February 11, 2010

"A Serious Man"

In my Taki's Magazine column, I compare the Coen Brothers to Quentin Tarantino. The opening:

Inflation in the number of Best Picture Oscar nominees from five to ten means that to have any hope of keeping them all straight in your head, you’ll need to group them. Fortunately, the Best Picture nods fall into five obvious pairings:

— The Easily Confused Titles: Up and Up in the Air.

— The Exes’ Action Flicks: James Cameron’s Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.

— The Movies about 350-Pound Black 16-Year-Olds: Precious and The Blind Side. (Two films that, together, teach us that if you are going to be an impoverished but colossal teen, it’s better to be a guy than a girl.)

— The Foreign Films That Aren't Going to Win: An Education and District 9.

— And, finally, The Battle of the Aging Wunderkinds: Quentin Tarantino’s violent Jewish heroes in Inglourious Basterds vs. Joel and Ethan Coen’s passive-aggressive Jewish villains in A Serious Man.

Read the rest there and comment upon it below.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

28 comments:

L. Ron Hoover said...

"a collection of characters whose abrasiveness contrasts strikingly with the Coens’ own mildness."

Another illustration of the fact, contrary to what is often claimed, Jews do not tend to portray themselves in a flattering light. Indeed, where are the Coen-like mild-mannered, creative and successful Jews in movies or TV?

albertosaurus said...

I just got Inglourius Basterds in the mail today from NetFlix. It's a historical movie so I quickly read up on film criticism in History Goes to the Movies by Marnie Hughes-Warrington.

I am informed therein that there are five classes of historical film:"costume drama", "melodrama", "faction", "heritage", and "period. She then goes off into some stuff about Jacques Derrida and illumination.

Maybe you should consider being more obscure. That seems to work very well for the academic film critics.

L. Ron Hoover said...

"Two films that, together, teach us that if you are going to be an impoverished but colossal teen, it’s better to be a guy than a girl."

Classic.

Anonymous said...

You seem to be writing a lot of fluff lately.

Inglorious Bagels said...

"a collection of characters whose abrasiveness contrasts strikingly with the Coens’ own mildness."

Another illustration of the fact, contrary to what is often claimed, Jews do not tend to portray themselves in a flattering light. Indeed, where are the Coen-like mild-mannered, creative and successful Jews in movies or TV?


But, Jews are often portrayed in a sympathetic--or amusing or humorous--light even if they are not particularly pleasant. Seinfeld and a whole bunch of Woody Allen films, for example.

Allen's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS featured a rather hypocritical and despicable Jewish character, but even he was too humanized and full-rounded for us to really hate. When Jews are presented in an unflattering light, they register as COMPLEX. (We must contemplate on 'rare' instances of Jewish evil than pass swift moral judgment which is to be reserved for white gentiles.) Rarely do we see Jewish characters as truly villainous or hateful. Sean Penn's character in CARLITO'S WAY was a rare exception, but even there, the Italians were even more brutal and despicable.

On the other hand, it seems certain people are allowed to be more 'antisemitic' than others. Because Jews partly defer to blacks as 'fellow victims' and allies, Jews have been less willing to criticize guys like Spike Lee for 'antisemitic' stereotypes in a movie like MO BETTER BLUES.

In many cases, Jewish characters are played by handsome gentiles. Lena Olin played a Jewess in ENEMIES A LOVE STORY. Aidan Quinn played a golden Jew in AVALON. It seems like a whole bunch of good looking gentiles are standing in line to play Jewish characters, as if it's a great honor. Of course, no one can beat Heston's role as Moses and Ben Hur. (Oddly enough, the really Jewish Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis played Germanic Vikings in one movie.)

And there are plenty of hug-a-Jew movies like ANALYZE THIS where a stupid greaseball earns an ounce of humanity by becoming chummy with a sympathetic Jewish shrink. And, CITY SLICKERS was essentially a Western version of a hug-a-Jew movie.

In movies like Jurassic Park or Independence Day, it's some Jewish intellect or scientist who discovers the great secret or arrives at some profound observation.

And of course, Hollywood has dared not touch the subject of Israeli brutality against Palestinians or what Jewish communists did in the USSR. But, there have been countless movies and documentaries about 'saintly' and 'noble' Jewish communists hunted down by evil fascist paranoid McCarthy and white conservative America.

Quentin Sucks said...

