“When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies / Don’t you want somebody to love?” —Jefferson Airplane

In 1991, Roger Ebert pinpointed a recurring image in Joel and Ethan Coen’s films—namely, the sight of “crass, venal men behind desks, who possess power the heroes envy.” He was reviewing the wonderful Barton Fink, but the pair’s filmography up to that point was rife with examples: Blood Simple’s slimy detective, Raising Arizona’s glib furniture salesman, Miller’s Crossing’s vengeful mob boss (Albert Finney, in a criminally underappreciated role).

That was nearly two decades ago. Ethan and Joel Coen have since been rightfully recognized as two of the most masterful, visually inventive, and, well, genre-defying filmmakers of our generation. Who else, save perhaps Tarantino, has so consistently combined critically successful artistry with commercial appeal? Think of the wood-chipper scene, the heart-stopping coin toss, the eccentric dialogue (“Donny, you’re out of your element!”)—they’re all there, irrevocably ingrained in our cultural consciousness.

But still, the Coens are guilty as charged: the powerful, maybe-sorta-evil, gruff man-behind-the-desk figure reigns supreme. In their latest project, A Serious Man, I think this “type” might be personified by the rabbis—three of them, in fact, into whose offices our desperate, tortured antihero, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), stumbles, begging religion to make sense of his senseless misfortunes: his crumbling marriage, his bizarre professional problems, his do-nothing brother. These scenes, which unfold with the elegant desperation of a mob boss meeting, exemplify the Coens’ wonderful dialogue and their propensity for drawing out scenes to an absurd limit. And they’re hilarious: the rabbis talk in circles, share long-winded parables about dentistry, wallow in bureaucracy. Is religion a comfort? Or just a pointless distraction?

Maybe it’s both. And maybe the man behind the desk is God himself, whose existence—or mercy—the film never stops questioning. I’m reminded of Scorsese’s After Hours: there, too, we had a viciously cruel supreme being, dumping one calamity after another on a hapless protagonist. 
In one of A Serious Man’s cruelest ironies, Larry is a physics professor, and his subject appeals to him because it makes sense—in all the ways fate does not. Isn’t physics always a foil to the distinctly illogical nature of life? In one of the smartest gags, we see Larry scribbling equations on a blackboard. The camera zooms out, revealing the Uncertainty Principle in all its looming horror, towering over him, practically swallowing him whole. In another, he’s on the phone with a Columbia Records Club salesman. Or is it God on the line? “I don’t want ‘Santana, Abraxas’!” Larry cries. “I didn’t ask for ‘Santana Abraxas’!” But life doesn’t work that way.

I’ll be blunt: A Serious Man is a wonderful film, and it stands up with the Coens’ best work. It’s deeply funny, but it’s in the same dark, unnerving vein of Fargo, Barton Fink and Blood Simple. It’s moving, too, with all the elements we’ve come to love in this pair’s film: the compelling cinematography, the open ending, the sheer disregard for genre boundaries, the eccentric characters that nonetheless ring with truth. Scenes are never mere devices in a plot; rather, the Coens take joy in every shot, every frame—in the act of filmmaking itself.

“Variety”’s Todd McCarthy describes A Serious Man as “the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar.” What he means to say, I think, is that it’s hard to imagine the Coens pitching this one to a money-hungry executive: “Okay, so it’s a rumination on fate, Judaism, and Physics—and the Jefferson Airplane . . . Well, I mean, there’s this guy—a professor—and his life falls apart, so he goes to see these rabbis, and there are no name actors and no appealing plot and few likeable characters, and it’s filled with all these Jewish references bound to confuse goyim . . . Maybe it’s the first Jewish existential black comedy? Whatever. Good luck advertising it.”

But it has more in common with No Country for Old Men than McCarthy might realize. A Serious Man, too, broods over questions of randomness and fate. And like that Oscar winner, it first opened with a limited distribution, only to build up critical acclaim and word-of-mouth praise. Maybe it will reach the same victory at a certain awards ceremony in March. But maybe it won’t, and that’s fine, too. This is a film for the ages. We might as well accept the mystery.

  • The Darkhorsican

    Cat, we’ve been discussing this film for some time now, and I’m prepared to concede defeat—but I’m not going down without a fight.

