No Unpleasant After-Taste

Around the time of my Big Tobacco epiphany, I had been watching many of the Coen brothers’ films back-to-back in my quest to understand brilliant filmmaking and also due to not having cable television in my room. During a very very short period, I had rewatched the Coens’ entire catalog of films so closely that something else very distinct began to stand out to me. What stood out was how the Coen brothers don’t just insert cigarettes as a form of background texture or even as product placement as it might appear at the surface… The Coen brothers actually take calculated steps to carefully embed tobacco products into their movies in deeper, more diabolical ways. Some of the tobacco incidents are so subtle that they simply roll by and your eyes may never even notice.

Thinking back, I always remembered cigarettes & cigars as just playing subtle roles or merely being used as background “texture” in only a few of the Coen brothers’ feature films. However, tobacco products such as cigarettes seem to have been so cleverly embedded by the Coens that these tobacco-related items are actually viewed as genuine texture and nothing more sinister. Cigarettes are only being used as props in these stories after all, right? Yeah right.

While watching some of the Coens brothers’ flicks, you may have even noticed a few blatant cigarettes appearing here and there. And you probably weren’t even put off by all of the unsavory smoking you saw onscreen; it might have felt like good texture for the classic comedy drama whathaveyou because the Coens do such a stellar, or should I say stealthy, job of dropping tobacco products into each film’s unique plot. Most of the time we as viewers don’t ever notice anything out of the ordinary. After all, we are expecting to be entertained not bombarded with cigarette advertisments.

No matter which way you slice it, we as moviegoers never leave the theater after a Coen brothers’ film thinking about the hundreds of blatant instances of tobacco that we have just witnessed but instead we revel in the wierd characters, strangely twisted storylines, classic music, or sometimes the overwhelming violence. For example, no one left the Coens’ movie Fargo (1996) thinking or talking about actor Peter Stormare’s deliberate chain-smoking… Instead all anyone remembered was the infamous woodchipper scene near the end of the film.

Beyond just simply placing cigarettes into the hands and mouths of the actors in some superficial way, it truly seems like the Coens have worked extremely hard to weave tobacco products ever so delicately into their storylines and character arcs in ways that Stanley Kubrick himself would likely be impressed.

Hey I’ll admit, the Coen brothers obviously have a remarkable talent for creating truly memorable characters and profoundly wierd stories that always keep you guessing. Every single one of the Coens’ feature films seem to have a certain spark that leaves people wondering what else is really going on long after they’ve left the movie theater. In my imagination, the brilliantly cheeky brothers sit around discussing their next project and at each & every crossroads they ask themselves: “How can we screw with peoples’ expectations the most?” Ultimately it was this very yearning by the Coens; this need to create the most off-the-wall tales that they can conjure up which led me to believe that the Coen brothers are deliberately trying to screw with the American public. By releasing films with strange twists and far from traditional endings, the Coens are able to generate global hype every time out of the gate and ultimately subliminally advertise to millions of viewers the one thing that has remained a constant in each and every one of their films: tobacco.

By combining trendy celebrities, unique character actors, unforgettable dialog and an endlessly cryptic but intriguing plot — the Coens are able to craft abstract masterpieces which consistently dazzle audiences and critics alike. Joel & Ethan keep taking film conventions and audience expectations to further and further extremes in order to stun the masses and put asses in seats.

Let my good friends the masses
Get up off their asses
While I stay at home with a smirk
[Excert from Joel Coen’s poem “The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way”]

When crafting each film’s unique plot, it’s almost like the Coens had asked themselves: “What scene will get people talking around the water coolers? What else can we do to hype up this movie? Where can we stick a cigarette in somebody’s mouth?! Honestly, it seems to me that the Coen brothers just keep reaching for any believable or compelling story in which to mingle the use of tobacco products. They are striving to create the most far out viral tales in which to quietly insert outrageous numbers of cigarettes. The devil is in the details, as they say.


