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The Power of the Dog

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer.

SPOILERS AHEAD. WATCH THE MOVIE FIRST.

I watched my first Jane Campion film, The Piano, last year out of respect for the G.O.A.T. Holly Hunter (bless her name). I enjoyed it, but seeing The Power of the Dog cemented Campion in my mind as a rare filmmaker who leverages the medium in specifically innovative ways. This is what I’m always chasing as a viewer: what can cinema do that other forms of storytelling can’t?

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer. Most won’t see the whole picture of the story until the very end, and even then it could take some pondering or even a rewatch before things come clearly into focus.

How is this puzzle set up? On the surface, the events of the film are straightforward and by themselves don’t really comprise a story. Here’s what technically happens in The Power of the Dog:

– A man (Phil) bullies a woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Phil befriends Peter
– Phil dies from an infected wound

But in the end, we realize there’s an entire sub-narrative happening between these beats that is conveyed with hints from visuals, performance, and subtext. This is the story:

– A man (Phil) bullies woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Peter discovers Phil’s weaknesses
– Peter gains Phil’s trust
– Peter kills Phil

It’s a revenge story. Peter repays the trauma that Phil inflicted on his mother, but it’s almost as hidden from us as it is from Phil. Campion is asking us to put this sub-narrative together ourselves. The characters themselves don’t necessarily arc, but if we solve the puzzle, our perception of them changes drastically.

Maybe the most brilliant hint is the rabbit sequences. As viewers, the second a cute little animal appears in a darker drama we just know it’s not long for this world. Popular film language tells us that it’ll be killed to demonstrate the monstrousness of the villain, who we assume is Phil. When the timid and frail Peter ends up calmly dissecting the animal, we’re initially confused, but we’re being shown who the monster actually is. Campion subverts our expectation and then reverts it when we finally understand what was going on all along.

Learned: Get your viewers to connect the dots themselves, making them an active participant in the storytelling. This is a pretty advanced technique for a n00b writer like myself, but it’s something to aspire to.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

SPOILERS AHEAD

Even during these doldrums of late-stage Marvel fatigue, I was hyped for Spider-Man: No Way Home. The Tom Holland entries to the canon have managed to be utterly charming and relatively low-stakes when compared to their self-important and bloated mainline Avengers installments. The strong implication that No Way Home would also include spider-men and spider-villains past was enough to temporarily revert my psyche to that of my circa 2007 self: really, really excited to see Spidey up on the screen.

Here’s the thing: No Way Home delivers the goods, just way too much of them. After a kinetic first act, proceedings drag to a baffling degree: nearly every scene in the movie overstays its welcome by several minutes. It’s not a long movie in terms of plot content, it’s a short movie dragged out to be a long movie with unnecessary business.

Even moments that had me screaming with joy at the outset ran on for an uncomfortable duration. One of the MacGuire/Garfield/Holland scenes that should have been a cathartic moment for longtime fans felt like an extended and unfunny SNL sketch. The meandering excess of every sequence made the pacing feel more like a Disney+ miniseries than a feature film. This is doubly frustrating because I enjoyed most of the plot beats and character moments in the movie, and adored quite a few — the movie just wasn’t edited down to a digestible shape.

I’m not sure what drove this editing decision. Do movies just need to be too long for streaming now? Would No Way Home have really made Marvel and Sony significantly less money if it had been forty minutes shorter? Is this how cinema dies? Help me out here!

Learned: This is really screenwriting 101 stuff: enter late, leave early. LEAVE. EARLY. But you can still make one and a half billion dollars by not leaving early, so nothing means anything I guess!

Quick Takes October/November

If you know me, you know why I am morally obligated to weigh in on a new James Bond film.

October was the Month of Television with me as I blazed through an unprecedented three series, two of which I will comment on here (my head is still spinning re: Succession). And of course, If you know me, you know why I am morally obligated to weigh in on a new James Bond film. Let’s goooooooo!

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL OF THESE SHOWS AND MOVIIES

Midnight Mass

I went into Midnight Mass with absolutely no information other than the title and the fact that Hamish Linklater plays a creepy-looking priest. All The Big Short alums instantly earn my attention, so I hit play in hopes of some sPoooKy fun.

Fun is not what occurs in Midnight Mass. The show’s lack of commitment to any genre makes the first three or so episodes difficult to get through: we’re not sure if we’re watching a small-town drama, a religious thriller, or a supernatural horror series. We receive enough hints of the latter two options to keep us going, but at the cost of a lot of extremely talky and slow-moving sequences of sad-sack Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) awkwardly existing in his Stephen King-sian island home town and re-connecting with high school crush and sweater-wearer Erin Greene (Kate Siegel).

In terms of identifiable screenwriting issues, this protagonist is extraordinarily inactive. Riley is not at home for any perceptible necessity, and is not trying to do anything in particular. This lack of causal fulcrum makes the show frustratingly meandering until the vampires show up.

Oh yeah! The vampires!

The appearance of a blood-sucking flying monster brings much-needed action but also a head-scratching layer of incoherence to the proceedings, especially given the religious ideas that the show has dealt with so far. So are angels actually vampires? Vampires actually angels?

The show also wants us to think (or at least consider) that vampirism just a scientifically explainable disease. So is the big vampire is just in the latest stages of that disease? If so, why the claw-ed wings and the ability to fly? We don’t know, and the show isn’t interested in letting us find out. But finding out is usually the most compelling part of a show of this type.

Thematic incoherence follows logical incoherence: we don’t know if the town’s religious hysteria is directed at anything real, so we don’t know how to view it in context of what the show is trying to say about human nature, or belief, or anything.

I wasn’t familiar with Mike Flanagan’s work before the show, but apparently he has a penchant for monologuing, which is absolutely out of control here. Show don’t tell? Yeah right, not in Mike’s world. Why show a story beat in two shots when you can accomplish the same thing in a three-minute anecdote about something tangentially related to the story beat?

Learned: Since Midnight Mass has been described as Mike Flanagan’s “passion project”, I think the best takeaway might be to never make a passion project. Kill you passions before they become boring television that only makes sense to you.

Squid Game

What can I really say about the global phenomenon that hasn’t been said? It’s brilliant, inventive, weird, messy, disappointing, and thrilling.

It might be worth just talking about the ways in which squid game inspired me personally, and the (smaller) ways in which it didn’t.

The first thing that hit me about Squid game was the sheer inventiveness of the concept, which is interesting because taking a step back, it isn’t at all new. The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Saw, and plenty of others have all done different takes on the compete-for-your life subgenre.

So what made Squid game feel so fresh? I think it has to do with the details of the execution, especially in the design of the games themselves and the whole system that surrounds them. We understand early on that there will be games and the losers will die. The suspense comes from how specifically that will play out, and in what decisions that the characters will be forced to to make.

Maybe the best example of this is the Dalgona candy sequence, in which the characters are given a seemingly innocuous choice of four different simple shapes. We have no clue what these shapes will mean, but one character, Sang-Woo (Park Hae-soo) does. With this knowledge, he must decide whether to help his fellow players, or let them make a mistake that could kill them.