    There’s no getting around the assertion that A Serious Man is an incredibly depressing film; however, it behooves one to guard against viewing that term as strictly pejorative. Depression is good for the soul, and is for better or worse (arguably, for better) a catalyzing impulse that has proved essential to the creation of legitimate art a million times over. The disquieting identification we feel with the film’s protagonist is what makes it ring so true—we accept and agonize over his recognition of the futility of effort because it’s something we’ve inevitably experienced to one degree or another in our own lives.

    My principal grievance wit’ da film is its fairly esoteric nature. As you masterfully observed, it’s replete with references that soar over the heads of those of us who are not adequately acquainted with Jewish culture. We certainly appreciate the black humor and to some extent are able to comprehend this unique, religio-cultural frustration, but it remains fairly abstract and generic. The Jewish angst is identifiable, and even palpable; however, it remains comprehensible solely on a base level, and consequently the resonance of the message is fairly faint for the average gentile—the central problem with the film is that it’s relevant within a certain social context, and as a result, the film gets mired down in arcana.

    But isn’t that the way we like our movies? Most good, artful films are at least relatively abstruse in nature, and the onus lies with the viewer to familiarize himself with the subject matter in order to gain a true apprehension of the poignant beauty of the film. While this isn’t always the case, it was undeniably evident that the film presupposed certain knowledge. At some level, you get out of movies what you put into them, and I failed to prepare adequately. And so, I cannot help but acknowledge the rectitude of your argument.

    And let’s be honest, it would be mildly ridiculous of any Wesleyan student to lament inaccessibility in films ;)

  • Dr. Zachary S. Schonfeld, esquire

    Distinguished Professor Sheldon,

    “There’s no getting around the assertion that A Serious Man is an incredibly depressing film”—or so you begin your eloquent rebuttal. I would reply that my intent was never to “get around” this assertion; further, I’d never deny that many—perhaps most—of my favorite films probably could, or have, been classified as such. My intent, rather, was simply to question whether “depressing” is a productive or even meaningful label to ascribe to the film.

    Is it bleak? Perhaps. Is there a laughably shoddy Hollywood resolution tacked on at the end? Certainly not. But just depressing? Employing that term just feels reductive, if only because it so monumentally fails to address the film’s profound sincerity in addressing human attempts to seek meaning (often, but not exclusively, through religion and belief in God) in a life that too often seems meaningless. Because, really, isn’t that the most accurate plot synopsis there is? You can say the film exposes organized religion as futile at worst and foolish at best. But I don’t think it’s that simple. And “depressing” simply feels like a coo-out.

    Nor does “depressing” acknowledge one essential fact: this movie is a comedy. A dark comedy, albeit, but still—every scene rings with pitch-perfect hilarity. What’s remarkable is that the Coens don’t play it safe. (A note: I love the Coens because they never play it straight—even dating back to Blood Simple, their 1984 debut—no matter the genre or theme. Their films are always rife with contradiction, with wonderful stylistic flourishes, with dark humor.) This could have been a dreary, Oscarbait drama, but they approach themes of hopelessness and existentialism with incredible attention to humor, subtlety, and just wonderful screenwriting. They are such great screenwriters, and always have been.

    But anyway. Your next point. You describe the film’s overwhelmingly Jewish cultural and thematic concerns as “esoteric”; you claim it lessens the film’s resonance for a gentile. This critique is understandable, but I don’t think it’s entirely true.

    I would note, for one, that the Coens’ films have always been deeply concerned with setting, both physical and cultural, to a degree that reflects powerfully, sometimes comically, in both the imagery and script. Consider Fargo’s obsession with snowy, Midwestern landscapes and ridiculous Minnesotan mannerisms. Recall how intensely couched No Country for Old Men was in the desolate, horrifying Texas desert, or think of Miller’s Crossing, with its emphasis on urban 1920s imagery and décor, and Barton Fink’s nightmarish take on 1940s Hollywood.

    So yes, A Serious Man is very Jewish. This gives the film character and cultural weight. It’s a culture from which the Coens craft some wonderfully distinctive characters. The film is in many ways a tribute to the Coens’ Midwestern Jewish upbringing, and its take on Jewish culture and settings and idiosyncrasies is absolutely perfect (trust me—I’d know) in an often self-deprecatory way. Is this inaccessible to goyim? Maybe. But to say that it is “mired down in arcana” feels like gross misstatement. The Godfather, for example, is deeply catholic in its themes yet never overly difficult for a Jew (i.e., me) to understand. That’s because its themes are, ultimately, universal in application and scope—that is, they transcend the limits of Catholicism, much as A Serious Man does Judaism.

