Friday, October 30, 2009

Secret Test!: A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: As always, please see A Serious Man before proceeding.

"As long as I learn I will make mistakes
What do I want? What do I need?
Why do I want it? What's in it for me?
It's the imagery of technology
Is what you get is what you see
Don't worry your mind
When you give it your best
One two one two this is just a test"

- Beastie Boys, "Just a Test"

A barrage of questions, then: Why is this happening? What does it mean? What are the rules? How do I behave properly? What choices are available? Which options should I take? And they culminate, really, in the one central mystery: What the fuck is going on?

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, looking and acting like an ideal live-action Opus the penguin) stands on his suburban roof under slate skies and adjusts the television aerial. Signals from the aether flow into the antenna, and the man hears garbled, incomprehensible messages from the heavens. Something is coming through, and he will continue to adjust the apparatus, strain to listen and see. The mystery of existence continues, and all Larry can get in reply is blurry broadcasts of F Troop.

Negative Theology

Like a Lenny Bruce retelling of a lost Ingmar Bergman script for The Book of Job: The Movie, A Serious Man is both nightclub sick joke style riff on Jewish identity crisis in postwar suburbia and a humane and silver-filigreed parable about the reasons and methods by which we derive spiritual and philosophical nourishment through hermeneutic process; it is about the relative value of lessons relayed by allegory, of the midrash of all things, from Torah to F Troop, Surrealistic Pillow to dreams, physics to kook literature, weather patterns to collections agency calls.

Myriad troubles compounding troubles begin swarming Larry until one day, without warning, his life is falling down around him. His protesting refrain is: "I didn't do anything!/ I haven't done anything!/ What did I do?" When his wife (Sari Lennick) demands a divorce, he asks what he did, and she tells him "You haven't 'done' anything. I haven't 'done' anything." When his impending tenure is threatened by anonymous letters to the board, he can think of no reason they should have been written. When harassed by the Columbia Record Club, which he did not join, he yelps "I didn't ask for Santana Abraxas!... I haven't done anything!" The indignities and calamities come swirling up from nowhere Larry can perceive, and his only conclusion can be that God is doing this to him. Or not.

And indeed, Larry is a good man, in the best way he knows how. He is intelligent and gentle, sensitive and responsible and unassuming. What he is not is demonstrative, confrontational, brash and headstrong, those qualities that pass for heroism in contemporary protagonists. He prides himself as a rational man, a fine thing for a physics professor to be. But his rigid framing of a cause-and-effect universe makes him indignant about lack of apparent cause when his wife and her boyfriend, the sympathy-oozing, pious Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) kick him out of his own home to live at the Jolly Roger Motel. As a teacher, Larry is accustomed to the use of stories to illustrate complex ideas. He explains as much to Korean student Clive (David Kang), who insists he understands the Schrödinger's Cat paradox; Larry counters that the "cat" is just a device for communicating a mathematical idea, and the math is the lesson. "They're like fables. To give you a picture... The math is how it really works." But as Clive tries to simultaneously bribe the professor for a passing grade and/or blackmail him for accepting the bribe (or perhaps does neither, the unmarked face of the envelope a blank screen of possibility), he seems to have grasped "dead cat" after all. Though he is familiar with the uncertainty principle and quantum superposition, Larry cannot see through the torment to apply chaos theory to his own situation (to be fair, it being the late '60s/early '70s, he'd have to be keeping ahead of the curve on his physics publications reading). The rational man is caught in a tangle; he uses the rhetorical technique, but does not do well when left to divine the lesson beneath the many signs, signals and allegories offered him. "I mean, even I don't understand the dead cat," he gasps to Clive.

The story being bent through the lens of Larry's perspective, the motivations of others are largely veiled, their intersections with Larry effectively blindsiding him. There are three exceptions, in sections of the film which swap perspective. The second most frequent point of view offered is Larry's son, Danny (Aaron Wolf), budding stoner and F Troop enthusiast who drowns out Hebrew school lessons with his transistor radio blaring Jefferson Airplane's secret message through his headphones. The Gopnik story proper begins here, inside Danny's ear canal, pulling outward into the light as "Somebody to Love" roars in the darkness, the film's leitmotif of alienation and thirst for simple salvation.

In the only other Minnesota moment entirely outside Larry's perspective, Sy Ableman drives to the golf course (even when no one is around, he drips self-satisfaction). Intercut synchronous car accidents befall both men, as Larry screams in impotent rage at the bicycling Clive and bangs up his auto, and Sy grows impatient waiting for a left-hand turn and is killed. Though (surprisingly) no one offers Larry the cold comfort that "it could've been you!," the value and meaninglessness of the sentiment that things could be worse is illustrated. Danny's life is not without problems — his aggravations include a harpy older sister, he owes his pot dealer twenty bucks, and dude, F Troop is coming in fuzzy — but he's not as bad off as his dad. And Larry does not quite recognize it, but his life is not so shambolic as his own destitute brother Arthur's (lovable gargoyle Richard Kind).

