Toronto 2009: A New Film from the Coen Brothers

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Toronto 2009

The Toronto International Film Festival, which vies annually with Sundance for the title of Most Important Film Exhibition in North America, wrapped this past weekend, and Paste was there to sample the latest wares from the world's filmmakers. Red carpets were unfurled and appropriately soiled, movies were projected onto silver screens, and viewers were duly exhausted by both pretty pictures and, I'm told, nights on the town. In just nine days, TIFF screened over 250 feature films of all types, from major Hollywood business gambits to small experimental pieces, from the personal work of emerging filmmakers to the latest movies by international masters.

Let me explain. No wait. It's too late. Let me sum up. If our small sampling is to be believed, it was a festival of strong movies but few if any flat-out masterpieces. Imagine the President of these United States beginning the State of the Union address with "The state of the union is … pretty good, I guess, all things considered." It was that kind of festival. Since Toronto is in Canada, the joke failed with everyone I tried it on, but maybe you, dear reader, will understand.

Let me break it down.

* * *

A Serious Man

I'd like to begin this Toronto recap with the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man. I was a fan of the brothers when I was in college, but in the years since (oh, too many to count) I've conceded that the Coens are master craftsmen who may never make a film that forces, or even urges, me to consider my own life or world. Their films exist in an artificial plane, attractive, funny, but inconsequential. For some people, No Country for Old Men was more than that, but I found it a fascinating thriller for about an hour and a muddled fake-out from there. Then Burn After Reading, whose clever construction requires ample stupidity on the part of its characters, did nothing to regain my interest. I'd essentially written them off.

But I continue to see their films because unlike other people I've written off (see Todd Solondz later in this wrap-up) they are such technical wizards -- in the way they structure stories, the way they tell jokes, and the way they play with themes -- that I'm always hopeful they'll marry their skills to worthy material.

And they finally have.

Working with few recognizable stars, the Coens have made a funny but odd and inquisitive film about guilt. In pop culture coverage, the word "Kafkaesque" gets thrown around willy nilly, and as a fan of Franz Kafka's writing I'm always reluctant to use it. Kafka wrote The Trial — the story of a man who must navigate a byzantine legal underworld to prove that he's not guilty of whatever it is someone says he's guilty of — and lazy commentators readily invoke Kafka's name whenever an unjust bureaucracy appears on the screen.

But here's the thing: how do we know that the protagonist of The Trial, Joseph K., is innocent? This focus on the bureaucracy, which Kafka admittedly renders as absurd, funny, and horrifying, misses half the point, that Joseph may carry in him an inherent guilt and the system, even if it's slow as molasses, has finally found out. The bureaucracy might very well be a manifestation of one man's inner fears. Dense and mysterious, The Trial invites this sort of interpretation, and people have seen religious and political themes in all of Kafka's work, especially themes of Judaism (even though one of his most famous stories, The Metamorphosis, is about a Christian family... and a man who turns into a cockroach). There's a strong argument to be made that the law in The Trial could very well be Jewish law, and the guilt under examination may not be the result of a literal crime but a kind of permanent or generational trait — either a surface patina or something deep in the bones — that the law is designed not so much to eliminate as to expose. People, in short, are guilty. How do they respond?

Here's where the Coens come in. They've made their most Jewish film to date, a film about physics professor Larry Gopnik and the Jewish subculture of a medium-sized late-60s American town. Larry's life begins to fall apart when his wife says she wants a divorce, and in the great unraveling that follows, the Coens have made Kafka's implications explicit. Joseph K. consulted lawyers; Larry G. seeks the advice of lawyers and rabbis. His sense of guilt, whether legitimate or not, leads him into the complex world of Jewish ceremony and finds him navigating all kinds of conflicting rules there and in the broader culture. He comes across rules about teachers accepting bribes from students, rules about changing a student's grade or letting him retake a test, rules about property lines separating suburban tracts ("the line's the poplar" says Larry's neighbor, curtly), rules about whether you should watch your neighbor when she's sunbathing nude (Joseph K. had a prostitute for a neighbor), rules about who gets to use the bathroom in a busy household and for how long, rules about gambling (a victimless crime, someone argues in the film), and rules about which rabbi you get to see when you have a problem.

Joel and Ethan Coen

A Serious Man is one of the most fascinating, maybe even heartfelt, renderings of a Kafkaesque sensibility that I've seen. Even the health problems of Larry's uncle seem to riff on Kafka's biography. The K word is often slapped onto any old symbolic nightmare, but Kafka's own work was actually very funny, even though he could slip into gray areas without much warning. The Coens can, too. Late in the film, at the end of his rope, Larry pleads, "I'm a— I've tried to be a serious man," and the pain of the moment is unusually rich for the Coens, not because Larry is making his case but because he hesitates, adds a conditional, "tried to be," as if he knows that he is not all that he wants to be, as if he hopes that honesty is a path to salvation. A Serious Man fits alongside films that seem truly, deeply inspired by The Trial, like Orson Welles' direct adaptation of the novel, Stanley Kubrick's merging of Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle with a healthy dose of Kafka in Eyes Wide Shut, Martin Scorsese's comic riff After Hours, and maybe even the Coen's own Barton Fink.

Some will say — they already have — that the Coens are once again making fun of people. They don't like you, dear viewer. They're laughing at you. But I don't see it. Here's what I see instead. A man's wife tells him she wants a divorce. She's fallen in love with a good, strong, Jewish man, she says. A serious man. This serious man even wants a ritual divorce, a get, so that the separation can be done properly before God and so he and Larry's wife can remarry. Larry mentions this to a young rabbi who nods but then says, "A what?" "A get." "Oh, a get. Uh huh, sure." After he flips through his mental notecards, the young man resumes the role of the nodding expert. A get, of course. This repeated exchange is the film in a nutshell. It's wordplay, repetition, a satire of rituals that even the experts don't know by heart, and an examination of the ways people use rules not to guide their lives but to rationalize their behavior, stave off guilt, bestow a seriousness upon themselves, erase past sins, and keep their world in order. Until it falls apart.

The most common refrain: "I didn't do anything!" In a pair of inspired, interlocking analogies, the Coens see all of this reflected in two institutions. First, the old Columbia Record Club. Once you're a member, you get an album (and a bill) every month unless you return the postcard to stop it. That is, doing nothing makes you guilty. The mirror image is the tenure of a college professor. Once you've got it, doing nothing guarantees your innocence. Problem is, how do you get it?

In the end of The Trial Kafka's Joseph K. is ripped apart, limb by limb, but the Coens, these so-called misanthropes, let Larry live, they let him keep his limbs, and they grant a member of his household a measure of unearned grace. Or maybe I should say Grace, given the Jefferson Airplane on the soundtrack. (Then, everyone in the film is subjected to inevitable mortality. Aren't we all?) It's an excellent film, maybe not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the Coens' others but a strong piece of work, regardless, and a film that does something I've hoped each of their films would do over the last ten years: it restores my faith. In the Coens.

Click here for more about Toronto 2009. Rob also tweets about movies on twitter.

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