With the recent start of Mad Men’s fifth season, the critics have been piling praise high and deep for a show that as much as I watch leaves me cold. The reviewer for Terry Gros’ Fresh Air gassed on about the show’s finely textured characters. Puh-leeze. This seemed like a desperate attempt by a university professor with a radio gig to find a way on to the invitation-list for one of Hollywood’s upcoming galas. Mad Men is entirely lacking, in my not so humble estimation, in character development and the other factor that develops characters — dialogue. So I see Don Draper brood over which babe he is going to bed next. So Don has a complicated past and multiple identities. I wouldn’t want to have a meal with him (especially if I cross dressed). In comparison I’d be all over a meal or pint with Jimmy, Bunk, Bunnie, or Carcetti — from The Wire. I’d like to add Omar to the list, but I’m doubting a fellow on that side of the law would want to dine with this egg-headed honkie. Nor do I imagine that in real life such a social outing would be safe.
What Mad Men does have is atmosphere. And for us baby-boomers who were too young and too fundamentalist to know about the world of advertising and New York City life in the fast lane, Mad Men evokes an era and a world that is heavy on eye-candy. It allows us to see the world our parents did everything to prevent us from seeing.
But you can’t get by only on atmosphere, which is why the Coen Brothers are gems in the world of not-so-Indie cinema. They do atmosphere incredibly well. Just see Miller’s Crossing (their homage to the gangster genre) or Barton Fink (their homage to post-modernism). But in addition to atmosphere, the Coens add humor, irony (several helpings), and the Montaignian twist of things not being what they seem.
This is a long winded way of recommending a recent post by Noah Millman, a guy trained in economics who used to blog at the American Scene and now does so regularly for the American Conservative. Millman is the first to write (at least the first I’ve read) about the opening scene in A Serious Man and make sense of it, a movie that, by the way, captures the mood of an era and I suspect does well with Jewish-American life in the land of Lake Wobegone. Millman also supplies a reading of the movie based on Job which makes complete sense and completely missed me — perhaps because my biblical w-w is defective or because I spent too much time in the movie trying to figure out the opening scene. Here’s part of Millman writes about the Coens’ modern-day Job (he compares it to Tree of Life):
“The Tree of Life” is a snapshot of the moment when Job hears the voice out of the whirlwind. Jack has “kept it together” for years, decades, but for whatever reason today the defenses have broken down, and he is face to face with questions he has buried since he was a young man. (As the festival musaf liturgy says: “in the face of our sins were we exiled from our land,” which I take to mean: now, conscious of our exile, unable to make expiation through the Temple, we cannot escape a confrontation with our sins.) And he – we – see God’s answer: look at the dinosaurs! I made them, they lived, and thrived, and then I took them all away, and you never even knew them. And somehow Jack sees: yes, You will take them all, You will take us all, to where I do not know, but if I remember that, perhaps I can accept that taking my brother was just . . . taking back what was Yours. And I can make that a gift to you.
“A Serious Man” stops just before this point. The whirlwind comes – and the movie stops. This seems like an ending that endorses Larry’s moral confusion – even the whirlwind doesn’t mean anything – but, notwithstanding the Coen brothers’ evident lack of interest in piety, I question that. The filmmakers’ anger at Larry, at the smallness both of his seriousness and of his sins, and, by extension, at the entire middle-class insular Jewish culture in which they were reared, burns forth from the screen. The whirlwind doesn’t speak – the idea that the “wonders of creation” constitute some kind of answer to Larry (or Job) is simply mocked. But they did not make this movie arbitrarily. They made it for a reason. This perspective, this anger, is itself a version of God’s answer out of the whirlwind, and a meaningful one, as surely as Malick’s film is, and the Coen brothers, in abusing poor Larry so mercilessly, are playing the part of God in the story. They want to shake him out of who he is, into something, well, more like what they are, what Larry’s son, presumably, grew up to be.
I may disagree with Millman about the Coens’ “anger” or attempt to play God — I am not sure they are all that firm in their convictions. But it is the best reading of the film I’ve seen and invites another viewing — which will further predispose me with the Season Five version of Don Draper.