Squid Game gives us characters that we like and understand, and then pushes them to the absolute brink to show us who they really are. To tie it into my favorite Coen Brothers quote: “We get you invested, then shake the floor”.

Where the show broke down a bit for me was its need to give us a couple of last-episode reveals that if anything undercut the strong character work that was built up. I couldn’t come up with with a thematic point that the reveals underlined — they seemed to be there just for the sake of surprise. The show had so much dramatic power in its central engine that the gotchas felt cheap and meaningless, and also not the best setup for a second season.

Learned: Character is built by decisions made until pressure. Shake the floor hard.

No Time to Die

In February of 2020, my friend Laura and I came to the sad realization that pragmatically, we would probably never get around to watching every single James Bond movie.

Unless… we dared each other to watch one every single day for 24 days. We threw in the two non-canonical Bond movies for good measure, topped the month off with Austin Powers, and the 29 days of Bond February was born. It was a true test of endurance and sanity, but we came out on the other side with priceless confidence in the knowledge that NO ONE has seen more Bond than us.

Therefore it was with great anticipation that I approached the long-delayed No Time to Die, since I am now a leading authority on the subject.

I could easily nit-pick the film, but I had fun watching it and was engaged for all of its (very long) runtime. Fun set pieces, entertaining new characters (Ana De Armas and Lashana Lynch), and a third act that was one big callback to Dr. No made this a worthy conclusion to the comparatively outstanding Daniel Craig entries of the series.

This got me thinking about how the franchise could logically move forward, which I think boils down to one important question: what is the dramatic engine of James Bond?

While you can change his external features, Bond’s nucleus has to remain intact: he’s fundamentally a hardened killer who does not allow personal matters to get in the way of his job. Because of this, there’s really only one way for any semblance of an arc to be introduced into a Bond film: give him someone to care about against his better judgement, and then take that person away from him, either by their death or betrayal (or, in Casino Royale, both simultaneously). This breaks down his hard exterior and reveals a human man underneath. No Time to Die repeats the betrayal beat (then takes it back), which might be a bit predictable, but again, there’s not many other things to do with him.

Then my thought experiment became the following: what would happen if you reversed that dramatic arrow, starting with Bond as human and then showing how he loses that? Would it still be a Bond Movie? Just a thought, I dunno.

However I do have a pitch for the next Bond: Make James Bond Kinda Lame Again. We all fell in love with the super cool, super buff, super not embarrassing Craig Bond, but what if we headed back into Roger Moore territory of corny uncoolness? I think this is what we need to breathe life into the franchise, and there’s only one actor for the job:

Yes, big-eared softboi and The Crown‘s Prince Charles, Josh O’Connor. Unfortunately, googling “Josh O’Connor Bond” only yields the result of Josh O’Connor stating in an interview “I will not do Bond”, but let me dream, OK???

Learned: The distinctive core of a franchise character can limit the narrative choices that you can make, but that limitation must actually make for a really interesting writing challenge.

Last Night in Soho

LNIS_FP_005_R2 Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise and Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie in Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

Last Night in Soho marks the arrival of Edgar Wright as a true auteur — i.e. a director who is successful to the point that everyone is afraid to tell him his script is a complete mess with nothing coherent to say. You can tell that meaningful notes were not sought out or given during the writing process, because Last Night in Soho is full of first draft problems.

Last Night in Soho is about Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who leaves her home in the British countryside for London.

What happens next is as hard to explain as it is to comprehend while watching: Eloise has vivid waking (and not waking) dreams even before she arrives in London, but when she gets there, her apartment is also perhaps haunted. The dreams/hallucinations take an intense turn, with Eloise inhabiting the persona a woman who was possibly murdered there in the 1960s every time she goes to sleep. Here’s the first first-draft problem: Wright should have chosen either the hallucinations or the ghosts, or at least make it more clear how or if they are interacting with each other. As written, it’s incredibly confusing.

Last Night in Soho is on its surface meant to be a film about nostalgia: Eloise’s fascination with the 1960s is emphasized well, emphatically. However, that thematic line is not played out in any coherent way. The film fails to draw a meaningful distinction between the SoHo of the past and the SoHo of today, with both portrayed as a relentless hellscape for women with lots of colorful and moody lighting. Despite her discovery that the past is pretty scary, Eloise finds success and praise for her retro dress designs at the end of the film. Has her relationship with the past changed at all? If this is meant to be an indictment of nostalgia, it isn’t a very strong or clear one.

Edgar Wright’s approach to the experience of being a women is a predictable brand of nice-guy condescension. It’s implied that Eloise had never been harassed by random men before coming to the BIG CITY, as though seedy urban environments are really the problem, not, you know, men. Eloise is also given a saintly male love interest who is designed to make Scott Pilgrim fanboys comfortable. They can point and declare that they are like that guy: Nice To Women!

This note COULD be a nit-pick if the rest of the script was written better, but it’s actually worth pointing out that the entire plot, including the “twist”, hinges on the fact that the old actors do not look like their younger counterparts. This feels like a cheat because in any kind of realistic context knowing who the villain is would just be an observational no-brainer.

Learned: No one is so good that their first draft works.

Quick Takes August/September

Hi. After several abortive attempts to resurrect this blog that I didn’t have time to execute, I’m going to try writing about what I’m watching to capture what I learned (or didn’t learn) about storytelling. Here we go. 

The White Lotus

Mike White’s Hawaiian resort set mini series is the closest thing to a filmed adaptation of the iconic subreddit r/AmITheAssHole that we’re ever going to get. That question is the best way to describe nearly every permutation of character interactions that make up the show, and with a few exceptions, the answer is ESH: Everyone Sucks Here.

Bleak? Yes, very. White doesn’t give us a character that we can back 100%, which in less skilled hands could be a real problem. But like that subreddit that I spend too much time scrolling through, these dynamics are so interesting and so painfully realistic that you can’t look away. The promise of a dead body given in the show’s first moments wasn’t even necessary to keep me glued to the screen.

As a side note, Mike White being a huge fan of (and participant in) reality TV make me feel better about the fact that I’ve watched five seasons of Love Island in a fiscal year.

Learned: You don’t need any conceptual bells and whistles to make something incredibly compelling IF you’re good enough at writing characters.

Meanwhile, at Hulu…

Nine Perfect Strangers

When compared to The White Lotus, this ended up being a useful study in suspense versus mystery. Nine Perfect Strangers leans heavily on the implication that the strangers in question, and their weirdo Galadriel meets Gwyneth host played by Nicole Kidman, are hiding a lot. Much of the character information is doled out via rapid-cut silent flashbacks, which compared to the sharp character writing in White Lotus feels like a tiresome cheat.

I was mildly interested in the mechanics of what Kidman was trying to do to these people (mystery), but getting there wasn’t enough fun for me to stick around. I made it about five episodes before jumping ship.

Learned: A Big Question isn’t enough to sustain drama. You have to have interesting stuff going on the entire time.

