Thursday, December 23, 2010

Exclusive Interview with Paul Wright, Ph.D., Instructor for “Trafficking in the Absurd: The Coen Brothers’ Films”

By Meredith Slifkin

Where will you be Wednesdays this January? Sign up for the new BMFI course, “Trafficking in the Absurd: The Coen Brothers’ Films,” which meets on Wednesdays (Jan 5.-Jan 26) from 6:30pm-9:30-pm in the Multimedia Room. This exciting course will examine the “comic absurdity” and “flawed humanity” prevalent in the works of the notoriously quirky (and brilliant) Coen brothers. There will be a special focus on Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and A Serious Man.

The instructor for “Trafficking in the Absurd” is Paul Wright, Ph.D., who was good enough to give me an exclusive interview about the course, and about his personal interest in the Coen Brothers. Wright is an Assistant Professor of English and the Co-Director of the Honors Program at Cabrini College. Previous courses he has taught at BMFI include Scorcese’s Cinema of Loneliness, Kurosawa: East Meets West, and Icon in the Director’s Chair: Clint Eastwood. Posted below is our enlightening interview:

Q: Why the Coen Brothers? What attracts you to their body of work, both personally and academically?

A: The Coen Brothers first got under my skin with their unique sensibility sometime around 1986, when I saw their first feature, Blood Simple, on television late one Saturday night. Aside from being unable to sleep for the suspense of that film, I was struck by their knack for exposing the self-delusion of their characters--the characters' inability to see the world except through their own prism of misbegotten assumptions. This is a theme the Coens have returned to many times over the years. Academically, what has continued to enchant me is their unabashed love of film genre. They have tackled nearly every cinematic genre imaginable--suspense, slapstick, the gangster film, art-house, film noir, spy-thriller, western, spiritual morality tale, and more. They approach each film genre with a genuine passion for the material and the form, but always with an eye toward ironic re-imaginings of those forms.

Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998). "Trafficking in the Absurd: The Coen Brothers' Films" begins Wednesday, January 5 and continues on Wednesdays through January 26.

Q: “Trafficking in the Absurd” is a striking name for the course, can you explain your choice of this title?

A: I think it was a viewing of The Big Lebowski that inspired me here. When the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is told another character is a nihilist, he responds, "Ah, that must be exhausting." I think this perfectly captures the Coen Brothers' playful (and to my mind, very healthy) sense of the absurd in so many of their films. For them, life's absurdities are not merely existential or coldly philosophical in nature--they embody the self-involved comedy that each of us makes of our daily lives, so often without intending it. It's not just the Coens who "traffic in the absurd"; we all do.

Q: What can students hope to get out of this course?

A: To build more on the previous response, I'm hoping that people come away from the course understanding that blunt honesty need not equal contempt. Aside from the course's focus on the great artistry of the Coens as writer-directors, I stress that for all the Coens' revelry in human beings' penchant for self-importance and self-deception, the Coens' brutal candor and irony never amount to outright contempt for the human condition. I have read some dismissive assessments of the Coens that argue they are misanthropes. This seems as off the mark to me as criticisms of the great Japanese director Ozu, who was said to have treated actors only as props and "colors" for his palette. I think these criticisms of the Coens miss their fundamental appreciation for the downright charms of flawed human beings trying to break out of the orbits of our own delusions. There is something profoundly engaging and affecting about Coen characters; even a villain in Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men has a perverse charm. While most of us (thankfully) are less like Anton and more like the bumbling characters of Burn After Reading, what's essential here is the quirky charisma of Coen characters. It might be unsettling just how much of ourselves we recognize in these characters, but that recognition is also a great pleasure in its own right. There is a reason so many gifted actors gravitate toward the Coen Brothers, and I think it's bound up with the celebration of flawed humanity in their writing.

“It’s not just the Coens who ‘traffic in the absurd’; we all do.”

Q: Your academic interests also include the European Renaissance, does this influence your work in film studies at all? I imagine Machiavelli is actually pretty relevant to the films of the Coen brothers…

A: Yes, when I wear my other academic hat, I teach the European literary traditions of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. I did my doctorate in comparative literature under the direction of an historian; I suppose "cultural historian" is the best way to describe my scholarship. This isn't as far-fetched a connection to cinema as one might think. If there is a defining feature of Renaissance culture, it is its increasingly anxious sense of the theatricality and performative aspects of our world. Long before becoming a best-selling Shakespeare biographer, Stephen Greenblatt famously wrote about Renaissance courtiers and writers engaged in "self-fashioning"--i.e., the drive to mold and in essence create the "self" as a fiction indispensable to our social lives. If you think about the Coen Brothers' ironic sense of their characters trying to fashion their own lives and meaning in the world, you realize that many of the themes we ascribe to modern theater and cinema (or even "post-modern" society at large) have deep roots in the historical past. I actually find a powerful resonance between my two areas of study. As for Machiavelli, one can certainly find in The Prince a kind of handbook for would-be "players" and manipulators. What I love about your question is that, like the Coens, Machiavelli also has a real knack for exposing those princes who fail precisely because they assume the world looks at things as they do. This is the cardinal sin of the Coen Brothers' moral universe.

