What Does this Movie Mean? “A Serious Man” (2009)
I’ve really gotten sucked into blogging about politics for the last several weeks, so this Friday, I decided to do something fun. Every time my husband and I finish watching a “deep” movie, he turns to me and asks: “Okay, genius, in ten minutes or less: what does it mean?” Since I create these blurbs on a regular basis, I am going to start publishing them. These are not “reviews” per se, but just some thoughts on what I think these movies convey. Naturally, major spoilers follow, so read at your own risk.
A Serious Man (Coen Brothers, 2009)
This is one of the richest, deepest, saddest, most mysterious movies ever made. It is a philosophical and dramatic masterpiece, and interpreting it completely is an impossible challenge. But I’ll try interpreting it a little bit, anyway.
Larry Gopnick, a physics professor at a Midwestern college in the 1960’s, suffers a series of bewildering troubles. His wife announces that she wants a divorce so she can marry a neighbor. Because she wants to do so “in the faith” and cannot move in with her future husband out of propriety, Larry and his weird, troubled brother must leave and move into a seedy motel nearby. When his wife’s fiance dies in an accident, Larry is stuck making and paying for the funeral arrangements. A Korean student and his father are hounding Larry to accept a bribe for giving the student a passing grade. Larry’s Gentile neighbor has snatched a piece of Larry’s land. Larry’s children are terrible. Confounded by all these vagaries of life, Larry seeks answers in religion and finds none.
What it means: Somewhere in the middle of the movie, Larry is having a dream in which he is explaining the Uncertainty Principle to his class. The enormous blackboard is covered in formulas and calculations, and when Larry finishes writing everything out, he turns to face the room and says: “Even if you don’t understand any of this, you’ll still be responsible for it on the exam.” This is the key to the whole story. By the end of the movie, three things are certain:
(1) There is a God;
(2) God retains the right to give you a shitty life for no reason, or for some reason you can’t possibly understand, but whatever it is, you are still expected to be a good person upon pain of terrible calamity;
(3) Religion is bullshit, and clergy are snake-oil salesmen who don’t have the slightest idea what they are doing.
Religion is bullshit.
First of all, there is the whole hypocrisy of Larry being thrown out of his own home because his beastly wife wants to remarry “in the faith”. She and her beau have no problem with adultery or betrayal, as long as those are done by the book. In fact, according to them, it’s not even that: religion requires that Larry be thrown out.
And then there are the Three Rabbis. Seeking advice, Larry is first shunted off by the synagogal bureaucracy to see “Rabbi Scott”, a hunchbacked youngster who is hilariously inept at advising his troubled congregant. With no life experience to inform him, and not much brain to go with his ignorance, Rabbi Scott is hung up on ridiculous metaphors involving the synagogue’s parking lot. He vaguely describes the parking lot as a symbol of possibilities and freedom (so many spots to choose from! never mind they are all the same) emanating from God’s benevolence — which goes to show that he is an enthusiastic idiot just getting his feet wet at bullying people with “advice” that’s too vague and general to be useful, and insults one’s intelligence besides.
The second rabbi, Nachter, is a professional fake to Rabbi Scott’s amateur. He’s been doing this for a while, and so he’s shed the giddy enthusiasm that we see in the junior rabbi to become a smug nincompoop. He tells Larry a long, mystery-laden story, the point of which is that there is no point; his ultimate advice is that Larry should stop trying to understand things. This is a perfectly reasonable position for Nachter to take: what better way to rationalize his own incompetence and lack of understanding?
The third, and oldest, rabbi, Marshak, has barricaded himself off from the world behind his massive and ferocious secretary. His office is like a vortex, swirling a great mass of stuff. Notice a curious pattern: religious books are pushed out to the edges, while random curiosities and objects of nostalgia are crowded closer to the desk behind which the rabbi is sitting. And in the center of that vortex, on the desk, is Danny’s confiscated player. The only words we ever hear Rabbi Marshak utter are lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song, “Somebody to love”:
When the truth is found to be lies
and all the joy within you dies
These are the members of Jefferson Airplane […] Go be a good boy.
