In a lot of ways, the experience of meeting Joel and Ethan Coen is much like watching one of their films. This hadn’t occurred to me until I saw their latest work, A Serious Man — largely because I also hadn’t met the Coen brothers until then either — which is being widely described as autobiographical in nature. On the surface, this assessment seems entirely appropriate: the film takes place against a backdrop of Jewish suburban life in the American Midwest in the 1970s, wholly mirroring the basic elements of the Coens’ childhood upbringing. What I couldn’t understand after seeing the picture for the first time, though, was how anyone could capture the era of their teenage years quite so dispassionately.
A Serious Man is excellent — of that there is no doubt — and perhaps even brilliant, but it is also cold and unyielding; a film to be admired, rather than loved, and underneath a surface of sentimental nostalgia and Jefferson Airplane records are deep reserves of misanthropy.
Speaking to them a few hours afterwards delivered me of much of my confusion. Joel and Ethan keep journalists at arms length even more firmly than their film does with its audience. Even the most innocuous questions are met with a frown and the pained silence of men who are not accustomed to having to explain themselves.
It’s practically laughable to think that anyone could argue that this film is not a more thoughtful or personal one than Burn After Reading, their last work, but neither Coen seems willing to concede even this much. To begin with, Joel — who is married to Frances McDormand, a frequent star of the brothers’ films — does most of the grimacing, while Ethan, the younger sibling by three years, watches impassively. Do they consider this a particularly personal or autobiographical film?
“Well… it’s a little bit of both. It’s not really autobiographical, because the story is made up. But it certainly is a movie that takes place in a community that consciously recreates the one we grew up in. There are a lot of similarities to our own background — we went to Hebrew school, we were Bar Mitzvah-ed, our father was an academic — he was a professor at a university… we grew up in a house like that, in a neighbourhood like that. All those things I guess you could say were autobiographical.” That certainly sounds pretty autobiographical to me, but Joel’s last sentence comes out rather reluctantly; like he has given away a bit too much and wants to backtrack.
The academic in question is portrayed superlatively by Michael Stuhlbarg, an almost unknown actor whose background lies mostly in theatre. His character, Larry Gopnik, is in the midst of a deep, almost existential crisis brought, on by the world at large seemingly conspiring against him: his wife announces that she wishes to leave him for an insufferable, dulcet-toned fool who, to add insult to injury, is constantly described as being a serious man himself; his brother — a slightly deranged, unemployed layabout — won’t get off his couch; his chance at tenure is being threatened by a blackmailing student; and the rabbi to whom he is constantly being referred won’t answer Michael’s calls.
Writing in The New Yorker, David Denby — in one of the rare negative reviews — described the prevailing atmosphere of A Serious Man as “distant, dry and shriveling … so drably unappealing that you begin to wonder what kind of disgust the brothers are working off”. Certainly, the filmmakers seem to delight in the torment being inflicted upon Larry, a sort of modern-day Job being tested not just by God, but by everyone and everything around him. It’s hard to completely dismiss the charges of nihilism being leveled, although both Joel and Ethan are emphatic that this misses the point:
“I don’t know why you’d call it misanthropic. It’s about a character looking for some kind of meaning, and getting repeatedly stymied in that quest, but, y’know… that’s the story — the character doesn’t achieve any clarity or get a grasp on any kind of meaning that’s satisfying for him, but that’s just the story we were telling rather than any kind of larger expression.”
At other times, though, they can be masters of the non-answer. It’s easy to get the feeling that neither Coen likes being tied down to any observation about their working process, and the number of times Ethan manages to contradict himself without pausing for breath is truly impressive. Do they see an arc forming out of their genre-spanning career; a maturation of sorts?
“We don’t really compare movies one to the other or think about it much. And maturing? God, who knows? They’re all equally juvenile to me. I don’t know, maybe not. Some of them are more genre-pieces than others, but this isn’t the only one that doesn’t necessarily sit in a genre. For us, that’s a pretty unexamined question — we don’t actually think about where we’re going, or relate the movies to each other or see how they’re progressing. Or regressing.”
It’s hard to believe such self-effacing modesty given their many accolades, but the causal dismissal of any kind of forethought is delivered with a straight face. Maybe the Coens really do give such little consideration to what motivates them in their choices. By the end of our time together, I’ve decided that both brothers simply have a pathological aversion to giving straightforward answers. The next morning, I hear them speaking to Evan Davis on Radio 4’s Today programme. Unsurprisingly, they’re asked a lot of the same questions. What is interesting, though, is that although they respond differently — monosyllables evidently get boring — they still don’t give any real answers.
When I asked whether either believes there to have been a pinnacle to their working relationship over the twenty years they have made films together — any one project they are particularly proud of — Ethan is quick to shrug off the notion:
“In our working relationship? We hit the pinnacle a long time ago! No, honestly it doesn’t feel like it’s changed at all.”
Davis asks a similar question, albeit less apologetically phrased — “I’ve got to ask this: which is your favourite Coen brothers movie?” — and even though this time they dance around the subject a little (“It brings to mind that famous quote of Marlon Brando’s…”), quite possibly at the insistence of a PR minder who has told them they have to be nice to the radio man, they are resistant; masters of evasion.
In many ways, it is refreshing to meet people who still have such faith in film as a medium — who believe that a story can and should speak for itself; that those who work behind and in front of the cameras have no obligation to provide any insights beyond those which they commit to film — and one gets the sense that Joel and Ethan genuinely believe this in earnest, as opposed to, say, deciding to be contrarians for sport.
Still, it feels like that, for as long as they remain quite so averse to the thought of being under any form of scrutiny, their films seem likely to remain — no matter how technically proficient — little more than objects to appreciate from afar.