Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Does It Take To Be Serious? The Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man"

(WARNING: This review contains MAJOR SPOILERS!)

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the hope inside 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

For all the discussion recently about how editing and cinematography have contributed to the decline of film, I would argue that the greatest problem with film today often lies in the screenwriting. It is one particular flaw that has become more evident as contributing to the dumbing down of cinema. That would be the unnecessary tendency for films to explain themselves. It is almost considered offensive to many filmgoers that their movies require them to think about their ideas or to not have every narrative turn's logic mapped out for them. This often results in bloated scenes with tedious dialogue where characters are given loads of expositional information to unload to make sure every "i" is dotted and every "t" is crossed. This is rather boring form for movie storytelling, when some of us believe story and theme do not need to be so crystal clear to be successful.

I read the screenplay for Joel and Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man" several months ago. Not only was it rather easy to visualize the film due to scenes and dialogue that were truly animated on the page, but the script also left me perplexed and with many questions. My response to these questions was not anger that the Coens did not explain what they were getting at. Instead, it made me anticipate the film even more so that I can experience the story visually and once again try to wrestle with the subject matter of the film. This is what the movies are all about to me.

"A Serious Man" is the third film in three years by the Coens, in probably what I feel has been the strongest run of films in their career. Much has been said about the greatness of "No Country for Old Men", but, while I admittedly believe their full-on comedies are hit and miss, I consider "Burn After Reading" to be a minor comedy classic. "Burn" perfectly captured post-9/11 America as a place with a dangerous mix of decreasing intelligence and increasing narcissism and vapidity where everyone from CIA agents to federal marshals to gym employees inflated their relatively petty problems into national crises. "A Serious Man", in some ways, connects to both of these films.

One can say these three films have truly captured the state of our country by confronting greed, mortality, narcissism, hypocrisy, and faith. The Coen Brothers, to their credit, do not ever show their hands through didacticism and simplistic moralizing. Although the spiritual has often played a great part in previous Coen films, this may be their first film where it takes center stage.

The main character of the film is Larry Gopnik, a college professor soon to be considered for tenure, who the Coens basically put through the ringer during the course of the film. His wife, Judith, announces early on that she wants to divorce him to live with another man, a so-called "serious man" who is rather full of it. A Korean student attempts to bribe him (maybe) to get a passing grade on his midterm. His layabout brother, Arthur, may be up to some illegal activities. His son, Danny, is a chronic pot smoker who owes the local pot dealer (a fellow student) money. Basically, like many of us, Larry nor his family cannot catch a break.

I am not going to pretend that I understand Judaism. Catholicism was the religious drug of choice when I grew up. And a Puerto Rican kid coming of age in Brooklyn during the '80's is, on the surface, a different experience than growing up Jewish in the Minnesota suburbs in the late '60's. I also am aware that perhaps I am bringing my own personal skepticism about religion into this movie though I certainly do not believe the Coens were attempting to make a movie that celebrates religion considering some of the more uncomfortable responses from some Jews so far.

The most obviously perplexing scene in the film is the opening sequence which may be some sort of invented Yiddish folk tale involving a man and his wife confronting what may or may not be an evil spirit. The man comes home to tell his wife how he was helped by a man named Reb Groshkover and that he has invited him to their home for soup. The wife immediately recognizes the man as someone who had died a few years before. We see two sides of faith in this scene as the man perceives Reb as a helpful man, while the wife sees him as a dybbuk. The scene ends with the wife plunging a knife into Reb's chest, which does not kill him but clearly affects him physically. Despite the knife sticking out of him with blood coming out, he gets up and leaves the home in the most polite way imaginable given the circumstances.

I have had difficulty connecting this sequence to the rest of the film because, as usual, the Coens never make it easy. This sequence not only depends on whether the characters believe if an evil spirit can take human form, but whether we believe in this as well. (Which, by the way, would make Groshkover not much different than, say, Anton Chigurh.) If we truly do believe, the woman has done the right thing enabling her to cast him out of her home. On the other hand, she may have just been plain superstitious and just killed an innocent man because she did not have a single doubt in her mind that her beliefs may have been false.

