Alan Mandell as Rabbi Marshak

“Be a good boy.”

A common question asked when the credits roll on a Coen brothers movie is, “That’s it?” This is because their films are often mysterious, ambiguous, and just plain confusing. I wouldn’t place them beside the masturbatory ciphers of David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch, as Coen brothers movies are actually enjoyable and funny. However, this makes them all the more frustrating when they invariably yank the rug out from under us. A Serious Man is one of their most mystifying films. It begins with a short story that has no connection to the main one, and ends with several plot threads just waving in the air.

Probably the heaviest of these is the growing desire of its hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, to make some sense out of the worst two weeks of his life. With a divorce, bratty children, pushy neighbors, fender benders, student bribes, and felony charges all growling at his door, Larry is sinking in tsuris. He receives mounting advice from friends and acquaintances, alive and dead, to seek the counsel of his local rabbis. The most renowned of these is Rabbi Marshak, an ancient man who may well have the answers to Larry’s questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Unfortunately, the man is quite difficult to get a hold of. In fact, Larry never actually gets to meet Marshak. To Larry, the rabbi is but a tiny face at the end of a dark hallway, a hall he may not enter out of concern for Marshak’s thinking time.

This precious privilege goes instead to Larry’s son Danny, as a post-bar mitzvah blessing. Having suffered through the ceremony while heroically stoned, Danny finds Marshak’s chamber to be an eclectic laboratory. Inside are stacks of what could only be described as “tomes,” grave paintings of Isaac and Abraham, and biological samples suspended in jars. Then, at last, Danny takes his seat before this bearded font of wisdom, to receive the pearls we’ve waited the whole film to hear.

And they’re paraphrased lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song.

See, this is why Marshak is so great: he’s a pure example of the Coen brothers’ inimitable talent for making the profound seem absurd, and the absurd seem profound. Even after Marshak gives the emptiest blessing one can imagine, we, as an audience, can’t help but feel that we’ve experienced something soul-changing.

The plot’s buildup, Mandell’s enigmatic performance, and our own collective respect for our elders are masterfully harnessed to fashion a joke that doesn’t feel like a joke at all. Is Marshak messing with Danny? It doesn’t seem that way: the reference to Danny’s favorite band instantly connects the two. Is Marshak senile? It doesn’t seem that way: he knows who Danny is, and returns a precious MacGuffin to him. Is Marshak, maybe, not quite as wise as we’ve been led to believe? It doesn’t seem that way, either: there’s a playfulness about him, one found only in the greatest of gurus, that says he knows better.

I don’t know if any of this is what the Coens intended their viewers to feel, but all great art allows for interpretation. I believe that Marshak, and the terrific galaxy of storytelling at which he is centered, prove the Coens to be great artists after all.

Hooked on the Brothers

I was chatting about movies with a friend the other day, when I caught myself saying that “The Coen brothers are the finest filmmakers of our time.” I hadn’t considered my words before I used them; they just spilled out. It was weird to hear myself express something so strong without really thinking about it. I now accept that I was being completely honest. Joel and Ethan Coen have created, will hopefully continue to create, the greatest movies my generation will ever see in their first run.

Of course, superhero movies like Deadpool have all but assured us that far superior films like Hail, Caesar! will never receive the attention — or ticket sales — that they deserve. As a result, most major studios have blackballed the brothers with the dreaded red stamp of “unbankable.”

There is hope, however. Last year, the Coens took advantage of Netflix’s facility to bring us The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a wondrous western which went up for some Oscars. After years of being battered with relentless Avengers spectacle, I was refreshed to dive into that inimitable blend of humor and horror that the Coens have mixed so well over the years. God, I missed them.

Amazingly, the Coens not only direct great movies, they write them. From mere dust, they craft a gallery of memorable faces and voices. Then they gather up the world’s hugest movie stars, force them into roles that make them unrecognizable, and then get them to dance in magical, spotlight-sharing ensembles. It’s really quite miraculous.

