Saturday, June 21, 2014

Population: 7 Billion

Yes there are way more films released than any one person can possibly see. But there are 7 billion people in the world. Perhaps there are huge numbers of people who have not seen many or even any of them. Even with 50,000 annual indie films, it should be mathematically easy to find audiences of 100, 000 for each one. Why is there a problem with marketing? Perhaps we are the problem. Perhaps we need to find our audience beyond the normal places we've been looking. Perhaps we need to consider more universal languages. YouTube is doing it. And that's not about production value or talent or feature length films. But maybe it could be, or maybe filmmakers could morph into that format.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Review: A Serious Man

Originally posted on the Black List

Title: A Serious Man [download a PDF version of the script here].
Year: 2009
Writing Credits: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
IMDB rating: 7

IMDB plot summary:
Bloomington, Minnesota, 1967: Jewish physics lecturer Larry Gopnik is a serious and a very put-upon man. His daughter is stealing from him to save up for a nose job, his pot-head son, who gets stoned at his own bar-mitzvah, only wants him round to fix the TV aerial and his useless brother Arthur is an unwelcome house guest. But both Arthur and Larry get turfed out into a motel when Larry’s wife Judy, who wants a divorce, moves her lover, Sy, into the house and even after Sy’s death in a car crash they are still there. With lawyers’ bills mounting for his divorce, Arthur’s criminal court appearances and a land feud with a neighbor Larry is tempted to take the bribe offered by a student to give him an illegal exam pass mark. And the rabbis he visits for advice only dole out platitudes. Still God moves in mysterious – and not always pleasant – ways, as Larry and his family will find out.
Tagline: …seriously!

Nominated for Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture;
Nominated for Golden Globe for Best Actor, Michael Stuhlbarg
Nominated BAFTA Best Screenplay
Won AFI Movie of the Year
Nominated Eddie Best Edited Feature
Nominated Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award
Won Independent Spirit Award Best Cinematography Roger Deakins
Won Robert Altman Award
Nominated Independent Spirit Award Best Director Ethan & Joel Coen
Nominated WGA Best Original Screenplay
Numerous others

Analysis: What stood out to me immediately was the detailed camera directions in the script, and very much a big part of telling the story. Of course the Coens are director-writer-editors. It makes sense that they might see the film at the script stage in terms of how they intend to direct and cut it. The film is 107 minutes. But the script is 133 pages, which testifies to the added camera direction, despite a page or two of cuts at most. I looked at two other Coen scripts and saw a similar treatment at the beginning of Fargo and Raising Arizona. But A Serious Man is a bit more so. I think there is a tendency among novice filmmakers to write this way until they are corrected to leave that detail to the director, even if it’s themselves. But this is not generally recommended. They also ignore conventions like INT. or EXT. in the scene heading. Instead they just put the location there. They do not place the character name line when the same character speaks with action lines between. It makes for easier reading.

I watched the film after reading the script. Though I had seen it before. But I didn’t notice much difference from the script, except stuff that was cut. It’s impressive that the script is pretty much exactly what the film is. The theory on making movies is that there are three versions, the script, the one you direct and produce, and the one you edit. Not so with the Coens. What they write is what the final product is.

It’s been said that film has a long way to go, that the best films are yet to be made. I like to compare film to music, which has been around since the classics, about 400 years. I like to think that film could be more like a classical composition with the various instruments, melody, bass, rhythm and so on, analogous to image, sound, dialog, effects and so on. Could film be done more harmoniously as music is? The Coens seem to approach this concept, especially considering their script as the composition, is strictly adhered to as a musical composition is. The idea that the writer(s) control everything from image, to effects, to music. to dialog, in the script, the direction and the editing; makes this kind of harmony more likely than relegating these things to separate people, or at separate stages.

The theme of A Serious Man is quirky and magical for me; about the futility of being concerned over things in your life you cannot control. The setting is a period 60s Jewish community. The characters are both religious and irreverent, and perhaps naturally hypocritical. They are all either shallow or self centered. This reflects on the protagonist as someone who isn’t really close to anyone, considering everyone is seen through his perspective. The film even seems to say that irreverence is a part of life and a part of Judaism, at least among lay people. In this way it pokes fun at being serious or at taking religion literally. And this is the dilemma of the protagonist who wants desperately to understand things in his life that affect him and that he can’t control, and who looks to his religion for answers.

The protagonist goes through nearly all of the film with no real arc or change. He is simply put upon by his family and people around him. He mostly accepts his fate and everything his wife tells him to do. He is pushed around. Yet at one point he decides to take a stand. But this has absolutely no effect, which makes him even more frustrated. He looks to Rabbis as mentors. Externally they appear more as tricksters who tell him there is no answer. Yet internally they are telling him not to be concerned over such things. By the end he does arc ever so subtly. He accepts that he cannot understand these things and must move on.

