Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Serious Man and My Coen Brothers Problem (Part I...will there be a Part II?)

(For HaZmora, Der Fersko, Le Malon and Der Schreiber)

I'm not sure A Serious Man is a great movie - it's probably too earnest for that, but there's the rub. The reason A Serious Man is among the Coen Brothers' best is because it's one of their only movies that does not smell of an elaborate game constructed by precocious children.

There are only two movies by The Coen Brothers I love. One is, of course, The Big Lebowski - which like every nerdy male I watched upwards of fifty times in college. Seeing it last weekend, I'm more convinced than ever that it is the Great Pinnacle of Western Civilization (...not sure how much I'm kidding). I've memorized whole scenes, gone to screenings, watched my friend win a Big Lebowski costume competition - John Manning did Larry's homework - and nearly paid an obscene sum to attend a Lebowski Convention in Chicago.

Lebwoski is one of the few cult films I 'get.' It has a perfectly incomprehensible story that serves as a mere hoop through which to put various LA lowlives through assorted berths of hilarity. It is a defiantly unserious movie, and because of its silliness probably a hundred times more intelligent than any number of their more solemn efforts.

The other movie I love, though not with the same intensity, is Fargo. It's not a unique opinion, everybody loves 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 the unforgiving landscape, but also the congenial, unassuming people who populate it. Marge Gunderson (who has to be one of the greatest female characters in any movie) undergoes 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. Like our mind's-eye image of the perfect Midwesterner, the gentle Brainard demeanor is a survival tactic against the harshness of everything from their climate to human nature. Behind the Minnesota warmth lies concealed a cold, unbendable Detroit 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 tell ourselves that this work is worth the time we spend on it. The latter means our ability to suspend disbelief and not say 'Yeah, right...' to ourselves in the middle.

Don't misunderstand: justifiability does not mean pandering, and plausibility does not mean realism. Justifiability does not imply that one should reject anything that makes you feel unpleasant or challenged. But it does mean that the meaning you derives from from a work of art is ultimately worth the struggle you might endure to absorb it. Likewise, plausibility doesn't mean that a work should be true to how reality operates. But it does mean that a work of art has to be true to itself.

In one way, art is no different than architecture or a mathematical equation. Parts that seem to have nothing to do with one another must be welded together in a way that makes sense. Without this, art has no plausibility, and therefore no justification for spending time with it because it unfolds in a flat, boring manner. A lack of plausibility and justifiability were - at least in my opinion - the irredeemable problems of No Country for Old Men.

When audiences spend two hours watching Llewellyn Moss squirm his way through a cat-and-mouse game against Anton Chigurh, they have a right to expect a resolution that implies more than the futility of their game - however craftily assembled the game might be. The game's outcome is of little importance, what matters is that the outcome has enough meaning to justify sitting through the monotonous unpleasantness of such a long chase. If the point of this movie is to show us that its outcome is foreordained, why am I watching it?

I couldn't help comparing No Country to a similarly long cat-and-mouse game in Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Hitchcock can match the Coen Brothers bleak for bleak (and then some). North by Northwest's chase is still more fraught with difficulty. Hitchcock does not take the shortcut of putting evil into a single personification like Anton Chigurh. The only appearances of evil in North by Northwest are personified by villains barely more corrupt than the movie's protagonist, Roger O. Thornhill (ROT), all of whom decide that their interests are served by ruining and killing him.

Both of these movies are chase movies. But both chases, in their own ways, serve as moral parables about the evil within men that make them want to act badly to one another. One comes out of North by Northwest with at least as low an opinion of human nature as one does in No Country for Old Men. But the difference lies in the tone of the chases. There is a justifiable meaning in the darkness of North by Northwest other than itself, however shallow. Whereas in No Country for Old Men, evil is its own justification. We're not meant to identify with evil, we're just meant to watch it happen. And that gets boring.

But North by Northwest gives us all the justification for watching evil we need, and that is to let us see how enjoyable 'being bad' can be. These are both movies about the darkness of human nature, but only one of them shows us that being evil can be enormous fun. As Roger Ebert (or Neal Fersko) says, 'a great film should never make you feel bad.' This is a sentiment I had difficulty with for a number of years, but I think I understand it better as I get older. This epigram does not mean that movies should be banned from making you feel bad things, but that movies should only make you feel bad with a greater purpose in mind.