This is the distillation of the wisdom he had collected and analyzed over a lifetime: be a good person; find somebody to love. Nothing else matters, and Marshak, unlike his younger colleagues, is tired of pretending. He is no longer interested in theology. The “truth” has turned out to be lies, and his happiness has ebbed away. His congregants, however, interpret his detachment as a sign of religious enlightenment.
Bovine complacency is NOT the answer.
Throughout the movie, other characters — most notably, Nachter — keep telling Larry that he needs to just accept things as they are and not wonder so much about God’s plans and purposes. Many viewers assume that is the point of the movie, the “message”, so to speak, that it’s designed to convey — and they are wrong.
There is an episode in which Larry is wondering why his neighbor always mows a part of his, Larry’s, adjoining lawn, and Larry’s wife counsels him to just accept it as one of those mysteries of life. Does it matter why he mows our lawn? she asks. Well, actually yes, it does matter: Larry’s neighbor thinks that portion of Larry’s lawn is actually his property. So evidently, simply accepting things as they are is the worst possible way to react.
Early on in the film, Larry and his wife are having an argument about the disintegration of their marriage, in which it is strongly implied that Larry has not had sex with her for a very long time. He apparently accepted their lack of intimacy as a normal thing — even though when his wife mentions it, she can barely contain her rage, a sign that her resentment over their lack of a sex life has been brewing for years — and lo and behold, now his wife has a lover fiance, and Larry has been ousted from his family and his home.
The “message” is clear: if you don’t tend to that garden, someone else will.
There is, therefore, both sexual and spiritual symbolism in the non-Jewish neighbor’s determined lawn-mowing. (And blending the sexual and the spiritual is a time-honored tradition in religious mysticism; John Donne’s poem wherein he’s begging God to rape him is a good example.) That connection between sex and God, between Larry’s loss of his family and his loss of any connection to God is especially vivid if you take into account the fact that rabbinical literature traditionally describes the relationship between the Jewish people and God as a marriage.
A marriage that the lightly observant, suburban Jews that populate A Serious Man clearly take for granted. Think about these little tidbits: at a picnic by the lake, a friend tells Larry that Jews are fortunate in having traditions that carry them through dark times; later, when Larry complains to his babely neighbor about the lawn-mowing situation, she snarls “Goyim?”, contempt practically dripping from her lips; and in Rabbi Nachter’s story, the Goy with the special teeth is treated as a mere vehicle for those teeth. The Jews in this movie are comfortable in their sense of … well, if not superiority, then certainly that they have a special, intimate relationship with God that the non-Jews do not; en masse, they sleepwalk through their communal life as Larry has sleepwalked through his marriage, unaware that this covenant, this union with God that they take as a given may have long ago disintegrated. Why? Who neglected whom? Whatever the answer, either the Jews or God may have taken on a new paramour; perhaps both.
When you realize all this, you also realize that the”wisdom” that most Jewish characters in <i>A Serious Man</i> extract from the distressing and the inexplicable — that you should just accept things as they are and sail through life without looking for answers — is the same attitude that cost Larry his marriage, his family and his home. It isn’t the moral of the story; the moral of this story is that this “wisdom” of unthinking, indifferent existence is absolutely wrong and spiritually destructive.
God will mistreat you, then punish you.
The end of the film sees Larry falsify a grade for a bribe, and God’s judgement is IMMEDIATE. It is at this point that it becomes painfully clear just how small and transient all of Larry’s middle-class malaise has been up to now, as he is about to lose the two things that matter most to a man: his son and his life. On the grand scheme of things, his crime isn’t even that egregious — but God can and does punish out of all proportion to the wrong. This comes back to Larry’s Uncertainty Principle: you must be good, even if your life is terrible and you don’t know why.
But what about the Prologue?
The Prologue introduces the theme of uncertainty. The married couple may be Larry’s grandparents, and Larry’s unhappiness may be the result of a curse, of sorts. One possibility is that the Gopnik family is infected by the malevolence of the dibbuk (though attacked and driven out, he had initially been INVITED under the couple’s roof, and evil, once invited, is almost impossible to purge). If the old man was not a dibbuk, Larry then is the “third generation” being punished for the sin of murder. On the more symbolic level, there is a contrast between how the husband and the wife think. The wife — devout, superstitious and suspicious — is a stranger to doubt. She stabs a man, convinced that he is an evil spirit, and does not give it another thought; calmly shuts the door and (presumably) goes to bed. It is her husband who agonizes over the whole thing. Having intelligence and an inquisitive mind is supposed to help us find answers to the very meaning of existence — but no, it is ignorance and stupidity that lead to confidence and calm, while analytic thinking brings with it only uncertainty and unsolvable dilemmas.
