Saturday, October 31, 2009
Nog Gets Serious With the Coens! (Read After Viewing; Burn After Reading).
The Coens' new film, A Serious Man, opens with this admonition from the Talmudic scholar Rashi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." The film that follows seems to explore the possibility of this as something that is simultaneously essential and impossible. Larry Gopnick is a Jewish physics professor (somewhere in the midwest, late 1960's) whose life is falling apart through no fault of his own ("I didn't do anything" becomes a mantra used in numerous ways throughout the film by various characters: the Coens' still love their repetition). Larry's wife is ready to leave him, his tenure approval seems tenuous, and he may well have a serious health problem. As his son prepares himself for his bar mitzvah (the event toward which the narrative proceeds), Larry too finds himself in need of spiritual guidance, turning to a succession of rabbis who offer him (in the film's best scenes) advice that is more bewildering than useful. One rabbi tells him the tale of "the goy's teeth," the story of a Jewish dentist who discovers the phrase "help me, save me" embedded in the teeth of a patient and becomes, for awhile, obsessed with the message...until suddenly he isn't, at which point life proceeds as usual. Another rabbi suggests the hidden beauty that lies behind life's banal surface ("Look at the parking lot," he tells Larry, as if it might contain some answer if one could only see properly). In a scene that reinforces this idea, Larry climbs to his roof to adjust the television antenna and listens to a succession of broadcast signals that briefly become clear before fading out again, then happens to spot across the top of a fence a naked woman sunbathing. But, for Larry, these are rare instances of a glimpse beyond the mundane in an otherwise ceaselessly frustrating life that usually seems at the whims of a creator who'd rather make him squirm, and the Coens' leave us with a wildly ambiguous ending that will infuriate many. As I exited the Glenwood, much of the audience seemed to be staring at the screen with arms crossed, as if they'd been swindled, and I heard the word "awful" from at least one of them. But I think they're wrong, as are the critics who constantly accuse the Coens of having nothing but contempt for their characters (a position the directors do nothing to publicly dispel, given the fact that they keep talking about how much fun they had dreaming up ways to punish Larry). True, the film is pitch-dark in its humor, bitter, sometimes cruel, but it feels to me like a real effort to think about the idea of faith. It's (deliberately) arguable what Larry learns here, but I think it's something along these lines: one has no choice but to live on a constant precipice that's as likely to bring some new unknown terror as it is enlightenment, or to withdraw completely, as does the film's mysterious third rabbi, who refuses to answer the questions of anyone once they've reached manhood. The film's abrupt ending is frustating, yes, but also frightening and appropriate. See it twice at least!