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October 01, 2009

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Andrew Grant

Nice review...for a goyim!

I really don't understand what it is that irked both Taylor and Hoberman (who I believe gave it a bomb in the latest Film Comment Critic's Choice column.)

Unlike Solondz's ugly creatures/caricatures in LIFE DURING WARTIME (now THERE'S Jewish self-loathing) I see nothing but tremendous warmth towards A SERIOUS MAN's richly developed characters.

I'm not quite as old as the Coens, but growing up I knew people just like Larry and his family (particularly the kids). Why Ms. Taylor's feathers are so ruffled is a mystery to me. (Then again, as I've been told repeatedly, I'm a self-hating half-Jew.)

As I tweeted yesterday, I can't think of another film that "gets" the Jewish concept of "no payoff".

"Look at the parking lot, Larry!"

Asher

Fargo and No Country For Old Men masterpieces? Or are they more on the order of fairly competent formal exercises with little on their mind?

Glenn Kenny

As the saying goes, Asher, I've got a fairly competent formal exercise for you right here.

I can't believe this thread attracted a troll quicker than the Polanski one did. And a pseud troll who can't distinguish between extrapolated quotes and actual critical assessments at that. I'm going to bed.

greg mottola

Excellent post, Glenn. My God, we need intelligent skeptics like the Coens now more than ever. I can't wait to see this.

The Siren

"My own view of the matter is that the Coens actually do have a great deal of affection/sympathy for their creations. They just have a funny way of showing it, is all."

Beautifully put.

Tom Russell

I'm not really a fan of the Coens-- I like some of their flicks, mostly the obvious popular choices like FARGO, HUDSUCKER PROXY, NO COUNTRY, and THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE-- but it's never been because of any supposed "superiority" they feel towards their characters, or any "cruelty" they exhibit, charges that even I, as a Bonafide Guy Who Doesn't Quite "Get" Them, feel are baseless.

I think they do in fact love their characters, and I think the sometimes cartoonish or over-the-top nature of the performances, even in something as "serious" as MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, is evidence of that.

You don't let a performer and a character go over the top, and you don't let shtick play out as long as they sometimes do, you don't spend as much time watching these people behave, if you don't love them. Someone who hates their characters doesn't allow them the ability to dream crazy dreams and be silly and ridiculous, because someone who hates the people they're writing about will not indulge silliness. Caricature, especially used as often and as persuasively as the Coens use it, is a mark of deepest humanism.

And you could take that preceding paragraph and quite easily change every instance of "the Coens" to "Stanley Kubrick" and it would still stand.

Jonah

The Coens' quote about finding new ways to "torment" Larry shows above all how well they know their critics, and are happy to provide them with ammunition.

Though honestly this knowingness is something about the Coens that irks me. They spend a moment in the same interview glibly mocking critics who read an evocation of the Holocaust in MILLER'S CROSSING's execution scene. They do this a lot -- mock nearly act act of interpretation or analysis as a vain critical fantasy. In a way it just seems like a bullying way to "manage" the response to their films: it's OK to analyze this film (this is our art film), not OK to analyze that one (it's "just" a comedy). But it's not clear *what*, then, we're supposed to be doing with their films. What are the correct terms of enjoyment, according to the Coens? To put this simply, they just seem uncharitable.

I try to separate my dislike for the Coens' public persona(e) with my reactions to their films, although it's not always that easy. The worst I can say about any of them -- like THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, or THE LADYKILLERS -- is that they are neither here nor there.

John M

Fantastic defense of the Coens. I wish some of the choir boys over at Dave Kehr's site would read this.

I mean "choir boys" affectionately, of course.

Kent M. Beeson

"...she cites a press release in which the Coens admit that the most fun they had in the writing of the film was "inventing new ways to torment Larry." For Taylor, this is absolutely damning."

Er, someone should tell Ms. Taylor that inventing new ways to torment your protagonist is pretty much the definition of storytelling, particularly screenwriting. If you aren't putting the main character through the wringer, you're likely wasting everyone's time.

(There are no doubt exceptions, but very few.)

Stephen Whitty

Great piece, Glenn.

I've heard the they-think-they're-so-smart cavil about the Coens before, too, but I think it ultimately misreads them, and their attitude.

Actually, it seems to me the Coens are opposed to that kind of smug superiority. The world, their movies consistently say, is a cruel, capricious and ultimately unknowable place; the truly smart person is smart enough only to acknowledge they know nothing.

And I think if the characters realize that, well, then the Coens' movie (No Country for Old Men, etc) is clearly on their side and works as a drama. If the characters, however, cockily assume they do have it all figured out (Burn After Reading, et al) then the movie mocks them for their moronic arrogance and becomes a comedy. (A generalization, I know, but one I think that mostly holds up.)

