Friday, October 16, 2009
How to describe the Coen brothers' new movie, A Serious Man?
The film is set among midwestern suburban Jews in the 1960s, and it portrays them - all of them - as stupefyingly ugly, tasteless, worthless, and contemptible. In one sense, the film is conventional: it's now commonplace for Hollywood, in its self-appointed political role, to portray pre-counterculture America of the 1950s or 1960s as pervasively and irredeemably ugly and awful. To that extent, the movie simply conforms to a standard and well-established propaganda line.
What sets A Serious Man apart is that this movie's target is not pre- or non-left-wing America in general, but specifically Jews. The story is a kind of Job story of a Jewish science professor whose life collapses: as such, if the movie weren't sidetracked by its crude hatred for all its characters, it could have been an interesting and good film. But the filmmakers contempt and loathing for these people, and for the Jewish world they are portrayed as inhabiting, is relentless.
In its determination to portray its suburban Jews as disgusting - and defined at all times by their Jewishness - the movie gives up all plausibility about details as well as generally. So we are shown middle class, professional, 1960s suburban Jews referring routinely to any non-Jew as a "goy". (For such people, who wanted to be good Americans and good neighbours, to talk about their non-Jewish neighbours as "goys" would have been unthinkable.) They and their Conservative or Reform rabbis refer to God (a lot) as "Ha-shem". (No Reform or Conservative Jew or rabbi, then or now, would call God "Ha-shem": it's a Hebrew expression used only in certain very Orthodox subcultures.) What's weirdly out of tune is how "Jewish" all these characters are. American suburban Jews in the 1950s and 60s were much more assimilated and "ordinary", or at least eager to be: to a fault, if anything.
No doubt A Serious Man reflects the idiosyncracies and personal antipathies of the Coen brothers, whose parents were Jewish, of course. But it's hard not to feel that this is a movie for the age of Reverend Wright and the United Nations Human Rights Committee: a movie that could not and would not be made in a different era. (The only film analogies that readily come to mind are Birth of A Nation from 1915, and Jew Suess from Nazi Germany.)
The Village Voice, of all papers, to its credit, carries a review by Ella Taylor that gets it right on almost all counts:
The Yiddish shtetl shtick that opens Joel and Ethan Coen's new movie—a Jewish peasant stumbles on an old Hasid who may or may not be a Dybbuk—is pretty clumsy, but at least it tips its hat to the great existential comedy that A Serious Man might have become, if it wasn't buried beneath an avalanche of Ugly Jew iconography.
Set in 1967, in a Midwestern Jewish neighborhood with a strong resemblance to the one the Coens grew up in, A Serious Man is crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster-Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-teethed, know-nothing rabbis...
If this were it, the movie would be no more than another dreary exercise in Coen Brothers sadism. But the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews (even the movie's obligatory anti-Semite looks handsome by comparison) carries A Serious Man into the realm of the truly vicious. The production notes are larded with the Coen Brothers' disclaiming protestations of affection for their hapless characters, but make no mistake: We're being invited to share in their disgust...
A Serious Man might have shown us at our funniest, most abject, and most endearing, when we look in vain for answers to our common hurts and losses. As usual, though, the Coens have more venal satisfactions in mind. "The fun of the story for us," they crow in the notes for this loathsome movie, "was inventing new ways to torture Larry." Is A Serious Man a work of Jewish self-loathing? Hard to tell, if only because—aside from Fargo's Marge Gunderson, one of the great creations of American cinema—just about every character the Coens create is meant to affirm their own superiority.
Actually, it's not hard to tell. And Ella Taylor is mistaken in thinking the movie ends happily for its anti-hero: on the contrary, the last scene is a phone call from the character's doctor which makes it clear (presumably to no regret on the part of the filmmakers) that he is dying. But read the whole review, which is well-taken and even - perhaps in film or Village Voice circles at least - rather courageous.