Interestingly, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was written by the Coen brothers immediately after their first film Blood Simple (1984) with the help of Hollywood filmmaker pal Sam Raimi, but for one reason or another the Hudsucker movie wasn’t made until almost ten years later. In other words, the Coens could have been carefully crafting this sticky web of tobacco with Raimi’s help for over a decade. With a power-filmmaker trio creating such an epic tobacco-ridden masterpiece like The Hudsucker Proxy, obviously three heads are better than two. By the way, The Hudsucker Proxy ultimately featured another three heads — a star-studded cast such as Tim Robbins, Paul Newman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh — all three celebrity actors happily using tobacco in the film.

Even popular movie critics never seem to mention how a particular Coen brothers’ film is obviously littered with tobacco products. Instead, film critics always love to mention how we as viewers can never seem to put our finger on it; that the brilliance behind each Coen brothers’ film cannot be nailed down in any traditional way. Well let me nail it down for you…

When I began reviewing the Coen brothers’ individual films with my new filter for tobacco, delicious new meanings seemed to peek out from between the lines of zany dialog and the whimsical plots. I was suddenly able to look beyond the A-list actors, beyond the tangled storylines, and beyond the wacky happenings to finally uncover alot of interesting messages that, incidently, had also caused the Coens’ films to make much more sense to me than they ever had previously. Also, the Coen brothers seem to cleverly use many other distractions such as inserting beautiful music, overwhelming elements of violence or extreme wackiness — quite possibly used as smokescreens to drown out any possible long term effects from witnessing the hundreds of tobacco products in such a short time.

To most people, the tobacco use in these movies really does seem natural because many of the Coen brothers’ films take place in the past — golden eras for tobacco when smoking was still allowed in restaurants, movie theaters, and even hospitals. At the surface, the massive amounts of smoking don’t feel abnormal in any way because tobacco products are embedded by the Coens with such care, class, and creativity. But when you pull out a magnifying glass, the unique films of the Coen brothers show a deeper, darker side.

To see what I mean, let’s examine a short scene from the Coen brothers’ second feature film Raising Arizona (1987) using my handy new and highly detailed spreadsheet of tobacco incidents. Pay close attention to the two bolded lines below…

20 33:37 2S A black ashtray on the counter in front of John Goodman & a can of Coca-Cola in front of William Forsythe.
21 33:48 2S Same black ashtray on counter in front of John Goodman & a can of Coca-Cola in front of William Forsythe.
* 33:49 2S William Forsythe reaches his hand offscreen and brings it back with a box of Kelloggs Corn Flakes.
22-23 33:52 2S John Goodman reaches his hand offscreen and brings it back with a lit cigarette & takes a drag. Same black ashtray is visible.
24-25 34:03 2S John Goodman holding a lit cigarette & same black ashtray.
26-27 34:09 WS A wider shot of the room as John Goodman lifts a lit cigarette from the same black ashtray.
* 34:15 WS Continued from previous: Nicolas Cage carries the box of Kelloggs Corn Flakes to center screen.
28-29 34:28 WS John Goodman holding a lit cigarette & same black ashtray are visible behind Nicolas Cage.
30-31 34:41 WS Repeat of John Goodman holding a lit cigarette & black ashtray.
32-33 34:55 2S Repeat of closer shot as John Goodman takes a drag from a cigarette & same black ashtray is visible.
34-35 35:04 WS Repeat of wider shot as John Goodman holding a lit cigarette & same black ashtray are visible behind Nicolas Cage.
36-37 35:17 WS Repeat of John Goodman holding a lit cigarette & same black ashtray.
38-39 35:26 WS Repeat of John Goodman holding a lit cigarette & same black ashtray.

In this extremely subtle scene from around 34 minutes into Raising Arizona (1987), actors John Goodman (the older wiser fellow) and William Forsythe (the younger of the duo) sit at a counter eating breakfast. In the film they are quite literally partners in crime and the shot is perfectly symmetrical with the two men sharing the frame equally sitting side by side facing the camera.

