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October 9, 2009

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, OCTOBER 9, 2009 PAGE 13A By Naomi Pfefferman Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles Ask Joel and Ethan Coen whether their excruciatingly dull experiences growing up Jewish in the Midwest spawned their new film, "A Serious Man," and Ethan Coen says, "They made us go to Hebrew school and now they're going to pay." He's joking--sort of. But perhaps it was just a matter of time that the brothers, creators of such outrageous Jewish characters as con artist Bernie the shmattaboy from"Miller's Crossing," would set one of their merciless satires closer to home. In fact, the landscape of "A Serious Man" is about as autobiographical as the notoriously private brothers are likely to get, having been flrned in their own Jewish childhood community in St. Louis Park, Minn.--a Min- neapolis suburb known as "St. Jewish Park"--in 1967, when Ethan was 10 and Joel became a bar mitzvah. The film opens with an eerie parable, spoken in subtitled Yiddish, in the Polish-Russian milieu of the Coens' forbears. A shtetl couple entertains a Zohar scholar who may or may not be a malevolent spirit (played by Yiddish theater veteran Fyvush Finkel, whose credit is listed as "Dybbuk?"). The action then cuts to a fiat Midwestern suburb in the summer of 1967, when Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is about to have his bland life shattered by a series of Job-like calamities. Two weeks before his son's bar mitzvah, his wife leaves him for a pompous family friend, whereupon he is banished to a seedy motel with his sad-sack, gambling-addicted brother Arthur (Richard Kind). Lar- ry's tenure is threatened by anonymous letters alleging that he is a pervert; his son, Danny, smokes pot and lis- tens to Jefferson Airplane at his mind-numbing Talmud Torah classes; Larry's moose- hunting "goy" neighbor is probably anti-Semitic; and the three rabbis he visits for counsel offer platitudes rather than wisdom. The movie features the low- slung tract homes, decorated with tacky Judaica, that were common in the Coens' 1960s neighborhood; the young brothers' own obsession with pot smoking and with kitschy television shows, such as "F Troop," which eventually influenced their filmmaking; as well as the obligation they felt to become a bar mitzvah. "We did it because we didn't have a choice, which was pretty universal in our community," Ethan Coen said in his broad Midwestern accent during a recent phone interview. "We would've very happily foregone the gifts in order not to have to do the bar mitzvah," Joel Coen piped up. But their Wilson Webb Writers,directors Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of their film ",4 Serious Man." maternal grandparents were Orthodox, "and our mother was a very observant Jew who sent us to synagogue every week," Joel Coen said. "It was important for her that we be not only bar mitzvahed, but Jewishly educated as well." Their father, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, surreptitiously ate treif outside the home, and the brothers sampled ham on the sly. "A Serious Man" attempts to capture what Ethan Coen calls "the whole incongruity of Jews in the Midwest... The notion of this landscape with Jews in it is just odd. That's one reason we began with the Yiddish parable; we see there are Jews in the shtetl, which we're used to, and where Jews 'should' be, and--whoa-- suddenly we jump to Jews on the prairie. What's the deal?" "It's like the famous '2001' sequence with the apes, which then jumps to the space sta- tion," Joel Coen said. "It was our way of throwing that bone up in the air." The Coens chose not to subtitle the Hebrew lesson scenes in "A Serious Man" to help enhance the fictional classroom's droning sense of ennui. The tedium of their own suburban Jewish life, as well as the long Midwestern winters, perhaps led to the odd, distanced, outsider's view prevalent in their films--from 1984's "Blood Simple" to the Oscar-winning "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men." The brothers were in the process of writing two other films at the same time as "A Serious Man," although the Jewish project had been percolating for years. At one point, the brothers considered making a short film inspired by the sphinx-like rabbi that bar mitzvah boys used to visit in their community, as if making a pilgrimage to the Wizard of Oz. Jewish characters began appearing in their films, including Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the crazed Vietnam veteran bowling partner in "The Big Lebowski," who proclaims he doesn't "roll on Shabbos." "We wanted to explore the idea of someone in modern society who clung to all those rules," Joel Coen told The Journal in 2000. "The whole idea of this loose-cannon, gas- bag Vietnam vet proclaiming himself religious was rather ironic and funny," Ethan Coen said. Ethan Coen's 1998 book of short stories, "Gates of Eden," visits and revisits the Talmud Torah milieu as well as a