Sunday, October 25, 2009

Culminating Experiences (A Serious Man, The Class, and Shotgun Stories)


(Spoilers for all.)

I fell hard early on for Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man. It may have been the thrilling transition from a Yiddish folktale to 1960s America via Jefferson Airplane that hooked me; or when Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has to deal with an indignant student who won't take an "F" for an answer; or the time his encroaching, gun-toting neighbors return from hunting with a large bloody deer strapped to the top of their station wagon. While not Jewish, I have been accused of a persecution complex (they're always saying that!), have experienced emotional blackmail from undergrads (though, regrettably, not outright monetary bribery), and I once lived next to encroaching, gun-toting neighbors who tied a large bloody deer to a tree outside our door (in all fairness, it was Thanksgiving). A Serious Man proves the adage that by being as specific as possible art can become universal.

Lord knows the Coens are nothing if not specific. After fourteen films in twenty-five years, they have established themselves as enthusiasts of screwball comedy and film noir, masters of regional dialects, impeccable re-creators of cultural eras, traffickers of pitch-black humor in an uncaring universe. This last quality has earned them the frequent accusation that they have contempt for their characters. I don't think this is true, but A Serious Man is unquestionably their most personal film, as warm as it is merciless. Throughout, Larry is besieged by personal calamities (possible health problems and gathering storms), not insignificant injuries (infidelity from his spouse, anonymous hostile letters to his tenure review board) and petty insults (moving to a fleabag hotel, paying for his wife's lover's funeral). What's gone unnoticed in many reviews is that everyone else (his son, his brother) is enduring troubles as well. This gives Larry's determination to solider on a hint of backbone that compensates for his at-times infuriating meekness.

A Serious Man is, along with No Country for Old Men, the second Coen picture in three years to leave out their familiar stable of actors (Clooney, Goodman, Turturro, Buscemi, et al.), and the cast of mostly unknowns acquit themselves ably. Stuhlbarg is a winning, affecting presence as the tormented Larry; Fred Melamed is memorable as Sy Ableman, the unctuous lover of Larry's wife; Aaron Wolff, as Larry's son Danny, has a terrific sequence where he shows up stoned for his own bar mitzvah.

Perhaps it's the lack of stars that make the Coens seem more empathic this time around. Whatever the case, they've moved past their creative funk from earlier this decade (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), have honed their craft to the point where their effects -- occasionally strained in the past -- now feel effortless. A Serious Man is a great comedy, a model of elegant structure, with "Somebody to Love" the most original use of an overly familiar pop song since Wong Kar-Wai employed "California Dreamin'" in Chungking Express. This song, its lyrics lined with lingering questions, underlines the recurring theme of the film -- the "uncertainty principle" at the basis of Larry's convoluted mathematical theorems, or the hilarious suggestion by one character that Larry stop trying to decipher a circular argument and simply "accept the mystery." I've been off and on about the Coen brothers for their entire career and frequently don't trust my initial reactions to their movies, but with A Serious Man I feel no such ambiguity: It's a masterpiece.

Laurent Cantet's The Class, winner of the 2008 Palme d'Or at Cannes and a Best Foreign Film nominee this past year, is fabulous in a completely different way. The teacher here, a Parisian high school French instructor Francois Marin (played by real-life version Francois Begaudeau, and as I write his name I can almost hear that old man from Amelie emphasize, "Begaudeau, not Bedaugeau"), is no mild mannered Larry Gopnik. Faced daily by an unruly melting pot of middle-school students, Mr. Marin creates an atmosphere of civil disobedience: by making them follow certain rules (no wearing hats, hands must always be raised to ask a question), he lets them argue their points with more freedom and vocality than you would expect. He's a gifted, challenging teacher, but also one who employs the kind of withering mockery that (he is told more than once) sometimes crosses the line.

As a fictional year in the life of actual teachers and students, it's only natural that The Class take a documentary approach to its subject, with hand-held cameras that blessedly don't draw attention to their jitteriness. Cantet's focus is entirely on the classroom dynamics, with intimations but no concrete revelations of the characters' personal lives. A question of Mr. Marin's sexual preference is deftly volleyed back to the student with a reply that may or may not be true. A once engaged student turns sullen and disrespectful and back again without explanation. A troublemaker in the back row enjoys a brief artistic triumph only to revert back to hostility.

