Author’s note–this isn’t a review of the film, really. It’s a meditation spurred by seeing the film. If a critical judgment is implied by the nature of the meditation…c’est la vie. If some of my readers, as I suspect, see no connection between the films I mentioned and the meditations they prompted, their response to previous Coen films will probably be a better gauge on their enjoyment of this one than anything I might say.
One of the generic topics that gets incessantly bandied about in the ivory towers of liberal arts departments these days is whether or not postmodernism (whatever that means) is over and, if it is, what’s replaced it. Literary or artistic time periods are academic conveniences. It’s not as though people woke up on January 1, 1900 and declared that Realism was now over and they were all Naturalists. We tend, in retrospect, to pick cultural events of social magnitude that hover around philosophical changes as a means of anchoring the beginning and ending of eras or the tipping points in the transitions between them. Already in some literary anthologies (The Norton Anthology of American English comes to mind) there are sections, after the postmodern era, for literature in the wake of 9/11.
I bring this up not to say that the Coen brothers’ new film has anything to do with 9/11 but rather because it felt oddly dated. There is something about the existential angst of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) that–I don’t know–might have felt at home in an anthology with John Cheever’s “Death of Justina” or on a double-bill with whatever film about the silence of God that Ingmar Bergman had just released in 1963. I mean, I loved L’Avventura as much as the next guy, but there’s a reason it’s the title Don Draper is dropping on Mad Men and that’s because it epitomizes a time (portrayed in the show) where the ideas and practices taken for granted now were just becoming intellectually fashionable.
The heart of A Serious Man is a debate between the heroically (or pathetically) suffering (or enduring) main character and his rabbi who tells him that God does not owe us any answers. Then why, Larry asks, does he make us feel the questions?
The poignancy with which man feels his finite nature is not new. Heck Larry could be the narrator of a Poe ballad, torturing himself by making himself repeat questions to which he knows he will always, only, get cryptic answers which he can then interpret as he cares to as signs from God or the devil or the universe that must mean…well, something, anyway. It’s not really so important what it all means, it is supposed to be enough in the Magnolias and the A Serious Mans of the world that we are saved from the greater horror of nihilism by the assurance that beyond the door is something other than “darkness there, and nothing more.”
It’s not that I find what is essentially an agnostic position–that meaning is unknown and unknowable–to be morally reprehensible. It’s just that I find it so static and, eventually, boring. At least in No Country For Old Men the Coens were able to use the confrontation between larger-than-life archetypes to create a mood or atmosphere that made us feel we were always on the verge of an epiphany. A Serious Man, like the Coen’s previous work, is carefully plotted to avoid–heaven forbid!–any hint or clue of meaning in the outcome of the narrative. Just as in No Country For Old Men how the plot issue of who lived or who died purposefully had no connection between the theological or moral standing of any of the characters, so too in A Serious Man is Gopnik’s status in life is endlessly revolving around fortune’s wheel, impervious to whether he forgives his wife or takes a bribe from his Korean student.
If Darwin was the crown prince of darkness for one century’s war against religious uncertainty, Derrida is the focal point for the postmodern hating evangelical subculture that sees in his insistence that flux and indeterminacy (particularly of language) precludes meaning and therby creates the foundations of modern despair from which there is no intellectually honest exit. I have no idea if its intentional, but the characters in A Serious Man can’t communicate–are forever repeating back what they thought they heard the other say only to be corrected–as though they are in some sort of Derridean object lesson. (A consummate example is in the conference between Larry and his failing Korean student.)
Here’s the thing, though. I believe, as do most Christians I know, in revelation. That means I find the long laments about the silence hard to sympathize with. Oh, I feel like God is silent. Believe me, I do. I just happen to think that there is some historical evidence that He hasn’t always been that is a bit more reliable than my feelings. In the language of the film, I’m a goy. And while I don’t care if the film (and the world view it represents) looks down on me (or anyone who is not Jewish and yet still believes that God has spoken in a decipherable way) with contempt, I do think it a bit much for it to ask me to sympathize with it while it is doing so–to metaphorically pat Larry on the head and say, “Oh, you poor dear.” To affirm that in a world without certainty he (and what he represents) must be the only one who feels the loss.
The take home moral of the story, such as it is, pronounced by an elder rabbi to Larry’s son is “be a good boy.” Because vaya una tormenta. Oh, sorry, I thought they slipped the final real of Terminator in there for a second. Because a storm is coming. A really big one. And part of being a serious man is being ready for the storm (yes sir, ready). The film (or more precisely, Larry) seems to argue that you can’t prepare for the storm. All you can do is the best you can and hope that is good enough. Nothing wrong with that. I just think there might actually be, you know, actual answers out there and not just thrilling questions raised by raining frogs and inscribed teeth. He who has ears to hear…let him laugh at Larry Gopnik. Or cry for him. I’m not sure it really matters which.
I feel like I should say that I don’t dislike the film because it is Jewish any more than I dislike most of Bergman’s films because they are Roman Catholic. I remember doing an independent study of religion in literature as an undergraduate and reading The Apostle by Sholem Asch. It is a piece of historical fiction based on the life and writings of Paul by a Jewish writer who goes out of his way to be as ecumenical as possible in the telling. After struggling to articulate how and why the book failed on that level (for me as a reader) during two conference meetings with my instructor, I finally wrote in one of my revisions that maybe, possibly, there were parts of Jewish and Christian beliefs (particularly about, oh, New Testament history) that were incompatible. My professor, bless his patient heart, smiled benignly and said something like, “There, that wasn’t so hard was it?”