Monday, November 9, 2009

A guide for the perplexed

The actual Coen Brothers - not extras from their latest film.

A Serious Man, the latest film from the Coen Brothers (above), who are perhaps the last Hollywood directors who can get away with anything intellectually challenging on the silver screen, has been met by some viewers with a serious charge: anti-Semitism, or at least (since the Coens are Jewish) "self-hatred." Set among the Jewish denizens of an absurdly moderne Midwestern suburb, the movie is clearly sourced in the Coens' own upbringing (they were raised in an academic family in Minneapolis), and yet, according to The Wall Street Journal, the (Jewish) stereotypes and caricatures in the movie "range from dislikable through despicable, with not a smidgeon of humanity to redeem them." The Village Voice went further, calling the movie "loathsome . . . truly vicious," and linking it to "a rising anti-Semitism" that was "understandable" after the recent battles in Gaza.

Meanwhile, other critics may have liked the film, but seem perplexed by it. "Can art come from jadedness?" the Boston Globe's articulately vapid Ty Burr wondered (apropos of nothing, as the film hardly feels jaded), before labeling the movie "Jewish Bergman" (!), and deciding that for the Coens, God is either "absent, absent-minded, or mad as hell." Well, maybe. Yet in his review Burr glosses over - indeed, in effect ignores - what many have noted about the film, and what gives it its structure - its parallels with the Book of Job.

We first meet the movie's lead, one Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, below) as he's having a physical, but soon learn more about his moral constitution; like Job, he's self-effacing but righteous - "a serious man," in his own words: a hard-working professor and family man who loves his kids and is loyal to his wife (except maybe in his dreams). Nevertheless, circumstance or fate or what-have-you begins to load Larry's back with misfortune: his wife decides to leave him for an unctuous neighbor; his bid for tenure is in jeopardy; he smashes up his car; his kids are secretly stealing from him; a student is bribing him to change his failing grade; and his sad-sack brother, who has been sleeping on the couch for months, is sinking into something like paranoid psychosis, all while obsessing over a grand scheme of probability.

Michael Stuhlbarg as the Coen's Serious Man.

Funny enough, probability is on Larry's mind, too, back at the university, where he has to explain to uncomprehending students Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. It means "we can never know what's going on," he tells them (which of course isn't true; the Uncertainty Principle tells us quite a bit about what's going on; but never mind), and that lack of true knowledge of the universe has begun to haunt him. He desperately seeks out spiritual guidance from the rabbis at his synagogue, but each encounter is more frustrating than the last. And the Lord continues to smite him.

It's odd that the poor mensch doesn't think of the Book of Job, or that none of his rabbis mention it to him (of course maybe that would have made everything too meta even for the Coens). Then again, at least one blogger has claimed that A Serious Man has "almost nothing to do with the Book of Job," so maybe I and many other viewers are finding parallels where there aren't any. Still, the movie is built around the religious question of affliction, features the advice of three rabbis (Job is advised by three "friendly accusers"), and concludes with the sudden appearance of a tornado (God reveals himself to Job from a whirlwind). And it does include a proxy for Job's plague of boils (Larry's brother is constantly draining a sebaceous cyst), and it opens, like the Old Testament book, with a cunning stratagem from the Devil himself. So it does seem that if the Coens didn't have Job in mind, then there's more cultural coincidence going on here than you could swing a dead cat at. (Or a live one, if like Larry you have to lecture on Schrödinger's famous feline.)

But back to that opening cameo from the Devil. People often forget that in the Bible, it's Satan, not Yahweh, who is tormenting Job (all God does is play along, as a kind of bet on Job's spiritual mettle). Thus the Coens open their latter-day parable with a potent fable from the shtetl, in which a seemingly innocuous old rabbi (the lovable Fyvush Finkel) turns up at the door of a poor couple on a dark winter's night. The husband's impulse is to invite him in; the wife, however, is certain he's a dybbuk, literally a dead man walking, re-animated by a demon. She even stabs him to make her point; but the Coens leave a shred of doubt trailing after the wounded rabbi as he staggers out - as well as a lingering sense that perhaps the rabbis counseling poor Larry in his modern Midwestern shtetl are themselves somehow demonic (particularly the one with a weird, Twilight-Zone-style tale of Hebrew script embedded in goyim teeth).

The Coens on the "set" of the Midwest shtetl moderne they found for their film.

So while A Serious Man may reflect the Book of Job, it doesn't quite mirror it; there's little sense that Job's various confidantes are emissaries of "the enemy," for instance. But perhaps it's in the very differences between source and film that we may find the key, as it were, to the Coen's scripture - and there are two digressions from the film's Old Testament source that all but cry out for exegesis. So here goes nothing. (Warning: serious spoilers ahead!)

In the Old Testament, Job's final advisor is "Elihu," who rebukes the claims of the three "friendly accusers" - i.e., that in a just universe, all affliction must be punishment for wrongdoing. Elihu's argument is that suffering is beyond our critique; it may exist to guard us from a moral fall, or even from further, greater suffering - but at bottom, its meaning is unknowable, just as we cannot have a full understanding of God's true nature or purpose. Rather pointedly, when Yahweh himself finally appears, he rebukes Job's friendly accusers but lets Elihu's arguments pass unremarked.

