From Lyle Lofgren's journals, 1992 - 2011

[My writing about the movies we've seen over the years is very sporadic, and, paradoxically, almost completely dried up after I retired in 2000. I notice that, whether I thought they were great or hated them, many of the movies I bothered to write about have disappeared from everyone's consciousness. I don't know if you can even buy DVDs of them.]


MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (A play, not a movie)

THE MAMBO KINGS (directed by Arne Glimcher) and
HOWARDS END (directed by James Ivory)
May 26, 1992:
The Mambo Kings is set in the 1950s, and has a 1950s plot. It's very reminiscent of those movies based on the "real life" story of real musicians. The music, though, has a terrific Afro-Cuban sound, and the fidelity is much better than anything we saw in a 1950s movie.

Evidently, it's impossible to get financing for a movie now unless there's at least two sex scenes with nekked people. (I heard a recording once of a monologue by Atlanta journalist-humorist Lewis Grizzard, who pointed out that, while you can be innocently "naked", you can't be innocently "nekked"). The two sex scenes in The Mambo Kings are just like all the rest. I really feel sorry for the actors. I'm not a good judge of the adequacy of their sexual simulation, but they certainly can't seem to do much with their simulation of ecstasy. In spite of the movie's sound fidelity, I've heard better moans through motel walls. But maybe I was hearing hormones.

The other movie was Howards End, and it's a must. The video won't do: it's got to be seen on the big screen. It's so luxurious. The color, the camera shots, the acting, the sets, the story, all seem so perfect as a recreation of Edwardian England. I had to read Howards End for English 39 (The Novel) back in 1957, before all college courses had to be identified by three integers. My transcript testifies that I passed the course, so I must have answered at least some of the test questions, such as:

Compare the character of Biddy Schlegel in Howards End with that of Stephen Hero in Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man. How are their personalities affected by their background? How are they changed by the action in each novel? How well do they achieve the aims of the authors? Why or why not? Justify your answers.

I remember reading the book, but I don't remember a thing about the plot or characters, and not one word from it (well, maybe "and"). I suspect that there wasn't much in it that a farm boy, particularly one who had not yet learned about British Class Structure, could relate to.

While standing in line for tickets, I remembered my ignorance of Howards End, and tried to act the part of the sort of patron I enjoy being near in a line: I authoritatively explained to Liz that the movie was about Captain Horatio Hornblower, thus confusing E.M. Forster with C.S. Forester. Hopefully, I also confused some other people in the line.

Anyway, Liz was not only thrilled by the sets and the characters, but also by the horses. She says they're of much higher quality than those in American films, particularly cowboy movies, where the horses are no better than the real horses the cowboys had to ride. For her, the special resonance in the final scene was the way the two Clydesdales pulling the mower made the turn at the end of the swath.

But the movie is truly an anachronism: there's no blood to be seen. In addition, the actors manage to pull off an Edwardian trick not often seen on the screen these days: they mate with their clothes on.

HIGHWAY 61 (directed by Bruce MacDonald)
June 18, 1992:
Highway 61 has similarities (seemingly too strong to be coincidental) to Aki Kaurismäki's Leningrad Cowboys Go America, except that Cowboys is much the funnier movie. One thing about road movies: you don't expect much of them, so you can't say you're disappointed. The hero (a barber with dreams of becoming famous as a trumpeter) and heroine (an amoral Rock & Roll Roadie) are Canadians headed for the promised land of New Orleans. She is taking a dead body (ostensibly a brother, but really a stranger) for a proper burial (the corpse is actually carrying drugs). They are chased by Satan, who has previously bought the corpse's soul in exchange for a bus ticket. There are some excellent scenes: Satan has to stop at a small-town church basement to get some more spending money by winning at Bingo. The pair run across a father and three performing brat daughters, touring the country in a rundown school bus. A catatonic rock star and her boyfriend spend all day watching endless reruns of her latest video, then set some chickens loose in the house to shoot for dinner.

There are many more that don't work: the barber shaves a motorcycle gang. The Roadie decides to go straight and give the corpse a decent burial by floating him off into a bayou. However, the movie has at least one good line: "The trouble with a trumpet is that, no matter what you play on it, it sounds like jazz."