Michael Stulhbarg in the Coens' 2009 Oscar-Nominated,  A Serious Man

Q: Do you have a favorite film by the Coens? Or any on the syllabus that you’re especially excited to be teaching?

A: It's so tough to pick a favorite obviously, so I can only throw out the powerful associations of certain of their films that get me every time. As I said above, Blood Simple had the most formative impact when I saw it in high school. Miller's Crossing also comes to mind as it bridges the venerable gangster genre with the primal loneliness that comes with living among others; I often think of this film as the existentialist's Godfather. O Brother Where Art Thou, that loose and wonderful adaptation of Homer, speaks to the literature professor in me. Fargo channels my inner mid-Westerner, and as an adoptive father, I can't watch Raising Arizona without laughter and tears. If I had to pick two films that are favorites in my current stage of life (whatever that is exactly), I'd have to go with The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man. Lebowski has the virtue of being endlessly re-watchable and charming; A Serious Man is its more somber and philosophical cousin, I suppose. Both are films I find myself sharing and quoting obsessively with a like-minded soul in my life. At any rate, I guess you could say I love the Coens all round.

Special thanks to Paul Wright for graciously agreeing to this interview. Sign up now for “Trafficking in the Absurd: The Coen Brothers’ Films.” The cost is $100 for BMFI members and $125 for non-members. Click here to register online, or call 610-527-4008 x107.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

BLACK SWAN Meet-and-Greet with Dancers from the Pennsylvania Ballet!

By Meredith Slifkin, BMFI Intern

What could be more exciting than seeing the new thriller, Black Swan? Going to a pre-screening meet-and-greet at BMFI with real dancers from the film! Black Swan is the psychosexual thriller from Darren Aronofsky, director of 2008’s critical darling, The Wrestler, which starred Mickey Rourke as an aging pro-wrestler with personal woes. In Black Swan, Aronofsky uses his signature gritty style to explore another intense medium of performance, ballet, and an even more troubled protagonist, a ballerina played by Natalie Portman. Indeed, Portman’s character is as much antagonist as protagonist in this psychologically complex film, which explores the dark side of her character that emerges as the result of a rivalry with a fellow dancer and the demands of starring as Swan Queen in the canonical Swan Lake. Black Swan features thrills, chills, and some really phenomenal acting from Natalie Portman, who has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award for her performance.

Natalie Portman commands the screen in Black Swan, opening at Bryn Mawr Film Institute on Friday, December 17.
In addition to being an intense character study, Black Swan also provides a window into the elusive world of professional ballet. The film immerses the viewer into this world as fully as the dancers themselves; it would be an understatement to say that ballet is their raison d’etre.

Meet real dancers from the Pennsylvania ballet at the Meet-and-Greet before the 8pm screening of Black Swan on Monday, December 20.

At BMFI you have the opportunity to understand this world even better, at the meet-and-greet with dancers from the Pennsylvania Ballet who appeared in the film on Monday, December 20. Gather in the atrium to mingle with the dancers and enjoy some “holiday spirits” from the cash bar. This is your chance to ask all about the life of a professional dancer and what it was like to work on the film. The meet-and-greet begins at 7:00pm and is a free event, but regular ticketing prices do apply for the screening that follows at 8:00pm.

Can’t get enough of the ballerinas? Well, they will be staying for a special Q&A after the screening, so you’ll have a chance to ask them some more questions! Like, “Who’s dreamier in real life, Vincent Cassel or Darren Aronofsky?” Ok, probably no one will ask that question, so come prepared with some good ones of your own!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Yule Blog

By Meredith Slifkin, BMFI Intern

Whether you believe that ‘tis the season to be merry, or you see the spread of yuletide joy and just want to shout “bah humbug!”, there is something at BMFI to help get you in the holiday spirit! Yes, all members of the family (even the Scrooges) will want to spend a cozy day at the theatre and enjoy one of the great events in BMFI’s Holiday Happenings series. The screenings include everything from classic holiday films like It’s a Wonderful Life to a simulcast of the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. For a complete list of shows, dates, and times, check out the Holiday Happenings page, or keep reading for a few highlights.

For the music lover there’s The Nutcracker from the Bolshoi Theatre. Does anything embody the holiday season more than this classic ballet? And broadcast from the historic Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow at that—I can just picture a blanket of snow coating the Kremlin in a perfect scene of winter splendor. The only word for it is transplendent (Annie Hall fans?).

Snowflakes will leap across BMFI's screen at the live simulcast of the Bolshoi Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
You too can be “the richest man in town” if you get in the holiday spirit by coming to the screening of It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Whether you watch it every year or you’re taking the kids to see it for the first time, you’ll love to see George lasso the moon and hear that bell ring atop the Christmas tree. Don’t miss this special matinee screening on Saturday, December 18.