The willingness to succumb to faith is wrestled with throughout the rest of the film. For every terrible thing that happens to Larry, who is a mostly secular individual, he, like many of us do, go out to seek guidance from religion and often become susceptible to interpreting situations good or bad as signs. During the course of the film, Larry meets with three rabbis. The first rabbi is a young man who often resorts to turning around, looking out the window and pointing out that looking at the parking lot from a different perspective will help change one's perspective on life. The second rabbi tells a long and eventually pointless (or maybe not) story about a dentist who saw a message in Hebrew etched into the back of the front teeth of a patient. For people like myself who often feel religion is comprised of seemingly improvised, self-contradictory fables that do not really mean a whole lot of anything when you look at them a little more deeply, I had to laugh at what the Coens depicted as what the Jewish faith offers as guidance to a man with real problems.

Many may look at Larry's travails and insist that God is testing him to see if he will come out stronger when he deals with it. Others may believe the old saying that shit happens. Maybe Larry is simply having a run of bad luck that is not guided by any spiritual force. What sense would it make for God to punish Larry by having his wife want to divorce him and then killing her new lover Sy Ableman in a car accident almost immediately after her decision? Can Larry do little more than man up and deal with the cards that life has dealt him and hope that bad luck does not keep kicking him in the ass later on? Do most of us go through life thinking that no matter what bad things happen to us that there is a grand plan to it all or simply that life is not quite fair?

Much of the greatness of "A Serious Man" comes from how inclusive it is about the big questions it raises. Someone with my background had no trouble relating to Larry's troubles despite having little to no understanding of the beliefs in Judaism. As much as the movie is about religion, much like Park Chan Wook's "Thirst" a couple of months back, it understands that most spiritual and especially moral issues are still dealt with in everyday living. Perhaps, the answers that we seek from God can also be found right here in our reality. It is telling that when Danny Gopnik sees the eldest rabbi after his bar mitzvah that the words of wisdom that come out of his mouth are the ones printed at the top of this article, courtesy of Jefferson Airplane. Of course, it provides a great laugh in the movie, but it also makes you think how much more wisdom does religion offer than a '60's rock song?

The more I have contemplated "A Serious Man", I realize that the serious answers to this question may lie within those song lyrics. You also have to examine how the song is used in the film, in particular shots involving ears. The first time "Somebody to Love" is heard is when we our introduced to Danny sneakily listening to the song on his earphone during the middle of a class. The first shot after the credits moves through the inside of Danny's ear until it reaches the earphone. This scene is intercut with a doctor examining Larry by looking into his ears and seemingly finding nothing wrong. No one in this film actually seems to recognize the lyrics to this song as being profound in any way, thus they only listen to the lyrics as little more than entertainment while giving more credibility to what their faith offers them as guidance.

What's important about this is that Larry and other characters look for signs to explain life. If Sy dies in a car crash the same time Larry has a car accident, it must mean something. If an old fat lawyer drops dead right in front of Larry, it must be another sign. The rabbis reach desperately for signs because the last thing they would ever want to tell someone is that any of this can be random. That would obviously start making anyone question their faith. However, for all the search for signs that these characters engage in, sometimes the answers are blaring right into their ears. Maybe the truth that they have all accepted has been lies which obviously makes the hope inside of you die. At that point, all that matters is not God, but looking out for somebody to love, someone to connect with in life.

It is telling that the most freedom Larry experiences in the film is during his brief visit to Mrs. Samsky, his neighbor next door. Earlier in the film, he spotted her sunbathing completely nude while he was on his roof fixing the television antenna. Closer to the end of the film, still split from his wife, Larry goes to Samsky's home and smokes a joint with her, which makes him feel considerably less worried and on edge as he seems throughout the film. One line from Mrs. Samsky particularly stuck out for me, when she asks him, "Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?"

I took this as a way for her to tell him that he can be a lot happier person if he opened his mind to other possibilities. If he looks for the most obvious spiritual answers to his problems, Larry will never get anywhere in understanding them. It is important that the film ends with Danny's bar mitzvah, which, of course, he attends completely stoned out of his mind. It is a ceremony where a boy becomes a man in the eyes of God, but, in reality, most boys will spend their adult lives trying to deal with the responsibilities of being a man with most never quite getting the hand of it.