[ insert still images from this scene of Raising Arizona ]

In front of the younger William Forsythe on the counter sits a bright red can of Coca-Cola. The scene continues as Forsythe slowly reaches his hand offscreen and comes back with a box of Kelloggs corn flakes. Nothing too exciting, I know… just wait. Beside him, John Goodman now subtly reaches his hand offscreen and comes back with a lit cigarette which he continues to smoke the rest of the scene. Now ain’t that some shit?

In my younger days this particular scene did not make me think twice however now that I’m older and wiser; my so called Stanley Kubrick powers of over-perception tell me that this particular scene, while seemingly very simple and yet somewhat shallow on the surface, was probably no accident or coincidence. This scene may have been specifically composed by the Coen brothers to unconsciously illustrate to viewers how: while some younger folks might enjoy a nice cold soda pop with their breakfast, some older wiser folks might enjoy a nice hot cigarette instead.

Essentially, this scene is a win-win for both forms of product placement: the obvious and the obfuscated (uh, the not-so-obvious). The branded & the brandless. To the Coen brothers, enjoying a cigarette is essentially just like enjoying a soda pop.

Not only that, shortly after the can of Coke and the cigarette appear, ultra-mega superstar Nicolas Cage joins the scene to carry another big box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes across the room so it appears in a nice big closeup for the audience. This quiet movie, once kind of drab and desolate like the desert of its Arizona landscape, is now suddenly exploding with colorful brand name products as well as cigarettes. Were the Coens carefully trying to mingle in the appearance of John Goodman’s cigarette here by essentially book-ending the scene with other more colorful, innocent, and recognizable brand-name products like the Coca-Cola and Kelloggs Corn Flakes? Either way, the Coens were able to insert about 20 subtle incidents of tobacco into a scene that only lasts around two minutes.

I should also mention here that the hilarious John Goodman (while playing an escape convict in the movie) quickly went on to become one of the country’s most beloved television dads of all times on the popular sitcom Roseanne. My family grew up watching not only Roseanne but also Raising Arizona for that matter. The movie Raising Arizona also contributed to a long tradition in my family of quoting funny movie lines. John Goodman appears in at least six of the Coen brothers’ films so I’m guessing they kind of adore him too.

But imagine my horrors… A film like Raising Arizona (1987) is a good example because it is a family movie I distinctly remember watching and enjoying as a child and now I watch it with totally different filters, so to speak. Raising Arizona was the film that first introduced me to the Coen brothers, albeit long before they were a household name. But I definitely remember my family laughing at the characters and the dialogue and always wanting to watch the film whenever it came on. Yes the kids have seen the movie a dozen times, so what is once more gonna hurt? Plenty.

* * *

Let’s look at another extremely subtle scene, this time from the Coens’ Academy Award winner for best picture, No Country for Old Men (2007). This time, pay attention to the first three bolded lines…

* 75:07 OTS Woody Harrelson holds up some flowers whilst talking to Josh Brolin in a hospital bed.
* 75:12 OTS Woody Harrelson holds up some flowers whilst talking to Josh Brolin in a hospital bed.
68 75:35 OTS Woody Harrelson lowers the flowers & a white porcelain ashtray is revealed on the table beside Josh Brolin.
69 75:41 OTS Same white porcelain ashtray is visible on the table beside Josh Brolin.
* 75:52 OTS Woody Harrelson holds the flowers a back up and the ashtray is again concealed. Ha!
70 76:00 MD Same white porcelain ashtray is visible on the table beside Josh Brolin.
71 76:03 MD Same white porcelain ashtray is visible on the table beside Josh Brolin.
72 76:07 MD Same white porcelain ashtray is visible on the table beside Josh Brolin.
73 76:14 OTS Same white porcelain ashtray is partially visible behind Woody Harrelson.
74 76:18 OTS Same white porcelain ashtray is partially visible behind Woody Harrelson.
75 76:37 MD Same white porcelain ashtray is clearly visible on the table beside Josh Brolin.
76 77:26 ES Same white porcelain ashtray is visible on the table beside Josh Brolin.
77 78:02 MD Same white porcelain ashtray is visible on the table beside Josh Brolin.

