Culture, Global, Israel

Man tracht un Got lacht (but with us or against us?): A Review of A Serious Man (2009)

Between services this Yom Kippur, I attended a talk by a revered and learned elder in my community. Michael had a number of urgent messages to share with us that day. One of them was that the biblical story of Job never actually happened. “The Job story never happened. They say so in the Talmud.” Here was a righteous man, who happened to be a Holocaust survivor, feeling the need to tell us, on Yom Kippur of all days, that the Job narrative was nothing more than a fiction with an abstract moral. He did not explain why he chose to speak of this particular subject, but it seemed as though he wished to assure us that no life could be as unbearable as Job’s.
Michael Stuhlbarg stars as physics professor Larry Gopnik in writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen’s A SERIOUS MAN, a Focus Features release.The next week, I saw the opening of the Coen brothers’ new film A Serious Man, set in 1960s Minnesota, with many scenes filmed at our congregation in St. Louis Park, MN. Seeing Michael, in his distinct, heavy Czechoslovakian accent, call the protagonist’s young son up to the Torah in the film’s climactic bar mitzvah scene caused me to view A Serious Man in an entirely different light. I began to consider the possibility that this film, centering on the multiplying woes of an earnest, unassuming suburban Jewish mathematics professor, was a modern re-casting of the Job narrative. Both in his personal life, which included his wife’s sudden announcement that she wanted a divorce, his children’s apathy, his neighbor’s hostility, and in his professional life, where his travails included the shocking attempt of a student bribe him for a passing grade and the frustrating uncertainty of his department’s tenure review committee’s decision, Larry, his glasses eternally askew and his life a mess, is beset with anxiety and ethical crises brought on by harsh and seemingly random circumstance. Larry’s troubles are decidedly modern problems, but the questions he asks are timeless. (Curiously, Michael – my fellow congregant who appeared in this film — was the only character in the modern American part of the film–which constitutes the bulk of the film’s narrative–to speak with even a trace of an old-world accent.) The Yiddish of the opening scene gives way to an affectively flat English which dominates the heart of the film. Only in this bizarre bar mitzvah scene are we reminded of that world, for a fleeting moment.
This understated but extremely ambitious films tackles the formidably expansive subject of human suffering, but framed within a very specific moment of Jewish life in America.
Formatted like a Talmudic discussion, the film opens with a piece of visual aggadah, a symbolic prefatory anecdote, a distinctly theatrical and subtly witty Polish shtetl scene, which could have come straight from the pages of Yiddish modernist writer Sholem Asch. While the Yiddish accent of the wife in this scene was a bit off, gestural richness abounded, amply compensating for any such technical shortcomings. The dybbuk character was portrayed masterfully by Fyvush Finkel, whose facial contortions alone were enough to recall the communal soul of a people of a bygone era. This was a world inhabited by spirits, talismans, premonitions, and acceptance of harsh fates.

