Coen Oddball

The phrase “Coen Oddball” may seem redundant or non-specific, when that bizarre heading matches so many of the Coen Brothers’ films.

Raising Arizona?  oddball comedy

Fargo? oddball thriller with pregnant cop stalking killer on frozen lake

Oh Brother Where art Thou?  Homer’s epic in a daring adapation transplanted to the American South, complete with a fabulous soundtrack

Indeed, if they’re all oddballs, coming to the umpteenth in a series, one might well think they’re becoming banal and predictable.

But maybe not with the Coens, the oddball’s oddball.  If they’re reading this I hope they’re smiling, even if their mom (wherever she might be: is she still alive?) might shake her head in disapproval.

I sometimes think about this in the abstract.  I went to lunch yesterday with a friend, discussing his current music-theatre project, which he very generously opened up to me over lunch.

Artists are expected to show originality.  Newness is one of the yardsticks by which we recognize importance.

But as always there’s a problem.  We only really know what we have seen before.  Creators employ genres that invoke patterns for the audience so that there’s at least something familiar, to fall back on.

We’re all different, and one way to understand that difference is the amount of novelty we crave.  There are people who want the same breakfast every day, and rely upon the arts for a similar sense of order in their lives.

A Serious ManBy a serendipitous coincidence, I watched A Serious Man last night.  This is another Coen Brothers film, but one that for me brings up that whole question of newness, originality and intelligibility.  As far as I know it did not do well at the box office: which may not be significant, but likely matters to those people who cough up the $ for the next Coen brothers film.

The first five minutes are in Yiddish.  Then we’re in modern times, albeit not quite the present.  Perhaps the 1960s? In that first half-hour –when I was admittedly sleepy and still feeling the effects of wine from dinner—I was trying to get a handle on this mysterious flick, and yes, nodding off a couple of times.  I suppose I may have missed 5 minutes.

Gradually it started to make sense precisely because A Serious Man so studiously avoided being intelligible in any of the usual ways.

At times it resembles a comedy.

It’s full of judaica.

The film is pre-occupied with questions that can’t be answered.  Sometimes they are deep questions with spiritual import.  Sometimes they’re trivial matters.  But the film is all about questions and questioning.  A gambler seeks to find a system to win.  A boy prepares for his bar mitzvah.  All kinds of things go wrong in the protagonist’s life, from his struggles with a TV antenna that won’t allow his son to watch F-Troop, to the flagrantly bizarre arrangement his wife wants to foist on him.

In the process the questions being asked of us are often unintelligible.

I think the Coens were concerned they were becoming predictably oddball, that the phrase “Coen oddball” was now something you can google and even define.  “Oh my God”, I hear Joel saying to Ethan, “we are no longer unpredictable!”

Or so they may have said, before they went back to the well, back to their roots, for A Serious Man.

For those who require complete intelligibility without ambiguity, stay away from this film.  It will upset and anger you.  And while you’re at it, vote for Mitt Romney.  If you’re rich he’ll take care of you.  If you’re poor and you vote for him? You’ll get the world you think you deserve: when Obama wins and you get another four years moaning.

I recommend this film without reservation to those wanting that magical experience of being lost in something new.  No it’s not at the theatres any longer.  I found it on DVD (click the picture for Amazon).

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2 Responses to Coen Oddball

  1. A Serious Man is absolutely my favourite Coen Bros film, and one of the best films made anywhere in the last 10 years. Tragic, intelligent, hilarious.

    “Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.”

    (more bits of brilliant dialogue from the film over on IMDB:

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