In this scene that lasts around three minutes, actor Josh Brolin lays in a hospital bed with actor Woody Harrelson sitting in a chair nearby. As you can see, Woody is casually holding up some flowers however Woody soon lets his flowers droop to reveal a white ashtray on the table beside Josh Brolin. It’s astonishing but in the film Woody’s flowers droop so slowly that you would likely never even notice the ashtray that suddenly happens to appear in the background. Also, since the Coens placed the reveal of the ashtray on the third identical shot of Woody, your mushy brain will especially never notice something so subtle happening inside the frame unless you are specifically looking for those items like I was. It really does appear as a big coincidence at the surface when items like this come into view, especially in this subtle way.

Yes, an angelic white ashtray at a hospital bedside. Did I mention that this was a hospital in Mexico that apparently allows patients to smoke in bed? Oh yeah, duh! Immaculate white ashtrays at each and every bedside — this must be some kind of Coen brothers’ fantasy dream world indeed. By the way, no ashtray is present on the bedside table or even mentioned in the original book No Country for Old Men, just in case you were wondering. Every time the Coens go to create settings like this out of thin air, there’s usually an awful lot of cigarettes & ahstrays present within these stunning visions.

You can say that moments like this subtle reveal of the ashtray are just a coincidence, but the fact is that the Coen brothers — like most directors with complete creative control — either select or approve each and every item on set and ultimately choose each and every take in the editing room. With alot of moments like this, I had watched some of these movies several times but I only truly started noticing the tobacco-related objects when I was actually on a mission to hunt for them specifically. I mean, how often do we as viewers really notice or think about every little item in the background of a movie such as a tiny ashtray or a background extra blowing out a puff of cigarette smoke? For my study of the Coen brothers’ use of tobacco, I really had to dig in because Joel & Ethan are so crafty and there really is so much going on at every level.

At one point, I remembered a few Coen brothers’ movies that didn’t contain any smoking whatsoever. I seriously couldn’t remember anyone smoking in movies like O’ Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) or Intolerable Cruelty (2003). However I also thought that maybe the Coens releasing a few movies completely free of smoking might be just another one of their smokescreens… You know, to throw us off the scent, so to speak; to make the overall goal of embedding tobacco into feature films a little less obvious. It doesn’t really matter one way or another though. Upon closer viewing of all 17 films by the Coen brothers, one can easily find a blatant use of tobacco in each and every single one, including the two that I remembered being tobacco-free. That’s 17 feature films and not once did the Coen brothers leave tobacco out of the story. In some movies, the Coen brothers even gave tobacco the role of a lifetime.

Another thing I found interesting and extremely peculiar during my year long study is that, much like tobacco products, every single one of the Coen brothers’ 17 feature films shows the consumption of alcohol in one form or another. Sometimes alcohol appears in branded forms like Budweiser cans or Miller Lite beer bottles, but many times it is not branded such as the beautiful & classy caramel colored liquor drinks served in crystal glasses. But one thing is always certain, again much like tobacco’s airtime, the alcoholic beverages are always depicted so glamorously by the Coen brothers. Similar to my focus on tobacco, I could easily go into a helluva lot more detail about the alcohol and the related messages aimed at young viewers which are integrated into the Coen brothers’ movies, but I won’t. I usually only mention alcohol as a reference for branded product placements. Overall, I’m sure you can probably imagine why tobacco use being depicted in film is so much more serious than alcohol being depicted in popular film. Personally, I believe the paramount reason for that is because, as experts have stated: tobacco is harmful even when used correctly. [need citation]