Following this mysterious opening scene, the film cuts to a quotation of an earlier commentator (an epigraph from the venerated medieval biblical and Talmud commentator Rashi), only to be followed by the meat of the matter: a seemingly discontinuous flow of overlapping ethical questions and conceptual impasses with material consequence (i.e. the story of professor Larry Gopnik circa late sixties Minnesota). This seemingly abrupt leap from old-world to new-world, from Yiddish to English, from Lublin to Minneapolis, is reflected on many levels within the film, as the very structure of belief changes radically from superstitious folk-belief to wary, modern skepticism.
And how does it all resolve? Teiku (this is the English transliteration)= the acronym for Tishbi Yetaretz Kushiyot V’ba’ayot: The Tishbiite prophet Elijah will have to answer and resolve these questions. (This is the famous Talmudic phrase found at the end of long stretches of disputations that cannot be resolved.) In other words, like in many Talmudic disputes, the questions here remain unanswered.
Indeed, the age-old practice of argumentation and questioning in the Jewish intellectual tradition is not only an avocation here, it is, on more levels than one, the vocation of the curiously flat figures portrayed in A Serious Man. In this web of questions, the characters are somehow lost and cede any real sense of agency. In this way, the people on-screen are relegated to the same passive ‘learning’ status as the spectators in the viewing audience. The story (for lack of a better word) we see unfolding onscreen is a lesson for everyone. But when can the learner become a teacher? When do we cease to become mere objects of circumstance and begin to take action? In A Serious Man, the answer, it would seem, is never.
We first encounter Larry in the context of his doctor’s appointment. There is something decidedly mechanical and morbid about the way the doctor examines him against a backdrop of flat lighting and the pallid décor of the check-up room. Through a series of abruptly edited flashes, the viewing audience catches glimpses of Larry’s middle-aged body on the examination table. His body becomes a symptom. Life is the sickness.
The scene is cross-cut with a scene of his adolescent son Danny, absorbed in the “other world” that his headphones grant him, as he sits passively, hoping not to be noticed, in Hebrew school. The old Hebrew school teacher rambles on in the background, reviewing the present and past tense conjugation in Hebrew of a sentence that begins in the singular, “I am going home” (ani holekh ha’bayitah…). Following the recitation of this grammatical review, the teacher prompts the students to answer basic questions in Hebrew. At the close of the scene (and the Coen brothers are nothing if not masters of comedic timing), the teacher concludes by asking the students, “ha’im anakhnu omdim? Lo. Ha’im anakhnu holkhim? Lo. Anakhnu lomdim” (Are we standing? Are we walking? No, we are learning).
Michael Stuhlbarg (at left, in foreground) stars as Larry Gopnik and Richard Kind (at right, in foreground) stars as Larry's brother Arthur in writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen's 1967-set A Serious Man, a Focus Features release.Filmgoers seeking charismatic on-screen personalities need not see this film. The characters here reflect the Old Testament tradition of ‘man in the negative.’ The choreography of circumstance and elusive will of God trump any individual personality trait. Many of the archetypal male ‘heroes’ of the bible are cast in this light (think about Noah, Isaac, Job, etc.). We do not gain much insight into their actual personal qualities, but rather, what befalls them. What they did not do. Similarly here, characters are not so much developing personalities as they are embodiments, almost in a Brechtian Lehrstücke sense. The recurring line of this film–the mantra of inaction–is: “I/we didn’t do anything!” whether it be Larry reflecting on the sudden dissolution of his marriage, Larry’s hapless brother protesting his arrest, or Larry speaking defensively on the other end of a phone line to the Columbia records salesperson (“I never ordered Santana Abraxas, I never listened to Santana Abraxis!”). In each case, the statement responds to a unjust and absurd, yet seemingly inescapable situation. All “action” is deferred to the dream sequences interspersed throughout the film.
While the film’s unusual acting and plot-less plot might have defied standard narrational expectations and frustrated critics and viewers alike, there was something hauntingly, unspeakably real about this film. Some images may have been just too grotesque (e.g. the preponderance of close-ups, revealing less than appetizing facial detail), while other scenes may have seemed too pristine (e.g. the unremittingly bleak, flat surfaces of suburbia: perfectly manicured, identical lawns, not a cloud in the sky, nary a tree on the street–a painfully placid colour-palette, reflecting the atomistic nature of suburban professional life), and the characters may have seemed too flat (as some critics have observed). The Coen brothers, however, engage in a different kind of realism, a terrifyingly resonant one.
Aaron Wolff (right) stars as Danny Gopnik and Richard Kind (left) stars as Danny’s Uncle Arthur in writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen’s A SERIOUS MAN, a Focus Features release.With this film, the Coen brothers artfully portray what happens in the absence of action. Suburban life in 1960s St. Louis Park, MN as depicted in the film is drained of all the affective richness of the opening scene in Poland. Whatever traces we hear or see of this old world exist as atavistic vestiges of a life not so long ago, and yet eons away. Danny does not even learn his Torah portion with a teacher (the age-old, respected tradition of teaching in Jewish life)—he turns to his turntable and attempts to duplicate a classical cantorial rendition of the reading. All connection is lost, or even rejected. Danny might be sitting in Hebrew school, but none of this is relevant to him. His ears are literally plugged.
