Tag Archives: Ethan Coen

A Serious Man (2009)

A Serious Man, the Coen brothers exploration of their Jewish roots, opens in a snow covered shtetl in Eastern Europe. An unnamed man returns to his wife and tells her that an old acquaintance named Traitle Groshkover helped him get home through the blizzard. He’s invited him in for some soup. The wife is horrified. Traitle Groshkover has been dead for three years. The man her husband invited over for soup is a ghost, a dybbuk, and to invite a dybbuk inside their house would be to curse their family for many generations.

The screen goes dark. We hear music, Somebody to Love by the Jefferson Airplane. We find ourselves in Bloomington Minnesota in 1967. Lawrence Gopnik, a mathematics professor lives in a sterile, dreary middle-class suburban neighborhood with his wife, his teenage daughter, and his 13-year-old son. I was alive in the 1960s, but they were before my time. I came to consciousness in the 1970s. When I see a film like American Hustle, I immediately think of my childhood, but my images of the 1960s are largely second hand, film, documentary, and magazine retrospectives. I tend, therefore, to have a romanticized view of the whole decade. The 1960s, as portrayed in A Serious Man, are probably more true to life. Most Americans lived in sterile, dreary suburbs like the Coen brothers’ Bloomington. Woodstock was a far off romantic ideal.

In A Serious Man, the 1960s are there, but they hover around the margins. There are TV shows, a son who smokes too much marijuana, a sexy neighbor who talks about “the new freedoms,” a rabbi who solemnly intones Jefferson Airplane lyrics to a Bar Mitzvah boy, but not much real history. A serious man takes place in 1967, but it never mentions the Arab Israeli war or the recapture of Jerusalem. The 1960s become instead a symbol of the larger American culture that threatens, or perhaps promises to undermine the identity of Eastern European Jews in the United States.

If the Coen brothers have a less than romantic view of the 1960s, they have a completely jaded view of American Jews. Indeed, the sterile, dreary suburban block where Lawrence Gopnik owns a house is re imagined as a continuation of the shtetl in the United States. The shtetl in A Serious Man is not not the sentimentalized shtetl of Fiddler on the Roof, but a corrupt, narrow minded, mean spirited little ghetto that, in some ways, justifies the charges that the Coen brothers are self-hating Jews and anti-Semites. The Coen brothers have made cynical movies before, but their characters in A Serious Man have a physical and moral ugliness they don’t have in The Big Lebowski or Inside Llewyn Davis. Nobody in A Serious Man is as cute as Cary Mulligan or as cool as Jeff Bridges. Indeed, the Jews of Bloomington Indiana are even more physically unattractive than the Jews of the film’s prelude’s shtetl. Jews, the Coen brothers seem to be saying, got even worse when they came to the United States.

Nevertheless, the hero, Lawrence Gopnik, while he may not be particularly heroic, is a sympathetic character. His, unattractive, wife is sleeping with a family friend. His daughter steals money from his wallet. His son is a pothead. A Korean student is blackmailing him into giving a passing grade. Arthur, his unemployable brother is sleeping on the couch. For Lawrence Gopnik, the only thing that could possibly be worse than his dreary suburban existence is losing his dreary suburban existence. That happens when his wife announces she wants a divorce. He moves into a motel. Then we find out he he might just lose his job. The tenure committee is getting disturbing reports about his “moral turpitude,” although we’re never quite sure where they’re coming from. It’s not the Korean student. Arthur is being investigated by the police for gambling.

For Arthur, a mathematics professor and, one would assume a rationalist, science provides no explanations about why his life seems to be falling apart. Neither does religion. One rabbi after another proves more useless than the one before. The Jewish community in A Serious Man, the Coen brothers hint, is corrupt, morally bankrupt, like Lawrence on the verge of destruction. Does it matter? Arthur gets his house and family back after his rival is killed in a car crash. But keeping the woman he’s married to seems as bad as losing her. He finds out he’ll probably get tenure. His son aces his Bar Mitzvah, even though he’s stoned through the whole thing, but, since he’s had to pay a lawyer 3000 dollars to keep his brother out of jail, he gives into the temptation to keep the bribe money the Korean student offered him. Not only has he lost his moral integrity, he’s set himself up to lose his job sometimes in the future.

In the last scene of A Serious Man, a huge tornado approaches the city. Lawrence’s doctor calls. He won’t tell him what the problem is, but it sounds menacing. Earlier he had gotten a chest X-ray. Could it be cancer. As the tornado bears down on the local Hebrew school, and an elderly rabbi can’t quite seem to figure out how to get the children into a shelter, we sense the approaching apocalypse. But what is it? Is it destruction? Or is it simply assimilation?

