Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Serious Man

Total spoilers.

Harold Bloom remarks somewhere that The Torah posits a fullness of meaning for the Jewish people. Because of the Torah everything is meaningful, and everything is meaningful in the Torah, including individual letters, even their shape. The Torah is full of wisdom, as a woman wearing braces from polio points out to the protagonist of A Serious Man, that can help with anything that may arise. Judaism posits a fullness of significance.

Bloom draws a couple of conclusions from this. For one, he says that this is why Jewish poetry is very weak. Because according to Bloom's theory of poetry, poets become great by battling a father figure to determine, among other things, meaning. Wordsworth is great because he is trying to outdo Milton. But Bloom says this is not a Jewish virtue. In Judaism, meaning has already been given in its totality, and surpassing fathers is not the thing to do. (I know a very successful Jewish professional man who outdid his blue collar father; the father refused to visit the son's office.) Bloom also believes that Freud's psychoanalysis, which he did not want to merely be a "Jewish Science," was very Jewish -- just as the Torah contains all the meaning that will ever be needed, so in psychoanalysis your destiny is set at a very very young age for the rest of your life, and just as in Judaism, in psychoanalysis everything -- even slips of the tongue -- have meaning.

The universe of almost all of the Cohen brothers' movies posits the exact opposite - everything is totally EMPTY of meaning, which is why so many of their movies just become complete farce.

In the middle of Burn after Reading you learn that the higher ups don't give a damn about the information that the main characters are battling over. No Country for Old Men gives us a killer who is nearly motiveless. Violence is sudden and pointless, and emerges out of bleak backgrounds like Fargo. The Ladykillers, The Man Who Wasn't There -- nothing means anything. The Big Lebowski is put into motion because our hero happens to have the same name as someone else. "We Are Nihilists, Lebowski" has become a famous phrase in part because the Cohen Bros themselves appear to be nihilists a lot of the time. Even something sweeter like O Brother Where Art Thou is all style and no substance. Any hint of reality is not in the movie so much as in the soundtrack. You have to go back to the Hudsucker Proxy (or maybe Raising Arizona) to find meaning. That was a while back.

A Serious Man is really interesting because it confronts the central meaninglessness that has been a preoccupation in the Cohen Bros movies. Knowing parts of it are loosely based on their lives makes you wonder if the meaningless of their films is a reaction to the meaningfulness Judaism posits -- which would make their response to their heritage the opposite of Freud's.

The film is basically The Book of Job -- a norman man, a serious man, is put through the ringer as terrible things happen to him. His children are brats who curse and use drugs, his wife is leaving him with no explanation for a sanctimonious jerk, she expects him to move out, wants him to get a Get (a religious divorce), he is up for tenure but some anonymous person is writing letters attacking his character to the committee, he is in a car accident, a guy dies in front of him, he has an insane brother living with him who the police want, his students don't understand him, and one is trying to bribe him. He tries to figure out why this is happening to him -- from within the faith (like Job, he does not turn from his religion, nor does anyone else in the film) -- but the rabbis are no help. Finally he is diagnosed with something horrible and the film just suddenly and violently ends with the image of a tornado.

It is a pretty stunning movie, not the least because it is unapologetically Jewish. The film opens with a kind of parable, in Yiddish, and leaves words like Dubbyk untranslated (the audience can figure out it is a kind of ghost, but still). When mainstream movies talk about god the usually do in the blandest non-dedominational terms, like Contact. But here it is all Jewish all the time. It is kind of great that the Cohen Bros have achieved a level of success where they can make a movie like this at all.

And the film is about the mystery of meaning -- it investigates it, asks if God is behind it. Mitch commented to me:

I especially love the comparisons between the physics of Uncertainty Principle and Schrodinger cat and Stuhlbarg's struggle with the general ambiguity of a suburban existence. We are constantly faced with these almost quantum problems - the bribe money that both is and isn't there, the man who both is and isn't a ghost in the opening. As the Korean student's father says, the key to the movie is to "accept the mystery."

This is quite right, but what is mysterious is not two kinds of meanings -- it is whether anything means anything at all.

A lot of the movie is spent trying to get at the mysterious and ancient 3rd Rabbi, who, in the best line of the movie (which you can see in the trailer), can't see our guy because he is busy. "He doesn't LOOK busy!" "He's thinking" is the deadpan response. When we finally get to him all he has to say to our guy's son is "be a good boy," after returning the radio that got taken from the kid in Hebrew class -- apparently he was listening to it because he also obscurely names the members of Jefferson Airplane. Even here there is a deep uncertainty -- is the guy everyone looks up to for wisdom insane? or is there meaning here in "be a good boy"? It is a platitude but it is an interesting one in the context of the movie. As the second Rabbi notes speaking at the funeral in Judaism there is no heaven. You don't get to eat milk and cookies in some VIP lounge, in his example. This lack of reward is a central -- and radical -- fact of Judaism. You do the right thing because it is the right thing do to, not because you get something in exchange for it. Christianity, looked at in this way, is just practical. It is just a barter system where you do one thing just to get what you want, heaven. In Judaism you just do right because you are commanded. Be a good boy. Not "be a good boy so that ..."

And what happens in the film? Our guy knows accepting bribery is wrong. He knows it is not being a good boy to accept bribery. But he does. And immediately the universe has meaning. God punishes him with some horrible disease and appears in a whirlwind, as he does to Job. Or is it just the doctor calling and a natural tornado? You have to live with the mystery. And the question is what are you going to do, as you live with it. The right thing? or the thing you know is wrong? It strikes me as an interesting moral movie, but mostly as an movie about the Cohen Bros previous movies -- they seem to be really wondering about the meaninglessness in their earlier work, and they come to the conclusion that you can never tell if something is meaningless or not.


Tali said...

Sorry, I'm still stuck on "Jewish Poetry is weak." It reminds me of someone, who only read the Bible in English, telling me that the "language is SO simple."

Christian said...

If A Serious Man is a reaction to life's apparent meaninglessness and Judaism, then it's even more connected to Kafka's The Trial than I had previously imagined.

Joyce Zonana said...

And then there was my graduate school professor who told me I could not properly read Milton because I had a "Hebraic" mind -- meaning?????? I agree with Christian that the movie is indeed quite connected to Kafka . . . and of course, I suppose, the really scary part is that the apparent meaninglessness is indeed quite meaningful / or purposeful -- a very very sad joke.

Mitch said...

While I knew it didn't have a chance for Best Picture at the Oscars last night, I did hope this would win something last night... like Original Screenplay. Nope. Unfortunately for the Cohen Brothers, that's the sort of hole you dig yourself in when you make a subversively brilliant movie EVERY YEAR.

Another scene that really sells this movie to me is the tangent with the second rabbi and the dentist. It's all I could think of when I was at the dentist a couple of days ago.