By Dan Norman
There’s a theory extrapolated upon by Asher Gelzer-Govatos that over the last decade the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have changed their filmmaking process. This theory hypothesises that Coen films, like the brothers themselves, now should be viewed as pairs wherein the Coens tell the same story twice in succession – once as tragedy and once as comedy. Gelzer-Govatos presents the set as No Country for Old Men/Burn After Reading; A Serious Man/True Grit; and most recently, Inside Llewyn Davis/Hail Caesar, with the tragedy coming first in each case.
To massively simplify (and I’d encourage you to read Gelzer-Govatos’ article if you find the idea at all interesting), the first pairing deals with the root of evil, the second with divine justice, and the third with the struggles of creating art. In 2007, they released No Country for Old Men, a film which shows how evil proliferates, ensnaring both the innocent and the somewhat guilty, with tragic consequences. Then for their next film, 2008’s Burn After Reading, they told exactly the same story of evil actions spreading to involve others – but instead they told it as a comedy. They used the same formula with A Serious Man, (2009) retelling it comedically as True Grit (2010) and once more with Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) re-emerging as Hail Caesar (2016).
It’s fair to be sceptical of this theory. All filmmakers with careers the length of the Coens’ have favourite themes and motifs which worm their way onto the screen again and again, creating an illusion of repetition. But as film fan theories go, it’s a good one. The fact that the Coens always operate as a duo lends the idea some neat symbolism. Whether the Coens intended it or not, whether the viewer subscribes to it or not, it’s an interesting thought experiment for anyone who has seen each pair, and demonstrates how powerfully genre can shape stories in general.
Still, the idea makes more sense with some pairings than others. For myself, the No Country for Old Men/Burn After Reading pairing convinces completely, Inside Llewyn Davis/Hail Caesar makes sense but is far less interesting, and I struggle to see the link between A Serious Man and True Grit – aside from disagreeing with Gelzer-Govatos’ genre classification, any similarities between the stories seems to be more a case of the recurring themes discussed earlier as opposed to a strategic retelling.
In any case, I believe there’s a non-chronological pairing to be assembled from these last four Coen films – that being A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis. Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of an irascible folk singer trying for, and falling just short of, success in the Greenwich Village folk scene. A Serious Man is the story of a Jewish maths professor who undergoes a crisis of faith when every aspect of his life begins to crumble, seemingly inexplicably. What both films are, at heart, is the story of a man trapped in a malaise, relying upon a higher power for a salvation which never arrives. For God and Rabbi Marshak in A Serious Man, see Bud Grossman, the mythical music executive plucking folk artists from obscurity, played by F. Murray Abraham in Inside Llewyn Davis.
Adding to the sense of déjà vu – both titular protagonists (Llewyn Davis and Larry Gopnik, our “serious man”) are men of around the same age, living in 1960’s America. Music plays a key role in both – Inside Llewyn Davis has enough folk song performances to constitute a musical, while Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” is a running joke in A Serious Man, not to mention Larry’s troubles with the Columbia Record club, and the snippets of Hebrew songs which punctuate the film. Both films are filled to the brim with cryptic scenes and symbols that practically demand to be puzzled over for meaning (the Hebrew markings on the teeth and “a probability map of the universe” in Serious…; the returning cat and the Chicago road trip in Llewyn…).
Of course, for the ‘Coen double-bill theory’ to apply, one of these films would have to be a comedy and the other a tragedy. Gelzer-Govatos considers both films to be tragedies, but I would have to respectfully disagree, and shift his classification of A Serious Man as “a very funny tragedy” to black comedy. For what it’s worth, the DVD distributors of A Serious Man agree, featuring pull quotes which emphasise the film’s comedy, and touting the Coens as “The Makers of Burn After Reading & The Big Lebowski” – two of their more clear-cut comedies.
