Major spoilers ahead.
When I told my mother the other day that I was writing an article about A Serious Man, she thought back to the film and told me that she had enjoyed it, but something had rankled with her, before concluding there was something unsatisfying about it. For some who have seen the film, this will be an understatement. At it release in 2009, it baffled many. It alienated others. For some, it was simply un-engaging. The Coens pile tragedy upon tragedy onto their protagonist, Larry Gopnik, and then it just ends. For me, it was one of the Coen brothers' finest films, working both as a hilarious black comedy but also a daring formal experiment. When a film leaves virtually everything in its narrative ambiguous, what does that do to film analysis?
The following essay will be exploring the film in-depth, meaning it will not only be spoiler-heavy, but also probably quite incomprehensible to anyone who is not familiar with the film. As with all of the Coen brothers' films, there's a lot to be gleaned from repeat viewings, and it's from these details I'll be trying to construct a more pleasing whole of a perplexing and disjointed narrative (at least initially).
Part I - A Theory
Let's start with one of the crazier ways to slice the film, and say that Larry is dead, and the events of the film are his judgement. At the risk of sounding like a Lost-fanboy conspiracy-theorist (which I was, incidentally, but I'm totally over it now), perhaps a less inflammatory way to put this would be that Larry's primary struggle throughout the film is to reconcile a parade of apparently senseless punishment in the context of a fair and righteous God, and what this means in the context of his mortality. It's certainly fair to say that a strong part of the film is a meditation on God's punishment, the afterlife and the notion of cosmic justice. The key piece of evidence for this assertion would be that Larry is staying at The Jolly Roger, a motel which bears the skull and crossbones on its sign. Exiled for the sake of the children, this is the first of several times that Judith's (his wife) new lover Sy Ableman marks Larry for death.
Another key clue can be found in the film's prologue, set in an Eastern European shtetl, in which Traitle Groshkover, a house-guest, is suspected of being a “dybbuk” (a malevolent possessing spirit) by the wife of the house. She is convinced of her suspicion when he turns down dinner, due to her belief that “a dybbuk doesn't eat”. Larry, too, is seen abstaining from food, even when the rest of the family eats in an early dinner scene and when meeting Sy Ableman and Judith at a diner. These two pieces of evidence are put together when Danny asks “Isn't Dad eating?”, and Judith replies with “He's at the Jolly Roger.” Whether this is to be taken literally or metaphorically, these details appear to suggest that Larry is somehow marked for death, judgement or destruction.
It's particularly fitting that, when asleep at the aforementioned motel, Larry's dreams almost always centre around death. In two separate dream sequences, Sy Ableman speaks to Larry from beyond the grave, the second time nailing the lid on his coffin. Another dream sequence sees Larry sending his brother Arthur off to Canada. The location in this dream alludes to Sy's eulogy, when Nachtner refers to Olam Haba - the Jewish afterlife - as being “not a geographic place certainly, like Canada”. Of course, before Arthur can reach the promised land, he's shot by Larry's blue-collar, emphatically Gentile, hunter neighbours, shortly before they turn on him too. Indeed, this sequence appears to crystallise something of persecution complex Larry seems to harbour. He notes that these same neighbours appear to be intruding on his lawn inch by inch to build a boathouse. His daughter wants to get a nose-job in apparent shame of her Jewish heritage. For a man who clings desperately to his past (“What was my life before all this? Not what I thought it was”), this is a source of great torment.
|"There's another Jew, son!"|
The feeling that the Jewish people are being marginalised is not just some paranoid fixation of Larry's, but built into the infrastructure of America itself. As illustrated by the film's prologue in Eastern Europe, the Jews are fundamentally exterior to the United States, and as such, not written into their law. The “get” is dismissed as “not a legal issue”, and everyone in a position of social authority seems weirdly dismissive of Jewish culture. When two policeman interrupt Sy Ableman's shiva (an extended period of mourning) to warn Uncle Arthur about his gambling, they seem unwilling to pass through the separating screen door, merely saying “go back to your... thing”. As a people perpetually in exile, the Jews are displaced and outsiders even in their own country.
