A Serious Man
Directed/Produced/Written by Joel & Ethan Coen.
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, etc.
109 minutes, Relativity/Studio Canal, 2009.

***

So the Coen brothers are essentially absurdist filmmakers. Their narratives, even when cleanly concluded, never have the closure or satisfaction of fairy-tales. Life is a puzzle; those who survive in their limited happiness do so within a sort of obliviousness. A Serious Man is a look at what happens when the obliviousness crumbles, and one is vulnerable to the way things really are. There is no true compassion in one’s community and no answers (or end) to the hardships that face us.

A Serious Man is basically the story of Job from the Old Testament. Suffer, suffer, then suffer some more. The story questions God a lot, which is in contrast to the original story; but maybe acknowledging God’s existence at all is the modern equivalent — especially in the face of calamity.

But what I want to know is, why the questions poised to God? Not because they won’t be answered, but because they are still not very serious questions. Questions to any God at all are still an attempt to absolve personal responsibility, not for one’s own well-being or lack thereof, but for one’s spiritual existence. If there is any God with a personality, this God is just as infallible as any individual personality would be (no shit, right?). These kinds of questions, which Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman loved to toss around, sound like the bleating of sheep. It is an attempt to kindle camaraderie amongst the un-mystically inclined intelligentsia, who secretly wish to believe they have that spark. I suppose there is some sort of term for this brand of irony, where an artist or entertainer’s very patrons make up the subjects of their satire.

What we learn from the movie, is that there are no answers to these questions, but suffering is an infinite resource. Furthermore, when asking them the hard questions, people just want you to fuck off. They won’t tell you straight-up that there are no answers, they will just find your presence repellent, a dead weight. The answer: please take your time to smell the flowers.

Anyway, this is one of the most grim movies that exists, but is still really heavy on the heartstrings. The Coen bros are the true modern heirs of the absurdist/existentialist theater. Aronofsky is a shadow of these guys, if only evidenced by the multitude of humorous, horrifying and endearing qualities almost every Coen bros. movie has by comparison. But it all remains in a very empirical setting, much like Woody Allen.

It’s very… athiestic.

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Meet Joe Black
Directed by Martin Brest
Written by Ron Osborn, Jeff Reno, Kevin Wade, Bo Goldman (and based on like 4 other things).
Starring Brad Pitt, Claire Forlani, Anthony Hopkins.
181 minutes, Universal Pictures, 1998.
***
Meet Joe Black runs a reasonably innovative box-office game-plan. It’s a sappy romance, veiled in a macabre tale about Death (the Grim Reaper type), who falls in love with a rich man’s daughter after somehow switching into the body of a young hunk he’s supposed to nab for expiration. It’s very much like Freaky Friday or the Prince and the Pauper, but with a boatload of romantic lies thrown in to balance out what would otherwise be hilarious hi-jinks (so it’s kind of like Titanic I guess?).
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In this long-ass story, Death can only be shown the beauty that life has to offer via a rich man’s assets: his wealth, property, power and voluptuous daughter. I must say, these morsels do present quite a convincing case; life is certainly hard to relinquish when all you have (been given) are riches, fine delicassies and sexual prowess. For hot rich babes (or Brad Pitt), dying or getting old will probably suck.
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Meanwhile, for the rest of us sipping on the cold gruel of an average existence, something about this song and dance has a fishy aftertaste. Perhaps life’s deepest beauty actually IS found in exotic parties and a businessman’s fortune — I don’t have a clue. But I do have to ask: what mountain of human suffering must be traversed in order to enjoy such a thing at the expense of others? And given the unbelievable, innumerable tiers of hardcore brutal suffering available out there in the cosmic garden, what are the odds that your ticket in the human lottery will yield such a lucky fortune?
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I’ll answer for you: not bloody likely. But I do like that here they’re selling the rich-kid-wildcard draw to Death as just your average, run-of-the-mill Human Experience 101. Life is a party, bro! Quite being so negative and join the orgy! I guess what’s really going on here is some cosmic scam artist is tricking Death into taking human form — and thus the same stupid samsaric trap as the rest of us. Pretty deep stuff actually.

Made in Britain
Directed by Alan Clarke
Written by David Leland
Starring Tim Roth, Christopher Fulford, David Baldwin, etc.
1982, Blue Underground (?), 76 minutes.

