Monday, 21 December 2009

A Serious Film? The Coen brothers hit middle age

A Serious Man is a film that asks us to simultaneously empathise with and jeer at Larry, a middle-aged man whose life is a proverbial bag of shit heading towards an equally metaphorical fan. When I meet Joel and Ethan Coen at the London Film Festival, however, they are keen to emphasise that A Serious Man should not be taken quite so seriously.

Joel: It’s not completely autobiographical because the story is made up, but it certainly is a movie that takes place in a particular community. Consciously we set out to recreate the community that we grew up in. There are a lot of similarities to our own background there: we went to Hebrew school, we were Bar Mitzvahed , our father was a professor at a Midwestern university. We grew up in a house like that in a neighbourhood like that. All those things I guess you could say are in some sense autobiographical. But the story is fictional. (Pause) Neither of us were stoned at our Bar Mitzvahs.

Having cleared that detail up, they remain ambiguous in precisely where the fact-fiction line is drawn.

Joel: Larry, the character that Michael Stuhlbarg plays, is not anything like our father – he couldn’t be more different in many ways. The characters themselves weren’t meant to reflect real characters or members of our family or anything else like that. They’re based not on real people but they’re sort of hybrids of different things and impressions we’ve gotten from lots of different people.

Ethan, who has spent the first minutes of the interview staring down at the over-polished table and massaging his brow, now interjects.

Ethan: That’s right. Aaron’s character [Larry’s Columbia Record Club-subscribing son] is very much a very typical kid of that environment, and probably we were too. Not particularly like him but, you know, part of that time and place.

The Coen brother back catalogue is full of unique takes on well-stocked genres and unique collisions of multiple genres. A Serious Man, however, seems to hover – sometimes awkwardly – somewhere between drama and comedy, or between tragedy and folly. Are the Coen brothers finally growing up?

Ethan: Oh I don’t know. We don’t actually compare movies one to the other. We don’t really think about it much. Some of them are more genre pieces than others but this one isn’t the only one that doesn’t sit comfortably in a genre. And maturing? God, who knows? They all look equally juvenile to me.

During this diagnosis of his own lack of maturity, Ethan has peeled the label off of the bottle of mineral water in front of him, leaving a small heap of torn paper on the table.

A Serious Man does celebrate childhood, but alongside a far bleaker look at paternal adulthood. As well as taking a nostalgic glance back, does this film about a man undergoing a spectacular midlife crisis betray any of anxiety over a forthcoming middle age? Ethan giggles. An element of mild hysteria – brought on no doubt by a morning of similar interviews – is, it seems, already creeping up on him. laughing, he answers the question.

Ethan: No not in any specific way, but I don’t think either of us would have written this movie when we were thirty.

Joel: For all kinds of reasons.

Ethan: In a very impunible way, yes, only a middle-aged person could’ve written it.

It’s been twenty-five years since the release of Barton Fink (1984) but the Coen brothers are currently more prolific in their output than they have ever been. Spotting a potential common ground, I’m curious as to whether they ever find themselves pulling studentesque all-nighters?

Joel: Oh shit no!

Ethan: No, you know, it’s funny. Joel will say if he disagrees but I think it feels like we’re fairly lazy, and yet, relative to other people, we do seem to get a fair amount done.

He pauses.

Ethan: But I think that just reflects poorly on other people as oppose to well on ourselves.

Joel: What are they all doing?!

As a partnership, Ethan and Joel are unique in that the vast majority of their films are both written and directed entirely by themselves.

Ethan: It’s certainly easier if you can manage to generate or find your own material as oppose to being reliant on other people, because then you have an ownership of something. You can go out and try and do something with it yourself as oppose to waiting for people to offer you the opportunity to make something. I think that was true when we were starting out, and it’s probably still true now.

Next, the Coens will be returning to genre filmmaking with an adaption of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit. It is the wild western tale of a young teenage girl who sets out to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a disloyal family farmhand.

Joel: It’s a western. It was made into a movie once before in the late sixties with John Wayne. We’re going to star [long-time Coen brothers collaborator] Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, and a fourteen-year-old girl who we haven’t cast yet – she’s really sort of the main character of the movie.

You read it here first.

A Serious Man is reviewed below >>>

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