Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Serious Man - And My Coen Brothers Problem

I'm not sure A Serious Man is a great movie, it's probably too earnest for that.  But there's the rub.  This is one of the only movies (maybe THE only movie) the Coen Brothers have ever made that doesn't feel like an elaborate game constructed by two overly-clever children.

There are only two movies by The Coen Brothers that I love.  The Big Lebowski, which like every nerdy male I watched upwards of fifty times in college, is the great pinnacle of Western Civilization (I'm not sure how much I'm kidding).  It's a perfectly incomprehensible story that serves purely as an excuse to display various LA lowlives in assorted berths of hilarity.  It is a defiantly unserious movie, and because of it's silliness it's probably a hundred times more intelligent than any number of their more solemn efforts.  

The other movie I love, though not nearly as much, is Fargo.  It's not a unique opinion, everybody seems to love Fargo, though mostly for the value of imitating the accent.  Fargo is, in my humble opinion, a love letter to the rural Midwest.  Not just to its unforgiving landscape, but also to the congenial, unassuming people who populate it.  Marge Gunderson (who has to be one of the greatest female characters in all movies) goes through a series of situations that would disgust most of us from the banally gross to the unbelievably gruesome, and not once does she let her neighborly demeanor slip, even for a second.  Because like so many other midwesterners, behind the gentle warmth is concealed a cold, unbendable steel.

In both these movies, there are two unmistakable feelings missing in much else by the Coens - and those are the feelings of justifiability and plausibility.  The former means the ability the ability to say that a device within a work of art 'works' and say   The latter means the ability to suspend disbelief and not say 'Yeah, right' in the middle of a story.  Because suspension of disbelief is the single most important element of being drawn into a work of art.

Let's not misunderstand: justifiability does not mean pandering, and plausibility does not mean realism.  This doesn't mean that a movie should be true to how real life works, usually movies are better if they are not.  But it does mean that movies have to be true to themselves.  A good movie (or book, or play, or whatever) should be able to justify every moment of its content with something plausible when compared to every other moment of the movie.  Without plausibility, stories unfold in a flat, boring manner because in whatever direction a movie goes, it doesn't carry us with it.  This was - at least in my opinion - the irredeemable problem of No Country for Old Men.  When audiences watch Llewellyn Moss wiggle his way through a cat-and-mouse game against Anton Chigurh for a full two hours, they have a right to expect a resolution that implies something more than the futility of that game.  Whether the mouse eventually dies is of second importance, what matters is that the death has enough meaning to justify sitting through the monotonous unpleasantness of such a long chase.  If this game is totally futile, why am I watching it?  I couldn't help comparing No Country to similar long sequences in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.  Hitchcock can match the Coen Brothers bleak for bleak (and usually then some).  And in North by Northwest, the chase is probably even more fraught with difficulty.  There is no personification of evil like Anton Chigurh, there is just a series of banally corrupt people who decide it's in their interests to ruin and kill Roger O. Thornhill.  Both of these movies are really just elaborate games of chase, and one comes out of North by Northwest with just as low an opinion of human nature.  But the difference is in the tone of their chases.  Rather than feeling forced to sit through two hours of ironically bleak discursiveness, one feels pleasure and elation from North by Northwest.  The reason for that is simple: we   As Roger Ebert (or Neal Fersko) says, 'a great film should never make you feel bad.'  A sentiment I agree more and more with as the adult in me realizes how important good feelings are.  

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