December 2011 and New Year Plans

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This is just a short message for the readers of this blog. I’ve had quite a busy week thus far, but will be returning tomorrow with a Review of Gary Oldman’s version of George Smiley, in the classy museum piece remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I’ll also be introducing a surreal weekend column courtesy of resident Sawf Lundun Knowledge Guru ‘Allotment Slim’, so feel free to give a little bit of feedback on this little venture.

Over the course of December I will be radically overhauling the site, most likely turning the present Apercu into a film-focused blog, with hopefully a few innovative new features, a more user-friendly approach, some alternative content and the same focus on diverse areas of cinema. I’ll be looking to create a regular pattern to the blog week, more on which will follow shortly.

The non-film based material on the site will be moved onto an alternate Apercus blog site, which will in effect work as a more free-form location for my occasional writings. Thank you to everyone who has recently got on board and signed up for e-mail updates or just taken a cursory glance of my content. You can also find links to my reviews on www.imdb.com, as well as info and updates at the Large Association of Movie Blogs largeassmovieblogs.blogspot.com . Finally, I would just like to draw your attention to three other websites. First of all there is the excellent and highly innovative little movie blog at themovieblog8.wordpress.com, which is shaping up to be a really interesting little site and has housed some of my writing in the past. Secondly there is the Icelandic-based film blog www.filmophilia.com, which is an excellent movie news site and will hopefully feature some odds and ends from myself in the near future. Last but not least, there is www.canadiancinephile.com which contains great reviews that aren’t afraid to trade in strong opinions. All three of these sites are well worth a look and a little of your support.

Once again thanks to all of you for making this a really good blog-month for me. Hope you like some of the changes to come and stick around for the long haul.

Regards,

R.B.C.

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Film Review:- American Gothic (1988)

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Dir:- John Hough

Starr:- Rod Steiger, Sarah Torgov, Yvonne de Carlo, Michael J. Pollard, Janet Wright, Fiona Hutchison, William Hootkins

This late 80’s British-Canadian horror, shot on location on, and around, Bowen Island, British Columbia, left as indelible an impression on my adolescent horror-movie imagination as similarly bizarre movies like Bob Balaban’s superb Parents, Bernard Rose’s haunting Paperhouse and Wes Craven’s ferocious The People Under the Stairs. On first viewing American Gothic I remember being almost unable to watch the films grim dénouement, due to the extraordinarily ‘weird’ atmosphere that British director John Hough (the man behind one of the best Richard Matheson adaptations The Legend of Hell House) had managed to conjure up. It was never that the movie was particularly gruesome, gory, or shocking, but rather that it evocatively examined parenting, guilt and alienation. Despite the script being really nothing more than a The Hills Have Eyes derivative (both Burt Wetanson and Michael Vines have less than glowing CV’s), Hough’s horrorcraft manages to create subtle emotional depth, where there should have only been hillbilly hokum. He is aided by the sterling work of Sarah Torgov and the ‘family’ cast members, with Rod Steiger (as Pa) and Janet Wright (as Fanny), in particular giving far more than other actors might have.

The movie begins with Torgov’s Cynthia being released from a Seattle institution where she has clearly been receiving some kind of counselling for depression, or PTS. Her boyfriend Jeff, has decided to take her away to the islands of British Columbia, alongside some of their friends. Within the opening exchange between Jeff, Cynthia and her Doctor, it is suggested that Cynthia may have lost her child, a fact that is confirmed by a tragic flashback in which we see Cynthia, distracted by the phone and her cooking, allowing her baby to drown in the bathtub (a particularly hot issue of the time, I seem to remember). Cynthia is clearly still haunted by the grief of this loss, and when Jeff’s private plane starts acting up and the group of friends have to touchdown on an unknown island, there is a real dread in Torgov’s visage, that allows the viewer to anticipate a nasty confrontation with her emotional demons.

Director Hough manages to keep the action taught and restrained for the opening forty minutes, or so. The group first of all explore the island individually, with the feisty Terri (Caroline Barclay) almost becoming the victim of a silly accident. Then after a first, unsettled, night upon the island, the group leave the rather annoying Paul (Stephen Shellen) to look after camp, while they go to find help. When the group come across an old New England-style property with pronounced Gothic gabling, they find the place seemingly deserted, with most of the furniture and household items belonging to the pre-WWII period. However, just like in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the friends’ presumption that the house they have entered is in fact empty has serious consequences.

