Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Serious Man

During my formative film-watching years, the Coen Brothers loomed high. Films like Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Big Lebowski struck me as idiosyncratic, personal visions. These were the kind of movies that led me to understand how the film image was not simply a transparent vehicle for comforting narrative information and identification with heroic protagonists, but a shaping of perspective, moral, emotional, aesthetic, and otherwise. Ultimately, I think these movies don't really deserve that much credit: they, alongside many others, inspired me to pick up Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, but they ultimately don't hold up when seen in the light of the sharpest concepts of those critics. Whatever their achievement as filmmakers, looking back, I think I just liked the Coens at that age because they made me feel smart. Before words and phrases like mise-en-scène and diegesis entered my vocabulary, before I really knew how to burrow into films, the Coens intellectualized the surface (and it was all surface, then) of my film-going experience through their quasi-cerebral attitude. And this was easy enough (and, in retrospect, not really intellectual at all), because nearly every character they filmed was a priori inferior to them, thus making their "vision" (really not a matter of  mise-en-scène, but just a product of their insufferable God complex) the only thing left to appreciate after we were through laughing at the poor saps played by Frances McDormand, Tim Robbins, and Jeff Bridges, affable performers who looked like they were having an awful lot of fun playing morons. But when I did start to think through films as something more than illustrated picture-books, the "vision" of the Coen Brothers began to look more like that of de-robed Emperors than canon-worthy film-makers. 

The notion that the Coens condescend to the figures they deign to film has become a key theme in their critical reception. I've often argued against this, and a part of my heart still really likes what the Coens do. And I still certainly "feel smart" as I leave their films these days. But now I think the criticism is mostly deserved. There's nothing, I should point out, inherently wrong for a filmmaker to assume a position of superiority (moral, intellectual, or otherwise) to his or her fictional creations: after all, Alfred Hitchcock created suspense by dangling his movie people over one terrifying chasm after another (sometimes without even being so kind as letting them know that was a chasm below them) - that's a whole career's worth of terrific movies created out of more-or-less utter disdain for the human figures in his films. Unlike Hitchcock, the Coens do not use their epistemological vantage point to generate suspense or mood. (The great exceptions to this are tight - and very suspenseful - genre films like Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men - although I'll take the modest aims of the former over the empty-headed politics of the latter any day of the week). But at their best, I still think the Coens gesture towards something greater than what they've given us so far - maybe even greater than anything Hitchcock ever gave us, because at the heart of what the Coens are doing is a fascinating exploration of human desperation and its social contexts, rather than just playing-the-audience-like-a-piano theatrics.  I no longer think Fargo is a great film, but I do think a truly empathetic, even human, connection is established to the character of Marge Gunderson (McDormand), even as Joel and Ethan snub their nose at her quaint Midwestern environs. "Kafkaesque" might describe it, given that hell for the Coens is not found in Marge herself, but in the awful, absurd, barely articulable world around her; the point of the film seems to be that a person like Marge possesses a moral capacity that cannot be reasonably articulated in the milieu in which she lives. In retrospect, she's worthy of the badge she wears, but the badge isn't worthy of her; but she may never know this unless she can get the hell out of Dodge (or Minnesota).

The 2009 release A Serious Man sets up a similar situation, surrounding an apparently admirable character with an environment that seems hardly worthy of him. Larry Gopnik (played as broadly as any Coen performer, but still impressively, by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor of Physics, a father and husband, and a proud suburbanite. But as the film repeatedly makes clear - by compositionally trapping him in his classroom, his university office, his suburban home, his rabbi's waiting room - he's trapped in an amoral world he never made. Gopnik, by all appearances, follows the rules: he steadfastly refuses to puff up the grade of an obstinate and thick-headed undergraduate (a sign of his principles); he gives his ailing brother Arthur (Richard Kind, given less room to make funny than he has managed in a few appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm) a place to stay and food to eat (a sign of his unwavering devotion to family, also evinced in his tolerable behavior with his intolerable children); and continues to defend his completely unsympathetic wife Judi (Sari Lennick) even after it becomes clear she's sleeping around on him. In other words, what the Coens are showing us is a moral deck of cards come crashing down, as everything around Larry - marriage (his wife requests a divorce), family (those intolerable kids), job (he may not get tenure) - collapses on a head that's tried to do everything right.

