The perfect double bill: “A Serious Man” and “Parents”

Couple the Coens' suburban black comedy with Bob Balaban's delirious cannibal-cult nightmare

Topics: The Perfect Double Bill, Film Salon, Coen Brothers, Movies,

The perfect double bill: "A Serious Man" and "Parents"

In their 25-year career, Joel and Ethan Coen have taken the expression “leaving the audience cold” as a mission statement, not as criticism. They’ve consistently put American life, past and present, in the wrong and distorted end of their creative telescope, and usually found the results wanting. Consummate craftsmen, the Coens can be a hit-or-miss proposition. When they hit, they hit hard; when they miss, well, they are still worth watching.

Which brings us to this week’s DVD release of “A Serious Man,” the latest exercise in Coen Gothic, this time set in a Minneapolis suburb in 1967′s so-called Summer of Love.

There is a Dickensian quality to the best of the Coens’ films, where every character is just shy of caricature, but somehow their conviction and commitment makes it work. Every director’s film needs its “non-submersible” units, in the words of another sublime craftsman, Stanley Kubrick, and the Coens can always be counted on to serve those units up, with relish, on the side.

The beating heart of “A Serious Man” is the travails of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a put-upon protagonist who just wants to detach himself from his nightmarish family life, and the deracinated culture that contains it. Larry’s losing battle to just get through the small-town day recalls fellow misanthrope W.C Fields, another Dickensian figure, whose battles in classics such as “It’s a Gift” and “The Bank Dick” complement the Coens’ cynicism perfectly. It’s no wonder Kubrick, whose dark worldview perfectly aligned with the Coens, listed “The Bank Dick” as one of his 10 favorite films. There’s not a whole lot of love of humanity in the Coens’ work, and Fields and Kubrick also knew that there was no profit, artistic or otherwise, in giving a sucker an even break.

And that might be one of the problems.

Also in 1967, rock critic Robert Christgau wrote that Paul Simon “writes about that all-American subject, the Alienation of Modern Man, in just those words.” As with all great criticism, that’s rather unfair, but accurate, and something that comes to mind when the Coens get a little too remote and precise in yet another chilly exercise in craft over content.

Now, issues of craft and content are somewhat irrelevant when it comes to the second half of our double bill. This film has the courage of its conviction, using cannibalism not so much as a metaphor for the dark side of suburban consumerism, but as a metaphor for, well, cannibalism.

“Parents” is a much less heralded American-gothic nightmare from 1989, a coal-black comedy that makes the Coens’ darkest views of America seem positively Disneyesque. Although “Parents” has been dismissed as minor-league David Lynch, it is a transgressional minor masterpiece as well, and blurs the line between the black and the comedy in a way that still astounds, beginning where that last apocalyptic reel of the Coens’ “Barton Fink” left off.

Directed by Bob Balaban, “Parents” stars Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt as the progenitors of an alienated child who has slightly more to worry about than a confiscated transistor radio.

Set in pretty much the same suburban petri dish of ” A Serious Man,” about 10 years earlier, “Parents” doesn’t just dance around the horror of repressed American life. It lurches straight into a maelstrom of sex, violence, madness and frying kidneys, with some brilliant primary-colored art direction to boot. Perhaps the most convincing argument for vegetarianism ever put on celluloid, “Parents” makes “Food, Inc.” look like an orientation video for a fry cook at KFC. They don’t make ‘em like “Parents” anymore, for probably some excellent reasons. Balaban’s feature career never recovered from this release, though he did go on to direct scads of TV projects.

Our loss.

Unlike “A Serious Man,” which dazzles with technique, filmmaking bravura and not a whole lot else, in “Parents” there’s actually more than meets the eye, not less. William Cameron Menzies’ “Invaders From Mars” is this film’s only rival when it comes to evoking ’50s paranoia as seen through the eyes of a child, and in this opus, there are no visible zippers on the monsters.

These monsters are much closer to home.

The plot of “Parents,” such as it is, revolves around an only child, the wide-eyed witness to the shenanigans surrounding Quaid’s job as an Agent of Orange for a company called Toxico. Quaid brings mysteriously wrapped packages of meat home nightly from the office’s convenient morgue (don’t ask), and serves them up in a “Calvin and Hobbes” fantasy of nightmarish dinners come to life — exponentially multiplied.

And served blood-rare.

The child is imprisoned by both the text and subtext of his parents’ bizarre dynamic, and his resulting strange behavior at school attracts the attention of one Miss Dew, played by the wonderful Sandy Dennis, a proto-earth mother social worker who learns a bit more about the parents than perhaps she bargained for.

Randy Quaid plays the traditional role of “Father Knows Best,” if Dad were Jeffrey Dahmer. Pointing to his forehead, in one of the many spooky father-and-son chats that weave throughout the film’s compressed 80 minutes, Quaid points out that the “real darkness is in here.”

That would be an affirmative.

There has always been a vein of rich lunacy running just under the surface of both Quaid brothers. Dennis used that crazy to animate his brilliant portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis, shocking those who thought he was just an all-American boy with “The Right Stuff,” and Randy brought his crazy to his portrayal of another larger than life lunatic, Lyndon Baines Johnson, in a TV miniseries made a couple of years before “Parents.”

Tragically, this “crazy” now seems to be eating Quaid from the inside out, and his current tabloid-haunted existence has taken that “art imitating life” thing just a little too far.

The rest of the family cast is terrific as well. Mary Beth Hurt, all tight and all control, brings a hysterical edge to the Perfect Mom, who shares a deep, dark secret from the world, and the family’s 10-year-old son. Her pre-orgasmic ecstasy at Dad putting food on the table has to be seen to be appreciated, and one is reminded just how good Hurt can be when she brings her A game, even to B movies like this. After witnessing the haunted performance of Brian Madorsky, the viewer will not be surprised to learn that this was Madorsky’s one and only film.

No actor could not go too much further than this, as the oceans of blood, real and imagined, in “Parents” make the elevator scene in “The Shining” look like one of Don Draper’s staid Hilton commercials.

How a film like this could have gotten made, let alone marketed as a garden-variety horror film remains as much an enigma as the Body Procurement Services at the Toxico “Department of Human Testing.”

But let’s be clear. “Parents” is far from perfect. There is a fair amount of “Look, everybody, I’m a director, not an actor” wankery in many of the sequences. Even though the film’s ending devolves into more traditional Grand Guignol horror country, those shocks quickly subside. The creepy, though, lingers on, in a way that many of the Coen brothers’ lesser and even greater work does not.

As so often happens with the best B movies, “Parents” stays with you after a casual viewing, even though in this case, you dearly wish it wouldn’t.

One last tiny thing.

Perhaps that Christgau quote has roused the rock historian within me, but one of the best running gags in ” A Serious Man” involves harassing phone calls from a dedicated agent of a record club. Our put-upon hero is reminded he is way past due on a payment for Santana’s “Abraxas” album, a fab waxing that was actually released in 1970, three years after the setting of “A Serious Man.”

Just saying.

But then again, say what you will about the Coens, and people probably say way too much, they are nothing if not meticulous, and perhaps they are just playing another existential joke on cultural trainspotters like me, who look too hard for too much inside their work.

Maybe that is their most consistent joke.

Got another suburban-dread double bill for “A Serious Man”? “Welcome to the Dollhouse”? “Portnoy’s Complaint”? The 1957 suburban fantasia “No Down Payment”? Get off that patio furniture and advise us!

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>