In reality, the critically-acclaimed movies which are written, directed, and also edited by the Coen brothers themselves really do seem to consistently and warmly depict our favorite celebrity actors unflenchingly using tobacco products. Above all, the Coens don’t just use items like cigarettes as subtle character traits or simple background texture as it truly might appear at the surface. As what I call “unrivaled masters of movie psychology and brand integration” the Coen brothers are somehow able to subtly weave tobacco products into actual storylines or insert them at such crafty sub-atomic levels of film language that they are ultimately able to deliver new levels of meaning and unprecedented focus to these harmful objects.

The strict attention given to tobacco use inside the Coen brothers’ films combined with the different unsettling plots had helped lead me to the ghastly conclusion of some larger deal with Big Tobacco. It’s like there’s some hidden agenda in Hollywood where filmmakers such as the Coen brothers consistently blur the line between entertainment such as comedy and blatant tobacco use so often that our mushy human brains can no longer separate natural tobacco use from what seems to be paid product placement, nor would it matter if we could. When it comes to tobacco, an impression is an impression and one need not be a willing participant to receive a lasting visual or emotional impression.

/?\ What is a tobacco impression?
A tobacco impression is defined as one individual person viewing a single tobacco incident. Tobacco impressions are calculated by taking the precise number of tobacco incidents in any given film and multiplying that by the number of movie theater tickets sold. Obviously, the films of the Coen brothers have generated millions upon billions of tobacco impressions worldwide. Also, impressions are strictly taken from box office totals and do not account for the additional views which are infinitely generated after the theater such as video rentals, dvd or blu-ray disc sales, playing on television, film festivals, etc.

These “innocent” films by the Coen brothers are in fact being viewed by billions and billions of people around the world. I know it’s all done under the guise of entertainment, but in reality these movies might be doing more harm than good. Ultimately, the influence of tobacco marketing toward teenagers and young adults is somewhat impossible to gauge, but one anti-tobacco group publishes some interesting figures about the Coen brothers that might astound you…

Intolerable Cruelty (2003) 29,101,320  
The Ladykillers (2004) 671,123,145  
No Country for Old Men (2007) 32,386,704  
Burn After Reading (2008) 226,901,115  
A Serious Man (2009) 25,733,463  
True Grit (2010) 1,847,332,408 <-- THAT'S NEARLY
Inside Llewyn Davis (2014) 255,958,420  
Hail Caesar! (2015) 861,435,912  

According to the last 8 Coen brothers’ movies reached a combined total of 3,949,972,487 viewer impressions. That’s almost 4 BILLION TOBACCO IMPRESSIONS — that is millions and millions of eyes witnessing all the lovely tobacco products in just the last 8 Coen brothers’ films alone. Astonishing, isn’t it? Throw a few other blockbuster movies which the Coen bros co-wrote like Unbroken (2014) and Bridge of Spies (2015) into the mix and you can add another 2 BILLION TOBACCO IMPRESSIONS to that figure. Above all, these tobacco impressions are calculated by taking the number of individual tobacco incidents in a film and multiplying it by the number of tickets sold in the movie’s initial theater run — essentially one person watching one tobacco incident equals one tobacco impression. Also, these impressions do not even take into account the millions of additional viewers that see the film later on DVD or on television.

Whether you believe my theory or not, whether anything I’ve said in this book is true or not… The ultra-successful careers of the Coen brothers has ultimately led to billions upon billions of tobacco impressions worldwide. That is a fact. Billions of impressions worldwide. Billions. With a big fat B. Come on now, you know it’s hard to argue with raw data. Generating almost four billion tobacco impressions worldwide in just twelve years… Seriously, I can’t be the only person that has noticed how the Coen brothers might have a real instinct and inane talent for delicately weaving tobacco products into their marvelous motion pictures. So what do you think? Are you able to look beyond the so called texture of a film to see what’s really going on?

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