Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Sense of Perspective, Courtesy of the Coen Brothers (On This Thanksgiving Day)


A Serious Man (2009; Dir.: Joel & Ethan Coen)


It was a minor shock to go from the gloriously skewed cinematic visions of Richard Kelly, Tsai Ming-liang and Werner Herzog (in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, which I saw at a press screening on Friday, and which I'm holding off writing about until its release at New York's IFC Center on Dec. 11) to the relatively more precise style of the Coen Brothers in their latest film, A Serious Man. But whereas The Box and Face, to borrow a phrase from Pauline Kael, "go mad on the potentialities of movies," the Coens in A Serious Man aim for something more subtle yet equally ambitious: their latest work is no less than a consideration of the existence of God and the cosmos.

Actually, it's much more complex and intimately scaled than it sounds, but it's a reasonable starting point in approaching A Serious Man, which, in some ways, feels more like a thematic summation than either The Man Who Wasn't There or No Country for Old Men. While those films steeped moral, spiritual and philosophical inquiry in idiosyncratic genre playfulness, howevee, A Serious Man makes no such outward concessions. The Coens take an unsparing look at the travails of its Job-like protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mild-mannered university professor who finds a whole series of unfortunate events seemingly happening to him at the same time, and who reacts to this avalanche of negativity by having a crisis of faith. Where is God in all of this? He had accepted His existence as fact up until this point, and, in his mind, had been living a good, decent life...and yet now, in a time of need, He is apparently nowhere to be found. But it's not just God that seems to have deserted him; it's a sense of purpose in his life. "I haven't done anything," Gopnik frustratedly proclaims on occasion, lamenting both the lack of fairness he feels in all that is happening to him, but also quietly bemoaning his lack of concrete accomplishments in his life (he may be up for tenure at the university, but, as he himself points out, he hasn't even published a paper yet). All he has to show for his hard work these days is a wannabe divorcée, ungrateful children and an overachieving Asian student who tries to bribe him for a better exam grade.

Gopnik, a mathematics professor, is, by nature, a rational-thinking fellow, and so he, a Jew, rations that visiting rabbis at local synagogues will help him find the answers he seeks. As it turns out, no such luck; the three rabbis he visits provide answers that fail to satisfy him. The first rabbi he visits seems to focus inordinately on the parking lot outside his window as supposedly heartening proof of God's existence; the second rabbi tells a compelling parable that merely ends up at one big question mark of a punchline; and the third rabbi won't even see him, being that he's too busy sitting around and "thinking." None of this is played for the kind of smug snark that Coen detractors consistently accuse them of; in fact, the Coens are too smartly aware of the nature of religious belief—indeed, too serious, in spite of their pitch-black comic sensibility—to lodge easy potshots at the rabbis' own ways of affirming their convictions. The lack of obvious answers, instead, deeply unsettles Gopnik—and us in the audience.

"Accept the mystery," one character says randomly in the film. The quote is a throwaway moment in context, but that, in a nutshell, articulates what A Serious Man is all about: being conscious of what we know and don't know, and understanding how people deal with things they aren't aware of. Some, like Larry Gopnik, look for answers until it nearly tears them apart; others may think about those big questions for a little while before eventually getting back to living their everyday lives. Maybe those in the latter group indeed accept that there are just something they may never know. When you think about it, that sounds very much like a universal human response to the unknown.

One thing I know for sure: the Coen Brothers, in A Serious Man, are genuinely committed to exploring the various facets of their protagonist's tortured soul in ways that are arguably more affecting than the thriller mechanics of their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. That said, both those films share a pronounced sense of daring about leaving in gaps in plot and character for all to see; this deliberate lack of closure is where No Country derived its tremendous kick. The Poland-set, Yiddish-language prologue of A Serious Man sets the stage: a husband comes home with a man his wife accuses of being a "dybbuk"; when she stabs him to prove her point, he gradually starts to bleed and staggers out of their house to an uncertain doom. We never quite know 100% if she indeed was right about him being a supernatural being; the scene simply ends with the camera observing them from outside their front door, wind and snow creating a positively ghostly, ambivalent halo. 

But its most daring gap comes at its very end...or rather, non-end. Those who found the conclusion of No Country for Old Men outrageous in its inconclusiveness will be equally frustrated by the way this film ends, or rather comes to a jarringly sudden stop. Yes, folks, the Coens have done it again...and once again, once the shock of it wore off, I could think of no other honest way conclude to a film that deals so insistently about the unanswered questions that hang over all of us. What the Coens do is literalize those unanswered questions with an impending tornado—coupled with Gopnik committing the ultimate immoral act (for him)—hanging in the balance as the film audaciously cuts to black. The end. What will happen to Gopnik and to his Midwestern community? Maybe, the Coens drive home with a vengeance, we're just not meant to know.

What I find rather profound about A Serious Man—and it is something that has run throughout the Coens' entire body of work, but which finally finds its most direct and affecting realization here—is something I think Paul Thomas Anderson tried, grandiosely, to get at with the plague-of-frogs climax in Magnolia: As much as we may magnify our own personal problems to near-apocalyptic dimensions, there are always forces greater than us that need to be wrestled with. A Serious Man may be explicitly about its inquiry into the knowledge all of us humans have and seek, but on a deeper level, it's a film about maintaining a healthy sense of perspective of one's place in the cosmos. We may feel like we're the centers of our own universes, but when it comes to the real universe...well, who are we, really? That may sound nihilistic, but I prefer to see it a statement of hard truth—and, in light of some of the mixed feelings I've had about my own place in life recently, an uplifting sentiment in its own way.

And on that note: it's Thanksgiving! If nothing else, be thankful for the momentary pleasures in life. For Gopnik, that's seeing his (high on pot, unbeknownst to him) son become a man at his bar mitzvah. For me, it's become blogging. And for those who are actually reading my recent barrage of posts, I'm thankful to you all...among many other things, of course.

(A Serious Man is currently playing in limited release nationwide.)

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