All the main actors have bad teeth, and that's a plus. Most of the road scenes are the yellow line at night, and that's a minus. And there were some geographical inconsistencies that bothered me. In 1968, on a business trip to Louisiana, the only rental car left was a black Oldsmobile convertible, and I drove Highway 61 from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. It looked exactly like Robert Penn Warren's description in All the King's Men: old, with gray asphalt, yet made for high speed; flat, running along a bayou; and littered with the flattened remains of large water rats (Nutria, I think). Since than, that stretch of Highway 61 has been covered over by freeway. Still, the protagonists didn't have to go to New Orleans by the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway: it's almost 100 miles out of the way. The fact that there's a lot more freeway signs than "61" signs in the road scenes may be a social commentary by the director, but I doubt it. I grew up within a half-mile of Highway 61 in Minnesota. It was one of the commonplace pieces of knowledge of my childhood that you could get on it and drive straight to New Orleans, and that it was paved road all the way. The fact that you no longer can do that, but have to take a generic freeway instead, is part of what's wrong with America, and it seems like there should be some movie that explores that in depth. But this isn't it.

The music for the closing credits is a Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee piece I'm not familiar with. I was struck by how inimitable Sonny Terry's harmonica playing is: you can always recognize it. At the very end, the credits state that the movie is dedicated to Blind Boy Grunt. A good try, but too little and too late.

A WOMAN'S TALE (directed by Paul Cox) and
ATTACK OF THE GIANT KILLER SHREWS (directed by Paul Kellogg)
July 25, 1992:
Liz wanted to see A Woman's Tale, and I reluctantly agreed, but only because we got two free passes for renewing our membership in the University Film Society. Anything that hangs around that long has to be too sentimental for my sake -- I figured it must be another Tree of the Wooden Frogs (Actually, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, directed by Ermanno Olmi).

The movie turned out to be even worse than I expected. Like so many Earnest Endeavors, it easily straddles the broad line between Bathos and Twaddle. I would have said there wasn't a wet eye in the house, but that wasn't true -- the place was packed with people who had  a moving experience. I know the University Film Society has to put on that kind of crap to pay the bills -- it's just that I feel bad contributing to Sentimental Turpitude.

To make the contrast even greater, I happened to turn on the TV on Satuday AM and caught the last half-hour of an old favorite movie, The Attack of the Giant Killer Shrews (1959). Enjoying such a movie requires Suspension of Belief: you don't believe a bit of it, because ordinary events, motivations, actions are demolished by the mess made by incompetent script-writing, directing, acting and editing. Yet, the simple-minded plot and action leave resonances in the mind long after the movie is over. I connect the theme of the Idealistic Scientist conducting experiments to understand nature, only to create monsters, with the theory that AIDS was started by experiments in Africa involving injecting baboon blood into humans. The Giant Killer Shrews are doomed, even if they eat the heroes, because their appetite is so ravenous they will eat each other and become extinct on their desert island. I remember Shakespeare: ... mankind must perforce consume itself, like monsters of the deep.

But I wouldn't have thought of Shakespeare if the script writer had ever heard of him. The trouble with movies like A Woman's Tale or Fried Green Tomatoes is that they demand of you Suspension of Disbelief: they expect you to believe what's presented on the screen, and to take it seriously. So, like Peer Gynt peeling the onion to find the center, you think through the layers of meaning only to find, as Gertrude Stein supposedly said about Oakland, that "there's no there there." I suspect that, in order to get funding, the movie scripts have to pass some Understandability Test by accountants. A fiction author (I forget who) said, "If you know what your writing means, you don't know much." That's also true of movies.

Liz's opinion of A Woman's Tale: "All the women in the movie were nurturers, and all the men were assholes, which makes it sort of true, but also trivial."

BLADE RUNNER (directed by Ridley Scott)
September 29, 1992:
On Friday night, we went to see Blade Runner. I enjoyed much of it: the idea of a Los Angeles that has had a weather change to being even worse than one's concept of Seattle; the increased contrast between the insulated wealthy and the great Asian Hoi-Polloi; the ancient Chinese fishmonger with a video magnifier to check fish-scale serial numbers; all that smoking, like the worst bar I've ever had to endure; the nerd who "makes friends," the Classic Murder-Your-Father routine; and the plot meditation on the distinction between human and non-human and how hardly anyone cares anyway. It's the kind of movie that stayed with me all weekend, even though I had to think real hard to remember how it ended. It reminded me a lot of Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, which was a nothing sort of movie on the first viewing, but just kept getting better and better every time I saw it. And that reminded me of how much I miss Truffaut (or the Goddard of Band of Outsiders, too, for that matter, and he's not even dead).

