Schlemiel, schlimazel: why so serious, man?

The following is a “film précis” I wrote for a Faith & Film class offered at Boston University’s School of Theology in year two of my Master of Divinity degree program. This is the first of two critical analyses of popular films through a theological lens written for this thoroughly enjoyable course. The second, which I’ll post in a few, is a review of 28 Days Later.

[Spoilers Abound! You have been warned.]

A Serious Man is “the kind of picture,” as one critic put it, “you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar.” Coming shortly after the critical and box-office success of No Country for Old Men, which netted four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director(s) and Best Adapted Screenplay, A Serious Man is regarded as the Coens’ most personal film, with characters modeled loosely after their own family, and offers a key to understanding their singular brand of comedy. (A.O. Scott in the New York Times put it this way: In the milieu of A Serious Man “their smart-alecky nihilism feels authentic rather than arch — you understand, maybe for the first time, where they are coming from.”) As an explicitly Jewish film, it fleshes out themes that have appeared, often obliquely or incidentally, in their previous films like Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski, where Jewish characters were included among the colorful casts but whose Jewishness was not front and center, as it is for the characters in A Serious Man. There is, of course, a long history of “Jewish films” in Hollywood, and the brothers’ contribution brings to the screen the experience of a distinctly Coenesque Jewish community in a late-1960s suburban American setting that resembles the St. Louis Park, Minneapolis, of their childhood. It would, however, be a mistake to look for a strictly realistic depiction of the time and place that inspired the filmmakers. This is a Coen Brothers film, and as such it lives in a pristine, cinematic universe of their creation. It is, like the prologue of the film itself, a fable in the long tradition of Yiddish folktales, and while most reviewers readily see allusions to the Book of Job, which the movie certainly alludes to (and parodies at times), it owes at least as much to the Yiddish folk character of the schlemiel, with his “peculiar awareness of himself as powerless, in a world where power is the thing,” as as Yiddish Lit scholar Ruth Wisse puts it.

Amy Landecker as Mrs. Samsky and Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik

There have been few characters in recent film as unfortunate as Larry Gopnik, the middle-aged professor of quantum physics, whose life is falling apart around him: his wife has kicked him out of the house and filed for a gett — a ritual divorce — so that she can marry recently widowed family friend Sy Abelman (the “Serious Man” of the title). Meanwhile Larry’s being bribed for a passing grade by a student, Clive, who uses Schrödinger’s Paradox to brilliant effect, jeopardizing Larry’s already tenuous tenure candidacy; he’s being bullied by his neighbor and hounded by the Columbia Record Club; his brother is in trouble with the Feds and possibly losing his grip on reality; his son, Danny, about to be bar mitzvahed, is in debt to the local pot-dealer, who chases him home every day after Hebrew school; and his daughter is determined to get a nose-job. The film follows Larry’s struggles to make sense of his sudden tsuris. Being a Coen Brothers venture, tragedy and hilarity ensue.

Aaron Wolff as Danny Gopnik

The film is also a many-layered tale of fathers and sons, and it is Danny’s story, through the filmmakers’ use of crosscuts and musical motifs, that most closely parallels Larry’s and brackets the film proper, along with the song that weaves its way through Danny’s plotline, Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” (The musical theme Larry is saddled with is the lugubrious “Dem Milners Trern” — “A Miller’s Tears” — a Yiddish folk song that appropriately, as Wisse explains, “conveys the fears of an aging Jew who is being expelled from his land and wonders what will become of him and his hounded people.”) Not only does this parallel structure highlight a father-son theme that is echoed in the relationships between Larry’s extorting student Clive and his father, and the goy neighbor, Gar and his son Mitch, but Danny’s trials and tribulations, from his debt to the school pot-dealer that sees him sprinting from the school bus everyday, to his constant calls to his father to fix the aerial so that he can watch “F-Troop” on TV, highlight how Danny’s problems are only a titch more ridiculous than his dad’s. Larry is, Wisse observes, “Less like Job than like the schlemiel of Jewish folk humor.”

Larry simply lacks the imagination to engage in the kind of thieving, adultery, and bearing false witness that goes on around him. He wants to believe in a perfect and upright world, and only when misfortune begins singling him out in earnest does he try to learn why bad things happen to good people.

When “the math,” which makes perfect sense to him, doesn’t seem adequate for this task, he turns, in comic desperation, to religion. He tells a family friend, Mimi, that his troubles came like a “bolt from the blue… everything I thought was one way turns out to be another!” Like many of the female voices in A Serious Man, Mimi’s is both practical and prophetic when she suggests his woes could be “an opportunity to learn how things really are,” and recommends he see the rabbi and avail himself of the insights of his faith. “We’re Jews!” she says staunchly, and then in a nod to folk wisdom and, perhaps, the tehomic allusions in Job: “We’ve got that well of tradition to draw on!”

