Although criticism is generally a form characterized by reasoned argument, every critic has hatreds, and loves, that surpass her or his ability to articulate them. So it is with J. Hoberman and the Coen brothers. Hoberman, who will be taking over the New York Times’ Home Video column in January, belongs on any short list of great working critics, but when it comes to Joel and Ethan Coen, Hoberman abandons the acuity that usually characterizes his writing and goes in with guns blazing. He’s the Ahab to their white whale, fervently pursuing them for more than two decades but never managing to land the killing blow.
A brief history: In his review of the Coens’ Barton Fink, which won an unprecedented three awards at Cannes, Hoberman claimed that the movie “staged a grotesque conflict between two then-potent Jewish stereotypes — the vulgar Hollywood mogul and the idealistic New York Communist — without any hint that their minstrel-show battle royale was occurring at the acme of worldwide anti-Semitism.” (Hoberman’s review is not online; his summary comes from a 2009 letter to the New York Times.) He accused the scene in Miller’s Crossing where John Turturro’s Bernie Birnbaum begs for his life “in a wood as bucolic as any in Poland” of exploiting the imagery of the Holocaust, and in a drive-by swipe at the end of his top-10 blurb for Inglorious Basterds referred to A Serious Man as “mean-spirited ‘Nazi porn’ (yes).”
Hoberman’s latest salvo comes in the form of an essay for Tablet Magazine on the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis. He begins with the time-honored attack on the brothers’ “artful contempt” for their characters: “the yokels in Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the garrulous gargoyles of The Man Who Wasn’t There, the idiot schemers who come to grief in The Ladykillers or Burn After Reading, the doomed victims of No Country for Old Men, even the likable police officer in Fargo.” Those characters, he admits, may be “garden-variety shmegges,” but when it comes to Larry Gopnik, the hapless protagonists of A Serious Man, the Coens are dealing in “something more culturally specific: a schlemiel.”
Llewyn Davis, too, is a schlemiel, albeit one, in Hoberman’s calculation “far too appealing to be a Jew in Coenville.” In story terms, the most important Jewish character in Inside Llewyn Davis is Bud Grossman, played by F. Murray Abraham, a club owner and folk-scene manager transparently modeled on the real-life Albert Grossman. But Hoberman makes the case that the movie’s central Jew is one who never appears on screen: Bob Dylan. Although Hoberman never argues, as the piece’s headline would have it, that the Coens see themselves as “Dylan’s true heirs,” he does say that Dylan’s existence outside the frame, as the artist who would effectively render quaint the kind of traditional folk music in which Llewyn Davis specializes, “effectively schlemiel-ize[s] an entire movement of earnest idealists,” and that Dylan, as a Jew whose hatred is directed as others rather than himself, is effectively unrepresentable within the Coens’ world.
Hoberman’s broadsides against the Coens are full of holes: Bernie Birnbaum kneeling amidst poplar trees evokes the Holocaust, but Barton Fink fleeing a flaming hotel and a violent madman with a German last name whose last words are “Heil Hitler” doesn’t count as acknowledging the Shoah, nor does the fact that the detectives who taunt Barton with anti-Semitic slurs are named Mastronatti and Deutsch, an unmistakeable evocation of the European Axis powers. The Coens depict Jews negatively, therefore Llewyn, who is regarded with insufficient contempt, cannot be Jewish, except then he ends up being a schlemiel after all. But more to the point, Hoberman’s persistent attacks on the Coens stem from a programmatic — though unacknowledged — idea of what Jewish filmmakers should and shouldn’t do, a sort of high-toned take on “Is it good for the Jews?” He insists on reading the Coens through the lens of their ethnicity despite the fact that with rare exceptions, they have never shown any interest in identifying as Jewish filmmakers, and tendentiously reads as contempt any acknowledgement of human failing. As Matt Zoller Seitz put it on Twitter, “The Coens and Spielberg are filmmakers [Hoberman] misreads, prosecutorially.”
It’s not as if Hoberman, who has been one of David Cronenberg’s most ardent champions, is a bleeding-heart humanist across the board. He seems to hold the Coens to a unique and unspoken standard, built on of the most subjective and least useful critical metrics there is: contempt. You can’t prove that filmmakers hold their characters in contempt, or that they don’t: I can say that I identify with, and feel for, the protagonists of Barton Fink and A Serious Man, crippling self-doubt and all, and that failure to empathize with them is a fault of the viewer and not the films themselves, and that Hoberman’s evident and unconcealed contempt for the Coens themselves blinds him to other attitudes present in their work.
This is so obvious as to hardly bear mentioning, but the Coens are not naturalist filmmakers. They love oversize parts and acting to match; whatever their attitudes towards their characters, it’s clear that, more importantly, they love their actors. Perhaps it’s possible to see their affection for caricature diminishing their characters’ well-rounded humanity, but that would entail pointedly ignoring the performances behind those characters: the loopy obsession of Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDonough or the Sisyphean determination of Larry Gopnik — or the obstinate integrity of Llewyn Davis. Hoberman quotes the Universal Jewish Enyclopedia’s definition of a schlemiel as someone who “handles a situation in the worst possible manner,” but the Coens’ don’t blame their characters for their sad lots in the way the word suggests. They may not react perfectly at every turn, but the films overwhelmingly suggest that what happens to them would have happened regardless. As Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff says in No Country for Old Men, you can’t stop what’s coming.