One of the great strengths of this film is precisely its unwillingness to condescend to its viewers and bow to a well-tread-upon easy, secular bourgeois ecumenicism. This film is very much about a particular place and time and makes no excuses for its unbending centeredness in this very specific cultural milieu. Indeed, entire lines in the Hebrew school scene are not subtitled, and we don’t really have a sense of what Larry is describing (other than uncertainty) in his elaborate mathematics formulae. And neither do the students on-screen. The recurring reference to a “get” (Jewish ritual divorce document) and to “Hashem” (God) will evade most viewers in the same way that Larry’s brother Arthur’s “Mentaculus” book (a “conceptual probability map”) will.
But this film by no means romanticizes this culture or moment. To the contrary, each different space in the film feels like a trap. No one’s wisdom or knowledge suffices in responding to man’s deepest and most basic suffering and grief. No professor, no rabbi, no friend provides succor. In desperately seeking the truth, Larry, the mathematics professor, reverts to the old-world solution of seeking out the counsel of the rabbis. Danny, his son, finds refuge in mind-altering escapism of marijuana. For this new generation, opium has become the religion of the masses. But the end-effect is the same. The bar mitzvah, a milestone to which so much meaning is attached and so much time and money is invested in Jewish suburban America, becomes a literal hallucination to the young boy. We view this scene through the eyes of Danny, amidst a drugged stupor.
Ironically, the highly absurdist bar mitzvah scene provides the downtrodden Larry with his sole moment of joy in the film. Ultimately, not much happens. After a few moment’s confused pause, Danny proceeds to read a couple lines from the Torah. The accomplishment is minor, but the parents take tremendous pride in their son. This anti-climactic climax is, in fact, the singular triumph of the story.
The festishized markers of success, which respectable members of middle-class suburbia typically apply in assessing accomplishment, fail in the same way that Larry’s convoluted, abstract physics theories fail (or to paraphrase 20th century Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, you cannot chart mystery on a graph). Science fails, religion fails, and the people affected fail. Those who should fail (such as Larry’s dishonest student Clive) don’t, and those who try their hardest (such as Larry) are defeated by the unpredictable inevitable.
The desperate appeal to authority is revealed as futile and even comedic. Neither the patronizing junior rabbi’s idiotic grin nor the senior rabbi’s incessant dipping of his tea bag can help save Larry. When Larry, in a last ditch effort, finally plants himself in front of the famed ‘Marshak’ (the third and most elderly rabbi), he is flatly denied access. “The rabbi is busy.” When Larry notes that, “He doesn’t look busy”, the androgynous secretary replies, “He’s thinking.” In this scene, we are allowed just a small glimpse of Marshak’s cave-like study. However, when we finally gain access to his quarters following the bar mitzvah scene, we are bombarded with a blitzkrieg of grotesque, macabre imagery, including items that look like cadavers sealed in jars of varying sizes, and a rather dramatically violent oil painting of the binding of Isaac (the most decidedly passive of the Jewish patriarchs…a fitting emblem for this film). Like the other ‘authorities’ in this film (whether religious, academic, legal, or medical), Marshak sits behind an impressive desk only to offer nothing. One cannot help but think of the famous Wizard of Oz scene during this brief and humorous exchange between Marshak and the newly bar-mitvahed Danny.
Without ruining the ending for those who have yet to see this film (what are you waiting for??), I will simply comment that the ending also curiously recalls another aspect of the classic Victor Fleming film. The final scene of the film reminds us where we are, while completely alienating us from this marker of place. While images of Israel (whether in maps, charity boxes, and other standard ephemera) abound inside the Hebrew school, these images are very much the background of these children’s lived culture. This is a scene of removed belonging that is almost laughable. In the final Hebrew school scene, the teacher conducts one of his conjugation drills by asking (b’Ivrit–in Hebrew–of course!) who wants to plant a tree in Israel. Perhaps most telling of this disconnect is the fact that this film is set in the year 1967, the year of the Six Days War, and yet this is never once mentioned, despite the profusion of references to the state of Israel. Israel is more a concept than a political reality here, yet another place where they don’t actually exist.
Ultimately, what we see at the end is none other than the American flag, beating against the relentlessly harsh currents of the wind. “Fucking flag is going to rip off the pole,” one of Danny’s classmates casually remarks. These are just external signs, but signs to which we attach a tremendous meaning in forming our own very fragile sense of identity.
While the viewer of A Serious Man might find her/himself tormented for days after seeing it by the hefty questions that the film raises, the Coen brothers, showing dutiful empathy for their, presumably, morally sensitive and compassionate audience, conclude this poignant cinematic portrayal of real suffering by assuring viewers in the credits that “No Jews were harmed in the making of this film.”
So, returning to Michael’s Yom Kippur talk: was the story of Job real or just a piece of Biblical fiction? Watching A Serious Man certainly makes you wonder…

