on January 29, 2010
[This is an attempt to interpret the complex narrative of the movie. Please read this *after* you've watched the movie - else skip to the last line :)]
Larry Gopnik is a professor of physics who teaches his students about 'Schrodinger's Cat' - the idea that the fate of an entity remains undefined right until the moment an agent acts and 'collapses the wave function,' so to speak. Gopnik believes that the story of the cat serves no purpose other than to illustrate a mathematical truth - and yet, strangely enough, Gopnik's human fate is no less uncertain and contingent than that of Schrodinger's hypothetical cat. For example, the very moment Gopnik "acts" to accept a bribe and pass his Korean student, his telephone rings, and he receives ominous news from his doctor. By this time, the strange causalities in the movie will have compelled us to ask if Gopnik's phone would have rung had he chosen differently. As Gopnik comes to realize, the "truth" of mathematics and numbers - be it in the form of Physics, the Mentaculus, or the Kabbalah - is beside the point. What is of essence is the human story.
To be sure, ASM is not an amoral thought experiment about actions determining outcomes. The movie takes a very specific moral position: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." If you willfully "act" in defiance of your fate, you will reap the consequences of your actions.
Gopnik is a man who almost never acts. As Michael Wood points out in his LRB review, Gopnik lives in a world where "agency always belongs to someone else." Agency belongs to Sy, to the wife, to the son, and even to the Columbia Record club that makes you pay for taking no action at all. On the few occasions that Gopnik chooses to act, he meets with disaster. His refusal to accept his neighbor's encroachments into his property culminates in the bizarre death of a lawyer. His "road rage" - brought on by the sight of the Korean student - causes him to lose control of his vehicle and, via some twisted Schrodingerian logic, "cause" the death of Sy Ableman. Finally, Gopnik's refusal to accept the burden of his own legal expenses brings down a grave illness upon him. The moral of this tale seems to be: there is less suffering in passively accepting one's fate than in actively meddling with it - a credo of inaction, similar to the Christian doctrine of quietism and the more ascetic interpretations of Karma.
And yet there is a delicious ambiguity concerning the theological foundation of this ethical vision. When Rabbi Marshak speaks to Danny, we wonder if we are hearing the settled wisdom of an ancient tradition, or the contemporary wisdom of a serious man who has just "received with simplicity" the truthless truth of The Airplane. Marshak's chamber, interestingly, looks more like the study of an amateur biologist, than that of a religious cleric.
ASM embodies the Judaic vision of tradition as a repository of stories. It has a "Russian Doll" structure - a story within a story, where the outer story echoes the inner one. What the dentist Sussman's story is to Gopnik, Gopnik's story is to us. Just like Gopnik, Sussman too is a "serious man" coping with a crisis that has turned his life upside down. Such stories - which constitute the tradition - acquire significance through signs and tokens whose obscurity invites interpretation. The teeth in Sussman's story are referenced in Gopnik's story - we see a large model of teeth in Rabbi Marshak's chamber. And very mischievously, the background score chosen for the Sussman narrative is by Jimi Hendrix - a man famous for expressing himself with his teeth! "What does it mean?" Sussman asks the Rabbi, awaiting a revelation. The Rabbi is honest enough to admit his cluelessness - and so the mystery remains - only to be transmitted to Gopnik, and then to us - the last hearers of the story. Just like Gopnik, we too are addressees of the message that drove Sussman crazy. We too restlessly await an epiphany that will abolish the mystery.
At one level, this is a story about a father, a son, and the transmission of tradition. Note the parallel between Danny's Bar Mitzvah and Gopnik's tenure - the rites of passage father and son have to undergo. Our anxious wait ends with a "mazel tov" for both of them. The "rite of passage" theme is similarly evoked by the intense and purposeful neighbor who, determined to make a man out of his pre-adolescent son, inducts him into the violent sport of hunting.
The narrative has a beautiful circularity. When the story begins, the father is talking to his doctor and the son is in the classroom pondering a debt he owes. When it ends, the father is still talking to the doctor and the son is still in the classroom, except that now the clouds are gathering, and some great judgment is hand. The father makes his choice and condemns himself; the son dithers as the tornado approaches.