I loved this movie too (not least for the fact that they used "Surrealistic Pillow" on the soundtrack without resorting to the overplayed "White Rabbit").

But I have to say, although I thought of the Book of Job too, immediately, Ethan Coen shot that down when I interviewed the brothers in Toronto. Job, he pointed out, is a story about the testing of a true believer. This is the story about the travails of a largely secular man.

Michael Adams

"Fargo and No Country For Old Men masterpieces? Or are they more on the order of fairly competent formal exercises with little on their mind?"

Jeepers, and here I was thinking No Country is a meditation on the inexplicable nature of evil and the impossibility of eradicating it.

As for the Coens' superiority over their characters, one of the many reasons Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona are so charming is their affection for all the characters, no matter how flawed.

And here's hoping Glenn got a good night's sleep with no visions of Q-tips dancing above his head.

Pete Segall

Not to keep harping on the Elkin thing (is twice harping?) but what I'm seeing more and more in A Serious Man is "Her Sense of Timing": an academic (professor of geography), up to his eyeballs in suffering, has his wife walk out on him in the opening lines; it's the day he has his annual party for his graduate students. A lot of the novella is Elkin jousting with his own MS, the thing that would first pummel and then kill him, so I wouldn't even call it existential angst - it's the angst of merely existing. If one might glean deep-rooted themes from previews, the similarities seem kinda resonant.

Sam Adams

I authored an egregiously-too-long-for-twitter disquisition on this a couple of days ago, but basically I agree with Tom: the Coens are too fascinated by their characters to be contemptuous of them. They have a well-developed sense of human failings, and often encourage us to laugh at them, but it's a so's-you-don't-cry thing. I don't get the feeling they exempt themselves, or anyone else, from the observation that humans are, basically, ridiculous, and that morality is a less a matter of struggling against some all-powerful evil than our deep-seated selfishness and vanity.

Tom Russell

@Sam: I saw your disquisition, and it's partially what got me thinking about the Coens and their approach to characterization. (The other being a general interest in caricature as a performance style, since it's one my wife and I employ very heavily in our own work.)

Zach

Haven't seen A Serious Man yet, but I'm eagerly anticipating it.

As much I as I still think the Coens are terrific filmmakers, I have to profess some (note - SOME) grudging agreement with the notion that they're being, shall we say, "overly unkind" to their characters, and that this has become more a problem of late. (I'm aware they've been getting knocked for this their whole career - I see it as a much more recent problem.)

There's fodder here for a much longer-winded examination, but basically, I think they've been running low on wonder-juice for about a decade now, with their last truly amazing film being Lebowski. What's disappointing to me, and what plenty of critics seem to miss, is that the Coens used to be as sympathetic to their characters as any card-carrying humanist could ever want - recall the final scene of Fargo, the botched funeral of Donny in TBL, and even the last shot in Miller's Crossing - to me, there was always a couple of big softies beneath the too-cool-for-school veneer. Yes, it was absolutely tough-love, but it was unmistakable.

I don't know what it is - the "past their prime," argument is too easy, but even No Country - a staggeringly good example of suspense and storytelling craft - left me a bit disappointed overall. It's like they've become so good at making movies that they don't really have to try all that hard, and the films have lost some of That Special Coen Bros Feeling.

Which is why I'm pretty nervous about ASM...

Jonah

Can we all agree that there should be a moratorium on the word "meditation" as applied to films -- with the exceptions of, I dunno, Hollis Frampton or Chris Marker or somebody?

Dan

You know, even if this weren't the Coen Brothers, I'd be going to see this just because of that trailer. Oh man, amid all the relentless cookie-cutter editing, I just love that damn trailer.

I've never viewed the Coens as abusive, just honest. I've never sensed any contempt for their characters, even the biggest losers or biggest bastards they've written. The comedy usually comes from the characters being venal or silly in a way they would be in real life, and that sometimes just cuts way too close to the bone for some in the audience, possibly because they identify with the people being venal or silly and don't understand why all these terrible things are happening to them.

lazarus

Zach, I don't know how recently you feel the Coens left their humanity behind, but The Man Who Wasn't There ends on a very touching note, a piece of narration by Billy Bob while he's sitting in the electric chair, hoping to meet his wife again soon; " ...maybe there I can tell her all those things they don't have words for here." The film was also stunning on a visual level, hilarious, and menacing at times. I think it's their most underrated work.

Also, considering O Brother is about the lead character trying to get his wife and family back, I don't think it's some kind of unfeeling cartoon, either. It has a pretty great ending as well, with the flood that appears to wash away everyone's sins and guilt, resulting in a sweet-but-not-sappy reconciliation.