***

A Roth Co. original!Time to flip the script we’re using to investigate the repressed-male-violent-fantasy genre! This time it’s not martial arts fantasy, but working-class docudrama: ultra-gritty-realism and tangible fear instead of dangerously idealized narrative perspective and interactive irony. This one’s a docu-style short, made-for-TV film from the ’80s directed by the late, cult-acclaimed British director, Alan Clarke.

Tim Roth’s first starring role is a solid one. He gives a preview of the pivotal role Gary Oldman would soon after realize (maybe with a “romantic” twist a la John Osborne?), in the later Alan Clarke project, The Firm: the intelligent, emotionally damaged anti-social young man of Thatcher England. Roth’s Trevor is a skinhead, but his actions of themselves do not necessarily betray this. Without Trevor’s Swastika tattoo and a shaved head, he’d be any explosive anarchist or aggressively active punk.

The highlight and centerpiece of the story is the beginning of the second act where a corrections officer summarizes in visual detail on a blackboard, the way Britain”s legal and educational system functions, and by contrast the various life choices Trevor has made. The scene acts to fill in Trevor’s background — why he is locked up in a halfway-house without a job or school or family at 16 years of age. It becomes apparent that Trevor (and all like him) float around the system in a circular fashion, a kind of criminal water cycle, in which each step of the way becomes more pronounced until he is imprisoned, expired or helpless. Because they will not change to meet the system’s criteria.

But his cyclical position in society’s shadow also corresponds to his emotional state. A narcissist on the border of sociopathy, with serious anger issues, every minor disturbance to Trevor’s waking state becomes an emotional wave he has to justify through anti-social behavior. He actually cannot see the perspective of others because as soon as he hears their views, he becomes angry, and his anger is merely an ongoing fuel with which he rationalizes his behavior. His anger is the ultimate justifier and the only thing that is true, in a world he deems to be full of “fake wankers”.

To proclaim the world is fake is an honest, intuitively “true” statement, and therein lies the misery of entertaining it. The world IS fake. The fakeness and shallowness of it all, our compromises of integrity or morals — they’re a convenience to grease the wheels of society so that our basic needs and passions may be met. Society is a group compromise, a group effort — the ultimate corporate team. Meanwhile, noticing that everyone is a liar and is shallow or fake or whatever is also misery-inducing because it’s the incorrect assumption of taking everything to be tangibly REAL, when our sense organs provide only reflections of the physical world, and our personal beliefs themselves are malleable conveniences.

Likewise, Trevor’s position as a skinhead is a convenience more than it is a branding of any belief system. He uses the skinhead image as a platform for his explosive, aversive attitude. He cannot maintain any party-line agenda because his only goal is to reject authority or hierarchy beyond himself. Much is made of Trevor’s intelligence, how his test scores show that he is bright and smart — gifts he has used merely for methodical moments of destructive nihilism or anarchy. Much sensation is often made in media of the brilliant criminal — the brilliant deviant with no moral compass. But intelligence itself is not some human virtue. Like science, it can be pointed towards whatever human desire and reason yearns to explore, including negative ambitions.

Society’s conundrum in dealing with Trevor is played out through the voices of the two halfway-house personnel who try to reason with him. One wants to ship him off to be locked up in a mental institution until his court date, the other wants to coddle him and hope he finds something pleasurable to point his life towards — a hobby or interest. But the system is incapable of changing such people, who indeed are identified by their strong aversion to authority. And Clarke pieces rarely have a neatly conclusive narrative, or if they do, they intentionally don’t have any moral answers. Moral answers come from within the structure of the system, which Trevor rebels against.

There are some production qualities typical of Clarke’s works. There is no music except briefly during credits, and what music is provided is merely there to provide caustic augmentation for the nature of the story. The camera work is mainly subject to the isometric, over-the-shoulder approach found in The Firm and Elephant. In general the camera is a stand-in for us, the observer. The visual orientation works to make us a part of the story, forced to follow Trevor around and accomodate, witness or participate in his behavior. This is because Trevor is one of us (both symbolically and literally), as a member of our social networks, and as a purer arbiter of our darker moments.

It’s too bad Alan Clarke never got a chance to do more movies, but his small body of work is unique. He had a knack for making very moving, gripping portraits of dangerous, fringe, anti-social demographics. But then who is the audience? Using the charisma found in great talents like Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in casting these roles is, in a way, almost emotionally suspect. So at the end of the day, we have another glorification of society’s gutter and the path it takes to get there. But it’s a pretty honest one and even endearing at times.

@ Amazon
@ IMDb