereas Scorsese has brandished the dark comedy a few times, the Coens have it on constant display. Even in the case of No Country for Old Men, there were several times where you’d chuckle and sort of smirk at the humor. When Brad Pitt got shot in the head in Burn After Reading, not many directors could pose that as a comedic scene. But the Coens did. Lest I lead you astray, it’s not just dark comedy. Their characters are quirky and pop off the screen. Think of the army of goofy Minnesota accents in Fargo, or the goofy and charming simplicity of the hula hoop drawing in Hudsucker, or every single thing about Lebowski. Yes, their films are mostly neo-noir and feature lots of murder and/or theft and/or general illegal mischievousness, but they are never without humor.

As you would expect from filmmakers who make a lot of crime dramas (with humor), there seems to be an infatuation with convicts in the Coens’ work. Buscemi and Stormare’s characters in Fargo are ex-cons and are paired up with Shep Proudfoot. John Goodman’s character in Barton Fink is on the lam. “Hi” McDunnough of Raising Arizona fame is another convict. O Brother, Where Art Thou focuses strictly on convicts who are on the run. I don’t suppose it adds to the quality of their films, inherently, but it’s definitely a characteristic you find in much of their work.

It would appear that they have a solid respect for source literature, with a twist. No Country for Old Men is based off of the novel by Cormac McCarthy. A Serious Man (their most personal film, their equivalent of Goodfellas) nods to the Talmud… and Jefferson Airplane. O Brother, Where Art Thou re-tells Homer’s Odyssey. One of the criticisms I’ve seen for True Grit was how true they remained to the book, and Mattie Ross’ prologue.

Best dish: A Serious Man
That… was not an easy choice to make. I love Lebowski like no other film. And Barton Fink is also an incredible movie. So why A Serious Man? Because it comes from the heart. You don’t have to understand the Jewish underpinnings to enjoy it, though my appreciation for the film skyrocketed once it was explained to me. It comes from the place they grew up, and it (presumably) speaks to their upbringing in the Jewish faith, along with all of the deep exploratory questions that go with it.

Worst dish: The Ladykillers
There really wasn’t much to it beyond the humor, which was lacking for a Coen film.

Who takes it? Whose cinema reigns supreme?

Ultimately, these two are like pizza and tacos. Asking someone to choose only one is completely unfair. Fortunately, we don’t live in some sort of hell where you can only see the films of the Coen Brothers or only the films of Scorsese. It’s just my two cents, but there isn’t a single film from either that would make me say, “Don’t watch that movie!”.

What it really comes down to is this- Scorsese has worked longer, and made a larger volume of movies that were of a high quality. It’s not the Coens fault that they started 15 years after Scorsese. It’s just a fact that Scorsese has made more films without really ever breaking a high level of quality. The Coens have made more films that I’ve truly loved deep down. And that’s what makes this so tough, but I think I’m going to have to say that the winner is Marty Scorsese.


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32 responses to “Iron Director: Scorsese v. The Coen Brothers

  1. Kelly

    Wow, very interesting and thought-provoking. I agree that it’s difficult to compare “pizza and tacos,” since all the movies I’ve seen of both Marty’s & the Coens’ have yet to disappoint me. I liked The Ladykillers because it is hilarious. However, I also agree that, compared to their other works, it does come in last. It was their first attempt at a remake, and though it did turn out to be better than the original, it could’ve been much better had they not put a Wayans brother in it.

    • I’m tempted to re-watch it just because I feel like it can’t be as bad as I remember. It was the first Coen film I was really excited to go see in theaters because it was a Coen film, and it left me cold. Maybe it’d help to see the original, too. I take it you’ve seen the original?

      • Kelly

        Yes, I have. It was just okay. I might have liked it more if I had watched it before the remake. And I always wondered why Tom Hanks’ character looked the way he did until I saw Sir Alec Guiness dressed the same way.

        • My brain can’t get around the fact that both Hanks and Alec Guinness tried the same movie and both (kind of) failed. Those guys are too amazing to have that happen.

          • Kelly

            In their defense, I think the people who failed here were the costume designers. They both had those odd front teeth, for crying out loud.

  2. heyzeus

    Nicely done analysis. But my Coener (Coen-boner) says you’ve come to the incorrect conclusion.