At the end of the film, Larry reconciles with his wife and also is assured that he will be approved as a tenured professor at his university. He basically reaches a point when things turn his way with little to no help from his own actions. Does he really learn anything from his problems or does he accept that now God had put him through all of that only to turn around and treat him as a favored son in the end? Just when Larry decides to change the grade for the Korean student who tried to bribe him just to cut him a break as the result of his own good fortune, he receives an ominous phone call from the doctor to tell him that he needs to come in to discuss his x-rays. To some, God has not finished running Larry through the ringer, while, to others, Larry's bad fortunes are merely continuing until they stop happening or, even worse, he will deal with this stuff until the day he dies which is probably true for most people.

The very end of the film rhymes with the opening ear shots and use of the Jefferson Airplane song. Danny and his classmates are being moved to shelter when a tornado comes their way. Just as Danny tries to get the pot dealer's attention to pay him back, everyone's attention is directed towards the approaching tornado. "Somebody to Love" is once again playing on Danny's earphone, though muffled. The final shot of the film is the right side of his body with the ear phone completely visible while in the other half of the screen, we see the tornado in the distance.

It almost becomes easier to see this as some sort of biblical catastrophe thrown Danny's way as a way of God testing him now that Danny is supposed to be a man. If there is the possibility that Larry may have some major medical problem, then perhaps this tornado represents the troubles Danny will have growing up without a father. Or, as the religious skeptic in me may believe, this may still all be random unfortunate events that will, in some way, force both Larry and Danny to be stronger to deal with their problems but does not necessarily have any greater message from a higher being attached to it.

It has been a few days since I have seen "A Serious Man", but it has not left my mind. I continue to puzzle over it and consider any possible answers it may have, making me relate to Larry that much more. I seek answers from a movie whose message may be that there may not be any answers. If that message is what the Coens are getting at, they certainly do not toss it off in a frivolous fashion. It is rather easy to be cynical and say, "Shit happens, so deal with it!". For all the criticism (sometimes deserved) about how the Coens look down upon their characters, I felt that "A Serious Man" was truly compassionate for Larry, Arthur, Danny and even some of the more unlikeable characters. Of course, it is funny that these characters are put through so much torment, but it's safe to say that we all laugh at these situations because although they are exaggerated, they are recognizably human.

I can remember the many times earlier in my life, when I would seek spiritual answers for any bad situations I have ever found myself in. Sometimes even nowadays (though rarely), despite my agnosticism, I will look for the spiritual answer to the big questions particularly when things do not turn out the way I wanted them to. Strangely, when things go right for me, I am more inclined to credit good luck rather than any higher power. Ultimately, I discount all of it when I realize all the beliefs you have to swallow to have any spirituality in our current world of organized religion.

"A Serious Man" is more about the exploration of one's spirituality and the ability to cope in the real world while doing so. The Coen Brothers have created a movie which is universal in its themes, as you can basically insert your own religion or even your lack of one into this story and it would not change a whole lot except for some of the details.

One must look at the quote that opens the film from Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, that says "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Maybe life is not that complicated as it seems and we need to deal with it straight on, as opposed to looking to holy books written by men centuries ago who have no clearer path to the truth than any of us do. That is, perhaps, what separates truly serious men from those who think the answers to life are found in parables rather than common sense.

A Serious Man was viewed at the Landmark Sunshine Cinemas.


Craig said...

Heartfelt piece, Steven, which I'd refrained from reading until I finally saw the picture today. I liked the movie a lot: it's beautifully structured and perfectly pitched, both occasionally problems for the Coens in the past. I thought the prologue underlined the theme of what Larry comes to call "The Uncertainty Principle," that why things happen the way they do is ultimately unknowable. Or, as Clive's father hilariously puts it: "Accept the mystery."

Of course, the moment Larry caves and changes Clive's grade is when Bad News really darkens his door, so interpret that how you will.

lube said...

I saw this movie a few months ago and I was still wondering about its meaning until I knew that it was inspired by The Book of Job -which I had never read-.
The point of the book, as I understood it, is that men should not try to interprete God's willing, only accept it. And of course, never leave the path of virtue.