An extreme magnification of Larry, Arthur is crashing on his brother's couch, plagued by a cyst in constant need of draining, can neither hold a job nor appears to want one. That Arthur may be suffering serious psychological dysfunction becomes an increasingly likely possibility as he asks Larry's professional opinion of The Mentaculus, which he identifies as "a probability map," a Theory of Everything of his own devising. When Larry examines the little notebook, the pages roar with the white noise of madness, scribbles and equations cover every surface in mandalas of incomprehensible mathematics. Larry cannot make heads or tails of the Mentaculus. We might guess that it makes no sense, but Arthur's "system" apparently "works" as intended, and he applies it to winning at back room card games. And still, Arthur is hounded by police for gambling and solicitation and sodomy in seedy bars. Arthur understands the math and it solves none of his problems. The possibility exists that understanding the math has prompted Arthur's mental snap. While the Mentaculus appears to perfectly outline probabilities of limited stochastic systems like card games, perhaps Arthur does not think to apply its output to his personal life, or perhaps its wisdom holds no bearing when contemplating the nature of God.

Whether plagued by profoundly connected events or a designless swarm of fluke locusts, Larry cannot say. But even the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories has a structure, and the fundament of mathematical chaos is not disorder, but ungraspably complex determinist systems that can only look like pandemonium to the unaided eye. Larry may be haunted by a void of meaning, or by a surplus.

Maimonides tells us that the only statements we can make about the nature of God are statements of negation: all we may affirm is what God is not.

At the Mixer with Rambam and Rabad I: Of Advisors and Stories

Arthur does come closest to telling Larry what he may need to hear, wailing in the night at a hotel poolside freak out: "Look at everything Hashem has given you! And what do I get?! I get fucking shit!" Larry can't hear it, counters: "Arthur. What do I have? I live at the Jolly Roger."

In attempt to resolve his crisis of meaning, Larry visits three rabbis. Junior Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg, nerve-wracked and befuddled, as if he can't believe he's a holy man) proposes that Larry has lost his perspective, and advises looking at the world with refreshed vision. Rabbi Scott is sympathetic but his empathy is stunted, and his illustration ends and begins with the temple parking lot: "... imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn't familiar with these autos and such. Somebody still with a capacity for wonder. Someone with a fresh... perspective. That's what it is, Larry!... Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world!" Larry already believes that one potential of his situation is God's presence, the other is God's non-presence, and the difference is stacking up as a narrow one. The first rabbi's advice is sound, but he does not adequately connect the dots to Larry's circumstance for the idea to get through. "Just look at that parking lot."

To put his divorce proceedings in order, Larry consults his lawyer, Don Milgram (Adam Arkin). The principles of Judaic faith and practice are philosophically framed in legalistic terms, and Larry's trips to his lawyers are conferences with moral advisors as much as those with the rabbis. Though he visits Milgram to sort out the divorce and clarify a property line issue, Jewish law — Halakhah, the path on which one walks — informs all of Larry's choices. He sees the possibility and feels the weight of every day as a series of choices, large and small, to greet seriously or ignore. Should he grant a do-over "secret test," as Clive requests? Should the family wait for Arthur to finish in the bathroom before eating dinner? Should he pay for Sy's funeral?

A gruff, monosyllabic gentile neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) begins asserting ownership of what Larry believes to be part of the Gopnik yard. Mr. Brandt asserts that the property line ends at the poplar tree. Larry doesn't, apparently, but has no counter-evidence. On neighboring, possibly overlapping territory, a blurred boundry becomes matter of interpretation, one the self-assured gentile is going to win by default. Both satirizing the degree to which these suburban Jews have and have not become integrated, and addressing Larry's concern that he is correctly interpreting the law, the matter of the Gopnik yard is never resolved: the property lawyer (Michael Lerner) up and dies before Larry's eyes without uttering a word of his strategy.

And so to the second rabbi, Nachtner (hilarious character actor superpower George Wyner), who provides two critical lessons, one in comic council with Larry and one while presiding over Sy Ableman's funeral. To Larry, Nachtner relates the half-joke half-object lesson story of The Goy's Teeth, revealed as the rabbi's one-size-fits-all anecdote for any occasion. In brief, a dentist finds the words "Help Me" engraved? grown? into a patient's lower incisors. The riddle haunts the doctor, no answers are forthcoming, and he eventually stops worrying about it and finds peace. Larry stares and gapes, aghast at what he takes to be a shaggy dog story. Though he strains to hear the essence the advice, the rabbi refuses to elaborate.

Nachtner's timing is off and Larry isn't communicating his needs. Gopnik is seeking comfort and the rabbi provides an intellectual explanation to a theological question. The answer is sound — God neither provides nor owes any explanations — but the advice is misplaced. It is not what Larry wants to hear, so he does not.

Through all Larry hears is an irrelevant, anticlimactic joke, the Goy's Teeth is, in essence, a story about unknowable mystery, its presence and purpose in our lives. In the story, Sussman the dentist guesses at a moral — should he help others? Nachtner neither confirms nor denises: couldn't hurt. There is a disconnect between this conclusion and the questions. Helping people is an action to take in this world, a way to conduct oneself which, sure, couldn't hurt. It has not much to do with the nature of God or the question Sussman and Gopnik share with Job:

If this is sign, what does it mean?,
and: Why me?

The Goy's Teeth is linked to Schrödinger's Cat and the invented folktale prologue to Larry's story. In that miniature Yiddish comedy sketch of A Serious Man, a man and wife are visited one dark and snowy eve by a Torah scholar (Fyvush Finkle) who may (or may not) be a dead man inhabited by a dybbuk. Surely not, chuckles the rational husband. Obviously so, says his deadly serious wife, and stabs the guest in the heart. But Schrödinger's dybbuk shuffles off into the night, wounded and insulted. Doomed or saved or maybe neither, the couple never learns. The snow falls on the just and unjust.