Of course, the greatest persecutor of the Jews was not the Gentile world, but God himself. Rabbi Nachtner illustrates the difference between Judaism and Christianity when he says that “we are not promised a personal reward, a gold star, a first-class VIP lounge where we get milk and cookies to eternity”, emphasising that the afterlife is not a factor in the Jewish punishment/reward system. Due to the absence of Hell in the Jewish faith, it's not in the afterlife that damnation is doled out, but rather punishment or reward is delivered in life. The Old Testament God is a vengeful God, not beyond the use of floods, famine, pestilence, and storms to punish sinners. What's so puzzling then, is that there's nothing obvious that Larry should be punished for. The events of Larry's life are not hellish, but rather purgatorial; he's being tested.
Forever navigating his way between two choices, Larry is a man defined by his inaction and his absence, as evidenced by the scene in which Larry is told he's gotten into debt with the Columbia Record Club for “doing nothing” and the frequent “While You Were Out” slips, respectively. He does everything he can not to decide anything or take any course of action. Schrödinger’s cat, which Larry teaches his class early in the film, serves as the central metaphor for this dynamic throughout the film. For those unfamiliar with the famous thought-experiment, the theory goes that there's a cat placed in a box with a flask of poisonous gas which has a fifty-percent chance of being released due to a random event (for example, the decay of some radioactive material). According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the cat would exist in a state of simultaneously being alive and dead until observed as being one or the other by a third party.
This not only mirrors the prologue's central question (is Traitle Groshkover dead or alive?), but also the question of whether Larry's Korean student, Clive, left him money to bribe him to change his grade (as Clive's father hilariously tells Larry to accept the bribe, or risk a defamation lawsuit). In just about every aspect of his life, Larry does just about everything he can not to “observe the cat” for as long as he can. It's only when he makes the sinful choice to take Clive's bribe that his judgement comes swiftly and mercilessly in the form of his doctor delivering some ominous test results. It seems he's been a dead man/cat walking the whole time, and just didn't know it. And it's not just Larry who's damned. In an emphatically Old Testament turn, judgement comes to destroy Danny's school in the form of a tornado (the same disaster that followed Job, whose story A Serious Man follows loosely). One student points to the American flag, noting that it's about to be “ripped right off the flagpole”, as if the whole community is about to be exiled from America once and for all.
At this point, I'd like to step back from my own theory because I'm not even convincing myself of its validity. This way of looking at the film, even if you feel it does hold water (and I doubt I've convinced everyone), does not really reconcile all the various elements of film, many of which are contradictory. For example, it could equally be theorised that Sy Ableman is a dybbuk. We are told in the opening story that Traitle Groshkover became a “dybbuk” because his family did not observe shiva, and left the body. Danny, at Sy Ableman's wake does the same thing to watch television, leading one to surmise that perhaps Sy too has become a dybbuk. Could this explain the persistence of the defamatory letters to the university even after his death?
Even more strangely, the film could be argued to take place entirely within the mind of Larry's son. The first shot of the film's main narrative begins inside Danny's head, tracking toward the circle of light, slowly becoming visible as the earphone nestled in his ear. This is followed by a scene in which Larry's own ear, or perhaps the contents of his head, are being examined. Isn't it strange that it would Danny's subjectivity that is evoked rather than Larry's, given his less prominent position in the narrative? We are also presented with the image of brain in a vat on one Danny's sci-fi shows, another indication that the film's reality may be a manufactured one. Moreover, this theory I've been outlining primarily addresses only half of the distinct binary between science (chaos) and religion (order) the film follows; a dichotomy which skews the viewer's perception of the film according to emphasis they accord to each element. It also doesn't take into account Mrs Samsky, Danny's marijuana sub-plot, Uncle Arthur, Marshak and many other elements besides.