Another Round

Mads Mikkelsen – Another Round

In September, I was thinking a lot about what it means for a film to have a concept, or premise. It’s easy to know it when you see it (or don’t see it) but a bit hard to define concretely. One way to say it could be the following: a good premise is an idea that inherently suggests character action.

An example I heard discussed on a podcast recently was Bruce Almighty:

Jim Carrey becomes God for a week.

That is a premise. I could have a decent idea of how to approach writing it. As a counterexample, Napoleon Dynamite does not have a premise. It is about a strange person’s boring life. Am I saying Bruce Almighty is better than Napoleon Dynamite? No. Napoleon Dynamite is one of the great films and you can quote me on that. But its creation was an act of God that cannot be replicated.

I am not Jared Hess (or Mike White) and it is not 2004, so if I want to get paid to write someday, I need to stick to punchy concepts. This month I was on a five-hour flight, so I decided to go through the airline’s selection of streamable films to hunt for premises. After a few minutes I came across the description for Another Round:

Four high school teachers embark on an experiment to see if a constant level of alcohol in their blood will improve their lives.

Hell yes. Now we are talking. Hijinks must ensue!

I won’t go too far into analyzing the filmmaking of Another Round, but it was an absolute joy to watch and delivered on its premise in both humorous and heartbreaking ways. I did cry on the airplane.

I think this exercise was useful in separating out the ideas of premise/concept and world. Generally, when people think “high-concept”, they think elaborate world building, which in turn implies budget, vfx, and genre. The two can go together and frequently do, but they are not the same thing. Another Round is a concept-driven film populated by normal people in a normal place. Just because you have a lot of fancy visual stuff in your idea does not mean that you have a solid concept.

Learned: Concept-driven does not equal big budget genre studio film.

Motherless Brooklyn

This was another film that I found on my airplane premise hunt. The concept is not as strong as Another Round, but a 1950’s PI with Tourette’s syndrome was hooky enough for me. And having just visited Brooklyn for the first time, I was an easy mark.

Based on a novel, Motherless Brooklyn contains lots of interesting New York history, but the characters are all fictional. I think this is a better way to do historical drama. Being married to the facts can bring a lot of tedium and stilted storytelling to these type of period films, and the visuals frequently follow in the same boring vein.

This movie was… just really cute? The small-time gumshoes played by Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bobby Cannavale, and Dallas Roberts have a sweetness to their dynamic that you don’t see often in this type of movie. These guys really care about each other, and that’s what holds our interest more so than whatever detective plot mechanics are going on in the background. This warmth makes Motherless Brooklyn feel like a lot more than the sum of its fairly basic parts.

Learned: Warm character relationships go a long way towards making a movie fun to watch. We care about characters when we see them caring about each other.

Ocean’s 13/ Ocean’s 8

I joined my friend as she went through the Ocean’s movies for the first time, giving me the chance to watch Ocean’s 13 and Ocean’s 8 back to back. This afforded a stark illustration of the difference between great and just passable screenwriting. I’m not going to do a full forensic analysis of what went wrong with Ocean’s 8, but I will focus in on one moment that was illuminating for me.

My working understanding of plot is that events need to follow each causally, not just temporally. Matt Stone and Trey Parker formulate this idea as the “But and Therefore Rule”: between each plot event, you need to be able to insert a “but” or a “therefore”, not just a “then”.

In Ocean’s 8, Sandra Bullock gets out of prison, and THEN wants to rob the Met Gala. The screenwriters are aware of this glaring THEN in the middle of their first act, so they try to turn it into a THEREFORE with dialogue (recreated by me in WriterDuet): 

Not even Cate Blanchett’s character is buying this narrative band-aid. If anything, the problem is made worse by drawing attention to it.

I also can’t help but feel that Bullock was miscast as the lead here. She plays Debbie as “cool” and unaffected, which just reads as her not taking much joy in any of the fun crimes she’s committing. This is agonizing, because robbing the Met Gala is the most fun crime I can think of!

On a bright note, Anne Hathaway’s performance is incredible and it alone makes the movie worth watching.

Learned: Do not try to fix fundamental story issues by acknowledging them in dialogue.

Some Thoughts On Stranger Things 3

I have been through all of the stages of grief with the conclusion of Game Of Thrones, ultimately arriving at a state of zen. Stranger Things 3 was much more disappointing to me, so I am going to record my thoughts here with no particular formal structure while the wound is still fresh. Incidentally, there are a lot of fresh wounds in this show.

This contains spoilers.

Finn Wolfhard at the most awkward point in his life, and possibly anyone’s life who has ever existed. He is not quite a person, merely a pair of legs with a bowl cut. This stage of human development should never be depicted on screen. It’s too graphic.

Everyone in this show is screaming at each other at all times. Nancy and Jonathan – screaming at each other. Steve and Dustin – screaming at each other. Mike and Lucas – screaming at each other. Hopper and every other character – screaming at each other. NO ONE IS NOT BICKERING AT ANY POINT DURING THIS INTERNET TELEVISION PROGRAM.

In fact, Hopper was such a belligerent jackwagon that I was actually very pleased to see him thrown into the upside down. Of course he will un-die in the next season, hopefully in a less screamy form.

Despite having to be Hopper-adjacent for most of the show, Joyce Byers still rules. Winona can do no wrong. I would watch a show of JUST Joyce Byers solving minor mysteries. I also want access to her collection of ringer T’s.

A law of the universe that became apparent when I was watching this: all sci-fi monsters MUST have mouths within mouths. If you don’t have at least THREE telescoping mouths, you are not a proper sci-fi monster in the year 2019.

Eleven’s powers have no logical parameters and feel like a deus ex machina every time she uses them.

I’m sorry, having the passcode of an important vault be a mathematical constant is overwhelmingly stupid. I understand that it serves a plot point, but there is just no plausible justification for anyone choosing that over a random string of numbers.

The resulting scene is one of the strangest things (LOL TITLE OF THE SHOW) that I have ever seen. It’s so weird, so bad, and so uncalled for that it’s almost beautiful. I have to admit I have watched this youtube clip upwards of ten times.

Maybe I should just watch The NeverEnding Story?

The Coen Project Part 18: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Buster Scruggs is about people facing death and what comes after death. Each short gives us a different version of this through the lens of a different familiar western trope.

Coming to you live from a new ortholinear split keyboard that I don’t fully know how to use. I’m hoping that my new inability to type over ten words per minute will knock some well of latent creativity loose in my brain. I am as of yet unclear on how to write a parentheses or an exclamation point, so this may be a fruitful exercise in prosaic economy. We’ll see how it goes.

In 2018 The Coen Brothers did the most 2018 thing possible, joining the wave of Netflix auteurism with a western anthology film, something they most likely wouldn’t have been able to get away with in a traditional release.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs consists of six short films, each exploring a different facet of the Western genre. While the shorts range from serious to outright cartoony, there’s one obvious throughline — they’re dark. Really dark, even for the Coens. It’s tempting to think that the directors have arrived at some kind of nihilistic logical extreme, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I’d argue that the relentless and at times uncomfortable bleakness of Buster Scruggs is more a product of its format than any other factor.