A key difference between Elihu and Job's three friends, however, is his age, and I think the Coens seize on this detail. Elihu begins his argument by apologizing for his youth: "I am young in years, and you are old," he explains (in William Blake's engraving, at left), "and that is why I was fearful, not daring to tell you what I know." Thus it's no surprise that the Coens begin to focus on Larry's young son Danny, who staggers through his bar mitzvah stoned, and is addicted to F Troop and the Jefferson Airplane. Through a complicated plot maneuver, when Danny receives his "bar mitzvah greeting" from the ancient rabbi who has pointedly refused to advise his father, his advice turns out to be a quote from an Airplane song, "Somebody to Love":

When the truth is found to be lies
and all the joy within you dies
don't you want somebody to love?
Don't you need somebody to love?

Obviously, the Coens have found an analogue for Elihu's arguments in the blandishments of pop - an amplified shrug before the mysteries of a mad universe, mixed with an all-too-human wail for love. This is witty enough, and after all, despite his cannabis-induced haze, Danny has gotten through his bar mitzvah and become a member of the nation of Israel.

And for a few, brief moments, his father's fortunes seem to improve.

But then the Coens take their last, and biggest, detour from the Old Testament. In what almost counts as an epilogue, Larry, unlike Job, finally does something unrighteous. Something wrong. Knowing, the film implies, that an envelope of money left by his failing student could be his way out of crippling legal costs, Larry changes the grade of said student from F to C (actually, in a typical Coen grace note, to C-).

And Yahweh's vengeance is swift. Within moments, a call comes from the doctor's office we saw way back at the beginning of the film: Larry's X-rays have come back from the lab, and things don't look good. At once we sense actual Job-level torments are now in store for poor Larry - only this time as punishment, not test.

Meanwhile Danny is about to face his own moment of truth, as a tornado much like the divine whirlwind in Job (at right, again from Blake) descends on his schoolyard. By his side is his junior-high pot pusher. Apparently they, not Job, are the ones destined to hear the new Revelation. But before we can hear it, whatever it may be, the film abruptly ends.

Job has gone down; and God, apparently, has decided to speak to Elihu, i.e. Danny, i.e. the Coens, instead. (Hence, perhaps, the success which followed for them, much like the renewal of prosperity that came for Job.) This final twist is, therefore, both a gesture of literally cosmic arrogance and a decided rejection of the faith in which the Coens were raised - and yet its cadence, which by all means should be triumphant, seems dark and tinged with regret; the whirlwind roars toward Danny with furious, nihilistic menace, and as it approaches, his pusher stares into his eyes with an expression that has no expression. Is God concealed within this whirlwind, or is the voice of the whirlwind essentially the voice of nothing, of nothingness? The Coens don't tell us; all they give us over the credits is the voice of Grace Slick. Maybe she's the new God.

So the brothers seem to feel no triumph in their triumph, as it were. But the question lingers: can a film be this critical of Judaism - indeed even reject Judaism - and yet not be anti-Semitic? I'd argue "yes," but I can understand the reactions of those who argue "no." The Coens do push the long-standing in-jokes about Jewish looks and tics from so many Jewish entertainers to a new, awful extreme; sometimes their camera simply stops to stare at a craggy proboscis or a drooping eyelid with a weird sense of fascination filtered through several levels of irony. How are we to take what amounts, in a way, to a cinematic Jewish tic? And are we perhaps supposed to equate all the plain looks and saggy skin on display as some sort of metaphor for the fallen, demonic state of Judaism itself?

How we answer that question, I think, depends on whether we feel, like Ty Burr, that the Coens are "cold." It's worth noting, however, that Burr describes them as being as cold as Stanley Kubrick, which in effect immediately dismantles the argument. Kubrick was hardly cold, and the insistence that he was by the fading generation of Paulettes who are still trying to undermine his reputation may count as the longest-running gag in American cinematic criticism (only the joke is on the public). Of course Kubrick was merely contemplative, not cold - although certainly he saw the universe as cold, and famously held back from satisfying the egoism of the average movie viewer. To Ty Burr, of course, that's unthinkable - and he resents the moral judgment it implies (richly deserved as that judgment may be).

Perhaps the Coens are a bit like that, then - they may be, as Burr snickers, "Stanley Kubrick's grandchildren," just not in the pejorative way he intends. They, like the divine Stanley, do stand at least one step away from the imagery they conjure, and thus they dodge the claim that they intend the grotesquerie of their characters as moral statement. Perhaps in their attitude toward their native milieu they're more like Fellini than Kubrick - and of course we hardly think of Fellini as anti-Catholic. Which isn't to say the Coens' imagery is on the level of Kubrick's or Fellini's, but here, as in No Country for Old Men, the Brothers C get at something like Kubrick's sense of submerged metaphor. And like Kubrick, their tales are suffused with melancholy, I think, beneath their carefully designed pop surfaces. Certainly much of A Serious Man plays like a long, belated valentine to their father. It's just not a valentine to their faith.


  1. Just a note:

    An undergrad professor of mine noted that, philologically speaking, Elihu's speech was a later addition to the text, probably inserted because the rest of the Job text was considered to veer very close to blasphemy as understood by Judaism at the time (this would have been prior to canonization of the Tanakh.)

    So not only has Job been a dangerous text since the beginning, but it should be of no surprise that works derived from Job should inspire controversial reactions from some quarters.

  2. Thanks, Ian, that's actually kind of fascinating. It also keys into the question of generational conflict that I think is implicit in the movie.