MYSTERY TRAIN (directed by Jim Jarmusch)
October 2, 1992:
We watched Mystery Train on TV. We had seen it at a theater a year or two ago, and somehow had completely forgotten it. It's a sort of trilogy of three independent stories tied together by a gunshot in a seedy Memphis hotel where Screamin' Jay Hawkins, sporting a wonderful bright red suit with red tie, is Night Manager. One story involves a young Japanese couple making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of White Rock 'n' Roll (they speak Japanese with English subtitles, and argue about who was the greatest: Elvis or Carl Perkins). The second story is about an Italian woman who spends the night in the seedy hotel, and sees the ghost of Elvis. The ghost, however, has showed up in the wrong room, and apologizes for the inconvenience. The third story is about how a mild-mannered barber, without quite knowing what is happening, gets involved by his drunken brother-in-law in a liquor store shooting. While they are attempting to hide out in the seedy hotel, the brother-in-law shoots the barber in the leg, and the movie ends in a non-chase, as the escaping criminals and the police car miss each other at the intersection. As the movie unfolded and I remembered more of it, it got funnier and funnier.

THE LOVER (directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud)
November 30, 1992:
Before The Lover started at the local multiplex, I went back out into the lobby to use the washroom, and was startled to see a woman who was the spitting image of Jeanne Moreau, of the age she was when Jules and Jim was made. I recognized her the same way Jules & Jim recognized her, as having the same face as the stone image from Central America. She didn't come into the theater, though. She must have been there to see Malcolm X, which was also showing.

The movie has explicit sex scenes (although Liz complained that you couldn't see anything explicitly male), scenes of exploitation of women without punishment of the male involved (for which I would suppose feminists would boycott the movie), and scenes of extreme family dysfunctionality. Strangely, there are no scenes with exploding heads or bloody body parts -- I thought you needed those to even get funding for a movie these days (although it was made by the French; maybe that explains it).

I don't know what its rating should be: maybe a multiple rating system should be used, like
where the code stands for:
SEy = SEntimental: with yellow filters used during the romantic scenes;
SXenm = SeX: explicit, with nudity and for money;
NAf = NArrator: with flashbacks;
BVhrnd = Bloody Violence: hymen rupture, but no deaths;
NBVrbf = Non Bloody Violence: rug burns for female;
FAusc = FAmily: unresolved sibling conflicts;
Ef = Ending: French.

At the end, the credits revealed that Jeanne Moreau was the narrator, so maybe it was the ghost of her younger self (in a flashback) that I had seen in the lobby. If only Truffaut could have been the director!

WITTGENSTEIN (directed by Derek Jarmin)
October 25, 1993:
On Friday Nite, we went to see Wittgenstein at the University Film Society. I had somehow missed that it was made by the same director as Caravaggio. Now, I had thought that Caravaggio was about the dullest movie I'd ever seen, but Wittgenstein was light years beyond it in being both visually and aurally boring. I was fidgeting and sighing so visibly that Liz, embarrassed, decided we should leave the movie early. It wasn't a moment too soon for me. The next morning, when emptying my pockets, I found that the University of Minnesota has a new parking ticket. It's yellow, and they are apparently concerned about date rape, because the ticket says in bold letters: NO IN AND OUT PRIVILEGES. Also, it pleads Please retain this ticket. I don't think I will, though. There's already too much junk around here the way it is.

February 1, 1994:

[The big news story at the time was that skater Tonya Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gilooley, had hired someone to break rival skater Nancy Kerrigan's knee, and that Tonya knew about the planned attack. The rest of the story is too long to tell here -- if you want to know more, google her.]

They've probably already started filming The Tonya Harding Story, but we still could think about what the proper casting should be. I believe the choice for director should obviously be Jim Jarmusch, on the basis that he's already made two very similar movies (Sranger Than Paradise and one of the episodes in Mystery Train). And Jeff Gilooley could be easily played by Nicolas Cage -- he looks a lot like him, and he's a natural for expressing that special kind of creepiness that gives criminality a bad name. Nicolas can also look dumb, so that helps. Anybody can play Nancy Kerrigan, so we might as well use Julia Roberts, who's so popular now, playing roles like prostitutes and law students -- I'm sure she could handle figure skating. Tonya is more problematical -- Judy Holliday, were she not dead, could have done the voice part perfectly (remember her as the silent movie star in Singing in the Rain who couldn't make the transition to talkies). We just don't produce nasty actresses any more, or maybe they're all on daytime soap operas and I don't see them. Similarly, we don't have good prospects for the role of bodyguard. Sylvester Stallone looks dumb enough, but he's too muscular. We need someone like the actor who portrayed One-Round, the cellist in The Ladykillers (Britain, 1955, directed by Alexander Mackendrick) who later became very protective of Mrs. Lopsided --  someone who could play Lennie in Of Mice and Men without looking like he was acting. And they should reassemble the old Monty Python troupe to play the part of the Figure Skating Ethics Committee, or whatever they call themselves.

THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH (directed by John Sayles)
April 8, 1995:
I'd been looking forward to seeing The Secret of Roan Inish because of two things: I thought that John Sayles did a superb job with The French Lieutenant's Woman, and I thought we might have a revival of interest in the Selkie myths, the only previous example in my ken being Child ballad #113, The Great Selkie of Shule Skerrie.

Well, the scenery was nice and bleak, and there was one sequence that had just the right timing and atmosphere (where the young girl drifts away in a boat), but it's a general failure, which I suppose I should have expected. The grandfather and grandmother are the stockest of stock characters, the Irish Salt O' The Earth types, and there isn't much they can do with any of their lines. In fact, all of the actors had read all their lines before the filming started, so there was no sense of mystery or surprise. In order to be successful, a film like this has to be written by the director, who has to write the next day's shooting during the night. And no one would have any idea how the film's going to end until it's wrapped. That's the kind of mystery, combining a lack of human foreknowledge with artistic inevitability that I associate with pre-Christian stories such as those about Selkies. But, alas, the need for outside financing of modern movies means that even The French Lieutenant's Woman couldn't be filmed today. So my thirst for Scandanavian mysteries is still unfullfilled. Maybe I should head for the Shetland Islands to see if they're still singing a version of Good Old Child #113. It was last collected from an old woman there in the 1850's, and maybe she or one of her descendants is still alive and singing it, and I'd have to be satisfied with that.

BLESSING (directed by Paul Zehrer)
October 3, 1995:
Today's movie report is on Blessing at the University Film Society. I couldn't believe my eyes: I haven't seen such a mess of a movie since Dennis Hopper went into treatment (if he ever did). It's worth seeing just to spot all the things the actors do that no farmer ever would, as well as the place where a cow has either an injured right leg or left leg, depending on which camera shot you believe. The cow was beaten by the nutty farmer on the right leg, but the farm family seems to be dairily dyslexic (or maybe it's called dyslactic) -- at any rate, they don't know which side to use when milking a cow, either. Other than a lot of footage of the driftless area of Southwestern Wisconsin during miserable weather, looking for cinematic and dramatic mistakes is about all the movie has to offer. Suspension of Disbelief is certainly impossible.

After the movie was over, Liz said, "It's too bad they didn't have Sam Shephard and Jessica Lange in the movie."

"Why?" I asked. "Their acting couldn't have saved it."

"No," she said, "but Sam would have re-written the script." "Besides," she added, "he could have called it Fool For Cows."

FARGO (directed by the Coen Brothers)
March 18, 1996
Like a lot of other Minnesotans, I found Fargo quite amusing. The accents are something else -- I now know how southerners must feel when they hear outsiders trying to sound like natives (although the reviews claim the actors were exaggerating for humorous effect; well, shoot, you don't have to exaggerate to be funny if you do it just right). I wasn't insulted; I just found it funny. There were some raggedy parts to the movie that didn't quite fit, and there were some howlers that might have been intentional (the Duck Stamp Artist was competing to have his work published on regular postage stamps, not Duck Stamps, for instance). Another scene, where the Brainerd police chief doesn't know a State Trooper who's been killed by the bad guys, is just plain false. Everyone should know that the local police and the state troopers have coffee together at the town cafe. Still, I liked it quite a lot (best snow-blowing-across-the-road scenes since Werner Herzog's Stroszeck), and it made me want to see Raising Arizona again.

The bad guys were really good, with the exception of the car-salesman husband of the kidnapped wife, who was a little too realistic as an amateur criminal. I was razzing Liz (who, being a dentist's daughter, believes strongly in orthodonture) about how, if these actor's parents had had their children's teeth fixed, the actors would never have made it into the movies, and Liz commented that it seemed as if the entire cast had been chosen on the basis of crooked teeth. The crook with the really ugly teeth ends up getting shot in the mouth, perhaps a comment on the current obsession with straight teeth.

