A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 11/03/09 at CineArts@Empire, SF, CA

The Coen brothers, as to which they are most often referred, have long been filmmakers whose films I have sought out.  I think, of all of their films, I have managed to see all but Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Blood Simple (1984) in the cinema, and those, I believe, I just wasn’t aware of for whatever reasons.  At their best, they’ve made some of the most interesting, funny, visually clever, funky American movies in the past 30 years.  And until fairly recently, at their worst, the films were still interesting, if convoluted and unusual.

Then they made The Ladykillers (2004), and though it could be argued that even before with Intolerable Cruelty (2003), they’d started making movies that were less unique to themselves.

A Serious Man is quite different in many ways to any of their other films, though it bears some location and cultural resonance with Fargo (1996) in that it is set in their childhood state of Minnesota.  Actually, there is reason to find more parallels in their lives in general in this film, focused on a father of a Jewish-American family in the late 1960’s  who is a professor of physics at a university, which is similar to their father’s profession and their childhood time approximately.

The film is very focused on Judaism, or at least a person of the Jewish faith, who is turning to his faith for help in a time of multiple crises.  His wife wants to leave him, his son is smoking dope, he is being threatened by a disgruntled student and a record mailing house, and he has a brother living with him who has a multitude of issues in and of himself.  I’ve read that his situations are most explicitly comparable to the biblical Job, of whom I know only the most pedestrian of information on (I’m no biblical scholar).  And from some reading, this seems apt.

Larry Gopnik, the father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), is tested time and again, and yet maintains his faith, though questioning why he is being so tested.  He has the patience of Job, so to speak.  He seeks help from three rabbis, from whom he gets mixed advice.  And actually, the second rabbi, who tells him a strange, seemingly metaphorical story about a Jewish dentist who finds a message in the mouth of a gentile (a “goy”, as the movie puts it).  But the story, which seems significant, also provides no guidance or answers.  And in some ways, maybe that is the message of the film itself.   What does all this story mean?  Is it in essence meaningless?

The film is steeped in period clothing, decor, style, and very much the Jewish life of the family.  The world of the film is interestingly packed with Hebrew writing and prayer, books and records that would have seemed particularly outre to the average gentile, I would guess, but are the norm in this film’s world.  The “goys” are the outsiders, the gun-toting neighbor or the Korean businessman and his son.  The world is almost entirely Jewish, though that must have been anomalous in Minnesota in the late 1960’s.  But when the son gets stoned for his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish faces, the language, the rabbis, the Torah, the whole thing is like some trippy nightmare, winding up in the ornate and archaic office of the eldest of the rabbis, who is strangely in touch with Jefferson Starship.

The film ends with ominous imagery, a coming storm, while the storm has already been wreaking havoc in the life of Larry Gopnik.  It’s unsettling, as much of the movie is, somewhat almost misanthropic, while staying true to the noble humanity and patience that Gopnik shows throughout the film.

Is this a personal film for the Coen brothers?  Or is that a red herring as they are so wont to throw into their storytelling?  And the opening sequence, a period tale of a Jewish husband and wife, whose meaning is also left dangling for interpretation…how does that all tie in?

Though left with a multitude of possible questions, I also feel that the test of Job, of Gopnik, is a test of the audience as well.  Much like the story of the dentist, which seems so packed with meaning and significance, perhaps the message is not to question, to accept and to open one’s mind to other perspectives, as the youngest rabbi recommends.  Or is there just doom?  Gopnik suffers a mid-life crisis in which his life has the crises and he just must suffer.  And what does it mean to be a “serious man”?

Darned if I know.  And darned if I know how to place the movie either ultimately.  Like many things, this will probably have to settle in and absorb before I have more of a sense.  And then again, maybe the answers just aren’t there.

The Ghost of Frankenstein

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) movie poster

(1942) dir. Erle C. Kenton
viewed: 11/02/09

Having gotten a little screwed up by watching the Universal Frankenstein movies out of order, I decided to soldier on and finish up with the series, such as it is.  As far as I can tell, there are a couple of outliers left: House of Frankenstein (1944) and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), though the latter of the two is clearly a tad on the outside of even the outliers.

The Ghost of Frankenstein follows the events of Son of Frankenstein (1939), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Frankenstein (1931), but precedes the events of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), which then precedes the events of House of Frankenstein.  Now, aren’t you glad that I’ve helped you work that out?  Not that chronology is hard when the movies came in relative sequence, but rather that you know all the films that you have to find…that is the challenge.  Now, if I’m really feeling Frankenstein-y, I’ll go back to the Hammer Frankenstein series, which started with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and then…yeah, not sure that’s going to happen right now.