The final act of The Class gets a little creaky with the plot mechanics, narrowing its expansive themes down to an expulsion hearing, but it manages to subvert expectations anyway. The anticipated Rousing Speech, followed by Slow Clap, never materializes. And the incident that leads to the hearing is ugly and ambiguous, with Mr. Marin sharing the blame. It's a fitting irony that an uncompromising language instructor would misunderstand a word he himself fatally uses. At the same time, when you're under siege as constantly as he is, it's remarkable that he didn't slip up sooner. The Class is a probing, troubling study of the high price of small mistakes.

The makers of Bubble and Old Joy must have watched Jeff Nichols's Shotgun Stories (2007) resembling the kind of slack-jawed yokels they depict onscreen. A movie about economically despairing Americans with enthusiasms, hobbies, interests! The central narrative -- a deadly blood feud between two sets of brothers following the death of their mutual father -- holds your attention the way an effective plot device should. Yet the lovely passages in between, where characters go to work, coach basketball, count cards, play movie trivia, and cultivate relationships form the film's real subject.

The main trio of siblings (played without a trace of condescension by Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, and Barlow Jacobs) is developed far more than the other group (from their father's second marriage), and I think Shotgun Stories would have been even better had we been given more reasons of why they loved their father as much as the former brothers hated him. It's still a terrific movie, though, reminiscent in tone to Carl Franklin's One False Move -- a "masculine" story that doesn't neglect its female characters, a depiction of squalor that still acknowledges the ravishing beauty of its rural Arkansas setting. Most movingly, Shotgun Stories depicts the tragic consequences of violence while also radically suggesting, in the end, that familial devotion needn't make one trapped by fate.

21 comments:

Steven Santos said...

"A Serious Man" has been the movie dominating my thoughts during what's been a disappointing fall movie season. You brought up a point that I also made in my own piece that the film is universal. I am more unfamiliar with Judaism than other religions, but never had any issues relating to this film, which truly demonstrate what was so special about this film.

I also feel it is a movie I will revisit often and my interpretation of it will change depending where I am in my life. A great film.

I saw "Shotgun Stories" earlier this year and was impressed by it, particularly an ending that avoids the obvious place where that story would usually go. Looking forward to "The Class" which is near the top of my Netflix queue.

Craig said...

The Coens fascinate me in that I never know how I'm going to respond to one of their movies. This is probably sacrilege, but I'm not a fan of "The Big Lebowski." For me it has an in-jokey opaqueness that's a problem with some of their other films, and lets John Goodman (an actor I normally admire) run amok; I find him hard to watch. On the other hand, I think I was too hard on "Burn After Reading" the first time around. I saw it again on DVD and somehow it seemed much funnier. I agree with your excellent review that their last three films represent the strongest run of their career. I think "A Serious Man" may be the best movie they've ever made: as I wrote, it's personal in a way that even the most expertly crafted of their other movies are not. It's also funny as hell, filled with classic scenes of people in positions of authority spouting nonsense from behind their desks ("Look at the parking lot, Larry!") that have become a Coen Bros. specialty.

Will be curious to see what you think of "The Class." I greatly admire the conclusion of "Shotgun Stories" too. It gives the lie to what I call "Upham's Law" (from Saving Private Ryan), which claims that a sensitive, thoughtful man really isn't a man until he kills somebody in cold blood. Clearly Nichols thinks that's bullshit.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm glad Steven commented here, because I need to go back and read his A Serious Man piece.

My thoughts are still coming together on the movie. I've seen it twice, and I understand the movie better but my feelings about the movie are as mysterious as ever, something I'll get into on my review.

I didn't care for Burn After Reading; I mean, I didn't dislike it, but it didn't grab me (I'm not a big fan of Frances McDormand, and I'm one of those who didn't think Brad Pitt's performance in the film was funny, even though I'm usually a fan of Pitt's. These things probably didn't help. Anyway...)

The humor of A Serious Man is interesting; another thing I'll explore in my review. There are several parts that got great laughs the first time through (hilarious? not sure I'd go that far), and then there are parts that I didn't even smile at the first time but laughed at the second time. This might be the Fargo, Big Lebowski, etc., effect. Somehow the Coens create 'jokes' that are funnier when you know they're coming, when you've seen the full work. It took me at least three viewings of Big Lebowski to even kind of like it. But now I do. (I'm not one of its super fans, and there are parts that annoy me, but I have a warmth for that movie now. Strange.)

All this rambling is to get here: I don't quite understand how Coen movies work. They repeatedly create similar responses wherein one's appreciation grows or alters upon repeated viewings, but I can't solve the mystery of how they create this response.

On The Class ... Ditto. Well said.

Craig said...

Somehow the Coens create 'jokes' that are funnier when you know they're coming, when you've seen the full work.

