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A Serious Man (2009)


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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?

Maybe. Maybe not. It's possible it's all just a big gag, but it does seem to me there's a genuine struggle on their part to comprehend this strange universe. But regardless of their intentions, in A SERIOUS MAN (and their other works) the Coens often leave things ambiguous enough that we, as viewers, have room to suggest different interpretations of events, even if those interpretations differ from the creators' ideas.

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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.

Likewise. Regardless of how you interpret the intent of the image (with respect to Matt's comments below), the ending is a potent example of how stunning and perplexing the OT brand of hierophany really is.

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

Good points all around there, Matt. I am not that familiar with the Coen brothers outside of their films, and wonder if their understanding of God/religion/whatever is much different than that of other contemporary atheist Jews who still generally maintain their religious identity through traditions and loosely following the calendar, but otherwise scoff at the idea that God (if he is out there) has any meaningful relation to the world. It seems that the Coen brothers aren't just using religion as a narrative mechanic that produces interesting coincidences, but as a set of patterns (Job, David, etc...) that enable us to connect with someone else's personal crisis at a fundamental level. This is essentially how religious traditions function in American civil religious discourse. They are heuristic devices that can become intense modes of interpersonal reflection. Michael Chabon's recent book about the Yiddish detective comes to mind as a comparable example.

The film's ultimate idea about this character "God" may or may not match that of the moralist Yahweh that exists to maintain the dignity of his proscribed Law, which is a very typical take on the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. This would be in distinction to the more Deuteronomical spin on Yahweh as the creator of unilateral covenants of grace that sometimes require his punitive intervention as cosmic teachable moments.

SPOILERS:

If the central question of this film rotates on Schroedinger's cat, the religious implication is this: If the tradition is the box, is God alive or is he dead? The answer being that we really can't know. If the tradition is the box, then there is a sense in which both answers are correct. I suppose this matches the Coen brother's personal take on religion well, as A Serious Man becomes a great example of a classical modern description of religious language. It is both meaningful and meaningless at the same time. But they have been constructing this thought throughout the film in various ways (skillfully exemplified in the stoned kid's reading of Torah), all the way until the end, at which point we seem to witness a hierophany of a prophetic sort and direct punitive judgment at the same time. Perfect Coen twist. (Is religious language meaningful? Is it? Really? Then comes a massive blast of effective religious language.)

Larry agonizes through the richest vein of Jewish self-reflection. He then decides to disregard religious language/tradition just enough to abandon it in cases of self-interest (the bribe). If you can't beat them, join them. And then the total possible reality of this religious language/tradition rears its ugly head. We don't need to know whether or not God is behind the whirlwind and the phone call. It is enough to know that Larry will never be able to have certainty about God's presence in either, and is thus thrust into an even more serious existential crisis than the one that he began the film with. It is now not a question of what should I do?, but why is this happening to me?

So the point may be: Religion is a balance of existential crises. When it comes to the Jewish religious experience, one is at least able to choose which crisis they are willing to live with.

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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MLeary wrote:

: If the central question of this film rotates on Schroedinger's cat, the religious implication is this: If the tradition is the box, is God alive or is he dead?

Oh wow. I think I like the movie more now.

: So the point may be: Religion is a balance of existential crises.

I like this too. You rock, sir.

"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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  • 2 weeks later...

On my FB page, someone is very upset about this film:

These two jewish filmmakers have created a vanity project that's sole purpose is to convince their generation that Judaism, regardless of the amount of time or effort you invest, is worthless. The rabbis are shown to be completely unavailable, out of touch and without wisdom. The congregation is shown to be moronic.... This is a cinematic sermon advocating for everyone to do what is right in their own eyes.

Yikes.

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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This is a cinematic sermon advocating for everyone to do what is right in their own eyes.

Yikes.

"...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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:: over the top rhetoric aside it's not an unreasonable position, particularly in light of that thesis statement

: This is a cinematic sermon advocating for everyone to do what is right in their own eyes.

...Oops, except that bit.

Matt

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It snuck in as a Best Picture nominee! Yes!

"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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Powerline has linked to this harsh review. I simply did not have the same experience as the reviewer, and found the comments below the review more informative.

"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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  • 3 weeks later...

Do the right thing. Vote for A Serious Man as the Best Spiritual Film of 2009 at Belief.net.

The fact that they narrowed it down to these titles makes me sad.

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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Overstreet wrote:

: Do the right thing. Vote for A Serious Man as the Best Spiritual Film of 2009 at Belief.net.

: The fact that they narrowed it down to these titles makes me sad.

Huh. No current or former CT Movies writers among this year's judges; I can think of at least one recent year in which there were at least three of us on the panel. (I was simply too busy to get involved this year, FWIW.)

It boggles the mind that Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire could not only get nominated for the "inspirational" award, but that it could also have a write-up that ends with the words "Precious will be OK." As though an HIV-positive teen who lives in poverty in the mid- to late 1980s would even be ALIVE in a few years.

FWIW, I'm not sure I'd call A Serious Man "spiritual". It's certainly theological, but that suggests something a bit different to me.

"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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FWIW, I'm not sure I'd call A Serious Man "spiritual". It's certainly theological, but that suggests something a bit different to me.

The more I consider the film, I realize that it is an intensely spiritual film in an unconventional way. It probes the way religious language affects the way we see ourselves and in what ways it either helps us or hinders us in the process of dealing with guilt, loss, the problem of evil, etc...

It definitely concludes with a nifty discussion start on hierophany and the presence of God in the world, especially in light of the film's discourse on uncertainty.

So, all in all, the film is about the possibility that spirituality is a valid way of being in the world. The Coen brothers have film after film shown us that it probably isn't. Spiritual or theological people are every bit as prone to the whims of fate as evil people. But the difference with A Serious Man is that they have this conversation in the context of a distinctly religious and theological narrative.

Theological and spiritual are wiggly terms, but I think A Serious Man is a pretty spiritual film. The Man Who Wasn't There could have been a spiritual film almost in the same way that A Serious Man is a spiritual film, but it doesn't push back very hard on the issues it raises. I am glad for that, the film would have been far too heavy-handed otherwise.

"...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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Via Anne Thompson:

Author/screenwriter Michael Tolkin (The Player) knows his religion well enough to recognize the words
lamed vavnick
when he hears them. It refers to one of
who hold up the world, “whose burden or responsibility is unknown to them,” he writes in the current issue of Written By, the Writers Guild magazine. Tolkin suggests that A Serious Man‘s hero, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is one of those righteous men, but doesn’t know it, and holds off his family’s curse. But when he makes a fateful error in ethical judgement, he unknowingly brings on the destruction of the world . . .

"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 finally got around to viewing this film on DVD, and want to add my voice to the chorus singing its praise. In the brief "making of" special on the DVD, Fred Melamed suggests that it's the kind of movie that "if you're inclined to find a meaning in things, you will find a meaning in it" (not exact quote) and, to me, that sentence captures all that I admire in the film (and in the Coens' work in general). In a way (and this is keeping in mind the unsatisfactory nature of Larry's visits with the various rabbis) the movie functions as an extended version of the story of the Goy's teeth--a slantways look at mystery, at events that may or may not bear the signature of God and that may or may not point beyond themselves to a deeper reality. Both are stories that refuse to be simply explained, but they each bear a strikingly similar conclusion:

Okay. Nachtner says, look. The teeth, we don't know. A sign from Hashem? Don't know. Helping others... couldn't hurt.

compared to:

You better find somebody to love

I don't mean to imply that this is the "meaning" or the "point" of A Serious Man,--and I'm not sure how it would tie into the third story (the invented folktale concerning the dybbuk)--but I find the correlation interesting and tantalizing. It certainly ties into the implied weakness of Larry's character as a passive person to whom things happen, rather than an active participant in his own life.

Right now, after two viewings (or closer to two-and-a-half), this film is in competition to become my favorite Coen brothers movie. And the discussion here has deepened that appreciation tremendously.

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Right now, after two viewings (or closer to two-and-a-half), this film is in competition to become my favorite Coen brothers movie.

Same here.

"You better find somebody to love..."

I like how the Coen brothers almost hide behind this pop culture intrusion into the film. It is the closest we come in the film to hearing some rabbinic advice that could have any lasting significance, but true to the Coen brothers tactics, it is veiled behind a few layers of things that could be snark, irony, regionalism, or plain old dark comedy. But yet, this last conversation discloses something in the same way the goy's teeth or dybbuk tale discloses something. It is a roundabout, quantum, as you say "slantways" disclosure. I think Dark is right to talk about the Coens as apocalyptic in the most basic sense of the term, but they are so artfully haphazard about it. And then, slipping this now archaic pop refrain into their most intensely religious film, we see that the Coen's filmography full of pop culture hijinks is a grand statement that all this stuff really means something. Or it could mean something if we could see it from the right angle, like a dentist looking at the back of someone's teeth with a little mirror. Jefferson Airplane becomes Wisdom Literature in this film.

"...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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This has been a fun conversation to read through, which has enhanced my appreciation of this film, my favorite of those I saw on the big screen in 2009.

SPOILERS AHEAD, in abundance:

A few thoughts of my own, enhanced by conversations with my beloved Jewish wife:

- The notion that the phone call to Larry or the tornado bearing down on the kids and their teacher at film's end are any sort of divine judgment would be antithetical to contemporary Jewish thought (at least from a Reform or Conservative point of view). My wife is fond of paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, that the ultimate reward for a good life is simply a life lived well. In other words, there are no divine bonus or penalty points racked up by one's conduct.

This interpretation of these final scenes would also seem to contradict what has occurred previously in the film - we have seen no egregious conduct on Larry's part leading to the horrible events befalling him throughout the film. This interpretation seems, too, contradictory to what happens throughout Coen Brothers' films in general. Sudden, violent, horrific things occur to the innocent (Donnie in 'Lebowski,' Carla Jean Moss in 'No Country,' and Mrs. Lundegaard in 'Fargo'), the dupes (the poor fitness center manager in 'Burn After Reading'), and the nasty (Steve Buscemi's character in 'Fargo') throughout their films. This sudden, random unpredictability of life and death seems a recurring theme for the Coen Brothers.

- Despite his moral cave-in at film's end, Larry seems the true 'serious man' of the film's title, striving to understand God's will and live a good life. This is in sharp contrast to Sy Ableman, the 'serious man' eulogized in the synagogue, who despite his morally upstanding reputation was an adulterer writing nasty anonymous letters.

This theme of appearances versus reality seems to be another recurring Coen Brothers' theme, with the contrast between The Big Lebowski's philanthropic appearance and his actual pathetic deeds immediately coming to mind, not to mention Ulysses' chicanery in 'O Brother.'

- I agree that the Coen Brothers' choice of music is quite significant. They (and oftimes in their films, T-Bone Burnett) seem to work very hard at finding music to match their themes. To cite again 'The Big Lebowski,' Bob Dylan's 'The Man in Me' is twice played, and one of the central questions of this film is what defines a man. The lyrics of 'Somebody to Love' seem to fit perfectly the quandaries of 'A Serious Man.' Indeed finding a small community of people to love and bond with in our violent, random world again is a central theme of the Coen Brothers' films.

- No matter the Coen Brothers' theology, the Bar Mitzvah scene in the synagogue is perhaps the only serene episode in the entire film, which seems significant. Per my wife, by the way, the depictions of the rabbis and synagogue life are quite plausible (with the exception of all the funky stuff in jars in the third rabbi's office). She also pointed out that the repeatedly used term 'Goy' is quite offensive, akin to the N-word.

- Funny how filthy lucre turns up repeatedly in Coen Brothers' films: the ransom in 'Fargo' and 'Lebowski,' the money satchel and the hush money Chigurh gives the teens in 'No Country,' the plastic surgery dough in 'Burn After Reading,' etc. For them, the love of money indeed seems the root of all evil.

Sorry if I've rambled too long...

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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If rambling in this thread is a sin, then I am beyond salvation.

- No matter the Coen Brothers' theology, the Bar Mitzvah scene in the synagogue is perhaps the only serene episode in the entire film, which seems significant. Per my wife, by the way, the depictions of the rabbis and synagogue life are quite plausible (with the exception of all the funky stuff in jars in the third rabbi's office). She also pointed out that the repeatedly used term 'Goy' is quite offensive, akin to the N-word.

Yeah, that really does turn into a wonderful moment that serves as a counterpoint to the false serenity of the penultimate scene in which Larry seems to achieve the balance he has been looking for (right before he gets the phone call). We see such celebration of tradition as a means of the generational transfer of cultural memory in Potok, and the way the Coens bracket this scene with all the trappings of modern adolescence is interesting.

As far as "goy" is concerned, I wonder if that is regional. I have never really thought it packed anywhere near the same punch as the N-word, and in many cases is a double-speak endearment for non-Chosen People. "Shabbos goy," for example, isn't intended to be pejorative.

Edited by M. Leary

"...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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- The notion that the phone call to Larry or the tornado bearing down on the kids and their teacher at film's end are any sort of divine judgment would be antithetical to contemporary Jewish thought (at least from a Reform or Conservative point of view). My wife is fond of paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, that the ultimate reward for a good life is simply a life lived well. In other words, there are no divine bonus or penalty points racked up by one's conduct.

Interesting, but how might that shape how we read A SERIOUS MAN, given that it presents contemporary Judaism as watered-down mush that can't connect to the trials of real life in any significant way?

This interpretation of these final scenes would also seem to contradict what has occurred previously in the film - we have seen no egregious conduct on Larry's part leading to the horrible events befalling him throughout the film.

What, then, do we make of the allusion to God's appearance to Job? Is it just a red herring? A satirical subervsion of the image? Nevermind I'm wondering whether we should see Larry's suffering throughout the film as particularly weighty, given his conversation with Arthur by the pool. I wonder whether, like Job, Larry is being tested, but unlike Job, he fails the test.

- Despite his moral cave-in at film's end, Larry seems the true 'serious man' of the film's title, striving to understand God's will and live a good life.

Maybe. He strikes me as hopelessly confused and inept, a man who has sleptwalked through his life up until the point which he encounters a crisis. Only then does he attempt to look for God in the moment and take his faith seriously. But as soon as the crisis dries up, or at least seems to, his spiritual quest ends and he's free to cut corners again, revealing his overall lack of sincerity. (Nevermind that the end hardly seems to be the only moral slip-up. There's the Bathsheba moment, and I daresay he seems a pretty ineffective father.)

- - I agree that the Coen Brothers' choice of music is quite significant. They (and oftimes in their films, T-Bone Burnett) seem to work very hard at finding music to match their themes. To cite again 'The Big Lebowski,' Bob Dylan's 'The Man in Me' is twice played, and one of the central questions of this film is what defines a man. The lyrics of 'Somebody to Love' seem to fit perfectly the quandaries of 'A Serious Man.' Indeed finding a small community of people to love and bond with in our violent, random world again is a central theme of the Coen Brothers' films.

Yes. I wonder Marshack's partial quotation is meant to imply that he (and, by implication, contemporary Judaism) can acknowledge the crisis ("When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies"), but when it comes to the most crucial portion ("Don't you want somebody to love?"), he's unable to find it ("...then what?"), and is only able to offer the most simplistic and unhelpful moral advice: "Be a good boy."

If I seem combative, it's only because I'm hoping to kindle some good discussion on these topics. Most of my questions are actual questions, not challenges. I adore A SERIOUS MAN, but I'm still struggling to work it all out.

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