There are signs in A Serious Man that the Coens have philosophical pretensions; they mostly involve a head-first collision between the rational (Larry's mathematical equations are a universe in which right and wrong have no gray area to intervene in their polarity) and the non-rational (a realm the Coens are comfortable in simply labeling "the mysterious," and, in perhaps the most queasy political gesture in their entire oeuvre, this world of mystery is mostly inhabited by women and South Koreans). Like the novels of Philip Roth, which occasionally tap into a similar theme from within a mid-20th century, middle-American Jewish universe, the Coens create reasonably authentic social surroundings for Larry: the dicey conflicts with goys (Larry's neighbor, a gruff racist who looks like he's just wandered in from hunting in Appalachia, and regards both Larry and the Korean father of one of his students with suspicion); the trio of meetings with rabbis (who offer mostly useless advice, used by the Coens as means to show us how institutionally-appointed moral authorities tend only to open yet more existential and spiritual confusion); and overhead shots of a suburbia ordered not by moral but by anal-retentive housing codes and emptily bourgeois desires for privacy.

To their credit, the Coens don't play Larry's plight for laughs - at least not entirely. His anguish is real and genuine. For the most part, I liked A Serious Man because we can feel for this character. When Larry discovers that his son has run up a bill for a Columbia House record club, his disbelief and anger are palpable (how much more shit can fall on this guy's head, and how absolutely accurate are the Coens in their condemnation for those Columbia House record scams, anyway?) And the film-makers have finally found a valid context for their endless reams of condescension: Larry's snotty, hump-backed daughter is snotty and hump-backed not because the Coens woke up and felt like misanthropically dumping on awkward teenage girls that day, but because she's completely alienated from Larry's view of his own life - when he realizes that the reason he never sent her to Hebrew school was because she seemed to enjoy spending more time "doing her hair," it's a spiritual and familial revelation that quietly threatens to bring Larry's life crashing down every bit as much as his divorce and potential denial of tenure. (This is my favorite moment in Stuhlbarg's performance). I'm also happy that the Coens have moved away from the empty-headed violence and mystifying politics of No Country for Old Men towards something with a more recognizably human context.

But in the end, I can't hang with where the film's moral perspective (that very thing film-makers like the Coens once led me to realize that the movies could have) ultimately leaves us. I won't reveal too much here (although you should really see the movies before reading anything here, because I will give endings away with no compunction whatever), but suffice to say that Joel and Ethan do not re-affirm the existence of God, and that all the third rabbi has to tell (this time to Larry's son) is that once you realize life is meaningless, well, that's when the real questions begin. In and of itself, this is a perfectly valid worldview through which to filter a story of a mild-mannered Jewish physics professor's mid-life crisis, and in some very concrete ways I found Stuhlbarg's performance very moving (his facial tics, repeated throughout the film, are not a sign that this is a character we should simply laugh at, but a very real expression of muffled desire that we feel for, and the Coens and their lead man capture it beautifully). And the final image is as sublime as anything I've seen in recent American movies.