I'd go so far as to say they don't really write jokes at all (and your quotations indicates you're saying the same thing), they create situations that are funny due to certain elements or a particular context. Sometimes the tone of their stuff is off for me - over-the-top hollering generally grates on my nerves -- but I was perfectly in synch with "A Serious Man," which is, for the most part, played in a poker-faced deadpan.

I don't quite understand how Coen movies work. They repeatedly create similar responses wherein one's appreciation grows or alters upon repeated viewings, but I can't solve the mystery of how they create this response.

Maybe because there's nothing to compare their movies to but themselves. Even within their own body of work, each film is so markedly different from the last: What links "Raising Arizona" with "Miller's Crossing" with "Barton Fink" with "No Country for Old Men" with "O' Brother, Where Art Thou?" besides the names of the filmmakers who made them? In the case of "A Serious Man," I think David Edelstein is right that it's "the missing piece of the Coen brothers puzzle." As someone else wrote, the film gives you hints of who they are, or at least where they came from.

Additionally, I'm predisposed to like movies that subvert my expectations. All three movies I've reviewed here accomplish this.

You like "The Big Lebowski" now, huh? Wasn't that a topic for one of your "WTF" posts?

Steven Santos said...

I don't quite know how Coen Brothers movies work. I do feel, regardless of how I feel about their films, that what's on the screen is there for a reason. Even the greatest directors have those moments when you feel they're winging it. Something like "O Brother" which I didn't like at all, I still had to admit that I understood why they made the choices they made.

"A Serious Man" was the first time I read their script before seeing the film, but their reputation for having the final product match their final draft was true with this one, as only about 2 or 3 short scenes were taken out. I marvel at their ability to create films so tightly constructed on the page, but still don't feel overly constrained on the screen.

Also, I like "Lebowski", but think it's no more than a great collection of gags. Never understood why so many pick it as their favorite Coen film, much like I don't get those who pick "The Shining" as their favorite Kubrick film. I find both films to be rather superficial compared to those director's other works.

Jason Bellamy said...

On Lebowski: Yes it was a WTF post (a concept I need to get back to, and hope too soon, actually). And it does still apply, because I still don't understand how people saw that once and thought it was utterly awesome and wanted to see it again; which is what needs to happen for something to become a cult classic. However, catching bits here and there on TV and stuff, I'm now finding myself with favorite scenes or lines that I remember. It's been a strange metamorphosis. I wouldn't feel right calling myself a fan, but I kind of understand it's appeal now. I think. Maybe not. These Coens are confusing.

Fernando F. Croce said...

A Serious Man is great. In fact, with all due apologies to Coen-heads, it is to me the first film of theirs to really deserve to be called "great." I think much of it has to do with how their usually jaundiced distance from characters is enriched and complicated by truly personal feelings toward identity, doubt, and cosmic unknowabilty. Oddly enough, I thought that it succeeded in saying what No Country for Old Men only huffed and puffed about. And it beautifully balances their twin impulses for snarky comedy and grave tragedy, often quite breathtakingly within the same scene.

And I see nothing wrong with holding a director's so-called "superficial" movie as my favorite of their works. First of all, "superficial" is a relative term (one man's Matisse is another man's Screech, as a comic once said). And besides, it's possible to appreciate one film as an artist’s fullest articulation of a worldview while personally preferring to revisit another work. I see that L’Avventura holds everything that Antonioni wants to say about life, and I still prefer La Signora Senza Camelie.

Who knew "Somebody to Love" had such profound lyrics? And the tornado at the end. Oh man...

Craig said...

Fernando-

A Serious Man is great. In fact, with all due apologies to Coen-heads, it is to me the first film of theirs to really deserve to be called "great."

I would rate "No Country" up there with "A Serious Man." On the next tier, I'm very fond of "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing," and, oddly enough, "Barton Fink."

Coen movies I don't care for: "Lebowski," "Hudsucker Proxy," "O' Brother" (ditto, Steven), and, at rock bottom, "The Ladykillers." They hit a rough patch in the first half of this decade, but they've come out of it in a big way.

And I see nothing wrong with holding a director's so-called "superficial" movie as my favorite of their works....I see that L’Avventura holds everything that Antonioni wants to say about life, and I still prefer La Signora Senza Camelie.

I am sincerely in awe of your range. Replace "Antonioni" with "Apatow," and sub your two titles with, respectively, Knocked Up and Walk Hard, and you'd have my version of that statement.

Craig said...

Jason-

Yes it was a WTF post (a concept I need to get back to, and hope too soon, actually).

