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A Serious Man (2009)


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I completely agree. Since Barton Fink, I've been hoping they'd go back into "Fink mode", and it took about five minutes of A Serious Man to make me very, very happy.

And Michael, the American Beauty connection is brilliant. That comparison deserves a whole article.

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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I completely agree. Since Barton Fink, I've been hoping they'd go back into "Fink mode

That's an interesting comment. They did Hudsucker next, but it flopped. And then came Fargo, and the critics fell all over themselves discussing how the filmmakers had finally "grown up" and no longer "had contempt for their characters."

But, like you (wait ... will you agree with what I'm about to write?), I wanted a return to the early Coen stuff, particularly the religious elements of Barton Fink, which never went quite deep enough. A Serious Man definitely picks up that ball and runs with it.

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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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.

Once more into the Barton Fink breach! Looking forward to taking up your suggestion.

As far as American Beauty is concerned, it just seemed in the same general ballpark by virtue of its lead character. But then specifically the dream he has about the neighbor, the pot smoke blown in his face, it just seems like the perfect antidote to American Beauty pseudo-wonderment. The best way to criticize a film is to make a film. Or in the Coen's case, about 25 seconds of film. He wakes up and sheds the Lester Burnham navel-gazing like it is moral residue from a late night pizza-induced bad dream

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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(plastic bag = parking lot).

That's an interesting comment, Ryan. The plastic-bag scene was the only one in American Beauty that I liked. What did you make of the parking-lot comment in A Serious Man? Nearly every review I've read of the film singles out that moment as an example of how ill-prepared the young, aspiring rabbi is to handle Larry's questions, how that comment paints the character as a fool. I chuckled at the character's comment, but only because of how Larry reacts to it. The audience around me laughed heartily after the comments, and I wondered if they saw any theological significance whatsoever in the remarks.

"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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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.

That what I was referring to as well above with the comment on the first Rabbi. Wonder isn't enough, bits of pithy information that expand our horizons isn't enough. Hashem is not simply a point of perspective that we can turn on and off like the pot dealer kid's video camera. Hashem doesn't pan and scan life for us. Sy is referred to as "a serious man," and I think he is being used here as an example of how shallow the first Rabbi's advice is. In contrast Larry sees a correspondence between the uncertainty inherent to physics and the uncertainty inherent to understanding what God is actually asking us to do in life. He may be thought of as "not as serious" as Sy because he isn't content with pretending that being and acting a certain way will satisfy his existential conundrum.

He doesn't need the plastic bag/parking lot perspective change, which amounts to a psychological bait and switch. He needs to find an access point to his own tradition, a way to embed himself in the narrative world produced by this theological legacy. It may not actually provide the answers he is looking for, but it will provide boundaries within which he can act morally and confidently until the dimmer switches start to dial up.

Ultimately, he blows it. Cue the whirlwind and Job reversal comments.

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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What a fantastic discussion. I was as surprised as anyone that the film is as good as it is. And I love the idea that they've re-shuffled through some of their earlier pieces and found a way to make them mean something deeper and fuller here, like their earlier efforts were just surface readings of symbols. This film's the deep hermeneutic.

Take the image of Larry at his desk getting those phone calls from the Columbia Record Club. It's an echo of Jerry Lundegaard getting the calls from GMAC about the missing cars. But Jerry was chafing at the calls because the man on the other end of the line was moral conscience, poised to unravel his stupid, corrupt plot. The calls Larry gets are undeserved; he hasn't done anything wrong, he protests! Why me, says our secular Job. Why NOT you? is the only rejoinder that makes sense.

And isn't this the perfect movie in the wake of Pat Robertson embarrassing the mystery-- and often, let's be frank, the tragic mystery-- of God's Will expressed here on earth? We weak, foolish creatures who think if y follows x, then x caused y. Do you think that tumor isn't growing in you if you hadn't taken the bribe?

M, did you see Rob Davis's review of the film? He's got a great take on the film through the lens of Kafka.

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Awesome stuff. I cannot wait to see this again.

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

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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That's an interesting comment, Ryan. The plastic-bag scene was the only one in American Beauty that I liked. What did you make of the parking-lot comment in A Serious Man? Nearly every review I've read of the film singles out that moment as an example of how ill-prepared the young, aspiring rabbi is to handle Larry's questions, how that comment paints the character as a fool. I chuckled at the character's comment, but only because of how Larry reacts to it. The audience around me laughed heartily after the comments, and I wondered if they saw any theological significance whatsoever in the remarks.
That what I was referring to as well above with the comment on the first Rabbi. Wonder isn't enough, bits of pithy information that expand our horizons isn't enough. Hashem is not simply a point of perspective that we can turn on and off like the pot dealer kid's video camera. Hashem doesn't pan and scan life for us. Sy is referred to as "a serious man," and I think he is being used here as an example of how shallow the first Rabbi's advice is. In contrast Larry sees a correspondence between the uncertainty inherent to physics and the uncertainty inherent to understanding what God is actually asking us to do in life. He may be thought of as "not as serious" as Sy because he isn't content with pretending that being and acting a certain way will satisfy his existential conundrum.
Good stuff! The wonder that the First Rabbi prescribes and the wonder in that final shot may share something in common. But the first wonder is a pacifier. The last wonder, by contrast, is a bewilderer and an exploder of horizons. The domestic-suburban atmosphere that's been maintained for two hours gets purged off the screen at last.