Over the next few days, I want to share my favorite characters from the post-Fargo Coen library. I won’t be including characters from adaptations, such as True Grit or No Country For Old Men, since they aren’t characters that the Coens actually created. So, let’s start with a character from the movie that was so unduly neglected thanks to shitty superhero nonsense: Hail, Caesar!

Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz

“HOBIE DOYLE CANNOT ACT.”

The struggles of the legendary Eddie Mannix as he juggles the problems of Capitol Pictures are studded with many terrific actors, but none of them is of this caliber. For God’s sake, it’s Amon Göth in a Coen brothers film!

Here, Voldemort puts his nose back on to play a temperamental director, who is cursed with a miscast cowpoke as his newest dramatic lead. Fiennes only gets two scenes in the movie, but they’re both gold. We see him glide from cautious, star-stroking gentleness, to restrained frustration, to full-on artist’s fury, and it’s a joy. He gets one of the film’s best bits of wordplay, and he winds up key to the movie’s biggest mystery: a homosexual scandal involving George Clooney’s and Channing Tatum’s characters. Now how many movies can you say that about?

Thanos/Cable might be the center of Hail, Caesar!, and he does an admirable job, but the cold eyes of this former Nazi will always glow out of the crowd for me. God bless the Coens for bringing him into their stable. I hope they’ll work together again.

Tits and Erudition

Man, movies and TV take themselves way too seriously these days. I can’t pinpoint the timing of it, but someone pulled a switch, and turned the Idiot Box into the Auteur’s Monolith. The programming is as stupid as it’s ever been, but none of it really knows how stupid it is anymore. Think about it. The Living Dead is now The Walking Dead. Most X-treme Elimination Challenge is now American Ninja Warrior. The movie Westworld is now the series Westworld. Producers are now “show-runners.” Aquaman is now…ugh…Aquaman.

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Grr.

So it’s good that we have people like Joe Bob Briggs to bring us back to reality. To remind us that television’s purpose is to patronize, pacify, and pander to us, but so long as we remain aware of it, it’s really not so badrksven.jpg.

Briggs is the latest and greatest of the classic horror hosts, a family that began with Maila Nurmi’s Vampira (though Joe Bob has some contention about that). A comic essayist featured in newspapers and magazines, Briggs was so funny that he was eventually given a series on TMC called Drive-In Theater.

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What’s interesting is that, while most horror hosts came off as cheerful psychopaths, Joe Bob was a down-home country boy who shared bemused reactions and obscure trivia with a Roy Rogers-like folksiness. He had flair and pizzazz, but he was also dry and cynical, like a carnival barker who knows that you know he’s running a scam.

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Audiences loved him, and he kept the Drive-In going for nearly ten years before TMC decided to can him. The official story was that the channel was changing formats, but I suspect that its owners just wanted to be taken seriously as presenters of fine cinema. An intellectual in cowboy boots, showcasing cheap-o blood orgies just wasn’t in their interests anymore.

It was far from the end for Joe Bob, however. Four months after his firing, the wily Texan found a new home. The cable channel TNT needed a new host for its Friday-night horror-fest Monstervision, and Joe Bob fit the bill perfectly. He turned the show into a casual, Talk Soup-like hang-out, complete with trademark bits. He joked with his crew, who were often heard laughing, and did poorly-acted, silly skits with his guests. Such guests included stars from the very films he was showing, or else experts who provided commentary on the realism of those films. One night, he got both Rhonda Shear of Up All Night fame, and Joe Flaherty as SCTV’s Count Floyd, to hang out and ad lib with him.

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He also featured viewer mail, which was usually brought in by a sexy babe in hot pants, fresh from America’s finest correctional facilities. Joe Bob was well aware of his awful time slot, and he reveled in the fact that his prime demographic was, in fact, prisoners. He encouraged his “captive audience” to send in their prison cafeteria menus, and even provided facts about the jails that they hailed from.