The success of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is rather sickening and says something about the overall Howard-Stern-ization or South-Park-ization of America. I think a movie like IB 20 or 30 yrs ago would have been greeted with shock and distate, especially within the Jewish community. Sure, there was Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that was about cartoon Nazis and heroes.
There was a time when the Holocaust or WWII would have been considered too serious a theme to be treated in a trashy-bashy-crashy manner. (1941 was crazy and chidlish but not necessarily SICK and DEMENTED--masquerading as moral statement.) Some stand-up comics in underground bars might have said some outrageous things, but mainstream culture settled for stuff like TV series Holocaust or Schindler's List or PATTON or BIG RED ONE.

But, with the rise of TRASH or EXTREME CULTURE as the mainstream, it seems nothing has any value without a cachet of hipness and/or
Simpsons-ness to it. IB Southpark-izes or MTV-izes WWII and Nazi Evil. Hitler has been reduced to a villain in something like SWITCHBLADE SISTERS or CLEOPATRA JONES. And shockingly enough, Jews don't seem to be offended but are flattered that Jewish rage has been turned into something hip, cool, and slasher-movie-ish. (Jews may take delight in seeing Jewish characters kill Hitler, but they seem to miss the possibility that Nazism has been made cooler in the process as well. Comic book villains are cool as in we-love-to-hate-them.

When LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL came out, some wondered if Holocaust was a appropriate setting for a comedy. Some Jews--especially older ones--shook their heads, but the younger ones seem either flattered, enchanted, or grateful that Jewish plight would be presented in such warm and fuzzy-wuzzy manner. Ah, the age of Barney the Dino.

I'm for freedom of expression, and Tarantino should have the freedom to make whatever. That said, movies like IB are corrosive. Nothing is sacred anymore. It was one thing for Tarantino to rehash and recycle all the bad movies into more bad movies, but it's quite another for him to turn history itself into a cartoon.

This is especially depressing since his first film RESERVOIR DOGS--his one masterpiece--demonstrated his understanding of pain, fear, suffering.

Ever since, Tarantino has approached violence like Mussolini's son approached war. Musso's son wrote dumb poems about the thrill of war, and Tarantino makes movies about the wonders of violence. Neither served at the front.

Just look at the man. His bloated face looks like an anal cyst and he talks like one too. Yech.

Coen locker said...

the Coens, like their hero Stanley Kubrick, enjoy switching styles abruptly.

I would have to disagree. Kubrick switched genres, but his style as more or less consistent from beginning to end. Take the comedy-thriller THE KILLING, romance-drama LOLITA, the sci-fi epic 2001, historical drama Barry Lyndon, horror film THE SHINING, etc, and they are stylistically of one piece. There is a grand, even austere, formal strategy behind all of them. Whatever the genre, there's no mistaking the Kubrick style. Same could be said for Welles and Hitchcock.

The Coens, on the other hand, are more like Robert Altman who switched genres AND styles. MASH, IMAGES, MCCABE AND MRS MILLER, and NASHVILLE are very different. Coens may also be compared to the Japanese master Kon Ichikawa, who employed different styles for different films. The wild and crazy eclecticism of RAISING ARIZONA recalls the zaniess of Ickikawa's THE PHOENIX.

Even so, it would have been pretty easy to spot a Coen brothers movie until NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN(or maybe MAN WHO WASN'T THERE). The hallmarks were film school geekery, cartoonish characters, and convoluted situations verging on parody. For my money, O BROTHER is their sole masterpiece because the crazy material and wild execution made perfect partners. Musicals ARE supposed to be insane and crazy. (Their other movies work less well because their subject matter didn't call for overt kookery.)
And some of the musical interludes in O BROTHER were close to sublime, especially the scene with the hick sirens. That was really strange and surreal as opposed to merely kooky.

Brat Brothers said...

Moreover, in an era when the public enjoys the triumphs and traumas of megalomaniacal auteurs, the Coens are strangely lacking in marketable individuality. If I didn’t know that Joel is 55 and Ethan is 52, I would assume they were identical twins.

Actually, most directors--even the major auteurs--don't like to say much. Kubrick pretty much hid out in UK. Most French New Wave masters worked quietly. Of course, there were big personalities like Welles and Fellini, and Oliver Stone and Coppola--at least when he made Apocalypse Now. But, Lucas has been famously shy. Cameron has made big movies but hasn't really sought the limelight as a personality. Spielberg too tended to be low-key--relative to his mega-success anyway. And once Eastwood got behind the camera, he's been shooting than speaking.

So, I don't find anything special about the Coens' personality. They seem to fit into the general mold. Maybe their films are Harpo and Chico to the Coens' Groucho and Zeppo.

