May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 2, 2009
The brothers Coen once again return to fill our autumn with their special brand of bleak humor and comedic tragedy. A Serious Man (opens in limited release today) is a tale of hilarity and woe, a kind of Job adaptation set in the 1960s Midwestern Jewish community with a sucker punch at the end.
It’s not news to say that the Coens like to torture their characters and not leave us with much hope for their recovery. Sometimes we’re left with some optimism (the sweet scene at the end of Fargo comes to mind, and, of course, the Dude abides), but of late the situation’s just gotten exacerbated.
What’s good about these doomed characters is that we always, somehow, end up laughing in the midst of their fate. (Or, perhaps I’m one of the twisted ones.) We’re given permission to find humor in the tragedy, without taking away the tragedy itself.
I don’t mean to always be writing here about my father, but I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, especially since my grandfather – his father – was recently admitted to and later discharged from the hospital for congestive heart failure. My grandfather is famously untalkative; yet, when my mother called him recently, he made some uncharacteristic crack about how he’s not quite ready for the dirt yet. He doesn’t live nearby, and the last time I saw him was three years ago, at my father’s funeral.
And when I think about humor and tragedy mixed together, I think of my father’s funeral. It was a profoundly sad occasion, but I also couldn’t help but think how much fun he would have had if he were there. Nearly seven hundred people showed up (insane, given that he did not die in the town where he was born, and that he never went to college and did not work out of an office, and that the funeral was on short notice and on Labor Day weekend).
Dad was famous for always being the last one to leave the church or the party or the gathering or the music practice for Sunday morning. He simply loved people. Having seven hundred of his favorite people in the world be in one room at one time would have tickled him so much. I could just see him in the back, obliviously talking to everyone while the rest of us waited in the car. It wasn’t disregard for us – it was just his all-encompassing love of people.
And at his funeral, I got to finally tell a story I had kept secret for a lifetime.
Along with three others, I got up to talk about him, and amidst the tears I recounted a memory from kindergarten. Dad used to drive me to school in the morning, and sometimes he’d stop and put gas in the car on the way. Sometimes he’d buy me a pack of M&Ms. My mother strictly forbade us from having sugar (on Christmas Day, we could have “two cookies,” but that was pretty much it), but he’d sneak it in and give it to me. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say.
Well, I told her that day in front of a church full of funeral-goers, but I don’t think he’d mind.
Not much earlier in the month, days before he was admitted to the hospital for what would be the last time, I sat on the stoop of my Brooklyn apartment, talking to him on the phone on a lazy summer Friday evening. I asked him how he was; he said every bone in his body ached, so much that he sometimes just wanted to throw himself off the deck on the back of the house.
“Now that would leave a crater,” I said. (Dad was of a respectably sizable girth.)
He stopped, and chuckled, and said, “You are definitely my daughter.”
He and I had a similar sense of humor, invariably finding the hysterical in the macabre and driving my mother crazy. My brother – who is now a healthy, brilliant college student who worked for Google last summer – barely made it at birth. He was in and out of hospitals for the first several years of his life, and we still don’t really know what was wrong.
But Dad and I used to tell him that we almost drowned him in a bucket when he was born, because he screamed too loudly. “Steeeeeeve!” my mother would always protest. “He’ll believe you!” (He didn’t.)
All these things remind me that when tragedy strikes, sometimes the only thing you can do to keep your sanity is laugh. While some might argue it’s disrespectful or irreverent or even just asking for it, I can’t agree. Without comedy, tragedy seems utterly senseless – even to those who want desperately to maintain a faith in an ultimate purpose. When you can’t make sense of what’s going on – when everything is so very uncertain – laughter keeps us sane.
So I’m grateful to the Coens – who don’t really believe in purpose, I don’t think – for letting us continue to develop a sense of humor in the face of tragedy.
(By the way, if you like very bleak humor mixed with somehow thought-provoking platitudes, you’ll like A Serious Man.)
Alissa Wilkinson teaches at the King’s College in New York City and edits Comment. She and her husband Tom like the brunch at Dizzy’s in Brooklyn best.