Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Goy’s Beef: A Serious Man


I stalled as long as I could in the hopes that wisdom would reach down to me from the heavens like a funnel cloud, but after two trips to the theater and several weeks of pondering it’s time to face the facts: A Serious Man has me seriously befuddled. It’s a clever film, to be sure, effortlessly weaving together Schrödinger’s cat, the Book of Job and Jefferson Airplane as if they are natural companions. It’s an amusing film, too, though I’d stop short of calling it “audaciously funny” or “seriously funny,” as Owen Gleiberman and Peter Travers apparently did, according to the promotional postcard. It’s a remarkably well acted film, even though its biggest star is Richard Kind, a career “that guy.” It’s also beautiful to look at because, well, Roger Deakins shot it. And yet for all the ways I can think to praise this latest effort by Joel and Ethan Coen, I am overwhelmed with the sense that something is missing. And what’s missing, I think, is the sense of being overwhelmed.

A Serious Man deals in some profound concepts, but I can’t say I found it profoundly affecting. I laughed, but I was never struggling to catch my breath. I was engaged throughout, but I wasn’t moved. As the film unfolded I recognized what it was doing, but by the time the credits rolled I didn’t feel any significant impact from what it had done. Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to. I’m not sure. Movies by the Coen brothers have been mysterious, ambiguous and even aimless before, but they’ve never been this paradoxical – and I’m not just referring to Schrödinger’s cat or to the dybbuk who haunts the opening vignette. Or, then again, maybe I am, because with A Serious Man everything is woven together. Within the frame is the story of a man trying to make sense of it all. Outside the frame are movie audiences trying to do the same. The Coens, via the experiences of Larry Gopnik, seem to be telling us to take this film – and presumably others – at face value, to “receive with simplicity everything that happens,” to “accept the mystery” and to dismiss the entertainingly inexplicable by tossing up our hands and saying “who cares!” But is it really that simple? To twist the words of the main character a bit, would the Coens really make us “feel the questions” if they didn’t want us desperately seeking the answers?

To be clear, this isn’t a reaction to the film’s conclusion, which is more abrupt than the finale of No Country for Old Men, though less cryptic. Unlike Larry, I’m not wrestling with the very big question of “What does it all mean?” Not exactly. What I’m trying reconcile is why one of the Coens’ most thoughtful films seems to be so adamant that we accept it for its surface entertainments, as if it isn’t to be taken seriously, even though its construction is anything but frivolous. Is A Serious Man the Coens’ attempt to create the cinematic version of Schrödinger’s cat? Is it a basic mindfuck? Is it an exhibition of false modesty? Is it contemptuous? I don’t know. What I recognize is that Larry’s journey suggests that ignorance is both blissful and poisonous. (Spoilers ahead.) Larry was perfectly happy with his life when he was unaware that his wife was falling in love with another man, his son was sticking him with the bill for a record club membership and the three rabbis in town were useless. Eventually, though, he pays a price for that ignorance, which would seem to suggest that awareness is a good thing, except for the fact that A Serious Man routinely underlines the futility of trying to solve life’s deeper mysteries. When the figures of wisdom that Larry encounters preach about the virtues of a parking lot, or show no interest in a miracle simply because it happens to a goy or spend the entire day “thinking” only to quote Grace Slick, what is wisdom worth? The more you seek to understand, the movie seems to say, the more disappointed you will be by what you learn.

These are conflicting messages, aren’t they? I don’t mean to sound surprised. The Coens have a history of making films that seem at odds with themselves – clever and cold, thoughtful and glib, refined and undefined. Straightforwardness isn’t their style. Thus, maybe Larry’s error isn’t ignorance or disengagement. Maybe his mistake is the belief that all of life’s mysteries can be diagramed and solved like a math problem. Or, heck, maybe life’s mysteries can be solved like an equation and Larry has made a mistake in his calculations; he believes that by not acting upon others that others won’t act upon him. Then again, maybe all of the above is somehow true. A Serious Man is an interesting riddle to puzzle over, but as a result it comes away feeling like a math problem. It reveals that I am Larry Gopnik, less interested in the illustrative story directly in front of me than in the formulas behind it. How do I reconcile a film that asks me to receive it with simplicity while encoding itself with such significance? Is that the film’s biggest joke, that in order to fully appreciate Larry’s mistake of detailed analysis we are forced to repeat it? Could it be that this film is less about Judaism than about the church of cinema and its overzealous followers?

