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A Serious Man (2009)


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For a guy who claims not to be a believer, Jeffrey Wells sure can preach. Tell it!

Am I reading this correctly? Jokey-dokey, baseball-bat-and-gloppy-brain-matter Basterds -- a movie costarring the perpetually smug-faced Eli Roth -- is a hotter Best Picture contender than A Serious Friggin' Man?

Calling on the ghosts of Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk, Andrei Tarkovsky and Fritz Lang to walk the earth, visit certain Gurus in their homes at 3 am and straighten their asses out.

I'm not as anti-IB as Wells -- at this point in the year, if I had a vote for Oscar, I might even give it to Tarantino's film, just for the sheer movie-ness of the thing, although I remain ambivalent on its merits (and this assumes the Coen movie isn't nominated alongside it) -- but I share his dismay at the failure of A Serious Man to have taken hold as an obvious Best Picture candidate. For cryin' out loud, the film would be an obvious candidate were there still 5 Best Picture slots! With 10, it's inconceivable in the current crappy year that a film of such excellence wouldn't be mentioned first.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I posted a link to this review of A Serious Man at Facebook but think it's worth posting here, because the review grapples seriously with the religious angle of the film. I'm not sure I follow the math angle in the review, nor do I know Bill's own religious background or current beliefs, but I found the review wonderfully engaging. Good comments after the review, too.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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  • 2 weeks later...
Will Stuhlbarg be Del Toro'ed? I'm with Wells on the merits of Del Toro's performance, although I laughed out loud at Tom Reagan's comment below the post. I don't agree -- at all -- with the comment, but it's a funny line.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Another engrossing film by the Coens. It is one to laugh out loud at, laugh inwardly at, get punched in the stomach at and after fully absorbing, reflect on it for a while. And that's still where I'm at.

I love the "anti-Job" idea Peter linked to above. I still haven't read the rest of the links and reviews, but I intend to read more. Kara and I saw this one together and talked a lot that night and much the next day about it. It is a heck of a great date movie, especially for a couple married 13 years with lots of ups and downs and religious triumphs and quandries and moral hardships.

I'm going to say "SLIGHT SPOILERS" here.

I will quickly say this, and then I'll reflect some more. I love the parallel storytelling between the father and the son. They both find their worlds unravelling, and are both held tightly in the mystery of how to deal with their problems. I wonder if there's a moral here that tells us that life is easier when you are young. The son not only gets away with his wrongs, but afterward, he is rewarded and has his problems taken care of. Seemingly by outside, unknown forces. The father sinks further into despair, and just as things are looking up, makes that final, dreadful choice -- the C- -- and a phone call comes in, and there's a tornado on the horizon. I don't think the future will affect the son nearly as much as it will affect the father, as the father's difficulties haven't affected that son throughout the entire story. Oh, this new issue,

cancer,

will affect the son for certain. But not near as much as it will affect the father.

So when you're older, you should know better I guess. And if you don't, you may pay more severely.

More reflecting...

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Just saw this, still processing it. But as far as I've seen so far, no-one seems to have picked up on this film being dated during April/May 1967 - just a few weeks before the six day war. The date combined with a couple of reasonably prominent maps of Israel seems to be to be one heckuva coincidence, but I'm not fully sure what it means.

I was also surprised that there were so few "incidental" references to the book of Job. I suppose if you're going to announce that in the publicity then perhaps there's no need, but still...

Matt

Edited by MattPage
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Matt, that's a very interesting point. I'll have to chew on that.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Jeffrey, are you notified of notes that might be left at an IMAGE review, or is it better to post here?

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Um, I'm not notified, but I check in from time to time. I see the note you've left there.

I'm not the only reviewer who wondered about Arthur. I don't remember him talking to anybody but his brother and himself, but I'd need to see it again. I doubt that he's a dybbuk, but I do wonder if the Coens didn't mean for him to remind us of the one we see at the beginning. He has an oozing wound that he keeps draining, and he seems obsessed with something beyond the plane of general human experience. "The Mentaculus" is like some great cosmic puzzle that he's coming close to solving. I don't know; nothing's simple with the Coens.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Hmm. "Nothing's simple with the Coens"? Well, nothing's simple with A SERIOUS MAN, but there's plenty that's simple about some of their other films. BURN AFTER READING is very "what you see is what you get." That said, while there's a lot of unpacking that needs to be done with their latest, and quite thoughtful, film, I'm not so inclined to connect Arthur's character to the Dybbuk material at the beginning.

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FWIW, my review which focuses mainly on the relation to the book of Job.

Matt

Now here is some great stuff:

And what about the unlikily named Korean student Clive (C[see] and live?). He is also the very opposite of Larry. Larry understands the maths but, by his own admission, doesn't understand the picture of Schrodinger’s Cat. He can't handle the mystery. Clive on the other hand understands the less tangible things in life. He gets Schrodinger’s Cat it's just the maths he can't do.

(C[see] and live) gotta love that

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 4 weeks later...

It's kind of odd how they split Job's experiences between Larry and his son, with the father really getting the short end of the stick. In short, the Dad suffers while the kid runs around encountering God (although reading Matt's piece does remind that he's in mortal danger at the end; though that doesn't discount the divine at all). This might corroborate the idea volunteered above that life comes easy for the young... but what else could it be saying?

Whereas the book of Job is wisdom lit one level removed from human experience because Job is a righteous ideal, the Coens reframe the narrative at a trashier, more... accessibly human level. This is Job if everyman were in his place. I'm guessing that 'a serious man' and 'a righteous man' have a lot of overlap in Jewish thought, but maybe the movie is suggesting the contrary--after all, Larry turns out to be a culpable figure, serious intentions and all.

