(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2009)
I didn’t like the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men even half as much as the consensus view. The Coens’ assurance showed in choice after choice no other director would make, but much of the film seemed to me either sleazy or affected. After which I wrote here: “I’ve been in this place with the Coens before. I’ve seen all the movies, but I’m not sure I’ve seen any of them more than once (maybe Fargo, but I don’t think the repeat investment paid off) and I’m straining to cite one truly interesting or provocative thing I ever learned from any of them. I guess maybe I learned a bit about how people talk in Minnesota, so that’s something.”
Burn after Reading
That’s what I wrote last time, and it’s true enough, but maybe I should be a little more temperate and underline the fact that I’ve seen all the movies; I’m sure that to have skipped any of them would have seemed like a dereliction of a cinemaniac’s duty. Their work has a creative zest that puts most other directors to shame, and given their productivity and variety, they surely know how lucky they are (even if they only grudgingly acknowledge it in Oscar acceptance speeches). But I always feel distanced from their films, as you might from someone who has the fullest social calendar around, but goes home to a bare and lonely apartment. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I find myself more appreciative of the hedgehog directors who really know what they know, even if that’s a smaller and much more repetitive knowledge, and even if you strain to vaguely evoke what it actually consists of (I find I especially appreciate them if they’re French). The Coens are the kings of the strutting foxes, masters at stealing chickens, but when are they at peace?
Anyway, their subsequent film, Burn after Reading, was inherently less ambitious than No Country for Old Men, but I actually liked it quite a bit more, as an increasingly intriguing statement on degraded human standards and self-worth, with Washington – perhaps the least clear-headed micro-society in the developed world (see also the recent In the Loop) – providing a coldly resonant setting. The Coens pepper it with subtleties you don’t expect from their lighter projects: for example, it’s frequently unclear whether a particular shot represents someone’s actual point of view, a subtlety that supports a broad theme of surveillance and chronic insecurity, wrapped up by the way the movie tells us rather than shows us how everything ends, and disclaims any knowledge of what lessons we should learn from it. By being both peppy and meaningful, the film only seemed to underline my doubts at its predecessor’s portentousness.
A Serious Man
Their new release, A Serious Man, is perhaps the year’s most divisive (leaving aside Transformers 2, where the divide existed between the critics on one side and the mass public on the other). Ella Taylor in The Village Voice says “the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews (even the movie's obligatory anti-Semite looks handsome by comparison) carries (the film) into the realm of the truly vicious...I worry…about what ancient anxieties lie behind the endorsement of a movie that dumps on Jews and Judaism with such ferocity.” Armond White in The New York Press, apparently in direct response, says any “critic’s suggestion that a film as lovingly, emotionally precise as A Serious Man typifies Jewish self-hatred is ridiculous.” He says the film “(embraces) ethnic superstition and (critiques) it simultaneously,” finding it “so sharp-witted that every irony makes life vivid rather than despairing.” Picking up on this, Jim Emerson on the Scanners website calls the film “a relentless inquiry into how we think we know what we think we know, and then asks where the knowing (or not knowing) gets us.”
It’s the tale of Gopnik, a mid-western suburban math professor in the late 60’s, Jewish (I guess you got that already), up for tenure, with perhaps no more than conventional anxieties. This rapidly unwinds – his wife leaves him for another man, his finances unravel, his professional ambitions become questionable, and even minor plagues (like the man at the mail-order record company, constantly calling to demand payment for a service Gopnik didn’t order and doesn’t want) suggest some cosmic turn of fortune. The community’s elders offer little help: one rabbi offers platitudes; the second refuses to see meaning in anything, even his own proffered anecdote about a man with “Help me save me” engraved on the inside of his teeth; the third won’t see him; his lawyer just racks up the bills. The ending may be a confirmation of Gopnik’s fears, or a mockery of them, or may of course mean nothing at all. The latter seems most likely to me, in that the movie seems to mock – albeit not as unkindly as some might have perceived – the very notion of grand institutionalized meaning. Although its focus is on the Jewish community, it’s also a cousin to Mad Men and other examinations of misplaced post-war notions of progress and conformity.
The movie is full of incidental pleasures, not least of all from the acting, and yet when I came out of it, the word that came to my mind was “cartoonish”. Again, every scene’s busy plucking feathers. The previous day, as a random comparison, I’d watched Philippe Garrel’s Night Wind, a sparse drama with only around 1/20th the action of A Serious Man and about 1/10th of the dialogue, yet with a persistent sense of existential dread. At the end of it, my thoughts were racing; I felt I’d picked up something truly new and provocative and instructive. I don’t recall whether anyone in the film ever mentions God, but it’s as if the world only had a limited supply of human viability and too many walking shells, and everyone casts around trying to make it reconcile, through sex or drugs or intellectualism or immersion in one’s strenuously iconic despair. The student movement of 1968 – a key defining moment for Garrel – is a constant reference point, perhaps as the last best hope of a meaningful rebooting. It’s an aesthetic creation of course, but beautiful and profound in its desolation.
In large part it’s because Garrel’s lived and suffered and wouldn’t think of making a movie that didn’t draw on that. I suppose the Coens have suffered (the new movie might suggest they didn’t think much of their teenage milieu anyway), but you can’t really feel it even in their tougher-minded works. But then they don’t ever communicate much joy either. Sometimes they seem to know the workings of almost everything, but not the value of it.