Being a late-80’s movie it is a prerequisite that the film should have a touch of the ridiculous fashion of the times (mullet haircuts, pastel-coloured jumpsuits, extreme shoulder-padding). As much as I love a lot of great 80’s cinema, with its overabundance of synth music scores and poor-quality computer graphics obsessions, it is the decade, more than any other since the 60’s, that has dated particularly poorly. American Gothic initially looks very much of its time, with Cynthia, Jeff and their friends clearly stuck in the trends of the period (not to mention the truly awful opening credits sequence). Yet by the time the group stumble upon the house in the woods the movie has begun to strike out in a very different direction.

Even though the film has some grisly, and often rather daft, death scenes, it isn’t this aspect of the film that is horrifying. In fact it is an unusual horror feature as so much of what is actually frightening in the movie occurs in broad daylight. The family who own the house on the island are more than just a little eccentric. They at first appear to be an elderly couple, who refer to themselves as Ma (played by Lily Munster herself, Yvonne de Carlo) and Pa (an inscrutable Steiger). Being far older than Cynthia, Jeff and their friends, the couple are seen to be prudish and, in Steiger’s case more than a little religiose. However, the unsettling element of the film begins to creep in with little clues, such as the way both Ma and Pa patronisingly address the group as if they were children, or the children’s toys and games that are littered around a downstairs bedroom and in the backyard. This elderly couple aren’t revealing all to their unwanted guests, which makes their offer of help seem more than a little dubious.

Out of all the members of the group it is Cynthia who seems to delve into the strange world of the house and its occupants most completely. In the child’s bedroom she finds some sense of purpose that has obviously been lacking since that traumatic night in the past. When  the superb Janet Wright finally makes her belated appearance (followed by the always amusingly menacing Pollard and the physically imposing Hootkins) the film transcends it’s all too obvious script limitations and begins to sketch out one of the more disturbing final acts of any horror movie I’ve seen. Wright plays a girlish forty-something woman, called Fanny, who is dressed up to look like Shirley Temple, and whom Ma and Pa do not seem to have allowed to grow up (or possibly they have brainwashed her into believing she is a child in much the same way they eventually do with Cynthia). Pollard and Hootkins play her siblings, Woody and Teddy. Together these adults mimic childish behaviour and engage in kids games, subtly inverting the innocence of such ‘carrying-on’ and investing it with a perverse undercurrent, that is made all the more disturbing by the seeming normality with which the ‘parents’ treat their children. Before any of the murders begin there is already such an all-pervasive sense of weirdness about the island, that the family’s behaviour, particularly that of Steiger’s laconic, preacher-like patriarch, takes on the appearance of some bizarre cult or sect. Steiger clearly relishes lines like “I don’t believe in those kinds of contraptions” (when talking about television and telephones) and his final brief soliloquy is an oddly despairing Job-like rant, as he berates God for having taken his family. The strength of Steiger’s performance is matched by that of Torgov (in her last film role before a career-switch into publishing) who in the final moments of the movie, and with the help of some superb make-up, looks every inch a damaged and demented individual. Hough has to take heavy plaudits for the way in which he elicits such strong and increasingly unhinged performances from his cast. It is with the strength of these performances that the movie proves deserving of a certain cult cache and warrants rediscovery by a new generation of horror fan.

Power-To Disap-Point

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Article Prompted by:- The Political Party That Wants to Ban PowerPoint (Julie Bindel, The Observer, Sunday 28th August, 2011)

I occasionally worry if Orson Welles (as Harry Lime) wasn’t really on to something after all with his wonderful justification of amorality from atop the Ferris wheel of Vienna’s Prater amusement park. Switzerland occasionally bursts into the public consciousness with global projects like the LHC, but more often than not it drifts about in a willfully decadent obscurity of its own making, seemingly disconnected from the global events that besiege other wealthy nations. This belies the fact that Switzerland tends to do a fairly good job of tackling social crises’, such as their growing urban heroin problem in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Far from being an unresponsive and sluggish politics, the Swiss approach to national governance, with its tendency toward direct representation and reasoned consensus, actually seems to do an admirable job of empowering its citizens, given them most of what they want, whilst managing to ensure economic stability. In many ways it is a shame that Switzerland doesn’t take a more vocal role upon the international stage, where for many, it is nothing more than the low-tax playground for the privileged and the pompous (Phil Collins, anyone?).