Whether you like the movie or not, I'd classify it as a must-see, just for repetitive dialog like "So it looks like we've got a X type thing goin' here, then", where "X" stands for any number of things. The weirdest scene, and the one I'll remember the longest, is a somewhat botched episode that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. I think it must be based on a real Minnesota-type person, because it seemed so familiar. It involves an ex-classmate of the heroine, a man of Japanese descent who is an engineer at Honeywell, who had married the class beauty (with a Scandinavian name). She died of leukemia, though, and he misses her terribly. The classmate dissolves in self-pitying sobs. The heroine hears from someone else, later, that the guy never married, has no job, and is living with his parents.

Oh, yah, I forgot: when the no-nonsense millionaire gets shot in the stomach, some goosedown flies out of his jacket -- a nice Minnesota touch.

THE ROCK (directed by Michael Bay)
July 22, 1996
As my contribution to the lousy movie category: we went to see The Rock on Friday night at a multiplex, because Liz is a fan of Nicolas Cage. Unfortunately, we never got to see him, because we had to leave after about 5 minutes, due to the extreme sound volume inside the tiny viewing room. On top of this, you could get a sound enhancing system from the management if you were hard of hearing! Liz was getting a headache, and I'd already lost track of the body count, so we went to Sebastian Joe's for an ice cream sundae instead.

I suppose it's partly our fault. As good as our intentions are, we don't get over to the Oak Street Cinema nearly as often as we should, and we should stop putting our money where our ears shouldn't be.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (by August Wilson, presented at the Penumbra Theater)
November 15, 1996
[OK. So this is a play rather than a movie. They really should make movies of Wilson's plays, but I suppose they won't.]
I wonder if August Wilson stole the ending for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom from the story of Stagolee and his over-reaction to the loss of his John B. Stetson hat?? Wilson does have some knowledge of the black southern music tradition, although more as an outsider -- I don't think he really "gets" the music or the words. For example, his Joe Turner Been Here and Gone has nothing to do with the song other than the title.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom would make no sense at all if color-blind casting were used, and that's because his plays have a relatively modest vision -- they aren't much about universals, being more about hierarchies among the common folk, and the subtleties of oppressed behavior. Shakespeare, on the other hand, had much more universal themes in mind when creating some of his best plays, so that they are fairly independent of race or, in some cases, even sex. The family themes (Lear, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Antony & Cleopatra) and the royalty themes (Caesar, Macbeth, the Henrys) could all be done easily with color-blind casting. But you'll notice that, in spite of jealousy being the main overt theme of Othello, white actors in the title role always reach for the burnt cork (else why would there be a black ram tupping the white ewe in the opening scene?) and Shylock is likely to remain being a Jew, either genuine or imitation, in future performances of Merchant of Venice, because race and religion (or, perhaps more precisely, overclass / underclass) are major themes of those plays. And I can easily imagine what the audience response would be if a color-blind director of The Tempest truly believed that David Duke was the best actor for Prospero and O. J. Simpson was a perfect fit for Caliban, and cast them as such (they both need jobs, so they might be available as actors).

SLING BLADE (directed by Billy Bob Thornton)
March 11, 1997
Sling Blade is a good movie to see in the afternoon rather than at night, because it's 2-1/2 hours long, and some parts of it move glacially (shades of Carl Theodore Dreyer!). Still, it's worth seeing if you can suspend disbelief and just enjoy some actors trying to act like small-town misfits, and the small-town junkiness is really believable. The only thing missing from a real Kentucky town is an overturned 1958 Ford in a gully. They must have had a good time making the movie -- even Jim Jarmusch is in it, playing a bit role as a Dairy Queen attendant. I enjoyed trying to identify all the current media themes: Family Values, Diversity, Abortion, Vigilantism, and many more, plus the theme of the brain-damaged hero. The hero in this movie pays homage to the concept that Forrest Gump, the Rain Man, and Kaspar Hauser meet Shane. Like The Caine Mutiny, I found myself liking the movie at the same time I was appalled by its message. On a more emotional level, though, it's about rhythms -- people who have them and people who destroy them. There seems to be an almost subliminal bass line going on in the soundtrack, like the muffled sound of cars going by, which emphasizes a slow, organic rhythm that's sometimes rudely interrupted by such things as creepy chair screeches. Destroying organic rhythms is a Capital Offense in this movie, but at least there are no exploding bodies or wild motorcycle chases. There's a really funny frontporch band, and an argument between the Tunesmith and the Lyricist about whether an ellipsis should occur before, between, or after "Medulla Oblongotta" in a song they wrote. Sort of like the Brandy Snifters, except with talent.