It strikes me that A Serious Man works as the Coens’ response to all those movie fanatics, me included, who spent so much time and energy trying to solve the mystery of Anton Chigurh’s disappearance at the end of No Country for Old Men. It’s true: when film fans go too far down the analytical rabbit hole trying to find deeper meaning, we often lose sight of what’s going on above ground. Sometimes it is best to just “accept the mystery.” But, ironically, this isn’t one of those times. A Serious Man at face value isn’t worth all that much. Oh, sure, it’s finely crafted. It’s a professional film. Stuhlbarg is superb in the lead role. Fred Melamed gives one of the best supporting performances of the year as the passive-aggressive Sy Ableman. Fyvush Finkel shines in a brief role as the source of debate in the opening vignette. The writing is smart and the humor, while laced with some Jewish in-jokes, is universally accessible. Like the Jolly Roger motel to which Larry is banished, the world that the Coens create here – suburban Minnesota circa 1967 – is eminently habitable. But on the surface it’s just that. For A Serious Man to be anything more than a passing entertainment, you’ll have to refuse to accept it with simplicity. This is not nothing. This is something. And you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math.

22 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

"... I am overwhelmed with the sense that something is missing. And what’s missing, I think, is the sense of being overwhelmed."

I get what you're saying, but I think that's the nature of the Coens' films. They only grow rewarding upon reflection for some time (which it seems you're aware of given how hard you're straining to appreciate it favorably). I always factor it in to my perspective when I first see one.

Greg Ferrara posted a pretty engaging article on the film that might interest you over at Cinema Styles.

Daniel Getahun said...

Do you have a headache yet, Jason?

I'm in two minds about ASM, both literally and figuratively. I've wanted to dig deeper but wanted to stay out; I've been confounded at times while totally lucid about it at others.

You hit on pretty much all of the thoughts I've had except one: what if this is, more than anything, simply meant to be an illustration of the Coens' life-long relationship and/or struggle with Judaism? What if that's really all it's about?

Maybe unlikely, but I've been somewhat comforted by the thought that maybe, just maybe, we aren't meant to take the bait on this one and read into it too deeply.

Hokahey said...

"A Serious Man deals in some profound concepts, but I can’t say I found it profoundly affecting."

This says it for me.

I'm glad you wrote this review - and you did a masterful job with a film that's challenging to evaluate. You can evaluate acting and cinematography easily enough - but for me the overall effect of this film is that it had no great effect on me. I'm not thinking about it. I'm not puzzling over it. I am not moved or made thoughtful by it.

As for other Coen films, despite what Tony says here that Coen films "only grow rewarding upon reflection for some time," I've never felt unaffected by them. I never felt I needed time to digest Raising Arizona or Fargo or The Hudsucker Proxy or No Country for Old Men. I connected with these films immediately; not so for A Serious Man.

Tony Dayoub said...

"I never felt I needed time to digest Raising Arizona or Fargo or The Hudsucker Proxy or No Country for Old Men. I connected with these films immediately..."

I see what you are saying, but you've stacked the deck considerably to your side of the argument by citing four of their more conventional narratives. How many of us were initially left cold by films like Barton Fink or The Ladykillers or Burn After Reading? Even The Big Lebowski left many scratching their heads. I know. I was there on opening night and I read the initial reviews. Look at the popularity of that film now.

Hokahey said...

Tony - Actually, Barton Fink and Burn After Reading were more immediately affecting than ASM. I got their wild, bizarre absurdity immediately and enjoyed them to some extent. The other two I have not seen. That's right, I have not seen The Great Lebowski. I may be wrong, but I have this feeling that no revelations about A Serious Man will be dawning on me soon.

Perhaps you can share some of your observations about this movie. What do you like about it?

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony & Hokahey: I think you're both right. The Big Lebowski has certainly taken me a long time to appreciate even at all, as evidenced by this post. Raising Arizona might be another Lebowski for me, but I have no interest in watching it enough times to become fond of it. I liked Fargo the first time, but I liked it better with repeat viewings. And then something like No Country for Old Men blew me away from the start. Anyway ...

I'm not quite sure what it is about the Coens that causes their films, particularly their humor, to become funnier over time. That seems almost impossible, but it's often true.

I found a lot more to like about A Serious Man than Hokahey did, clearly. The parts I liked have really stayed with me. But when the big conclusion came around, it had no impact on me whatsoever. It just felt over. Maybe this will change over time, I'm not sure.

This movie feels a little different from other Coen movies in this respect: Previously I've always doubted a brand of humor that takes multiple viewings to blossom. In this case I'm doubting the enjoyment of something based on its formula more than its sum. In other words: I did enjoy this movie, but I'm not sure it was for the "right" reasons.

Also, I would strongly recommend Greg Ferrara's piece linked in Tony's first comment. Good reading there.