Problem is: Larry thinks he already knows “how things really are.” In a scene between Clive and Larry that clearly mirrors a later scene between Larry and Rabbi Nachtner (a method of doubling and circling back the Coens excel in) Larry tells the failing student, who admits he doesn’t get the math but “understands the dead cat”:

But… you… you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean–even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

But the professor’s visit to Rabbi Nachtner suggests that fables and physics might not be so far apart, that Larry’s problem might actually be his hermeneutics. He gives Larry a big, heaping draught from the well of Jewish folk wisdom, with a modern folktale (“the Goy’s teeth”) that circles back to the mystical prologue of A Serious Man, to which Mimi, in the prophetic fashion favored by the Coens, has already gestured.

George Wyner’s Rabbi Nachtner, and “The Goy’s Teeth”

The 8-minute prologue, shot in a narrowed frame in sepia tones, suggesting an atmosphere reminiscent of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story or a Solomon Yudovin woodcut, has vexed reviewers, who tend to ignore it. The brothers have refused to explain it, but it lays the foundation for our reading of the modern-day folktale that follows. The camera hovers above a sleeping village, snow gently falling, as Velvel, a bearded mensch (think Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof), leads his horse and carriage through the quiet streets. He addresses the camera in Yiddish, beaming: “What a marvel!” He comes home to a golden-hued hearth and his nonplussed wife, Dora, who’s been waiting up for him, with a marvelous tale. A tale within a tale (within another tale — but who’s counting?): Velvel has just met Reb Groshkover on the road, and the old man, a revered scholar, has done him a mitzvah. So naturally Velvel has invited him to the house for soup. Dora looks as if she’s seen a ghost. “God has cursed us,” she says flatly, insisting that, according to a female friend, Reb Groshkover died of typhus three years ago, and that Velvel has been tricked by a dybbuk, a malicious spirit in Jewish folklore that can take possession of bodies, like Reb Groshkover’s.

Velvel bursts out in laughter. How else could he react? He is a rational man, a serious man! But, as it turns out, neither he nor Reb Groshkover is a match for a practical woman. When Reb Groshkover arrives and refuses soup, Dora matter-of-factly stabs the old man in the heart with an icepick. But the old rabbi (or “dybbuk?” as he is listed in the film’s credits) sticks around long enough to pose a question to Velvel that fizzes, pops and bubbles up through the rest of the film: “as a rational man, which one of us is possessed?” Velvel has no idea. It is of course, a trick question. As a rational man, there is no way of knowing. Would a rational man believe in possession at all? As the stricken rabbi stumbles out, the tables are turned: “Dear wife, we are ruined!” Velvel cries. “Nonsense, Velvel,” Dora replies, going back to her tasks. “Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil.” Why is Larry, who is, if not the “Serious Man” of the title, a rational one, asking for an answer from Hashem at all? The film sets about methodically (and comically) breaking down the modern barriers between science and mysticism, religion and folk tradition, demanding in its way that we, as Clive’s father says of the bribe: “Please: accept mystery.”

As the prologue amply demonstrates, The Coens are virtuosos of mise-en-scène, known for their exacting and meticulous costumes and sets, lighting and sound. Every element, every detail plays into the scene, down to the cadence of the actor’s lines. Especially in an explicitly theological film like A Serious Man, scenes are loaded with symbolism and rife with cinematic in-jokes. The spareness of the context of A Serious Man — the sets suggest a time period, but the world created, while meticulously detailed, is, like the one in the opening scene, meant to be taken as idealized, a folktale set somewhere in middle America sometime in the sixties, more a memory of a place and time than an actual place and time — plays into its themes. The intentional lack of other historical context-clues in the film (Vietnam is never mentioned, for example, nor, perhaps more to the point: the Six-Day War, historical events that would have been unavoidable at the time), isolates and highlights only the elements of the story the Coens are interested in exploring. And there is plenty worth exploring: each scene is thematically relevant, loaded with layered meaning, visually and sonically, in addition to whatever action is playing out, giving rich possibilities of multiple, even contradictory readings.

The Coens’ mastery of mise-en-scène is, in other words, perfect for a film that wrestles with Biblical themes. Take one of the few non-claustrophic scenes in the film, where Larry, yielding to his son’s oft-repeated complaint that his favorite television show “F-Troop” “is fuzzy,” ascends to the roof of their suburban split-level ranch to “fix the aerial.” The scene opens with a shot of the clear blue sky, into which the top rungs of a ladder appear. Critics have read reference to Jacob’s Dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22) in the scene. Larry ascends the ladder to the gentle but troubled plucking of a harp. In a mock-majestic wide shot he surveys the whole neighborhood with its sparse landscaping and ticky-tack houses from his somewhat precarious perch. He sees his goy neighbor, with whom he is in a “border dispute” and who provides a sense of constant menace for Larry at home, playing catch with his son, Mitch. As Larry fiddles with the aerial (a fiddler on the roof, you might say), we hear the layered sounds of multiple signals, “a babble (or perhaps Babel)” of voices, as one reviewer notes, including a somber song in Hebrew. When he accidentally spies the wonderfully louche Mrs. Samsky over her privacy fence sunbathing in the nude, the moment is not played for yuks, exactly. We hear the gentle opening strains of Mrs. Samsky’s musical theme: Jefferson Airplane’s “Comin’ Back to Me.” It is a moment of revelation and temptation, of questioning and yearning for Larry, both a comic riff on Jacob’s Dream (“Surely the Lord is in this place… this is the gate of heaven”) and a poignant homage. The scene is richly layered with memory and longing.

