12 February 2010

I unpack "A Serious Man"

So now I'm going to talk about A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers movie released this past year.  It was without a doubt the best movie of this past year, but there is no chance of it winning Best Picture.  This is terrible.  Here is my interpretation of this brilliant movie.  I haven't seen anything similar, even though I think it's a fairly straightforward view, because the movie received so little press.

A Serious Man is a modern-day retelling of Job.

It opens with a bizarre and seemingly unrelated story: a peasant couple in the old country get a visitor who may or may not be a traditional Jewish zombie.  The husband thinks the visitor is just a kind neighbor, but the wife tries to prove herself right by stabbing the visitor.  The visitor staggers off into the night, and we never know the truth of it.  This will later prove to be essential for setting the mood and as a version of the movie in miniature.

The main plot of the movie presents the story of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor of physics whose life is falling apart.  Among other things: his wife loves another man, someone is interfering with his tenure with anonymous vile letters, and his brother is so eccentric as to be useless.  Larry still does the right thing, however, and tries to be a good man - a "serious man," in the words of the film.  He resolutely refuses to snap.  We wait and wait, anticipating a fracturing that never comes.  Under continual duress, Larry pays for the funeral of his wife's lover, bails his brother out of jail, and still maintains himself.  Only when he receives a bill to pay for his wife's expensive lawyer for her pending divorce action does he crack slightly, accepting a bribe from a student.

Larry seeks the advice of three rabbi in the film, to tell him what is the right thing to do.  The first rabbi is a young and idealistic one, who answers Larry's serious questions about his life with a smarmy speech about how the wonder of God is to be found everywhere - even in the parking lot outside.  The implication is that Larry is being shallow in some way for his griefs, a message that seems particularly puerile after watching Larry's progress grinding through one misery after another with wide-eyed exasperation.

The second rabbi tells Larry a long fable about a dentist who finds hidden messages in a man's teeth.  The story is neat and clever, following the traditional rule of three, but ending abruptly without the witty answer one expects.  It's a fable without an Aesop at the end.  When asked what it meant, the second rabbi snorts, "How do I know?!"  It's silly to ask what it means, is the implication of the second rabbi.

The third rabbi is never seen by Larry, but only by his pot-smoking son.  This rabbi is held as the sage of sages, who we are led to believe can solve all of Larry's problems with a wise word.  But Larry can never see him, despite pleading and begging for answers at his gate.  Larry's son only sees him at the conclusion of the film, when the third rabbi returns the boy's tape recorder and delivers some words of glib wisdom culled from the Jefferson Airplane song the son had been listening to at the start of the movie.

Larry is given blow after blow, enduring the loss of his wife, his home, and threats to his future career prospects (although he seems to be getting tenure in the end).  And when he seeks answers, all he finds are pleasantries, meaninglessness, and silence.

Larry is Job.  Like Job, everything is stripped from him.  It's less straightforward than in the Bible, because he doesn't literally lose everything and isn't reduced to bitter ashes and sackcloth.  That's part of the message of this intensely personal movie: things aren't so simple and easy.  The beauty of Yahweh doesn't solve everything when you have real problems, and life is a story without an easy moral as far as we can see.

The movie seems to be deeply religious, and the Coen brothers appear to be expressing a faith in their God  There are hints that we will find out everything in the end - that the story isn't over.  As the film ends, Larry is getting some terrible news about his health, and a tornado approaches his son's school.  Given the progress of his life, we can only assume that Larry will suffer horribly, and his son will die.  And after death: that is when Larry will get to speak to the third rabbi: the man with the answers and the wisdom to solve everything.

This is a movie that denies the essential storybook nature of movies, and of the Job story upon which it is based.  Not only do bad things happen without any dramatic resurgence by the protagonist, but it's implied we haven't even reached the end of his decline yet.  There is no simple structured implication by a character or by the editing of the movie to give a moral or a meaning to everything Larry suffers, except for the most basic meaning there could be: he'll never find out the moral while he lives.  Yahweh does not show up to cure everything Job has suffered.

Of the words of comfort offered by spiritual counsel, we get mostly nonsense and empty words.  Larry never hears that which could have helped him perhaps make senses of his problems, the whispered repetition of the third rabbi who shuts him out:

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies

Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love

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