Due to the nature of our work, my friends and I are shown more animated short films than the average citizen. The ones we see are usually well made, but over the years we’ve noticed that they frequently border on emotional manipulation. Why? My working theory is that in order to stand out in a competitive field of shorts, creators feel the need to pack a feature-length level of emotional impact into a running time of under ten minutes.

The Buster Scruggs shorts operate similarly, but with violence and death instead of emotionalism. If you’ve only got less than twenty minutes, something has to happen, and it takes a lot longer to earn a happy ending without being trite.

I’m not going to go into all of them in equal depth into all of the shorts, but I’ll try to touch on how they build on each other thematically. After several watches, it became clear to me that Buster Scruggs is about people facing death and what comes after death. Each short gives us a different version of this through the lens of a different familiar western trope.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The title track of the anthology combines the blood-drenched depravity of Westworldwith the cheerful goofiness of singing cowboy heroes like Roy Rodgers, or more recently, Hobie Doyle.

Taken by itself, this is mostly a fun musical experiment and an excuse to let Tim Blake Nelson do his thing for seventeen minutes. But after a second viewing I realized that Scruggs introduces the major thematic thread of the anthology.

When Buster Scruggs is ultimately defeated by a newer singing sharpshooter, his soul leaves his perforated body and floats up to heaven on literal wings as he sings the Oscar-nominated song “When a Cowboy Gets His Wings”.

In voiceover, this is how Buster Scruggs frames his death:

I’ll see all of you sonofaguns in the bye and bye and we can sing them sweet airs together, and shake our heads over all that meanness in the used-to-be.

This feels a little odd because we just saw him murder a whole bunch of people. Buster does not apparently subscribe to a transactional theological model.

Near Algodones

The second short features James Franco as a bank robber who goes through an alternating series of lucky and and unlucky occurrences. After cheating death several times, he finally ends up sentenced to death by hanging for a crime he didn’t commit.

Here we get our next version of a confrontation with death. The robber is remarkably chill about it. Next to the him on the gallows is an old man who is crying uncontrollably out of fear. The robber looks over and remarks: “First time?”.

For me this short is mostly significant for its inclusion of one of the great Coen-isms, “sumbitch”, which has made appearances in Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou.

Meal Ticket

I will be honest: I spent the majority of this short’s run time screaming “IS THAT LIAM NEESON???” at my laptop screen.

Yes Christine, that is Liam Neeson, playing a sideshow impresario whose sole attraction is a limbless man (Harry Melling), listed in the credits as “The Artist,” who dramatically recites various passages from the English canon.

If the average person’s life in the Coen Brothers’ West is pretty bad, try being disabled. The Artist is smarter than the impresario, but has no power in their dynamic due to his physical difference. His talent appears superhuman to his audience, but he’s treated as sub-human, ultimately replaced by a literal animal.

The Artist’s death scene isn’t even shown on screen. Because he has no autonomy as a person, he doesn’t get to confront death on his own terms. Like his life, his death is orchestrated by those born with more power than him.

All Gold Canyon

All Gold Canyon offers a welcome relief from the literal and spiritual darkness of Meal Ticket — it’s a master class in landscape cinematography that made me angry I missed the film in theaters. They clearly had to lean pretty heavily into CG to execute it, but it’s beautifully done. Definitely better use of a CGI deer than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (never forget).

Plot-wise, it’s a man-versus-nature story that turns into a man-versus-man story. An old prospector (Tom Waits) painstakingly figures out the location of a vein of gold, only to be ambushed by an opportunistic thief.

The prospector comes out on top in the struggle despite getting shot in the stomach: “IT WENT CLEAN THROUGH! IT DIDN’T HIT NOTHING IMPORTANT”. Our geriatric hero faces down death and beats it fair and square.

This us our first and only happy ending of the anthology. And boy is it gonna go downhill from here.

The Gal Who Got Rattled

The Gal Who Got Rattled is the most fully realized story of the anthology, but it falls most unfortunately victim to the short film syndrome I mentioned earlier. This segment is so good, yet has such an unfair bummer of an ending.

The titular Gal is Alice Longabough (Zoe Kazan), sister of Gilbert Longabough (Jefferson Mays). Both Longaboughs are heading to Oregon via wagon train, looking forward to a theoretical business opportunity for Gilbert and a theoretical prospect of marriage for Alice when they get there.

Alice is smarter than her brother but has to endure his condescension and play along with his bone-headed schemes for the sake of her own survival. When Gilbert dies on the trail, Alice is forced to deal with his posthumous business ineptitude.

A chance to escape this joke of a life happens when Alice meets Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), a trail hand who feels similarly trapped in his situation. What follows is an incredibly sweet series of interactions that make Alice’s ultimate death pretty much unbearable to witness. Zoey Kazan and Bill Heck do way too good of a job making us love these people.

If this were a feature length effort, I’d have to imagine we’d get a happy or at least happier ending for our ultra-endearing romantic pairing. There would be plenty of dark moments along the way to temper the ultimate victory.

Despite leaving me feeling personally victimized, Gal gets to the meat of what the anthology has been hinting at thematically. A lot of this plays out in conversations between Alice and Billy. Alice explains her late brother’s worldview in contrast to her own experience.

He had very fixed political beliefs. All of his beliefs were quite fixed, even those that…fortune did not tend to endorse. He would upbraid me for being ‘wishy-washy’. I never had his certainties. I suppose it’s a defect.

Billy has spent enough time dealing with the hardships of the trail to know Gilbert’s certitude is an illusion:

Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort.

This sentence could work as a thesis statement for much of the Coen’s filmography. It reminds me of the opening monologue from Blood Simple:

But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year– something can always go wrong.

In light of this conversation, the ending of Gal at least makes sense — it’s a harsh enforcement of the truth of Billy’s outlook.

Billy also says the following:

Uncertainty——that is appropriate for the matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty.

He’s talking about the afterlife, but it’s not clear if he means that he’s certain that there is one and he knows what it’s going to be, or that he won’t be certain about anything until he actually gets there and finds out. Buster Scruggs got to take his afterlife for granted. Is Billy correct in doing the same?

The Mortal Remains

Saul Rubinek is Frenchman, Tyne Daly is Lady, and Chelcie Ross is Trapper in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The last short takes place in a stagecoach headed to Fort Morgan and consists mostly of a conversation among five characters. They are an old trapper (Chelcie Ross), a married religious lady (Tyne Daly), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and two bounty hunters: Thigpin (Jonjo O’Neil) and Clarence (Brendan Gleeson).

Mortal Remains is a discussion of the theme present in all of the prior shorts: the human confrontation with death. The journey of the stagecoach and its arrival at the Fort Morgan hotel is an allegory for this confrontation. Once I figured this out, every line of dialogue and character action took on a clear significance.

At the beginning of the characters’ discussion, it is mentioned that only the bounty hunters have been to Fort Morgan before. For the other three, it’s their first time. The bounty hunters sit on the opposite side of the stagecoach from the others, giving us a clear visual barrier. Thigpin and Clarence have experienced death, the others haven’t.