Indeed, this film seems to be more fun to talk about than to watch, and that's part of what I find so befuddling.

Keep the comments coming.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: What if this is, more than anything, simply meant to be an illustration of the Coens' life-long relationship and/or struggle with Judaism? What if that's really all it's about?

Yeah, I considered that. But that just doesn't seem very Coen to me, if you know what I mean. I don't doubt that this was influenced by their own experiences -- particularly the setting. But in general I think we usually overstate the importance of things that seem to be autobiographical. And it's hard for me to imagine the Coens being so inward. (That's a compliment, by the way.)

Tony Dayoub said...

I cited Greg's article in my earlier post because I've come around to his way of thinking about the film after several weeks of sitting on it. So you should read his post for sure.

But my initial thoughts, which were written on a deadline mind you, were that the film struck me as typical black humor from the Coens. The most significant difference here, though, is my belief that we may be getting one of the most personal glimpses we have ever had into the directors' upbringings. Why else set it in their youth in a Minnesota suburb and focus so intently on the religious aspects of the tale? The fact that they are allowing us to look behind the curtain for the first time made this infinitely more interesting. You can read more about my thoughts here.

Daniel Getahun said...

I don't know, I'm still in line with Tony on the personal aspects of this one. It's set during their childhood and literally filmed in their old neighborhood; their father was a professor and they went to Hebrew school growing up here.

Or maybe, conversely, I've been in too deep with the "local" connection to begin with, having heard them speak for a few hours in September and having followed the production of the film here for well over a year. All along I've just been seeing ASM as an illustration of their childhood memories on film.

Here's a quote from Ethan from an interview here a couple weeks back (when asked about how coming from Minnesota influences their identity): "We're not self-analytical or self-reflective people, but yeah, it's totally part of our identity. Part of this movie is not about us, per se, as individuals but about this business that seems a little strange to us, the combination of being Jewish and Midwestern. And specifically Minnesotan. That's a little of what this movie is about. So it's big and important; it is our identity."

Doesn't really shed any light on why there are still some major philosophical themes injected into ASM, but my point is that the fact that they have produced such an intensely personal project cannot be overlooked - yet I think it has been in the interest of solving the physics problem of the film, as it were.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel (and, by extension, Tony): I don't think the autobiographical element should be overlooked either. And that's probably something I should have attempted to confront in my review.

My hunch, though, and it's just a hunch, is that the world the Coens create here is very autobiographical but that after that what happens in it is significantly less personal. I could be wrong.

Interestingly enough, I just read Dana Stevens' review for Slate and she makes this comment: "It may be their only remotely autobiographical film, assuming they weren't raised by Irish gangsters, Texas mass murderers, or permanently stoned L.A. bowlers." In other words, though this is obviously personal on some levels, I think we should be careful about assuming it's personal on its deepest levels. Of course, it might be.

Kevin J. Olson said...

My hunch, though, and it's just a hunch, is that the world the Coens create here is very autobiographical but that after that what happens in it is significantly less personal.

What Jason says here resonates with me. I have yet to see the film, but like when Inglourious Basterds was released I have found the conversations surrounding this film to be fascinating, despite having not seen it.

The reason Jason's comment resonates with me is that I just don't see any evidence in the Coen's oeuvre that would suggest "letting the audience in". Sure they create wrolds that seem autobiographical, but I don't think I've ever seen a Coen film where it was easy to point to and say "they did this because they believe this...".

They've always kept their audience at arms length, and though I haven't seen the film, I'm wondering if the title of the movie is just a cruel joke by the Coen's? I wonder if they get a chuckle out of people trying to strain all of these serious, autobiographical themes out of their film? I don't know...

Of course I'll have more to say in about a month after I actually see the movie. These conversations have been great, though, and I like I said at Greg's blog: I can't wait to see the movie and have all of these great conversations in the back of my mind while I watch the film unfold.

Daniel Getahun said...

Good point in your last paragraph, Jason, about the danger of seeing it too personally just as much as another could see it philosophically.

Then there is this, from Stevens' review: "As Larry's multiple misfortunes converge and the fateful day of Danny's bar mitzvah approaches, there's a sense that some important truth—if not about God's plan, then at least about the Coens'—is lurking just under the movie's perfect surface."

Maybe that was enough for me, that sixth sense of spirituality emanating from the screen. I've been puzzled by so many people who have just said, "Well I'm not Jewish, so I didn't understand what the whole thing was about." (I'm glad you didn't go that route, and I wouldn't have expected you to.)

Well I'm not Jewish, either, but I don't think you have to be to dig into Larry's dilemma, which I see about faith in general, something inherent to all religions, not just Judaism.