  3. Phil

    That’s an impossible choice – the Coens and Scorsese are also my two favorite working directors. I agree Ladykillers is the weakest, but I only watched it once. I would give GoNY 4 stars for Daniel Day-Lewis’ work alone. The only better performance of the last decade was also DDL in There Will Be Blood. I own The Aviator, but I don’t think it is an all-time classic, like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.
    It’s almost a tie – I might give the edge to the Coen’s for entertainment and rewatchablility, but Scorsese for overall film making quality.
    I’m curious, but have low expectations for Hugo Cabaret this year.

    • That’s a really great summation of it. I’ve re-watched Fargo and Lebowski and O Brother more times than any Scorsese film I’ve ever seen, even Goodfellas.

      I don’t want to use too much hyperbole, but as a film-going populace, we’re very lucky to have Scorsese and the Coens at our fingertips. 20 and 30 years from now, we can proudly tell people that we saw their films in theaters.

      • Phil

        If every director you liked had a new movie coming out on the same day, which one would you watch first? The only person I might put ahead of Scorsese and the Coens is P.T. Anderson. He doesn’t have the body of work, but everything he has done has been excellent and is possibly still improving. I’m happy to hear that ‘The Master’ has funding again.

        • I think in order, I’d go the Coens, then Scorsese, then Edgar Wright because I’ve become an insufferable Edgar Wright fanboy in the last year or so, then PTA (and that news about The Master is the best news I’ve gotten all week; I wasn’t aware of that). Then there’s a second tier with Lars von Trier, perhaps Lukas Moodysson (whose cred took a hit with me after “Mammoth”), Wes Anderson…

  4. Tough call on this one. I’ve been a Scorsese fan for as long as I can remember. Like you said, his films are intensely personal. You did leave a couple off your list that I absolutely love: Italian-American, a documentary about his parents and his old neighborhood, and The Last Waltz. There are many many reasons why I love his films and the man himself, and most of them you have listed already. I haven’t loved his 21st century films as much, and I think I know why. They just aren’t as personal. He needs to do what he did after New York, New York flopped. Go small. Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, After Hours, and The Last Temptation of Christ were all small and intensely personal films. He needs to do that again. But that’s just my two cents.

    I didn’t start to appreciate the Coens until Fargo. They left me a little cold at first, but now that I “get them”, I truly love their work. Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country For Old Men are probably my three favorites. Hope to see True Grit ASAP.

    So who’s the winner? For sheer ability, they’re even. But we’re talking Scorsese here. For very personal reasons, I have to go with Marty. He is my paesano afterall. 🙂

    • For me, it’s taken two viewings before I’ve really gotten into the Coen films. Even Lebowski… I saw it in the theater, thought it was funny but wasn’t blown away… then I saw it again a year or two later and thought it was the funniest and funnest movie on the face of the earth.

      True Grit is probably their most accessible film. Not that any of them are inaccessible, but I think you’d get more out of True Grit on a first viewing than you would most of their other movies.

      I’ve had my eye on The Last Waltz for some time.

  5. I felt the same way about Burn After Reading. 1st time… meh. 2nd time… hilarious! Lebowski rocks!

    The Last Waltz is excellent! Very well made and incredible performances. Muddy Waters doing Mannish Boy. Priceless. You also need to track down Italian-American. Such a sweet film. An homage to his parents and his upbringing.

  6. rtm

    Wow, very nice in-depth analysis of two well-respected directors (well three I guess, the Coens aren’t conjoined twins :)) However, I actually haven’t seen a lot of either one of these directors, so I can’t really choose. Last Temptation of Christ is why I could never call Scorsese my favorite director, but I adore Age of Innocence.

    • You might give After Hours a try. Or even The Color of Money, which has Paul Newman. Everyone likes Paul Newman.*

      *I think everyone likes Paul Newman; I’d be surprised if someone said they didn’t.

  7. Dan

    Tough one but I’d stump for Scorsese. As much as I love the work of the Coens I’d say they’ve only made one of my top 100 favourite films of all time whereas Scorsese has done at least two and probably three or four.

    I actually like Gangs of New York but it is certainly not perfect. The Departed was fantastic – his most commercial and easily-accessible film in my opinion. But my favourites are actually After Hours and The King of Comedy – his black comedies.

    The Coens have made one of my favourite films – The Big Lebowski and come to think of it Fargo is another one of my favourites. But I don’t think Scorsese has taken as serious a misstep as The Ladykillers (easily the Coen’s worst effort). I’ve also never been able to appreciate O Brother and The Man Who Wasn’t There as much as most people.

    • The Departed took a teeny tiny hit with me when I found out it was a re-make. In fairness, I should probably see the original before I ding it too much (i.e. how much did he borrow, etc…, as he’s not really a thief).

