Grounded in Detroit on a Spirit aircraft with a cockpit problem, I got chatting to my very close row-mates, an academic humanist lawyer and an Orthodox rabbi. Both had the same topic uppermost in mind. They had just seen the Coen Brothers’ movie A Serious Man and were deeply troubled both by its content and by its critical reception.
The film is about a man’s midlife crisis in a mainstream Jewish community in the Midwest, set in 1967 when society was on the cusp of change and institutions were stuck in the past. The hero suffers marital breakdown, workplace stress, debt issues and other commonplaces of the modern era. The rabbis he consults lack the certainties of the East European shtetl from which his ancestors stem and where the film enigmatically begins. He is, in a word, lost.
The film, reviewed as ‘black comedy’, was received by my companions as documentary realism, a situation that felt painfully familiar. ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ fretted the rabbi. ‘Is it good for the rabbis?’ worried the atheist.
I did not read any reviews until after I saw the film, and those I saw split split straight down the middle. Some acclaimed the film as a masterpiece of wit and social observation, others missed the jokes and were bored out of their critical minds. A Serious Man succeeds in dividing serious opinion. They either got it, or they didn’t.
One of the most perceptive reviewers, Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, found a moral and theological dimension in the finale. Chris Tookey in the Daily Mail called the film ultra-sadistic and cynical. A O Scott in the New York Times regarded it as a retelling of the Bibilical Job story. Jonathan Foreman in the Jewish Chronicle repeated the Job parallel while decrying the film for its ‘mercilessly … unattractive’ depiction of Jews.
Where did these responses come from? Let me share a little trade secret. Film critics lead a dark and sheltered existence. Many need to cover 12 or 15 movies a week, most of them teenaged dross. Keeping track is no easy matter.
That’s where the pass notes come in. Entering a review studio, the critic is handed a sheaf of notes, along with a drink and snacks. The notes, detailed and hyperbolic, add deep background to what the critic is about to see on screen. Much of the notes go into the reviews. Every review I have read about A Serious Man refers to the ‘Polish’ stetl scene that opens the film. Nothing in the film confirm that location. It’s all in the notes.
The best critics, who are also the ones that review the fewest films, form their opinions after digesting the notes. The rest crib like mad and often get trapped in a corridor of doubt between what they read in the notes and what they saw on screen. That’s where perceptions falter, criticism fails and judgement splits to extremes.
A Serious Man is not black comedy. That was just a convenient handle, probably taken from the notes, and pinned to an original and disturbing film for want of a better cliché. The critics who regurgitated that handle were working under pressure. But they were also conspiring in the spiralling destruction of newspaper arts criticism. When a critic repeats information derived from a film studio’s marketing department, the line between free thought and mass propaganda is erased. If film criticism is to survive, it will require tougher criteria.
Like all forms of art commentary, it is now in a critical condition.