The difference between the story when played for comedy as opposed to when it’s presented as tragedy can be seen most clearly in the characters. Larry’s default modes are confusion and apoplexy – what are these things and why do they have to happen to me? – which grow with each successive misfortune. He takes each of them as a personal attack aimed at him from the cosmos. He delves into each tiny coincidence as though it were the key to solving the universe, unravelling it and ending up with … nothing. All the while, the characters around him are either indifferent or hostile towards Larry’s plight, and their actions drive him further into hysteria. Each of these characters are ridiculous in their own right – from the Junior Rabbi who fervently offers the beauty of a parking lot as proof of a God, to the student whose attempts to bribe Larry only result in further confusion, to Larry’s wife’s lover, who condescendingly instructs Larry on how to handle the divorce each step of the way. This may or may not be funny, but it certainly isn’t tragic.
Llewyn is a much moodier figure. Whereas Larry’s social ineptitude results in an awkwardly botched attempt to seduce a neighbour, Llewyn’s results in family, friends and lovers who barely tolerate him. He couch-surfs his way across acquaintances as his anger, ingratitude and callousness rub his hosts the wrong way. He is overtly self-destructive in a way that Larry isn’t – stubbornly refusing to listen to the advice of everyone around him. Unlike Larry, Llewyn receives an answer from his ‘higher power’ and that answer is that he’s not quite good enough. Then the film keeps going, Llewyn continuing a quest that isn’t getting anywhere. The supporting characters in Llewyn… are odd, but not ridiculous. Even when they are ridiculous – as with the exclamations which cowboy singer Al Cody adds to the recording of novelty song ‘Please Mr Kennedy’, or the earnest naivety of folk singers Jim and Troy – their actions are justified by the result. Cody’s act gets him gigs, and he drops it as soon as he leaves the studio. Troy is positioned to be a rising star, signed by the very music executive who turns Llewyn down. Jim works steadily, and is recognised as a consummate professional, a godfather figure to folk singers not much younger than him. Llewyn may look down on them, but the marketplace has decided that they are valuable and he is not. Furthermore, his refusal to compromise in any sense leaves him spinning his wheels, continuing to fall just short.
For the final word on whether a film is tragic or comic, look at how it ends. Inside Llewyn Davis’s conclusion takes us right back to the beginning, creating a time-loop which suggests Llewyn is trapped in this purgatory. There’s a historical cameo in this ending too, as a recent Nobel Prize winner begins his own folk-singing career. The real-life figure creates a sharp contrast with Llewyn – Llewyn will never go on to achieve his level of success. Whereas A Serious Man’s ending is so overblown – so over-the-top foreboding (with “Somebody To Love” kicking in once more to assist) that it becomes comical. It is common wisdom that the secret to comedy is timing, and the timing here – an ominous phone call and a natural disaster arrive a split-second after Larry morally compromises himself – finally tips A Serious Man over into comedy. The closing scene is the punchline to which the whole film has been building.
The genre of a film changes the way we react to it – and changes the story’s outcome. Tragedies and comedies are obvious opposites, but each genre from horror to science-fiction, from kitchen-sink drama to historical epic, will alter the way that the same story is told. Furthermore, the genre of a film can often be more clearly discerned from the tone rather than the subject matter. A Serious Man touches on faith, corruption, sudden death, adultery, unappreciated genius, financial despair, a crumbling marriage and homosexuality in a time when it was illegal. Llewyn… is more pre-occupied with novelty songs, overly earnest folk singers, a doddering incompetent agent and escaping cats being chased down streets. Both films have the DNA of comedy and tragedy – there are moments to laugh and cry in each – but ultimately their separate tones inform the way we respond to each film. If you were to disagree with me and agree with Gelzer-Govatos in labelling A Serious Man as a tragedy, the chances are you would experience the film very differently to me. Skirting the border of comedy and tragedy is familiar territory for the Coens, connoisseurs of black comedy from the start of their careers. They revel in genre ambiguity. It’s a difficult skill to master, but one which gives their films longevity, rewarding an audience who re-watch.
The images above are not the property of the Finer Things Club.
For a more in depth analysis of the theories constructed by Asher Gelzer-Govatos, click the following link:http://www.avclub.com/article/coen-brothers-keep-making-same-film-twiceand-its-b-231871