Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Sadism of the Coens

The Coen Brothers have always had a flair for the mystical and for the quantum-physical in their films. And since there are implications in quantum physics that reality is created by our own consciousness - something the Coens are surely aware of - I have to wonder what motivates the Coen Brothers to choose to create such a miserable bunch of unhappy people in their stories, time and time again.

Are they geniuses? Yes. Are they master filmmakers? Yes. Are they like a giant machine spewing a river of negativity into the ocean of pop culture? Well... yes.

After renting A Serious Man earlier this year, I finally encountered something I never thought I'd see - a Coen film that I couldn't sit through.

In A Serious Man, we're shown a Physics professor named Larry Gopnik, circa 1967, whose life is rapidly falling apart. Rather artlessly, the film seems to exude glee about depicting a long and numbing series of cruel events. The Chris Ware line that I've invoked so often it's become my own - "like being hit in the face with a wet oven mitt over and over" - couldn't be more applicable here. Even the trailer for the film focuses on a scene with Larry's colleague Sy slamming his face into a chalkboard with metronomic repetition.

Usually in film, all this torture of a character is done as a way to set the stage for the real story that's to follow. But in A Serious Man, the main story never comes; the tail wags the dog. It's nothing but Larry's torture, from start to finish. Even the film's ending seems to suggest that Larry ultimately dies of some sort of terminal illness, and that his television-obsessed idiot pothead son dies in a tornado.

I'm not sure why someone would want to tell stories like this, really. What purpose does it serve? What could someone really get out of it? If you think about it, the Coens have always drawn pleasure from taking an everyman, a loser, or a nerd and mercilessly torturing him for the length of a film - think about the Dude (and Donnie!) in The Big Lebowski, Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, Llewellyn Moss in No Country For Old Men, Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn't There, and even Barton Fink himself. But never before have they made a movie quite so devoted to that torture; whose entire content is misery, seemingly for its own sake.

As they age, Joel and Ethan Coen seem to be releasing their nihilistic tendencies with a longer leash. Recent projects like Burn After Reading have a certain humanity-hating and life-hating viewpoint that is not only darker and uglier than, say, Miller's Crossing, it's also dumber. And I don't think "dumber" is the direction the Coens are meaning to go in. While I certainly don't wish to see them start telling Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm stories, I also would caution them that A Serious Man should serve as a final apotheosis for their sociopathic feelings, and that from here they have a new opportunity to build something new and interesting out of the ashes of their "life is meaningless, people are stupid, and then you die" philosophy. Because that horse has been beaten to death by the Coens - beaten into its component molecules, in fact.

- - JSH

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