The three non-bounty hunter characters express differing theories about humanity.

The Trapper believes that people are fundamentally knowable:

People are like ferrets. Or a beaver. All pretty much alike…I don’t doubt it’s the same even if you travel to Siam.

The Lady pushes back against this idea, asserting that people are not all alike, but instead are distinguished by their morality or lack thereof, as defined by religion:

People are not like ferrets. And I speak not on my own authority, but on that of the Holy Bible.

The Frenchman argues that we can’t actually know each other, only ourselves.

I know we must each spin our own wheel, and play our own hand. I cannot bet for you. Porquoi Pas? I cannot know you, not to this degree… We may call each other friend, but but we cannot know each other so.

The Lady again appeals to moral authority, saying that the Frenchman’s argument is invalid because he has pursued a life of “vice and dissipation”.

Eventually the Lady gets so worked up by the Frenchman’s attack on her reality that she almost passes out. The Frenchman tries to get the driver to stop the stagecoach, but Thigpin flatly informs him that the coachman will not stop. It’s policy. The road to death can’t be halted for anyone.

Once the commotion has died down, Thigpin and Clarence proceed to explain the nature of their work as hired assassins. Their M.O. is that Thigpin tells a story to distract their target so that Clarence can kill them. The stories are crucial to the operation:

People can’t get enough of them, like little children. Because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us, but notus. Not us in the end especially. The Midnight Caller gets him, not me. I’ll live forever.

Stories can distract us like they distract Thigpin and Clarence’s victims. But they also allow us to rehearse life events by living them second hand (us, but not us). This is especially true of death. We’ll only ever experience it once for real, but will have witnessed hundreds of people die on screen and in books before our time comes.

Thigpin goes on to describe the moment his victims die:

It’s always interesting watching them, once Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate the passage… Watching them try to make sense of it as they pass to that other place.

The lady asks him if they ever succeed in making sense of it.

How would I know? I’m only watching.

At this moment the stagecoach abruptly stops — they’ve arrived at Fort Morgan. Thigpin and Clarence hop out and start to haul in their body, but the three passengers are hesitant to go into the hotel and face their (allegorical) deaths.

The Lady states that she must be helped down from the stagecoach. When the trio are at the door, she demands that one of the two men open the door for her. She expects this passage to be laid out for her with no surprises. In both cases, she is helped by the Trapper.

The Frenchman is the last to go in. He watches the stagecoach drive away — no turning back. After a long pause he puts his hat on and then enters the hotel confidently, shutting the doors behind him.

Each of the three characters have an incomplete version of reality, but the Frenchman’s outlook seems to prepare him the best for his confrontation with death and whatever comes after. Animals don’t think about death. We do, and that’s not insignificant. We can’t assume that there’s nothing on the other side, but we can’t act like we know precisely what it is (or isn’t) either. Both are paths of certainty, which Billy Knapp describes as “the easy path”. The Frenchman rejects certainty, so he’s the most equipped to “negotiate the passage” into the unknown.

The Coen Project Part 17: Hail Caesar!

Mannix is a Christ figure, shouldering the sins of the actors he supervises to protect the films they appear in. A martyr for the cinema, Mannix receives none of the glory or wealth of his actor counterparts, but sacrifices the comforts of a normal life to the altar of storytelling.

I am normally chill about trailers. Some of my friends go out of their way to avoid seeing them, but I assume that their effect on my viewing experience will be negligible. This assumption was proven faulty when I saw the Coens’ seventeenth feature, Hail Caesar!

Based on my multiple viewings of the trailer on youtube, I expected a heavily plotted noir-comedy centered on the kidnapping of George Clooney’s movie star character. When the film I was looking forward to did not materialize on screen, my lizard brain deduced that Hail Caesar! was just an unfocused mess. I loved all of the scenes, but I was confused as to what they were supposed to coalesce into.

Re-watching the film two years later after I had forgotten why it disappointed me was an entirely different experience. The synopsis listed on Amazon video gave me a more accurate sense of the film’s intent than the trailer had: “Hail Caesar! follows a day in the life of a studio fixer”.

And as a day in the life of a studio fixer, it works fantastically. All other plot threads are ancillary to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and the decision that he has to make by the end of the day: whether or not to leave his job at Capitol Pictures for a cushier gig at an Lockheed.

Knowing what the film wasn’t left me free to enjoy the scenes featuring the actors under Mannix’s purview without expecting them to be propulsive plot points. These vignettes are so disconnected from each other that they could be reworked as short films; they’re also arguably the most fun comedic pieces the Coens have done.

The standout set of scenes features Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a specialist in corny westerns who has been transplanted onto the set of a romantic comedy helmed by auteur director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Things do not go well for Hobie, who hasn’t spoken many lines of dialogue in his career beyond “Whoah there”.

Hail Caesar’s production history dates back to 1999, when Joel and Ethan pitched George Clooney a “thought experiment” in which he would play an idiot 1920’s matinee idol — an opportunity to complete the “Numbskull Trilogy” that he began with O Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading.

The project remained a thought experiment for over a decade. According to Joel: “Hail Caesar! is a movie that George Clooney keeps announcing to the press every couple of years, and it doesn’t even exist as a script; it’s only an idea.” By 2013 the Coens finally conceded that there was a “good chance” that Hail Caesar! would follow Inside Llewyn Davis as their seventeenth release.

Depicting the Golden Age studio system at the height of its post-war machinery, Hail Caesar! is the Coens’ most fully realized period piece, filmed with vintage techniques and richly textured production design at a where’s-where of classic Los Angeles locations. But these are the Coens, so it’s no doe-eyed “love letter”: the fakery of Hollywood’s most outwardly glamorous era is lambasted in every scene.

The film industry takedown is what most critics focused on. But Hail Caesar! goes one step further, replacing the facade with something more meaningful. Returning to a broader theme of narrative explored in O Brother Where Art Though,  Hail Caesar!  is a celebration the human duty of storytelling and the sacrifices that it demands.

Religion as a motif is present from the opening shots. We see a crucifix followed by Eddie Mannix in confession, boring the priest with some very minor sins. Later, Mannix holds a meeting with representatives of four religious traditions to get their opinion on the script of Capitol Picture’s tentpole release, Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ. This devolves into a heated but pointless theological debate. (Highlight: “God’s a bachelor, and he’s very angry.”)

But unlike the theological exploration that is A Serious Man, Hail Caesar! has little of importance to say about the actual God. It’s really about another religion, the one that people of every creed partake in: cinema.

Baird Whitlock is Capitol’s biggest movie star. Played by George Clooney in his idiot wheelhouse, Whitlock’s time on the set of Hail Caesar! is cut short when he is roofied by an extra and transported to a house in Malibu. He awakes to find himself in the hands of a “study group” of communist screenwriters, who he promptly befriends, insisting that he too is on the side of “the little guy”. The only problem is that they’re holding him for ransom. 