How irritating then that the one story involving the Swiss political landscape that does get a bit of serious media mileage, is the almost too laughable tale of Matthias Poehm, a former-software engineer turned experienced public-speaking trainer. Mr. Poehm has seen fit to try to establish a serious political party around one of the most pressing issue of the day – the overuse of Microsoft’s PowerPoint presentation software at conferences, seminars and public-speaking events. For Poehm, who is at pains to highlight on his website the fact he is “organizing the most expensive public speaking seminar in Europe” (penis envy, anyone?), the scourge of modern society is Microsoft’s all too-handy presentation utility, which reduces even the most enthralling talk to, as Bindel puts it, an exercise in boring an audience to tears “with fiddly slides consisting of flying texts, fussy fonts or photo montages”.

Whereas Bindel, in her article, is actually highlighting a more crucial issue, namely the wastefulness of many an ‘academic’ conference, in terms of the money required to front the proceedings and the likelihood that said conference will actually generate any stimulating work, beyond that which could have been printed on a blog, or in a journal/book, Poehm seems to be more obsessed with the idea that the software itself is responsible for a CHF 2.1 billion loss in the Swiss economy. Poehm puts together his economic theorem by pulling a whole lot of statistics out of the ether (4.1 million employees in Switzerland, including school children; 11% of whom are involved in PowerPoint presentations regularly, at least twice a week; 85% of participants in these presentations are demotivated by them, the swiss average hourly wage is CHF 56.30). As you can see this ragbag of statistical data lacks even the slightest pretence at contextualisation. How are school children employees? Where does his ‘conservative’ estimate come from? How can he regulate for presentations twice a week? Where is the economic model to quantify the damage of demotivation? Oddly this impressively vague and random assortment of information, actually makes one wish that Poehm was more versed in presenting statistical data, using software like PowerPoint, as an example that comes quickest to mind.

Bindel’s justifiable ire at the shoddy state of much academic discourse (particularly in the Humanities), conducted through the flawed medium of the Conference, has somehow attached itself inscrutably to a kneejerk neo-Ludditism and found something of resonance in Poehm’s frankly farcical political campaign. In many ways Bindel and Poehm’s complaints are nothing more than the blaming of one’s tools for the poor quality of work one produces. Is it not far more likely that the poor-standards of presentation are perhaps more to do with the poor quality of the ideas behind them, or even the inability to execute the presentation of these ideas properly using the software selected. Rather than talking up a relatively politically pointless Anti-PowerPoint agenda, perhaps we should be targeting the more serious ineffectiveness of multiple conferences, presentations and seminars, or the poor standard of computer skills training within many institutions (particularly of the educational variety) and companies.

What confirms the absurdity of Poehm’s position is the solution that he floats, as if it were something people had never considered doing before, of utilising a flip-chart in presentations. Bindel stands by her man here, by claiming that she turns up to conferences nowadays with “a set of index cards on which I have jotted down key points”. What, both Poehm and Bindel, genuinely seem frustrated with, is the notion that a person can get up in front of a room full of people and stumble through a flashily animated computer presentation, without having devoted any time to what they wish to achieve with the presentation. They are right to suggest that there is more to public-speaking than some computer-generated fireworks, yet their obsession with PowerPoint, or more broadly computer technology, as an obstacle to direct human communication, strikes me as more than a little fallacious, knowingly or otherwise. The absurd statistic that Poehm produces, and cannot even justify in his video address, that 95% of PowerPoint presentations would be as effective, if not more effective, if delivered on a flipchart, is just another reason to deeply mistrust the political ethos at work here.