Tom Carson

I'm personally fond of Ella Taylor and don't agree with your characterizations of her, but I gotta agree that her review described a movie I didn't recognize for a second. Either it or the Coens pushed a button that seems to have sent her off on complete misreading of the thing, and I'm surprised that she saw fit to raise the specter of that neocon concoction, the self-hating Jew. But it happens to all of us sometimes.

As for me -- someone who's neither a Coens idolator nor hater -- I think A Serious Man is just about perfect, with the possible exception of how much more sketchy/coarsely done the women characters are than the men. Which may have been what got Ella started, for all I know.

Glenn Kenny

@ tc: You'll particularly appreciate this; My Lovely Wife, after reading the above, said, "Very nice, but I wish you did not so frequently feel compelled to eviscerate a critic whose review you take exception to." And, as always, she has a point. Is it the imp of the perverse? Well, to an extent, yes. But I also thought that calling the movie "loathesome" was both cheap and asinine.

And I do hear from other people as well that, whatever her professional merits or demerits, she's a lovely person. So my loss, maybe.

joel_gordon

I thought of Kafka, too, especially when Larry gets the expensive retainer agreement, or when he talks to the Columbia House guy, or when is wife tells him that neither of them has "done" anything. The cosmic joke of The Trial is that you don't have to be guilty to be punished. Everyone is sentenced to death. In A Serious Man, Larry always has to pay, whether or not they've actually done anything. There's also a lot of Bellow's Herzog in the premise, as well as in Sy Ableman's character--it wouldn't surprise me if Sy was intentionally Bellovian. Just don't ask the Coens. They're brilliant filmmakers, but, in spite of what Ella Taylor thinks, they've never said one thing--ever--that helped anyone understand their films.

Ella Taylor

Definitely your loss, Glenn Kenny. I may or may not be a lovely person, but you should really learn how to spell "loathsome." Cheers. And thank you, TC, even if we disagree about the film. P.S. It wasn't the woman thang. It was really, really the Jewish thing. And the art thang.

Glenn Kenny

Ella Taylor is not wrong. I misspelled "loathsome" twice in a row. So she's got that going for her.

I sincerely apologize for the typos, or brain farts, however you want to interpret them. Carry on.

jeer9

Michael,
Thanks for your comment on NO COUNTRY. It's truly a brilliant film whose only plot flaw is Moss' return to the crime scene with the water. He has to know that's futility personified. While I understand the Coens' need to have him realize he's being chased or it's a very short movie, I think they should have had him give the dying Mexican a canteen, then get preoccupied tracing the bag man, then remembering at home that the canteen had his name on it. The scenario they chose humanizes him, but it's still not believable. And since he's really not the focus of the film (which is why he gets killed off-screen), I don't think it would have harmed the theme to make him mundanely self-interested. I'm very much looking forward to this latest effort of theirs, especially if it upsets all the small-minded moralists.

mtbowden

Good review, but I think you might be mischaracterizing the criticism of the Coens' supposed superiority complex.

I always thought it wasn't simply that they hated their characters, but that they have filled their movies with idiots, rubes, and pathetic losers, and then invited the audience to look down their noses at these characters. The accusation, as I have understood it, is that they're setting up easy targets and playing to the smugness and self-satisfaction of their audience.

Whether you agree with it or not, that's the answer to the "What of it?" question.

Dan

@mtbowden

So, basically, the Coens are being accused of...writing comedies?

mtbowden

For what it's worth, it's a criticism made of their dramatic films as well. I should say that I don't necessarily agree with it, although I don't think it's totally invalid either.

Nictate

Nice observations. I'm glad you mentioned that David Foster Wallace had done an essay on Kafka. I wasn't aware of that and just started reading The Castle, so will track it down.

That *is* odd Armond got so much right with this one.

Zach

@ Lazarus: TMWWT and OBWAT are both perfectly okay movies in my book, but I still get this nagging sense that they're missing something. I've never been as impressed with George Clooney's mugging as Joel & Ethan obviously are - O Brother is a fun, warm, harmless movie, but it was right about then that their films started to feel a bit too much like exercises.

And TMWWT - it's stylish and clever and quirky, but what the heck is it about? I can't make myself believe that the Coens care a whit about Ed's, or "modern man's," existential dilemma. I think they like poking fun at it, but they ultimately have nothing to say. The ending felt like an empty gesture, too quick and easy.

This always feels like nitpicking to me, but I practically grew up on Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing, so...


Brian

Shakespeare killed Hamlet's father, before the play even began!

Whenever I read a criticism that begins with the idea that an artist is being mean to the characters they've created, I flip the page immediately. I have an idea that the critic might have a coherent argument loitering behind that nonsensical cliché, but why hasn't she bothered to come out with it?

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