Stray observation: we ask the wrong questions and look for answers in the wrong places.
Rabbi Nachter’s “true story” involves a Jewish dentist who discovers Hebrew characters carved into the back of a Gentile’s teeth (he is referred to only as “the Goy”). The characters spell out “help me, save me.” What does it mean? Who made those carvings? Whose cry for help is it? The dentist goes on a long scholarly quest, but eventually gives up trying to find the answer. However, even while seized by the fever of mystery and unable to sleep at night, at no point does he ask the Goy about the stuff on the back of his teeth. The thought does not occur to Nachter or Larry, either. To an outside observer, asking the Goy would be the most obvious step, but those IN the story are blinded by their preconceived notions and assume that, because the Goy is a goy, the inscription on the back of his teeth can’t possibly have anything to do with him. Even though it’s on the back of HIS teeth. Don’t feel smug just yet, viewer: you too fruitlessly search for answers in your life in a way that’s hopelessly handicapped by biases imbibed since childhood. For this reason, we can never understand. Through a glass, darkly; animal shadows in a cave — we can never know the truth or understand God’s plan. Our only role is to follow the rules revealed to us.
Stray observation: Rabbi Nachter’s tea cup.
While counseling Larry, Rabbi Nachter takes countless tiny sips from a fine porcelain cup. Judging by appearance, it is “Lomonosov porcelain” — an example of rare, expensive fine china manufactured by a venerable Russian factory that once supplied all Imperial banquet tables. The cup’s significance is multi-faceted. To some extent, it is a reminder of Nachter’s (and Larry’s) Old World roots. More than that, I think it is symbolic of Nachter’s snobbery and superficiality. His delicate sips and the fine cup give the interview the air of an upper-class European “visit”; you would think Nachter was an aristocrat holding a “toilette”, rather than a clergyman counseling a troubled congregant. How can anyone’s pontificating be any cleverer when done with a cup like that?
Stray observation: “In the faith”?
It is said repeatedly (twice, at least) that Larry’s soon-to-be ex-wife wants to remarry “in the faith”. This is a startling turn of phrase, as in my experience, religious Jews do not use that expression. Rather, if you were talking about an observant Jew wanting to remarry according to Jewish law and custom, you would say that she wants to remarry “in the tradition”. “In the faith” is a Catholic expression, not a Jewish one. If it weren’t for the Coens’ background, I would assume this is an inadvertent error. But, since the Coens are Jewish, the incongruous word choice here is probably deliberate.
But why? Here is the fundamental difference between Judaism and traditionalist Christianity: Judaism emphasizes tradition over faith, Christianity emphasizes faith over rules. In fact, in Judaism, to have faith yet not follow the tradition is considered the gravest possible sin — far worse than going through the motions despite having no faith. According to Christian principles, by contrast, faith trumps all — as long as you believe in Jesus Christ as your savior, anything you do will be forgiven. Judaism’s emphasis on tradition has to do with preserving the Jewish community that’s subjected to great forces of assimilation. You may have your doubts, but as long as you keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, go to the synagogue and live near other Jews, you will probably marry “in the faith” and raise your children “in the faith”, despite not actually being a true believer. As long as tradition is preserved, there is always a chance of a non-believer coming back to faith or at least his children doing so. If you can’t be a perfect Jew, at least live according to Jewish law, and actual faith will likely follow — so the Jewish tradition tells us.
Larry’s wife’s desire to “remarry in the faith” symbolizes the erosion of tradition and thus the death of the Jewish community — the beating heart of the Jewish religion. (Notice, by the way, that all the teachers and staff at Danny’s yeshiva are really old; it’s all geriatric instructors and stoned, foul-mouthed youngsters, another sign that Jewish life as we knew at the turn of the twentieth century is going the way of the dodo.) With the close-knit, supportive community gone, religion is reduced to Mrs. Gopnick’s cold formalism and Rabbi Nachter’s narcissistic ramblings.
Now, don’t you want somebody to love?
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