Btw, I've never been much of a fan of brothers working together, whether it be the Hughes Brothers or Wachowski brothers. There's something bunk-bed immature about this. I feel the same way about the Dardennes brothers. There's something dorky and dependent about this, like in the movie DEAD RINGERS.

Anonymous said...

http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/67/67coens.php

Article about the Coens. Didn't really care for it but has some interesting observations.

Pat Vlahos said...

Tarantino doesn’t actually know—or care—about anything other than movies. For example, the famous opening scene in which the Nazi colonel hunts down the last of the four Jewish dairy farming families in a lovely and remote part of the French countryside is bravura filmmaking.

As ridiculous as his movies are, maybe Tarantino has a point. At least we never mistake his movies for reality. There seems to be a kind of junkheap Brechtianism operating throughout his movies, whereby we are always reminded, 'this is for fun and laughs.'

In contrast, 'serious' movies like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, BEAUTIFUL MIND, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER, and REMEMBER THE TITANS seem real and deeply move people , but rudimentary search on the internet reveal them to be almost PURE FICTION.

Maybe it's more honest to serve up pulp fiction than pure fiction masquerading as 'true story'.

Yamster said...

"In contrast, A Serious Man provides a painfully detailed portrait of a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in 1967, with a collection of characters whose abrasiveness contrasts strikingly with the Coens’ own mildness."

It could be the Coens aren't mild-mannered behind closed doors and the Jews in A SERIOUS MAN could be mild-mannered out in public.

Anonymous said...

"The Movies about 350-Pound Black 16-Year-Olds: Precious and The Blind Side."

Save the Whale from Jail Movies.

Tommy said...

Fluff? Did you read the column on LA Homicide rates?

Anonymous said...

"You seem to be writing a lot of fluff lately."

You have fluff in your ears. Steve's been making some interesting cultural observations and his readers have been following up with more.

Simon said...

"Yet, it’s hard to avoid wondering, “What French Jewish rural dairy farmers? Were there any? How would they get to a synagogue on the Sabbath?”"

Maybe they weren't observant Jews, just racial Jews?

travis said...

The hallmarks were film school geekery, cartoonish characters, and convoluted situations verging on parody.

The word you're looking for is farce, and the Coens are masters of the form. (I would wager their favorite movie is Dr Strangelove.)

They are also something extraordinarily rare -- Jewish populists. At the center of their movies is always a decent ordinary American -- Larry Gopnik, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, Marge Gunderson, Marva Munson (in the underrated Ladykillers), The Dude, etc -- who are surrounded by an evil they cannot comprehend. Steve may be right, the brothers are working too fast; however, as I see it, the urgency of their message -- there is a storm on the horizon -- compels them to work with haste.

Anonymous said...

> You seem to be writing a lot of fluff lately. <

Steve can do fluff, he can do quant. Roll with it! You're in the hands of the master.

> most directors--even the major auteurs--don't like to say much <

I suspect the extrovert/introvert ratio is about the same among directors as it is among any other group of professionals. The average director only seems especially introverted as compared to the average thespian. (Add publicists' preference for the latter.) For all the quiet auteurs you cited, one might mention Hitchcock, Tarantino, Spike Lee... avid self-promoters, talking and talking and talking...

TGGP said...

I thought the Jewish characters John Turturro played in in Miller's Crossing and (to a lesser extent) Barton Fink were plenty loathable. Tony Shaloub (another gentile playing a Jew!) was great in the latter for his brief parts.

I don't think I've ever seen the whole of Carlito's Way, but the lawyer did seem worse than the mobsters. The mobsters had some loyalty and arguably some justification in their revenge (they really had been robbed and then two of their family murdered).

I once heard the Coen's say that they most identified with Steve Buscemi's character in Fargo, because he's so out of place. I always found that weird.

Fred said...

"In movies like Jurassic Park or Independence Day, it's some Jewish intellect or scientist who discovers the great secret or arrives at some profound observation."

You're talking about the same actor in both movies, Jeff Goldblum. But you're ignoring that in both movies there were smart, courageous and admirable non-Jews. For example, in Jurassic Park, Sam Neal's paleontologist character. Crichton never writes just one brilliant scientist into a story, because that scientist wouldn't have anyone intelligent to talk to.

The German director/co-writer of Independence Day, Roland Emmerich, didn't just put a Jewish character (Goldblum's engineer) in a favorable light -- he did so with the other two male leads, a courageous black pilot, and a calm, courageous WASP president *and* fighter pilot. You find it more odd and flattering that a Jewish nerd would figure something out about alien technology than that a WASP president climbs into a freaking fighter plane and leads the big assault on the aliens himself?