One area in which Poehm’s agitation does seem to be appropriate is with the idea that PowerPoint has become an enforced requirement of presentations within schools, academies and workplaces. Here he is absolutely right to criticise the fetishisation of Microsoft software (and similarly Macintosh products), particularly by educational institutions who should really be resisting applying such restraints on creativity. In his own rather silly way, Poehm is stumbling upon a key reason why Microsoft has managed to achieve such market hegemony in the computer software sector. Alas, after repeated viewings of his political address as President of the APP, I can’t shift the sneaking feeling that this is all some sophisticated (and impressively po-faced) piece of Swiss satire, as Poehm seems to be wishing nothing more than “wanting only people to talk about it”. If not, then I return to my Orson Welles opening and suggest Harry Lime may well have called it right, in discussing the CUCKOO clock.

Armand Traore on a Train to Auschwitz?

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holocaust n 1 great destruction or loss of life or the source of such destruction, esp. fire. 2 (usually cap.) the Also called: Churban, Shoah. the mass murder by the Nazis of the Jews of continental Europe between 1940 and 1945. 3 a rare word for burnt offering

Sometimes it is important to start an essay with the lazy, or overly literal, students favoured opening gambit, namely the dictionary definition. Before discussing some of the truly simian outrage that has greeted Tony Cascarino’s use of a word, even a word that is showily hyperbolic, I’d just like to fall back on the students favoured follow-up, the etymology of a word. The etymology of the word holocaust, is from the Late Latin holocaustum, meaning whole burnt offering. Which in turn was derived from the Greek holokauston, which is Holo + kaustus (or kaiein), meaning to burn the whole.

I have to begin in this manner, as those simian yelps and howls make it really, really difficult to focus, so apologies if you actually know the rudiments of the English language. Now granted Tony Cascarino, during Sky Sports News’s coverage of the Arsenal vs Man Utd match, is maybe going a bit far semantically (that hyperbole) when applying the noun to the following sentence: “Poor Traoré at right-back is having a holocaust because he’s finding himself against Nani, who’s literally running him from everywhere and Arshavin’s just not tracking his runners.”. However, can anyone truly say that Cascarino is making a wantonly historically ignorant remark, that is truly offensive to people in a directly harmful and hurtful manner, like Ron Atkinson’s more furtive indiscretion? Apparently they can, as the internet has been abuzz with the kind of jive-talk that seems to come up whenever there has been a dearth of sensation in the media.

Marcus Dysch stated that: “Tony Cascarino said Traore was having a ‘holocaust’ against Utd??Fantastic. I’ll enjoy ending Mr Cascarino’s career this wk at work.”. Nice to see Mr Dysch, a journalist for the Jewish Chronicle, taking a reasoned approach to Cascarino’s utterance. Whilst Steve Busfield, took a slightly more attenuated position, claiming: “Arsenal’s performance was bad, but Tony Cascarino’s “holocaust” description is stupid”. Steve Busfield being the Sports Blog Editor at the Guardian was generally bucking the trend of hysterical condemnation, that the usual suspects from the red-tops, as well as the Daily Telegraph, were all too eager to embrace.

As someone with more than a passing interest in keeping the idea of The Holocaust at the forefront of societal collective memories, I actually take offence at the apparent willingness of commentators to leap to the assumption that there is something overtly racist, tasteless and/or politically loaded in Mr Cascarino’s outburst. When looking for live comment from ex-football players it is rare to hear them do a credible job of anything more than describing the action. Cascarino on the other hand, in a similar way to Pat Nevin and Lee Dixon, has tended toward the insightful, if occasionally impassioned, in his reportage and his columns for The Times. Do I think that Tony Cascarino is seeking to make an equivalence between the organised slaughter of six million people (predominantly of Jewish origin) in Europe during 1940-1945 and an aberrant display from an Arsenal squad football player, positioned on the left-side of their defence during a mauling from Man Utd at the weekend? No, I do not. Do I think Tony Cascarino was utilising the term as an acceptable, if overly hyperbolic, way of describing the devastation Traore’s performance was causing down Arsenal’s defensive left-side? Yes, I do.

If Mr Cascarino had said something like ‘Armand Traore is playing football like a Jew trying to escape The Holocaust’, then I would have been jumping in with the condemnation myself. As it is, he didn’t even prefix the word with ‘The’, suggesting we perhaps shouldn’t be reading ‘Holocaust’, where it may well have been ‘holocaust’ that was intended. To demand a pundit’s head for such a remark only highlights the modern tyranny of ‘fixed semantic interpretation’, that seems to make a mockery of more serious and verbally wounding outbursts. In policing the ways in which we talk freely, on air, or otherwise, we are merely creating a futurescape in which thoughts lead to actions, with very little discussion, or reasoned debate – in fact not so dissimilar a set of social conditions as that which existed in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. Our freedom of speech should be what we protect robustly, not the questionable sensibilities of the eager-to-be-scandalised.