Tony Dayoub said...

"We're not self-analytical or self-reflective people, but yeah, it's totally part of our identity. Part of this movie is not about us, per se, as individuals but about this business that seems a little strange to us, the combination of being Jewish and Midwestern. And specifically Minnesotan. That's a little of what this movie is about. So it's big and important; it is our identity."

I think the above quote from Ethan Coen that Daniel provided goes to the heart of how personal the film is. It may not be autobiographical, but the film pretty clearly lays out the conflict between the Coens' spiritual identity as Jews (how their faith posits the notion that there must always be something more) and their secular identity as Minnesotans (the Midwestern ethic of stoicism in the face of adversity and only "responding to what's on the page," so to speak).

It is this push-pull between the protagonist's spiritual and secular identities, informed by the Coens' autobiographical details, that makes this a deeply personal film.

Mark said...

Hokahey, criminy, go out and rent The Big Lebowski right now. Jesus.

Great review, Jason, though even in your ambivalence you find a lot more to admire and think about A Serious Man than I did. I'm a huge Coens fan, btw, but I never felt engaged with this one. I could see cleverness swirling around, but it never made me want squint at the blackboard and figure out what it all meant. I just didn't care that much about what was happening onscreen. Maybe I'm not serious enough.

Excellent debate here though. Much more fun than the subject of the debate. So thank you all.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: It is this push-pull between the protagonist's spiritual and secular identities, informed by the Coens' autobiographical details, that makes this a deeply personal film.

I'm willing to go with you on "personal," just not "deeply personal," but maybe we're just into semantics at this point.

I appreciate you leaving that quote, though. I fully admit that I haven't read any detailed interviews with the Coens about this movie, so perhaps they've been consistent about how personal this film is to them. Thing is, I rarely put too much stock in filmmaker interviews done around the release of the film because I'm all too aware of how the system works. At this point, the filmmaker is promoting, giving constant interviews, and those interviews have a habit of informing one another, because subsequent interviewers often follow up on stuff they read in previous interviews. If in five years the Coens call this a "deeply personal" film, that will mean more to me. For the moment though I take sort of a wait-and-see approach. To put it in sports terms, every GM loves his draft class on draft day.

Back to the Coens, though: I'm sure this is their most personal film, but I'm not sure that makes it deeply personal. Again, just a hunch.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: Thanks for dropping by. I think I liked it more than you did as it was unfolding, but I agree with you that the conversations about the film (even the ones I have with myself) are more enthralling to me than the film itself.

Greg said...

PART ONE OF COMMENT (I was informed by an info blurb that my comment exceeded the maximum allowed limit of 4,096 characters so I copied it and have broken it up into two comments).

First of all, thanks for all the kind words in these comments, I'm glad so many liked what I wrote. I can't digest everything that's been written here immediately and so I'd like to focus on this statement from Mark:

I just didn't care that much about what was happening onscreen. Maybe I'm not serious enough.

Practically every movie ever made falls into this category, in that it is what we bring to it that aids in what we take from it and Mark said that as well as anyone. A good or great movie, or even a bad one, is many things but at a certain point of study most film students abandon the notion that any work of filmic art can be objectively good or objectively bad. Sure, we can all think of many examples for the bad, for instance a film with poor lighting and camerawork, bad acting, etc (like an Ed Wood film) we can call objectively bad in the technical sense but still not in the other sense, that of overall impact. It's even harder when the pendulum swings the other way.

Most cinephiles would agree that The Rules of the Game is a better film than A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy but why? Both deal with sexual mores and relationships at a weekend getaway and both are well shot. One could even argue that Sex Comedy with photography, editing and production design by industry giants Gordon Willis, Susan Morse and Mel Bourne has the clear advantage. Also Woody Allen is no slouch at writing and directing and the cast is top flight. And yet, we know Rules is better.

But despite that it is still no guarantee that every cinephile will like it because of what they bring to it and what they are prepared to take from it. "I just didn't care much for what was happening onscreen." That statement could apply to Rules of the Game, The Godfather, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story or just about any other great film ever made. I know there have been many a great film that just didn't speak to me on any important level and yet I recognized the technical finesse with which they were made.

As all this applies to A Serious Man I would simply say that not everyone is going to be at a point in their life where this film will take on an extra level of meaning. One of the reasons I loved A Serious Man so much is because I have had the walls of life close in around me with legal bills, bankruptcy, joblessness and teenagers in the house that seem utterly inexplicable and so I not only connected on those levels but on the levels of not knowing if there are answers and if so where are they? Twenty years from now, when I'm in a completely different place I might look back at it fondly but with the feeling, "It's not as good as I remember. Maybe I am overestimated it." Jason or Mark on the other hand might be of a completely different mindset too and think it's much better than they remember.