      Lots of people go nuts for The Man Who Wasn’t There, and I’m not sure I understand it. I enjoyed it a ton but I’m not sure I’d even put it in their top 5.

      • Phil

        I would rank Color of Money at the bottom of Scorsese’s list. Yes, like everyone, I love Paul Newman, but he’s the only watchable part of the film…in my opinion. The Hustler is SO much better!

        The Departed and Infernal Affairs are both great films and both very different. I wish Scorsese toned Nicholson down in that film, he seemed to be in a different film.

        • I’m kind of in the middle with Color of Money. Mostly, I figured it’s accessible to a non-Scorsese fan.

          I hold a grudge against Nicholson in that movie for refusing to wear a Red Sox hat because of his Yankee fandom. /petty baseball fan grudges

  8. Don

    I say why choose…Make Taco Pizza!

  9. The Guy who met Kevin Meany

    A couple of Coen-related comments–I think you are a little too hard on Ladykillers. It’s not a 5 star movie or anything but its better than a 2 star movie. Jesus, there are Katherine Heigl movies that earned at least 2 stars. Also, you have placed A Serious Man on a pedestal that it doesn’t quite live up to. Its good, but the Coen Brothers best movie? The Coen Brothers don’t even think its one of their best. Its a Second tier Coen Brothers movie. Lebowski blows it out of the water. No Country for Old Men blows it out of the water. Fargo blows it out of the water. I even think Raising Arizona (Nicholas Cage’s masterpiece) eats A Serious Man for breakfast, shits A Serious Man a few hours later, and then eats the shit that was A Serious Man….I really don’t know where I’m going with that.

  10. The Guy who met Kevin Meany

    When you said that Age of Innocence was better than Gangs of New York, did you put your junk between your legs and walk around like an ugly woman? Daniel Day Lewis in GoNY kicked Daniel Day Lewis in AoI’s ass. Why do actors always go by their full name? I guess a guy named Dan Lewis would only get acting gigs on local television commercials.

    • Maybe Day is his maiden name. Or…

      RE: Gangs v. Age of Innocence, Age of Innocence bored the shit out of me and I wasn’t a fan of the movie at all. I’m 100 times more likely to watch Gangs again before I’d re-watch Age of Innocence. But in terms of pure moviemaking, it blows Gangs of New York out of the water. It’s got some of Scorsese’s best camerawork.

      • The Guy who met Kevin Meany

        For me, not boring the shit out of me has to be the tablestakes before I can judge the merits of the film. GoNY had one of the best antagonists in film history. It was also a mid-1800s historical movie that wasn’t solely a civil war film. Also, it had a great revenge theme.

  11. The Guy who met Kevin Meany

    Worst Coen Brothers movie–Burn After Reading. It wasn’t their best effort. Also, is there a reason why Intolerable Cruelty wasn’t on the Coen list?

    • You can’t possibly believe that “Burn After Reading” was worse than “The Ladykillers”.

      I haven’t really seen “Intolerable Cruelty” start to finish, so whatever rating I’d give it wouldn’t really be fair.

      • The Guy who met Kevin Meany

        While Ladykillers wasn’t their best movie it still had many Coen elements–classic soundtrack with black gospel, regional bumpkins (in this case, Mississippi), and ironic humor. Burn After Reading didn’t really have a regional-specific theme, more of a midlife crisis theme, and no classic soundtrack. People from the DC area don’t have a peculiar regional accent. BAR did have the rocking dildo chair. I still think Ladykillers was a little better.

        • I’m not sure where else the gospel music appears- O Brother and The Ladykillers, and…? It’s not in Fargo, Lebowski, A Serious Man, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, No Country… basically, their best movies don’t have it. As for Burn After Reading’s regional-specific theme, the entire plot revolved around espionage (botched or otherwise) and the CIA.

          I re-watched The Ladykillers last night because I wasn’t sure if I was missing something. I don’t feel any differently than I did before- it’s pretty clearly their worst movie. The characters are far over the top (even for a Coen film), the humor is rarely humorous (there’s a running gag about IBS; I mean, c’mon), the plot isn’t engaging and isn’t much of a noir (or much of anything at all, really)… In the Coen universe, it’s a failure. The southern gothic angle is just about the only thing it’s got going for it along with a few cheap laughs.

          • The guy who met Kevin Meany

            I didn’t mean that Coen Brothers always use gospel, just a unique soundtrack (i.e. the yodelling in Raising Arizona or the dead silence in No Country For Old Men).

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