[1951] Quo Vadis

It is beyond the scope of this blog to determine the answer to the question: “Which films, on aggregate, earned nominations for at least one Academy Award and won zero?”

That being said, 1951’s mostly-fictional quasi-epic Quo Vadis is a member of this (maybe) exclusive club for good reason: the movie, good enough; the acting, fair-to-good; the plot, trite, but enjoyable; the overall quality of the film (objectively, of course), mildly entertaining to did-the-editors-go-on-strike? What I’m starting to see over a large enough sample size are patterns starting to emerge: nominations and wins seem to be largely epochal, longer films seem to take precedence, perhaps seen as of higher quality and, as technology becomes more refined, so does The Academy’s attention. Quo Vadis is no exception. On a subjective Likert scale, Quo Vadis rustles little feathers and might qualify somewhere in the average range in almost every category. Sometimes this formula steals an Oscar nomination and sometimes it pilfers a win (largely, in part, due to overall quality of the year) but most times the movie is forgotten quite quickly as “adquate.” Quo Vadis is no exception.

The offensiveness of calling a Christian allusion to title the devilry of moving pictures is somewhat diminished by the double entendre in context. “Quo Vadis?,” in Latin, literally means “Where are you going?” as in, “I feel like I need to know this for some reason.” In Christian tradition, “Quo Vadis?” is more moralistic than it is literal, as is the biblical way: Saint Peter is fleeing probable (definite) crucifixion in Rome and loses courage and conviction, as Jesus arrives, risen, headed in the opposite direction, towards Rome. Saint Peter asks, “Quo Vadis?” as if seeing zombie Jesus wasn’t enough to get him to continue fleeing, to which Jesus, risen, responds, “Romam vado iterum crucifigi,” which, as we know, in English means, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” thereby through some zombie-transitive property fortifying Peter’s ministerial convictions. He eventually returns to Rome to be crucified upside-down, feeling that he does not deserve Jesus’ pre-risen fate in the same manner. The symbolism is many, ephemeral and highly allusive and, again, beyond the scope of this blog, save for its relation to Quo Vadis, the upside-down cross of post-WWII epic films.

Because Quo Vadis is a soap opera drenched in religious and historical-epic motif: some Roman commander, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), meets and falls in love, star-crossed style, with Lygia (Deborah Kerr), in a picaresque and grossly obvious representation of “Rome” and “Christianity.” As a love story, Quo Vadis is fine: our main characters are roguish and illusory and therefore possess lots of qualities that we, as an audience, either possess or wish we possessed. The supporting cast is wildly one-dimensional, with Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) as a buffoonish caricature of the historical version of Nero, who was known for his mild schizophrenia and paranoia. Surprisingly, the performance is not cloying in a distracting way, and his place and position allow the character to take on a wider range of emotion and thought process. But Quo Vadis is still soapish at heart and the backdrop of Rome and Romanism is distracting because of its lack of specifics; Quo Vadis is framed by the whole of the Roman Empire, seen through a myopic lens of 4 years, with very little outside information about historical place or events. Who cares that this is Romanesque? It could have just as well been Babylonian or Greek or some version of Mesopotamia. The religious conflict is well noted, but again, who cares? This could very well have been a Jewish vs. Christian conflict or literally any other conflict. The point is that Quo Vadis just happens to exist and we’re supposed to honor it as an Oscar-worthy film? Continue reading

[2009] A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers have carved themselves a particular pastiche – most notably through the hyper-specifc self-reference and high-flying humor that’s usually black, or dark, and wrapped-up in some macabre topic. The brothers, Joel and Ethan, have been increasingly efficient Hollywood mainstays since their debut, Blood Simple, premiered in 1984. Through two intense periods of classic releases, the Coen Brothers have only created for themselves a wider range within which to work. Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, even over a 20 year hallmark, have all defined the Coens as Oscar-worthy writer/directors and opened doors to funding an star power in O Brother, Where Art Thou?No Country For Old MenTrue Grit and Burn After Reading. Their collective status have also granted them access to higher budgets and wider audiences all of whom can find something to which to relate. The Coen Brothers have carved themselves out an eponym and the command of Hollywood’s collective attention the way Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorcese do.

So what the hell is A Serious Man?

Their 2009 Jewish FargoA Serious Man plays from the left-field in the Coens’ roster – even for the men who once crafted an entire movie around Jeff Bridges’ ability to smoke marijuana and drink Kahlua all day. In short: A Serious Man is the nebbish version of The Big Lebowski if The Big Lebowski took place in an innocuous neighborhood close to FargoA Serious Man plays off almost every single Jewish stereotype, but for film’s sake each one is laughably overexposed. First, there’s the family: Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) a helpless family man, stuck in an unloving marriage to his wife and to his job, who experiences every possible failure all the time. For such an unstable person, he’s remarkable consistent and serves as a foil to A Serious Man‘s undulating cast of misfits. In minor roles, his family and his colleagues – and to a lesser extent his rabbis an lawyers – help to exacerbate his stereotypically Jewish neuroses: most spectacularly his utterly failed attempts to be a mensch. But it’s not for want of trying – the man Larry Gopnik is instantly likable and the Coens do a mystical job of keeping him sympathetic for the whole of A Serious Man even through his trials of not being able to do anything with gumption and panache. The methodology in A Serious Man recalls the Coen Brothers’ long résumé but something about the subject matter is simultaneously foreign and strikingly inherent to the Brothers’ upbringing and ascent to the top of Hollywood’s elite. Continue reading