So I got one irate email from our only reader who noticed I didn’t follow through on my promise to give my opinions on a lot of Holiday movies. Still haven’t seen AVATAR. Cameron’s inane, Hollywoody, everything’s connected yada yada Golden Globe acceptance speech didn’t do anything to alleviate my instinctive aversion to anything that would even remotely remind me of those who dance with wolves. Eli’s coming, as the song warns, as soon as I can get over to the mall to see it. Meanwhile:
I saw A SINGLE MAN and A SERIOUS MAN on New Year’s Eve and didn’t take any notes or anything. And I’m pretty old and my memory’s shot. But here it goes.
Both movies are about sad professors with seemingly really back luck teaching in America in the Sixties. Both are single in the sense of lonely and not deeply in love with anyone still alive. The single man is the example of a good English teacher—erudite, charming, has “something to say.” The serious man is the example of a bad physics teacher—too nerdy, self-absorbed, and motor-mouthed to get anything across in class. The (gay) single man is lonely because he oriented his whole life around a single young man who died in an accident. The (heterosexual) serious man is lonely because he’s contemptibly weak in a world very short on love, and so he’s shamelessly exploited by everyone around him. The single man, who spends most of the movie contemplating suicide, gets a pagan insight into the fact that everything is as it must be and becomes an ex-suicide. He immediately dies of a heart attack. The serious man—having been tortured much, much more than the Bible’s Job—finally catches the break of getting tenure, although he’s done nothing to deserve it. He immediately gets an ominous call from his physician about something on his X-ray; he had provisionally been given a clean bill of health. That piece of bad luck, of course, can’t be traced to any deficiency in character.
The single man—played expertly by Colin Firth—claims that his life was complete or lacking in nothing in love with another single man. He tells his woman friend whom he loves but can’t take seriously as a lover that his life was complete without women and children. A single man was enough to make his life whole. Whatever might be true for most men and women, a general “natural law” theory of human longing and all can’t comprehend the life of this single man, who claims to be no more than a real and noble human exception to the bourgeois rule (well, he and the filmmaker do show far too much undeserved contempt for the way most people live). The movie is too serious and somewhat preachy, but there’s no denying that it’s pretty thoughtful on the mixture of the beautiful and the awful in the experience of a single man.
A SERIOUS MAN is the latest Coen brothers’ exploration of the meaninglessness of life and the point that is there is no point. It’s very funny, and I for one prefer a relatively subtle view of sordid suburban Minneapolis to the overbearing deterministic bloodiness of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Still, everything is ugly and tasteless: the homes, the landscape, the schools and synagogues, the people. (The Porchers will love this as a candid expose of what the 1967 suburbs were really like.) The Jews are mostly self-absorbed and grasping. The gentiles are portrayed in terms of stereotypes—shamelessly corrupt Asians and gun-loving, violent, anti-Semitic working-class whites. (The movie might be regarded as anti-Semitic if it weren’t made by Jews.) The Rabbis are complacent and theologically clueless and don’t work to make personal connections with the unfortunate. There’s the occasional moment that might be interpreted as the Coens showing some affection for their childhood, but not many. (The Bar Mitzvah scene is genuinely touching and suggests that the mangled ritual somehow reflects something real.) The main character—who isn’t evil at all—does manage to get your sympathy, until you realize that what happens to him isn’t really bad luck at all but the result of being really, really short on manliness. That seems to be an obvious, Nietzschean shot at taking too seriously the morality recommended by the Bible. The Coens might be praised for not following Woody Allen in combining existential meaningless with liberal platitudes and the promise of liberated sexual healing. They are also arguably more seriously nihilistic than the makers of the movie and novel A SINGLE MAN, who aren’t pagan or Nietzschean in their sentimental belief that personal love might be real and might be enough.
Other reviews: IT’S COMPLICATED is not complicated, but a loathsome fantasy about the soft self-indulgence of rich and beautiful California folks. But there are a couple of very funny parts. The Sherlock Holmes movie is funny the way the show HOUSE is funny, and Robert Downey, Jr. is actually quite the nuanced comedic actor (as the second gay hero to be reviewed today). YOUTH IN REVOLT is a little funny but mostly annoying—the book is better. BROTHERS wastes beautiful performances and some moving scenes on a storyline that doesn’t ring true.