At Ableman's funeral, Rabbi Nachtner gives a stirring and warm hesped in honor of the deceased and to guide the bereaved. He explains the Jewish concept of the afterlife, L'olam Ha-Ba, the World to Come. "It is not a geographic place like Canada..." (pause for laughter), it is not about a reward of riches and physical comforts, not entirely analogous to a Christian concept of an individual dividend Heaven. Nachtner outlines at length what the afterlife is not, and offers that L'olam Ha-Ba "is in the soul of this community which nurtured Sy Ableman and to which Sy Ableman now returns."

As for the third rabbi, Marshak refuses to see Larry at all. The old man devotes his time only to religious study and briefly advising the new Bar Mitzvahs. As Larry moves up the chain of wisdom, the advice becomes more succinct and cuts to the heart of the matter, while the comfort grows slim. Marshak does allow conference with Danny Gopnik, who triumphs through his Torah reading while righteously stoned. The ancient man stares across his empty desk, quotes Jefferson Airplane and advises Danny: "Be a good boy."

Perhaps the most concise version of these esteemed commentators is Clive Park's father. As Larry protests that either Clive is bribing him or not, and he cannot be blackmailed for a bribe he isn't accepting, Mr. Park's zen reply: "Please. Accept mystery."

Job Didn't Ask for Santana Abraxas: Five-Minute Exegesis

Joel and Ethan Coen tend to favor noir and screwball comedy, genres which may be played as farce or thriller, and that take as their base the dogpiling of misery and accident onto hapless protagonists. In its way, A Serious Man is a small primer on how to read the moral philosophy of the entire Coen oeuvre. We should not mistake a portrait of an absurdist universe for nihilism. The only self-identified nihilists the Coens have placed onscreen are in The Big Lebowski, and they are dismissed as buffoons, if slightly more dangerous than the rest of a cast of buffoons.

The real point of The Goy's Teeth, Nachtner simply hands to Larry. Eventually, these nagging questions will go away, in the face of small, everyday happiness, or at least the business of living life while cosmic mystery roars in the background. The point of Rabbi Scott's advice is similarly to marvel at what portion of the universe one does understand, and to tend personal relationships and behavior in that context. Marshak to Larry: following this line of questioning ends with a life of devoted, serious Torah study, and furthermore, when you get to the top of the chain, you may find deafening silence.

In a dream — the only Coen films with no dream sequences are Fargo and Burn After Reading — Larry tells his class that the Uncertainty Principle "proves we can never really know what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you, not knowing what's going on." While it sounds good and ominous, the Uncertainty Principle does not quite say that. Sy Ableman appears and says that he does know what's going on. Though in this anxiety dream, Ableman is overstating the case, this unshaken confidence is part of why Nachtner had deemed Sy "a serious man." And they debate. Larry goggles that mathematics is proof, and the principle applies. Sy says that what happens in the afterlife, the cosmic balance of justice, is not the issue, and Larry need concern himself with present life. He says that "mathematics is the art of the possible." Otto von Bismarck said that was politics, of course: "... the attainable, the art of the next-best." Sy is talking about a place where the math cannot go.

A Simple Man opens with an epigram from Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, vital and most influential Tanakh and Talmud commentator: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Rashi was writing on Deuteronomy, instructing that we trust in God's plan and not strain to predict the unseeable future. Larry is not too far off in evaluating this — and The Goy's Teeth, and the Example of the Parking Lot, and Marshak's silence, and Mr. Park's koan — as "it shouldn't bother you, not knowing what's going on." It can only cause us further consternation to be ordered stop there, though, because that is a pitiless interpretation. On the other hand, one is not sure who told Larry Gopnik that Judaism involved easy answers.

So to Job.

The Book of Job shares a structure roughly in common with A Serious Man. As protagonist, a good man by most standards, a man of some prosperity, a man of solid faith, and a man to whom atrocious things happen in unceasing barrage. He kvetches and questions why, but maintains that he did not do anything to merit the treatment. At the end, a whirlwind, out of which appears a voice both frightening and soothing. In Job, God does answer. In A Serious Man, the voice is Grace Slick's.

There is a key difference between the horrors that befall Job and those experienced by Larry Gopnik. Job is bedeviled by Acts of God. Until the grand finale, Larry's problems are the result of the behaviors of other people, or his interaction with other people. The reverse implication of Deuteronomy 18:13 and Rashi's note is that while God should be received wholeheartedly, other people may be suspect. So be a good boy. You will be responsible for this on the midterm.

The climax in which God responds to Job contains one of history's most burning, beautiful and profound answers to the problem of evil and the myriad uncertainties that come part and parcel with being a living human. No hero of these books speaks to God the way Job does without being rebuked. Few of them are given such visions — and be sure, God's defense/questioning of Job is so vivid that Job sees the words from the storm.

God answers the charges against him by pummeling Job with a series of questions. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?..." That is just the beginning, as God provides a stirring account of the marvel of creation. God holds forth on the perfect system of the natural world in such poetic fashion that it sounds like even God is impressed with the intricacy of ecosystem and solar system. God speaks of a vast planet and a vastness in which it whirls, physical and abstract: "Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?" God plumbs the symbol-myths of human imagination: would you tangle with Behemoth, go fishing for Leviathan?