“A fiddler on the roof,” you might say.

But the most Biblically resonant of the images, and the one that makes comparisons to the story of Job inescapable, is the very last we are left with at the end of the film: that of Danny facing an approaching tornado — a literal Whirlwind — with dumb wonder.

Just as things are looking up for Larry, tenure secured and the possibility of reconciliation with his wife, he gets a call from the doctor with the test-results we all fear, and Danny, freshly bar mitzvahed, confronts the Whirlwind outside of Hebrew class, “Somebody to Love” blaring over the raging of the storm, and we seem to be right back where we started, “on the edge of chaos,” as theologian Catherine Keller describes it, in her reflection on Job. It is a dark ending that seems to justify some of the criticisms of the Coens as bloodless, but it’s a marvel as well, a moment of Old Testament wonder in a ticky-tacky world of tamed chaos. We are reminded that Larry (and Danny, for that matter) is no less a character in a tale than Velvel, or Job. The specter of real catastrophe finally upon us, we circle back to Mimi’s prophetic advice, in one of the few scenes that feels expansive in a frantically paced, conspicuously claustrophobic film: “Life is beautiful.” (Possibly a sly reference to the 1997 Italian film by that name, another movie about Jewish fathers and sons, although one set in a Nazi concentration camp.) Mimi continues: “Nobody’s sick. Nobody died. You just need help remembering how to enjoy it.” But what happens when we are finally faced with sickness and death, as the film’s ending suggests both father and son might be?

In the heart of the film, when Danny is bar mitzvahed, stoned but finally finding his voice there in “the bosom of Abraham,” in a comically skewed scene that echoes his father’s “trying the new freedoms” of marijuana with Mrs Samsky next door, both father and son see with clarity “how things really are,” if for a fleeting moment. That scene circles back to Rabbi Nachtner in the same space, but on the occasion of a funeral, reminding his congregation that the world to come, l’olam ha-ba, is “not heaven, not what the gentiles think of as afterlife… not a geographical place, like Canada,” nor the land of milk and honey (“we are not promised milk and cookies through eternity”); it is “in the bosom of Abraham,” the soul of community that nurtures its members and to which they return. It is there, in community, in one of life’s beautiful moments, that Larry seems to “remember how to enjoy it,” in Mimi’s words.

The film leaves us with some big questions, not least the fate of the characters we have followed as they fumble for answers. Do the filmmakers owe us answers? Here, we can turn to Job. “Hashem,” Rabbi Nachtner reminds us, “doesn’t owe us” an explanation. In fact, God has some questions of His own, starting with: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:1 NRSV) It is instructive that YHWH answers Job’s questions with questions, and Jewish tradition, in both its rich religious and folk iterations, circles back, ever returning, to this tale from the Whirlwind, which itself circles back to God’s own tale of Creation. (In his review of the film, A.O. Scott recalls a joke his grandfather used to tell: “Why does a Jew answer a question with a question?” The “answer,” of course: “Why not?”) In a profound sense, as Mimi suggests, these prophetic traditions provide opportunities “to learn how things really are.” The stories and prophetic traditions circle in a vast, ever-evolving, ever- involving, mystery: Voices from the Whirlwind.

This is the revelation of the film, “the Whirlwind revelation,” which “celebrates the undomesticated creation, the wild things of the universe, from weather patterns to ostrich wings.” But we are left, with Keller, to ask how “the creator’s delight in the complexity of the nonhuman creation answers the question of unjust human suffering?” Spoiler alert: YHWH’s answer is closer to the Coens than any of us might wish. It involves a Behemoth and a Leviathan. (Job 40:15-41:34). The universe is definitely rated R for disturbing violent content.

For Keller this suggests a deep tradition of the tehom. Is it possible, Keller wonders, that God, the “‘Spirit of the world-wind,’ does not will our suffering–but does will a world, a living, whirling, open-system of a world?”

That world happens to be this creation, this real world of finite creatures who live, feed, risk, exalt, and die, a world of change and interdependence in which suffering is inevitable. Yet this Genesis Collective is so intensely alive, even or precisely and its chaos, that new life is also always happening. Therefore, even for one as tragically hurt as Job, new life can take place. This may only be possible because he has refused to suppress piously the turbulent truth of his own experience, but has grieved and raged and confronted the meaning of life. Ex profundis.

The truth is often revealed in the questions, not the answers; often the answers are in the form of new questions. But sometimes, though the answers remain questionable, they reveal “how things really are.” The well of tradition gives us a great, storied history of the questions that circle and return, the asking of which reveals our humanity as surely as the inability to know the answers. A Serious Man seems to suggest what Keller has called “a theology of becoming [that] both resists the literalizations of our knowledge — whether they are scientific or theological — and insists upon our creaturely knowing together.” With this film, the Coens have brought process theology beautifully to life.

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