Joel and Ethan Coen on How Serious Man Is Good For the Jews (and Themselves)
For filmmakers as preoccupied as they are with the starchy social fabric of 20th-century America, it's really kind of amazing that Joel and Ethan Coen hadn't addressed Jewish culture before A Serious Man. They came sort of close with Barton Fink, circumscribing their writer's-block psychodrama with the subtext of a New York Jew rendered impotent against his megalomaniac Hollywood tribesmen -- itself a flash of semi-autobiography, a quality rare to Coen brothers films, yet revived for Serious Man. Not that they'd ever admit to any connection -- at least not while discussing it with Movieline earlier today.
"We weren't thinking about Barton Fink specifically at all, as either a point of contrast or similarity," Ethan Coen said during a gathering today in Toronto. It's also a Jewish character, but that didn't particularly seem like Barton Fink to us. No, I must say that is a different thing for us."
Ah. I get the same response every time I ask about the Coens' unmistakable thematic continuum; I probably should just give up. (Though buy me a beer some time and ask me how No Country For Old Men is just a revisionist remake of Raising Arizona using Cormac McCarthy as cover. On second thought I'll buy you a beer. Actually, never mind.) But they did confirm the personal self-reference in Serious Man, alternately a tale of middle-class Jewish professor Larry Gopnik's (Michael Stuhlbarg) midlife crises of faith, family and work. Set in an anonymous Midwestern suburb circa 1967, the film ties together many of the totems of the Coens' upbringing in Minnesota: F-Troop, Jefferson Airplane, and what Ethan Coen has described in Man's press notes as "the whole incongruity of Jews in the Midwest."
"One of the thing that incongruous to us is just the whole weird geographic landscape," he said. "The nature of the landscape with Jews on it is just funny. [...] Maybe this is part of why we put the little beginning story in there, to kind of frame it. With the whole shtetl thing, you go, 'Right, Jews. Shtetl. Then you look at a prairie in Minnesota and you go -- or we go, with some perspective on it having moved out -- 'What are we doing there? It's just odd."
"Mel Brooks once had a song called 'Jews in Outer Space," Joel Coen added. "That's sort of the idea."
That introductory sequence represents the brothers' own contribution to Yiddish folklore; it features a peasant couple receiving a rabbi who may or may not be a dybbuk, or the actual soul of the rabbi, whom the wife thought long-dead. With that in mind, another reporter asked how their upbringing influenced their storytelling today.
"I guess everything having to do with your background has some influence on how you tell stories," Joel said. "But it's hard to parse how growing up in a Jewish community in Minnesota affected it. There were other things that were probably much more sort of culturally influential on us than that in particular. Things like television and other pop culture kids are exposed to at the time -- if you want to sort of look at the things that were most formative. But I really don't know."
Anyway, he added, the film has found a warm reception to date among those Jewish advisers and audiences they've shown it to, who received it as a specifically relatable slice of Americana. Sure, it's no Barton Fink, which I suppose can only be a good thing under the circumstances. Watch this space for a more in-depth review of A Serious Man coming soon.