Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 10

Larry takes the lesson of the goy’s teeth to heart — in his own way.  He decides he’s going to "help others," starting with his nude-sunbathing neighbor Mrs. Samsky.  Mrs. Samsky either is, or is not, a lonely, sexually frustrated housewife.  Larry’s motivations toward her aren’t so hard to read: he’s sick of being "good," he’s going to get back at Judith for what he believes she’s done to him.  On her end, Mrs. Samsky seems pliable and ready to go.  So ready to go, in fact, that she tires quickly of Larry’s stammered words, preferring to get on with the business of getting high.

And so Larry sticks a nervous, hesitant toe into the placid waters of a couple of the "new freedoms" that the 1960s promised: casual sex and mind-expanding drugs.  He doesn’t get very far with the sex, but at least the pot lets him see Rabbi Scott’s point about the parking lot: when you’re high, observations that seemed jejune a few days ago now seem profound.  It’s all a matter of perspective, and maybe the younger rabbi was actually the more helpful of the two.

In any case, Larry’s tentative new perspective is smashed by the arrival of the police, who have brought Larry’s brother Arthur home on a charge of solicitation and sodomy.  Arthur, Larry’s more miserable doppelganger, has already paid the price for the sin Larry was attempting to commit with Mrs. Samsky.  (There’s also a suggestion that Arthur and Mrs. Samsky have had relations in the past, which makes the Larry/Arthur connection even stronger.)  "I didn’t do anything!" pleads Arthur, allowing Larry to hear his own refrain repeated back to him.  The Mrs. Samsky/Arthur’s arrest beat also foreshadows the end of the movie: when Larry does "do something," Hashem’s reaction is swift and decisive: he punishes one of Larry’s loved ones.  (There is also a joke in there, about how Larry pitied Arthur for his sexless, loveless existence while Arthur was apparently getting more action than Larry ever dreamed of.)

(Larry appeals to many people in A Serious Man, and I think Mrs. Samsky is the only one that does not have a desk or table between her and Larry when he goes to see her.  That in and of itself suggests that Mrs. Samsky offers something new, a possible way out of the trouble that Larry is in.)

So now, as the final half-hour of A Serious Man moves forward, Larry’s troubles have compounded.  (I’ve watched the movie six times now and I can’t find any decisive "act breaks," it’s one of the most seamless pieces of screenwriting I’ve ever seen.)  In addition to his divorce trouble, and Judith commandeering his money, and paying for Sy’s funeral, Arthur is now facing criminal charges, which Larry must pay for.

Luckily, Sol, the sure-fire property lawyer, shows up to, presumably, deliver good news.  We never find out what the good news is, because Hashem strikes Sol down with a heart attack before he can open his mouth.  Hashem really starts to show his hand in the windup of A Serious Man, if, indeed, he exists.  If he does not exist, of course, Larry’s suffering means nothing.  (Larry’s divorce lawyer mentions it was "pure luck" that Sol found something to save Larry.  Well, of course it was — otherwise Larry’s complaint against Mr. Brandt might have merit.)

Larry rushes back to his office and goes straight for the envelope full of money that Clive either did or did not leave on his desk.  As he does so, Arlen, Larry’s colleague, shows up for a second time to remind Larry, and us, about the impending tenure-committee decision.  "I am not an evil man!" sobs Larry, protesting rather too much for Arlen.  He then details every sinful thing he believes he’s done, which involves going to an art-film house to see a movie called Swedish Reverie (which does not exist — Larry most likely saw The Silence, Ingmar Bergman’s surreal meditation on an uncaring God, which, for reasons best left to history, was marketed, successfully, in the US as a sex film).  Larry also realizes in this scene the flip side of "I haven’t done anything" — even in his academic life, he’s only marked time, he’s never examined, he has nothing to show for his life as a mathematician.

Larry now dreams of having sex with Mrs. Samsky (her on top, natch) and then being buried alive while Sy Abelman officiates.  Even from beyond the grave, and into Larry’s dreams, Sy manages to be a world-class cock-blocker. (It’s also worth noting that the dream ends with Larry “in the box,” quite alive, with Sy, standing over him, saying “Nailing it down, so important.” Larry’s life has been devoted to “nailing it down,” and his dream demonstrates how badly he has failed in just that.)

