Hitler? I hardly know 'er! Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Can you do a heartwarming, goofy comedy about the Second World War and the horrors of Nazism? Should you do a comedy about the horrors of Nazism? Those questions would require a longer answer, one that I can’t necessarily give, but let’s start with this: as far as I’m concerned, you can definitely do comedy about four terrorist jihadis that is heartbreaking, dark and hilarious. Though admittedly, Four Lions didn’t feature a wacky imaginary Osama Bin Laden.

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The Compleat Ingmar #10: Scenes from a Marriage (TV series) (1973)

We recently watched the Netflix-produced Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach. It’s a tough watch: you quickly develop sympathy for the two likeable main characters (played beautifully by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson), and when a legal system that seems to prioritise making a buck over helping two people separate as amicably as possible starts working on them it hurts to see how they are twisted into nastier, pettier, crueler and more antagonistic versions of themselves, particularly when a child is involved.

Where Marriage Story is about the film’s leads becoming the people they never wanted to be due to the legal system, though, the two main characters of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage don’t need lawyers to become enemies: intimacy, fueled by insecurity and resentment, becomes a more cutting and more precise weapon than the sharpest scalpel.

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That Was The Year That Was: Matt's favourites of 2019

And there goes another year and the ever more sci-fi sounding 2020 is just around the corner. We’ve had some good laughs, we cried, we watched the TV in terror, then disillusionment and then resignation, name-checking Kübler-Ross along the way – but that was just politics. In terms of media, 2019 hasn’t been a bad year at all, has it?

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The death of Cranes

Today’s blog entry is about Japanese poetry.

 Not.

The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t usually one of the films by the Coen brothers that people mention first. You’ve got Fargo people and you’ve got The Big Lebowski people, and sometimes you get an elitist or purist who swears by Blood Simple. Then you’ve got the ‘bad’ Coen films that most people agree to be substandard: Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy (which I’ve never seen), Ladykillers. For some reason, TMWWT falls under most people’s Coen radar.

There he is! (Or is he…?)

Which I don’t get. I saw the film yesterday evening, perhaps for the fifth or sixth time, and it gets to me every time. In terms of sheer craft, it’s up there with the Coens’ best: the black and white cinematography is gorgeous to look at, as rich and evocative as the best film noir. The music – half Beethoven, half Carter Burwell (the Coens’ regular composer) – is simple and subtle, yet spot on. The script deftly intertwines film noir elements with the absurdity that many of the brothers’ films have, so that the references to ’40s and ’50s sci-fi do not feel out of place (unless you’re a stickler for Generic Purity(tm) – in which case the Coens are probably not to your taste anyway).

More than every other film by the Coens, I find that TMWWT mixes the comic and the tragic beautifully. The sort of postmodern game that they tend to play in their movies is tricky: the films foreground their parodic elements, they revel in their artifice. This film isn’t different: consider, for instance, the scene after the wedding, where Ed puts the drunk, sleepy Doris to bed, and the voice-over starts the story of how they met and got together. This is interrupted by the phonecall that leads to Ed killing Big Dave (James Gandolfini, with more than a touch of Tony Soprano), but afterwards Ed comes back home, sits down on the bed again and continues the Ed & Doris story as if nothing had happened.

No man there, definitely…

Perhaps more than the other films by the Coen brothers, TMWWT doesn’t shy away from pathos, even if there’s always the element of humour. One of the scenes with the Cranes’ arrogant, egomaniac lawyer Freddy Riefenschneider has Ed basically confessing to the killing in front of Riefenschneider but, more importantly, in front of his wife – and she realises what has happened and that Ed knew about her affair. Frances McDormand’s acting, without a single line, is masterful in conveying her heartbreak.

The film’s handling of tones and styles culminates in its final scene – a scene that only the Coens could have pulled off. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t watch the following video. If you have seen the film, watch the scene and then go and watch the film again. You’ll find gems that you may not remember.