Steadily, the films from this original series decline in quality and rise in outrageous plot developments.  For The Ghost of Frankenstein, Ygor has survived the shooting in the prior film, and when an attempted lynching destroys the castle of Frankenstein, it uncovers the still living monster, now played by Lon Chaney, Jr.  Ygor, now Igor, takes the monster to see another Dr. Frankenstein, the younger brother to Wolf from the prior film to get some help souping up the monster’s strength via lightning.  Dr. Cedric Frankenstein is also motivated to clear his father’s name, and when the monster kills one of his doctors, he decides to assist by putting the doctor’s brain into the monster’s head.

But Ygor convinces another doctor, the failed mentor Dr. Bohmer, played by Lionel Atwell, to put Ygor’s brain into the body (though the monster for some reason wants the brain of a young girl inside his head — go figure that!)  Well, unsurprisingly, putting Ygor’s brain into the monster doesn’t turn out to be a good idea, though it’s interesting to hear Lugosi’s voice coming from Chaney’s visage.  The chaos and resulting blindness set the rubble for the re-inventions that come about in the following Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, with further twists to the plot endlessly added.

Revisiting these films in earnest as I have has given many reminders of those days of childhood, in front of the tv, watching these old black-and-white films with great ardor.  Little did I know then much of the background, connections, order, information (beyond the movie stars and monsters).  And it does intrigue me to carry on seeking out more of the period and genre.  I may be taxing my Frankenstein endurance for the time being, but gosh knows that there are many, many, many, many more out there.

Son of Frankenstein

Son of Frankenstein (1939) movie poster

(1939) dir. Rowland V. Lee
viewed: 10/30/09

My glut of horror films (a.k.a. “monster movies”) that I had culled for Halloween wound up with watching some films a little out of order, which is only a minor shame.  It would have been kind of interesting to have watched Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) after having watched Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) (the latter of which I still have yet to watch).  And I mean this only in that there is some narrative continuity between these films, which gives a little more information to some of the stories.  And that logic may have helped me unfold the way that these films were produced and existed.

I don’t know what I fully remember from my prior viewing of Son of Frankenstein as a child, but it’s a surprisingly funny and aesthetically clever film.  This would be the third Frankenstein film with Boris Karloff as the monster, following Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  And this story picks up with Dr. Frankenstein’s son, Wolf, coming with his family back to his native town, encountering the disdain of the locals, and wishing to rectify his father’s name in history.  Wolf Frankenstein is played adroitly by Basil Rathbone, who is charming and witty in the role.  Karloff’s monster wears a furry tunic that seems like the lesser of the monster’s iconic outfits, though the one that seemed in vogue in the 1970’s Marvel comics that featured a monster like him.  And we’ve got Bela Lugosi again, on an early part of his downslide from big star to B-/Z-movie actor, playing Ygor, the broken-necked villain of the film.

We’ve also got the very odd and very funny character of Inspector Krogh, played by Lionel Atwill, whose right arm had been torn off by the monster when he was a child, leaving him with a very moldable artificial limb which is utilized for much visual humor (manipulating it for a salute, holding a cigarette for lighting, sticking darts in it).  It’s really funny but I am so much more familiar with Mel Brooks’ rehash of the character in Young Frankenstein (1974) with Kenneth Mars as the interestingly-limbed Inspector, that I am even wondering if there was anything to lampoon.  It’s already intentionally quite hilarious.  And Rathbone plays off Atwill in growing paranoia and humor with great aplomb.

The story of Ygor, the villain, who survived a hanging, having been declared dead by the town physician and therefor unhangable again, who befriended the monster in the interim between storylines and then uses him to revenge himself on the jury that convicted him and sentenced him to death, is pretty interesting.  Lugosi is quite good as the creepy, hairy, twisted creature Ygor, and there is some real pathos between him and the monster, a friendship that has been eked out of loneliness and isolation, yet still abused by Ygor’s vengeance.  And between Ygor’s neck and Krogh’s arm, there is a lot of unusual play with deformities and physical weirdness.

And the set designs are interesting.  While not as avant-garde, say, as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), they are unusual and shot interestingly.  They share some of the wacky-ness of the film in their builds, not quite “modern” per se, but not fully gothic either, with stairways that are more stairway than conveyance, weird ballustrades that jut over the dining tables, massive windows whose primary purpose seems to be to watch the rain.  The aesthetics seem not just intended for psychological effect but perhaps comical effect.  There is a shot of Dr. Frankenstein descending into the laboratory from an oddly backlit doorway/hallway which casts his shadow forward in a truncated, midget-like image.  It’s far less eerie than funny, which I take to be the intent.

All in all, it’s quite a good film, several steps above where the production values and camp qualities would get to only a few years later in 1943 in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man anyways.  Does that also reflect an influence of WWII on production values?  Perhaps.  I don’t know.   But it’s certainly worth saying that the film has more in tune with the two prior James Whale films than it does with the latter hambone jobs that would come to be the myriad sequels.  Maybe it’s just a prime transitional film between the two.