When Whitlock is finally delivered from his captors and expresses a desire to quit acting to pursue Communism, he receives a strong dressing down from Mannix:

“You’re gonna do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do, just like the director does and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate. You’re gonna do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture and you’re never gonna forget that again”

Baird’s sin isn’t being a casual revolutionary Marxist — it’s putting his own whims over the film that he’s supposed to be serving. His movie-star status counts for nothing if he fails to contribute to the story. Well told, the story is the ultimate good.

Mannix is a Christ figure, shouldering the sins of the actors he supervises to protect the films they appear in. Mannix receives none of the glory or wealth of his actor counterparts, but sacrifices the comforts of a normal life to the altar of storytelling.

Like Christ, Mannix is tempted by the Devil: the head-hunter from Lockheed who attempts to draw him away from his job by arguing that it isn’t important:

“I don’t mean to denigrate; I’m sure the picture business is pretty damned interesting. But it’s also pretty frivolous, isn’t it?”

Mannix knows that the frivolity is just on the surface. As I got into more specifically in my notes on O Brother Where Art Thou, storytelling is pretty crucial to our ability to function as human beings. And while we think of film and television as a form of entertainment, the moving image is the dominant form of storytelling culture in our time. On that level, it’s hard to understate how important the job of making movies is. Even the guy who claps the slate is serving humanity.

Stray Observations:

  • Best Tilda Swinton Quote: “Don’t play dumb Eddie, I’m talking about *dramatic pause* ON WINGS AS ANGELS”
  • Best Scarlett Johannsen quote, after Mannix referred to her ex-husband as a minor mob figure: “Vince was NOT minor”.
  • I’m gonna dog on La La Land again. Hail Caesar! is both a better movie about Los Angeles and a better movie about the movies. La La Land frames the film industry in the exact opposite way that Hail Caesar! does: as a granter or denier of ego-driven personal dreams, rather than a collective effort to make stories for the world.

The Coen Project Part 16: Inside Llewyn Davis

Even though Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, it feels like a sharp reflection of the moment of its creation, more than any prior Coen film.

In 2005, the late Blake Snyder published Save the Cat, a screenwriting guide that Hollywood has since embraced a little too wholeheartedly. If the major blockbusters of the past decade have all appeared to be cribbed from the same template, it’s because they were: Snyder’s book breaks down screenplay structure into a series of “beats”, which it claims are the key to a successful script. It even specifies on which page these beats should occur. The titular piece of advice is that in order to make a protagonist likeable, they should be made do a good deed of some sort early in the first act, i.e. saving a cat.

In the Coen’s 2013 release Inside Llewyn Davis the protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), is a folk singer couchsurfing his way through 1960’s Greenwich Village. He literally saves a runaway cat within the first ten minutes. If anyone else had made this movie, I would have read this moment as either a hilariously literal implementation of Snyder’s formula or an unfortunate coincidence. But since we’re talking about the Coens, I have to wonder if it’s a deliberate jab at the Hollywood trope.

This “Save the Cat” moment actually functions the way that Snyder intended, at least initially. Llewyn is not an immediately likeable character — he’s surly, condescending and most often passive. Despite his bad luck, we get the sense that this guy could make a success out of his life if he would just change his attitude.

But the cat sticks around for more than just a first-act beat — Llewyn ends up carrying the animal throughout most of the film. He loses him, finds him again, and eventually leaves him in a car on the side of the highway, reversing his good deed from the beginning of the film. This subversion of Snyder’s formula mirrors the character’s inability to change or grow significantly, an anti-arc that would typically be frowned upon by Save The Cat apologists.

With the cat, the Coens again dare us to discern some deep significance in what seems like a really obvious symbol. There are even “clues” in the dialog: Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean (Carrie Mulligan) screams “EXPLAIN THE CAT”, when she finds it deposited in her own apartment. When Llewyn calls the cat’s owner, the secretary on the other end mishears him say “Llewyn is the cat”. I don’t think it matters what the cat symbolizes. It’s Llewyn, it’s the pain he’s carrying, it’s his dwindling musical ambition, pick your poison. But as we find out late in the film, it’s not even the same cat that he started with — the symbol itself is a fraud.

What’s not as obvious is that Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about dealing with death. Although it’s only directly addressed later in the story, Llewyn has just lost his friend and musical partner Mike to suicide. The revelation of Mike’s death reframes the central struggle of the story: It’s not that Llewyn doesn’t have the strength to make it as a folk singer, it’s that he’s not sure how to move forward in his life at all without his best friend.

This pain bubbles to the surface when Llewyn blows up at the same couple that hosted him previously, screaming at the wife for attempting to sing Mike’s part of a song that she requested Llewyn sing at a dinner party. At this moment, we understand that Llewyn’s bad behavior and ennui has been largely the result of his grief, invisible but omnipresent.

Even though Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, it feels like a sharp reflection of the moment of its creation, more than any prior Coen film. We can strongly feel that Llewyn is a part of a movement of young people at odds with the values of the rest of society and its encompassing economic system. Llewyn struggles to make money, but money is not the goal — the goal is to make meaningful music. He clashes with his older sister, who has embraced a more conventionally stable life path.  He’s literally unable to communicate with his father, whose senility reads as a stand-in for intergenerational lack of understanding, impenetrable even by the universal language of music.

I have to caveat this with the fact that generational labels are made up and not-very-useful ways to describe huge swaths of the population, but it’s hard to watch this and not feel the similarities to my own “generation”, one that has been broadly marked by a desire to pursue lives of meaning over lives of economic gain. This pursuit of meaning often comes with an embrace of the past — Llewyn and his Greenwich Villiage colleagues are reviving a form of music that was last popular before they were born, playing songs that are over a hundred years old. Connecting to the past in this way has its dangers — at worst, a person’s life can turn into a pastiche of a life past, centered around traditions and art forms that the person can’t really take meaningful ownership of. This is why we make fun of “Millenials” with old-timey sailor tattoos and other anachronistic affectations — their quest for authenticity has made them glaringly inauthentic.

Llewyn’s inability to break with the values of authenticity that he lives by ensures that he won’t be commercially successful. Refusing to give in, Llewyn thinks he’s a martyr for his art. Maybe he is. What he’s preserving is inarguably good and beautiful, but he’s preventing himself from discovering new meaning of his own. Would Bob Dylan be as revered today if he had never pulled out an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival? What seemed like a betrayal then is seen now as an act of artistic courage.

To close out, let’s go through some of these amazing music scenes that are available as clips. Justin Timberlake was an inspired casting choice as Jim, the clueless husband to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. In addition to the sheer joy of watching Timberlake perform folk music, the character adds much needed lightness to what would otherwise be an almost unbearably dour film. Even in terms of color language, Jim’s sweaters are the only bright spots in the relentlessly desaturated color palette. I have watched this clip probably forty times:

Next, In a prophetic coincidence, Adam Driver makes a cameo as baritone country singer Al Cody, who along with Llewyn assists in Jim’s ridiculous space-themed pop-folk number. Everything about this is great:

And lastly, Llewyn’s performance of The Death of Queen Jane for a Chicago music manager. This scene illustrates how crucial Oscar Isaac’s casting was. In order for this scene to work the musical performance has to obviously great, so that the rejection at the end lands as a purely money-driven decision. Isaac pulls of both the music and the acting with incredible subtlety.

