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A Serious Man (2009)


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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?

Lots to respond to there!

As far is this is concerned, I think we can shift the brackets of your question a bit. The film is intensely Jewish, but this may just be a means to an end. The film is actually presenting an argument about the validity of religious language, and even more specifically, religious language appropriated through tradition and ritual. The Coen brothers do this via the tradition most familiar to them, but the film speaks more broadly about the possibility that religious language actually contains something meaningful for life.

So, we can talk about what contemporary Judaism thinks about this or that (and end up with the same spectrum we find in any organized religion). But this is almost beside the point when it comes to interpreting the movements of A Serious Man. It is an intensely Jewish film in the way it thinks about storytelling, heirophany, and moral judgment. But it also speaks very generally about religious language, given the way it imports post-enlightenment concepts about physics into its theological network.

We can think of the Jefferson Airplane snippet as a test case. Is this lyric meaningful or not? If so, is it meaningful in the same way this tornado is meaningful or not?

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."

It may not even be an either/or proposition. The film presents us with Larry's full range of existential crises. Judaism permits him to cross a few out, given his willingness to conform to the standard of the tradition. In certain philosophies of religious language, moral traditions are language games in the same way liturgies and dogmatic statements are language games. I think the Coens agree with that line of thought. At the end of the film, Larry's moral failure indicates that he has failed the Jewish language game, and thus isn't privy to any existential security the tradition can provide.

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)

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Ryan: Thanks for your comments; it's good to have other folks who are grappling with the meanings contained within this film. I think my wife and I will be watching this again tomorrow night, as we both are feeling a need to revisit it.

As for your question about whether the allusion to Job is a red herring or subversion, I would opt for the latter, although I believe it's subversion of a serious yet playful nature. The Coen Brothers' films routinely subvert such things as genre, whether film noir ('Lebowski'), the cowboy as hero movie ('No Country'), or the spy flick ('Burn After Reading'). They also have a playful streak a mile wide - one of my favorite stories about them is how their oft-credited editor is a chap named Roderick Jaynes; it only became widely known that this was a pseudonym for Joel and Ethan when Mr. Jaynes was nominated for an Academy Award.

I also think, though, that they're dead serious in their existential gropings, given the recurrent searches for meaning even in their ostensibly lighter films such as 'Burn' and 'Intolerable Cruelty.' In 'A Serious Man,' Larry's inquiry ('If there aren't any answers, why does God give us the questions' - or something to that effect) feels very authentic.

MLeary: I'd love to hear you expound more on the validity of the religious language in 'A Serious Man.' I typically think of the Coen's movies as revealing the woeful inadequacies of language, as their scripts are full of perseveration, echolalia, and other inarticulate fumblings. In 'A Serious Man,' the inadequacy of dialogue is seen numerous times, perhaps most humorously in the exchanges between Larry and Clive and his father, as well as between Larry and the Columbia Record Club rep.

Overall in their movies, the eloquence and verbosity of their characters often seems inversely proportional to their wisdom and authenticity. In my viewings of 'A Serious Man,' I felt the verbosity of the first two rabbis was soundly trumped by the wisdom of the rock song quoting succinctness of Rabbi #3.

Edited by Andrew

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

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As for your question about whether the allusion to Job is a red herring or subversion, I would opt for the latter, although I believe it's subversion of a serious yet playful nature. The Coen Brothers' films routinely subvert such things as genre, whether film noir ('Lebowski'), the cowboy as hero movie ('No Country'), or the spy flick ('Burn After Reading'). They also have a playful streak a mile wide - one of my favorite stories about them is how their oft-credited editor is a chap named Roderick Jaynes; it only became widely known that this was a pseudonym for Joel and Ethan when Mr. Jaynes was nominated for an Academy Award.

While we can both agree that playful subversion shows up frequently in the Coens' film career, in the past, they've been fairly overt about it. If the ending of A SERIOUS MAN is, in fact, a subversive take on God's appearance in Job, then they're actually trying to hide it from the audience. It's very clear that they want to connect Larry's bribe-taking with the devastation that follows. Nothing's concrete, of course, so there's some level of ambiguity. But by connecting Larry's alteration of the grade with the phone call, they're definitely inviting the audience, and Larry, to make that leap, and they never directly challenge that connection.