tortuous Zionist camp whose motto--Theodore Herzl's aphorism, "If you will it, it is no dream"---is echoed by Sobchak in "The Big Lebowski." "The fact that we wrote 'A Serious Man' now, rather than when we were in our 20s or 30s, has to do with the fact that things from our child- hood get a bit more interesting the older we get," Joel Coen explained. "A certain amount of distance also makes these events seem more exotic by virtue of how they recede into a period you're not living in at the moment." Over time, the tale of different Jewish commu- nity. The brothers immersed themselves in writings by the Yiddish literature giant Isaac Bashevis Singer towrite the prologue; they consulted rabbis about Hebrew accents and translations; and hired an almost exclusively Jewish cast, with local congregants cast as extras. Rabbi Dan Sklar of Scars- dale, N.Y., who served as a con- sultant to the film, describes the acidic comedy-drama as "a Jewish 'American Beauty' with a neo-Chasidic edge. The Coens are modern-day prophets in their own way; they create these unbelieve- able meditations on human foibles and tragedy." How would the Coens respond to charges that the characters--who include demandingwives and unhelp- ful rabbis--purvey negative Jewish stereotypes? "'Too bad, you big cryba- by'--that's what David Mamet usually says," Ethan Coen replied. "We don't really care what people think, because all our movies get specific about ethnicity or geography or re- gion, and when you do that it's inevitable somebody's going to get offended," Joel Coen said. "It's going to happen no matter whatyou do, unless the story is so nonspecific and vanillaas to be ridiculously uninteresting." Naomi Pfefferman is arts & Gopnik emerged, like the entertainment editor forThe Yiddish prequel, asa folk JewishJoumalofGreater~ tale, albeit one from a very Angeles. .... ~ By Dina Kraft JTA TEL AVIV--Quentin Tar- antino winced as the young Israeli journalist took the microphone and asked what must rank as one of the heavier questions he's ever encountered: "How do you relate to the Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust personally?" "How do I answer that?" Tarantino replied, his eyes darting around the press conference at a seaside Tel Aviv hotel on the eve of the Israeli premiere of "Inglou- rious Bastereds." Referring briefly to his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial the previous day, he answered tersely: "I think I respond to it as every human being should." In Israel, where Holocaust memory casts its longest shadow, the question was just one of many on the topic lobbed at Tarantino. The Holocaust-focused quizzing came in marked contrast to the absence of such questions at the press conference at Cannes Film Festival where he introduced the movie. R is this ingrained Ho- locaust consciousness that colors Israelis' alternating repulsion, delight, and fasci- nation with the movie hailed abroad as "Kosher Porn; a fantastical universe of Jewish revenge on the Nazis. It's been playing to packed theatres and in some cities seats need to be ordered at least a day Quentin Tarantino in advance. The audiences heartily cheer, clap and laugh through their cinematic ride with a band of Nazi-scalping U.S. Jewish soldiers alongside the accompanying parallel plot of a beautiful, blond Jew- ess plotting her final revenge. Critics offered up both praise and bitter words-- Maariv newspaper's Meir Schnitzer went as far as comparing Tarantino to David Irving, the infamous Holo- caust denier. A divide was also seen among the regular movie-going masses. "It's all the talk at the water cooler, and the differences of opinion are incredible," said Omri Marcus, a senior comedy writer at an Israeli television show describing the scene at his office. For Marcus himself and many others itwas ultimately the real history of the Holo- caust that made the movie so difficult to digest. It was a pale, shaken- looking Erez Makovy, 31, who emerged from a darkened 500- seat theatre, filled to capacity. The crowd had gone silent watching the carnage climax in which the Nazi leadership is devoured by flames and au- tomatic gunfire. But it broke into loud applause when Brad Pitt's swashbuckling U.S. lieu- tenant character carved what became a trademark swastika into the forehead of the S.S. officerwho serves as the film's villain in chief. "The movie left me with a bitter taste in my mouth," said Makovy, a musician who was disturbed by the audiences' cheers. His friend, Itai Zangi, 27, a music producer, however, was among the laugh-out- loud, clapping masses. "It's nice to be on the winning side, for once. I liked that he (Tarantino) turned things totally upside down." Nearby, also contemplat- ing the experience, was Hila Schuman, a 32 -year-old biolo- gist. "It's a bit too over-the- top. For Israelis, it's hard to take a story out of the context we know so well. So we're left asking: Is this a parody? Is it serious?... Or is this just what revenge would look like on LSD." Tarantino, in this, his first Tarant/mo on page 23A