His most famous bit, however, was the “Drive-In Totals,” a list of every cheap trick the upcoming film had loaded in its chambers. The list always began with a body and breast count, and always included some kind of “Fu” — a play on the Kung variety — based on the themes of the movie’s action sequences. My favorites include Senior Citizen Fu, Curling Iron Fu, and Intestine Fu. All told, MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs was campy fun, but it felt real, like Joe Bob and friends were there on the trail with us, sharing life’s downtime and poking at its absurdity.

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Then, in another effort at “format changing,” TNT cancelled him. As the channel inched away from its initial trove of Turner films, in order to schedule newer, big-budget Hollywood films, it seemed that seriousness would once again topple silliness. In 2000, Joe Bob was fired, and MonsterVision continued without a host for a few miserable months, before fizzling into oblivion.

Seventeen years passed, and horror languished into grim, predictable fare like feardotcom, Don’t Breathe, and The Conjuring 2. But now, in another miraculous 90s resurrection, Joe Bob is back, and he’s bringing the good horror with him. True to his word, Mr. Briggs has refused to let the drive-in die.

The Last Drive-In is a mini-series on the horror streaming service Shudder. Amazingly, it’s the same damn thing as before: full-length, old-school horror films interspersed with trivia and commentary, complete with Drive-In Totals and mail calls. The movies are mostly bad (The Prowler, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama), or extremely niche (Legend of Boggy Creek, Daughters of Darkness), but there are some classics sprinkled in there (Hellraiser, Sleepaway Camp). God bless ’em, though: they’re all shamelessly exploitative, and that’s all that matters. We don’t come to the Drive-In to see deep, critical darlings (though there are still some fascinating ideas in these movies), we’re here to laugh at some cheeseball stinkers, and the myriad methods they employ to disgust, frighten, and appall.

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The Last Drive-In originally aired as a 24-hour live-streamed marathon, but it’s now available for subscribers to watch in separate episodes. It’s not expensive to sign up: just five bucks a month. It’s totally worth it, and you get a lot of other horror series too!

Joe Bob is, expectedly, a little fat and creaky now, but his style and good humor are unchanged. In fact, now that he has no censors to worry about, I daresay he’s livelier and funnier than ever. The old man lets the “fucks” fly, and shoots straight about the touchiest of topics. From smartphone addiction to L.A. subways to transgender rights, nothing is safe from Joe Bob. He’s as sharp and fun to watch now as he was in the 90s, and it’s a little sad when the party finally ends.

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There were some troubles with the initial stream, of course. Anyone who remembers the disastrous debuts of Diablo III, healthcare.gov, and Amazon’s Prime Day won’t be surprised to learn that The Last Drive-In suffered from lengthy server outages as a result of overwhelming demand. Most folks who tried to sit in on the marathon simply couldn’t. That’s okay, though, because despite Joe Bob’s insistence that this was his final bow, Shudder quickly recognized his value to their service, and renewed him for another go-round. Let’s hope they’ll be prepared this time. We need more stuff like this.

I’ve already given my reasons for why we need more stuff like this, but I can’t compete with the man himself. Before The Last Drive-In was recorded, Joe Bob wrote a brilliant essay explaining his success, and it tops anything I could ever put out on the subject. Daniel says, check it out.

Now, there’s something else I wanted to mention.

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The whole reason I’m even talking about Shudder is that I found an interesting tidbit of news recently. Turns out that master monster-maker Greg Nicotero, whose work can be seen in Evil Dead II, Day of the Dead, and The Walking Dead, is working to revive the classic horror film Creepshow. He’s building it as a series that will appear on none other than Shudder, hopefully in 2019. He’s quoted as saying that he wants to recover the stylish, comic-book feel of the first movie in honor of the great George Romero. Here’s hoping he pulls it off; the horror whores are watching!

Oh, and Mr. Nicotero, in case you somehow come across this goofy little blog post, I beg that you retain John Harrison for the show’s musical score. If that’s not possible, I recommend the great Franz Falckenhaus, (a.k.a. Legowelt), who specializes in lo-fi, scary synth. The music of Creepshow is critical to its effect; don’t fuck it up!