A Serious Man

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January 1, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

It’s become somewhat of a running joke between my geek friends and I that when something can’t be explained in a work of science-fiction, the ultimate “fanwank” answer is always “LOL, Quantum Magic”. Of course, there’s nothing really “magical” about quantum physics, though when Sci-Fi writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated his third law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—he could easily have replaced “technology” with “science”. There’s no denying that quantum physics has proved to be the ultimate brain-teaser for scientists throughout the 20th Century and has provided a formidable challenge against the (perhaps now) antiquated notion that we can know anything with a degree of certainty. Perhaps you might think that such complex science is better left to the scientists or academia, but leave it to a visionary pair of cinematic brothers like The Coens to capitalize on the humor and absurdity innate in the most serious of subjects.

Of course, what better place and time could there possibly be to stage such a cinematic thought experiment than the suburbs of Bloomington, Minnesota in 1967, and what better person to subject to such narrative torture than a Jew? Michael Stuhlbarg is Prof. Lawrence “Larry” Gopnik, a professor at a local college where he teaches the mathematics behind quantum physics. Soon after the film begins, Larry’s life begins unraveling. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces she’s leaving him for a neighbor, Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed: The “Sex Guy”, according to the Coens). His son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), about to be bar-mitzvahed, seems more concerned with getting high, watching F-Troop and listening to Jefferson Airplane in class. His brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), has taken to staying with him while working on his mathematic Mentaculus formula and draining a sebaceous cyst on his neck. To top it all off, a South Korean student of Larry’s, Clive (David Kang), is hassling him about a bad grade he received; he puts Larry in a tough spot when he implicitly bribes him with a Catch-22 where either Larry passes him or Clive and his pops will sue him for defamation of character (for claiming he was bribed), or for taking the bribe.

As with No Country, Fargo and so many of the Coens’ other great films, it seems most apropos to start by praising their superb rendering of such distinct milieus. There may be other directors out there today that are as aesthetically, intellectually and narratively satisfying and challenging as the Coens, but none of them I know manage to combine those aspects with such an acute sense of the place, the time and the people that inhabit both. Their films are as much time machines into the past as they are universal stories that resonate today. Such a thing is especially tricky when focusing on a culture with a history as rich, diverse and notorious as the Jews, but the Coens manage to avoid the caricatured pitfalls in favor of a much more humane and loving portrait, without losing any of their sense of humor and amusement. The Coens especially achieve that humor through their nuanced writing and between the sporadic cartoonish elements contrasted against the understated realism; it’s always a tricky balance the Coens are going for, but they have a real knack for constantly hitting it on the nose.

The performances are a major contributing factor in achieving that balance, because it’s a heavy burden to place on actors to be funny and distinct without lapsing into broad generalizations and maintaining a sense of character. A Serious Man may not boast the Coens’ most star-heavy cast (they certainly went for authenticity over star-power), but all of the relative unknowns and the relative knowns do a fine job. Stuhlbarg is cast with carrying most of the film with his portrayal of Larry, and his constant bemusement is as funny as it is frustrating, as absurd as it is sad. Stuhlbarg is one of those actors that achieves so much through facial expressions alone and this is an important feature in a cast that’s much more stone-faced throughout. There’s a surety in the faces of those around him that potently contrasts with Larry’s own uncertainty. Fred Melamed should also be praised for his idiosyncratic take on the sly, laid-back Sy Abelman (SY ABELMAN?!!!), who manages to steal every scene he’s in.

A Serious Man may be the Coens film that utilizes allusions most deeply, connecting the story with the distant past to illuminate the present. The film opens with a fabricated Jewish folktale; according to the filmmakers: “we couldn’t think of any old Jewish folktales, so we made one up, just like how in Fargo we wanted to tell a true story but couldn’t think of any, so we made one up”. The opening provides a haunting prelude to all that’s come, as an old Jewish couple in old, Eastern Europe encounter what may be a dybbuk, a malevolent or benevolent possessing spirit of a dead person’s soul. The scene ends without really answering whether the figure was actually a spirit or not since there’s disagreement amongst the husband and wife over whether or not the person (a relative) had actually died. The final words of the woman—“Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil,”—ironically set up the Job-like parallels which beset Larry throughout the rest of the film, dramatizing the classic Theodic “problem of evil” and how we can possibly deal with it.

In the Book of Job, Job is famously subjected to numerous horrors (including his possessions being destroyed by a ‘ruach’, or wind spirit, which also kills his children— as well as being smote with boils), and is tempted by his wife to curse God and die, even though he refuses. His friends swear that he must have done something wrong, even though he swears he didn’t. Job finally questions God as to what he has done to deserve such treatment, prompting God to reveal himself in a whirlwind and respond with a series of rhetorical questions about Job’s ignorance of the ways of God. When a whirlwind appears at the end of the film, we’re certainly left to wonder if it’s God finally coming to reveal himself, or if it’s the wind-spirit that’s come to destroy everything else that Larry has. Job’s questioning of his wrongdoing is a nigh-perfect mirror of Larry’s mantra of “I didn’t do anything!” throughout the film.