Attempting to side with some of the sensation-hungry out there, I’ll go along with this condemnation of Cascarino’s use of a ‘word’ (a word that clearly must only ever now be used in one, historically accurate, context) and let Cascarino be fired by his employers, despite his apparently contrite apology (his more stupid move, if you ask me). In the future live sports broadcasters such as Sky, the BBC and ESPN, will then need to ensure that all broadcasts are scripted and vetted as the action unfurls and the Gareth Southgate’s and Alan Shearer’s of this world can then be safe in the knowledge that their teleprompter will never let them stray into the choppy waters of poor word selection.

Alternately, you could condemn Cascarino with the questionable grammatical accuracy of his noun selection and read Martin Gilbert, Hannah Arendt, or Primo Levi, safe in the knowledge that The Holocaust hasn’t suffered a significant devaluation in meaning. Oh and spare a drop of sympathy for the recently immolated Armand Traore.

The Coen Brothers: Serious Men?

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High seriousness and the Brothers Coen do not an immediate marriage make. The first ten minutes of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest effort A Serious Man, far from altering this impression, rather shocks the viewer into remembering how effectively the Coens utilise the mechanics of horror in their best films. Joel Coen started out as assistant editor to Sam Raimi on the comic-horror masterpiece The Evil Dead and the brothers have maintained some of the horror aesthetics on display in that movie, in their own most effective nightmarish visions, such as: Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother, Where art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. Alongside their undoubted love for film noir, the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, screwball comedy and the pointed satires of Preston Sturges, the Coens have frequently utilised suggestive imagery, horrific violence, supremely eerie camera angles and lighting and the unsettling soundtracks of Carter Burwell, as only true pioneers of horror, such as Jacques Tourneur, Tod Browning and Georges Franju, could. Where the Coens excel yet further is in the quality of their writing which, whether focused on the verbal or physical, unerringly hits the right mark of wry humour, or encroaching menace. In A Serious Man the Coens are intent on using Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ as the filter through which all dialogue and action must pass, thus making the movie their most unsettling experience to date.

The movie opens in the 19th Century, in a Polish Shtetl, with a husband returning to his wife to inform her that he has met a Rabbinical relative in the snow, who helped him fix his cart. The wife is certain, however, that the person in question, Treitle Groshkover (yet another fabulous Coen Brothers character name), died three years earlier and therefore her husband must have come across a Dybbuk (a troubled spirit, either kind or malevolent, that cleaves to an individual in a time of difficulty, or crisis). The husband has unfortunately invited the relative to eat with them and on Groshkover’s arrival the wife sets about proving her suspicions. This opening section of the film is shot in Yiddish, with English subtitling, and plays fast and loose with the commonly held Jewish folk mythology of a Dybbuk. That aside it is a wondefully atmospheric and chilling exordium that sets the tone for the seemingly wholly unconnected events that follow.

The Coen Brothers display a frequent fascination with the visual depiction of orifices, as elaborated in the bowling ball sequences of The Big Lebowski, the schematics of the hula-hoop in The Hudsucker Proxy and the frequent lingering shots of various piercing wounds and punctures in almost every one of their films. A Serious Man actually presents the most startling of all such shots as part of its impressive credits sequence. Jefferson Airplanes ‘Somebody to Love’ (a recurring joke throughout the movie) is played over the opening credits which end upon a black screen. Gradually a small speck appears and expands in the centre of the black screen, taking on the metaphorical import of a birthing canal, or yet another hole in a Coen character’s head. For the briefest of moments it is suggestive of the central spoke on a spinning record deck, but is revealed to be the direct passage from the dark emptiness of the head, down through the ear canal and into the earpiece of a portable tape player, being listened to by Danny Gopnik, the errant pot-head son of the film’s protagonist (although not the earnest man of the title) Larry Gopnik. Danny is in Hebrew school and it should be considered as to whether the nightmarish opening sequence is in fact no more than the overactive imaginings of an otherwise bored teenage boy.