MARSHAK.  Larry, still confused and more distraught than ever, goes to the Big Kahuna of the community, Marshak.  Every Coen movie has an ultimate authority, the character who rules the narrative and finally says what’s what.  In Blood Simple it’s Marty, the disgusting Greek nightclub owner, in No Country for Old Men it’s Man Who Hires Wells, in Barton Fink it’s Mr. Lipnik, in A Serious Man it’s Marshak.  Everyone at every level of Larry’s society regards Marshak with awe and wonder — except perhaps Danny and his generation, who don’t seem to know he exists.  Larry tries to use the phrase he lifted from his dream-version of Sy, "I’m a serious man," but it won’t quite come out of his mouth — Larry seems to know, deep inside, that he is not a serious man, that he’s some sort of tourist in this world, disconnected from everything around him.  Like the cat in the box, he doesn’t know how he is until someone looks into the box and sees him.  Larry wants very badly for Marshak, the ultimate authority, to see him.

Marshak refuses.  And, like Hashem, he doesn’t explain himself, only has his secretary say "The rabbi is busy."  "He doesn’t look busy!" yelps Larry, and yet, by the end of the movie, we will learn that Rabbi Marshak actually has been busy, quite busy, and what he’s busy with is something Larry cannot see from his vantage point: he’s listening to Danny’s radio, and divining what meaning he can from its alien message.

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7 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 10”
  1. curt_holman says:

    He didn’t LOOK busy!

    I love the Marshak scene. I wonder if it’s a deliberate echo of Franz Kafka’s short story “Before The Law.” (And “Before the Law” was dramatized/satirized in After Hours, in the scene with Griffin Dunne and the bouncer.)

    The sudden death of the property lawyer, however, is one of the few things about A Serious Man that I don’t like. It strikes me as a too-obvious joke, if a thematically consistent one. Nevertheless, it gives Barton Fink’s Michael Lerner a cameo.

  2. “I’ve watched the movie six times now and I can’t find any decisive ‘act breaks,’ it’s one of the most seamless pieces of screenwriting I’ve ever seen.”

    Is this due at all to the fact that the protagonist, in your analysis, is unseen and largely unknowable? We know Hashem in the film somewhat by his actions, if he does indeed exist, but only via the results of those actions. But there are, as far as we can tell, no scenes with Hashem in them.

    I’ve seen the US trailer for The Silence, and it’s astounding – huckster selling of a Swedish lesbian sex film. I can’t imagine how many people were infuriated when they actually saw the film, and I wonder if anyone stayed away from a film they might’ve otherwise enjoyed because they thought it was foreign pornography. Amazing what you can do with a trailer. Setting that aside, it’s a perfect film to be referenced, given A Serious Man’s themes.

    When I first saw A Serious Man and glimpsed the white-bearded man in the painting (seen in the background of your screenshot here), I wondered if it was Fyvush Finkel (Treitle Groshkover/the Dybbuk) and what that might mean if it was.

    “[Every] Coen movie has an ultimate authority, the character who rules the narrative and finally says what’s what.”

    Why do you think that is? Is it just a useful dramatic device? (I assume “Even” should read “Every.”)

    • Why do you think that is? Is it just a useful dramatic device?

      A deus ex machina, if you will ? 😛

      I’d be tempted to say that these characters are meant to be the voice or power of G-d, if not G-d itself, were it not for the fact that these character were so bumbling and ridiculous. Take for example the equivalent in “O Brother …”, Pappy O’Daniel. No one would mistake that character for G-d, just based on the merits of his silliness.

      Also to see these characters as deus ex machinas is also a bit faulty since they never do anything to soundly resolve the plot in any severe way. Sure, O’Daniel gives the Soggy Bottom Boys clemency, but they still have to deal with their pursuer, Sheriff Cooley.

      But it is one of the Coens’ stock characters, like the “Screaming Fat Man”, that they enjoy using. To me, they represent the absurdity of the notion that a human being could be the voice/power/manifestation of G-d. They’re there to help satirize the notion that human beings are somehow divine.

    • Todd says:

      I think it just shows the way the Coens think about the world. There’s always someone in charge, and sometimes that person is a wise man and sometimes he’s a fool. (It is always a man, however — The Ladykillers being a possible exception.)

  3. greyaenigma says:

    Part ten?? OK, OK, I’ll get it from Netflix.

  4. marcochacon says:

    I think it was the reliability with which Larry is punished that turned me off to the movie (I know, I know, he’s being punished from the start). I didn’t wonder about Hashem because I knew the Coen brothers were ‘up there’ visiting misery on the character (and while it might be arguable that his actions/inactions have wrought some of it, some of what happens to him such as the timely arrest of his brother seem in no way related to his actions).

    I’m following your analysis with great interest to see if there is some redemption in movie (not for Larry–well, maybe for Larry–but I was thinking of the Coens).

    I have to admit the movie, while astonishingly well made, left me cold.