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December 20, 2009

No country for alter cockers
Posted by Avram Grumer at 10:58 PM * 25 comments

It’s nearly two-year-old news, but new to me: I’ve just learned, while doing some background reading on Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, that Joel and Ethan Coen are working on a film adaptation of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union!

And speaking of the Coen brothers, has anyone else seen A Serious Man?

Comments on No country for alter cockers:
#1 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2009, 11:19 PM:

I read the header as "no country for altar cookies". I have GOT to get better drugs.

#2 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 12:00 AM:

The "cloud factory" kept the CMU campus in electricity during some pretty serious blackouts. There were some horrific winter-storm days where I regretted that.

I love those "lost neighborhoods." My graduate dept once went to a restaurant down the way from the power plant. The menu had a bunch of plugs on back. One was from Nancy Kress. But not that Nancy Kress, as I found out after a confused email exchange.

* * *

I saw and loved A Serious Man, but I believe that this is one of those films which will totally bore and/or aggrevate many people.

It is a strange film. Enigmatic, demanding, with healthy doses of humiliation humor.

It's . . . a cross between the Book of Job and Schroedinger's Cat.

#3 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 12:14 AM:

miscontexted the word plugs there, due to your mention of power plants and electricity.

#4 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 12:14 AM:

The Cloud Factory link lead to a Schenley Park link which lead to a satellite map of my old neighbourhood in Squirrel Hill.

And . . . yes, there's a REAL lost neighbourhood. Ettwein and McFarren.

#5 ::: Bob Devney ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 12:31 AM:

Now THAT ... should be one strange and wonderful movie. Hope they can keep enough of the glorious side characters and themes. Especially Zimbalist the boundary maven.

Did see A SERIOUS MAN. I'm not Jewish, so have a strong feeling that about 60% passed right over my head. But what I got, was choice.

Especially all the stuff about Uncertainty. "Meer sir my sir" ... and "Accept the mystery."

I understand that some critics felt the Brothers in this movie are savaging all that they came from: a little community of middle-class Jews in Minnesota in the 50s and 60s. But it seems to me that they are simply looking back on the lives and choices of their parents -- and their great-great-grandparents -- with laughter and irony, yes, but also with the knowledge that we, like them, find whatever purpose we can in unceasing attempts to make sense of a dark and uncertain world we none of us can understand. Where we none of us can be sure we really belong.

Plus Rabbi Nachtner is the role George Wyner was born to play.

#6 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 12:46 AM:

Stefan #2: for me, the phrase "humiliation humor" has to be the ultimate oxymoron. I guess I don't have the receptors for it.

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 12:53 AM:

There's nothing funny about what Larry Gopnik is put through . . . but you still laugh, feeling uncomfortable the whole time.


#8 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 01:19 AM:

Stefan @2: It's . . . a cross between the Book of Job and Schroedinger's Cat.

I'm amazed at how many critics failed to see that the Schrödinger's Cat lesson ties the opening to the rest of the movie. Including the ending!

It's also got a bit of 2 Samuel.

#9 ::: Rob T. ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 02:37 AM:

Before I talk about A Serious Man, I'd like to mention that I saw The Big Lebowski the night in opened at the Movies 8 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The house was packed, and while most people seemed to get with the film OK I heard one person on the way out call it the worst film he'd ever seen. I personally enjoyed it, but not so much initially as some of the other films I'd seen that year such as Pleasantville and A Simple Plan. I still like those movies a lot, but after several re-viewings would now rank Lebowski as my favorite movie released in 1998.

I saw A Serious Man a few weeks ago in Tulsa, in the Circle Cinema--the local "art theater"--rather than a multiplex, and the audience was more of an artsy crowd than a multiplex crowd; no one was going to be caught dead proclaiming this film "the worst I've seen" even if they happened to be thinking it. Still, the general mood seemed to be respectful puzzlement rather than admiration. (It's not that Tulsans dislike the Coens generally; the local opening night audience with which I viewed O Brother, Where Art Thou? applauded at the end.)

One curious aspect of the screening I attended was that the projectionist flashed the preview sign--"the following preview has been approved for all audiences", or however it goes--and then went straight into the movie without showing any actual previews. Since gur ortvaavat vf va n irel qvssrerag gvzr naq cynpr sebz gur erfg bs gur zbivr, naq gur gvgyr perqvgf qba'g nccrne sbe rvtug zvahgrf (tvir be gnxr n srj), anyone who's seen A Serious Man can imagine the audience's bafflement as the film progressed without anyone realizing it had already started--that we weren't really watching a preview!

Though A Serious Man will never have the populist cult following of Lebowski (or O Brother), I think it will similarly attract repeat viewings and ultimately be remembered as one of the Coens' key films. There are certainly interesting things going on in that movie, even though I didn't get all of them. Right now I would rank it just under Up and Inglourious Basterds (didn't get all of that one either). Ten years from now, who knows?

#10 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 08:38 AM:

Did you know that the Coen Bros worked as editors on Evil Dead? That being said, while I may not be a fan, they did make me smile throughout O Brother, Where Art Thou?

"And furthermore, by way of endorsing my candidacy, the Soggy Bottom Boys are gonna lead us all in a rousing chorus of 'You Are My Sunshine.' ... Ain't you, boys?"