Much like Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers evocation of another earnest Jewish male, A Serious Man appears to be primarily concerned with the questionable state of mind of its central protagonist, when placed under the unremitting trials, stresses and strains of external forces. Larry Glopnik, however, unlike Barton Fink, has no airs or pretensions. He is a Professor of Physics in Minnesota, a family man, living in a predominately Jewish community in the suburbs. The audience first encounters Larry undergoing a regular checkup with his doctor, a sequence that is brilliantly and disorientingly cross-cut with Danny’s classroom mischief. The film already seems hell-bent on reinforcing uncertainty as its primary theme through its formal choices. How does the audience connect the parallel events portrayed? Are they even meant to be connected? How should the pre-credit intro be regarded in relation to what is now being portrayed? All of these questions, and many more, are left hanging, some to be answered, others to have no such luck. The Coens would appear to be positing early in the film the premise that is later espoused by the rather sanctimonious Rabbi Nachtner, namely that our questions are not raised to be answered and that Hashem (God) has no responsibility to his creation, to reveal the methodology of his actions.

Larry Gopnik is such a benign presence within the movie that it seems almost masochistic on the part of the Coens to hang the framework of the narrative upon his unassuming shoulders. Whereas other ‘nobody’ Coen protagonists, such as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo and Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, however reluctantly, allow their survival instincts to force them into decisive action, Gopnik throughout A Serious Man strongly decries his ever having done anything. To some degree this is true, as the things that befall him seem primarily to be as a result of his inaction, rather than any impulse, or volition, on his part. In talking about this project the Coens have described it as their take on the Book of Job and Gopnik seems to endure his fair share of torments with quiet torpidness. First of all he is confronted by the inscrutably direct deviousness of a dissatisfied Korean student, who seems to have thoroughly understood how Heisenberg’s principle should be applied to actual human interaction, even if he sucks at the maths. Then there is the small matter of Sy Abelman, a widower of three years (another source of wry Coen humour), who appears to be far more aware of the condition of Larry’s marriage than Larry is himself. Gopnik’s living purgatory is fleshed out by the persistent and unrestrained selfishness of Larry’s son and daughter, the indefinite stay of Larry’s mentally unstable, goiter-draining, maths whizz of a brother (wonderfully portrayed by Richard Kind), the surly gun-toting NRA survivalists who live next door and seem to be under the impression that more of the lawn is actually theirs than they are truly entitled to, the tongue-tied yet recklessly verbal Dean of the faculty who creates a pervasive sense of paranoia in every reassurance of tenure, the rather too liberal, middle-aged housewife whose recreational activities involve pot-smoking and naturism, the friendly, but high-fee charging legal representation that Larry takes on initially to help with his unwanted divorce proceedings, and most disturbingly of all the Columbia Records Store that Larry’s son has joined and whom now hound Larry for the cost of records that he has no idea about.

Intriguingly, throughout the movie Larry is heard to be asking questions. Questions of his family, questions of his work colleagues, questions of Rabbis, questions of his legal representation, yet not once in the entire film does he actually receive, what he considers to be, an adequate answer. More often than not his family ignores him, leaving him in a seemingly perpetual state of catch-up. Whilst the Rabbis, lawyers and work colleagues merely give him an assortment of convoluted avoidance statements. The only people in the movie that ever really get to grips with Larry’s enquiries are the various portly, middle-aged, slightly owlish secretaries he comes into contact with, who offer contrite and frequently rebarbative responses, that fail only in the fact that they do not answer Larry’s questions in the manner that he would wish them to be answered.

The smug platitudes and odiously false understanding that Sy Abelman (the ‘Serious Man’ of the title, as designated by Rabbi Nachtner at his service) foists upon the reluctant and unwilling Larry are by far and away the most comic of all the sufferings he is forced to endure. The esteemed voice artist Fred Melamud is superb in the role of Abelman, turning Larry’s cuckolded situation into an opportunity for them to bond, yet proving unwilling to listen to Larry’s suggestions for how the divorce from his wife, Judith, should go ahead. Abelman’s death is yet another of the moments in the movie where the Coens deliberately cast doubt on what the viewer is actually seeing, cross-cutting between Larry and Sy driving to work and the golf course, respectively. The expectation is that they are driving toward some literal or metaphorical collision with one another, however this is simply not the case, although Larry later sees some significance in the fact that both Sy and himself were involved in car accidents at almost the exact same time.

