A Serious Man (The Coens, 2009). I’ve never been able to figure out if my opinion of the Coen brothers fluctuates, or if they are just erratic filmmakers. I loved Fargo, didn’t love Miller’s Crossing, and everything else falls in the middle. They’ve made some memorable movies … on the other hand, the only reason I know I saw Burn After Reading is because I wrote about it on this blog. A Serious Man is more excruciating than hilarious, the Book of Job as a comedy. I like how the hero keeps claiming he didn’t do anything. If you don’t do anything in the world of this movie, terrible things will happen. Of course, if you do something, terrible things will happen, as well. I can’t speak to the veracity of the film’s recreation of Jewish suburban life in 1967, but the odd blend of assimilation and the retention of Jewish culture is interesting, and feels accurate. The most remarkable thing for me was the performance of Michael Stuhlbarg. I thought I hadn’t seen him before … his resume includes guest spots on a few TV shows, but that was about it. But he does such a great job of occupying his character here, that I most certainly didn’t realize he is also Arnold Rothstein on Boardwalk Empire. Nicely done. #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976). As I suggested a few weeks ago, John Cassavetes was less self-indulgent than he was indulgent of his actors. His films make room for groups of people … even A Woman Under the Influence, which is so closely identified with Gena Rowlands, had Peter Falk and a host of minor characters. The minor characters abound in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but this film focuses more on a single character than others of Cassavetes’ movies. I saw the shorter, edited version, which is Cassavetes’ final word on the film. Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo Vittelli is a more obvious stand-in for Cassavetes than I expected … that’s not usually his game. Vittelli just wants to put on his show but is harassed by money men … remind you of anyone? Gazzara is predictably excellent (why doesn’t his name come up when the great actors are discussed?), and I liked this one about as much as I liked any Cassavetes film. #344 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list.
The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998). It’s a Coen Brothers festival (or maybe a Ben Gazzara festival … he turns up in this one, too). It is probably impossible to see a cult movie like this for the first time, a dozen years after its release, without your viewing being influenced by the cult, but yes, it’s true … I had never seen The Big Lebowski. There are probably two kinds of people in the world, those who would give The Big Lebowski 10/10 and those who have never seen it. (Now that I think of it, that’s probably the definition of a cult favorite.) So I apologize to both kinds of people, because now I’ve seen it, and I’m not giving it 10/10. The film shambles along amiably, the acting is excellent, there are funny scenes, and there is some dialogue worthy of being quoted as long as people watch movies. I can’t exactly respond to all of this with a big “so what,” but the parts are greater than the sum. The film it most reminds me of is Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye (a connection the Coens are happy to acknowledge), with Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe a match for The Dude. Marlowe’s oft-repeated assertion that “it’s OK with me” could easily come from the mouth of the Dude. But The Dude as a character goes nowhere … he’s the same at the end as at the beginning, which is of course largely the point of the Dude in the first place. He doesn’t like having his rug pissed on, but mostly because it shakes up his genial lifestyle, and he would have been happy to just steal a new rug and get on with bowling. Altman’s Marlowe, on the other hand, finally reaches a point where it isn’t OK with him. Altman’s Marlowe, rather like Walter in Lebowski, has a code that cuts deeper than “I Abide,” so he is forced to finally accept that the world not only isn’t how he wants it to be, but that he must act upon that knowledge. The Dude just smokes a joint, drinks a White Russian, bowls, and abides. It’s an appealing way to live, but it’s not a 10/10. #390 on the TSPDT Top 1000. (For those who would point to the iconic performance of Jeff Bridges, which is indeed a career role for an actor who is invariably good, I’d just add that the best performance does not in itself make a movie great. If that were the case, The Contender, where Bridges inhabits the role of a U.S. President and matches any such performance in movie history, would be a great movie, when in fact it’s a piece of shit.)
Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930). An important movie in the history of film, with a couple of iconic moments, Marlene Dietrich, and a co-star who is even prettier than she is in Gary Cooper. It doesn’t add up to much … the story is silly, the dialogue in this early talkie is stilted, and there are endless scenes of legionnaires marching. None of this matters when Dietrich sings about selling her apples, or, in the film’s most famous moment, when she kisses another woman on the lips while wearing a men’s tuxedo. Equally iconic, but much sillier, is the ending, where Dietrich takes off her high heels and runs onto the vast sands of Morocco to follow her legionnaire. As my wife said, if she were serious, Dietrich would have brought a goat along. #631 on the Top 1000 list.