The Coen Project Part 15: True Grit

While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

I’ll admit that I was dragging my feet a little bit getting myself to re-watch and think about True Grit (again, I really want to get to Hail Caesar), which if memory serves I saw for the first time in theaters my senior year of high school. I remember little of my reaction, but it was likely the perfect Coen film for that time in my life. While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

A well-known version of True Grit was released in 1969, starring John Wayne and helmed by prolific genre director Henry Hathaway, but it would be a mistake to categorize the Coens’ 2010 release as a remake. In an interview, Ethan stated that they hadn’t seen the prior film since its release when they were kids, and that its existence was “kind of an irrelevancy” to their desire to adapt Charles Portis’ original novel. This is a statement that only Joel or Ethan Coen could make without coming off as a total asshole.

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Their writing approach for True Grit was similar to their adaptation method for No Country for Old Men — faithful to the story that they loved on the page. They adhered closer to the novel than Hathaway’s version, bringing the story’s point of view back to the young woman who seeks revenge for her father’s death.

Critics at the time seemed almost baffled by True Grit’s straightforwardness: Roger Ebert noted that it wasn’t ”eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky”. I have no idea what it means for a movie to be “flaky”, but he’s correct in that True Grit is the Coens’ most unsubverted genre exercise. It proves beyond any doubt that the directors don’t rely on any of their genre-morphing weirdness to make their movies entertaining. They’re just that good.

The setup is simple: fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross’s father has been killed by a man in his employ, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Local law enforcement in Fort Smith, Arkansas has made no effort to accost the murderer, so Mattie takes matters into her own hands, enlisting the services of an old and drunk U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her find Chaney. Already on the hunt is Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who is attempting to track down and arrest Chaney for prior crimes in his jurisdiction.

Like many coming-of-age films, True Grit’s success hinges on the performance of a very young actress, in this case Hailee Steinfeld, who at thirteen was about the same age her character during filming. The Coens are lucky that their nationwide search for such a precocious kid payed off — Steinfeld is able to play Mattie as smart and determined without coming off as an neurotic do-gooder. A slightly lesser actress could have made the film work as a Western, but it’s Steinfeld’s subtlety that makes True Grit work as a coming-of-age story and nabbed her a best supporting actress nomination in the process.

I think that there are essentially two types of coming-of-age stories: one having to do with sexuality and one having to do with mortality. The ones about mortality are less common, and when done well are in my opinion the more universal and impactful version. While it wraps its coming-of-age narrative in a standard Western revenge plot, the emotional core of the Coens’ True Grit is comprised of Mattie’s journey towards an understanding of death.

Most mortality coming-of-age stories lead up to an experience of death towards the end, but in True Grit the pivotal death happens upfront. For someone who has just lost a parent at a young age, Mattie is oddly devoid of emotion. She goes about the arrangements for her father’s avengement with a strange sense of ruthless enjoyment, manipulating everyone in her path to her advantage. She’s driven not by grief or even anger, but by obligation — killing your father’s murderer is just the done thing in 1870’s Arkansas. Her behavior isn’t really stoicism, it’s a lack of understanding of what has just happened to her.

The harrowing finality of death isn’t real to Mattie until she’s tasked with cutting a hanged man down from a tree along the trail that she and Rooster are traveling. The man’s face is decayed beyond recognition. She cuts the rope suspending the corpse and watches as it slams unceremoniously onto the ground below. Before Mattie can come down from the tree, Rooster has sold off the body to a passing horseman. When Mattie asks what happened, Rooster explains that neither he nor the horseman knew the dead man, but that “it is a dead body, possibly worth something in trade”.  The incident doesn’t have a major plot significance, but we can see the wheels turning in Mattie’s head — life is fragile, death is anonymizing. Again, Steinfeld’s performance is what makes this scene’s emotional content land.

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Killing soon loses its glamour, too. When Mattie finally comes face-to-face with Chaney, she has the jarring realization that the man who killed her father is a human being. He has plenty of his own problems, only one of which is Mattie. “Everything is against me. Now I am shot by a child,” he laments. This is not exactly the face of evil that Mattie was looking forward to courageously defeating. Doling out death is only palatable when you’re able to dehumanize your victim, and in a stark contrast to No Country’s villainous Anton Chigurh, Chaney is about as human as they come. 

Mattie does ultimately kill Chaney, but nearly at the cost of her own life.  The kick of the rifle knocks her into a rocky pit where she’s bitten by a poisonous snake. With death all around her and the value of life seeming less and less significant, the lengths to which Rooster goes to save her humbles Mattie, striking the final blow to her former flippancy in the face of mortality. More death doesn’t fix death — only love can do that. 

Stray Observations:

  • The pronunciation of LaBeouf’s name, LaBeef, cracked me up every single time it was spoken.
  • Side note — If  I hear one more critic refer to a modern genre film, especially a Western, as “gritty” I will fully lose my mind.

 

The Coen Project Part 14: A Serious Man

Probably the closest thing to a horror film that the Coens have yet made, a semi-surrealist American nightmare set in a stand-in for their own Minnesota hometown.

I had never seen A Serious Man, the Coens’ 2009 follow up to No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading prior to watching it for this entry. I expected something lighter than both preceding films, but what I got was probably the closest thing to a horror film that the Coens have yet made, a semi-surrealist American nightmare set in a stand-in for their own Minnesota hometown.

A Serious Man takes the grinning fatalism present in their previous films and puts it in a explicitly religious context. While many Coen films engage with religion on some level, it’s typically just a part of the overall texture of the world or a red herring ancillary to the  primary themes. In A Serious Man, however, Judaism is front and center: the film is about man’s relationship with God, and this God’s causal link or lack thereof to what happens in a person’s life.

The Minnesota of A Serious Man is drawn more from the filmmakers’ real life than the Minnesota of Fargo, but it feels more unreal. With its near-identical houses situated on an endless expanse of flat Midwestern plains, it reminds me of the ghost towns built for nuclear testing. Suburbs like this were probably normal-looking to people who actually lived in them, but in modern cinematic language, they represent of the darker aspects of the post-war American dream. It’s the perfect setting for the waking nightmare that is A Serious Man.

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Similar to O Brother Where Art Thou’s use of mythic structure in the form of The Odyssey, A Serious Man borrows a biblical myth, Job, as a guiding narrative template. Minus the happy ending where Job gets all his stuff back. Like in No Country and Burn After, we’re not gonna get a feel-good conclusion.

The germ of A Serious Man was a planned short film based on a real-life rabbi from Joel and Ethan’s childhood, who would hold a private audience with each bar mitzvah kid: “…he was a sphinx-like, Wizard of Oz type character, and we thought that would make an interesting short movie”. Eventually, the Coens expanded the project into a feature script set in a suburban Minnesota Jewish community like the one they grew up in.

