Can’t Start a Fire Without a Spark

Now, I fucking love me some Coen brothers. Like many others, I have been a huge fan of their films over the last few decades. I’ve been to two of the Lebowski Festivals. I have even seen some of the Coen brothers’ films so many times that it seems like they have been absorbed into my skin. I also own many of the Coen brother flicks on disc because, as many viewers know, it often takes several repeat viewings to fully understand the humor and the depth involved in each movie.

Much like the cryptic films by the legendary director Stanley Kubrick, a person could spend alot of time trying to decipher a Coen brothers’ movie too. Whether that time would be wasted or not, well… who’s to say? As the Coen brothers have basically said in interviews: “Maybe don’t overthink it.” [citation needed from Barton Fink dvd bonus features]

In reality, it was actually one of the more recent Coen brothers’ films which helped to cause the first spark of the tobacco agenda in my brain, so to speak. When I purchased the blu-ray disc for Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and arrived at the menu screen, I was treated to a large still image of the film’s star (played by actor Oscar Isaak) with his acoustic guitar and poised in front of a classic silver microphone and one more unforgettable item… A lit cigarette in his mouth & smoke billowing up nicely over a dark background.

Inside Llewyn Davis DVD Menu

Ultimately it was this single solitary image (combined with my years of admiration and study of the Coen brothers’ films) that suddenly and unexpectedly helped to cause the massive explosion of thought and speculation of the tobacco agenda in my brain. You know, that crazy Big Tobacco theory that I was talking about earlier.

Anyways, that one image from the menu screen suddenly sparked something that had been slowly building up in my mind for years. Beyond simply realizing that the films by the Coen brothers contained lots of tobacco, what I had actually envisioned during that singular glowing epiphany was an enormous structure — an entire agenda, if you will — for the Coen brothers’ careers all layed out like a big long illustrated scroll. In that one moment, I could clearly see everything… From their humble beginning at Big Tobacco Headquarters all the way up to this very moment of worldwide domination, I was suddenly and deeply comprehending a distinct possibility for the Coen brothers’ meteoric career. Essentially, a labyrinthine structure built out of celluloid, cigarettes, and deception was benevolently constructed in my otherwise feeble mind.

As I mentioned earlier, it was like breaking a code that instantly made each confusing Coen brothers’ film suddenly make sense. Like a key scene in a suspenseful movie, all of the puzzle pieces had suddenly fit neatly into place and formed a horrifying picture in my brain.

In a strange and unexpected way, I saw very clearly how Joel or Ethan were suddenly given an offer they couldn’t refuse. In a tobacco industry boardroom somewhere, the topic of making movies (in order to control the massive amounts of smoking being depicted) probably came up in a serious discussion one day, to which one of the executives thought about hiring a film director that was totally down with the agenda. Next day, the word was out to find a talented yet sympathetic filmmaker who would carry out the long term plan to glamorize cigarettes like never before. At least, that’s how it all went down in my head.


Joel Coen & filmmaker pal Sam Raimi had a brief cameo playing armed guards in the film Spies Like Us (1985). I’m sure their early movie connections made through Raimi’s cult film The Evil Dead (1981) landed them the role, but it is extremely interesting to me that Coen & Raimi chose to appear in a movie about two goofballs pretending to be high level secret agents.

But then, it probably wasn’t a tobacco company boardroom at all, maybe it was a Hollywood movie studio office instead… Something similar to the one decpicted in Barton Fink (1991). Maybe the Coen brothers were simply recruited as talented filmmakers right from the start. Perhaps Big Tobacco was simply searching for eager young filmmakers to work on a secret long-term project. One way or another, I’m guessing Big Tobacco & Hollywood are always on the hunt for talented yet sympathetic filmmakers who can assist with their ongoing advertising dilemmas. If Joel & Ethan volunteered or were in fact recruited by Big Tobacco, some rich tobacco fat cats probably saw their way to speeding them right to the front of the line as being notable directors in Hollywood with complete creative control over their own motion pictures. After all, them Coen boys probably possessed that certain spark which would appeal to a mass audience. It’s obvious after watching their first film Blood Simple (1984) that they were extremely talented from the start.

With the far reaching interests of the tobacco corporations in mind, a secret long-term plan was likely concocted to fund a series of films written and directed exclusively by the eccentric Coen brothers as a new way of cleverly embedding cigarettes into mainstream movies with the overreaching goal of also building lifelong careers as respectable auteurs in Hollywood. You know, making so called independent, artistic films and shit. World renowned and shit. Anyways, to me it was the ultimate double-cross… One giant conspiracy. And shit. But then, I think this kind of stuff has been going on in Hollywood for awhile now. In some ways, I guess what I’m really talking about here is how Hollywood and Big Tobacco are sort of BFFF (Best Fucking Friends Forever). [citation]

Heck I still don’t know for sure, maybe there is another even stranger explanation altogether for the Coens’ fascination with tobacco… Maybe the Coen brothers’ family was from old east coast tobacco money and Joel & Ethan just wanted to help keep the family business alive. Perhaps they found new identities in snowy Minnesota to start their film careers.

Or maybe these guys really do just love old Hollywood cinema so much they just wanted to perpetuate all of the glamour that has surrounded smoking onscreen over the years. It has been said that cigarettes and cigars are a kind of timeless prop for actors in movies.

Or maybe it is as simple as direct product placement deals between tobacco companies and filmmakers, you know, to pay the bills. Perhaps the Coen brothers insert strictly the appropriate number of tobacco incidents in order to fund the exact cost of the movie production and nothing more. In the movies that don’t contain as much tobacco, other brand name products do appear so this particular theory does make sense. But more often than not, the Coen brothers seem to be leaning toward tobacco to pay the bills. Either way, does that make showing the hundreds of unnecessary tobacco incidents during their movies okay? It sure as hell doesn’t explain the careful and creative ways that tobacco products are depicted within their films… Most are seen in such sexy ways, hell even I probably wanted to start smoking and didn’t even understand why.

One way or another, all 17 films by the Coen brothers seem to take on a whole new meaning when you isolate and focus only on the tobacco products. In some ways, it is undeniable that tobacco has remained the primary focus of the Coen brothers after all these years.

One majorly subtle but recurring theme within the Coen brothers 17 films is that thing about paying for sins, making a deal with the devil, searching for redemption, etc. Some of the Coens’ movie themes seem to echo a dark deal with the devil, maybe similar to one that the Coen brothers had once agreed to. It goes along with my big wacky Big Tobacky theory anyway. While watching the Coens’ films themselves you do get some strange notions — listening to the music and dialog from the hugely popular O’ Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) or the recent Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) especially — but it’s hard to nail down what the real messages are sometimes.

The birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
In the big rock candy mountain

[some song lyrics heard in O’ Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) ]

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