13 thoughts on “Man tracht un Got lacht (but with us or against us?): A Review of A Serious Man (2009)

  1. Great review!
    I wanted to point out a couple other themes and references that are also notable:
    The timing of the movie is set in the historical moment before 60s counter-culture took off and the country was turned upside-down. That mid-century moment became the breaking point for traditions that were on their way out and then their ultimate innovation and revival. (Can’t you see the son growing up to become an ex-hippie JuBu? And writing an article for Heeb or Guilt and Pleasure about his stoned Bar Mitzvah?) The disintegration throughout the film can also be read as the disintegration of normative American society. Drugs, secularism, immigration, traditional identities, and religious diversity (and homosexuality, if you remember that detail) are mixing uncomfortably. It’s a situation that can’t sustain itself. The scene at the end, with the American flag flapping in the wind, about to “fucking rip off”, seemed to me a clear symbol for the storm – so to speak – that was coming: the cultural revolution (and, you could argue, the war of 1967 and the occupation).
    The reference to the Wizard of Oz is multi-layered (and I wonder if the Coen Bros were conscious of it). Oz is the wonderland of drugs and music, the haze which the country is on the threshold of entering. But it’s also the archetypal story of American dreams. “Somewhere over the rainbow… far, far away.” It’s the expansionist American imagination. On his way to becoming a rocking hippie, I bet that son moves (further) west.
    Then there is Marshak, the oracle but also a cipher. I don’t think he is supposed to be seen as offering nothing – to the contrary! Rather, he is the keeper of knowledge – he is the only one in the entire film who is depicted (through the juxtaposition of the creepy formaldehyde jars, the prehistoric diagrams, and the painting of the binding of Isaac) as wrestling with the conflict between traditional Judaism and modern science. (It’s also no coincidence that his name sounds like a rabbinical acronym, Radak, Maharal, etc.)
    And what does he say to the son? His words (although totally freakin hilarious like the rest of the movie) are not meant to be a sign of his obliviousness (as, you could argue, it is with the other rabbis). He repeats the lyrics of the song by the Jefferson Airplane that has been playing throughout the movie (and, we can guess, on the sons radio): ‘When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies.’ This is what Larry says to the second Rabbi – “Everything I thought is true turned out to be lies.” Marshak is pondering the same question… and he appears (in giving the radio back to the boy) to approve of the music. In this way, it appears that Marshak, the personification of accumulated Jewish wisdom and the ultimate symbol of the Old World, has given his blessing to the new world that is about to be born in this stoned bar mitzvah boy. He says to him, “be a good boy.” What else is there to say?
    Anyway, some other themes to ponder. What an awesome movie. Because on top of all these weighty ideas, it was just so so funny.

  2. Some interesting observations and analysis.
    One point: the Yiddish of the Shtetl Woman is actually excelllent. The actress has the authentic European sound down pat. No offense intended, but your expertise in this particular area is lacking.
    Say vi say, a hartsikn yasher koyakh.

  3. Zay moykhl, but the man’s accent was much more thoroughly galitzianer, as true to the scene’s location. I merely meant in terms of regional dialect.
    Joanna — I really like your reading of the Marshak scene. I think you’re dead-on about the final exchange.
    and dj, that’s interesting about the particular month. From the weather, I gathered it had to be at least late spring/early summer (otherwise we’d see a snow-covered Minnesota), but that point sheds new light on the Israel question. Thanks!

  4. ***** Spoilery ******
    Nice work. I especially love the “Opium is the religion of the masses.”
    A few quick thoughts having just seen it.
    Schroedinger’s Cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle are at the heart of the film – both testimony to the ultimate unknowability of things.
    The shtetl scene raises the possibility of a Dybbuk. Larry does not begin having nightmares until Sy dies. Leaves me wondering if the purpose of the film’s opening scene is to teach the audience about dybbuks. Also cannot help but be struck by Larry’s stammering attempt to assert that he is a Serious Man, echoing descriptions of Sy in a way that could be envy or possession. Of course, we cannot know.
    The ending – in Job God speaks out of the whirlwind and says, in essence, “you can’t know.” Here God does not even speak from it.
    Finally, it was uncanny hearing a reference to Ruth Brin’s z”l mother’s illness so soon after Ruth’s own passing.

  5. Rich, I hadn’t thought of the Sy-dybbuk connection before, but that’s a neat reading of the ‘spirits that haunt us’ in different contexts. Thanks!
    Hearing the Ruth Brin z”l reference was especially eerie, having attended her funeral just a couple days before. Shows they did their research on the Minnesota Jewish community! She is someone with whom I would have very much liked to discuss this film.