Thanks to Coen Brothers' attention to detail, one chances upon new significances in every subsequent viewing. The Rabbi Nachtner sequence stands on its own as a stunning reminder of the Coen Brothers' mastery of their medium. The actors deliver stellar performances - Stuhlbarg creates magic with his face and his voice. The crouched, defensive man who negotiates with the Columbia Record club could not be more different from the tenured professor who is about to change Clive's grade. And as we have come to expect from the Coen brothers, characters tend to have comical tics. There's Gopnik's wife's rapid blinking when she is agitated; Sy's tendency to say "most important" in his mellifluous voice; and of course, the kid in the bus who has just discovered the joy of expletives.
To call this movie a masterpiece would be to state the obvious. This is the Coen brothers' subtlest and most cerebral work yet. It is a serious work of art.
on June 27, 2010
What makes this wry comedy special isn't the humour. Although you'll have a smile on your face much of the time (certainly not at the ending), there were only a couple of laugh out loud moments. Rather, it's the thought-provoking and stimulating storyline about a Jewish college professor, Larry Gopnik, whose life seems to be unraveling, and who seeks spiritual guidance in vain.
His wife is leaving him for another man. His psychologically impaired brother has moved in, stirring up even more domestic turmoil. He is up for tenure but someone has been sending anonymous letters of complaint about him to university officials. He has to deal with a difficult Korean student, and the student's father, who offer to bribe him in exchange for a passing grade. And he has money problems.
Gopnik comes across as something of a pathetic sap who could solve some of his problems by just standing up for himself, but his ultimate fate is apparently beyond his control. The ending could have been written by Schopenhauer. Even though I don't agree with, or like, the movie's message, I still respect and admire the way it has been put on film.
Aside from the fact that it probably helps to be Jewish (I'm not) when digesting the film, the only problem I have with it is that I kept waiting in vain to find out the significance of the film's beginning: a supernatural(?) scene in what appears to be 19h century Poland. I don't know if I missed it, but I was unable to see any connection between this opening and the rest of the movie.
With all the garbage that is churned out by Hollywood nowadays, A SERIOUS MAN is a real gem of a flick, albeit an ultimately depressing one.
on January 7, 2010
Yes, it's not for everyone. A strong grasp of both Jewish tradition and quantum physics would do the potential viewer well in getting the absolute most out of the film. But, as someone who is by no means an expert in either area, this one hit me on quite a base level in its unflinching and very true-to-life depiction of a man's life coming apart at the seams and all the existential angst that ensues. The wonderful thing is, A Serious Man is not only deeply resonant and moving, but quite hilarious as well- in that dark, dark way that may be just a little too dark for some.
The Coens have always caught some flack for their supposed misanthropic elitism; or, in other words, what has been seen by some critics as a sort of contemptuous mocking of the characters they depict onscreen, the two directors never fully granting their filmic creations emotional sympathy. If it was previously easy to debunk this claim, it is now, with A Serious Man, a piece of cake. Has there been a performance in recent years more gut-wrenchingly honest and genuinely pathos-exuding than Michael Stuhlbarg here as protagonist Larry Gopnik? That the narrative thrust of the film is essentially centered around all the horrifying and humiliating events that befall Gopnik does not necessarily mean that the Coens thumb their noses down at this character. If we take into consideration the personal nature of the film (set in a time and place very much like when/where they grew up, and populated by characters probably not unlike those they knew), then it comes as no surprise that A Serious Man is the most studied and 'serious' Coen brothers film to date.
Simply in terms of sheer film-making craft, this is the Coens, and certainly cinematographer Roger Deakins, at the peak of their respective crafts. The recreation of a late 60's heavily Jewish Midwestern locale is pitch-perfect (minus a few very small anachronisms). Not a scene feels wasted, not a shot superfluous; the picture is beautifully symmetric in structure and full of little rhymes and rhythms and repetitions, plenty striking and quasi-iconic images (Stuhlbarg on the roof as pictured on the DVD and promotional poster being one of many), and lots of likely soon-to-be classic dialogue infused with both the Coens' trademark deadpan humor (a la The Big Lebowski) as well as the film's broader thematic concerns.
Then there's the ending, or perhaps as some would say, lack thereof. Not unlike the ambiguous note that No Country For Old Men went out on, the final moments of A Serious Man will probably leave many angered, many confused, and many disappointed. But I don't think there was any other way to close such a film, one largely concerned, as it is, with all the great uncertainties that plague life-- what more appropriate way to end it than with the greatest cinematic uncertainty of all? The final shot is, I think, one of the most haunting in cinema history. I've seen the film three times in the theater, each time leaving awestruck and emotionally drained as the various events of the film, its haunting score and its devastating philosophical implications swirl around my head.