I notice that The New Yorker reviewer intensely disliked the movie. I liked the accents, even though Kentuckians probably look on them the way Minnesotans regarded the accents in Fargo.

I'd rate it at 1-1/2 stars, and a must-see, both at the same time.

LENINGRAD COWBOYS GO AMERICA (directed by Aki Kaurismäki's )
AMERICAN MOVIE (directed by Chris Smith)
January 31, 2000
We went to the 7:00 showing of Leningrad Cowboys Go America at the University Film Society, and were met by a pair of "students" (based on Liz's suggestion: whenever you write about college jocks, call them "student"-athletes rather than student-athletes, because they've been selected for their athleticism, not necessarily for their studiousness. These people weren't athletic, but they could just as well have been). They had a roll of tickets, but explained that we'd have to get in free, because they had neglected to get any change. We were the only members of the audience, anyway, until an aged hippie joined us about 1/2 hour after the movie started. He thought it was great.

On viewing it the second time, I believe drugs may have been involved in the making of the film. It has some very funny moments, even if you have no Finnish heritage. And the earnest attempts of a bunch of Finnish musicians trying to imitate American regional music is very interesting.

Then we went to see American Movie on Friday night (to make up for getting in free on Saturday, the Lagoon Theater hit us up for $18 for two people). It's a better movie than you'd expect, mainly because the overweight sidekick sounds so dumb when he talks. This is in contrast to the hero, who talks like an aggressive Hollywood director at the same time he's really a 2-bit loser. The sidekick was exactly the type who'd forget to get change if he were assigned to sell tickets.

OH, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (directed by the Coen Brothers)
January, 2001
The music, of course, is wonderful, and I appreciate the way the Coens modify their source stories, in this case The Odyssey. George Clooney is adequate, which is what I expect from him in any of his performances: he's no Meryl Streep, but, then again, neither is anyone else but her.

I especially appreciated the Tommy Johnson character (based on the Robert Johnson myth) saying he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in return for guitar prowess, because "I wasn't using it, anyway."

There's no point in making a list of anachronisms or impossible events -- they're of no concern to the Coens who put together a story that's believable anyway. There's also no way of knowing whether they're intentional or not. For example, at the end, there's a tsunami caused by the new dam on the river. Dammed rivers don't rise that way -- maybe an inch per day would be more realistic. But a tsunami is needed for the story, so a tsunami appears, and we don't mind. For the Coen's stories don't take place in the real world, anyway. They occur in a magical place named Silly Coen Valley.

A SERIOUS MAN (directed by the Coen Brothers)
November 1, 2009
[I consulted Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish to verify the meanings of the Yiddish terms].

This re-telling of the Book of Job requires multiple viewings, for this fabulous movie contains way too much to take in if you watch it only once. The Coen's movies all play with philosophical and ethical questions on some level or other, but this one is more overt than most. The action takes place in 1967 in the Jewish shtetl of St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Larry Gopnik is a spiritually bereft physics professor who is being squeezed from all directions. Sy Abelman, a fatuous parody of the worst imaginable warm, empathetic person, is poaching his wife and (it turns out later) writing anonymous derogatory letters to Larry's tenure committee. His brother, Arthur, is hanging on Larry like a lamprey eel on a lake trout. His daughter, Sarah, wants to get a nose job, presumably to become a shiksa (female goy). His son, Danny, gets stoned on pot, watches F Troop on TV, listens to Jefferson Airplane, and was perhaps cast for his ability to look like he's completely unaware of anything around him. Danny isn't paying attention to Hebrew lessons, so he's learning his bar mitzvah recitation by listening to a record. His goy neighbor, unlike Larry, is raising a son in his own image, while encroaching on Larry's property, squeezing him just like the Poles squeezed the Jews into small ghettos before exterminating them. His boss, "reassuring" him about the tenure committee while mentioning all the roadblocks and anonymous letters alleging incompetence, only makes Larry more anxious.

Larry has no authority in his house, and every self-absorbed member is taking from him. Arthur gets up in the middle of the night and drinks refrigerated orange juice straight out of the can. Sarah steals money from Larry for the nose job, and Danny, in turn, steals from Sarah to buy pot.

