I worked for the Coen brothers for a little over a year, first as their personal assistant and then as an assistant film editor on The Big Lebowski. I didn’t become lasting friends with them but I got to know them some and had as good a time working for them as I did for anyone else in my short career in the movie business. They were definitely Jewish and definitely New Yorkers but they weren’t Jewish New Yorkers, not like any of the Jews I grew up around. They were from somewhere else, no place I knew from, a place with space and open sky. A place where there was a lot of silence and even more time for thinking.
I remember being in Joel’s apartment one time when I saw a small black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall. The picture, which must have been taken in the late Fifties or early Sixites, was of a man wearing slacks–pulled up high, a buttoned-up shortsleeve shirt, tie. But the photograph turned foggy at the man’s neckline and you could not see his head at all. Eraser head. It was a striking image but one that happened by accident–one of those in-camera mishaps, or maybe a screw-up at the developers.
Joel told me that he had taken the picture and the man in it was his father.
I looked at it was thought about what an artist friend once told me about the Coens. “They make pictures,” he said. Their gift for the arresting image developed way back.
I looked at the picture of Mr. Coen and Joel said, “Yeah, this pretty much says it all about my dad.”
A Serious Man is the Coen’s latest movie and it is the most personal movie they’ve ever made and one of the most Jewish movies I’ve ever seen. I don’t know that it is autobiographical in any literal sense, but it feels knowing in a special, intimate way. In a fine review for the L.A. Times, Kenneth Turan writes:
Writer-directors Joel and Ethan have seized the opportunity afforded by the Oscar-winning success of “No Country for Old Men,” to make their most personal, most intensely Jewish film, a pitch-perfect comedy of despair that, against some odds, turns out to be one of their most universal as well.
Set in a very specific time and place — the Jewish community in suburban Minneapolis circa 1967 — that closely echoes the Coens’ own background, “A Serious Man” is a memory piece re-imagined through the darkest possible lens.
Yet the more the man of the title suffers the torments of Job, the more he tries to deal with the unknowability of the usual willfully absurd and decidedly hostile Coen universe, the more we’re encouraged to wonder if this isn’t just the tiniest bit funny. And the more real the pain becomes, the more, in a quintessentially Jewish way, laughter becomes our only serious option.
The movie is full of Jewish tradition and detail. And while it can be grotesque it isn’t mean-spirited or self-loathing. It is about passive-aggresive Jewish men and over-bearing Jewish women. It is about how important thinking, being a thinker, is for Jews, about having a moral center, about questioning the universe, and how in the end, none of the big, existential questions really matter. Unless, of course, they do. It is about dreams and the unconscious and mystery.
My father’s family is Jewish but I never had a bar mitzvah and the only time I went to Temple was once a year to visit my grandparents on the high holidays. I can’t relate with much of the spiritual and moral questioning that defines many Jews, like my grandfather for instance. When I think back on this movie I’m not drawn to trying to figure any of it out, necessarily, though I could see why some people would. Still, I feel eager to talk about it. It’s of those movies that you just want to talk about when you leave the theater.
I think it is one of the most successful movies the Coen’s have ever made. It is beautifully realized, disturbing, and often hilarious. The performances, the writing, the pacing, the images, are all wonderful. The Coens have rarely been integrated high and low culture as seemlessly as they have here. The movie feels fantastic and surreal, rational and irrational: completely authentic.
When it was over, I felt happy and content, even though the ending is a doozy. After the credits finished rolling (one of the last credits read, “No Jews were harmed during the making of this film”), an old woman who was sitting in front of me said, “Marvelous,” in a husky New York accent. The lights came on and I saw her face. “Simply marvelous.” She was wearing a blue wrap around her head and couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. She turned to her friend and said, “That might be the sadest movie that I’ve ever seen, don’t you think?” And it was sad in a way though I didn’t feel sad or depressed. I felt satisfied.
The pictures and sounds and stories in the movie were stimulating, and I felt like staying put and watching it again.