A Serious Man

Fridays at The Jagged Word are when I try to expose as little of my ignorance as possible. Most of the time I have only seen these movies once and have a day or so to think some thoughts about them before putting them on paper/screen. So, FYI, you are really getting half-formed thoughts which happen to occur to me. Best-case scenario: you will be intrigued enough to see a movie you otherwise might not have seen.

I do not want to expose my ignorance, but sometimes it happens anyway. I suspect it may be a common experience. Men, in particular, do not like to be made to look like fools. We want to be taken seriously. We like to be in control, measured, even keeled. Even if we cannot control the situation, we want to—at the very least—be aware of what is happening.

Lawrence Gopnik, in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009, streaming on Netflix), is as far from being in control of his world as it is possible for a man to be. It is a common theme in the Coen’s movies: someone, trying to do his or her best in the world, finds out things are moving against them in ways far beyond their control or knowledge. Sometimes they are evil things, as in Fargo or No Country for Old Men. Sometimes they are humorous, as in The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? Sometimes, they are both, as in Raising Arizona. And sometimes they are just common things piled one on top of another until they are unbearable.

So it is in A Serious Man. I must repent in sackcloth and pour ashes on my head because I had not seen it up until now. I have not seen everything the Coen’s have done, but of those I have seen, I would put this right after Fargo and No Country. I do not think there is an extraneous word or scene. Everything fits. And the cinematography is excellent. The composition of some of the shots is breath-taking to me, though I am far from an expert.

Furthermore, the story holds its tension until the last second. It feels like the energy is constantly crackling just beneath the surface, like the latent sparks in a carpet or cloth. Gopnik is alternately beset and released by powers out of his control. Whether Ha-Shem, or something else, he is uncertain. He is undecided whether the things knocking on his door are good, evil, or otherwise (are they dybbuks or benign presences?). The rabbis are not much help, either. It is like there is a pressure tank being filled, released a little, and then building again. And as the pressure builds, Gopnik is the only one who cannot find a way of escape.

Among other things, it is the building pressure of not having done anything. This is the double meaning running throughout the movie: Larry has not “done anything” to deserve the things happening to him; from his wife’s declaring she wants a divorce, to his children refusing to listen to him unless they want something, to his brother’s multitude of problems. He does nothing, but things are done to him.

On the other hand, there is the mid-life-crisis-ish creeping fear he, “has not done anything,” with his life. He has not published, or taken any agency over his own life, and he has not really lived. All the things he has done have been essentially worthless. For example, at a lakeside picnic, he says to a friend, “Everything I thought was one way turns out to be another.” The things he thought were solid (his marriage, his job, his family, his health) all begin to shift and come unmoored at the same time. His friend says, “Then it’s an opportunity to learn how things really are.”

The question of the film is whether he (or we) can actually get a handle on how things, “really are.” Perhaps, in the end, reality is too big for us. While we are focused on paying back the bully that $20 we owe him, a tornado forms at the end of the street. One way or another, our ignorance is exposed. The question is whether there is anything beneath or behind the ignorance which can shore up the unsatisfied sensation that our selves are not really our own, but constructions made up of our interactions with those around us.

A Serious Man seems to suggest that, at least for Larry Gopnik, there might not actually be anything there. He does not have a self to deny. Us? Maybe. But whether or not we think we can discover “our true selves” somewhere, the asking of the question will always be nagged by the doubt that if we dig too deep, we will find a fraud—or worse, nothing.

This is, in part, the comfort of a God in flesh. He is not just, “The Name,” but Yahweh and Yeh-shua. And the fact that, when we have lived half our lives, if we come to the realization we have “done nothing,” it will not be the black hole Larry finds. There is a bottom to the free-fall, and it is not us proving we should be taken seriously—that we have “tried to be serious” men, as Larry tells Rabbi Marshak’s secretary. There is only one Man who deserves to be taken seriously, who will not be exposed as an empty-suit claim on a space in this world. Then, when we have done either everything or nothing, there is a substance to a life which is not our own.