And so on to A Serious Man, which I keep thinking of as my penultimate step on the journey, because I keep forgetting that True Grit exists in the Coen Brothers canon.
I have only seen this once before, because I’ve never got around to re-watching it despite having owned the DVD since its release. This time around, I actually got to understand the opening Shetl scene. I initially saw the film in a cinema in Cologne, meaning that I got the Yiddish with German subtitles and had very little clue what was going on. And yet, I remember really liking the film despite that (perhaps even because of that), for its bleakness and simple embrace of the weirdness of both the world and religious faith.
Having watched it again, I have to say, I still really really like it. That said as 1960s-set retelling of a Job narrative, about faith, doubt, and the uncertainty principle, it is very definitely a film that the Coen Brothers made for me.
It starts in the Shetl, with what is effectively Schrödinger’s Dybbuk:
Shtetl Husband: Dear wife. We are ruined. Tomorrow they will discover the body. All is lost.
Shtetl Wife: Nonsense, Velvel. Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil.
And then it heads straight to the life of one Larry Gopnik in 1960s Minnesota, who is currently teaching his physics class about Schrödinger’s Cat and the uncertainty principle. Quantum physics and Judaism, however tangentially related they may be (and I tend to think that t’s not that tangental – that theology and quantum physics are different languages for explaining the more mysterious features of the universe), are the only things that link the pre-credits scene to the main film. Here we find Larry Gopnik living an apparently nice, stable, suburban life, even if his brother is sleeping on the sofa working on an impossible probability map of the universe (the Mentaculus).
However it is all about to go quite wrong for Larry, as his wife wants a divorce, someone is writing anonymous letters to the tenure committee about him, his son Danny is, well, a teenage boy, and he is struggling to deal with a student who wants Larry to change his grade, in what really is Schrödinger’s bribery case:
Larry Gopnik: It doesn’t make sense. Either he left the money or he didn’t.
Clive’s Father: Please. Accept the mystery.
Larry Gopnik: You can’t have it both ways!
Clive’s Father: Why not?
This is Larry’s fundamental question throughout A Serious Man: what is the right thing to do, and how does he find out what that is. It’s a film not so much about what it is to be righteous (within the context of the Jewish faith), as it is about how people learn how to live a righteous life – and whether there is one particular answer to that question when people have to make choices about their actions.
Larry is comfortable with Schrödinger’s cat, because he understands what is going on behind the stories that he tells his students. As he tells Clive Park, ‘The math is how it really works.’ As he explains the formula to his class he says, ‘If that’s that, then we can do this.’ But if that’s not that, then what is Larry to do? When it comes to his own life, he can’t figure out the maths and he doesn’t know where he stands or what he ought to do.
His second Rabbi tries to suggest to him that the maths might not be as important as he thinks it is:
Rabbi Nachtner: “Maybe the questions that are bothering you, maybe they are like a toothache—felt for a while and then they go away.”
Larry: “I don’t want it to just go away, I want an answer.”
Rabbi Nachtner: “Sure, we all want the answer. Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. It runs the other way.”
Larry: “Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not going to give us any answers?”
Rabbi Nachtner: “He hasn’t told me.”
In this Job-tale, the three Rabbis are not actually the parallels for Job’s three friends. In Job, the friends come to Job sure of their understanding of what is going on and why Job is suffering. In A Serious Man, Larry’s wife, Judith, her intended-future-husband Sy Ableman fulfil two of these roles. I suspect his son, Danny, with his constant refrain about his father’s inability to fix their aerial so that it gets all the TV channels, is the third.
The Rabbis, on the other hand, may seem foolish – but they are actually rather wise (humanly and religiously) in the way that they suggest that Larry take an alternative perspective, ask the questions without expecting the answer, and (via Danny’s Bar Mitzvah) find somebody to love.
Larry is convinced that there is a reason why all this is happening to him and that someone must be able to discern what that reason is. Where did he get his understanding of the world so horribly wrong? Why, when he looks at the metaphorical cat this time, expecting it to be alive as it always has been when he’s looked in the past, does it suddenly turn out to be dead? His Rabbis aren’t convinced the world is so black and white, and urge him to stop worry about why the cat is the way it is, and just try and move on with his life with the cat the way that the cat is. He should:
‘Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.’
Even when that might be a dybbuk in the body of a dead rabbi. Or a dead cat. Or a wife who wants to leave him, a student who wants to bribe him, and teenage children.
Interestingly, Larry never asks his brother Arthur for help. He probably should – Arthur’s Mentaculus might be stark staring mad, but it might provide a better way of searching for an answer as a map of all the possibilities rather than the choice of two roads in a wood. Of course, when Larry and Arthur find themselves faced with the choice of two roads in a wood and take the one marked Canada, they find themselves getting shot. It turns out to have been a dream – but for the Coen brothers, dreams are important interpretations of what is going on in their characters’ realities.
- Empty Roads? Yes – they mostly seem to face Larry’s young son, who has to run away from a neighbourhood kid down an otherwise empty suburban road, and navigate empty hallways at school to try and reclaim his music player.
- Terrifyingly bright daylight? As in Blood Simple, A Serious Man’s suburbia is bathed in bright sunlight, making everything seem so black and white. At least, right until the end.
- Incredible Carter Burwell score? Yes, there is a very wonderful Carter Burwell score. But what I remember most is some of the sound effects, especially the slurping of soup.
- Very realistic violence? This is a remarkably un-violent film for the Coens. We have one ice-pick stabbing, though, in which you can kind of feel how hard it is to shove an ice pick into someone’s chest.
- Extremely black lines delivered straight? This is also not a particularly black film, for all it’s bleak. I think this is peak bleak:
The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.
- An obsession with odd hair? No. Just some 60s hair. And a teenage’s girl’s obsession with hair washing as a minor plot point.
And pretty great female leads? Well, not really. Mrs Judith Gopnik hasn’t done anything with Sy Ableman, but wants to leave her husband for him, and young Sarah Gopnik is definitely the less important of the younger Gopniks:
Sarah doesn’t have time, she mostly… washes her hair. Apparently there are several steps involved, but you don’t have to tell Marshak that…
It would be possible to find justification for Judith wanting to leave her husband – Larry comes across as more than a little absent (if well meaning) – but it’s hard to find any for the way her behaviour spans the spectrum from inconsiderate to downright cruel, and there are no redeeming features present. Time to do better again, Coens.