‘Nostalgia is a powerful thing’
It’s 25 years since Joel and Ethan Coen made their debut feature, Blood Simple, and the former cult film-makers are now Hollywood players with Academy Awards on the mantelpiece. Their new film, A Serious Man, has been described as “the picture you get to
ARTISTS OFTEN resist even the slightest suggestion that their latest film, book, poem or play may be autobiographical. Such a proposal – some might say “accusation” – implies, perhaps, that the piece has been partly ghost-written by Real Life.
Moreover, admitting that any part of a work is drawn from experience invites the punter to grub around for fictional outrages that point towards hitherto unearthed scandals. Never mind your beautifully composed picture of life in 1950s Devon, sir. What about this badger mutilation on page 34? So you’re a badger mutilator? That sort of thing.
With this in mind, it is all the more surprising that the Coen Brothers have so conspicuously returned to their youth for their quite brilliant new film A Serious Man. There’s no way out, here. They cannot, with straight faces, claim that they didn’t draw on their own lives when composing a story set among the close-knit Minnesotan Jewish community in 1967.
“No. We cannot quite say that,” Joel Coen says with a dry smile. “We expected that question. We embrace that question.”
The Coen brothers, though polite and articulate, have something of a reputation for clamming up in interviews. Any attempted deconstruction of the work – peerless films such as Blood Simple, Fargo and No Country for Old Men – is likely to be welcomed with a nod and an acknowledgment that “you could see it that way”. How surprising then that they have offered us this window into their early life.
A Serious Man
details the slow, bleakly comic dissolution of a Jewish academic’s suburban existence. His wife has fallen for another man. His useless brother is sleeping on the front couch. His campaign to secure tenure is not going too well. Through it all his son – roughly a contemporary of the Coens – blithely soaks up dumb sitcoms, experiments with pot and nods along to Jefferson Airplane.
The brothers are from Minnesota. Their dad was an academic. They come from a Jewish background. The question asks itself.
“It’s not very autobiographical,” Joel says in an attempted U-turn.
“Well, it is extremely so in terms of setting,” Ethan corrects. “This is the suburban community we grew up in during 1967. We were the age of the kids in the movie. We had to go to Hebrew school. The nature of the environment is the same. But in terms of people, you can’t extrapolate an autobiography. You can’t correlate the characters with specific people.”
So their dad was not a sat-upon Job-like figure? “No,” Joel says. “He was a teacher, but he was temperamentally very different in
“A great many people have said if you weren’t Jewish you couldn’t make it. I agree with that”
every way.” As it happens, the Coen brothers seem to be in relatively jolly form today.
Joel, the darker one – and, at 54, two years the elder – leans confidently forward and delivers his answers in slightly stern, punchy sentences. Ethan, the less frightening one, never quite makes eye-contact, but doesn’t evade your questions either. It is the middle of the London Film Festival and the boys are, I suspect, slightly surprised by how well the film has gone down. Deeply embedded in its chosen milieu, A
Serious Man will be as foreign and exotic to many non-Jews as would a film from sub-Saharan Africa. This is a world where the doctor, the dentist, the lawyer and the teacher are all of the same faith. It seems as if it was possible to go for weeks without meeting a gentile.
“The insular part was interesting, looking back,” Joel says. “It didn’t strike you as a kid, obviously. But we felt the subject of Jewish communities on the prairie – right in the heart of middle-America – was a really interesting one for a movie.”
So was it really possible to have your teeth