The film is very unusual and original in having a passive protagonist and no real dramatic overcoming of an obstacle. It’s all very subtle and even easy to completely miss. I think this is why the film is misunderstood, underrated and even considered a failure by people who are used to being lead by the hand through a more conventional traditionally structured story, with a strong arc or strong climax. On the other hand, if you can accept the originality, it’s a film that makes you really think.

In this clip the protagonist sees the junior Rabbi, who talks about the inner world or the expression of Hashem (translated as the Name or God) in the world, as opposed to seeing Hashem as externally living only in shul (the synagogue). I see this as a parallel to inner world and outer world of the protagonist, and his inability to reconcile them. By the way, this script sent me to the dictionary. Though the word meanings are apparent in context.

The Jefferson Airplane song ‘Somebody to Love’ is used as a device in the film and echoes the theme with the line ‘When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope with in you dies…’ You could even say the entire film concept stems from that line. It’s a simple genius. Another rule the Coens break is to explicitly use known songs in the script.

Most Memorable Moments: The second Rabbi tells Larry the story of a man with inscriptions in his teeth, that turn out to be meaningless. Larry doesn’t understand the point of why he was told the story. And the Rabbi basically responds that here is no point. That’s the point. It is wonderfully comedic. This also echoes encounters with others characters.
Larry: So what did you tell him?
The rabbi seems surprised by the question.
Rabbi Nachtner: Sussman?
Larry: Yes!
Rabbi Nachtner: Is it. . . relevant?
Larry: Well—isn’t that why you’re telling me?
Rabbi Nachtner: Mm. Okay. Nachtner says, look. . .
The consultation scene again, with the rabbi once again narrating in voice-over. He silently advises the fretful Sussman in sync with his recounting of the same.
. . .
Rabbi Nachtner: The teeth, we don’t know. A sign from hashem, don’t know. Helping others, couldn’t hurt.
Back to the rabbi’s office in present. Larry struggles to make sense of the story.
Larry: But—was it for him, for Sussman? Or—
Rabbi Nachtner: We can’t know everything.
Larry: It sounds like you don’t know anything! Why even tell me the story?
Rabbi Nachtner: (amused) First I should tell you, then I shouldn’t.
Larry, exasperated, changes tack:
Larry: What happened to Sussman?
Sussman, back in his office, works on different patients as the rabbi resumes the narrative in voice-over.
Rabbi Nachtner: What would happen? Not much. He went back to work. For a while he checked every patient’s teeth for new messages; didn’t see any; in time, he found he’d stopped checking. He returned to life.
Sussman, at home, chats with his wife over dinner.
Rabbi Nachtner:. . . These questions that are bothering you, Larry—maybe they’re like a Toothache. We feel them for a while, Then they go away.
Sussman lies in bed sleeping, smiling, an arm thrown across his wife.
Back in the rabbi’s office, Larry is dissatisfied.
Larry: I don’t want it to just go away! I want an answer!
Rabbi Nachtner: The answer! Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.
Larry: Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not going to give us any answers?
Rabbi Nachtner smiles at Larry.
Rabbi Nachtner: He hasn’t told me.
Larry rubs his face, frustrated.
 Most Memorable Dialogue: The last and elder Rabbi, Marshak, at the end talks to the Bar mitzvah boy, Danny, and returns the transistor radio confiscated from him by his teacher.
Marshak: When the truth is found. To be lies.
He pauses. He clears his throat.
At length:
Marshak:. . . And all the hope. Within you dies.
Another beat. Danny waits. Marshak stares.
He smacks his lips again. He thinks.
Marshak:. . . Then what?
Danny doesn’t answer. It is unclear whether answer is expected.
Marshak clears his throat with a loud and thorough hawking.
The hawking abates. Marshak sniffs.
Marshak:. . . Grace Slick. Marty Balin. Paul Kanta. Jorma. . . somethin. These are the membas of the Airplane.
He nods a couple of times.
Marshak:. . . Interesting.
He reaches up and slowly opens his desk drawer. He withdraws something. He lays it on the bare desk and pushes it across.
Marshak:. . . Here.
It is Danny’s radio.
Marshak:. . . Be a good boy.
What Did I Learn About Screenwriting From Reading This Script: I learned that camera direction can be very useful and can help to visualize the story cinematically. One criticism I’ve heard about some screenplays is that they aren’t cinematic enough. I think screenwriters have to be conscious of this, and able to picture the script on the screen. Reading this script is like watching a film.

I learned that there is something very beautiful in simplicity. Something like a phrase from a song you love, or even the basic theme of a bible story (like the story of Job), can inspire a cool movie.
I learned that ambiguity and subtlety can make the audience think and make a film much more interactive that way. Those are the kinds of films I tend to like the most. The idea that some people can get something out of it, while others may not, gives the film a controversial reaction and starts a conversation.

Finally, don’t be afraid to break rules and conventions. You just might invent something very original.

Blog Archive

Popular Posts

Mistress City

Cinephilia and Beyond

Keyframe - Explore the world of film.