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The Coens are Seriously wrong

From Daniel Quiles, Chicago:

SpoilersAfter a screening of the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man," I heard some of my fellow moviegoers lamenting the film's portrayal of suburban Minnesotan Jews circa 1967. This is a concern echoed by, among others, Ella Taylor at The Village Voice: that the grotesqueries on hand somehow amount to “Ugly Jew” stereotypes. I would have to disagree with these assessments. As a Jew who grew up in suburban New Jersey, I found the portrayal of middle-class ethnic self-enclosure here hilariously familiar, warts and all. In the character of the protagonist's son, Danny Gopnik, I saw a gesture in the vein of Fellini's Amarcord: a dreamlike reflection on the filmmakers' childhoods in which certain features of a milieu are exaggerated or defamiliarized, but lovingly so. This dimension of recollection is set alongside a structure that should be familiar to any follower of the Coen Brothers' best films: a naïve or innocent character (think Marge from "Fargo") is brought face to face with inexplicable acts of human cruelty. And it is precisely this signature approach that I have realized I have a problem with.

It is true that, as some have remarked, Larry Gopnik undergoes a Job-like series of hardships that send his life into a downward spiral. He has done nothing to deserve them, so it is as though a merciless and/or sadistic God (the directors?) is merrily dispensing them. But look again. These misfortunes—his wife leaving him for another man, his student bribing and threatening him, his brother and children stealing his hard-earned money—are caused by other people. Larry’s reaction throughout is the wrong one. He is perplexed that such awful things “are happening,” but cannot even bear to ask the real question: why are these people doing this to him? The quandary only appears to be about God and what chance events might befall us—the real issue is quite terrestrial, and far more sinister—why do those who are supposed to love us, those family members or neighbors who should treat us ethically, sometimes perpetrate evil toward us?

This theme is hinted at not in the movie’s endless references to Jewish theology but in the Jefferson Airplane song that the oldest rabbi, Marshak, quotes toward the end of the film: “When the truth is found / to be lies / and all the joy within you/ dies / don’t you want somebody to love?” Larry’s truth—that he has led a moral life and done nothing to hurt anyone—is revealed as a “lie” insofar as such a life does not shield one from the cruelty of others. As in David Lynch’s films, which Dennis Hopper has termed “American Surrealism,” the suburbs emerge as a place in which nightmarish violence takes place beneath a veneer of peace and manners. Sy, the monster who steals Larry’s wife and turns out to be writing vicious letters about him to the tenure board, always welcomes him with a gentle hug. A racist device from "Fargo" — the Asian character who defies our expectations to overachieve and is instead revealed as incompetent and deceitful — is reprised in "A Serious Man" just to reinforce this point: behind appearances, the violence. But why?

It is this ineffability of evil—the bottom line of "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men" also—that I have a problem with. The Coen Brothers seem to be arguing that selfishness and cruelty, what we could call “anti-love,” cannot be explained: they are evidence of an amoral and ravaging God in our midst. The psychopathic killers in these earlier movies are driven by a primordial violence, like the killer-for-hire in "Raising Arizona" or the bully who chases Danny on a daily basis in "A Serious Man." The latter’s face is only seen in the apocalyptic final seconds; he looks like a zombie, devoid of compassion or humanity.

Is this not, however, a mystification of horrible acts? Is evil really some sublime category or blind spot that we cannot look in the face for fear of divine retribution? Is it really true that we have no answers, and that those whose job it is to provide them must only respond with obtuse parables?

This film made me feel for Michael Moore, the artless explainer. Where is the room for those monstrous deeds—and we have seen our share in the past decade—for which there is an explanation? And wouldn’t it be all the more scandalous, and horrifying, to realize that most such deeds do, in fact, have causes; that the “little bit of money” that Marge dismisses as motivation in "Fargo" is, for most, more than enough reason?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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