Friday, October 02, 2009

A Serious Man: A Mensch in Peril

I've long been cool on the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Their most lauded works, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, and Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men didn't impress me. Sure, the films were made competently, the writing was of a good standard, the films all looked good on a technical level, but none of them hit me emotionally. Even the film of theirs I'd found most enjoyable, Barton Fink, left me with nothing. What I did admire in their films were the performances, which often had moments of very quiet, subtle comedy, and I liked that so many of them were archetypes, through and through, from John Turturro's pretentious playwright in Barton Fink, to Tim Robbins' gee-whiz wunderkind and Jennifer Jason Leigh's acid-tongued Girl Friday in The Hudsucker Proxy, to Francis McDormand's mother/cop in Fargo, the characters were types and cartoons almost, but living, breathing ones. But what kept me cold from the Coen Brothers was their seeming lack of passion. I never felt anything while watching their films, and though films can do a great many things, moving an audience is one of the greatest and in my mind, most vital. I had also been somewhat unimpressed by the Coens most popular, devotee-making film The Big Lebowski. I saw it once, I found it mildly amusing and surprisingly sloppy. I saw it a second time, this time in a movie theater, and I liked it a little more but still wasn't crazy about it, and then a funny thing happen. The film had found a way into my mind, and I started to think about it, every element, and a new film seemed to emerge. I saw it again and suddenly the film opened up for me. The jokes were funny, the story compelling, the mise-en-scène (oh yeah, I'm pulling it out in paragraph one) deliriously brilliant. I had fallen in love with the film, and where repeat viewings of their other films only cemented my distaste for them, familiarity with The Big Lebowski made me appreciate the complexities and nuance of every scene. Though I was far from joining the cult of quoters and White Russian drinking attendees of the annual Lebowskifest, I had found an entree into two of modern cinema's most critically adored figures. But I don't just think it's me who was different, the Coens operate in that films (and their 2008 espionage satire Burn After Reading) in a different manner, allowing emotion or comedy to trump perfection. So many of their films feel so sterile to me, as if they are dispassionately saying, "Yes, this would be the most effect shot here, for this long, according to this guide to tension we purchased," and because of that they lacked air to feel, for the audience to project onto the screen any part of them selves.

I give this account of my history with the Coens as context for my thoughts on their new film A Serious Man, which opened in New York today and will open across the country in the following weeks. My immediate reaction upon seeing the film was that this is the Coen Brothers' masterpiece. Before I sat down in that screening room I wouldn't have considered that the Coen Brothers' were capable of making a masterpiece, and two hours later I had been moved, I had laughed, I had been shocked, and most of all I had become reverent of the Coens.

The following paragraph contains mild spoilers for A Serious Man.

The film opens with quote "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." The quote is from medieval French Rabbi Rashi, and the scene that follows it is a completely disconnected story of a ghost who comes to visit a poor family. This scene, spoken entirely in Hebrew Yiddish, shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, vignetted as if looking through a glass bottle, is an audacious masterstroke. I guarantee no other film owned by Universal Pictures opens with a ten minute scene in Hebrew about a ghost, particularly one as possibly confounding and head-scratching as this one. I will not attempt to explain the scene's inclusion, nor analyze it's substance, but I would point to the Rashi quote preceding it for clues as it's to it's necessary-ness. From there, after a brilliant opening credit sequence, we are thrust into the life of Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a middle-aged, Jewish, College Physics Professor in Minnesota. Larry is married and has two children, one just out of High School, the other on the eve of his Bar-Mitzvah. The film is set in the mid 1960s, pot is everywhere, and the music of Jefferson Airplane pipes into Larry's son's portable radio. From this introduction, we follow Larry through an increasing serious of misfortune: his wife wants to divorce, his brother sleeps on his couch, his possible tenure is in question, and he has a Korean-American student who is trying to bribe him for a better grade. Larry wants to be a serious man, a righteous man, he wants his family together, his job secure, and he wants to be happy. When these things star piling up on him, Larry is shocked, they seem to come out of nowhere. Larry visits a Rabbi, who tells him God is everywhere, even in the parking lot outside. He sees a second Rabbi, who tells him a story about a Dentist who discovered Hebrew lettering on the inside of a goyum's teeth. He tries to visit a third Rabbi, a calm, very old man who Larry sees sitting passively at his desk. Larry is told the Rabbi is busy. "He didn't look busy!" Larry is told that the Rabbi is thinking. What the Rabbi is actually doing may be explained by a scene late in the film, but spoiling that moment would serve no purpose in this review.

