Behind the Smokescreen
Interestingly enough, the one question I have received the most while writing this piece is: “Do the Coen brothers actually smoke?” For a long time, I never knew the answer however I always figured that the Coen brothers probably had to smoke or they somehow grew up around smoking in a serious way since so much damn smoking is depicted in their films. I even specifically remember watching Joel & Ethan in interviews — like on the bonus features of DVDs — and not ever witnessing them smoking a cigarette on camera. I bet they probably made sure of that since directors are usually responsible for a DVD’s bonus features. Then again, you also don’t ever see photographs in magazines of the Coen brothers smoking either. Well, eventually I did find out. I finally found a book containing several interviews with the Coen brothers and I’ve pulled out a few of the interesting parts below…
I first spoke with them at length in their ground-floor office on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Joel, thirty-nine, slouched on the couch smoking Camel Lights while Ethan, thirty-six, paced in distracted loops and circles, chewing a toothpick.
Excerpt from an interview by Tad Friend, Vogue, April 1984
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During the interview, the Coens chain-smoked Camels out of the same pack, passing it back and forth across the glass tabletop in front of them.
Excerpt from an interview by Hal Hinson, Film Comment, March/April 1985
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When pressed for their attraction to the subject–babies, child-rearing, images of the family–the Coens squirm and smoke and do their best in the face of so irrelevant a question. We’re in a small Greek coffee shop near Joel’s Manhattan apartment, where, in less than half an hour, they have smoke three cigarettes apiece; the air in the room has grown so foggy that we seem to have drifted out to sea.
Excerpt from an interview by David Edelstein, American Film, April 1987
So then just because the Coen brothers themselves chain-smoke Camel brand cigarettes and insert hundreds, nay, thousands upon thousands of tobacco incidents into a career of brilliant films does that mean there really is a possibility that the Coens are employed as undercover tobacco lobbyists in order to market tobacco and ultimately disguise it as a personal passion? Probably. Did the Coen brothers really crawl out of the cellar of Big Tobacco HQ to create an extravagant hall of mirrors for movie audiences worldwide? Probably. You said it, I didn’t. I mean really… Is it so crazy to think that some clever marketing execs over at Big Tobacco might have the brains to develop a long term plan like bankrolling the cute & fuzzy Coen brothers in an attempt to portray tobacco in a warm & gentle light throughout their stellar careers? Wouldn’t that explain the over 1,100 tobacco incidents depicted in the Coen brothers’ last two movies alone? Probably.
“…Only a numbskull thinks he knows things about things he knows nothing about.”
The parroted phrase from The Hudsucker Proxy is indeed wise.
If you’re still not convinced, then maybe we should all dig a little deeper. In fact, you won’t just find tobacco products in the Coen brothers’ movies… The published works by Joel & Ethan Coen contain dozens of tobacco incidents as well. For example, Ethan Coen’s book “Almost an Evening,” which is essentially a book of three short plays, even gives a nod to tobacco on the first page of the very first play…
WAITING A drab waiting room. Mr. Nelson, in a suit, sits waiting. A high counter separates him from a receptionist who sits with her back to us. She types. And types. Mr. Nelson clears his throat. He glances at his watch. He looks around, reaches into his jacket. Without looking up from her typing (nor will she ever): RECEPTIONIST: No smoking. Nelson's hand freezes, then slowly emerges from his jacket, empty. He looks around. He looks at his watch. He glances down at the side table next to him, picks up the two magazines displayed there, looks from one to the other. NELSON: Are there any other magazines? RECEPTIONIST: No.
Ultimately Ethan’s play is about a man who discovers that hell is actually spending hundreds, nay, thousands of years in the same boring waiting room where there’s bad magazines and you can’t smoke. Not being able to smoke might be a true hell for the Coen brothers. I’m guessing ‘Little E’ wrote this story in — wait for it — a waiting room of all places. Perhaps it was a respiratory doctor’s appointment waiting room… Ouch! Honestly I couldn’t believe that it was only page one of this tiny tiny book called “Almost an Evening” and I’m already thinking, okay here we go again… Prepare to open the floodgates on tobacco yet again. Even Ethan Coen’s other book entitled “Gates of Eden” at one point mentions a cigar six times on a single page during the first story.
