October 1, 2009
Coen Brothers make fun of their movies, their fans, Judaism...
The funniest and most aggravating interview subjects working in movies today have got to be the Coen Brothers. Getting them to talk in a revealing, insightful way about their movies seems to be just about impossible. The experience of interviewing the Coens about what their movies mean is probably not far off from asking a marginally observant Jew to explain exactly what's so important about circumcision.
They're doing press for A Serious Man, which comes out tomorrow, but the interviews shed more light on how much fun it would be to hang out with these guys in regular life, and not so much on the writing/directing movies part.
In an interview in Time Out, they reveal that they wrote this screenplay at the same time they were doing Burn After Reading and No Country For Old Men, which is pretty funny if you think back to how many critics slammed Burn for being inconsequential and fluffy compared to the weighty metaphysics of No Country. Both were funny, dark movies about ordinary people trying to get something more than what life has offered them, and failing completely. The main characters either end up right back where they started, or burned from their failure, or dead. You could say that about most of their movies. Yeah, I liked No Country better, but both movies were perfect examples of what the Coens are good at.
But after that big reveal, and the statement that "There’s a big difference between 'prairie' Jews and coastal Jews," (a big difference they don't define), they go on to jab the Big Lebowski fans who participate in Lebowskifests in bowling alleys across the country:
"'Gopnikfest' has a nice ring to it, I think," his brother muses.
"They could have them in Vegas, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv…" Joel continues.
"…and you’d drink Manischewitz every time a character says 'Meshbesher,'" Ethan adds, referring to the film's oft-mentioned unseen lawyer.
Other useful information: Joel calls his wife Frances McDormand "Frannie" (??!!).
A reporter for the Canadian press asked them if they considered themselves serious men, and Ethan replied, "I don't think either of us would. I don't know. It's just, you know, the weakness for fart jokes and the like."
A Serious Man has zero big stars in it, which after the superstar megacast of Burn After Reading should make for a less distracting, undiluted Coen experience. Sort of like Blood Simple.
The Times has done two features about A Serious Man lately, neither of them reviews. One from a week or so ago is structured like an interview with the filmmakers, though since they offer so little in the way of insightful comments, ends up being a musing about the Jewishness of this movie and other Coen Brothers movies. The brothers do report that their professor father ate bacon in his Welsh rarebit at the campus restaurant, and that they used to sneak ham at their neighbor's house. They seem to acknowledge that this movie is in part about what it means to be Jewish (it includes a disclaimer: "No Jews were hurt in the making of this motion picture") but they brush off speculation that other movies like Miller's Crossing make any kind of Jewish statement, or as is sometimes speculated, anti-Jewish statement.
The Coens obviously aren't anti-Jewish, but they clearly take pleasure in the suffering and misery of their lead characters. "For us," Ethan said, "the fun was inventing new ways to torment Larry."
Then today A.O. Scott came out with a feature on Jewishness in recent movies, which is really great. He looks at Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen in Funny People and everybody in A Serious Man, and notices the two movies could have traded titles. And he has to bring up Inglourious Basterds: "now even the Holocaust has become a safe subject for pure entertainment."
Both Times features begin with Jewish jokes, but A.O. Scott's is better, and it sounds like it could be the opening quote of the movie: "'Why does a Jew answer a question with a question?' my grandfather — an atheist, a socialist and a righteous man in the best Biblical sense — used to ask. 'Why not?'"
UPDATE: A.O. Scott wrote one of the best reviews he's ever written for A Serious Man, and also has really smart things to say about the Coens' movies in general. Good stuff.
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