A number of points are being made and woven together in awesome rhetorical display. The universe's design is too complex for the human eye to take in at once, and what looks like hellish disorder is part of an incomprehensible system. For some of this, we may devise maths and sciences for prediction and explanation. There are those places where the math cannot reach, the place where position and momentum may be known at once, where the cat is alive and dead, we call those "God". Most vitally, the human beast lives in an amoral, unsympathetic world that is crammed with wonders, and any system of moral judgment, any divination of meaning belongs to the peculiar needs and inventions of the human mind. God's justice is not man's justice. Nature needs no justice or meaning: it is its own law and purpose.

These are majestic ideas and uncomfortable ones. Job retracts his accusations and embraces the freedom of being a creature of dust and ashes. This is not about milk and honey. Accept mystery? Good luck with that, though you don't have much choice. Here is what Larry has that Arthur does not: "You've got a family. You've got a job." As Marge Gunderson said, "There's more to life than a little bit of money, don't you know that? And here you are. And it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it." God answers Job by explaining exactly why he will get no answers: not only are the questions ill-formed, but the answer is immeasurably vast and all around him. Popular shorthand would have it that God "tests" Job, but the game is always stacked — God's playing with a Mentaculus in his back pocket and knows the outcome. Job suffers torment and vision so that we will have this story, this poem, this song about man's yearning. So you have it, I have it, Larry Gopnik has it. This is a far cry from "it shouldn't bother you, not knowing what's going on."

We need these stories, because it is hard to just remember the math parts of the lesson during the test. "...[T]hey're illustrative. They're like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model." One can even walk away from a story about persistent inscrutability, only to be frustrated by how life makes no sense. The vision God gives Job is powerful enough to affect the man's spiritual refinement, but it too is an imperfect model, the totality being an infinity that cannot be squashed into language. Believing he can master the math and evacuate all secrets, Larry does not hear the voice. As Dick Dutton of Columbia Record Club says, "we can't make you listen to the records, sir."

Danny listens to the records, and stepping out of Marshak's office, onto the path of the serious man, he faces down the Whirlwind. The awesome, fearful black chaos of a tornado — or does it just look like chaos to us? — rips through darkening skies, the Airplane jangles and bellows. In the moment of pain and fear, philosophical and theological argument dissolve into abstracts and human yearning takes over. You want to know why it picked you? If you're being tested? Want to know what it means? Want answers? Or... don't you want somebody to love?

In a universe lacking in inherent, built-in meaning, our task is to forge our own meaning. A Serious Man is the world as a terrible, beautiful parking lot. Just look at that parking lot!


Jordan said...

Fuck the internet. Why doesn't this have any comments? It's wonderful. Great post, Chris,


Chris Stangl said...

Thanks Jordan. The response to this movie has left me a little bummed, even if it is largely positive. All of the Coens' films are philosophically rich, but A SERIOUS MAN has the shape and feeling of their most high-flown pictures — THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE and BARTON FINK — but a protagonist who is not a dimwit or a lovable dimwit. It is not only about philosophical issues that are eternally relevant, but takes them as Larry Gopnik's very conflicts: the subterranean engine that drives other Coen movies is, here, the whole damn plot. I was particularly hoping more Jewish critics and non-film-oriented Jewish journals would be excited to deal with the film, but it seems to be beguiling or disgusting most writers, not opening them up.

JohnFrusciante said...

I really enjoyed reading this!

Jordan said...

Yeah. It's a funny movie to be sure, but a lot of people seem to think it's ONLY funny, but while my immediate (as in while in the theater) reaction was laughter, as the movie settled with me throughout the night and the rest of the week, I realized that this may be their masterpiece.

I had a bizarre string of bad (from annoying to devastating) luck the next week, and I kept yelling to my friends "IT'S LIKE A SERIOUS MAN. AUGH." and in a weird way it helped me deal with things.

Unknown said...

Terrific commentary. Thank you for taking the time to make sense of it all ;)

Unknown said...

Chris - Your's may be the only well thought out analysis of this amazing film. Thanks for pointing all these themes out and tying them together. Very well done.

Unknown said...

Just got back from the movie. Great movie, great analysis of the movie

taw_jo said...


mediumheadboy said...

Thank you for this. It's much better than what I had hoped for when I googled: "A Serious Man" analysis.

Unknown said...

I have been trying to understand this movie for several weeks. Thank you for giving me clues at last. I echo the other writers' appreciation for the analysis.


Dan North said...

This is absolutely the best piece I've read on A Serious Man yet, so thankyou.

I only saw the film a couple of days ago, so it's still percolating in my brain and every now and then I recall another connection that further demonstrates was an elaborate construction the Coens' screenplay is. Once I'd make the link between the Dybbuk (alive/dead?) and Schrodinger's cat (ditto) it all started to fall into place like a sudoku. It's definitely going to reward repeat viewings. My girlfriend and I were the only ones laughing at our screening, though, except maybe for the odd dude at the end of the row who added an extra level of situationist structure by guffawing uproariously at random moments.

Accept the mystery.

Unknown said...

I'm wondering about why Clive, the bicyclist, was wearing a surgical mask during the accident scene.

Chris Stangl said...

bobbiedobbs — I can't speak for young Clive specifically. I can say, with only anecdotal backup, that Asian-Americans sporting surgical masks are a daily sight in urban environments. Outside the U.S., this is apparently extremely common in Japan, and popular in China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Mexico City. The purpose is variously to quell the spread of germs (incoming or outgoing), and to (theoretically) filter out air pollution.