Both The Big Lebowski and Fargo have exactly what No Country for Old Men lacks. And that is both a sense that we are being put through our paces with good reason, and a sense that the movie is interesting on its own terms. In the space of a few words of dialogue, or a single corner of a shot, both The Big Lebowski and Fargo are able to suggest more than they show: a character, a place, or a unique event in a way that suggests whole imaginative worlds. Worlds vastly more complicated than whatever we see on the screen. And yet the laconic characters of No Country for Old Men are deliberately as sparse as the desert they inhabit, suggesting nothing other than what our senses tell us is there. It may be a well-made film, but it's not imaginative by any definition that I understand.

I don't know if A Serious Man is on the level of either The Big Lebowski or Fargo, but it has far more in common with both of those than it does with No Country or a host of other Coen Brothers bores. I have no idea if any of these three are closer to the reality of the Coen's life experience than any of their other movies, but they certainly feel as though they are. Whereas in so many other movies, The Coens seem to take pride in displaying how paper-thin their plots and characters are, these three movies feel far more tangible. It's not because they're more realistic (anybody would have a hard time saying The Big Lebowski is realism), it's because they're more plausible. And the only reason they seem more plausible to us is because the filmmakers obviously believe that these movies are more plausible. Truffaut would always say that in a great film we have to either feel its creator's agony in making it, or the creator's joy. In most Coen Brothers' movies, we only feel their indifference. There is indifference aplenty in A Serious Man, but it never feels as though it comes from the filmmakers. The indifference is embedded into the various scenes of a movie that refuses to indulge the audience with easy answers. The shocking difference of this movie from their others is how comfortable the Coens seem with asking the questions that lead us to that conclusion.

For the first time in their careers, the Coen Brothers seem to have made a "Jewish" movie. But this does not portray the same Jews as populate the 70's mentality of Woody Allen and Philip Roth. Nobody is angrily rejecting their parents' fundamentalism, nobody rages about the awfulness of their childhoods, and nobody is making a show of pursuing their baser urges. This is the Jewish America of the mid-20th century, far closer to Saul Bellow's Herzog - and on a more primal level, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Gimpel the Fool.

These characters are a linear part of the Jewish experience. Rather than endure the chaos of an angry break with tradition, they painstakingly inch away. They allow themselves as much distance as good taste permits, and they silently accept misfortune as an integral part of their lives. Each character is reconciling Judaism with modernity as best they can, and every one of them craves approval for how they do so. But all the characters are torn: torn between doubt and belief, innovation and tradition; tangibles and spirit, resolvability and mystery. As Jews seem to have been from time immemorial, they are exactly like other human beings, only moreso.

This world is the unique crossroad of postwar Judaism - a middle-class soap opera that took place in gated suburbs. Here was the moment when secular Jews awakened to the fact that they were equal and needn't be separate. They were entirely American, yet entirely Jewish, existing in a members-only limbo between the shtibl and the bowling alley, their creed "There is no God, and He gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai."

It was a generation dancing on a latent volcano, unwittingly holding an untenable balance between assimilation and re-acclimation. In most of America, the world of 'seriously unserious Judaism' no longer means much. Because whatever else The Holocaust did, nothing contributed more to preserving the idea that one could (perhaps should) simultaneously be 'secular' and 'Jewish.' It is not within our lifetime that the decision of assimilation or re-acclimation has appeared in such stark terms, and the schism only grows larger as both intermarriage and orthodox birth rates continue to break their all-time highs. The Holocaust happened in large part because of the resentment engendered by successfully integrating of Jewish culture into the worldls. Ironically, killing so many Jews only served to embed Jews, Judaism and "Jewishness" far further.

But the Shoah is fast disappearing from living memory. And the answers faced by the question Jews round the world always ask "How should Jews live?" grows ever more stark. To live as a "Jewish-American" is not the harmonious blend of terms it may once have seemed. Larry Gopnik may have feared his goyishe neighbor, but he feared his own family and friends far more. These characters are all part of a community that to every objective standard seems American, and yet the elements within it are unmistakably different from anything other people would understand. There is little belief in A Serious Man, and less certainty. There is only solidarity and a community left to shield a person from tragedy. And when community fails (as it often can't help doing), there is no consolation left.

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