#11 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 09:09 AM:

I saw (and loved) A Serious Man. The reaction of the audience (in Bethesda, MD) was interesting, though. About 70% were in their sixties or older, and they laughed their asses off. The younger ones, not so much. And it certainly was funnier if you were Jewish.

I am eagerly awaiting the movie of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. A mystery whose resolution depends on gur nafjre gb gur dhrfgvba "Jung pbybe jnf gur pbj?": fabulous!

#12 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 11:01 AM:

I just want the Yiddish to sound right. (Not that I speak much of it, myself.)

As in Hugh Laurie's Yiddish in an episode of House (last season, I think it was). So many times, people can't get the inflection and rhythm right, but he was dead on.

#13 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 11:15 AM:

I'd like to see a new Amnesty International benefit concert, The Yiddish Policeman's Other Ball.

#14 ::: Janice in Ga ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 11:50 AM:

And I read the title and thought it would be something about show dogs with long floppy ears.

::rolls eyes at self::

#15 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 12:12 PM:

I saw A Serious Man and got it, mostly. My wife had a less enjoyable experience, as she admittedly doesn't get Jewish humor (grew up in heavily Mexican Catholic area of San Antonio and didn't meet anyone Jewish until she went to college, so she has no frame of reference for about half of what was happening in that movie). The Schrodinger's cat stuff on top of that made for one very confusing film for her. So far, I've been unable to explain the intersection of the two frames in any way that has been helpful. But I liked the film just fine (though not as much as The Big Lebowski or O Brother Where Art Thou?). The Brothers were definitely working in their Barton Fink mode, which is not to everyone's taste.

#16 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 12:23 PM:

Melissa, 12: The prologue of A Serious Man is in Yiddish. And it has Fyvush Finkel. So I suspect the Coens are not in any danger of getting it wrong.

#17 ::: norbizness ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 12:36 PM:

Serge: They repaid Sam Raimi by having him as the corrupt cop who shoots the flag-waving Irishman in Miller's Crossing (and who himself is subsequently gunned down).

#18 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 04:58 PM:

Melissa @12, do you expect the Yiddish Policemen's Union movie to have a lot of Yiddish in it? In the book, while the characters are speaking Yiddish, it's presented to us translated into English (with the exception of a few slang terms).

I don't expect the Coens to make the movie all in Yiddish (with maybe English subtitles). Especially since part of the joy of the book is seeing the quirks of Yiddish rendered in English. I like to tell people that the more Yiddish-speaking relatives you have, the better the book is.

#19 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2009, 11:20 PM:

I have no Yiddish-speaking relatives and was bowled over by the book, Avram. I can only imagine how I would have liked it had I been better instrumented.

The reality of that world was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I'm overjoyed to hear the Coens will be taking it on. They're the only people in Hollywood who could possibly come close to doing it justice.

Maybe I should learn Yiddish.

#20 ::: Dr. Psycho ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2009, 05:48 PM:

"...a cross between the Book of Job and Schroedinger's Cat".

Well, since Robert Heinlein wrote one of those, and it was one of the only late Heinlein books that didn't seem like bored wanking, I'm now interested in seeing someone else's story that can be described that way.

#21 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2009, 12:38 PM:

I have not read the book, but it amazes me that my moderately-to-very observant Jewish friends have exactly one of two opinions about it:

They either adore it, or they think it's massively horrendously horrible, worse-than-Twilight drivel.

Srsly. The dichotomy fascinates me, and I will definitely read it someday to try to figure it out.

#22 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2009, 12:43 PM:

Melissa Singer @12: I just want the Yiddish to sound right. (Not that I speak much of it, myself.) As in Hugh Laurie's Yiddish in an episode of House (last season, I think it was). So many times, people can't get the inflection and rhythm right, but he was dead on.

I would note that Laurie appears to be really good at accents/dialects in general, as witness the number of my friends who are startled and shocked to hear him doing his own native voice in various YouTube versions of his previous work (A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, etc). They're so used to him doing his convincing and very consistent American "Dr. House voice" ...

#23 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2009, 04:38 PM:

I can't imagine filming that book without having some actual Yiddish or Hebrew (or both) in it. It's not enough to have English with the rhythm or inflections of Yiddish, imo. While I speak very, very little Yiddish (and no Hebrew), I've spent some time around Yiddish speakers, and their Yiddish sounds different from their English, even though their English is often very Yiddish influenced.

It would be equally wrong to make the movie entirely in English or entirely in Yiddish (or Hebrew).

I have a young friend who has a very hard time believing that Hugh Laurie is not American. All he's ever seen is "House." Whereas I have fond memories of Blackadder and many other imports. Laurie's American still impresses me even though he's been doing it for years.

#24 ::: rmb ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2009, 05:47 PM:

Elliott Mason @ 21: Not so secretly, the book is about what it means to be an Ashkenazi Jew in America, and virtually every moderately observant Jew has a deep-seated opinion/feeling about that. I suspect your friends' opinions also correlate with whether they speak/want to learn Yiddish.

#25 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2009, 07:56 PM:

Elliott @21, I've seen that some people are offended by the presence in the book of a clan of Hassidic mobsters. I suspect that some might also be offended by the way that one of the book's themes reflects upon Zionism.

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