Everything that matters is invisible.

-- Robert Bresson

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(plastic bag = parking lot).

That's an interesting comment, Ryan. The plastic-bag scene was the only one in American Beauty that I liked.

I've always hated AMERICAN BEAUTY's plastic bag.

What did you make of the parking-lot comment in A Serious Man?

I found it inherently ridiculous, an indication that the first Rabbi has had no significant encounter with suffering in his altogether pretty young life. He's more or less out of touch. The "parking lot" comment (and advice about getting a new perspective on life) is trite and shallow, altogether failing to truly address the question of pain and agony and confusion. That's not to say it didn't contain some kernel of truth, just as the advice offered by Job's friends contained some truth, but it still misses the mark.

Edited by Ryan H.
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I found it inherently ridiculous, an indication that the first Rabbi has had no significant encounter with suffering in his altogether pretty young life. He's more or less out of touch. The "parking lot" comment (and advice about getting a new perspective on life) is trite and shallow, altogether failing to truly address the question of pain and agony and confusion. That's not to say it didn't contain some kernel of truth, just as the advice offered by Job's friends contained some truth, but it still misses the mark.

Thanks for this. Yeah, I was getting at the "kernel of truth" idea, and had been wondering about Job's friends. They, too, speak truth, but not in a way that addresses the heart of Job's problem.

However, considering the Larry is, in the end, not a "righteous man," as Job was, I wonder how much of a parallel we're supposed to draw between Larry's "friends" and those of Job. I'm still chewing on this.

"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 am so slow on the uptake that I just picked up on the reason behind whole nose-job bit, as it is a very succinct and stereotypical jibe at Jewish self-hatred.

"...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:

: I am so slow on the uptake that I just picked up on the reason behind whole nose-job bit, as it is a very succinct and stereotypical jibe at Jewish self-hatred.

FWIW, that reminds me of this relatively recent Barbara Kay column:

Cosmetic plastic surgery was invented by Jews. That sounds like a conspiracy theorist’s belief, but it is true. The Jewish contribution to what is now a billion-dollar industry is chronicled in a new, lively and informative little book, The Jewish Body, by anthropologist Melvin Konner.

The book takes us on a temporal and thematic sojourn through Jewish history, assessing the impact on Jewish culture of internal prescriptions around the body — circumcision, dietary laws, sexual purity rituals — as well as the impact on the Jewish psyche of non-Jewish, usually hostile attitudes and behaviours.

Konner devotes a generous portion of the book to physical appearance and the effects of unremitting anti-Semitism on Jews’ critical regard of their own bodies. He says that over the centuries Jews’ estimation of their appearance became a function of what others thought of them: Jews tend to define their appearance up according to how gentile they look, and down according to how “Jewish” they look. . . .

Jacques Joseph was a 19th-century Jewish orthopedic surgeon who went into private practice after having been dismissed from his medical order for pinning Jewish ears back. A young man “suffering” from his Jewish nose asked Joseph for help. After operating on him in 1898, Joseph reported to the Berlin Medical Society, “The depressed attitude [of the patient] ... subsided completely.” Joseph had internalized the disease paradigm. Rhinoplasty — nose jobs to you and me — was invented to provide a medical solution to a medical problem.

Nose jobs have been called a “circumcision into the gentile world.” When comedienne Fanny Brice got one in 1923, celebrity wit Dorothy Parker (born a New Jersey Rothschild, but luckily inheriting her mother’s Scottish nose), quipped, “[brice] cut off her nose to spite her race.”

So it is no exaggeration to say that Jews not only popularized the nose job, they became the mainstay of the nose job’s consumer base. And the nose job then morphed into the cosmetic plastic surgery industry. In a choicely ironical twist, Konner cites an observation from a medical journal article on the history of the nose job: “Jews, who have always had a love/hate relationship with plastic surgery — and their own appearance — have helped create a trend that has now exploded into the mainstream... Jews, out of their very desire to appear less Jewish, made plastic surgery acceptable to the very people whom they were trying to look like.” . . .

And in case anyone was wondering, Kay is Jewish herself.