I guess I am used to this fashion statement (?) and didn't think of Clive's surgical mask as anything but an observed, comical detail. Now that you mention it, though, I have no idea if the surgical mask movement was in effect in the Midwest in the late '60s. Since the Coens were there, and very obviously had their listening ears and penetrating gaze pointed at the details, I'd imagine the mask is accurate.

However, I'm still trying to locate a list of Columbia Record Club selections-of-the-month, as ABRAXAS and COSMO'S FACTORY are 1970 releases, while every critic in the universe is identifying the film's setting in 1968. While I imagine this date was cribbed from press notes, I'm curious as to whether this was an anachronism or a press note error.

Fabio said...

Concerning the paradox of the date of Santana's album, prof. Gopnik keeps saying that he has not done anything, he has not ordered that album. The paradox is that he has not "still" done it, while the voice (coming from 3 years in the future) says he has already done.

Chris Stangl said...

Fabio — I'm all for the incorporating the serendipitous anachronism and continuity error into one's reading of a film, but with period pieces there are always going to be more compromises and mistakes than in films with contemporary settings. "You Are My Sunshine" was not written until well after O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? is set, the California sex offender laws of 1991 would not require Jesus Quintana to notify his neighbors of his crimes, and there's no way Sidney Mussburger could have a Newton's Cradle in 1958. Rather than force the interpretation that every period film takes place in a Twilight Zone of parallel universes, I was more curious as to whether A SERIOUS MAN actually takes place in the late '60s...

The Coens in interview have been saying 1967. F-TROOP finished its run in April '67, but deer hunting season starts in the autumn, and it doesn't look like fall in A SERIOUS MAN's Minnesota. What we have here, I think, is a collection of details and memories that feel right and evoke the era, even if they aren't rendered with historical exactitude.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. Please accept mystery!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this post. An incredibly well constructed article and peerless analysis.

When the truth is be lies.......

Anonymous said...

I like how you go through and write a thorough explanation of what you think everything is in this film -- yet you complete ignore the ending. You do a fine job of explaining, oh, hey, it's the Coen Brothers just telling us that life mostly sucks in an even-handed way...but anybody could have figured that out by wasting way less words at 4 in the morning.

But when Job/the main character chooses to err on the side of "bad," or in this case, change Clive's grade, that's when God wrath suddenly seems to come down out of nowhere. The X-Ray call comes. The tornado is about to destroy his son --

While the Coen Brothers don't explicitly say anything about what may happen, that's always how they handle things.

I think you just missed the point entirely.

Chris Stangl said...

Anonymous —
Sarcasm and derision are not good techniques for prodding someone to take counterargument seriously. I neither said in this piece, nor implied, nor agree that the thesis of A SERIOUS MAN is that "life mostly sucks." If I did not convey any more than that, it is either my failing as an admittedly cryptic writer, or yours for not reading attentively before your feint. All the issues you find crucial and believe that I "missed" are woven into the fabric of the essay. I also believe A SERIOUS MAN is not about A Single Point to comprehend or "miss," but a matrix of meaning to explore.

As minor clarification, if you haven't read Job lately, he doesn't end up compromising his ethics or abandoning faith. Consider, as I've already noted, that Larry is not a perfect parallel to Job.

Anonymous said...

"You're not wrong, Walter.

You're just an asshole."

drparallax said...

Hmmm.. my first comment would be a question: How does a goy know so much about Rashi? and Maimonodes?


Nice matrix you've woven here. I will add some thoughts. The irony of all Jewish philosophy (or really Jewish existenz) is that existence revolves around one thing - understanding. Rationality is not only the basis of Larry thought, but the goal of all Jewish thought. And this is of course the cause of 'Jewish suffering' - because if God makes the world, makes it understandable (theoretically), and gives the Torah to help us understand it, but then makes our lives so confusing as to undermine the application of understandability to daily existence - what then?

And the answer (hah!) seems to be this: the art of storytelling. The weaving of the story is the understanding. The true blessing of Jewish tradition is not Torah but s decent sense of humor - because narrative/comedy is the only weapon that humanity can employ against forces the sizes of Tornados - and other acts of God.

Double irony of course - because the Coen Brothers are Gopnik's god. Nothing makes sense, nothing has reason, yet Larry's suffering does not happen by the hands of God as much as by the hands of Joel and Ethan.

And this is the principle of the Mentalucus, of the Kabalah (which can be ambivalent - humor and wisdom combined), or of all mysticism - only by an active REFUSAL of reason can one attain the higher levels of understanding. In Kabalah it can be the form or numerical value of letters, in here it can be gestures, colors, or the hieroglyph faces.

Anonymous said...

Chris, what do you think of the first scene with the yiddish people and the ghost/maybe alive guy? What was that all about?

Anonymous said...

Outstanding analysis of the film. Really helped be better appreciate it. Thanks

Anonymous said...

I'm just catching up with this film out here in the sticks, circa 27 January 2010, and I've already seen it twice in the first week it's been showing in Tucson. Your post confirmed everything that I thought was great about A SERIOUS MAN but that I wasn't seeing mentioned elsewhere.

Thanks a ton!

Anonymous said...

I must say Chris this is an excellent way to put an otherwise useless talent like essay writing to use. Enjoyable read.

kate said...

