The most Jewish film in America
I walked out of the latest Coen Borther's film, A Serious Man, shocked! This is the most Jewish movie I have ever seen. What happened? These very Jewish brothers who never really acknowledged a deep connection beyond the well known "I'm Shomer Shabbas" jokes, have gone full blown Jewish. One can read moments in other films by the Coen Brothers to include holocaust imagery as a metaphor, Barton Fink, follows a Jewish writer, but no traditional elements are mentioned. When I taught a class "From the Marx Brothers to the Coen Brothers - Jews in American Cinema" The culminating film was Miller's Crossing, which I screened for the class in order to discuss self hating and disconnect in Jewish filmmakers, as the lowest character in the film is Bernie Bernbaum "The Schmata" played by John Turturro (often portraying a Jew even though he is not).
The Coen Brothers always epitomized the "New Jew," one who's connection does not go far beyond anecdotal. In fact, the brothers even took a strange step into embracing Americana. Many of their films take place in small towns far from any major Jewish population, most notably Fargo, portraying characters from middle America. The Brothers were raised in Minneapolis and have a clear fascination with an America that is far from the NY style often associated with Jewish directors.
A Serious Man falls into the style of some of the more recent Coen Brothers films, most notable the Academy Award winning No Country for Old Men, that turns classic story telling on its head and leaves the audience deliberating on the unresolved. In addition, the Brothers continue their obsession with showing a slice of non-mainstream America. They are masters at taking a place, a time and some characters, and adding the Coen touch of truly deep cinematic story telling. In this film, they get into the language, culture and images to an extreme. The details of this world go far beyond the use of language and images in the creation of the 1920's mobster world of Miller's Crossing. The Coen Brothers always excel in creating characters and ironic scenes, and this film continues in the same vain. However, there is a clear diversion from their usual work. For the first time in years, after working with every top actor in America - including most recently Brad Pitt, the Brothers use an almost completely unknown cast. Perhaps they did not think this small story about a suburban Jewish family in the 1970's had mainstream appeal and they did not invest in star power. But more so, as the film takes place in 1967 suburban Minneapolis - it is the most personal project they have ever done. The Borther's have covered different decades, centuries, and places all across American culture and somehow never went home.
The film opens with an amazingly Coen Brothers classic version of a Yiddish story that takes place in a polish shtetle, and raises question to the unknown in our world. This theme continues in the godless modern world of late 1960's Minneapolis. The Brothers clearly references the book of Job as a seemingly harmless character hits a streak of bad luck. The world is one about to feel change, and the Jewish American culture is about to hit a major generational divide. We see three generations of Rabbi's, each distinctly different from one another: The youngest: Hopeful and mis-guided, the Middle: cocky and clueless, and the eldest unapproachable and ultimately bitter. Jewish culture has never been more distinct and specific.
It is a prime example of the difference between American Jewish culture and Israeli Jewish culture. The State of Israel is not even mentioned in the film, nor is anything about this culture reminiscent of Israel. American Judaism is its own religion and culture. Conservative synagogues, bar mitzvah rituals, suburban lifestyle - and a language that is far from modern Hebrew. As the world referenced deeply in this film slowly dies out, American Jewish culture is left at a cross roads. Like the movie itself, the future is unpredictable and does not have a classic dramatic arc. I left asking, what will become of Jewish culture now?
Win Free Tickets to the best Jewish film of the year:
Isaac Zablocki - Director of Film Programs Recommends, "A Serious Man", the new film from Academy Award-winning writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen.
We are giving out 15 Passes, good for any showing of A Serious Man here in the city. Mon-Thurs (excluding holidays) beginning this Monday 10/12. To get the passes send an email with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org (Only the first 15 will receive the passes)