A Serious Man

January 26, 2010

[WARNING: This is a serious spoiler alert. If you haven’t yet seen A Serious Man, your enjoyment when you do see it will be significantly compromised if you read this essay now. I’ll just tell you for the time being that I think it’s the best film the Coen brothers have made in close to a decade, since O’ Brother, Where Art Thou. Go watch A Serious Man and then come back and tell me what you think of this essay. When you read it. Then.]

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I have been a tremendous fan of the Coen Brothers since the beginning. I’ve seen their first film, the comic noir Blood Simple more times than I can count. I think Fargo is a masterpiece and I adore The Big Lebowski. I am fond, in one way or another, of virtually every one of their first eight movies, with the exception of Miller’s Crossing (for reasons I won’t trouble to explain at the moment). I think their eighth film, in 2000 – O’ Brother, Where Art Thou – is delightful.

Then, more or less suddenly, they took a turn for the worse, and then a long-term nose dive. The Man Who Wasn’t There, although liked by many Coen fans, was a failure to me. It looked great, but for all its homage to film noir, it was an utterly faux noir. Once the key player is arrested, everything – and I do mean everything – from that point forward proceeds in a relentlessly predictable and more or less realistic fashion. This is exactly the opposite of a noir, where nothing is as it appears, and little can be anticipated. Think The Third Man, probably my favorite film above all.

Whatever we think of The Man Who Wasn’t There, however, I was far from alone in despising Intolerable Cruelty, or being disappointed in The Ladykillers (the original, starring Alec Guinnes, is well worth your investigating).

Then came No Country For Old Men. Although many thought this film put the brothers back on track – along with its remarkable Oscar success – while I liked the film to a point, I thought it overrated. It certainly looked beautiful, the sound design was fascinating, and the performance by Javier Bardem is downright creepy.

But the movie has no heart. The empathetic and interesting character portrayed by Josh Brolin is killed off screen and summarily discarded from that point on. The filmmakers have no further use for him and he is revealed as nothing more than a device, when in fact, he’s the man we could have cared about. But if the filmmakers do not care about their characters, then how can we? I found the result compelling in the watching but empty in the aftermath.

The Coens are best at black comedy, and No Country is black but humorless. Fargo is a masterpiece in the end however because it treats its characters with respect and affection (as does Big Lebowski). No matter how quirky Marge is, she is extremely competent, and she is made human by her loving relationship with her husband – and the story wraps up with them together. The film has a heart, which in turn permits us to celebrate its comedic blackness.

But Burn After Reading seemed to suffer from the same troubles as No Country, without its strengths. Three characters are casually dismissed – killed off at once – just as the film draws to a close. The closest thing to a sympathetic, or perhaps at least barely empathetic, character – that played by John Malkovitch – is ultimately impossible to empathize with. Brad Pitt plays another cartoon character that is mistaken for an acting performance. The filmmakers seem to hate these characters, as do we.

And then came A Serious Man.

I think Serious Man examines the ideas that lie beneath, but unaddressed, in No Country for Old Men. The killer in No Country is a relentless force of nature – an instrument of evil. He’s not really an individual. There’s a storm at the end and it represents that inescapable river of shit that we all have to swim upstream against in the course of our lives.

Serious Man poses questions about this relentless force, in particular: Is it random, such that we have no power over it in terms of cause and effect, avoiding it, limiting it, affecting it in any way at all? Or … is it really that we, by dint of certain actions and choices, bring it on ourselves — and if we didn’t, we could avoid it? Or is it, perhaps, some mysterious, indecipherable mix of the two?

And, fabulously, it explores these questions at length — without ever proposing an answer. It merely tries to fascinate us with the questions.

And, yes, it does address these subjects in a particularly Jewish manner. (I’m an avowed atheist but was raised in the Jewish cultural tradition. New York City secular Jews make for natural born atheists, but we still love the food.) Jews, other than the fundamentalist sects, traditionally wonder openly about the nature of evil, and question and even argue with god. It’s part of the tradition. Jews don’t believe in the devil and have no simple answers. Rules, yes, but answers … no. And certainly not in anything so simple-minded as “the lord moves in mysterious ways,” which is just a believer’s lame copout, and not any sort of genuine philosophical position.

I found the extended prologue irresistible – I simply could not turn away for an instant. It was, for me, riveting to hear that much Yiddish. I heard some growing up – my grandparents didn’t speak it fluently, but their parents did, so I heard many Yiddish expressions and words from grandparents and parents as well. And I did know other families who had emigrated in more recent generations who spoke the language at home. But I had never, ever heard such lengthy discourse entirely in pure, uninterrupted Yiddish, which I recognized immediately and found astonishing to hear.

Anyway, the point is … was she right or wrong? Was it a dybbuk, or did she kill an innocent rebbe?

Did her actions bring evil down on her descendant?

Did his actions ring evil down on him?

And the answer is: we’ll just never know.

And this is a very provocative answer – but not because it’s uncertain. But rather because it imposes a far more important question on us, namely: Should we do good? Why? And what difference does it make?

And it is this uncomfortable and mysterious question which the film presents us with at its close. We are almost sympathetic with this loser in the course of the story, because while he is a miserable dishrag of a character, he faces difficulties and challenges which we all face. What he’s facing are simply the vicissitudes of life. Nobody every promised it would be easy. Mature adult humans know this, of course. And Jews know this, both in explicit teachings and cultural tradition, but also intuitively. When you’ve been an oppressed minority for 5000 years, you get used to certain assumptions.

It does seem – at least to the character Larry Gopnik – that his problems are brought on him by other people, and aggravated by his weakness. But while his weakness makes him less sympathetic and accessible to the audience, it’s a necessity of his character for the lessons of the story to make sense. Larry whines that “I’m a good man.” He thinks that thinking good thoughts and having good intentions makes him a good man. But he’s wrong.

I have long believed that character is not what you do that is right, or good. Rather, character is what you do that is right when it’s difficult.

But Larry doesn’t understand this. You want him to slap the neighbor who steals his wife. You want him to speak up to the father of the student. You want him to be clear – about something. Anything.

Instead, he floats along, hoping that his “goodness” will be rewarded by god. And he looks to the experts to help him find god’s approval. But the experts are fools and have nothing for him. Because he is a fool to think that what god thinks of him matters the merest whit.

And the entire story leads up to his finally making one choice – a moment when he has no choice but to actually take action. And his choice is wrong. He takes action that is thoroughly evil, and entirely his own: he changes that kid’s grade.

And that is when “nature” or “god” or whatever that relentless inescapable force is … instantly rains down more shit on him, bigger shit than he’s ever had to swim in, in the form of his diagnosis and the tornado.

And so the question becomes: Did his actions (and the actions of his ancestors) cause these things to happen to him?

Or would they have happened anyway?

And the answer is: We’ll never know.

And then the question therefore becomes: Should we do good in the world?

And isn’t the answer …. YES. Because it’s a moral issue. And thus the answer is not, “Evil is inescapable so why bother to battle to do good, because waging that battle every day is so damned hard.”

The answer is that you don’t need to know the source of evil in order to know – morally – that you must do good while you’re in this world. That you must do good to be alive. To be a man. To be human.

And so we don’t know about the cause and effect, but aren’t we positively horrified when he changes that grade? And if we are horrified – it doesn’t matter what god thinks, really. Now does it?

And it doesn’t matter if there is a god.

It only matters that we must do good in this world. And that we must recognize, and face the fact, that it is in fact terribly hard.

But so what?

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