‘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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

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

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