Similarly, Joel Coen’s small book of poetry entitled The Drunken Driver has the Right of Way (2001) actually touches on fascinating subjects like advanced gum disease and snifters & cigars. Mind blowing. If you’re looking close enough, the Coen brothers are never really being shy about their love for tobacco and obviously they are extremely resourceful when it comes to embedding tobacco into the limited spaces they have.
I also find it fascinating that the Coen brothers have more recently been lending a hand on other top-tier Hollywood screenplays such as Unbroken (2014) and Bridge of Spies (2015), both based on true stories and “script-doctored” by the ever-profficient Coen brothers. But guess what… Unrboken (2014) featured several actors smoking cigarettes which were all likely drowned out by the physical abuse portrayed in the film.
Bridge of Spies (2015) ultimately featured Tom Hanks in a starring role beside a bunch of cigarettes, so was the Coens’ job simply to work out story problems on these two projects or to pump up the scripts with subtle incidents of smoking? Everyone knows the Coen brothers are the absolute masters, but the masters of what exactly? Well… Selling tickets, for one. Anything they lend their name to now is definitely triggered to explode with viewer traffic and dollar signs. According to SceneSmoking.org, the tobacco use depicted within the film Bridge of Spies (2015) was related to wealth & power, being cool or unique, as an addiction, as a form of rebellion, and for relieving tension & stress. [ Citation ]
From what I have seen and read about the Coen brothers, it seems that they are terribly terribly smart and are both serious connoisseurs of books & movies of all kinds; so it is also likely that they have personally read, watched, or at least heard of every trope and story device ever used. The more I learn about these guys, the more it seems that Joel & Ethan were both smarter than any professors they ever had. The world really was their oyster. But would the Coens’ amazing talent for character design have made the same actors into living legends without the characters existing on a diet full of cigarettes? Probably. Could the Coen brothers have risen to the same galactic superstar heights without the help of tobacco? Probably.
“Who the fuck are you, man?” The Dude cries out.
Who the fuck am I? I don’t work in Hollywood, I just I watch alot more movie-flicks than your average citizen. I’m also at movie theaters more than anyone I know and probably watching more DVDs than anyone on the planet. In addition, I know a little about what goes into creating a film as I’ve been studying filmmaking for years hence the deep deep scrutinizing over the Coen brothers’ movies. That and I guess my father was a journalism professor & my mother was a nurse… So here I am in the middle simply writing about tobacco in media. The amazing thing is that awhile back even I once wrote a cigar gag into my own screenplay attempt as a comedic device, albeit long before writing this book and before questioning my own morals about tobacco use onscreen. Without even thinking twice I had inserted several tobacco incidents in order to communicate a feeling within the scenes of my own screenplay. After completing this book then looking back on my own subtle use of cigars, I realized that tobacco has become so engrained in our culture that it is nearly impossible to avoid. I know that anything I say here will probably be just “a fart in a stiff wind.”
So why did I even bother? For far too long, I have watched some of my best friends in the entire world smoking cigarettes for no reason and no benefit whatsoever to their health, social life, state of mind, emotion, or any other reason. One way or another these lifelong smokers are undoubtedly hooked — spending thousands of dollars, thousands of wasted moments, and thousands of healthy cells — simply powerless to break free from the overwhelming spell of nicotine over an entire lifetime. And smoking isn’t doing the ones around them any favors either. I’ve seen close friends, neighbors, and even relatives develop ongoing health problems and ultimately pass away after battling for years. People always argue that each individual makes their own decision to smoke cigarettes, but there was no more argument for me after I began to read about all of the additives in cigarettes that tobacco companies use in an effort to keep smokers addicted.
I guess when I finally noticed that one particular still image from the menu screen of the Coen brothers’ DVD for Inside Llewyn Davis — a folksinger with his guitar, classic microphone, and a lit cigarette in his mouth — well at that moment I think I had just about had enough. Some inextinguishable spark was suddenly ignited which had been brewing for my entire lifetime. Like everyone else, I had been subjected to different forms of tobacco ads my whole life… but that one image was the epitome of all my confusion surrounding the movies of the Coen brothers and all of my hatred for tobacco had suddenly exploded in my face; shattering a glass ceiling on over 30 years of lies. To think that some of my favorite films in the world were only around to advertise tobacco to viewers like me is something that I just can’t get off my hard drive… Something I just can’t overlook anymore.