Jimmy Stewart realizes that he has "a wonderful life" in the Frank Capra holiday classic, featured on December 18.
What could be better than going to see the beloved Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music? Going to BMFI’s The Sound of Music Sing-along, back for a third year in a row! Rejoice and be merry in song and in costume at this special event. There’s always free popcorn for those who come in costume, and this year there will even be a cash bar where you can partake in some “holiday spirits”.

More than one kind of “spirits” will abound at the screening of Drexel Professor Ian Abrams’s version of A Christmas Carol! Abrams has edited together many different versions of the film to create one seamless retelling of the classic tale that features Scrooges as varied as Mr. Magoo, Alastair Sims, and Bill Murray. Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Steven Rea will introduce and discuss this delightful take on a holiday classic.

Michael Caine, shown with the muppets in A Muppet Christmas Carol, is one of the many Scrooges featured in Ian Abrams's compilation.
Here’s a complete list of BMFI's Holiday Happenings:

The Nativity Story • Saturday, December 11, 11:00am
• Spano Conducts Sibelius • Monday, December 13, 12:30pm
A Christmas Carol: A Unique Take on a Holiday Classic • Wednesday, December 15, 7:30pm
It's a Wonderful Life • Saturday, December 18, 11:00am
• Live Simulcast: The Nutcracker • Sunday, December 19, 11:00am
Black Swan reception • Monday, December 20, 7:00pm
The Sound of Music Sing-along • Wednesday, December 22, 7:00pm

Wishing a very happy and healthy holiday season to you all!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

BMFI Preview: Winter Programming Highlights

By Meredith Slifkin, BMFI Intern

Bryn Mawr Film Institute patons rejoice! The new film and program schedule for December 2010-March 2011 will soon be available. Yes, happy days are here again, now that you can glimpse into the future and foresee four glorious months of films and events at BMFI. For the full list of screenings and classes, grab a copy of the new issue of Projections when it comes out December 9 or visit, which has details for all of the upcoming events. For now, I will just whet your appetites with a preview of a few of our exciting new programs.

Oscar season is almost upon us, so that means a flurry of year-end films already gaining buzz. Among the new releases are the much anticipated Black Swan, the thriller from Darren Aronofsky starring Natalie Portman; The King’s Speech, which features Colin Firth as King George VI; and True Grit, a Western from the Coen Brothers starring Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, and Matt Damon. Let me just repeat some of those names for you—Aronofsky, Firth, Coen, Bridges, Brolin—these highly talented actors and filmmakers are each coming off of recent Oscar wins and nominations, so you can bet that their new films will be must-sees!
The King's Speech, which stars Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, is scheduled to start at BMFI on December 25.

In addition to a great crop of new releases, BMFI will also be featuring a truly unique selection of One Night Only films that you won’t want to miss. (Really, don’t miss them--they are shown for one night only, after all!) Come to a special screening of the award-winning animated charmer My Dog Tulip and a free (yes, free!) Master Class with the filmmakers, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, who will talk about the art of animated documentary and creating films in the digital world. I know that I’m excited for the screening of Kings of Pastry, the documentary about a three-day French pastry baking competition. This isn’t an episode of Top Chef or Cake Boss, these chefs are skilled artisans competing for a coveted title that would earn much more than bragging rights—it would fulfill a lifelong ambition. Did I mention that there will be free treats at the screening?

We all have our favorite classic films, and delight in the opportunity to see them on the big screen. The Remembering Film Legends series will feature the films of two recently departed greats—the Academy Award-winning director and Philadelphia native, Arthur Penn, and the iconic Tony Curtis. You won’t want to miss Curtis in Some Like it Hot, the uproarious comedy voted the funniest film of all time by the American Film Institute! This ultimate classic will be shown in conjunction with a Cinema Classics Seminar taught by BMFI’s Director of Education, Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D.  

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon shine in Some Like It Hot. The comedy classic will be shown as part of a tribute to Curtis and featured at the center of BMFI's newest Cinema Classics Seminar.

As many of you have already discovered, BMFI is not just a place for film, but also for broadcasts of incredible music, theatre and opera performances from renowned venues all over the world. From the comfort and convenience of BMFI you can see Romeo and Juliet from the Globe Theatre in London, or Pagliacci from the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. And of course the popular Philadelphia Orchestra Concert Series will continue will live HD simulcasts.

Spend Valentine's Day with Romeo and Juliet, broadcast in HD from London's Globe Theatre.

Now you can see ballet simulcasts as well—for the first time BMFI has added ballet to the program, including live simulcasts of the holiday favorite The Nutcracker from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and the classic Giselle from London's Royal Opera House, among others! Check out the list here.

This is only a taste of what's coming. To learn more, keep a look out for the new issue of Projections (mailed to members and available at the theater starting December 9) or visit!