“The Coen broth­ers, though po­lite, have some­thing of a rep­u­ta­tion for clam­ming up in in­ter­views”

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

pulled, your hair cut and your will drawn up without go­ing out­side the com­mu­nity? “You could just about do that,” Joel says. “There were so many Jews in the pro­fes­sions, of course. On the other hand, there were all th­ese ways in which you were as­sim­i­lated. There was this weird semi-por­ous bor­der be­tween us and the rest of the world. Of course, at the time none of that seemed odd. It was just who we were.”

A Se­ri­ous Man could only have been cre­ated by Jewish film-mak­ers. This is true in the triv­ial sense that you would need in­side knowl-

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edge to recre­ate the neigh­bour­hood so ac­cu­rately, but, more in­ter­est­ingly, only some­body from that back­ground could get away with por­tray­ing the com­mu­nity in such an un­flat­ter­ing light.

“This is a place that is for­eign to most peo­ple in the Unites States,” Joel says. “A great many peo­ple have said if you weren’t Jewish you couldn’t make it. I agree with that. In a sim­i­lar way, only a non-Jew like Quentin Tarantino could make In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds. I be­lieve that too.”

The for­eign­ness is, per­haps, height­ened by the direc­tors’ de­ci­sion to cast the film with largely un­known ac­tors. Fol­low­ing the use of so many proper movie stars in No Coun­try for Old Men and Burn Af­ter Read­ing, their last two pic­tures, this is a marked change of ap­proach.

“Ac­tu­ally that was a con­scious de­ci­sion,” Ethan says. “We knew that, given what we were do­ing and the kind of en­vi­ron­ment we were in, we wanted the au­di­ence to get to­tally im­mersed. A movie star might jerk you out of that very sud­denly.”

Even given the ori­gin of the film-mak­ers, I would have an­tic­i­pated some ob­jec­tions to A Se­ri­ous Man from Jewish groups. This is a place full of angst-rid­den sch­mucks in­tim­i­dated by more as­sim­i­lated gen­tiles who seem to have none of their neigh­bours’ neu­roses.

“I’m happy to say that all our peers seem to like it. Nos­tal­gia is a pow­er­ful thing,” Ethan says.

The main action be­gins with the hero’s son dis­tract­ing him­self in He­brew school by lis­ten­ing to Jef­fer­son Air­plane on a tran­sis­tor ra­dio. We get the sense that he is hun­gry for es­cape from this weirdly con­tained en­vi­ron­ment. The Coens claim that they had a per­fectly happy child­hood and didn’t share such des­per­ate urges. (Then again, they would say that.) None­the­less, it’s a long way from the sub­urbs of Min­nesota to the gaudy side­walks of Hol­ly­wood. One can’t imag­ine how the lit­tle boy’s par­ents would re­act if he said he wanted to be­come a film-maker.

“It wasn’t al­ways our am­bi­tion,” Joel says. “Any­way, it would have been very strange for some­body from that world to even think of go­ing into show-busi­ness.” “Yeah. To be­come ‘show-folk’,” Ethan laughs. “In ret­ro­spect, though it wasn’t what they would have cho­sen for us, our par­ents were very sup­port­ive when we de­cided to go into mak­ing movies. They were very open-minded and lib­eral about it.”

Bi­og­ra­phers have al­ways as­sumed that the boys planned their as­sault on the movie ci­tadel from an early age. With a gor­geous neat­ness – given the blend of deep thought and cin­e­matic lore in their pic­tures – Ethan grad­u­ated in phi­los­o­phy from Prince­ton and Joel spent four years study­ing film at New York Uni­ver­sity. Be­fore they headed off for col­lege, they had al­ready spent time ex­per­i­ment­ing with Su­per 8 movies. It does look as if they made it their busi­ness to fash­ion one bi­fur­cated cin­e­matic brain.

“Yes, one of us was work­ing for the power of good and the other was work­ing for the power of evil,” Ethan says.

“But which is which?” Joel re­torts. “One brother be­comes a priest and the other be­comes a gang­ster. Later they meet up. We were in a Jewish Angels with Dirty Faces.”

At any rate, the broth­ers launched an as­ton­ish­ing ca­reer in dou­ble-quick time. Af­ter help­ing out Sam Raimi (still a pal) on The Evil Dead, Joel grabbed his brother and set to work on their as­ton­ish­ing de­but Blood Sim­ple.

When it was re­leased in 1984, be­fore ei­ther had reached 30, the twisty crime film rapidly gath­ered an ob­ses­sive fol­low­ing. Such blends of know­ing cin­e­matic self-con­scious­ness and cheeky black hu­mour had, in those pre-Tarantino days, rarely been seen out­side spe­cial­ity cin­e­mas. But, with sub­se­quent movies such as Rais­ing Ari­zona, Miller’s Cross­ing and Fargo, the team proved that smart, un­com­pro­mis­ing cin­ema can find its place in the mul­ti­plex.

Yet the Coen broth­ers have never quite been in­vei­gled into the es­tab­lish­ment. Joel may be mar­ried to a movie star, but you wouldn’t con­fuse Frances McDor­mand (for it is she) with your av­er­age red-car­pet hog­ger.

Ethan, mar­ried to Tri­cia Cooke, an as­so­ciate ed­i­tor on many of their films, also lives an un­starry life­style.

Even so, in 2007, they did fi­nally man­age to se­cure a brace of best-di­rec­tor Os­cars for No Coun­try for Old Men. I won­der if that changes things for them in Hol­ly­wood. Todd McCarthy, in his largely pos­i­tive re­view of A Se­ri­ous Man for Va­ri­ety mag­a­zine, ar­gued that this dark, ec­cen­tric film is “the kind of pic­ture you get to make af­ter you’ve won an Os­car”. The Coens aren’t buy­ing. “It. Does. Not. Change. Things,” Joel says with dra­matic em­pha­sis of that Os­car win. “We made the deals for the next two movies even be­fore No Coun­try came out. We haven’t been in the mar­ket­place since then, ex­cept re­cently to get the next movie to­gether. And that mar­ket­place has be­come much more dif­fi­cult due to the re­ces­sion. I’m afraid that fact trumps any awards you may have won a few years ago.”

Still, the Coens aren’t shirk­ers. They are al­ready work­ing on a re­make of True Grit – the old Henry Hath­away west­ern with John Wayne – star­ring (how per­fect) Jeff Bridges. Well, I say “re­make”, but they claim they are re­turn­ing to the source ma­te­rial.

“We re­ally liked the novel,” Joel says. “It’s a great book by Charles Por­tis that could have pro­vided a bet­ter film than the John Wayne movie. Not that we have any­thing against old Henry, but, erm ...” “It lacked the Jewish per­spec­tive,” Ethan laughs. “We need Henry Hathabergh’s take.”

Tread care­fully, boys. It sounds like you might be drift­ing back to­wards au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal wa­ters.

Os­car-winning direc­tors Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of A Se­ri­ous Man (be­low) and (far left) a scene from the Min­nesota-set movie

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