Curiously, the Coens seem to take the theme of uncertainty to unprecedently subtle extremes. The frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Carter Burwell creates a musical score that is often incongruously unsettling and sinister. Furthermore, it proves to be yet another layer of uncertainty to those fans of the Coen Brothers movies, as it strongly resembles the score of their debut work Blood Simple, a film that evokes comparable dread from the most mundane of situations. The score is most significant in the way it isolates sounds such as the scrolling of the yad during a reading of the Torah, or the soft squeaking of a leather chair, by surrounding them with a suspenseful passage of music that breaks into silence. The score is also used to full horrifying effect when underlining the sections involving the Rabbis, denoted visually by a title insert.

The Coens seem to take a certain cruel glee in depicting the domestic horrors of 1960’s Jewish-American life, which lacks the affectionate ribbing of Phillip Roth and strays into the territory of profound disgust. The Gopniks all sit around the kitchen table greedily and noisily slurping their soup. The wise old Rabbi Marshak is seemingly so bored by his own congregation that he refuses to see any adults and only speaks with the Bar Mitzvahed sons of the congregation (leading to the at first sinister and then hilarious cross-examination of Danny about members of Jefferson Airplane). Nobody seems to know what a ‘get’ is, including the Junior Rabbi. The Hebrew school is staffed by an assortment of aged, crusty men, who seem wholly out of touch with reality, let alone their students. The decor and fashions are suitably flock and pastel, whilst the community Larry lives within seems to very much operate along the lines of a modern-day Shtetl. The characters are fundamentally loveless people, with even the seductive, yet almost catatonic, Mrs. Samsky (surely a Coen play on the Dybbuk author S.Ansky), married but seemingly alone. Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the entire film is the most troubled, with Larry’s brother Arthur being unable, or unwilling, to find work and accommodation, getting busted for gambling and also for the solicitation of a rent-boy at the hilariously entitled ‘North Dakota’ club. Yet this sympathy for Arthur, is surely based on nothing more than pity for a fundamentally wretched existence. At times A Serious Man ascends far beyond the misanthropic view of humanity that the Coens detailed in No Country for Old Men. Whereas in that movie the shocking revelation was that Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones’ characters are only divided in the reasons they have for deploying authority, power and violence, here the shocking revelation is perhaps that the Coens see absolutely no revelation to give. The Gopniks aren’t cursed, Hashem has not forgotten them, it is simply that there is either no Hashem worth considering, or perhaps more distressingly Hashem, like the Rabbi Marshak wants absolutely nothing to do with all the Gopniks’ inane questions.

The wonderfully self-contained piece of silliness that Rabbi Nachtner tries to fob off on Larry about a dentist in the community who sees the hebrew letters that spell out ‘help me’ written on the back of a goy’s teeth, seems an almost perfect summation of this stylish exercise in disconcertion by the Coen brothers. Rabbi Nachtner offers this, what we later understand to be pat, tale as an answer to Larry’s straight questioning of what ‘it’ all means. However this answer only provokes the need for further answers to new questions, the last of which involves what happened to the ‘goy’, to which Nachtner responds ‘who cares about the goy’. With A Serious Man the Coen brothers appear as truly serious men, who are more than aware that the most profound and unsettling of topics are most often best approached through the prisms of humour and horror. The rough ride that faith, religion and tradition seems to superficially take in A Serious Man is undermined somewhat by the consideration that if we are to take ‘uncertainty’ as the only truth of existence, then we either have to accept faith as a ‘rational’ reaction to such circumstances, or we have to consider the implications of ‘uncertainty’ as a constant, as surely oxymoronic. This thought should return the viewer to that wonderful piece of pop wisdom that is used as a motif throughout the movie, the opening lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’: ‘When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies’. This is perhaps sound advice to bear in mind when considering the full import of A Serious Man, alongside its questionable prefaced quote from Rashi: ‘Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you’. The Coens are after all serious about one thing in particular – namely, misdirection.

This essay was originally published on July 17th 2010 on my now defunct ‘Imposturous’ blog.