I'm as impressed with Chris Stangl's grasp of both this Coen Brother's film and English language as I am with the film itself.

Chris Stangl articulated most eloquently my most profound impressions of this narrative.

Of A Serious Man I received scene for scene, line for line the very same abstract, existential and humanistic "messages" as dissected and formulated by Stangl.

It feels great to share this mightily thoughtful experience with someone.

Believe I'll be back again soon for further astute, erudite analyses and well-turned rhetoric.

Sincere thanks. Kate

kate said...

Oh yea. And this film reminds me of Todd Solondz films. Particularly "Happiness".

Anonymous said...

I can only repeat, but this is the best analysis I've read so far. It's a solid ground for ambling through what will, with the help of reviews like this, rightly become acknowledged as the Coen masterpiece.

Unknown said...

Really terrific essay.

I, too, noticed the anachronism with Santana Abraxas - but the Coens have always been keen on the sound of language. Santana Abraxas just sounds good.

I'm wondering what your thoughts are considering that never once is The Holocaust mentioned. Pretty rare for a Jewish family. (I come from one.) I can't help but think that somehow the movie is a large scale discussion on assimilation as the Holocaust's second act - a further vengeance of the assaulted Dybbuk from the prologue.

kate said...

Raise your hand if you believe in Dyubuks!

An evening of good fortune? An evening of curse?

In this office every action has a consequence! But what are the belief systems that determine our reactions to events?

Are they primarily religious? Nationalistic? Defeatist? What about self-fulfilled prophecies? And guilt?

What mechanisms have been deeply integrated into our society that cultivate our self-defeating superstitions: Lawyers don't encourage forgiveness. The police? Marriage? Religion? The illicit drug industry... the medical industry thrives on sickness...

What about the fact that the only person who had something concrete to offer humanity in the form of a highly complex but apparently reliable mathmatical equation for predicting events (and poker hands) was the outcast, harassed by the Guardians of the Peace? What does that say about the belief systems that manage our society??

OOps, someone just knocked at the door! Gotta run!

Viktor said...

Really great post, thank You!

About Abraxas: The Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung wrote a short Gnostic treatise in 1916 called The Seven Sermons to the Dead, which called Abraxas a God higher than the Christian God and Devil, that combines all opposites into one Being. Substitute a higher God for "Santana's Abraxas" each time it is spoken and the tone of that telephone conversation becomes incredibly telling. He doesn't believe... Good stuff hidden in this film!

JEff said...

I'm going to pass on that Fucker.

ted said...

"But when Job/the main character chooses to err on the side of "bad," or in this case, change Clive's grade, that's when God wrath suddenly seems to come down out of nowhere. The X-Ray call comes. The tornado is about to destroy his son --
I think you just missed the point entirely."

Great piece here.
I def do not agree with this guy as bad stuff was happening to Larry throughout the entire film unrelated to any good or bad moral choice.
I do think he brings up a valid point in that you could have elaborated on the ending a little more.
At quick glance, this movie has a lot to do with perspective. This is vocalized with the young rabbi and when his cousin freaks out at the jolly rodgers. or even when clive blames his failing grade on cultural differences. the neighbors perspective of the property line or sy's take on larry's relationship with his wife. etc
What interests me is how these individual perspectives relate to each person and the difficulties in their lives.
The son is worried about owing 20 bones. Larry is worried about tenure and his home life. His wife's prob is getting a certain type of jewish divorce.
Toward the end, all of these problems that consume these peoples lives get resolved only to be replaced by an even more all consuming problem. Larry gets his tenure but then gets grim medical news. His wife is getting her divorce but then her new guy dies in a car accident. This really gets hammered home when the son does great at his barmitsva and gets his money back to give to the drug dealer only to have these now minor issues trumped by a freakin tornado coming at him.
So how do these themes all relate?
Is it that no matter what urgent issue we have now there is always something seemingly worse on the horizon? Or do our problems always seem worse then others? Or that there is always issues but they appear more pressing in the present?Or maybe that there really are not problems or hardships, that there is just life and it is how we perceive them is what makes them difficulties?
anywho, i clearly do not have the high powered analytical microscope as the author of this post. so if author or any other posters want to elaborate their thoughts on the ending that would be nice.

Anonymous said...

Hi, thanks for the wonderful analysis. It's made me feel like I loved the film quite a bit more now, even though I haven't even seen it a second time yet!

Anyway, all this Book of Job talk, which I think you've used very appropriately and interpreted wonderfully, reminded me of a talk by the great Alan Watts which I enjoyed even more when I heard it. It's called The Sense of Nonsense. In it, he talks about G.K. Chesterton's analysis of the Book of Job and illuminates it with lots of meaning, in his own way. Everyone should give it a listen!

Thanks to the Coens for making the film and thanks to everyone for sharing in your enjoyment of it with me. The film may seem pessimistic, but I think we can all see the twinkle in its eye...that smirk, that wink. :)

-Christian Boy

Laure Fournier said...