I wonder if the Coens were influenced by the Rocky & Bullwinkle Fractured Fairy Tales that they must have watched when they were growing up? They can't retell a story straight. So, in this case, Job's trials have been dispersed. For example, Larry has bad dreams and "loses" his children, but Arthur is the one afflicted with boils. If I read The Joys of Yiddish correctly, Arthur is a shlemiel and Larry is a nebech. Rosten says that they are often "twin brothers." Rosten's example of the difference: A waiter spills soup on a diner. The guy who spills the soup is a shlemiel; the guy who gets the soup spilled on him is a shlimatzl; and the nebech cleans up the mess.

Larry and Arthur have to move out of the house to the Jolly Roger Motel (I wonder where the Coens found that gem), where Arthur becomes even more of a burden, getting arrested for gambling and then for soliciting male sex in North Dakota. The lawyer bills are piling up. In one bleak scene, Arthur is distraught because God favors Larry instead of him, completely unaware that all his wounds are self-inflicted.

Meanwhile, a failing Korean student has left a large bribe behind for Larry, adding an ethical burden. The longer Larry waits, the harder it becomes to report the bribe. Larry has been teaching about Schrödinger's cat, trapped in a box that randomly kills or doesn't kill the cat, and the cat is in a state of being simultaneously both alive and dead until someone opens the box to observe. The student says he understands about the cat. Larry says it's not about the story -- that's only an illustration. It's the math that counts. But of course, the stories are all we have in life. Later, the Korean student's father shows up threatening to sue, and Schrödinger's cat reappears when the father gives Larry a choice: either be sued for accepting a bribe or for slander. "Accept the mystery," he says.

A random example of how the Coen's scramble stories: Larry goes up on the roof to adjust the antenna so Danny can see F Troop more clearly. As he moves the antenna, the sound track is of a radio tuning between stations. In the new antenna location, the story has changed from Job to 2nd Samuel, chapter 11:
And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.

The channel retuning may have come about by way of Job, chapter 31:
I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?
But the sub-plot doesn't go anywhere. The neighbor is more reminiscent of the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel, chapter 28) than Bathsheba, but she has no spiritual answers. Larry goes over there, gets stoned, but spends his high time looking at refractions in a water glass rather than seeking enlightenment.

I've spent a lot of time trying to understand the Dybbuk that appears in the prolog. I don't think he's a direct reference. There were certainly no Dybbuks in 1967 St. Louis Park. Instead, I think the prolog is about a long-gone culture that trusted knowledge. The wife knows the stranger is not a rabbi, but a Dybbuk, because she talked to a credible person who sat shiva for the dead rabbi. And with certain knowledge, you can act with confidence. Larry has faith in the mathematics, but he seemed not to notice that the 19th century dream of Physics as the source of certainty was shattered in the 20th by the very events he's teaching. There's a key scene where Larry is teaching Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. He's filled the entire front wall, up to about 40 feet high, with arcane equations. As the bell rings, he mathematically proves that you can't know anything precisely ("but you're responsible for it on the test," he adds). Sy's ghost shows up to physically insist that Larry see a Rabbi for spiritual help, since "mathematics is only the art of the possible."

The first and second Rabbi that Larry sees could easily have quoted Rashi from the epigram at the beginning of the movie: Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you. All of them have studied the Book of Job and know that Job got nothing but bad, unhelpful advice. Still, spiritual guidance is part of the job description, so the first rabbi enthusiastically tries to get Larry to look for God in the blacktopped parking lot. The second rabbi tells a long parable about a dentist who finds a message inscribed on the teeth in a Goy's mouth. It read, in Hebrew, help me; save me. The dentist surveys hundreds of other mouths, but finds no other message. What does the parable mean? The rabbi doesn't even find meaning to be a relevant question. It's a parable, after all.

Marshak, the third and oldest rabbi, is too busy to see Larry, even though it's obvious he's just sitting there. I think this scene is a reference to the parable at the beginning of Kafka's The Trial, where a shlimatzl waits at the Gate of Justice for an entire lifetime. A guard refuses admittance until the poor guy is dying, when he reveals that the supplicant could have entered at any time. Marshak says nothing to Larry because he recognizes that there's nothing to say: there's no point in giving spiritual advice to a rationalist.

Early in the story, Danny was listening to a transistor radio through an earpiece during Hebrew lessons, and it was confiscated. After a stoned Danny stumbles through his Bar Mitzvah, he's sent to see Marshak. Marshak doesn't say much, but it's the spiritual turn in the movie. He's been listening to Jefferson Airplane on Danny's radio, and quotes their song, Somebody To Love:

When the truth is found to be lies,
And the hope within you dies, ...