Unfortunately, this isn't a clearly articulated atheist worldview: it's empty pothead morality. A scene late in the movie sums this up as clearly as any I can think of. Larry's son has just successfully finished his mitzvah, an accomplishment several members of the community remind Larry of in congratulations. By all accounts, it's a marvelous success, and it's even suggested it's just the thing needed to reunite Larry with his wife and kids. (That the movie has given us no reason to believe that a reunion with them is a good thing is, by now, besides the point). But the scene, for the most part, isn't shot from Larry's perspective. Instead, we see it through the eyes of his son, who's just toked up in the boys' bathroom prior to the ceremony. By throwing stuff out of focus and amplifying minor aural details in the background - as "visionary" as any sequence in this rather plainly but efficiently directed movie gets - the Coens clue us into the fact that he's really stoned, dude. And it works - it's a hilarious scene. But it's also terrifying, and not in any intended way, because it reminds us that, in the place of everything they've spent a career snubbing their noses at, all the Coens leave in its place is a fat joint and a pair of headphones blasting Jefferson Airplane. (Remember that God complex I suspected the Coens of having? Maybe it's just that deep down inside all lifelong stoners are closeted authoritarians). And as much as indulging in the pothead charms of The Big Lebowski again and again is always a great way to spend a lazy Saturday night with friends, I suspect I'm going to need some other kind of existential and philosophical comfort when I head into my own midlife crisis. At least the Coens were kind enough to let me know they don't have any answers; and at least I had a few laughs.


Jason Roberts said...

You probably already read my brief take on Facebook, but I don't think the movie is forwarding an argument for atheism. I could be way off the mark here, but the film struck me as articulating the key difference in the Jewish conception of God and the Christian conception (which is usually more interested in Jesus, obviously), particularly in the United States over the last 50 years. I'm guessing, now, but I think the point is that the Jewish faith wrestles with a little more ambivalence than Christianity does. God is out there, but he's not meddling, they seem to believe. Christians, on the other hand, think Jesus is working in our lives all the time--curing diseases, padding our checking accounts, and guiding Presidents (the white, Republican ones, anyway).

Otherwise, though, I'm on board w/ you i/r/t the Coens. I spend a lot of time wondering, "Would I still like that movie?" I wonder this about people like Scorsese and Tarantino, in particular. I've become so fussy about violence on screen.

Steven Rybin said...

I’ll go with that interpretation. It certainly helps make the prologue a little more clear to me. I do wonder, then, if it’s the Coens’ response to the ambivalent world they put into motion– stand high above the rest of humanity, roll a fatty and just laugh about it all – that’s bothering me. It seems a very stark and unambiguous response to the otherwise very difficult world they’re presenting for us. In comparison, for example (although the comparison only goes so far), something like Crimes and Misdemeanors never lets its audience off the hook; and the director’s attitude and humorous perspective of the world never dilute the impact of the moral questions it is asking.

For whatever it’s worth, I think the filmmakers who deal with violence with gravitas, with what I consider to be a deep moral perspective, are few and far between: in the American cinema, I am thinking some of Peckinpah, Fuller, Mann (both of them), some Scorsese, Boetticher. There are others, I'm sure. I guess this is another way of saying that for most American filmmakers, violence has become too casual a part of the world of movies. I suppose the same is probably true of sex and its treatment. As for Tarantino, I think the full weight of violence is felt within the worlds of “Reservoir Dogs” and some of “Jackie Brown” (though in the latter, the death of Bridget Fonda, and the audience’s response to it the two times I saw it in the theater, has always bothered me); in Tarantino’s other films, it’s too often something to get off on, or an easy shorthand for what he considers “the power of cinema." It seems too often to be left in the audience's lap, which strikes me more as evasion of the issue than thematic ambiguity.

Jason Roberts said...

I actually thought the Coens were more generous in "A Serious Man" than you did, which might be why I'm reading the film as a representation of the ambivalence inherent in Jewish faith. I felt like everyone in the film is eventually given a fair say (well, among the substantial characters). A touch of humanity is granted to everyone, which allows us to see the hero's circumstances as sublimely absurd. I thought the Coens were empathizing with Gopnik, not toying. Different strokes, I guess.

I'm a long way from resolving the question of violence, but I find your terse list of directors rather comforting. Rejecting certain kinds of violence on film certainly limits how much one can enjoy the Hollywood cinema, but such is life.