Thank you for this analysis. It helped me to see unity in several points. After reading you, though, I was willing to propose a slight... change of perspective (il you can excuse my approximative english): you say Larry has suddenly to think to the application of the incertainty principle, in the real life --that he has to understand how things really depend on the perspectives. But what is fascinating, in my opinion, is that the advice "accept the mystery" comes to him from everywhere, and is *not* always relevant in the same way. When he insists that either the money has been given, or has *not*, he is of course right. When he says that there must be an explanation for the teeth beeing carved, he is again right. But Larry laks the ability to see *when* mere facts are the point (when they can arbitrate the debates), and when they are not. The goy's teeth is an excellent illustration of this: it can be interessant to know why they are so, but if the question is "what do I have to do?", the answer will not be given by a resolution of *this* mystery: do what is good, that's all. You don't have to know more, for *that* issue. In the same way: "where is the limit between my garden and the neigboor's?" can be resolved by objectives rules, *but* to know what I have to do, this will not necesseraly end the question. I skould better ask: "Does it matter?" But this is the question he never wants to ask; and when his wife does, he finds it very strange.
What I want to say is this: Larry believes that all life can be a question of respecting rules in order to have no surprise, whether it be questions of physics or questions of misfortune, or of good or bad. And the rules in which he believes are suddenly considered as irrelevant by a lot of people, but not always for the same reasons: some contest mere facts in order to cheat (the corean student), some are insincere (Sy), some invite to peace(Sy again, or the wife speaking of the garden limit), some speak of wisdom... What he seemingly has to learn is not merely to stop having certitudes. It is to see when the appeal to objective rules or facts is relevant, and when it is not. It is not only a question of accepting mystery, but to know when and for what it is relevant to solve it: do an inquiry to know how these teeth came to be carved, if you are in a scientific mood, but don't think this inquiry will tell you what you have to do. You already know what you have to do. Know what your right is for your garden, and know if you really care. Know if the divorce must take place, independantly (or not) from the question wether your wife did something with her friend, etc. There is what you know and what you don't know; sometimes you need to know what the facts are in order to decide what to do--and sometimes you need not.
I see the end as a wink: seeing everything is at question after all, Larry gives up the moral rules. But precisely, that he should *not* so acting is *not* a mystery (at least for him), and if he sees the subsequent misfortunes as consequences of this, well... that makes sense. In short words: the sense you see in the world, in some way, is the whole thing, but it does not mean that you can see *any* sens in anything. In matter of sense, know what you see; which can neither be given to you as clues of a mystery; nor if you choose to ignore what you actualy see.

Anonymous said...

Please, just stop.

Anonymous said...

Not to be ball-washer right off the bat, but this is the finest analysis of a movie that I have ever read. After I saw this movie once, I thought that it may be one of the best movies I have ever seen in my life (this and There Will Be Blood, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and any scene from Pulp Fiction without one of the two lead female characters), and after watching it several more times, I am certain of it. Whoever you are, thank you for doing such a great job. You are working at an extremely high level, and you have helped me to connect some of the dots in understanding the complex layers of this movie (though such a work, similar to a Beatles album, merits a lifetime of study). Thanks again - Eden Rocks

Unknown said...

What a great analysis! For a film about how life can seem to lack meaning and coherency, your analysis shows how packed with meaning this film really is. It sort of reminds me of James Joyce's Ulysses in this respect. Is life without meaning or so packed with meaning that we just can't really grasp it? Even the little details like Abraxas and Cosmos Factory have more meaning than I first supposed. And yes, we are all part of the bungling F-Troop! Comparisons to Pynchon might also be interesting. Is the world conspiring against us or is it just a bunch of random events? Thanks!

brian collins said...

Great explanation/commentary. I very much enjoyed it.

I do feel like there are more parallels between the movie and the Old Testament though. For instance, the opening scene seems very much like an Adam and Eve story. They are the only people around, and then comes this dybbuk, and the wife attacks him.

Also, how about when Larry is on the roof and sees the naked sun-bathing neighbor? Very David/Bathsheba.

Anyway, I loved the post. Thanks again!!

Anonymous said...


Dustin said...

I rarely comment on things online, but I have to tell you that I loved this essay. It is unrivaled by anything I've seen online (searching for meaning, I read half a dozen other reviews, most of which left me wondering, "did he/she watch the same movie as me?").

How much I (and I suspect there are others like me) can enjoy a film like A Serious Man, a film in which the artists are clearly saying something, is largely dependent upon the degree to which I believe I am receiving the artists' message. Before reading your essay I was really struggling to understand what this film was about, and because of this, you've done me, and those like me, a great service.

this essay should be included in the liner notes with the dvd!


Anonymous said...

I came, I read, I ruined the movie! THANKS for making something so well written i couldn't stop reading. Now my movie experience will be tainted with perspective.


Kristen B. said...

Delightful post, very well written. I watched this movie for an upcoming philosophy paper I am expected to write and reading your article really opened my eyes to possible insights and topics that I did not originally see. Thank for the good read!

Anonymous said...

1967 was an important year for Israel and China, as related to questions of Physics . . .

Erasmus said...

While I don't agree with every single point, there's no denying it is a very well written and articulated essay worth its merit. I hope a mind like yours is getting put (and paid) to good use.

Margarita shamrakov said...

I just watched this film, I liked it a lot. But what is the meaning? I do not like how Coen Brothers end their films. They leave you uncertain in many films, but I feel like how many more films they will make with no definite ending. There is no point in my view to tell the story if you just going to recite the facts.

I think you explained it very beautifully, even Coen brothers would be jealous:)

Margarita shamrakov said...

I just watched this film, I liked it a lot. But what is the meaning? I do not like how Coen Brothers end their films. They leave you uncertain in many films, but I feel like how many more films they will make with no definite ending. There is no point in my view to tell the story if you just going to recite the facts.