No more spoilers.

There is no way to give a sense of how this film feels other than seeing it yourself. I can explain the structure, and the cinematography, and the acting and the music, but it would give no clearer a picture. This film feels like no other I've seen. Events pile on, one after another, in a way it's a portrait of life being lived, shown in the most peculiarly realistic manner possible. What I can explicate is a few of the ideas in the film. What does it mean to be good? Is being good enough? How may we forgive one another of our foibles? Why would anyone think it's a good idea to stay at the Jolly Roger?

What I believe I respond to so much in this film is the emotional connection I had with the characters. The reason I had those connections is because this film feels personal. Based on pure biological fact, this is a personal film for the Coen Brothers. They grew up in the place and time the film takes place, they are both Jewish, their parents were both Professors, but it's unfair to attempt to link their personal lives with the lives of the characters in this film. However, the personal nature relates to the effectiveness directly, for once, there is feeling in their work. I have not just been told a story, I have been shown an emotional journey, and shared in it. This makes the film better, the funny parts funnier, and the film making more impressive.

Roger Deakins, the Coens' usual cinematographer, has never been better. The performances across the board are terrific, particularly from lead Michael Stuhlbarg, who creates a likable, put upon man, and has helped create an iconic character. Like the Coens other films, Larry is an archetype: a middle class, suburban, intellectual Jew, and by conforming (in some respects) to an archetype, they're able to explore a number situations where the audience must know how Larry feels, without having to explain those thoughts in narration or dialogue.

This is a film that rewards repeat viewings. It doesn't trip over itsself to explain things to the audience, sometimes it is purposefully ambiguous, extending to the ending of the film, one of the most surprising and masterful I have ever seen. The Coen Brothers can now count me in their camp of admirers. A Serious Man is a great film, and a masterpiece, and I couldn't be happier to say it.

Capitalism: A Love Story and Big Fan

This is perhaps Michael Moore's best film, both in terms of message, and form. Moore's never really gotten much praise as a filmmaker because what he does is deceptively simple. Sure, there are the obvious touches, the sing-songy sarcastic narration, the feigned shock, the melodramatic use of music from other films and ironic use of songs, but what's hidden between those things is a very delicately weaved film. Moore's movies are episodic by nature, but he has a keen sense of when and where and how long those episodes should be and it creates a non-fiction film in which a narrative emerges. Maybe it's not a narrative in a story sense, but in an emotional and informative sense there is an arc to the film, and this one, more than any others, leaves the audience in a state of determination and will to action. I would argue that Moore is not a documentary filmmaker in as much as he's an essayist. Like any great essayist, he has complete control of his medium, his use of image and sound in place of text on a page, in presenting a thesis (In this case, Capitalism does not work), giving context for that thesis and then leveling reason after reason why that thesis is so. Of course it's more elegant in the film than that reductive analysis, but at their essence, that is what his films do. So the measure of his films is how persuasive they are and in what ways do they make you think about the subject (or subjects) explored in the film. It's in this regard that Capitalism: A Love Story is so successful, and I think it's one of the best movies of the year.

Written and directed by Robert Siegel, former editor of The Onion and screenwriter of The Wrestler, Big Fan, like Siegel's earlier film, explores a less glamorous part of sports culture. In this case a New York Giants fan named Paul (Patton Oswalt). Paul lives to love the Giants, and has little else in his life. The film is very well observed in the details of how Paul life is consumed by his fandom and how much he defines himself based on that fandom. There are great scenes of Paul writing and rehearsing the inane rants he gives on the local Sports Talk Radio Show he frequently calls into ("Hey, it's Paul from Staten Island..."), only pausing to let customers out of the parking garage he works in, sitting in a harshly lit booth pouring over notebook pages filled with cliche analysis and insults about the last or nearest game. Oswalt is great, as is Kevin Corrigan as his Giants co-fan and only friend. Siegel allows the film to be dark and sad in place of comedy, though the film is often very funny, and lets the characters go in realistic and decidedly noncommercial directions. However great many elements of the film are though, I feel like Siegel could have pushed it even further and gone darker and explored the notion of the obsessive fan who lives for nothing else even more. As it stands now the film is very good, but there's always a feeling that it could have been great.