I had assumed that the new "Weekly Rant" was a permutation of "WTF," but perhaps the two can coexist peacefully.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, kind of. I think if I do a WTF, I'd use that as the week's rant. When I say I need to get back to it, I'm pretty much referring to the movies floating in my head that I want to WTF.

Edward Copeland said...

I loved the Coens' first three films and mostly liked Barton Fink, but then I started to sour on them with Hudsucker Proxy. Each film seemed to have too much snark and to be another variation of a kidnapping/murder story with characters with accents who seemed dumb but spoke in unusually florid language. I even skipped some of their films. No Country seemed to mark a new phase. Very little if any snark and it also came the same year as their great short in Paris, I Love You. I thought Burn After Reading felt like a step backward, but A Serious Man is a marvelous move in an entirely new direction from them. I hope it bodes well for the future, though it concerns me that they've been linked to a remake of True Grit. Why?

Craig said...

Ed - Yeah, I don't get the "True Grit" thing either. "The Ladykillers," at least, had the type of black comic humor they enjoy, even if the results were disastrous. The Coens can make pretty much any movie they want, and they want to remake "True Grit"? Steven Spielberg wants to redo "Harvey"? Why indeed.

"A Serious Man," though: When it was over, I thought: "Classic."

Jason Bellamy said...

On True Grit: I read somewhere that the Coens' version was going to be 'closer to the book and funnier,' whatever that means. Considering that The Big Lebowski is somewhat inspired by The Big Sleep and A Serious Man is somewhat inspired by the Bible, I suspect that the Coens' True Grit might only resemble the original by being a Western. I presume it'll be pretty unique. We'll see.

Craig said...

Jason: Yeah, good point. I was initially horrified by the thought of George Clooney wearing an eyepatch. The Western is one of the few remaining genres the Coens haven't tackled (unless you count No Country for Old Men, which I don't), so why not?

Edward Copeland said...

We actually read True Grit in junior high for Oklahoma History class (too long ago for me to remember much), but I don't remember being too impressed by it or finding it that different from the movie. In fact, I found the novel paled to some of the Louis L'amour novels I'd read when bored at my grandma's.

Craig said...

Is it possible the Coens are just jerking people's chains about "True Grit"? Like a reporter asked them what they're working on and they made it up on the spot? They're famous for doing this: when asked what "Miller's Crossing" was about, they replied: "Well, it's about hats. Wearing hats. And putting them on. It's all about hats." (Which, I recognize, is somewhat true.)

They're also associated with an adaptation of Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." Now that I believe.

RC said...

I haven't seen shotgun stories - but I can go for yockels every now and again.

Hokahey said...

Your review of A Serious Man is one of the best I've read - it more clearly delineates - in your first paragraph - the touching or affecting aspects of this film - which, unfortunately, didn't reach me. Whereas, before, my comments have been along the lines of "the Coens failed to touch/affect me on this one," now I can see that I might have missed something and maybe the film deserves a re-viewing.

The Class is my favorite teaching movie - and I speak from experience (this is my 34th year of teaching). I really identified with the teacher. He had a passion - but it got him into trouble sometimes. Reminds me of me.

True Grit - there are aspects of the novel that would fit nicely into a more realistic Coen brothers' re-imagining of the story and I will be open to it. But if the bros are just pulling the wool over our eyes - first of all, shame on them for being so condescending in public; second, I'm fine with the Henry Hathaway version being the only one; it's a great movie (and it's already funny as intended - and even somewhat cynical).

Craig said...

Thanks for responding, Hokahey. You didn't comment on "Shotgun Stories," so I first have to ask have you seen it? It's an interesting, atmospheric movie that concludes in a very unexpected way. I'd be curious what you think of it.

I'm high on "The Class" as well, particularly its ambiguities and adamant refusal to be inspirational. That teacher is talented, but also one reckless dude.

I'm agnostic on "True Grit." But as I mentioned earlier, if it's Clooney wearing an eyepatch, I'm outta there.

Hokahey said...

Haven't seen Shotgun Stories. Sounds interesting though.

I'm with you on Clooney in an eye patch.

Craig said...

Your review of A Serious Man is one of the best I've read - it more clearly delineates - in your first paragraph - the touching or affecting aspects of this film - which, unfortunately, didn't reach me. Whereas, before, my comments have been along the lines of "the Coens failed to touch/affect me on this one," now I can see that I might have missed something and maybe the film deserves a re-viewing.

Thanks very much, though as always with the Coens (and despite what I originally wrote), I'm now wondering whether my initial opinion will change. They're slippery bastards, hard to pin down. Right now, however, A Serious Man is my second favorite film of the year.