The film itself deals with the concept of theorisation. In a dream sequence, when Larry writes up Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle on the blackboard, Sy Ableman approaches it with scepticism: “I'll admit, it's subtle, it's clever. But is it really convincing?” Any attempt to figure it out starts looking like the Mentaculus, the reconciliation of its disparate elements a virtually impossible task. So without much hope of constructing a coherent view of the film's events, what can one do with A Serious Man? As it turns out, the intra-textual questions are really just the beginning. Look at the larger framing outside of the narrative, and the film becomes a more interesting and complex beast. It seems far more likely that rather than trying to code in one specific “real story” into A Serious Man which can be neatly tied up, the Coens use the film as an interrogation of the function of narrative, and an attack on the gospel of authorial intent. It is, in this way, a rather subversive take on how a film usually functions.
Part II - Are the Coens Basically Fucking With Us?
Yes and no. For starters, the Coens have been on record as saying that they don't necessarily have a definitive idea of what their films are supposed to mean. They often claim to not make creative decisions with concrete reasons necessarily, but often go with what “feels right”. For example, in The Making of Joel & Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski, William Preston Robertson posits that the Western-themed opening to The Big Lebowski, “is really about the chauvinism of Westward Expansion, and, indeed, the absurdity of the pioneering American masculine mystique itself”, only for Ethan to reply:
"The Western theme's just another thing that has nothing to do with anything but just seemed right next to the other things... We can supply stuff in retrospect... I mean, in terms of what was right to us about the Western theme, but that might not be what in fact seemed right at the time. I'm saying my speculation about why we liked it wouldn't be any more interesting or valid than anybody else's speculation... I mean, even the things that don't go together should seem to clash in an interesting way".
Granted, not everything that comes out of the Coens' mouths (or the mouth of any other director for that matter) can be taken at face value, but its certainly a believable working method in the context of this film. A Serious Man is nothing if not provocative in the range of ideas it presents to us, encompassing everything from religious parable to scientific theory, from nested narratives to dreams, supernatural mythology to sci-fi hypothesis and a myriad of cryptic exchanges and guttural noises, inviting comparison and juxtaposition, never to be fully worked through into a unified whole.
That's not to say that this is all empty provocation on the part of the Coens. It's rather fitting, given that the film is arguably, at base, about the fact that “we can't ever really know what's going on”. A Serious Man depicts the horror of a world become unreadable, no longer obeying the laws of semiotics we rely on to live a functional or meaningful existence. In what may be termed a “breakdown of signifiers”, the film is riddled with incomprehensible chalkboards of equations, indecipherable Hebrew scripture, and of course Arthur's Mentaculus, a “probability map of the universe” expressed in a flurry of unintelligible symbols; each one of them as dense and resistant to interpretation as the film itself. Conversation too becomes a stumbling block to communication. Clive's accent renders the phrase “mere surmise, sir” into a garbled series of syllables, secretaries let out random phlegmatic barks, and Jewish vocabulary is perpetually misunderstood.
If this weren't alienating enough, the Coens pretty much disregard the notion of cause and effect as the dominant narrative strategy over the course of the film. Early on, Larry asserts that “Actions always have consequences”, but this is proven not to be the case. Larry and Sy's simultaneous car crashes are considered to be related by Larry (“Is Hashem trying to tell me that I am Sy Ableman?”), but there is no direct causal link between them. Similarly, inaction is shown to yield unexpected reactions too. As previously discussed, Larry protests that he “hasn't done anything” (as he does at various points) to the Columbia Record Club, only to be told “[t]hat's why you've received the monthly main selection”. Much of the film in fact hinges on a lack of action, from Judith's claim not to have “done anything” in relation to her fidelity, to Arthur's claimed innocence of the sodomy and solicitation charge, and Larry's failure to publish and thereby secure his position of tenure. Inaction has consequences too, it seems. The film is by and large episodic, and trying to connect coherent strings of cause and effect between the events of the film is a difficult task.