  6. Thanks for an insightful review and comment thread! This was very helpful in making sense out of the movie.
    As one of the few people who understood both the Hebrew and the quantum mechanics (though the Yiddish sailed over my head except for the idioms that come from Hebrew), I agree with Rich that the physics content that we see is central to the themes of the movie. The physics lecture near the beginning is about Schrodinger’s cat, the thought experiment in which it is indeterminate whether the cat is alive or dead until a measurement is made. This parallels the shtetl scene: we are uncertain as to whether the “dybbuk?” (as he is labeled in the credits) is alive or dead until the wife makes a measurement (and then after that, we’re still uncertain!). Sy Abelman’s death is also confusing. Did anyone make sense out of what happened in that scene? Were we supposed to? (I.e. is Sy part of the same crash that Larry is in, or a completely unrelated crash at the same time? The way the scene is shot, you can’t determine their relative positions.)
    There is also quantum-like indeterminacy in Larry’s conversation with the student’s father. Larry argues that either the student gave him the money or he didn’t, and the father seems to argue for a superposition of those two states.
    The tornado at the end fits into both the Job theme (God speaking from the whirlwind) and perhaps the Wizard of Oz theme. I wonder what other Job references I missed; these are the same people who did O Brother, Where Art Thou?, filled with references to the Odyssey, so I think it’s likely that there’s a lot more there.

  7. I saw the film last night and discussed with BZ this morning.
    As in all comments here: (Major) SPOILER ALERT !!!!!!!!!!
    The two major calamities that befall Job are: (1) Ruach kills his firstborn son and all gathered in his son’s house. (2) Boils (physcial sickness and pain). I think that the tornado aimed at the school and the forthcoming diagnosis from the doctor signal that the real Job parallels are to occur after the credits roll. As bad as Larry’s life is during the course of the movie, he is yet to face what Job endured. Contrary to the Job narrative, I believe the tornado and sickness come because he has already failed the test. Both occur as soon as he changes the student’s grade.
    I have a few unanswered minor questions:
    (1) Relevance of the Shmitah/Jubilee aliyah. BZ pointed out to me that this is the 1st (Cohen) aliyah of Behar, and not the Maftir. I feel the Coens must have had a deliberate thematic cause to pick this section (when they could have picked Behar’s maftir or set it off by a week to cherry pick a relevant portion.
    (2) What is the Yiddish song that is played several times in the film about? I picked up the phrase “brit milah”
    (3) When watching, I thought the old rabbi was the dybuck. As separate actors were credited, I suppose I was wrong. Did anyone else think this?

  8. to DL:
    1. About the aliyah: the kid gets called to the Torah to read the ENTIRE portion. It has to start with the first aliyah, you don’t just call him to read the maftir…
    2.The Yiddish song is called “Di Milners Trern” (The Miller’s Tears”). There is no ‘brit millah” in there; I think that’s what you heard instead of what is sung “zayt ikh BIN MILNER ot-o-do”. The translation is “How many years have passed since I have been a miller here [in this village]? The wheels turn, the years pass, without an end and a goal in sight”. Other verses go on to say: “I have heard that I will be thrown out of the village. Where will I go? Who will take care of me? The wheels turn, the years pass, etc.”
    3. A friend of mine just asked if the rabbi at the end and the dybbuk (?) were the same person. They most certainly were not. All old men with white beards look alike, I suppose.

  9. EASH writes:
    1. About the aliyah: the kid gets called to the Torah to read the ENTIRE portion. It has to start with the first aliyah, you don’t just call him to read the maftir…
    But in the movie, the gabbai specifically calls him up as “maftir”.

  10. I remembered things about growing up in St. Louis Park: the Embers radio jingle; Bnai Abraham’s Rabbi Sachs z’l’ wrestling with bar mitzvah students; the differences between Jews depending on where they resided (the first, second or third “alphabets” ); dislike of Hebrew school and the teachers (one day my teacher ripped up an award I had received earlier from my third grade class); Columbia Records and Heilicher Bros.; profanity and bullies on the Hebrew school bus; non-Jewish deer-hunting neighbors who made their own shotgun shells in their basements. Please visit my facebook page, Jewish Minnesotans Like Coen Bros. “A Serious Man”

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