The film begins with an apparent non-sequitur of a prologue — an Eastern European Jewish ghost story, with dialogue entirely in Yiddish. A man invites an old friend inside his home to escape the cold and have a hot meal. The catch is that his wife knows this friend to be already dead. She’s convinced that their guest is an evil spirit — a Dybbuk, dead but not dead. She unceremoniously stabs him in the chest with an ice pick, he barely flinches before bolting.

While you could infer that this opening depicts the ancestral source of our mid-century protagonist’s bad luck, the Coens have stated that the purpose of the scene is to frame the story as explicitly Jewish from the outset. I think there may be a little more to it, which I’ll get into later.

Primed by this weirdness, we are plunged into the world of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life is falling apart. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has announced that she wants a get, or Jewish ritual divorce, so that she can marry the insufferable widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy and Judith kick Larry out of the house and into the Jolly Roger motel, which Sy remarks is “eminently liveable”. The resulting legal fees are more than he can feasibly afford on his pre-tenure Professor’s salary.

Meanwhile the kids aren’t doing much better — his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is hounded by a bully from Hebrew school to whom he owes twenty dollars for marijuana. On top of everything, Larry has to take care of his homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind), an odd man who spends most of his time in the bathroom draining a sebaceous cyst.

Larry is baffled by his plight, giving us our signature Coen Brothers repeated phrase: “What is going on?” As a devout Conservative Jew, Larry assumes that God is somehow involved with what is happening, and upon the advice of everyone in his life, seeks the counsel of his community’s rabbis.

The film is divided into sections by title cards, one for each of two rabbis that Larry goes to for “answers”.

Rabbi number one is the young Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who is trying really hard to be what he thinks a rabbi is supposed to be. He concludes that Larry is “losing track of Hashem” and that his existential confusion is simply a matter of perspective — he just needs see the things that are happening to him as God’s will.

This unhelpful piece of advice is familiar to most people of faith. The same people who tend to give this directive would not describe the objectively bad things that have happened as God’s will or even potentially God’s will prior to their occurrence. Rabbi Scott suggests a situation where you should be able to figure out what God is doing, at least in retrospect. If this seems logically futile, well, try harder.

Larry approaches Rabbi number two after the untimely demise of Sy Ableman, his wife’s intended replacement husband. This rabbi, Nachner (George Wyner), takes a more stochastic approach to God’s intentions. He tells Larry a story of a Jewish orthodontist who finds the Hebrew letters spelling out “help me” engraved on the inside of a gentile patient’s teeth. Convinced that it’s a sign from God, the orthodontist attempts to figure out what it means, ultimately going to Nachner for help as Larry did. So was it a sign, or not?

“The teeth, we don’t know. A sign from Hashem? Don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt”.

Larry is infuriated by Nachner’s conclusion, which to use a colloquial text expression, amounts to: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.”

Not knowing how or even if God is operating within our lives is a central struggle for any religious person. In Christianity, this topic has been wrestled with by everyone from Saint Augustine to Veggietales. What Larry still doesn’t understand is that we always have to decide how to act, whether we think we have the answers or not.

While only the first two rabbis get title cards, a third rabbinical audience occurs when the newly Bar Mitzvahed and very stoned Danny approaches the ancient Rabbi Marshak. To Danny’s delight, the old man intones the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, and then returns his previously confiscated radio. His advice is concise and actionable: “Be a good boy”.

I want to talk about the physics in A Serious Man, A. because I’m a nerd and I can’t not, and B. because I think the concepts mentioned on screen point to a deeper understanding of what the film says about God. The first physics scene involves a very opaque explanation of Schrodinger’s paradox, which is a thought experiment devised by Erwin Schrodinger to illustrate the logical problems with quantum mechanics back when they were being debated in the 1920’s. If the quantum state of a particle could determine whether a cat lives or dies, and the particle is in a quantum superimposition of those two states, then the cat is both alive and dead. I read this reference as a callback to the Dybbuk of the prologue, a man who may or may not be actually dead.

This leads into a scene where Larry reveals his dependence on the objectivity of mathematics to his understanding of the world as he debates the fairness of a midterm result with a student.

Clive: Yes, but this is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.

Larry: Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?

Clive: If I receive failing grade I lose my scholarship, and feel shame. I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.

Larry: You understand the dead cat? But… you… you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean – even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

Larry understands the math, but he hasn’t yet accepted the causal ambiguity at the heart of modern physics.

The second physics-centric scene is one of a handful of dream sequences that occur as Larry’s grasp on the causality of his life begins to crumble. Again in a classroom, Larry derives Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that if the momentum of a particle is known, we can’t know it’s position, and vice versa. Or in Larry’s exasperated wording: “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” As he speaks, the camera reveals a cartoonishly gigantic chalkboard full of calculations behind him. Like his trips to the rabbis, science only leads Larry to the conclusion that the truth is unknowable. Like the cat and the Dybbuk, God’s presence in his life is in a state of quantum uncertainty, both real and unreal. 

But Larry isn’t the only scientist in his family. He stumbles upon his brother Arthur’s notebook, entitled “The Mentaculus”, which contains pages of fantastical numerologic diagrams, symbols, and illustrations. Arthur believes that the Mentaculus is a “probability map of the universe”. While Arthurs’ methods of understanding the world are inscrutable to Larry, they seem to have some functional value — Arthur is banned from an illegal card game because of his unexplainable winning streaks. Still, the cosmic understanding that Arthur has discovered or stumbled upon doesn’t succeed in making him happy — he’s unable to relate to other people, and envies Larry’s personal connections, however broken and dysfunctional they’ve become.

Since it’s hard to form a real conclusion about a film that’s about not being able to form a conclusion, I’ll wrap up with my favorite scene.

 Larry’s son requests that his father adjust the TV antennae on top of the house so that he can watch F-Troop. Larry climbs up on the roof, giving us a bird’s eye view of the suburban environs that stretch out seemingly forever — interminable tops of more or less identical houses, a man watering his lawn, kids riding by on bikes. As Larry tweaks the metal appendages of the antennae, the signals phase in and out — indecipherable messages from far away. The music in this scene gives it a twilight-zone-esque sense of surreality. I couldn’t find the full clip of the scene, but here’s the track from the score:

Stray Observations:

  • This is a great simple explanation of the uncertainty principle, one of the foundational concepts of quantum physics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQKELOE9eY4
  • For the record, the Veggietales episode that deals with the whole bad things happening to good people thing is is entitled The Ballad of Little Joe, and recounts the story of Joseph and the Egyptians in produce-populated Western form. I will go to bat for Veggietales any day. I can’t vouch for their theological nuance, but they were funny and clever as hell — my brothers and I quoted them endlessly growing up. The animation itself a pretty awesome example of working with what you have — CG animation systems at the time couldn’t support naturalistic limbs or simulations, so anthropomorphic vegetables was a way to create animation that looks pretty decent to this day.
  • Another great Coen Brothers interview moment: 

    A fan asks if this film, along with No Country and Burn After, are about the emptiness of American society. Ethan cracks up as Joel struggles to give even a semi-serious answer to this question.