February 11, 2010

The inflation from five to ten in Best Picture Oscar nominees means that to have any hope of keeping them all straight in your head, you”€™ll need to group them. Fortunately, the Best Picture nods fall into five obvious pairings:

—The Easily Confused Titles: Up and Up in the Air.
—The Exes”€™ Action Flicks: James Cameron’s Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.
—The Movies about 350-Pound Black 16-Year-Olds: Precious and The Blind Side. (Two films that, together, teach us that if you are going to be an impoverished but colossal teen, it’s better to be a guy than a girl.)
—The Foreign Films That Won”€™t Win: An Education and District 9.
—And, finally, The Battle of the Aging Wunderkinds: Quentin Tarantino’s violent Jewish heroes in Inglourious Basterds vs. Joel and Ethan Coen’s passive-aggressive Jewish villains in A Serious Man.

For many years, Tarantino and the Coen Brothers have dominated Hollywood’s niche for high IQ cinephiles who aren”€™t exactly Merchant & Ivory tasteful. Tarantino purees old genres of sleaze into talkative “€œaction”€ movies such as Pulp Fiction, while the Coens, like their hero Stanley Kubrick, enjoy switching styles abruptly.

“In interviews, Tarantino loquaciously blurts out the huge aspirations evident in his WWII quasi-epic. In contrast, the Coens”€™ interviews could make Tiger Woods’s press conferences sound revealing.”

Unlike the Promethean Kubrick, however, the efficient Coens make a lot of small-to-medium sized movies. Some fail. (Personally, I liked even The Hudsucker Proxy, so what do I know?) At minimum, however, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men demonstrate their extraordinary expertise.

Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man channel the very different public personalities of Tarantino and the Coens. The former is a big movie and the latter a small one. In interviews, Tarantino loquaciously blurts out the huge aspirations evident in his WWII quasi-epic. In contrast, the Coens”€™ interviews could make Tiger Woods‘s press conferences sound revealing.

They diffidently promoted A Serious Man“€”their superbly executed but intentionally limited black comedy about the Job-like woes inflicted upon Larry Gopnik, a meek Minnesota physicist (seemingly much like the Coens”€™ own economist father), by his pushy children, wife, brother, and neighbors”€”with their usual shyness and deadpan impersonality. No, it’s not about their parents, they would boringly answer the obvious questions: it’s fiction.

Moreover, in an era when the public enjoys the triumphs and traumas of megalomaniacal auteurs, the Coens are strangely lacking in marketable individuality. If I didn”€™t know that Joel is 55 and Ethan is 52, I would assume they were identical twins.

Possibly, the Coens”€™ reticence merely reflects fraternal fulfillment. Blessed with a brother who understands the other wholly, neither Coen feels Tarantino’s urgent need to explain his movies to the rest of us. Or maybe their boring personae are their greatest concoction, opaque façades that serve to confine the inevitable tensions of sibling rivalry. 

Whatever the cause, their productivity together is formidable: 14 movies.

Lately, though, they may lately be working too quickly. After the triumph of 2007’s Best Picture, No Country for Old Men, 2008’s Burn After Reading featured so many stars it wasted George Clooney in an unappealing role and Brad Pitt in an abbreviated one. (As a partisan of the Coens since 1984’s Blood Simple, after watching Burn I worried, “€œUh-oh, maybe I”€™ve been wrong and they really are the soulless snots that everybody says they are.”€)

A Serious Man is much improved, but it has so few stars that sit-com supporting actor Richard Kind might be the most recognizable face in the movie.

Inglourious Basterds started out as a 16-hour miniseries, and ended up being roughly five movies crammed into one. Perhaps the most intriguing is the faint palimpsest of Tarantino’s fictionalized version of how Parisian film collector Henri Langlois, with the aid of a movie-loving German officer, heroically shielded from Nazi censors and precious metal scavengers countless unique movies, all on reels of highly flammable silver nitrate film stock. Unfortunately, the preservationist storyline is hardly visible amidst Tarantino’s other obsessions, such as depicting Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels as an oddly Tarantinoesque movie producer.

Tarantino doesn”€™t actually know”€”or care”€”about anything other than movies. For example, the famous opening scene in which the Nazi colonel hunts down the last of the four Jewish dairy farming families in a lovely and remote part of the French countryside is bravura filmmaking. Yet, it’s hard to avoid wondering, “€œWhat French Jewish rural dairy farmers? Were there any? How would they get to a synagogue on the Sabbath?”€ I can”€™t find any trace by searching on Google for “€œFrance “€˜Jewish farmers.”€™”€ Presumably, Tarantino was thinking of Tevye, the Jewish milkman in a Czarist shtetl in the 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof, but that shows how little he cares about his purported subject.

In contrast, A Serious Man provides a painfully detailed portrait of a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in 1967, with a collection of characters whose abrasiveness contrasts strikingly with the Coens”€™ own mildness. Its subtitle could be Why I Married Marge Gunderson“€”the sweet shiksa lady sheriff in Fargo, for which Frances McDormand, Joel’s wife, won the 1996 Oscar.


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