In a column for the Guardian over the weekend, Joe Queenan used A Serious Man to stand in example of movies by directors which stand apart from the rest of their filmography. In the case of A Serious Man, Queenan writes:
A Serious Man falls into that category of films that, for whatever reason, do not have the same texture or mood as a director’s other films. It may be a decision the film-maker has made deliberately, or it may be entirely inadvertent, but these films stand apart from the other movies in a director’s body of work. It is as if the film-maker abruptly decided to take a holiday from his own personality and make a film in somebody else’s style.
He goes on to cite other examples of this theory for great directors. He notes Werner Herzog for Rescue Dawn (“…a well-crafted action picture. And nothing more.“), Spike Lee’s Inside Man (“…certainly doesn’t have the feel of any other Spike Lee film. It is work for hire.“) and Ang Lee with The Hulk (“…one of those catastrophes so bad that its sequel seems like the industry’s personal apology to the movie-going public for what has gone before.“)
He also cites a few examples of better one-offs, such as Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County and, inexplicably, Peter Weir’s Green Card.
I’ll leave what he considers good or bad to the side (seriously though, Green Card?) and just comment on the mistake of characterising so many of these films as being far apart from the other work by directors.
A Serious Man may well seem on its face a distance from the defining work of the Coens (Fargo, Lebowski etc.), but the themes at its centre are perhaps as close to a distillation of their career as could be found. The central character is tortured by the world around him (see The Dude in The Big Lebowski, Llewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men) for the choices, or lack of decisions, he makes. The entire world in which the film is set seems to beset its citizen with acts of randomness, much in keeping with the nihilistic viewpoint that many detractors, and most supporters, of the brothers would see as an identifying feature of their work.
To wit, Dana Stevens’ review for Slate reads:
A Serious Man unfolds in a moral universe that’s recognizable from earlier Coen films. It’s a cruel and ultimately inexplicable place. What Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s pitiless mass murderer, was to No Country for Old Men, the Hebrew God (whom the characters refer to with the respectful, indirect name of “Hashem”) is to this movie.
Whether you read this as a good or bad feature of the film, there is no doubt that A Serious Man very much fits into the Coens canon. The only difference is that it is so explicitly autobiographical, in the way that perhaps something like Barton Fink, which seems at least partly to reference their experience in working on Miller’s Crossing, never aims for.
Rescue Dawn, Queenan’s citation for Herzog, is another which seems out of step with his oeuvre at first, but the themes once more reveal themselves quite quickly. Specifically, the film entirely fits with Herzog’s fascination with nature as an unforgiving and beautiful foe. This strongly characterised masterpieces like Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, notably in the second in which a man is constrained by nature in achieving his lifelong ambitions. Linked to those two films is the leading man choice.
Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s greatest on-screen collaborator, was both a genius and insane. He would push himself to levels of intensity almost unknown to most actors. Christian Bale, whilst probably not quite in the Kinski league, is a superb actor on his day. He is also a deeply committed performer. Witness the intense weight-loss undertaken for The Machinist, followed by bulking up for Batman Begins and then rinse-repeat for Rescue Dawn and The Dark Knight. Say what you will of Bale, but he wholly commits to Rescue Dawn.
In addition to that, to describe this as just a slick action film seems to wholly miss the personal aspects of the film. As a dramatic retelling of the story of Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, he was attempting to do justice to the story of a man he obviously admired greatly. Whether Queenan likes the film or not, there is no way to describe Rescue Dawn as just a tossed-off slice of popcorn entertainment.
I’ll take the point with Inside Man by Spike Lee – it probably does stand somewhat out of what most people would think of then they think about Spike Lee. By that, and I’m only assuming what Queenan was thinking with this film, this would entail that the film is not explicitly about American racial politics (though, as noted by Ruthe Stein, this does occur a bit) from the standpoint of African-Americans. That’s probably true, but that would be an act of pigeon-holing a director whose work stands well beyond themes of race. Specifically, perhaps more than being an explorer of racial issues, his great skill has often been in exploring New York. Inside Man, for me, stands alongside 25th Hour and Do the Right Thing as a great New York movie.
If you want to take a film from Lee which stands outside the realms of his standard work, try When the Levees Broke, his four-part HBO documentary on Katrina. Though definitely in keeping which exploring the (predominantly) black experience in America, the film has none of the overt political messages that Lee often attempts to hammer home in his work, instead allowing the imagery to speak for itself and letting the actions of the Bush administration hang the whole White House.
The last one to note is Hulk. This argument is much more personal than the others, because I remain one of around seven people in the world that like Hulk’s take on the superhero film. Even so, the themes of Lee’s other work, specifically personal identity, are writ large over the film.
I understand what Queenan was going for and I don’t want to just crap on his taste in film. I would strongly argue, however, that most of the films cited have much in common with other work done by their directors, you just need to dig deeper than the trailer to realise it.