Steve Sailer said...

Yeah, "Independence Day" is just about the only movie where Bill Pullman gets to be a hero. Usually he's treated as the not quite good looking enough loser.

"ID" is very pro homo sapien / anti-tentacled alien.

Anonymous said...

"Yeah, "Independence Day" is just about the only movie where Bill Pullman gets to be a hero. Usually he's treated as the not quite good looking enough loser."

I think he was the hero in an eighties Wes Craven film about zombies (voodoo zombies not the virus/space kind) called the Serpent and the Rainbow. So that's two.

Mr. Anon said...

"Steve Sailer said...

Yeah, "Independence Day" is just about the only movie where Bill Pullman gets to be a hero. Usually he's treated as the not quite good looking enough loser."

And don't forget - he was the hero in "Spaceballs".

"Quentin Sucks said...

The success of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is rather sickening and says something about the overall Howard-Stern-ization or South-Park-ization of America."

I agree. Tarantino is exhibit A in the case that America is in moral decline. He is a pustule, and his movies are pus.

Regarding the frequency of unsympathetic characters in movies and television who are jewish, I believe it's true that their haven't been many.

The incompetent, martinet company commander in "Band of Brothers", Captain Sobel, springs to mind. Of course, that was work of non-fiction, and Sobel was an actual person (and complements must go to the writers, director, and producers, Steven Spielberg among them, for being honest with the facts).

Then there is anyone that Ron Silver ever played, although his characters often had WASP names (like MacComb, for christsakes!).

I'm not sure I could name too many unsympathetic characters who were overtly catholic, though I'm sure I could name more of those than unsympathetic jewish characters. As for unsympathetic protestants - well that isn't hard at all - there's practically nothing but.

Anonymous said...

Though movie nuts, maybe the sensibilities of the Coens and Tarantino owe as much if not more to rock music.

Inglorious Basterds is like one of those goofy Dylan songs about history and politics.
And, Serious Man is kinda like Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man. The character in the song is the subject of ridicule precisely because he is SO serious(or earnest). The main character of Coens' film might have forgotten the Jewish lesson that while it's okay to be thinkingly serious, it's not okay to be earnestly serious, at least for the Jew. Leave earnestness to the gentiles, especially Christians.

Anonymous said...

As ridiculous as INGLORIOUS BASTERDS may be as a war movie, could it be said that the Iraq War was planned and executed by inglorious reterds?

But, the joke doesn't end there. As if it weren't enough for Bush to be an ingloious reterd, he had to be a SERIOUS reterd, like the guy in Coen's movie.
But, it must be said, Bush, like Job, stuck to it to the end despite everything going wrong.

Gumster said...

Coens made some 'serious' movies before, but they weren't about Jews and felt as if seen from the outside by amused voyeurs. The new movie may have the feel of a world seen from the INSIDE since Coens too are Jewish.

It could be Woody Allen finally made a decent serious movie with CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS because instead of seeing people from the outside--as with his movie about cold wasps--, he saw things from the inside with the Martin Landau character.

Coppola also did better with movies about Italians than with other kinds. Godfather is his greatest film.

Scorsese too. He made some fine films about non-Italians--Age of Innocence, Kundun, etc--, but they feel as if made by a fascinated outsider. But, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver get the Italian-American or the NY street scene perfectly. It's like Scorsese knows all the angles from the inside.

Anonymous said...

OT.

Excellent exegis on Inglorious Basterds:

http://www.thornwalker.com/ditch/nowicki_basterds.htm

Templar said...

Tarantino's is a rather interesting case to consider, since, beneath the deluge of snappy dialogue and self-conscious movie self-referentialisms, his films are rife with elements that are quite phenomenally in opposition to the Hollywood ethos. Consider Bruce Willis taking vengeance on a homosexual rapist with a katana in Pulp Fiction, the similarly-armed and significantly ├╝ber-Aryan Uma Thurman slaughtering her black and Asian former associates in Kill Bill, to say nothing of the respective depictions of the Jewish and German characters from Inglorious Basterds, and yet despite this, he's one of the most critically-acclaimed directors working today.

Anonymous said...

"In many cases, Jewish characters are played by handsome gentiles"

If you're offering a deal wherein Jewish characters will never again be played by "handsome gentiles", but on the other hand, Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Logan Lerman, Paul Rudd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and all other handsome Jewish actors will play a thoroughly explicitly Jewish character in every movie they ever do - I'll take that deal any day!