Greg said...

PART TWO OF COMMENT.


It's one of the things I love about online discussion. We all know when we've seen something better than most but we don't all have the same reaction. No Country for Old Men was a great movie to me but not one I had a deep personal connection to and so I didn't engage online very much in the dialogue's surrounding it. In ten years I might feel completely different. That's one of the most satisfying things with all Coen Brothers movies to me. They always put just enough there for most people to connect to but not all and their movies seem to go in and out of style like the changing of the seasons. I still remember how great Blood Simple was and yet now it's rarely mentioned in the wake of all their other work. Likewise, when I saw The Big Lebowski I was of the mindset that it was an okay work but nothing special. Then a few more viewings and time and I began to feel better about it and accept the cult following surrounding it. My son became a huge fan and I've now seen it more times and... I'm going back to my original take on it: That it's okay but nothing special and is wildly overrated. Through all of this, the movie hasn't changed one iota! But I have and so the truth that I accepted originally I later came to believe were lies until that new truth exposed itself to the same problematic schemata as the first finding.

"When the truth is found to be lies..." is more than just a simple philosophical point in the movie but also a statement about the nature of that truth. WE change the truth we discover while the facts remain the same. And so what do we do when we discover what we think we know is true isn't? To me, that's how A Serious Man ends by asking us to wonder about the question because the movie specifically avoids providing an answer. I think if you aren't engaged with the characters throughout the movie that question means little to you. The Coen's have hitched the success or failure of this film in the viewers eye to whether or not they feel connected to the film.

To sum all this confusing babble up, in the end, what I'm really saying is this: If I had to choose immediately which is better, Inglourious Basterds or A Serious Man I would go with Tarantino's film. It relies more on the beauty of formalist film structure than the gamble of hoping your audience is in the right place. Because let's face it, people change. That's why I can see myself in twenty years still thinking Basterds is great because it's technical elements are so secure and yet finding A Serious Man kind of aimless. I imagine with a film like this at some point I'm going to feel about like you do and you as I do. The Coen's seem to purposely make movies with one crucial piece missing: What the audience brings to it while other movies build audience expectations in. Sometimes I think that makes them geniuses and sometimes that makes me think they're foolhardy idiots. Right now I love A Serious Man. In the future... who knows?

Jason Bellamy said...

Greg: That wasn't confusing babble at all. Very good points. Beyond what we bring to a film in terms of our real-life experiences, there's also what we bring to a film in terms of what movies we've seen. It's the difference between something feeling shocking or tired.

To expand on your thoughts a bit with some of my own: I'm grateful that the Coens make the kind of movies that challenge us to engage with them each time, every time, for as many times as we give them a chance. As you suggest, maybe one's appreciation of A Serious Man grows. Or maybe not. Or maybe the movie leaves someone cold from the start, as was the experience for Mark. But even when I am underwhelmed by a Coen film, I can see the potential to be moved. In contrast, I doubt my reaction to 2012 today would differ much 30 years later. With the Coens it's as if you start fresh each time. So while I agree with the general spirit of your comments, I think they are especially applicable to Coen films.

Good stuff. Thanks for weighing in.

Troy Olson said...

Jason -- I just watched this and have to say I'm glad I found your review (and the ensuing comment discussion) because it sums up exactly how I felt about the film, feelings I thought I may be crazy for, since I figured I was all alone on not being affected by the film.

As others have stated, it's a film where I can appreciate all the technical brilliance on display and I can recognize and smile at all of the clever story elements, but in the end, there's something missing. A film doesn't have to move me to be effective, but shouldn't one with themes such as this engender SOME reaction and thought (as Greg much more eloquently states in his last comment).

Interestingly enough, pouring through my blogroll's reaction to the movie to try to help myself figure out what I missed makes me feel like Larry going to the three rabbis (though with much better results).

Jason Bellamy said...

Interestingly enough, pouring through my blogroll's reaction to the movie to try to help myself figure out what I missed makes me feel like Larry going to the three rabbis (though with much better results).

I know that feeling. And thanks for the comment.

All this time later, I will say this: A Serious Man has hung with me, when I thought it might drift away. There's still a "something missing" about its totality. But the elements that do engage me have stuck with me, far more than many of the entirely forgettable films this year.

Which is my way of saying that I'm as conflicted as ever.

Pedro Henrique said...

I love Coen's films. I wanna see this film!

Cheers from Brasil!