May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
February 4, 2010
Mishnah: If one sees a holy place where miracles have been wrought for Israel, he should say, blessed be He who wrought miracles for our ancestors in this place. On seeing a place from which idolatry has been extirpated, such as the desk drawer in your office, he should say, blessed be he who extirpated idolatry from this place. [On witnessing] Shooting stars, policemen looking for your brother, earthquakes, your wife’s serious boyfriend, thunderclaps, and ominously slate gray tornadoes in the near distance one should say blessed be He whose strength and might are hard to appreciate without having undergone some sort of existential crisis. One who [in the course of a metaphorical journey] goes through a Twin Cities suburb should say two prayers, one on entering and one on leaving. Ben Azzai says, Four, two on entering and two on leaving – he gives thanks for past mercies and supplicates for future indiscretions and bills. It is incumbent upon a man to bless [God/Physics] for the evil in the same way as for the good, as it says, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, etc.
Gemara: One can easily take the last scene of A Serious Man and abstract it across Coen Brothers film scripts as an explanatory device. Look at that in the distance: speeding car, maniac biker, scarlet wood chipper, nihilists, a slate gray twister, pick your narrative mechanic. The Coen’s G_d speaks from whirlwinds. To think about A Serious Man as a point in the same trajectory as a film like Raising Arizona is exhilarating. Sure they have had several missteps along the way, but if you just ignore those, what you can see in Larry’s plight is a distillation of all the loves, losses, and twists of fate that serve as the cogs and gears in the Coens’ very consistent imagination. A Serious Man confirms in a very detailed way that Burn After Reading, Barton Fink, or The Man Who Wasn’t There – take your pick of their films that struck you as profound and slight at the same time – are indeed helpful reflections on the tension in life between what is certain and uncertain. Similarly, Jewish theology is often communicated in ways that at first seem slight, tangential, or even totally irrelevant. Tucked away behind gentile teeth. But then it circles back on the soul somehow. Doesn’t that sound like their cinema?
The amount of biblical reference sown into the fabric of A Serious Man is off the charts. In one thread, Larry Gropnik channels David in his first encounter with Bathsheba, bathing in the distance. Beneath the hum of his TV antenna, he is immediately seduced by her tune in, turn on, drop out counter-cultural allure. She lies there just beyond the border of the covenant. David famously responded to the tragedy of his affair with Bathsheba with Psalm 51, a remarkable meditation on the inevitable grief of sin. In contrast, Larry’s far less noble theological fate becomes the point on which much Coen Brothers storytelling anxiously pivots.
The film is a similarly equivocating midrash on Job and his three increasingly irritating counselors. Job is a helpful narrative reference to Larry because he is such a classic example of thinking about God, life, and the problem of evil through the lens of Jewish monotheism. The film also plots Larry’s struggle through the three Job-like interlocutors, that is reminiscent of the way Talmud and midrash often make opposing claims that are only later resolved in oblique twists of narrative. But most comparisons stop here. There is a bit of theodicy in A Serious Man, but the film doesn’t seem as interested in whether God is just or not as it is in how religious language relates to the certainty/uncertainty paradigm in things like physics. This makes the end even more dramatic, in that the Coen Brothers don’t provide much theological context for the seemingly prophetic appearance of the twister and the doctor’s phone call. It is easier to recognize these things as hierophanies if you are familiar with the texture of similar biblical images, but otherwise the twister hits the film like something Wholly Other. It enters the script like a bit of hefty religious language that we can’t interpret as if to say: This is what we talk about when we talk about religion.
These days it is common to hear wonder batted about as a principle virtue. The Coen Brothers quickly deflate this balloon (or the American Beauty floating plastic bag) in the First Rabbi conversation. Despite this young rabbi’s advice, Larry already knows that wonder doesn’t always cut it, and then the film goes on to systematically deconstruct the typical middle-aged crisis man film. Larry’s dream sequence with his Bathsheba makes American Beauty look positively lurid, vacuous, not even worth tossing in the ring as a legitimate paean to existential crisis. He wakes up and sheds the Lester Burnham navel-gazing like it the artificial moral residue of a naughty dream.
Wonder isn’t enough, bits of pithy information that expand our horizons aren’t enough. Hashem is not simply a point of perspective that we can turn on and off like the pot dealer kid’s video camera. Hashem doesn’t pan and scan life for us. When Sy is referred to as “a serious man,” he becomes an example of how shallow the first Rabbi’s advice is. In contrast Larry sees a correspondence between the uncertainty inherent to physics and the uncertainty inherent to understanding what God is actually asking us to do in life. He may be thought of as “not as serious” as Sy because he isn’t content with pretending that being and acting a certain way will satisfy his existential conundrum. He doesn’t need the plastic bag/parking lot perspective change, which amounts to a psychological bait and switch. He needs to find an access point to his own tradition, a way to embed himself in the narrative world produced by this theological legacy. It may not actually provide the answers he is looking for, but it will provide boundaries within which he can act morally and confidently until the dimmer switches start to dial up.
And when all these biblical references begin to really gain traction, A Serious Man reveals itself as a seamlessly theological film. Its exploration of the intensely Judeo-Christian desire to understand doing the right thing as a solution to the problem of determinism vs. free will, or sovereignty vs. chance, or the Coen gloss of certainty vs. uncertainty (which really is a more Talmudic way of posing the problem) is unparalleled. It seems that the Coen brothers aren’t just using religion as a narrative mechanic that produces interesting coincidences, but as a set of patterns (Job, David, etc…) that enable us to connect with someone else’s personal crisis at a fundamental level. This is essentially how religious traditions function in American civil religious discourse. They are heuristic devices that can become intense modes of interpersonal reflection. Michael Chabon’s recent book about the Yiddish detective in Alaska comes to mind as a comparable example.
If the central question of this film rotates on Schroedinger’s cat, the religious implication is this: If the tradition is the box, is God alive or is he dead? The answer being that we really can’t know. If the tradition is the box, then there is a sense in which both answers are correct. I suppose this matches the Coen Brother’s personal take on religion well, as A Serious Man becomes a great example of a classical modern description of religious language. It is both meaningful and meaningless at the same time. But they have been constructing this thought throughout the film in various ways, skillfully exemplified in the stoned kid’s reading of Torah, all the way until the end, at which point we seem to witness a hierophany of a prophetic sort and direct punitive judgment at the same time. Perfect Coen twist. (Is religious language meaningful? Is it? Really? Then comes a massive blast of effective religious language.)
Larry agonizes through this rich vein of Jewish self-reflection. But it is only when he alights upon a mediating position about the whole religion issue that allows him to accept a bribe every now and then that the total possible reality of this religious language/tradition rears its ugly head. We don’t need to know whether or not God is behind the whirlwind and the phone call. It is enough to know that Larry will never be able to have certainty about God’s presence in either, and is thus thrust into an even more serious existential crisis than the one that he began the film with. It is now not a matter of the question of: What should I do?, but: Why is this happening to me?
Religion is a balance of existential crises. A Serious Man seems to suggest that we are at least able to choose which crisis we are willing to live with.