Film Reviews

Oh, Brother

A poem, written by an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, ends thusly: "If the Nazis have my penis--who has my arm?" Another begins, "Who rise to adversity, I shit on you." Another, titled "The Hopping Poem," reads, in its entirety, "Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck That Hurt, Fuck Fuck." And another, called "Is This Thing On?": "Hello. Hello. Is this thing on? Is this thing on? Hello. Hello. One two three four five six. Hello. Is this thing on? Hello. Hello." So, to answer the question no doubt dancing 'round your brain, yes, you, too, are a genius. Or you would have been, had you gotten to pen and paper--and publisher--first.

To be fair, there are long, thoughtful works scattered throughout The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way, the first book of poetry by screenwriter Ethan Coen, who has penned such films as Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn't There, all directed by brother Joel. But even he will tell you his slim, 136-page collection is a bit of a joke--a mocking homage, rather, to a form for which he has as much admiration as disdain. Drunken Driver is actually Coen's second hardback collection: In 1998, William Morrow published Gates of Eden, which contains 14 short stories--some of which read like Coen brothers films writ in prose form, others of which are tiny vignettes or monologues.

Dallas Observer: When you're doing a book of poetry or a collection of short stories, you're not bound by the limitations of cinema. What do you get out of these different forms?

Ethan Coen: A story's fun to write. You fuss over it, and hopefully it's a good story--or, at the very least, you enjoyed yourself trying to make it. The poem is different because it's even fuzzier to an almost demented degree. It's the pleasure of filing it down and buffing it up. There's something compulsively, obsessively satisfying about it--even more than working on prose, just because it's so fuzzy.

DO: Is there then a liberation or catharsis in writing these kinds of works?

EC: Yes, there is something powerfully so, but it's hard to say exactly what it is. I'm really lucky. I don't teach in some English department somewhere and have to worry about putting out some limericks. I'm incredibly free. This isn't my job. I make my living in the movie business. I can do fuck all, whatever the fuck I want, and it's great. I'm really lucky that way. [Laughter.] As inane as the poems are, or because they're inane, they reflect that freedom, yes, and I find them really satisfying to write. I could publish them or not, and they'd still be satisfying to me. I wrote them for many years without the idea of showing them to anyone else. It's good, man. That's what any writer wants.

DO: One of the lines that sticks out from the book is in "If I May," where you write, "If you have sensitive thoughts that you want to put in a poem, let me tell you something: Nobody gives a shit." How do you reconcile your love for the form and your disdain for it?

EC: Writing poetry is, inescapably, a little fruity. So you can love it and still be aware of that. [Laughter.] Man, The New Yorker hosted this tribute to Bob Dylan at Town Hall, and people came out and read his lyrics as though they were poetry. And I thought, "This is the fruitiest thing I've ever been to!" I don't know why I think of that, other than it was kinda fruity. This is a book for people who hate poetry.

DO: These poems date back years. What prompted you to start?

EC: I don't know. I'm uninhibited in that if I enjoy reading something I like and figure maybe more than some other people will like it, I figure, "Well, fuck, I'll try that."

DO: So when you compile them and read them over, are you surprised by them? The only thematic consistency is your fondness for your penis.

EC: [Laughter, snorting.] Well, ya know, if it's about sex or scatology or body parts, if you read that, it grabs your attention. It's compelling immediately. So even if it doesn't have other things going, at least you have that, know what I mean? You're not gonna bore anybody, or at least it's that much harder to bore people. You wanna grab the reader by the lapels, and when you don't have other skills, you're reduced to that. [Laughter.] At least I'm realistic about what I can do.

DO: So many of the films have been a homage to a form, and I wonder if the poems are a continuation of that?

EC: "Homage" suggests more of a self-consciousness than there really is. You have enthusiasms for certain forms, and you kind of internalize them and adopt them, ya know what I mean? It's not even as referential, as distancing as "homage" makes it sound.

DO: Where, then, do the short stories fit in?

EC: Here's something I can't explain but will simply present you with. They're stories because they're conceived as stories. They end up being stories because they have to be. You could write a letter to a friend, and you could write a shopping list, and you know from the beginning which is which, and you don't inspect them afterwards and decide, 'Oh, wait, this one turned out to be the shopping list, and this one turned out to be the letter to a friend.' They were each conceived differently and thought about differently, and they couldn't have been anything else. That's an incredibly obscure explanation.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky