What’s Going On?

It is no secret that the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, are two of the greatest living directors. There is a reason for that. The Coens are ambitious and even though most of their films deal with nihilism (The Big Lebowski), impotence (Barton Fink), doomsday (No Country for Old Men) and failure (Inside Llewyn Davis), the Coens are filmmakers that try to grasp the enormity of life and the numerous trials and tribulations that come with it. Their secret lies in their ability at poking fun at everything and everybody and getting away with it. Why? Because they know there are no absolute answers. Everything is a farce. A beautiful one. Sure, in Burn After Reading the two wrote and directed a story about conspiracy, secret service, treason to showcase the insanity and the stupidity of those who are convinced of outsmarting other people. That was back in 2008, right after the economic crisis revealed holes and leakage not only in the US system, but worldwide as well. Then, a year later, the two brothers came out with one of their darker, perhaps their most underrated movie to date: A Serious Man. A totally different beast but one that might have been aimed at pointing fingers at those who always want to know one single thing: WHAT’S GOING ON?

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Larry desperately trying to modify life.

It is 1967. A suburb in the state of Minnesota. Enter Larry Gopnik: middle-aged physics professor, husband and father of two, a boy and a girl. Larry’s Jewish like the Coens, and like the Coens in their teenage years, his son is getting ready to become a man by going through a Bar Mitzvah. This involves hours of learning long religious chants in Hebrew. What Larry’s son is going through is exactly what Larry is going through himself. Confusion. An omnipresent state of confusion. However, unlike Larry, his son accepts this state of confusion: he embraces it by memorizing the sound of the words spoken by the rabbi, rather than understanding them. He spends most of his time listening to rock music instead of paying attention to what the teachers teach him in Hebrew school. Smoking weed and gazing at the glaring TV set becomes his habit: a simple way of refusing to understand and oversee the bigger picture, because why should a 13 year old boy worry about so many meaningless things?

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Manipulated by everything and everyone.

Larry, on the other hand, is a man who believes in numbers, who believes in logic and concrete evidence. He believes in Yes or No. Good or Bad. Cold or Hot. That’s it. In a time of such great social change with the Vietnam War in the distant background, cheap sci-fi shows on TV and the power of rock and roll, Larry is incapable of coping with this new reality. Each day he goes through the same routine. Each day he starts from scratch. But then, one day, Hasham strikes upon him with a series of odd and troubling events. His wife decides to leave him for his friend, a snobbish Jew by the name of Sy Ableman. Larry’s ominous neighbor starts building a shed  by crossing Larry’s property line. Then, his tenure application is threatened because of hate mail directed at Larry from an anonymous sender. Finally, a Korean student asks him to grant him a passing grade in Mathematics and leaves a bribe on his desk. When Larry tries to confront him about it, the father of the student shows up to his house and threatens to sue him. Larry looks at the man, helpless, and asks if the money on his desk was left by his son or not. The student’s father answers: ”Please. Accept the mystery.”

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Larry likes numbers.

The mystery. The mystery of what? Larry cannot figure this out. And the Coens keep pushing him into a corner. First by putting him in a car accident, then by killing off his wife’s lover and making him pay for the funeral arrangements, finally by having his brother get into trouble with the law and having him pay for his brother’s lawyer. In other words, everything is going wrong for Larry. But the Coens make it clear enough: it’s Larry’s fault. This poor, clueless sob is bringing all of this on himself. By doing what? By not accepting the mystery. In fact, the only man who Larry can relate to is his own brother, Arthur, a loner who lives at Larry’s place and keeps his own notebook, filled with mathematical schemes and formulas that are meant to solve the ”probability map of the universe.” Arthur’s quest to solve the world has driven him to insanity and physical sickness, and yet, Larry does not realize it. He is too caught up in his own quest, his own personal reasons.

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Obsession through a close-up.

Larry’s visit to the three local rabbis ends with nothing but disappointment. The first rabbi, the junior one named Scott, is not experienced enough to actually give him a reasonable answer. What he does instead is feed Larry with the same worn-out speech about changing perspectives, starting from scratch and as he puts it toward the end: ”You have to see things as expressions of God’s will. […] Just look at the parking lot, Larry.” The young rabbi, unable to really transmit any kind of profound knowledge, relies on precisely what Larry hates about the world – blind belief in something that may or may not be there. These words deepen the cut in Larry’s mind. To a man like Larry, a teacher, a mathematician, what is perspective? Why should perspective change? That is why he goes to see the second rabbi, Nachtner, the more experienced one who is also responsible for organizing Larry’s son’s Bar Mitzvah. This rabbi, as experienced as he is, believes in the power of the parable. The parable he tells Larry is about a dentist who finds himself questioning God’s message engraved on the inside of one of his patient’s teeth. Unfortunately, this parable leads nowhere, and makes Larry even more frustrated. He stands and says: ”It sounds like you don’t know anything!”  Finally, the wisest of all rabbis, Marshak, does not even grant Larry a meeting. He shuts himself in his office, like God shutting the gates to his property, and leaves Larry with nothing but a sour taste in his mouth; a taste so vile and putrid that only the magic vision of Larry’s beautiful neighbor, Mrs. Shamsky, will be able to pull away for a short while.
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As he enters Mrs. Shamsky’s place, Larry can be considered a simple mortal, finally, a serious man with a serious man’s desire to make love, to cheat and indulge in physical pleasures. The beautiful neighbor offers him marijuana and the two get high together just like Larry’s son with his friends. For a brief moment, Larry is a serious man. Perhaps, that’s all he ever wanted. But the moment does not last long. Once reality hits Larry in the head, he’s gone for good. There are cops knocking on his door, religious ceremonies waiting for his attendance, family matters that are to be taken care of, his tenure that is at risk because of rude anonymous letters, and last but not least, his ultimate quest that needs answers at all costs.

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Mrs. Shamsky, a vision or a reality?

What the Coen brothers are able to create in this movie is a sense of feverish obsession; a kind of obsession that gnaws at every aspect of our lives. This obsession takes different forms in Larry’s life: his creepy neighbor, Sy and his snobbish attitude, the rabbis, his brother’s sickness, the student’s father, the tenure committee, you name it. Through careful direction and beautiful cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins that consists of mostly close-ups and medium shots, the Coens put the audience in Larry’s shoes. Whatever Larry feels, be it a crumbling physical pain or another terrible disappointment, the audience feels it too. As viewers, we are forced to witness a man struggle to find answers to questions that obviously do matter, but perhaps do not need answering. And through their brilliant writing, the brotherly duo play with language and the inability to communicate even in such a tight knit community as the Jewish one presented in this film. The language of Hebrew, the language of the chosen people, instead of being presented as a helpful way of bonding between community members is presented as a barrier that blocks any sort of outside perspective. The world in A Serious Man is so closed, shut-off and isolated from the rest, that its characters are naturally prevented from questioning the larger aspect of life. The minimalistic stylization used by the filmmakers serves one single purpose: to make Larry feel alone. Alone with the questions.

Alone with the mystery.

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Alone with the mystery.

 

A Bucket of Sorrow

Today’s topic: the death of the American Dream in O Brother Where Art Thou. There have been countless movies dedicated to the glorious understanding of the term “American Dream”, movies that won plenty of Oscars such as the legendary tale of a simple man who turns into an all star boxing champ in Rocky or even the story of greedy Wall Street businessmen in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The audiences clearly from the very beginning wanted to envision something so distant, so unreachable for the most part of the public: rise from nothing and either win everything or end up in the gutter. This concept was already born back in the early 1950s: the age of making business, living in suburbs, driving your own car, having  preferably a four member family and breathing fresh air. So why isn’t Hollywood interested in showing that this “dream” is for the most part a simple illusion created by day-to-day advertisement, dirty politics and irrational thinking? Well, because Hollywood used to and still does up to this day produce what the public wants to see and believe. That’s why it takes a duo of brothers to abolish the idea that everyone loves. I’m talking about the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan.

Three criminals on their way to stardom.
Three criminals on their way to stardom.

The brothers from Minnesota are part of the last generation of writer-directors independent from the Hollywood way of filmmaking; they have their own style, their own set of rules and ideas, their own language and tone and something that is extremely rare in today’s movies – originality. Their voices resonate in a world where everything must obey someone or something. With the Coens the viewer never really knows what he’s about to watch – be it the story of a husband who plans to kidnap his wife for ransom money in Fargo or the story of a pacifist stoner who investigates the disappearance of a millionaire’s wife in The Big Lebowski, the two writer-directors have never stayed on the same track. The same thing happens when we watch O Brother Where Art Thou, the tale of three prisoners trying to find their way to a hidden treasure in 1930s Mississippi. In this 2003 Oscar nominated picture, we’re given all the realities of the American South, and not only. The brothers intend to present us the main problems revolving around race, money, corruption, the musical scene and human intellect that are still relevant up to this day and age on a worldwide scale.

Chances come and go.
Chances come and go.

Labeled as a comedy, the film starts off with the sound of hammers beating on rocks, the voices of black prisoners chanting; we open up to a chain-gang. Hundreds of prisoners slamming their hammers against the dusty ground, guarded by armed deputies, under the heavy sunlight, dressed in plain striped uniforms, singing. The sepia cinematography by  master Roger Deakins is used here to make us reflect on the whole situation right from the opening: prisoners, guards, in colour they’re all the same, it’s the politics that divide them. One holds a sledgehammer, the other a loaded rifle.

The contradictions.
The contradictions.

When the three protagonists – Everett, Delmar and Pete – escape the chain-gang and manage to find shelter at Pete’s cousin’s house we’re presented with another problem; poverty. The three feast on a tasty dinner made of delicious horse stew – only problem is Pete’s cousin couldn’t afford anything else than the corpse of his rotting dead horse. And when the law enforcement comes looking for the three ex-cons, Pete’s cousin rats them out. Poverty, in a world where only the supreme and powerful have a say, leads to betrayal. Anything for money, for a hot plate, a cup of coffee, anything. Even your own cousin’s life. But that’s not the end of it. The boys, after successfully escaping a wave of other mishappenings, stumble into Baby Face Nelson (one of the most ruthless gangsters of the 30s America). They witness  the madman driving a fast running car, shooting whatever his eyes catch – be it police cars or cows. And yet, when the day comes to an end, and the four men find themselves around a bonfire, resting, Baby Face Nelson melts down; from a murderous criminal he turns into a frightened child. And like that, he says goodbye to the gang and walks away, looking down, almost crying. The Coens write their characters with the highest number of contradictions they can come up with, and yet they still manage to leave these characters with a sense of humanity, and make them as realistic as possible; because they know, unlike most directors and screenwriters today, that people are not one dimensional. Even a feared gangster can still be a man deep down his soul, since there is no such thing as a lost cause in the Coens’ book, anything’s possible.

There are no straight paths.
There are no straight paths.

When Delmar and Pete jump into the river to wash away their sins, we get a taste of human naivety and innocence. Hundreds of people, dressed in white, chanting “Oh brother let’s go down! Let’s go down to the river!” make their way through the thick bushes and twisted forest branches, finally stepping into the cold water of the Mississippi. It’s as if we’re witnessing a passage from the Holy Book, and indeed we witness a religious procession; salvation. Everett watches in disbelief as his two pals run to the priest, who helps them wash away their sins. The two prisoners believe it, the other hundred members believe it, a whole nation believes it. Or maybe they just wish they could believe it. The Coens want the audience to question the different point of views: who’s right? Everett for despising the religious act of salvation? Or Delmar and Pete for being so naive as to think that their criminal past could be forgotten with a simple splash of water? We even get to judge their choices when they’re confronted by a trio of beautiful sirens; like in Homer’s Odyssey, the gorgeous creatures lead the men to lose sight of their objective, slowing down the gang’s mission.

Fantasies can easily seduce you.
Fantasies can easily seduce you.

No worries. The Coen bros move when they know the territory. Who other than the Coens would have the guts and brains to write a State Governor candidate as the prime member of the local Ku Klux Klan? It’s a kick in the face to all those who think politics can be run honestly, all those who think that a good man can be a rich man. Fairy tales are for children. Here, the candidate running for Governor’s office organizes a private lynching of a black folk musician. The very man who wishes to run one of the largest states in the US hums to the drum roll’s rhythm, lights a crucifix and reaches out with a rope in his hand. If you think about it, the Coens’ crazy fantasy can be considered terrifying reality. Food for thought.

Governor's ball.
Governor’s ball.

The music. The music is the movie. Be it swing, country, folk, jazz, work songs, the music in O Brother tells the journey of the characters. The songs contain countless stories of spoiled politicians, prisoners having to work all day long, struggling musicians, devoted believers and starving farmers. The Coen brothers use music as a flashlight for the viewer, for him to find his way out of this messy, bizarre tale of men seeking a fortune… that in the end is not the fortune they seek. Their music describes the pain and suffering of a whole world, which keeps on dreaming, believing fantasies and apparitions. There is no American Dream within this music, nor within this life. And like that, with a simple comedy we’re taught what we’ve been always ignoring.

Be your own shepard. Dream later.

Finding the right track.
Finding the right track.

Coin Toss

Today’s topic: Cormac McCarthy’s mind through the eyes of the Coen Brothers. Two different worlds: McCarthy, a veteran writer, known for his violent, slow-paced narrative in novels like Child of God, The Road and Blood Meridian and the Coen Brothers – creators of the concept of  “thought provoking, dark comedy” and quirky screenwriters, famous for their off-beat characters and dialogue in films such as Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading and True Grit. When these two, opposite worlds meet what do we get? One of the best thrillers and film experiences of all time: No Country For Old Men. A bloody, savage tale of an ending era and the birth of a new one. The tale of blood spilled in the desert. The tale of an unstoppable chase. The tale of humanity.

No Country For Old Men tells the story of a man who finds a suitcase full of drug money, a killer who chases him, and an old sheriff who tries to stop the killer. Plain and simple. But what marks this film and separates it from all the other chase-scenario thrillers is the unique voice that it carries. It’s a philosophy class, to be honest. That’s what I think. That’s what the old folks used to say. The Coen Brothers let the words of McCarthy flow through their screenplay. What they do is they direct them in a way that underlines every syllable and noun and impacts the viewer by gluing him to the screen.

The air is dry. The sun is up. The Texas border is crawling with sick individuals looking for a stash of coke or whatever it is they can find. Gangs organize stand-offs in the desert. Motorways are busy. Motels too. People live in trailers and buy their groceries at the local gas station. It’s time for a change. Some things need to go, others need to appear. It’s not the land of the opportunity anymore. Lawman Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) has seen enough bad doings in his life. He’s tired. He loves his wife dearly and his horses even more. He carries a gun, which is surprising because some of his predecessors, even his father and his grandpa, never did. Never felt the need to. The world’s changed. Bell’s eyes have changed. His hair is now grey, and as he recounts the bloody happenings of a summer in the 1980’s Texas, he tells the story of a whole world being crushed by evil. Evil that cannot be caught. Evil that slips through our fingers every time we get hold of it. Evil that looks straight at us every time we wake up. That’s Sheriff’s new reality: an obscure cloud taking over the bright Texas plains.

The old man and the desert.
The old man and the desert.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a simple man. Born and raised in a small town in Texas, never been to Paris or London. He’s a hunter. He has a wife and a small cozy trailer. That’s all he needs to be happy. Or at least up until the moment when he finds a suitcase loaded with money: blood stained drug money. And someone is looking for it. Someone is ready to do anything to get that money back. That’s when Moss, the hunter, becomes the prey. Fate chases him with nothing but deadly intentions. Death. That’s what’s coming. But Moss, who represents the naivety of kids chasing dreams, is too dumb to see the big picture. The money is tempting: a big house, a better job, a nice car. You can do anything if you got the dead presidents. Unless, you got a snake in your pocket. That’s when you should run.

Don't hunt if you don't know your prey.
Don’t hunt if you don’t know your prey.

But what from? Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in top form), the snake. The snake without a rattle. You don’t hear him coming. You don’t see him coming. He’s the new plague that gets into your country, your city, your house, your room. That’s who he is. He is a madman with no brakes. He is a man with no limits. He is a man who plays with life and death by making bets: a coin toss, in this case. And when he asks you to call it, you better do. Because he will not ask again. He will not give you a chance. He laughs at chance. You can’t bribe him, you can’t promise him anything because he just doesn’t care. He doesn’t obey anyone and anything. He moves only when he wants to. Why does he chase Moss? For the money? No. The money couldn’t mean less to Anton. He chases him because he must. It’s why he exists. His duty is to make your life miserable. His duty is to burn everything that Sheriff’s built throughout his career. He kills because there is no other reason for him to live if not to kill other people. And you know what’s the worst thing about him? He keeps coming. And he never goes down.

That is why No Country For Old Men is so exceptional. It’s a dark, twisted tale about the changes that our world, our lives undergo every day. The tale of a world that keeps crumbling at our feet. We wake up, we breathe for what? What is the purpose of all that surrounds us? All this destruction…

Where is the joy of living if you can’t stop what’s coming?

Evil is at your door, and it doesn't knock.
Evil is at your door, and it doesn’t knock.