The Movie Club

It Was Weird To Watch the Coen Brothers Eviscerate Jewish Faith and Culture
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 8 2010 11:49 AM

The Movie Club

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Still from A Serious Man. Click image to expand.
Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man

Hellooo, everyone.

If it's OK, I'd like to place all the Oscar talk in a coffin and bury it. Despite the prerogatives of my editors, I can't pretend to know what the academy will and won't do, even if, when the season comes, I do submit to speculation about who'll win and what it all means. I just don't find it useful to filter a movie's quality through the prism of the Oscars. Which is to say that, Dana, it sounds to me like your ambivalence about Avatar stems, in part, from a fear of how James Cameron will behave during the ceremony. I'm terrified, too, but that doesn't diminish my enthusiasm for his movie.

This, I should point out, is different from my complaint the other day about performances that exist, seemingly, for awards consideration. Dan and Roger, you both have written eloquently about Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, and I do like how the role suits him. But there's a way in which, despite Bridges' particular merits, the artist-redeemed-from-his-demons role—He swigs! He sings! He's saved!—now feels like grist for prizes. This isn't Bridges' fault. The awards talk is probably getting the movie seen in more cities and by more people than it would have otherwise. But I'd probably feel differently were I more enthusiastic about the movie itself.

As for Antichrist: Its terribleness is both the point of its fun and very much beside the point. It was a great moviegoing experience, not a great movie.

Meanwhile, Dan: Is Inglourious Basterds really your desert-island Tarantino? Do you truly prefer it to the sublime structural booby traps and crypto-B-movie verve of Pulp Fiction or the shocking wisdom of Jackie Brown or the comic ferociousness of the Kill Billsor the visceral jack-in-the-box finale of Death Proof? I adore Tarantino, but my love isn't blind. Inglourious Basterds dramatized the essential dilemma of his artistry. His moral universe has no business in ours.

To one extent or another, everything in Tarantino's movies is an amusement, especially killing and death. This suits his pastiche landscapes, in which the planet, particularly California, is composed of recondite cinematic high-fives and neon blips of pop-culture patter. It's a simulacrum in which he is free to devise the stakes and mete out the consequences. Inglourious Basterds is not set in California. It's set in WWII Europe. And the stakes of that war are well-documented, and the consequences have been long meted out. It takes great gumption to alter them the way Tarantino does.

What I found depressing about the finale, in which the Basterds meet Hitler and the gang, was how distastefully blunt it is. With the major characters assembled at Shoshanna's movie house—in grand Hollywood fashion, no less; that film premiere is the wartime equivalent of a Cukor cocktail party—the sequence gets off to a comic-suspenseful start. How will that fuse hit the dynamite? It all culminates in grisliness. It's obvious what Tarantino is trying to achieve: retribution. But there's no retributive kick. In fact, the image of two Jewish Americans obliterating the Nazis, as Shoshanna's ghostly visage is projected onto the inferno she created, left me with a negative thrill: This is the face of Jewish vengeance? Oy.

The Basterds' bloodbath lacks the metaphorical brilliance of Shoshanna's revenge plot, which amounts to immolating the tippy-top of the Third Reich in a fire fueled by combustible celluloid. It's to be her concentration camp. That's a perfect expression of Tarantino's perverted movie romance. But his moviemaking lusts for a violence that his screenwriting here isn't clever enough to justify. Wedding the bloodbath and the conflagration? It's literal overkill.

He transcends neither the horrors of war nor the historical record. The movie is actually dramatically pretty flat. Each chapter works unto itself but doesn't work as a whole. Its popularity makes me happy for Tarantino. I think he needed a big hit to buoy his ego and get the next opus made. But he is not a moral filmmaker, per se. And a movie in which he deals with figures from one of history's great moral enormities requires a tad more decorum—or, at least, imagination—than I think Tarantino has in him. For instance, the most charismatic character in Inglourious Basterds is Nazi Col. Hans Landa. The incongruity might be a matter of how good Christoph Waltz is in the part. But it's disappointing that neither of the women, always one of his strong suits, gets to be as exuberant as Waltz.

This is to say that Tarantino's talent has its limits, and in this film, it hits several walls simultaneously. Of course, having said this, the strength of his talent is that, despite the sense of amusement, he's not a glib filmmaker. Amusement for him is a serious undertaking. Tremendous skill and confidence go into eliciting our exhilaration and sustaining his particular incandescence. There's a reason why Guy Ritchie, Michael Bay, and the striving graduates of the Luc Besson and Jerry Bruckheimer academies rarely produce works of art: Their junk is often joyless. With Inglourious Basterds, I just think that, by the finale, all that skill and all that glee are put to a misbegotten ends.

Speaking of Jews and misbegotten ends, the film I that most aggravated me last year was A Serious Man, in which Joel and Ethan Coen make some kind of personal return to their childhood. All they seem to remember about it was how it was congested and grotesque. I suppose it's reassuring that they can aim their poison arrows at their own lives. But I found nothing particularly illuminating in their pseudo-biblical homecoming.

Their moviemaking has a laser's precision. This time the laser aimed only to singe. The movie is neither a remembrance nor a self-critique. It's a work of arson (one that makes Shoshanna's revenge look like a campfire). The bar mitzvah could double as the finale from Rosemary's Baby, and the final shot makes 2012 look like A Charlie Brown Christmas. The film's impassioned champions claim it to be about higher existential questions (my colleague and friend at the Globe has hailed it as a "cosmic banana peel"). The Coens' braininess appeals to me, as does their approach to composition and narrative structure. They're the moviemaker as engineer.

But the films' undergirding has always been snobbery. They hold a gleeful disdain of most of their creations. Like two little boys on the beach, they can't wait to stomp on their own sand castles. When the brothers turn their trademark heartlessness on Beltway doings or serial killing in Texas, it's funny and scary. Although the scene in Burn After Readingin which John Malkovich hacks Richard Jenkins to death is the apotheosis of the Joel and Ethan feeling. In A Serious Man, the Coens eviscerate Jewish faith and culture with asang-froid that manages the heretofore unmanageable feat of masquerading self-loathing as a type of arrogance. One man's banana peel is another man's skateboard.

Gang, correct me if wrong.

Love,
Wesley

Wesley Morris is a staff writer at Grantland.