Friday, October 16, 2009

Horror Show
Maimon Schwarzschild

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.

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Maimon Schwarzschild


I don't know where the reviewer obtained his anthropological knowledge of mid-twentieth century American Jews. My knowledge is quite different. I went to Brandeis in the 1960s. Most of my Jewish classmates unashamedly used the word Goy to characterize non-Jews. My girlfriend's parents used the word to describe me more than once when I was present. (By the way, I got the sense it was used more in a playful manner than derogatorily and I was never offended.) Ha'Shem is a standard rabbinic way to pronounce the tetragammaton ouside of a prayer setting. I've heard liberal, reform, and orthodox rabbis use the term.

Posted by: David Cavanagh | Oct 16, 2009 8:56:14 AM

My parents say goy all the time.

Posted by: Johnny | Oct 16, 2009 4:16:43 PM

Maimon, assimilated Jews loathing unassimilated Jews is hardly a recent phenomenon. Heck, by 1967, "Goodbye, Columbus"--about as nasty a hate letter to Jews by a fellow Jew as you'll ever read--was already nearly a decade old. ("The Jewbird", by Bernard Malamud, is a nice contemporary riff on the subject.) My understanding is that lots of assimilated European (especially German) Jews during the early 20th century had very similar attitudes towards their more traditional co-religionists. It's probably a natural reaction--when you separate yourself from something you were once closely identified with, developing a strong hostility towards it helps dispel any residual uncomfortable feelings of ambivalence, guilt or loss.

As for the Coen brothers, what really annoys me about their films is not that their characters are uniformly unsympathetic (some of them are actually portrayed quite sympathetically), but rather that every single one of them is presented as so monumentally, pathetically stupid that even the sympathetic ones can really only be pitied for their haplessness. The single exception that I know of is "Intolerable Cruelty", which was directed by the Coens but written by others. As a result, it's actually very funny and entertaining, in those parts where the directors don't interfere with the story and ruin it with their usual crude grotesques.

Posted by: Dan Simon | Oct 16, 2009 11:34:13 PM

I had thought this film was an interesting modern version of the Job story and was willing to put up with some of the ethnic stuff in order to see it. (I write on the Holocaust, so my standard for antisemitism is pretty high). Are you saying that I shouldn't see it?

Posted by: mike livingston | Oct 17, 2009 12:56:27 PM

I just got back from seeing the movie, and I really couldn't disagree more with Maimon. First of all, several of the characters are pretty sympathetic, most obviously the main character, Larry Gopnick, but to different degrees also his brother and the married man from the prologue. Leaving a few obvious exceptions, they're virtually all at least kind-hearted.

Also, in my experience, non-Orthodox use "Ha'shem" all the time. True, the Hebrew school is ugly, but that, too, is hardly at odds with my own experiences.

Posted by: Ed | Oct 17, 2009 10:24:03 PM

My dad moved into a new development in Bethesda Mayland, circa 1956 that was almost entirely Jewish. It seems Jews could not buy just across River Road in the established neighborhoods, and this developer was a Jew.
Going to school with their children, and being the paperboy, I knew everybody. It wasn't the Coen's neighborhood.
Just so you know, no matter what insult may lay behind the term 'goy', it is impossible to give insult where none is taken, and I never personally knew anyone to be insulted by the term. We goys could care less. It must be very complicated being a Jew.

Posted by: james wilson | Oct 20, 2009 9:07:22 AM

You make it sound really good!

The Coen brothers have always been brilliant filmmakers, to portray Jewish America warts-and-all, with that full-glare surrealistic/hyper-realistic harshness they do so well, must have taken a lot of courage, as your outrage demonstrates. :-)

I'll definitely watch this movie. Thanks.

Posted by: Chris Watson | Feb 10, 2010 1:07:45 AM

Mr. Schwarzschild doth protest too much. I did see "A Serious Man" and he could not be more wrong -- about anti-Semitism or anything else. Leave aside the preposterous notion of the Coen Brothers conforming to some "anti-American" agenda alleging reining in Hollywood (truth to tell, the Coens don't conform to anyone's agenda). Black comedy is not the same thing as hatred.

Anyone familiar with the Coens' brand understands a sympathy underlying the dark commentary. Go down the list chronologically: "Blood Simple," Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother Where Art Thou?" "The Man Who Wasn't There," "Intolerable Cruelty," "The Ladykillers," "No Country for Old Men," "Burn After Reading" and "A Serious Man." Where's the contempt? I don't see it. Most filmmakers would die for a resume like this.

What's contemptible is orthodoxy masquerading as "scholarship" and "patriotism."

Let Maimon spout his Michael Medved-inspired venom. The rest of us will go the movies.

Posted by: Seek | May 3, 2010 1:03:31 PM