I think you explained it very beautifully, even Coen brothers would be jealous:)

Anonymous said...

There is one thing you missed. The grand Rebbe reveals his own life with just one word. He quotes the Jefferson Airplane with "all the HOPE within you dies".

As we know, the line is "all the JOY within you dies".

The reason the Rebbe doesn't see anyone is that he contemplated God and life and its arbitrariness defied all understanding. His hope died.

Danny the Bar Mitzvah boy will go out to confront the whirlwind (and not pay Fagle back the $20) because he the instinctual, stoned next stage for the Jews...who will go on the win the 1967 war.

Anonymous said...

This was fantastic. I left the movie scratching my head and with some whirling thoughts, and this essay made me a fan. Thank you for (ironically) bringing some order out of the chaos!

Anonymous said...

excellent post. thank you.

Unknown said...

I'd like to echo many of the posts above in thanking you Chris for shedding a little light on this film's shadowy subtext. Having just watched the film, from cold and not knowing the Job parallel, I was left a little bemused. Cinematically enriched, but bemused. In the same way that one can watch O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU without knowing The Oddessy and derive pleasure from the experience, one can watch A SERIOUS MAN and enjoy the existential ride. But, knowing the source inspiration for the narrative arc adds a greater depth of experience and supplies a shade of reason to an otherwise seemingly unresolved cadence.

Many thanks for your excellent words.

Paul B

Michael Dembinski said...

One of the better analyses of a film that belongs to the ages.

My takes on the film - key questions: (un)certainty, the demons unleashed by Change, the forces shaping the universe.

More here: Interpreting uncertainty - my one and only blogging excursion into movieland.

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed your analysis, and just wanted to add two things.

Larry, in his first discussion with
Clive cries out 'In this office,
actions have consequences'. It is therefore surely not coincidence that at the end the doctor's phone call follows immediately after his first ethical lapse (changing Clive's grade). Similarly, the whirlwind comes for Danny when he repeats his misdemeanour (listening to the radio during his Hebrew lesson) after having been warned by Marshak.

On the same lines as the date of the records, there is a mistake
(repeated twice) on the blackboard in the proof of the uncertainty principle. Instead of writing < p^2 > - < p >^2, Larry writes < p >^2 - < p >^2. The first gives the variance of p, while what he actually wrote is zero. Presumably an error rather than an extremely subtle comment from the Coens.

Diana said...

I know how late this comment is but I just finished watching the movie.

Startled by the ending, and knowing I needed to search the internet for meaning (and a little comfort) I was in a hurry to remove the DVD from the player. Damned if the DVD didn't slip my grasp and slide into no-man's land inside the player. This has never happened before.

Now I will need a screwdriver and patience to take it all apart. I am not a religious person, (nor am I Jewish) but the irony of this movie "escaping me" was not lost, and I had to laugh.

Thank you for your excellent review.

Anonymous said...

crap this is really long
but no worries no doubt this is one of the best commentary i have ever seen, I knew that just after i read the first part

thanks a lot u r the best

Anonymous said...

"No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture."

LanaB said...

Amazing analysis. It was a really insightful read when the film was released, and is the first piece I thought of consulting almost two years later for my paper on the film and its link to a great Stanley Kauffmann article.

asdasdasd said...

Chris... This is a fantastic and whollistic commentary on a movie that has left me and everybody else I've talked to completely baffled. Well done, I hope this gets picked up for publication somewhere, I really do.


Rillo said...


I thoroughly enjoyed your article and agree with your interpretations and sentiments about the film. However, one of the anonymous posts made me stop and think. If God does or does not have a hand in the trials and tribulations of Larry,…. (Larry is told by many different mediums that he should stop looking for a reason why God has been causing so much trouble in his life because a)there are things in his life that he can understand and comprehend and therefore enjoy for simply what they are and B)these things that are happening are more likely caused by Larry and other people in his life and not by and not by a supernatural “hand of God” type presence; therefore Larry can deal with them by helping himself)….then why when Larry loses his sense of moral direction, which, has made him a good, although hapless, man to that point in the film, does God seem to immediately send down his wrath on Larry? Why after a momentary lapse of morality does God punish Larry, with both the ominous x-ray results and imminent tornado? Why is there cause and effect when Larry is immoral whereas throughout the film when Larry is a good and moral man he is not rewarded (effect) for his honorable approach to life (cause)?

Maaark said...

I am citing you in my Coen auteur theory essay, thanks! Really glad you caught the Job connection, its a major element. And I always interpret Job as every man's question in light of evil; if there is a creator, is it good?

In my paper I will emphasize theology a bit more. Philosophy is so thick in Coen that this must be one where they are probing their own Jewish roots and theology.

However, why didn't you address the opening scene? Do you suppose it addresses the old "curse of the Jews" because of Christ? I am leaning that way.

I really appreciate your very good work on this.

morble said...

This is a beautiful piece. Thanks so much for sharing it.

CrazVideos said...

This was an incredible breakdown. My DP passed this along to me as it applies so closely to a film we are currently producing, and your analysis has allowed me more insight into what I need to do with my script. I thank you sincerely for your commitment to literary criticism.

Daniel B. said...

The first paragraph after "Negative Theology" might very well be the single greatest sentence concerning a movie I've ever read in my life. Three thumbs up.

Polarjud said...

Nice exegesis!