"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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Um, wow. Getting back to nosejobs, if I may... The article I linked to mentions the rise of Barbra Streisand -- and her refusal to get a nose job -- as a turning point of sorts in how Jews perceived their physical appearances. In that light, I thought it might be worth mentioning that, if this film is set in 1967, it is therefore set one year before Streisand made her big-screen debut in Funny Girl (1968). (Though Streisand had certainly been around for a while before this, winning her first Grammy in 1963, if the IMDb is to be believed.)

"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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I went through a few favorite Talmud tractates that refer to some of the biblical references one finds in A Serious Man, and was really impressed with how rabbinic this film really is. The roof scene is a pretty much a midrash on the 2 Samuel and Psalm 51 passages about David and Bathsheba, with the film ending up a counter-example to David's response in "blessing". And then the way the film plots Larry's struggle through the three Job-like interlocutors is reminiscent of the way Talmud and midrash often make opposing claims that are only resolved in oblique narrative. I wish I had more time with this film before having to finalize a decade list.

"...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 wish I had more time with this film before having to finalize a decade list.

After the discoveries you've made I'm certain we should nominate it for our Top 100.

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

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I wish I had more time with this film before having to finalize a decade list.

After the discoveries you've made I'm certain we should nominate it for our Top 100.

Already taken care of.

Thank you, sir! You Rule!

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

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I've been a little slow with the rules for the various A&F "best" lists, but I guess this means we no longer have a two-year delay before we can nominate a film for the A&F 100? I'm fine with 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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I've been a little slow with the rules for the various A&F "best" lists, but I guess this means we no longer have a two-year delay before we can nominate a film for the A&F 100? I'm fine with that.

That is how I understood this:

4) We are going to try to get away without worrying too much about the issue of eligibility. If there is some issue concerning eligibility—whether a film has been released in North America or what have you—we can start a thread to discuss that. But until that point we are going to attempt not to sweat this issue too

much.

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

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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He needs to find an access point to his own tradition, a way to embed himself in the narrative world produced by this theological legacy. It may not actually provide the answers he is looking for, but it will provide boundaries within which he can act morally and confidently until the dimmer switches start to dial up.

Is this what Job needed?

Everything that matters is invisible.

-- Robert Bresson

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He needs to find an access point to his own tradition, a way to embed himself in the narrative world produced by this theological legacy. It may not actually provide the answers he is looking for, but it will provide boundaries within which he can act morally and confidently until the dimmer switches start to dial up.

Is this what Job needed?

I would have to think about that, but it may be irrelevant in the context of A Serious Man. The film is pretty much a midrash on Job, David, and Torah, which means that it is drawing on elements of these stories, but is not creating one to one correspondences between Job and Larry or David and Larry. Larry's spiritual crisis has a few similarities to Job's, but this doesn't necessarily mean that their solutions have to be similar. Job is a helpful narrative reference to Larry because he is a classic example of thinking about the difficulties of life through the lens of Jewish monotheism, and the components of Job's interaction are so archetypal. (I even wonder if Larry is a bit of a foil to Job given his character development? He does become a foil to David in that he doesn't commit adultery, but does deny the spirit of Psalm 51.)

And I don't see much theodicy in A Serious Man. The film doesn't seem as interested in whether God is just or not as it is in how religious language relates to the certainty/uncertainty paradigm in things like physics. This makes the end even more dramatic, in that the Coens don't provide much theological context to what is happening. It is easier to understand it if you are familiar with these Jewish stories and images, but otherwise it hits the film like something wholly other. Like a bit of hefty religious language that we can't interpret.

I am trying to think of a theodicy in a Coen brothers film and am coming up blank.

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 I don't see much theodicy in A Serious Man. The film doesn't seem as interested in whether God is just or not as it is in how religious language relates to the certainty/uncertainty paradigm in things like physics. This makes the end even more dramatic, in that the Coens don't provide much theological context to what is happening. It is easier to understand it if you are familiar with these Jewish stories and images, but otherwise it hits the film like something wholly other. Like a bit of hefty religious language that we can't interpret.

Seriously. The second time through, I was surprised at how perplexing the ending remained. I think I was even more confused this time, since there was less of that visceral jawdropping to grab onto.

Everything that matters is invisible.

-- Robert Bresson

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I was thinking the other day about someone's comment above that the difference between Larry and Job is that Larry is not really righteous.

The film is fading fast from my memory, but is there much to suggest that Larry is unrighteous before his closing scene? Cos if not that puts a really interesting spin on the film's view of God's morality.

if you steal, even after all you've been through, I'm going to give you cancer and kill your son

.

Also, I'm reading Cathleen Falsani's "The Dude Abides" (see the Guardian article on this today) and she (and that article) talk about Ethan Coen's thesis' assertion that claims "that there is an omnipotent, benevolent creator" is "the height of stupidity", and how this fits with interpreting this film and others (such as O Brother). Still mulling how this effects this film. Does it just mean that the Coen's are laughing at all of us who are pondering the meaning in their film because ultimately it's all just about coincidences?

Matt

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