“I didn’t do anything!”—It’s a perfect response to counter Larry’s statement to Clive that “actions have consequences, not just in physics, but morally”. What we do affects what happens to us, so if we don’t do anything, then there’s no reason for things to happen to us. For the attentive viewer, we realize that such an absolutist cause-and-effect thinking—call it Newtonian physics, if you will—is completely out of line with the quantum physics that Larry teaches, which states mathematically that such cause and effect is uncertain. What’s further, we’re always doing something, even if we’ve failed to realize what that something is by our inability to examine our own lives. Larry also misses the point of Schrödinger’s cat; he explains to Clive that the cat is just an illustrative story to help one understand, but it’s the math that explains how it works. Clive insists he understands the cat even though he failed on the math, while Larry understands the math (indeed, he’s never more self-assured and certain than when he’s doing the math) but states, “nobody understands the cat”.

It’s a good metaphor for cinema, an illustrative medium that uses story to explain how stuff works, even though it doesn’t prove how stuff works the way math does. Larry’s mistake is in assuming that the math that proves uncertainty makes the math and, therefore, life certain. It also illustrates that even though he understands the explanation behind the theory, he doesn’t really understand the theory itself. It’s the same way that a philosopher might understand how life and people work, but be completely incapable of living life, or getting along with others. It’s this mistake, this realization, that nothing was what he thought it was that forces him to look for the meaning behind it all. After all, who worries about the meaning behind it all when it’s going well? It’s precisely when everything breaks down that we’re forced to confront the whys behind it, and it’s our inability to find the answers that leads to such frustration. Then we turn to faith (Larry encountering the three Rabbis)… we turn to semiotics (what’s happening must be signs that mean something)… we turn to anything that transcends the limited scope of our own lives and life in general because we become powerless to affect what’s happening to us.

But is that powerlessness an illusion? Larry clearly tells Arthur that: “It’s not fair to blame Hashem, Arthur… sometimes you have to help yourself.” That sense of “helping yourself,” of doing something active to change your life, is precisely what has eluded Larry. It’s a potently rendered point that the Coens make; it’s so easy for us to have perspective on others and to tell them what they need to do to improve, but it’s entirely different to apply that same kind of thinking to ourselves. Of course, when we feel we can’t help ourselves we turn to others to find the answers. We see this kind of doubt/acceptance/doubt cycle when Larry questions the younger Rabbi about his situation. “It’s all a matter of perspective, it’s a good thing” says the Rabbi. Larry is incredulous, but when he goes to see his lawyer, he repeats the same cliché, only to quickly respond with an “or maybe not”. Larry is a man that’s so desperate he’ll latch on to any answer that seems like it may be right, whether it’s right or not.

The Goy’s Teeth story expands on this concept of encountering something that shakes up your world by provoking you to look for a meaning, only to be endlessly frustrated when none appears. Like the sage Rabbi Marshak says near the end of the film (by quoting Jefferson Airplane), and the Rashi quote says at the beginning (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”), the moral behind the Goy’s Teeth story is stupidly simple: “Being good to people… it can’t hurt.” But the real lesson is the absurdity that it should take something extraordinary to make someone realize something so simple. Larry is the exact opposite of the Rashi quote, incapable of receiving what’s happening to him with simplicity. Instead, he takes to magnifying everything that happens to him to apocalyptic levels. He looks for answers when he should be looking for life, he’s trying to solve the mystery instead of embracing it—something he encounters in the near-Liar’s Paradox nature of his Catch-22, defamation/bribery problem with Clive.

Given the film’s thematic complexity, it seems almost trivial to return to the more plebeian forms of criticism, but Roger Deakins’ dreamlike, almost surreal cinematography deserves it. It brilliantly contrasts the comic book-like colors and geometry of suburbia in wide lenses and deep focus with the hazier colors and angles of Larry’s subjectivity and dreams in long lenses and shallow focus. This echoes the theme of Larry being cut off from objective reality by his distorted view of his life. The tilt-shift lenses (which can arbitrarily render an area of a flat-focus frame in or out of focus) parallel the two marijuana scenes (with Larry and his son, respectively). The production design is equally provocative, perfectly reconstructing the era. My own negative criticisms might simply be that the characters aren’t as compelling as some of the Coens’ best creations. The film occasionally verges dangerously on telling more than it shows, and that perhaps there aren’t as many relevant interconnections in the film as there should be (if anyone can fill me in the significance behind the son’s storyline, I’d be appreciative).

Finally, to address the critics that have condemned the film as being too bleak and belittling, I think they’ve missed the point. A Serious Man doesn’t really present anything that’s bleaker than Job, it merely ends before the uptick. Job was eventually “rewarded” for his faith, for not abandoning God amidst his crisis. Larry fails his morality test, taking the money and changing the grade. So does this mean that the whirlwind and his implied health problem is the effect of his failure, or is it merely two more random events completely unconnected to it? Part of the brilliance of A Serious Man is the ingenious way that the Coens have found to express the same uncertainty in cinema as we encounter it in life. Like Kieslowski, they love presenting metaphysical teasers that suggest paradoxical answers depending on your perspective. If the ultimate answer of No Country was to “let be”, perhaps the ultimate answer to A Serious Man is simply “be”.

If No Country For Old Men could be called the Coens’ ontological masterpiece (figuring out how to be amidst uncertainty), then A Serious Man must be their epistemological masterpiece (figuring out how to understand amidst uncertainty). The film stresses that knowing how a thing works doesn’t mean that we can work a thing, that what we think we know that turns out to be wrong is more dangerous than what we don’t know and that looking for answers in randomness by considering them signs may be the most frustrating thing in life that man can do, which is all the sadder considering we seem pre-programmed to do just that. After all, if Hashem (God, The Universe, Life, et al.) isn’t going to give us the answers, why does he/she/they/it make us feel the questions?

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