A Serious Man, then, is truly a serious film, with the (black) humor only arising naturally from the utter tragic unfair-ness of life as seen through the protagonist's eyes, and not forced on the situations irreverently as in a lot of films. Given the uncompromisingly bleak nature of the film, perhaps it's best summed up by an old and rather cliché platitude (not unlike the one the film somewhat ironically opens with): When you feel like crying, laugh instead.
on March 26, 2010
This movie serves well as an Obituary for American Judaism. The "golem" metaphor at the beginning of the movie is a reflection of Judaism itself. I say this as a Jew who has lived in Israel.
The main character's pathetic nature is reinforced by all the worst in modern-day Judaism. This pathetic reflection of a man out-of-touch with himself, wife and kids, remains a harsh reflection of much of Western Culture, stripping bare of what in reality it means to 'yield-to-be-good' in a post-diaspora world.
It is a rare movie that I finish and think to watch again very soon. There is so much power in the exploration of this weak, browbeaten man. I enjoyed the fact that he could appear to be more-than adequate at work, but a total wimp with wife, and stand helplessly cuckolded, even allowing the adulterer to dictate terms to him, and have him move to a motel as the wife's lover prepares to take over the man's wife, home and family.
The bribe business is merely the last piece of himself that he surrenders. He's already surrendered manhood and fatherhood, now he surrenders his integrity, honesty and professionalism even as he gets what he's seeking. The complexity of the summation is only made more beautiful as he gets the medical "bad news," and the tornado is artistic perfection.
It really is a bare-knuckle indictment of modern man as well as Judaism, within its stripping bare of the nonsense and almost paganistic ritualism of chanting irrelevent Hebrew, the glowing parents and his lawyers/co-workers' glowing-reviews of the stoned 13 year-old all combined to make a point brilliantly.
I think in this post diasporic END TIMES, a film like this is a jewel. The dream sequences with the canoe and his brother were phenomenal. The sexy neighbor sequences were great, as you wonder if she will make a man out of him, sort of she's gonna 'save' him type thing with sex and marijuana, and when he suddenly wakes up in that motel room, you feel like it's YOU who have been dropped out of that exciting dream yourself.
Just a great piece of work; brilliantly ending with the approach of apocalypse, which is what this kind of man, replicated by the tens of millions amongst us today, will bring to humanity to hasten its doom.
on June 5, 2010
I loved this movie. I've watched the uncanny opening scene several times on Youtube. I'm puzzled by one
apparent dramaturgical error. The wife stabs a learned rabbi, thinking he is a dybbuk because she heard from
her cousin that this man had actually died 3 years ago. A dybbuk however is a living person who has been possessed
by the spirit of a dead person. Its physical appearance is that of the living one, not the dead one, so it is not
possible for the rabbi to be a dybbuk in the way that the wife thinks he is. Of course, we can interpret that the
wife herself misunderstands or does not know the distinction between a dybbuk and a ghost or revenant.
This is only a minor quibble. The movie manages to be bleak and hilarious at the same time, in truly Kafkaesque
fashion. I highly recommend it.
on September 13, 2011
- Might be the subtitle of this film. The Coen brothers did it again, with another satiric masterpiece whose humor is dark, a virtual fart at a funeral. No belly laughs, just ironic smiles and uneasy twitters as we watch the physics professor protagonist nail the equations of life on his chalkboard, while his own existence unravels and crumbles in one irrational assault on logic after another. In an update of Job - without the triumph of faith and goodness - the puzzle cannot resolve itself until he takes action. And as actions have consequences, the negative action produces the negative result. Not to make a spoiler, but the cat dies.
The layout of the film was a perfect recreation of 1967. Too "1967," in fact, which the Coen Bros. did purposely to add surreal subtext. As those of us around then will recall, older architecture abounded and predominated as Federally-funded urban renewal was only just beginning. And plenty of second-hand cars made the streets a rolling open-air auto museum.
