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This review is from: A Serious Man (DVD)
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.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 20, 2010 4:07:44 PM PST
D. Fowley says:
This is the best review I've read of a film I've now seen several times--both on Amazon and, well, anywhere (I've read lots of them). This reviewer gets it right. This is filmmaking at its best, and it's not about probing truths--it's a brilliantly executed work of black humor, using multiple human notions of deep truth as devices to produce sharp irony and satire. The inside joke if there is one is that we can't know anything about the meaning of life with certainty. After all the "serious man" in the film, Si, is someone who, ironically, can't be taken seriously. The many, many layers of irony are amazingly well orchestrated across the cinematography, the acting, the soundtrack, the direction, etc. It certainly isn't for everyone, but what truly great Coen Brothers movie ever was?
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 25, 2010 6:15:54 PM PDT
Matthew Montchalin says:
Does the DVD come with any extras?
Posted on May 19, 2010 12:06:01 PM PDT
In reply to an earlier post on May 21, 2010 2:33:46 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Feb 2, 2014 6:50:15 PM PST]
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 22, 2011 5:52:30 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 22, 2011 5:58:48 PM PST
Steven Strauss says:
I tried to let this discourse go without my interjection, because it won't make me more likeable.
Here is the second sentence in David's review.
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.
Clearly, EugeSchu heard something like it. EugeSchu uses these words in response.
gosh, some movie maker brings up one physics concept and he's a genius and you have to be a genius to understand it right? c'mon
Getting the most out of something and comprehending something are two different achievements. I think we would agree that someone who lived in the worlds depicted, like the filmmakers, would be likely to find a lot more to enjoy in it.
Also, David, I am beginning to suspect that the brothers find something distasteful in maintaining perfect periodicity, and that they had to choose well the aspects of periodicity that they would change if they could. O Brother was a senseless patchwork of American folklore that just pleased them without meaning a doggone thing.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 28, 2011 1:48:59 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Mar 23, 2011 8:24:16 PM PDT]
Posted on Nov 26, 2011 3:19:30 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 26, 2011 3:23:10 AM PST
Steven Wells says:
In David's marvelous review, much, yet not enough, has been made of the sentence: 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. Having personal experience with both the tradition and the physics, I concur emphatically, while adding the element of having grown up in the time period portrayed in the movie. Jefferson Airplane's new (in 1967) version of Somebody to Love was (and remains) a hit and evokes strong memories of the era. Today's youth, hearing it decades later, do not appreciate the era. Similarly, it wouldn't be obvious that Larry Gopnik has adjusted the antenna on his roof as best he can to receive F Troop unless you grew up watching the show and hearing its bugle and lyrics from the opening song. [I actually was born in Corporal Agarn's favorite city.]
As to the Jewish tradition, I remember practicing my haphtarah decades and decades ago (I can still recite a little from memory) and can empathize with so much that was portrayed of the traditions and modes of thought. I also noticed how the opening scene had simplified translations for some of the more fancifully expressive Yiddish idioms.
From the quantum mechanics side, it was fun to review the blackboard dream scene documenting some aspects of the Uncertainty Principle. [I am reminded of The Day the Earth Stood Still (the good one) in which Sam Jaffe, a math professor turned amazing actor, had the right differential equations for celestial mechanics on his blackboard.] There's a wave equation above and an electromagnetism cross product on the right. Physics phreaks can marvel at the accuracy of most of it, and the errors. The MKSA value for h (Planck's constant) is shown for what should be h_bar (h divided by two pi). And there is a continuity error when Larry incorrectly writes the first term for the change in momentum under the square root. It matches the (also) incorrect position equation. After the bell rings a few seconds later, both the position and its conjugate momentum show the correct first terms for wave intensities (the expectation values of the squares rather than of the squares of the expectation values.) We can also wonder at the graph of the even inverse function labeled with the Hebrew letters aleph and ayin. Such letters are very rarely used in mathematics/physics. I've only ever seen aleph used for the three transfinite cardinalities and ayin used as a tetradic for static stress/strain equations, but the exponent seems to include (reading right to left) the Hebrew letters aleph yod qof samekh. As far as I know, that doesn't mean anything, but would probably be pronounced as "aches" like the assorted aches and pains that Larry experiences.
Okay, have I gotten the absolute most out of the film?! I've only watched it perhaps ten times, so there's plenty more watching to do and subtleties to examine.
In reply to an earlier post on May 16, 2012 11:08:03 AM PDT
Brendan Frost says:
Steven's analysis further promotes my inclination that physics doesn't actually have much to do thematically with the film. Other than on a very stretched metaphorical level. I agree that the film is a masterpiece, a Senecan tragedy brought into a Jewish mythos, but I don't know that there's an overarching theme statement that directly involves physics and makes the role of physics in the film more than superficial. Of course, I could easily be wrong.
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