Edited to note a cool comment on JO's post at the Image blog:

A Jewish friend told me that the "serious man," at least as exemplified here, is one who realizes that often there is no good or obvious choice--that all you do can lead to grief no matter which way you turn--but search on you must.
Edited by KShaw

Everything that matters is invisible.

-- Robert Bresson

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Now that we have both A Single Man and A Serious Man I can't remember which is which. I've seen the Coen film, in fact I can't wait to see it again. But I'll probably rent the wrong one when it comes out.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Wow, where to start with this one. The amount of biblical reference here is off the charts, but I was amazed throughout at the pure economy of the film. They expose American Beauty for what it is in the course of one short dream sequence. My favorite bit of tradition history here is probably the David and Bathsheba reference. Rabbinical literature claims that Bathsheba was the grand-daughter of Ahitophel, David's confidant and counselor that abandoned him for Absalom and then later hung himself (who "has no share in the world to come..."). The same traditions depict him as someone led astray by astrology into delusions of power, and he becomes a bit of an icon of leaving the boundaries of Torah in search of wisdom. In thinking about how the sexy neighbor fits into the film, the idea that she represents the tune in (remember the hum of the TV antenna?), turn on, drop out counter-cultural allure works well. She is a product of all those things outside the covenant of the Law in general, and marriage specifically. This is a great picture of the Law as gracious tutor. There was such great wisdom in Ahitophel that David even mourned his loss, but it was simply channeled the wrong direction.

And then the conclusion. Wow. I can't think of a more seamlessly theological film than this one. Its exploration of the intensely Judeo-Christian desire to understand doing the right thing as a solution to the problem of determinism vs. free will, or sovereignty vs. chance, or the Coen bros gloss of certainty vs. uncertainty (which is a more Talmudic way of posing the problem) is unparalleled.

And as Matt Page pointed out, the film's historical context is that era in which the Jewish identity as both a political and theological reality was highly contested (and tested). For American Jews, this very existential "what the heck is going on" question teased out in A Serious Man was a big deal. Perhaps the big deal for a religion that was becoming increasingly stratified between its orthodox, Zionist, and reformed contingents. This political context made the "Am I a dybbuk question" pretty frightening.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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A few more things:

1. This is my favorite Coen Brothers film so far, and I bet one could take the last scene of the film and abstract it across the rest of their film scripts as an explanatory device. Look at that in the distance, look at what is really looming over time and circumstance. The Coen's G_d speaks from whirlwinds.

2. I love the way it systematically deconstructs the typical middle-aged crisis man film. It makes American Beauty look lurid, like the fantasy of a weak man.

3. To think about A Serious Man as a point in the same trajectory as a film like Raising Arizona is exhilarating. Sure they have had several missteps along the way, but if you just ignore those, what you can see in Larry's plight is a distillation of all the loves, losses, and twists of fate that serve as the cogs and gears in the Coen's very consistent imagination. A Serious Man confirms in a very detailed way that Burn After Reading, or The Man Who Wasn't There - take your pick of their films that struck you as profound and slight at the same time - are indeed helpful reflections on the tension in life between what is certain and uncertain. Jewish theology is often communicated (the goy's teeth for example) in ways that at first seem slight, tangential, or even totally irrelevant. But then it circles back on the soul somehow. Doesn't that sound like their cinema?

4. These days we western Christians (including myself) prize "wonder" as a principle virtue. I love the way the Coens deflate this balloon in the "First Rabbi" conversation. Wonder doesn't always cut it.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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And the wood-chipper.

Also

The Coen's take on law/judgment at the end is interesting. Note the sequence: Lawyer bill received. Bribe accepted. Doctor's phone call.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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MLeary wrote:

: Rabbinical literature claims that Bathsheba was the grand-daughter of Ahitophel . . .

Hmmm. I thought there might be a biblical reference to this, too, but a quick skim of the online concordance indicates simply that Bathsheba is introduced as "the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite" (II Samuel 11:3), while the list of David's "mighty men" includes both "Eliam son of Ahithophel the Gilonite" and "Uriah the Hittite" (II Samuel 23:34,39). So it would certainly make sense to hypothesize that both passages are referring to the same Eliam, and that one of David's "mighty men" had married his daughter off to one of the other "mighty men". (One could also hypothesize that Bathsheba had to be moving in fairly elite company for her back yard (or whatever) to be visible from the king's roof.) But there doesn't appear to be anything in the Bible that NECESSITATES such a connection.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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It is a rabbinical tradition, not biblical. I can't quite make out what Talmud is going on about there, but there it is.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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I keep meaning to watch this film a second time, but Sarah isn't interested in it. Your comments, M, are exactly what I was hoping for -- informed criticism from someone more familiar with Jewish tradition than am I.

A viewer can sense a lot going on beneath the surface in A Serious Man, although the stuff that's on the surface -- and I'm thinking of Biblical stuff that any Christian could pick up on -- is enough to make the film great. But I couldn't help but wonder how much greater I'd find it if I understood everything the Coens were riffing on in the film.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I hadn't even considered connecting AMERICAN BEAUTY and A SERIOUS MAN, but yes, A SERIOUS MAN does lay waste to that film (plastic bag = parking lot).

After watching BARTON FINK again last night, I'm more convinced than ever that it and A SERIOUS MAN have a closer relationship than exists between any other two Coen films. The tonal, stylistic, thematic, and narrative similarities are too striking too ignore.

Edited by Ryan H.
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