It's interesting that the characters in A SERIOUS MAN never really questions God's existence. They assume He's there. The question isn't "Is there or isn't there a God behind this?" It's "Why is God doing this?" I think that has some implication for how we read the final scene. If it's a subversion, it's only because we, the viewer, deny the existence of God or his involvement in the everyday sphere, not because the film necessarily suggests it. That makes me less inclined to read the image of the whirlwind as an act of subversion on their part. The final image is ambiguous, but ambiguity is different than subversion.

On another topic, what do we make of the Mentaculus? I haven't heard many people chat about that one. I find it interesting that Larry's son states that it actually works.

Also, Larry, in his dealings with the record company, says, "I didn't ask for Abraxas, I do not want Abraxas, I will not listen to Abraxas." "Abraxas" is actually a Greek term associated with gnosticism (alternatively spelled "Abrasax"), commonly used as a name for a monotheistic God. See the Wikipedia article here, or this article from JewishEncyclopedia.com for a more directly Jewish contextualization of the notion. Other random internet sources have suggested that, in Gnosticism, Abraxas suggests a monotheistic deity that is both good and evil (therefore not omnibenevolent).

Edited by Ryan H.
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Another layer in the last scene is that it echoes what Larry says early on in the movie. "In this office, actions have consequences," he says. Of course, it is in that office that Larry makes his choice and gets the 'phone call. But I'm less certain that we're to see the final catastrophe as, strictly speaking, a judgment of God. It seems to me to suggest that the cycle of misfortune is never really over. It's certainly connected with his decision to change the grade, but not in a cause-and-effect sort of way. And there I've just contradicted myself, I know--but I'll choose to embrace the mystery. :)

I can definitely see the whirlwind at the end as an ironic echo of Job, though reading it as if God chooses to come, not in response to Larry's pleas, but in response to his single active decision of the whole film is pretty bleak.

On another topic, what do we make of the Mentaculus? I haven't heard many people chat about that one. I find it interesting that Larry's son states that it actually works.

I wasn't sure what to make of the Mentaculus. At first, I was inclined to think it was supposed to be an object(like the box at the end of Barton Fink) that serves more to obscure than to signify. But then Larry's son says the Mentaculus works, and in context he would seem to suggest that it works by helping Uncle Arthur win at gambling. So, then, are the Coens comically deflating the Uncle's pretensions by pointing out that his quantum-probability calculations are just another system akin to always playing red numbers? Does this mean that all grand schemes of meaning are similarly just dicerolls in a game of chance? It's ambiguous (another cat-in-the-box) and seems to signify both more and less than itself.

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FWIW, I can't remember if I read this here or somewhere else, but at least one person has suggested that the whirlwind at the end of the film may be meant to invoke the OPENING chapter of Job, rather than its CLOSING chapter. In other words, this may be the "wind" that kills Job's family rather than the "whirlwind" that declines to answer Job's questions. (Though it bears mentioning that the two words in Hebrew are rather different, and if I skim my Strong's Concordance correctly, it seems "whirlwind" implies something more inherently disastrous, and indeed more judgmental.)

"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
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Ryan: I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about the significance of the whirlwind, which is OK by me. It would be rather boring if we all had the same viewpoints around here. Personally, I see both ambiguity and subversion in the film's ending.

Thank you so much for the info about 'Abraxas,' which is fascinating and completely new to me. Reading the Jewish encyclopedia entry, Abraxas sounds like something of a divine Santa Claus (influenced by magic, etc.), so perhaps it's significant that Larry is saying he doesn't want and didn't ask for Abraxas - perhaps he's searching for something deeper?

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

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

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Ryan: I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about the significance of the whirlwind, which is OK by me. It would be rather boring if we all had the same viewpoints around here. Personally, I see both ambiguity and subversion in the film's ending.

Must we agree to disagree so soon? I was hoping to get a bit more discussion out of this disagreement. I don't think we've quite exhausted this conversation yet. If you're willing, I'd be interested in some specific responses to some of the notions I've put forward. :)

Edited by Ryan H.
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I guess if there is a "disagreement," then the ending serves its function. If there is one thing hierophanies are good at, it is soliciting multiple lines of interpretation. Is it judgment? Revelation? Coincidence? A subversive narrative mechanic? Initially, it is all of these things to different characters in the storyline.

"...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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I guess if there is a "disagreement," then the ending serves its function. If there is one thing hierophanies are good at, it is soliciting multiple lines of interpretation. Is it judgment? Revelation? Coincidence? A subversive narrative mechanic? Initially, it is all of these things to different characters in the storyline.

To which character is it a subversive narrative mechanic?

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I guess if there is a "disagreement," then the ending serves its function. If there is one thing hierophanies are good at, it is soliciting multiple lines of interpretation. Is it judgment? Revelation? Coincidence? A subversive narrative mechanic? Initially, it is all of these things to different characters in the storyline.

To which character is it a subversive narrative mechanic?

I am not sure. Someone else in the thread suggested that as a possibility. I think that last image is more of a consummation than anything. But the ambiguity involved with the image allows someone to consider the possibility.

"...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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  • 2 weeks later...

I just watched this last night. I really liked it, but certainly need to watch it again.

One thing that struck me though in the end: The central question of Job, of course, is why bad things happen to good people, and I think that this movie proposes a bit of a novel answer to that question. - Because it's the bad things that make us good. I'm not sure if this helps in explaining the first 95% of the movie, but it's exactly what I feel like the end was saying.

The end just seemed to be such a rapid fire conversation editing. Up until now, Larry has been pretty able to avoid any real moral failings. And now something good happens to him. The pressure eases off so to speak, he slips up, and wham! the pressure slams back as if to say, "See what happens when things go *your* way?"

edit: In fact, it's Arthur's arrest earlier in the film that interrupts his chill-out session with his neighbor, that almost certainly would have led to a moral slip had it remained uninterrupted.

Edited by Cunningham

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Whew, I feel late to the party and given the excellent discussion going on here, so I’m sure there is some overlap in my thoughts here.).

I agree with anyone who says that Schrödinger’s Cat and the theme of ambiguity and know-ability are key here. The storytelling choices here are actually instructive. The choice of profession, physics prof, for Larry is brilliant. When he says “[The math is] the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture," he’s reflecting the modern mindset and it even ties into the date for the film (the precipice of Enlightenment rationality being questioned in the mainstream both in philosophy and physics). But he reveals his own lack of comprehension later, when he insists that he understands what Clive’s intentions were.

I think Rabbi Nachter, while perhaps unhelpful to Larry, is actually quite helpful in identifying some key questions. He says that “Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” So what are our obligations? I mentioned to my brothers this morning, and said that the question is not "Is there a God?" but rather, "How can I know what he wants?" and even scarier, "Does it matter?" Rabbi Nachter’s “Help others…couldn’t hurt” response seems woefully inadequate though.

I know very little of the Jewish traditions of Kabballah and Talmud, but I will say that I find it interesting how we are sitting here and trying to puzzle out the pieces of the film and trying to find a solution. We see all these pieces that seem to add up to something, but the answer keeps on slipping away. I think that it might be the Coen’s having us on, but in a way that repeats the themes of the film. There is no way of knowing the answer. What this means is that Larry will never be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together and make meaning out of his religious tradition.

This film immediately goes to the top of my 2009 list (just behind INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and would make an interesting double-bill, contrasting the portrayals of Judaism in each film). I’m initially inclined to think it’s as nihilistic as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but I think it comes by it honestly and I appreciate that. This is a film that resonates, and I'm going to want another viewing soon.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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I think that it might be the Coen’s having us on, but in a way that repeats the themes of the film.

So the Coen brothers are saying: "If there is a God, he is having us on. But... that is the essence of black comedy."

"...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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Kudos to all participants in this thread, which was a pleasure to read. I caught up with A Serious Man last night, and like nearly every Coen brothers film I've seen I came away from it impressed by their talent and ambition but distant and unsatisfied, too. As I tweeted afterward, "That thing that makes people like Coen bros movies? I don't have that thing."

M, what do you mean exactly by "hierophany"? I love it when you make me look up a word, but the definitions I found online didn't click for me.

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That is a dynamite analysis by Alcott (esp. part 11) - thanks for linking to it.

Yesterday afternoon, as I was pondering my Top 100 blurb for this film, I was struck by how many questions this film contains - including the prologue (did the wife righteously slay a dybbuk, or did she murder a rabbi?) and the Jefferson Airplane song that bookends the body of the film. Until reading Alcott's analysis, I hadn't noted that this even carried over into the cast listing in the final credits, where 'Dybbuk' has a question mark after it.

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

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

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Just watched this for a third time - and indeed, there are as many questions verbalized in this film as there are f-bombs dropped in 'The Big Lebowski.'

I just love Coen Brothers' wordplay - I noted that Larry Gopnik refers to the nagging LP scam artists as the 'Columbian Record Club.' I don't know that it means anything, but it gave me a chuckle.

That is all.

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

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

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M, what do you mean exactly by "hierophany"? I love it when you make me look up a word, but the definitions I found online didn't click for me.

That is just a generic religious studies term for appearances of the divine in time and space. Eliade famously described hierophanies as the sacred breaking through to the profane world. Miracles, mythical appearances of deities, dreams and visions, that kind of stuff.

So in A Serious Man we have two potential hierophanies at the end

the phone call and the tornado

. This is interesting because many often bat about the idea that the Coen bros universe seems ironically controlled by justice even though it lacks any semblance of a god. But here, at the end of a movie about how indeterminate religious language really is, they drop two things that are classic hierophanies into the mix without giving us any narrative clues to determine whether they are actually appearances of the sacred or not. Much as in life, they just happen. I think this epitomizes the Coen bros shtick.

"...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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  • 3 months later...

Finally, finally saw this... That ending! Wow. Also, completely in keeping with every in-story story told.

I made it through re-reading 6 or so pages of this thread - I need to go back and skim through the rest. Here's something:

Some people are satisfied with the advise of the 1st rabbi. Some people will spend their life looking for the meaning of the mystery given by the 2nd rabbi. And then, for some, God will be silent.

From the point Larry is rejected from talking to the elder rabbi, to the point where his son does, to that final scene, I almost felt as if what I was watching was Bergman's The Silence meeting Smith's Dogma... which is... a good thing.

Edited by Darryl A. Armstrong

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We watched this at my film night last night. From a second viewing, I wasn't entirely sure that the hurricane spelt death for the son. And there was something else that stuck out that now I can't remember. Pants.

Matt

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I do believe everyone in A Serious Man was wearing pants, you would be right about that.

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  • 2 years later...

Noah Millman considers this film, The Tree of Life and the Book of Job:

How is this an answer to Job’s question? How is it an answer to what I think is the Book of Job’s question? As an answer to Job’s question, it’s a non-sequitur. Job asks: how is my suffering just? God replies: why are you asking me that? Look at the splendor of my creation! In other words: that’s the wrong question. The Book of Job is asking: if worshiping God doesn’t prevent suffering, and if God’s justice cannot be comprehended, then why worship God? And why follow His commands?

“A Serious Man” and “The Tree of Life” each grapple with this question, in very different ways. Both movies are deeply personal projects, and both have their roots in – and are, in part, efforts to capture on film – the filmmakers’ childhoods. One comes from a very Jewish, but irreligious, sensibility; the other comes from a very philosophically-oriented Christian perspective. “A Serious Man” is comic, satiric, angry; “The Tree of Life” is elegiac, melancholy, yearning. But the distinction that, it seems to me, provides the scaffolding for all the other differences between these two films is that they are meditating on different parts of the Book of Job. . . .

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"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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Noah Millman considers this film, The Tree of Life and the Book of Job:

Job asks: how is my suffering just? God replies: why are you asking me that? Look at the splendor of my creation! In other words: that’s the wrong question. The Book of Job is asking: if worshiping God doesn’t prevent suffering, and if God’s justice cannot be comprehended, then why worship God? And why follow His commands?

I don't think that's right at all.

Edited by SDG

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One comes from a very Jewish, but irreligious, sensibility; the other comes from a very philosophically-oriented Christian perspective. “A Serious Man” is comic, satiric, angry; “The Tree of Life” is elegiac, melancholy, yearning.

Neither is this.

"...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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