Not sure what the opening sequence in old Austrian Galicia added to the film, except to further the sense of reality's deception and false consciousness. Even though the film is very oi gestalt Ivrit, it will leave long and lingering thoughts behind. A modern classic.
on October 18, 2009
A great movie, a great statement about human life -- the best Coen Bros. film to date and a true masterpiece. Life is completely inexplicable, kind and cruel at turns, without warning or reason. The only thing we have are the small pleasures given to us, and to want, and to look for someone to love ---- though no guarantee about finding such a person. The film closes with an oncoming tornado, a whirling black cloud that seems to signify the violent mystery that is human life. The film opens with the following quotation from the writings of a medieval French rabbi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Possible or impossible? This movie is one beautiful, perfectly made, and profound creation. Plus, it's really funny.
on October 27, 2009
Larry Gopnik is a middle aged man living in the 1967 American Midwest, with a simple, but familiar life routine. His faith, job, and family define his place in the community. It may be not much, but it is all he's got... One day however, he finds this routine deeply interrupted: his wife asks him for a divorce; his job is threatened by poison pen letters; his brilliant, but socially dysfunctional brother moves in with him, unable to hold down a job. And from there, things get worse... Larry subconsciously reaches out to people around him for help (once by having a panic attack in his lawyers office), only to be referred to a rabbi. And then to another one, and another one...
I read somewhere an opinion that A Serious Man was too esoteric to earn a wide audience following. I want to assure you that is NOT a reason NOT to see the film. I think one universal truth about humans is that, regardless of our individual religious affiliations, we all seek deeper meaning to our lives, past paying our mortgage and taxes... The various rabbis the hero seeks out in order to help him make sense of his trials and tribulations may as well be imams or catholic priests. Larry's quest for the meaning to his suffering is akin to what most of us go thru at some point... All of which makes him a sympathetic character. The story, as told by the brothers Coen, is witty and engaging; the lessons are true and wise. Be ready for little action, a few contemplative chuckles, and a lot of food for thought. This is definitely a film best appreciated when one is in a ruminative mood. However, the lessons could as well be told in three sentences or less, rather then an hour and twenty five minutes of film. If you are a linear thinker, you may find the pace of the story frustrating.
on March 17, 2010
I can't recall such disparate reviews for a film - which is, I suppose, not surprising, given the subject matter and the often-polarizing Coen brothers. For every film they've made that has received nearly universal acclaim (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), they've made one that either inflames or frustrates or just leaves many scratching their heads (Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski - yes, remember this film was panned when it first came out, before it attained its now-legendary cult status). I wouldn't call this my favorite Coen brothers film by any stretch, but I found it a remarkably well-told, fascinating story, filled with the usual vivid assortment of Coen characters. For me, whatever flaws it may have are infinitely offset by the wonderfully skewed view of people that the Coens present - no one else makes films like this, and A Serious Man is most certainly cut from the same odd ream of cloth the rest of the Coen milieu comes from. Just to see Sy tell Larry that he believes it's important at times to count to ten - and then to have Sy literally do that very thing, out loud and then sliently - is, to me, what makes a Coen brothers film so funny and so compelling. I'd say the same for the scene where the Korean student's dad confronts Larry in his driveway; it's funny because it's uncomfortable and awkward and a trifle disconcerting. In any case, I would never suggest that this is a film for everyone - the reviews here certainly bear that out. But I don't understand why some would say it's anti-Semitic, or that you have to be Jewish to relate to it, or that it doesn't tell us anything new about its subject matter. I think many are simultaneously reading too much and not enough into the film. And I suspect the Coens are perfectly fine with that, since I doubt seriously they expected this film to be embraced universally. And I think that's why they make such great films - they make what they want to make, and let the proverbial chips fall where they may. Thank goodness for that.
Larry appeared as clueless to what was going around him as did Velvel, the Shtetl husband in the opening village scene, but slowly he learns in this dark comic tale by the Coen Brothers. Larry finds himself principally having to contend with Sy, the 'malicious spirit' who has turned his world upside down by pursuing his wife, Judith. He also finds himself on the verge of tenure, as well as hounded by the Columbia Record Club because of his son's passion of Jefferson Airplane and Santana. Ever so slowly Larry's world begins to unravel and he feels powerless to do anything about it, and so he turns to his rabbi for answers.
The film explores the causes of angst with all the wit and irony viewers have come to expect from the Coen Brothers, however "A Serious Man" takes on deeper ethical and moral and does one dare say religious tones, as Larry finds his whole life called into question, and unsatisfied by the anecdotes and allegories of his rabbi. Underscoring Larry's trials and tribulations is his own son's personal journey into the psychedelic world of Jefferson Airplane, wonderfully played out in the lyrics of "Don't you want somebody to love?" as he prepares for his bar mitzvah.