Nathan Abrams reviews a new book about the work of the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.
In a review about the Jewishness of the films of the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, it would be far too easy to devote attention just to A Serious Man. This is their most obviously Jewish film and probably the movie that introduced the Coens to a wider Jewish audience. In its reworking of the Book of Job, incorporating Hebrew, Yiddish and a trio of increasingly gnomic rabbis, the film has led to much spilt ink in Jewish circles, both popular and academic, laudatory, and critical.
But across the Coen Bros.’s eighteen films, Jewish characters abound. There is the titular New York Jewish screenwriter in Barton Fink, Bernie Bernbaum and his sister Verna in Miller’s Crossing, the rabbi in Hail, Caesar!, and, my personal favourite, Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Their depictions are captured by the offended reviewers of A Serious Man who described them as “Ugly Jew iconography” or “Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher,” the publisher of the notoriously antisemitic Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer. In response, Ethan said, “If a character is specifically Jewish, say, I don’t feel that I have to make him 100 percent attractive in order to appease people who would be satisfied by nothing less. And frankly, there are such people.”
Are, then, the Coens who, of course, are themselves Jewish, guilty of what Ella Taylor calls “Jewish self-loathing?” Reading Joseph McBride’s new book, the clear answer is no. McBride who is a prolific film historian and biographer, having written many books about Steven Spielberg, and Ernst Lubitsch, among many others, points out two things. Firstly, he observes that the Coens’ universe offers us a veritable “league of morons,” to quote a character in their Burn After Reading, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, and so on. Although Ella Taylor decries “the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews” who make A Serious Man’s “obligatory” antisemite look “handsome by comparison,” to be fair to the Coens, one could say just about all of their characters are warty and unappetizing with few exceptions. “They are no worse than most of the Coens’ other characters,” McBride states.
Second, how there is “a constant undercurrent of Jewish humor— of the gallows humor variety, a vein long mined by many Jewish comedians” – in A Serious Man. If I have a quibble at this point it is that, arguably, it is there throughout all their films. Take Ethan’s biography for his 1998 collection of short stories, Gates of Eden: “ETHAN COEN is the Samuel Gelbfisz Professor of English as a Second Language at the University of Colorado at Boulder.” (“Film mavens will recognize Gelbfisz as the birth name of Samuel Goldwyn,” McBride helpfully adds.)
Of course, it would not be a stretch to argue that a Jewish sensibility underpins all of their films. Raised in Minnesota, what Ethan calls “the whole incongruity of Jews in the Midwest— Jews on the Plains— it’s just odd … its own strange subculture,” their cinematic world can be described as possessing “its own strange subculture.”
Their work is painstaking, obsessive, intellectual, playful and full of intertextual reference to art, literature, religion and, most of all, other movies. They are movie mavens, nerds even. It certainly warrants the moniker, currently fashionable in the film industry, of a “Universe.”
This Universe draws on Judaism for inspiration. Beyond A Serious Man, there are the Books of Genesis and Daniel in Barton Fink, the biblical epic being made in Hail, Caesar!, Walter Sobchak quotes Herzl and the Rambam and has even named his dog Maimonides.
They have been heavily influenced by another Jewish filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick whose work I have contended elsewhere has its own New York Jewish Intellectual spine. They are also influenced by a photographer who influenced Kubrick: Diane Arbus. Ethan writes in “The Old Country” that one of his schoolteachers in Minneapolis reminded him of Diane Arbus’s photographs (probably a reference to “A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970”), and, as McBride says, “the Coens’ films have strong affinities with Arbus’s nightmarish view of ‘ordinary’ life.”
Their work might be described as Kafkaesque. Beyond the movie most obviously influenced by the Mittel European world of the Czech writer, Barton Fink, their work blends expressionistic and often abstract visual poetry with an ear for dialogue and extremely realistic violence but moments of utter absurdity. They are masters of black comedy but also “outsiders,” “complete independents,” “aloof,” “quirky,” and “marginal figures.”
While Joel and Ethan Coen may be Jewish directors who do not make stereotypically Jewish films, in the final analysis, despite what their detractors might say, to paraphrase the end credits of A Serious Man, “No Jews were harmed in the making of their motion pictures.”
The Whole Durn Human Comedy: Life According to the Coen Brothers by Joseph McBride is published by Anthem, priced £13.99.