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Drifting Out of Focus

Drifting Out of Focus (photo)

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Joel and Ethan Coen have an almost chronic aversion to being taken seriously. Their darkest movies are nevertheless laced with black humor, and in interviews, they tend to rebuff the idea that their work is about anything other than what appears on the surface. Even to the actors who have worked with them, their intentions are frequently opaque. One need only glance at “Barton Fink”‘s withering portrait of an Odets-ian playwright nattering on about his designs for proletarian theater to see what the Coens think of artists who advertise their themes.

The title of “A Serious Man,” then, can only be ironic — and indeed, the Coens make it nearly impossible to take anyone in the film seriously. Their unlucky protagonist, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), is an affable bumbler on whom misfortunes rain like in an unceasing torrent. In short order, he’s asked for a divorce, threatened by the father of a student who attempted to bribe him and informed that his impending tenure at the university has been jeopardized by a series of anonymous defamatory letters. There are minor indignities as well: the fact that that his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) only shows any interest in his father when he needs better reception on “F Troop,” and the nagging calls from the Columbia Record Club, which arrive with such persistence that they begin to feel vaguely sinister.

Unable to fathom why this succession of woes should befall him, Larry turns to his rabbi, or rather, a series of them, gradually working his way up to the elusive Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), a decrepit specimen who will soon be presiding over Danny’s bar mitzvah. The first (Simon Helberg) offers vague analogies which somehow involve an empty parking lot; the second (George Wyner) a breezy, long-winded tale he calls “The Story of the Goy’s Teeth.” Like the movie’s Yiddish-language prologue, in which a woman in a dank shtetl shack murders a stranger she takes to be a shape-changing dybbuk, thereby bringing a curse down on her (and presumably Larry’s) family, the rabbi’s parable hints at deeper significance without actually divulging it. It might mean something, or it might not.

The Coens play the same game, on a larger scale, with “A Serious Man.” A stylized, slow-speed farce, the movie is frequently absurd and occasionally silly, but it also touches on profound moral and spiritual quandaries, the kinds of things the Coens would never be caught dead addressing directly. Only in retrospect do key lines extricate themselves from the innocuous interactions in which they’ve been hidden: Larry’s warning to a student, “Actions have consequences, and not just in physics”; his insistence to the record-club rep that “I didn’t do anything” when he protests having ordering Santana’s “Abraxas”; the father who employs contradictory tactics to muscle Larry into changing his son’s grade, and then counsels him to “accept the mystery.”

09302009_SeriousMan5.jpgAlthough it’s nowhere near as foreboding as “No Country for Old Men,” “A Serious Man” is just as bleak. Larry, who seems to have lived an exemplary moral life (if also a particularly dull one), looks to the heavens for guidance and finds only gathering clouds. He turns his power of logic on his own situation, to no avail. (His wastrel brother, played by Richard Kind, goes even further, spending his days on an illegible scrawl called the Mentaculus, an equation which will some day make the world’s probabilities entirely foreseeable.) If actions have consequences, does it follow that you only get what you deserve?

The Coens based “A Serious Man”‘s setting on the Jewish community in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park where they grew up, and although the movie is not in any intelligible way autobiographical, the complexity of its tone and the depth of its humor suggest something that has been gestating for a long time. One can imagine the prepubescent Coens going from Hebrew school to “F Troop” and back again, forging an aesthetic midway between the two. That the movie is cast almost entirely with unfamiliar faces only increases the Coens’ presence. It’s hardly a film à clef, but it’s as close as we’re ever likely to get.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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