Part III – The Role of Narrative
The reason that A Serious Man works is that it addresses the question of the function and role of narrative itself, before completely disregarding it. In the film, the use of narrative in Jewish culture is described by a friend of Larry's:
“It's not always easy deciphering what God is trying to tell you. But it's not something you have to figure out for yourself. We're Jews. We've got that well of tradition to draw on to help us understand. When we're puzzled, we have all the stories that have been handed down from people who had the same problems.”
However, within the film's narrative are various nested narratives, told with the intention to illustrate but which serve only to confuse things further. The film's prologue, a sort of Yiddish folk tale, is ambiguously linked to the main plot (the “cursed Jews” could be ancestors of the Gopniks, some have theorised), and the “Goy's Teeth” sequence fails to give any guidance or meaning beyond “helping people, couldn't hurt”. “Why even tell me the story?” Larry complains when no answers are forthcoming to the various questions the tale has raised. Are narratives only worth telling when they provide closure or objective truth? A Serious Man would prove an equally frustrating viewing experience for Larry. The failure of narrative throughout the film to elucidate, to impart wisdom, to illustrate truth, to create a coherent world out of one which is often too complex, unjust or unfair to comprehend; this flies in the face of everything we rely on narrative to do to salve the problem of an existence without any organising shape, theme, message or objective truth. We crave a God because it gives our lives a narrative. There's someone writing our destinies. There's a coherent value system, a cosmic cause and effect. There's some hope of a happy ending. There's meaning, not just some stuff that happens. Perhaps we rely on Gods in the same way we rely on artists – for narrative.
Therefore, it may not be too far to say that the Coens are a tangible presence in A Serious Man. If you replace every instance of “Hashem” with “the Coen brothers”, we might be getting somewhere. Larry's struggle would be largely the same if it was about his sudden awareness that he was a character in a film; that sudden self-awareness and wanting to know desperately that somebody responsible is in charge is not unlike Will Ferrell's character in Stranger Than Fiction. The authors are the creators. They control fate. They punish or reward their characters. While this is true of all texts, what makes A Serious Man different is that the Coens both constantly draw attention to their own reigning influence over the narrative while at the same time completely renounce the power of their authorship. They create no objective truth, shape no meaning, and refuse to lead the way. They create ambiguity and mystery with no interest in resolving it. They are not creators of meaning, but tricksters who suggest that there may be no meaning to be found at all. Roland Barthes' essay “The Death of the Author” (published in 1967, the year in which the film is set, interestingly) is perhaps a good way to understand this. In this essay, Barthes argues that the intentions or biography of a text's author should not be taken into account when analysing a text. He states that:
“by refusing to assign a “secret”, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God”.
The Coens utterly refuse to assign a secret meaning to the film, preferring instead to leave chaos in their wake. The Coens challenge us, the audience, to construct a narrative around the unresolvable contradictions of the film. This is the process of artistic creation; to take raw reality and whittle it into something meaningful. This impulse is inherently anti-theological.
A Serious Man is a daring film because the Coens throw down the responsibility of the director to set down a meaning - any meaning - for the events of their film. To step down from that position of authority can only be seen a populist gesture. For this reason, the film is truly a collaboration between audience and artist, as we all take a role in the process of creation. As with Schrödinger’s Cat, the narrative's ambiguities will co-exist, super-imposed, endlessly unresolved until observed. It's up to the audience to complete the reality of the film with their own analysis, or else “accept the mystery”. Perhaps this explains why the Coens would choose to start a film such as this inside a boy's head being pumped full of pop music, and to end it with a cyclone, the earphone still dangling from his ear. Life, media or chaos can only find significance through the filtration of a consciousness. Human consciousness, the audience, completes the illusion that there's any meaning to be found at all. Unsatisfying? Perhaps. But in that impulse, the Coens may have captured something quite true of human existence.
By Ryan Hogan.