He omits don't you need somebody to love, because Marshak doesn't waste time with the obvious. Instead, his advice is, "Be a good boy." Job's story had a happy ending, but that was the 10th century BCE. Three thousand years later, there's no such happy ending for Larry, as he's finally driven to corruption that he can be really punished for. It looks like God is coming in a whirlwind with a redeeming message for Danny, though. Then again, maybe not.

My rating: six stars out of a possible five.

Upon Further Review ... (April, 2011):
I watched the DVD of A Serious Man, and noticed some things I'd missed before:

1. Arthur was arrested in The North Dakota, not North Dakota. Now I can appreciate two unlikely jokes: the idea that North Dakota would have a gay bar, and/or that a gay bar anywhere in the universe would be named The North Dakota.
2. On earlier viewings, I missed this: Larry's arcane lectures on Schrödinger's cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle parallel Arthur's Probability Map of the Universe. Both deal with probability, which is another name for our lack of precise knowledge. Both make no sense. Both are related to the Jewish Kabbalah mystical tradition, which was also a complex attempt to understand the universe. The fact that Larry's knowledge about unknowability is sanctioned by society and Arthur's isn't makes no difference -- both of them are adrift. Sy Abelman's ghost telling Larry that "mathematics is only the art of the possible" is a key to the failure of modern science, which has forgotten how to tell stories. Fortunately, we still have the Coen Brothers.
3. The story highlights the failure of both science and religion to be of any help for the practical problems facing us. At the end of the story, the medical profession is going to be of no help to Larry, and he doesn't have the spiritual strength that helped Job. The spiritual leaders can't protect the children from the coming tornado, because they don't even know how to use keys. Even if Danny doesn't survive the tornado, he has made a spiritual leap that no one else has: he's not afraid of the bullying dope dealer any more. Hopefully, he's not afraid of anything, even death.

CRAZY HEART (directed by Scott Cooper)
January 26, 2010
The hard-luck, down-and-out country singing in this movie is credible, and very well done. Too bad the script doesn't come close to the quality of the music. I can't begin to count the number of movies I've seen that feature a romantic pairing of an old man with a young woman. The only one that had any artistic merit was Lolita (directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1962). You'd think there'd be some attempt at symmetry, but I suppose Hollywood Focus Groups long ago identified an important demographic in old men with wet dreams (or more likely, dry dreams) of finding their lost youth through a näive young girl. Or maybe the only people who can afford to invest in producing movies like this are old men mourning past missed chances. The only old lady / young boy pairing I can think of was Harold and Maude (directed by Hal Ashby, 1971), and it seemed to attract a cult following of lost teenage boys rather than 65-year-old matrons. Maybe old women aren't able to fool themselves as easily as old men.

This case requires extreme suspension of disbelief, though: an old, drunken, smelly has-been country-western singer (Bad Blake, played perfectly by Jeff Bridges) unaccountably attracts a 30-something (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sweet lady. Bridges has played losers before, so he has his act down pat. Gyllenhaal tries valiantly, but given the script, I don't think any actress would be able to make her part believable.

Blake plays bowling alleys and two-bit bars, and complains to his agent that he's broke, but he drives a gas-guzzler, stays in motels, and has a whiskey habit that must cost him at least $30 per day. He pukes a lot, but never seems to wash up, and, unlike most drunken performers, he remembers the words, chords, tune and rhythm to his songs -- his singing is terrific. A realistic performance, I suppose, would have been even more unwatchable.

Maggie finally wakes up to the fact that Blake is unreliable after he loses her kid in a shopping mall (hey, it could happen to anyone -- it's happened to me, and I was sober), so Blake decides to dry out. He can somehow afford treatment at a sunny locale where you sit in a circle and, by admitting you're an alcoholic, you get cured. I haven't seen such a painless overcoming of addiction since The Man With A Golden Arm (directed by Otto Preminger, 1955) where, as I recall, Frank Sinatra beat his heroin addiction in a record 1:45 of screen time (I didn't time it, but it seemed awfully short). Blake doesn't get the girl, but she inspires him to write some more lonesome songs, which also doesn't jibe with typical reality: once alcohol no longer works to fuel writing, it usually does not help for the writer to dry out -- creativity doesn't return.

I can't tolerate movies or other works of art that cynically try to program my emotions, which is why I avoid all Steven Spielberg movies. I don't know anything about Scott Cooper, except that I'm going to avoid his movies in the future, too.