No Country for Old Men (2007)

This is the best film the Coens have made, mostly because of their choice of source material. Cormac McCarthy’s prose, with its starkly pared-down language and sharp reduction of scenes down to their components as philosophic juxtapositions, forces the Coens to focus themselves more than they have in their comedies. It lacks the usual dark humor and while watching one hardly misses it. They deal here with eternal forces, not broad satirical targets, and the result while far from perfect is refreshing.

In embracing their tendency to draw two dimensional archetypes instead of awkwardly trying to distract the viewers with jokes the Coens do away with much of the gratingly adolescent malaise and obsessive castration anxiety that mars so much of their other work. The performances are all excellent within the context of the film.  Javier Bardem comes across like a broad villain, but that’s because that’s what the script seems to call for. There is very little behavior in the film and lots of clipped allegorical dialogue; to give a performance in a realist mode would be to betray the forward thrust of the film, the question of free will.

The weaknesses and failures of the film bizarrely enough seem to stem back to McCarthy. McCarthy in an interview once said he only deals with “questions of life and death” and because of this had no understanding of writers like Henry James. This quality comes through very clearly in No Country; the possibility of truth or insight only seems possible when a character faces the inevitability of death in the most stark terms imaginable. As a dramatic conceit this is effective; it ratchets up tension and emotionally draws the audience in. As an epistemology that supposedly draws out “truth” from characters it’s sophmoric, overly hard-boiled, and creates all sorts of logistical problems. If the arrival of death actually brings out someone’s true philosophy, we then need to accept that Charles Darwin didn’t believe in evolution and that Guantanamo Bay is probably the most productive philosophical investigation going right now. These are both, of course, absurd propositions.

Chigurh as the embodiment of death is interesting mostly insofar as his pretense to randomness and chance is theatrical posturing.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Dave Van Ronk, folk revival legend and at least partial inspiration for the most recent Coen brothers film, used to come in to the book store I work at. His visits were frequent and fondly remembered. This was many years ago when Lena Spencer was still alive and running Caffe Lena, and if Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger, ever did claim a permanent address it was likely “Caffe Lena, Couch, c/o Lena Spencer.” The owner of the store remembers Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger a devout socialist, even if he never took it onstage with him, complaining “Those Leninists and the Trotskyites are still bitching at each other in the park all the time.”

Llewyn Davis however, never seems to take on any sort of political stance. Sure, he’s disdainful toward a fellow folk singer who happens to be in the National Guard, but the Coen’s can only come to an understanding of his disdain for the soldier as a sort of aesthetic disgust at the grotesque blandness of his person, the loud way he eats cereal and his dumb eyes, the dumb eyes of a wild animal wandering at the edges of the free way. The Coens, if they have a political side, have never adequately expressed it; my suspicion is that they haven’t one.

And besides, the connection to Van Ronk is tenuous at best, because in Llewyn Davis we have just another archetypal Coen cypher meant to wander about a shifting landscape of grotesques. One might as well call him Llewyn Davis-Fink-Lebowski. This is standard operating procedure in Coen brothers films, and if you like them as many people seem to, then you’ll love this. If like me, you aren’t especially impressed by a general hatred of everything redeemed only by a dry sense of humor and some indication of a specter of anxiety at being a failed artist, then you’ll likely be mildly entertained, mildly impressed at the same confident control of the medium they’ve always had, but walk away thinking “Ok, so what was the point?” Which is exactly what I did.

The film ends with a scene of meaningless repetition underscoring the meaningless repetition of the protagonist’s life; he’s trapped in a floating existence. In some circles this could pass for meaning something. The early 1960s folk revival, interesting for other reasons, mostly involving race politics and class privilege, is here merely a convenient backdrop and a set-piece to inspire subtle visual gags. A running one involving Davis taking care of two cats and carrying them around with him everywhere scores periodically, though it eventually becomes another way to underline the theme; though he’s killed one cat with his car, Davis, upon returning to New York after a failed sojourn to Chicago, encounters the first cat again. The folk cafe where he was playing in the beginning of the film takes him back after he fails to get work on a merchant marine. The cycle repeats finally shot for shot. We get it.

I will give the Coens credit for their location shooting; New York City looks like New York City, when people go from one place to another they do so in a time frame that makes sense given the distance between the two locations, and the characters have a relationship to each space that suggests they live in the city and are familiar with it. Perpetually broke people’s apartments are in buildings that look like they’re buildings where people would live if they were perpetually broke, and they pass the Don McKellar test-the couch is against the wall. Woody Allen would do well to take note of this.

Shout-out to earlier blog supporter and fan Yvonne Davenport! She gave us our first nudge to embark on this endeavor. All the best.