The Coen brothers make their Jewish masterpiece

The most successful indie film-makers in the world reveal why they have put their barmitzvahs on the big screen


By Jason Solomons, November 5, 2009
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“We’re very Jewish film-makers,” say Joel (left) and Ethan Cohen, going so far as to give a role to a JNF collection box in their latest movie

“We’re very Jewish film-makers,” say Joel (left) and Ethan Cohen, going so far as to give a role to a JNF collection box in their latest movie

"We’re Jewish film-makers, for sure," admits Joel Coen, one half of the Oscar-winning sibling team whose brand of ironic, darkly eccentric and often violent cinema has dominated independent American film-making for 25 years.

“We’ve never tried to hide that or tip-toe around it,” chips in his brother Ethan, three years his junior. “Hollywood has always been largely Jewish, although made of Jews who wanted to assimilate. As a friend of ours once said: ‘If the movie business wasn’t difficult, God wouldn’t have given it to the Jews.’”

Yet a run-through the Jewish characters in the 13 movies of these leading Jewish film-makers does not take very long. There was Barton Fink, the titular neurotic novelist hired as a Hollywood scriptwriter in their Palme d’Or winning film of 1991. There was also Fink’s studio boss, played by Michael Lerner in an Oscar-nominated turn. And then there was John Goodman in perhaps the Coen’s most famous film, The Big Lebowski. But even here, Goodman was an over-zealous convert who adhered to the rules of Shabbat (no bowling matches) despite being divorced from the Jewish woman for whom he converted in the first place.

But now, with A Serious Man, the Coens have come out and the results are glorious. The film is a Jewish masterpiece, the finest American film about the Jewish experience made for a generation, probably since Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors with which it shares an existential ache, a deep-seated itch to do the right thing without quite knowing what that thing is. Ask not what your God can do for you, seems to be the message. “Hashem hasn’t given me bupkes,” is one of the leading characters’ responses.

We put a copy of chaim Potok's The Chosen in every scene

Set in the American Midwest in 1967 — the era and the locale of the Coens’ own barmitzvahs — the film focuses on Larry Gopnik, a family man and college physics professor entering a mid-life crisis in the run-up to his son’s barmitzvah. Oddly enough, though, the film opens with a Yiddish fable, a five-minute shtetl short about a man, his wife, and a dybbuk who wants a bowl of soup. It is a pleasure to witness such a thumbnail of Jewishness in such a mainstream film.

When I meet the Coens, I feel I am being ushered in to meet the high priests. They sit together on a small sofa at the end of a long, dark Claridge’s hotel suite. I shuffle in awkwardly, trying to nudge away a low table. Ethan gets up and kindly moves it for me, while Joel shifts a stool to the side. “Look, Jews moving furniture,” I say, a gamble to lighten any potentially difficult mood. “Right,” says Joel smiling. “Next, we’ll all be hunting.”

The Coens are a major deal now, having won the best picture Oscar for No Country For Old Men in 2007 and having followed it with their biggest box office hit, the Washington-set farce Burn After Reading, which starred Hollywood titans George Clooney and Brad Pitt. A Serious Man features hardly any “known” faces, and is a retreat into the sort of personal, autobiographical cinema film-makers usually create at the start of their careers.

“We had a fairly banal and uneventful childhood,” says Joel. “It took us 30 years to stir any interest in making a film about it. Is this a personal film? It’s personal in that we personally lived in a community like this one and in 1967, we were the age of the kids in the movie.” This is as much of an admission as one is likely to get from the brothers, who are known for being gnomic to the point of recalcitrant when talking about the mysteries and meanings of their work. They play a sort of verbal tag, one finishing the other’s sentences, or phrases rather, because sentences tail off before they reach a full stop.

“I think that age and decades of hindsight have made that milieu somewhat more exotic for us to explore, though,” concedes Ethan. I venture that this latest film is a key to unravelling the rest of their work, with the overtones of a Yiddish folk tale running through it. “Well, we made that tale up ourselves, you know,” says Ethan. “We looked at Isaac Bashevis Singer and he likes that marriage of the homey and the supernatural and that seemed right to us for this film we wanted to make.”

These themes have always been lurking in your films, I say. Then Joel comes over very Jewish all of a sudden. “Lurking? We have lurking in our films? It’s plausible when you put it that way but… what needs explaining? There’s a mystery in our work? We don’t know. We just throw our hands up at that sort of question…” and he actually does throw his hands up — a bit, anyway.

I do sense, however, a certain warmth in this new comedy, an affection that has sometimes been missing in their films, which often have an ironic detachment from their characters, so much so that one could justly accuse the Coens of malevolence. Here, their depiction of family life is turbulent, certainly, but imbued with love. I tell them it feels like they actually enjoyed making this film, as if they were recreating the home they both lived in as brothers, playing on the lawn and making home-movies.

“I guess, there’s always a thrill in going somewhere you haven’t been in years,” confesses Ethan. “You get a charge, a kick, like going home for the holidays. There was a certain element of finding your old bedroom, where not much has changed. We had a lot of fun with our set designer, getting the details of the era just right.”

I mention the blue and white JNF collection box that appears. “Oh yes, that’s a good example,” cries Joel, animated now. “We all had that. And we put a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen in every scene — that was a book that everyone had. And there are some Masada lithographs and those stitched maps of Israel you’d find in every middle-class Jewish home. And the Hebrew school, that was exactly like ours.”

The film includes soup, learning barmitzvah portions from records, three levels of rabbi, the tale of the goy’s teeth, and non-Jewish neighbours with army haircuts who, in one brilliantly comic scene, return in their station wagon with a huge dead stag on the roof, ushering in echoes of Woody Allen’s famous Moose sketch. The hero, Larry Gopnik, becomes a quintessential Coen hero, like Jeff Bridges’s confused Dude, or Marge Gunderson in Fargo, or even Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy, who, when nobody understands his sketches for a new toy, trots out his catchphrase: “You know… for kids?”

A Serious Man is, you know, for Jews. And it is entirely fitting that the film should open the 13th UK Jewish Film Festival this Saturday, a barmitzvah movie for a barmitzvah edition of the festival.

This landmark movie comes in a landmark year for Jewish film, when Israel won its highest-ever international film honour, scooping the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion with Samuel Maoz’s brilliant Lebanon. Out of the 12 nominees for the London Film Festival’s prestigious Sutherland Trophy last week, three films were Israeli: Lebanon, Ajami and Eyes Wide Open — all superb, all very different, and the last two are highlights of the UKJFF programme.

Ajami actually won the prize, a triumph for its young director Yaron Shani, who will be back in London to present his film.

Israeli documentary Defamation, on the subject of antisemitism, was also presented with the LFF’s Grierson prize, handed out by leading documentarist Nick Broomfield, to its director Yoav Shamir. Defamation will form part of a special screeening and discussion at the UKJFF. All this in the year when leading film figures such as Ken Loach and Jane Fonda lead a protest at the Toronto Film Festival against the selection of Tel Aviv as the focus for a celebration of world film production.

What does it all mean? The Coens would no doubt warn of reading too much into it, but there has never been a more interesting or crucial time for Jewish film. As an exasperated Larry Gopnik says to his rabbi: “We’re Jews, we have that well of tradition, don’t we? We have stories to help us understand where we’re from and where we should go?”

www.ukjewishfilmfestival.org.uk

Last updated: 10:57am, November 6 2009