    And that, I believe, is what characterizes a great film.

    Sincerely,

    Cat Stevens

  • The Darkhorsican

    It appears as though your claws have come out, Cat. Your preoccupation with dissecting my conjecture that the film is depressing is perhaps misguided. Let’s not get overly mired down (lololololol) in semantic constructions—depression is certainly not a cop-out reaction to a film that affirms the inability of an everyman (and yes, his Jewish background becomes immaterial here) to identify any serious meaning in his life or rectify the frustratingly mundane adversity of his condition. I submit to you that your characterization of depression as simple is ridiculously dismissive. Nicholson Baker would have a bone or two to pick with you.

    The film’s dark, sardonic bent is (if you’ll pardon the platitudinous nature of remark) what it is. That it’s saddening or disconcerting has no bearing on its significance—we could spend hours contemplating the minutiae of the film, and consequently, any term you assign to the film is going to appear “reductive” simply by virtue of the fact that it’s not giving the film its analytical due.

    Furthermore, that doesn’t preclude the successful employment of comedic devices. A Serious Man is, at times, hilarious, and the humor is only enhanced by the presence of very melancholic themes. Comedy has been a welcome concomitant of sadness since the dawn of time, Cat.

    Also, who doesn’t like the word “arcana”? Not usin’ them hyperbolic designations in a review just ain’t no fun.

    Luv,
    The Darkhorsican

  • Dr. Zachary S. Schonfeld, esquire

    Dearest Rye Bread,

    You must be mistaken. My preoccupation is not misguided but understandably indignant in the face of such impotent, childish terminology. What if I were to describe Radiohead’s catalog as “angsty”? Would that sufficiently address its merit?

    The point? “Depressing” is at best maddeningly vague, and at worst a thin shield under which you veil your more substantial issues with the film. And so I insist: remove the shield; address issues of substance.

    It’s not so much a matter of giving its film “its analytical due” that bothers me (as much as I’d love, admittedly, to dissect individual scenes). It’s simply that I insist on confronting the film’s central paradox (namely, that so horrifying a film could be so sincerely hilarious, both in script and stylistic flourishes) and acknowledging its ultimate ambiguity (the ending, the questions of God versus existential floating, the emphasis on coincidence) without reducing it to empty platitudes. And “depressing” is an empty platitude.

    “Comedy has been a welcome concomitant of sadness since the dawn of time,” you write. But still, can you imagine how drab—how terribly ordinary—this film would have been in the hands of a less imaginative filmmaker (say, a David Fincher, or a Frank Darabont)?

    But I’d like to return to your other point. I never meant to trivialize entirely your assertion that the film could alienate the average goy (read: non-Jewish) filmgoer. I do still maintain that its themes are universal, but I also—upon viewing it for a second time at the Film Series—realized how personal some of its resonance is for me. Especially the scenes from the kid’s perspective. I once sat in that same dusty Hebrew School classroom; I listened to Rabbis speak in obtuse parables often mistaken for wisdom; I remember standing sheepishly on the podium at my Bar Mitzvah (without the weed, albeit), amidst a sea of odd-smelling elderly Jewish men, chanting Hebrew words that meant nothing to me.

    Today I’m more comfortable identifying with agnosticism, but I was raised Jewish. And maybe I blocked some of those memories out. This film brings them flooding back, and that’s a personal thing. Because I, too, struggled to make sense of organized religion—and it simply happens to have been the same religious upbringing that the Coens both satirize and pay tribute to. Thank God my wife never left me for the gentle rabbinic gentleman down the street.

    Cordially,

    Z“CS”S

  • The Darkhorsican

    Your sign-offs continually amaze me. If I may make a final point regarding the use of “depressing”, let me say that I we’ve afforded it much more consideration that we ever should’ve (isn’t that ironic). If you think it platitudinous, permit me to try my hand at alternate descriptions: the film was jarring, discomfiting, horrifying, bleak, rife with nihilistic confusion and abject despair, frustrating, etc.

    So maybe I selected the wrong word from a plethora of accurate adjectives; invariably, some are better than others. Win some, lose some.

