21 January 2010

A Serious Man by the Coens, 2009

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:50 am

I’ve not seen all the contenders, but by my lights this was the best picture of 2009.



  1. Hi John,

    I have to say that I was a bit underwhelmed by A Serious Man. The dental parable is very good though and there are some very funny scenes.

    I can’t remember whether you saw Synecdoche, New York. A very frustrating film in that the play/reality/time mess-up meant that I couldn’t identify with any the characters, who were actually pretty one-dimensional. However, I think it was kind of all the things that A Serious Man wasn’t, dealing with the trials of life and death, maybe losing everything in the end etc. I thought it was a very humane film.


    Comment by NB — 22 January 2010 @ 6:49 am

  2. Check out Fish Tank, if you can. It’s my contender for the film of the year.


    Comment by NB — 22 January 2010 @ 6:50 am

  3. I thought I’d posted some screengrabs from Synecdoche, but no. I liked the movie and wrote some thoughts about it on an unrelated thread, mostly linking it to the novel Remainder by Tom McCarthy. To connect with my latest movie post, Synecdoche offers the “imitation of life” taken to the literal extreme.

    I agree that A Serious Man isn’t a particularly humane film. It’s cruel in a sense, the events driven by a meaningless fate that is ungraspable and unswervable by the serious men. In this regard the movie is a fitting sequel to the Coens’ last outing — this is no country for serious men either. But it’s also funny, which in a way intensifies the fatalistic inhumanity embodied in Chigurh’s seriousness. The son, though, just goes with the flow: God takes his transistor radio away, and then God returns it to him again. What’s the lesson to be learned? From Rabbi Marshak: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies… then what?” (Note that the Rabbi changes the original lyric from “joy” to “hope.”) Truth be told, A Serious Man feels a lot like my O’Gandhi novel, which is probably another reason I recognize its excellence (lol).

    Fish Tank? Never heard of it. It’s not a contender for the BAFTAs, so how can a serious man take such a film seriously? I’ll look into it though, based on your recommendation, NB.


    Comment by john doyle — 22 January 2010 @ 9:25 am

  4. Yes, I did like the Rabbi scene near the end and I didn’t notice that he changed “joy” to “hope”.

    I thought A Serious Man was generally about how everything can become signs and portents for us, if we want them to, if we are open to them. Nearly everything in the film is ambiguous. But maybe taking life so seriously can destroy you too, give you bad dreams. And the other Rabbi appears to tell the dental story to everyone who sees him.

    I found the supporting characters in A Serious Man to be rather thin – the kids were incredibly selfish, especially the daughter – but maybe that was the point: they’re not struggling, or don’t seem to be.

    I can’t seem to access that Synecdoche thread – asks for a password.

    Fish Tank is a British film. It’s a shame that it’s not up for BAFTAs even. I guess it doesn’t fit the frame of Merchant-Ivory or social realism. It appears at first sight to be the latter – but it deals with sexuality and ambiguity in a way that you won’t see in Ken Loach. It’s just come out on DVD over here. I hope there’ll be an American release. It’s a terrific film.


    Comment by NB — 22 January 2010 @ 10:29 am

  5. Well you know how much I love signs and portents, NB. Forget the link, my mistake — I’ve cut-and-pasted the comments here:

    …Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Too many words though, as the cinematic version of Salieri might have said — maybe a hundred pages too long. There’s a good core idea, as in a novella, that McCarthy belabors. Now it’s true that belaboring things, repeating himself, is what the narrator is all about, so there’s a sort of modernistic integrity to the novel. And I do acknowledge that my own current preference for brevity might be getting in the way of my own appreciation, but the material would fit comfortably inside a novella format without feeling the need to spread itself out so much. I don’t know if Charlie Kaufman credited this book, but Synecdoche NY is practically a re-enactment of Remainder.

    Comment by john doyle — 25 March 2009 @ 6:02 am | Edit This

    I saw Synecdoche NY. I loved the film.

    Comment by Erdman — 25 March 2009 @ 2:18 pm | Edit This

    Erdman, I too liked Synecdoche a lot. It’s curious, though, that Remainder, this novel by McCarthy is built on this same premise of reconstructing places and situations from the main character’s life and then re-enacting them with hired actors. Kaufman gets a lot of credit for being a creative screenwriter, which he is, but I bet he cribbed this idea from McCarthy. A little more than halfway through this interview [crap, here’s another link — forget it too], Kaufman claims not to have read McCarthy’s book or known anything about it. He says that his own screenplay was written before McCarthy came out, but apparently the book was well-known in London literary circles for years before it finally found a publisher. So I don’t know, maybe the zeitgeist was ready for the idea to appear simultaneously in two different writers’ minds.


    Comment by john doyle — 22 January 2010 @ 11:29 am

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