    Don’t get me wrong, I was able to appreciate a lot of the religious/cultural commentary that was made, but it didn’t have the same resonance for me that it did for you. However, we can’t expect great filmmakers to tailor their artistic vision to suit mass-market tendencies or attitudes. I suppose, to an extent, it’s just the luck of the draw.

    I would argue, though, that you may be affording the film more credit than it deserves. Sure, when stacked up against many of the other films of this year, it radiates brilliance. But compare it to, say, The Seventh Seal, and you might find that existential themes have been tackled more successfully before. My point is that while the film was certainly very solid, it’s not one I’d qualify as a masterpiece. It was funny, aesthetically superb, and philosophically rich, but so are a lot of movies.

    My friend, I fear that we might be arriving at that most intractable of impasses: a simple difference of opinion. :)

    Stay fly,
    SHA BOI

  • Dr. Zachary S. Schonfeld, esquire

    Rye Guy,

    I happen to think—and I’m not the only one—that McCarthy’s stylistic choices simply mar his ideas in sludgy, flavorless writing. It’s a shame, I think, that no editor has the balls to stand up to Cormac fuckin’ McCarthy—to tell him that, hey, commas *do* have a purpose in the twenty-first century; that evading quotation marks only punishes the reader for no particular reason at all; that short, declarative sentences are only effective up to a point.

    It’s unfortunate that I can’t get past the prose itself to appreciate McCarthy’s vision. It’s simply too monotonous, too dry, too punishing. But from what I’ve gathered from “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men,” that vision is pretty damn bleak. I might even use the word “depressing” . . .

    Happy holidays,

    Da Cat

  • The Darkhorsican

    Esteemed Meow Mixer,

    There’s a reason that Cormac McCarthy gets away with his arguably rough treatment of modern syntax and grammar—“Blood Meridian”.

    Sure, I’ll admit that I loved “The Road”, but not for the quality of its prose or McCarthy’s manipulations of language; the novel operates on a chiefly thematic level. Unqualified though I am to make such heavy-handed claims, I would assert that “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men” comprise the worst of his corpus. McCarthy’s diction is far better suited to narrating equally violent and painful sojourns across the Old West than it is to describing the harrowing conditions of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Why? Because his voice is exactly what you allege it to be—an antiquated series of primal groans and bellows, the kind of visceral, atavistic, antediluvian utterances you can only imagine coming from the belly of a leviathan, or if you’d prefer a more realistic analogy, from the mouth of an old, crotchety…Cormac McCarthy.

    His prose in “Blood Meridian” is the abrasive bastard child of a roided-up Bible and a nineteen fifties dictionary. And it’s fantastic. The reader finds himself lulled into an otherworldly, nigh shamanistic reverie that is both beautiful and acutely terrifying. The feats of language, grammatically consternating as they are, are astounding. They’re pyrotechnical, but not in decadent, panache-y way. Sort of like Rushdie might be if he were a lot angrier and passed his free time making sawed-off shotguns. And as you follow The Kid through “Blood Meridian”, you come to comprehend that that’s the only kind of voice that is capable of chronicling an adventure through such a horrifying violent and inhospitable landscape. There’s poetry in what McCarthy’s doing—it just happens to be the kind that grabs you by the throat.

    This is why “The Road” (beautifully empathetic and unnerving as it is) and “No Country” don’t live up to the older members of his oeuvre. They’re just too modern. McCarthy excels at depicting a West older than we’d care to remember—and captures all of its tragic brutality more beautifully than anyone, save perhaps Annie Proulx on her best of days (her West just ain’t old enough to contend with his—but now we’re comparing apples and oranges. For the record, I think Proulx is fantastic).

    Sure, McCarthy is no Flaubert, or to call invoke a more modern linguistic champion, John Banville (and let’s be serious, Banville’s a genius, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more arrogant, narcissistic windbag of a writer). But he does things that no one has ever done. And he’s treasured so dearly by today’s literary establishment because they know that no one ever will write like him again.

    Feast on this carnage: “The riders pushed between them and the rock and methodically rode them from the escarpment, the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites and all its forms grouping below and racing in the stone arroyos like the imbeachment of some ultimate alchemic work decocted from out the secret dark of the earth’s heart, the fleeing stag of the ancients fugitive on the mountainside and bright and quick in the dry path of the storm channels and shaping out the sockets in the rock and hurrying from ledge to ledge down the slope shimmering and deft as eels.”

    Commas be damned. I suppose that’s the Old West for you.

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