Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 11

So, things are pretty bad now for Larry.  His wife is divorcing him, she’s cut off his money, she’s thrown him out of his house.  His kids barely notice he’s gone, he’s got to pay for his wife’s lover’s funeral and his brother’s criminal trial.  But, as bad-off as Larry is, his brother, who is like Larry’s dark reflection, is worse.  He’s still got his cyst, and, as he explains in a tearful (empty) poolside confession, Larry is a lucky, wealthy man compared to him: he’s got a wife, a family, a job.  Arthur has nothing, and now he’s going to go to jail for solicitation and sodomy.  Larry never "did anything," and now he’s in danger of losing everything.  Arthur, on the other hand, apparently "did" a great deal, none of which Larry knew anything about, and never had anything, and on top of it faces imprisonment.  Larry counsels Arthur with a bromide no wiser, nor more foolish, than the advice he’s been given by the rabbis.  "Sometimes you have to help yourself," he says, but, of course, that’s exactly what Larry has not done — he’s let everyone walk all over him.

That night, Larry has a final dream: he takes Arthur to Canada (where Nachtner recently joked that "Heaven is not") and releases him, into the wild as it were, with Clive’s bribe money as a nest-egg.  The gesture releases Larry of his guilt and anxiety — because it’s a dream, Larry isn’t really releasing Arthur, he’s releasing himself.  It’s himself who feels like he can’t live in this world any more, who feels cornered and helpless.  And it’s himself whom he fears is going to be murdered by Mr. Brandt and his son, which is how Arthur’s life ends in the dream.

Larry wakes up and realizes: it’s Shabbos, the day of Danny’s bar mitzvah.  The look on his face suggests that, even now, even in the depths of his misery, there is something good, something promising, something not completely horrible and miserable in the world: today, his son becomes a man.

Is Danny going to manage it?  He’s preparing for the ceremony in the grand 1960s tradition: getting completely stoned in the boys’ bathroom.  Emerging into the majesty and mystery of the temple, his eyes red and watery from the pot, he looks completely overwhelmed, not to mention terrified and paranoid.  Is he prepared to make this journey, this journey from boyhood to manhood?  Surrounded by his family, the community, the church elders, and stoned out of his gourd, is he prepared to make this journey?

He takes the podium, looks down at the book, and freezes.  For what can only be called a long, long time.  And it looks pretty bad for Danny: he’s failing.  The "new ways" of the 1960s youth look pretty dumb right now, in the face of ancient tradition.  But then, lo and behold, he remembers the key to being a good Jew: say the words.  You don’t have to mean them, you don’t even have to know what they mean, you just have to say them.  You enter into the ritual, you enter into the tradition, you take the baton, as it were, and you carry it to the next generation.

And so he begins.  He says the words.  They come to him.  With a little prodding from the church elders, they come to him, and he’s fine.  It’s just memorization, after all, that’s the whole point of ritual, to give you a tradition to fall back on when you don’t know what to do.  When you don’t know what to do, you can always do what people have done in the past.

(That tradition isn’t always the easiest thing to bear: "Jesus Christ!" grunts the elder who must lift the Torah into the air.)

In the audience, Larry breathes a sigh of relief — his son has made it.  He has met the base requirement for a father: he has seen his son to manhood.  Things aren’t quite so bad after all.  As though on cue, Judith leans over and apologizes — apologizes! — that things have been so bad for them.  Of course, the moment cannot last long — in the same breath, Judith informs Larry that it was Sy who wrote the incriminating letters to Larry’s tenure committee, endangering his job (of course, she doesn’t know that the letters are incriminating).

So Danny, as the bar mitzvah boy, gets to do the thing that Larry could never do: see Marshak.  As he walks toward the desk of the mysterious, ancient man, strange symbols and portents peer out of the darkness at Danny: a plaster model of a lower jaw, suggesting that Marshak knows all about how the goy’s teeth got their mysterious message, some pickled locusts, suggesting that Marshak knows all about unleashing plagues, and a painting of Abraham and Isaac, suggesting that Marshak knows all about sacrificing children for the greater glory of Hashem.  Clearly, Marshak knows everything.  Nothing can be hidden from Marshak.  Marshak is the closest thing this movie has to Hashem himself.

With all of this ancient, frightening knowledge, what wisdom does the deeply knowledgeable rabbi impart to Danny?  The lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s "Someone to Love."  He then lists the members of the band (stumbling on only one: the name of the Airplane’s sole Jew).  At first, it seems like Danny, still stoned, must be hallucinating.  But then, Marshak produces Danny’s long-lost radio and the $20 tucked inside its case.  With that one gesture, Marshak, in his infinite wisdom, states: I know about you, Danny, I know about your youth culture, I know about Jefferson Airplane, and I know about mind-expanding drugs.  That culture that your parents don’t understand?  I understand.  There is wisdom everywhere ("Look at the parking lot").  It is in the Torah, and it is on the radio, and it is in mind-expanding drugs.  For all we know, there is even wisdom within F-Troop (although the movie does not press this point).  Marshak, in that beautiful gesture, reconciles all the conflict and tsuris of the era: here is your radio, here is your $20 for Fagel, go, prosper.  The only thing Marshak can add to it is the simplest of advice: "Be a good boy."  You have all the tools you need, just be a good boy.

But, alas, Marshak is not Hashem, and Hashem isn’t quite done with Larry.  Neither are Schrodinger or Heisenberg.  Everything seems to be looking up for Larry — Judith has apologized, maybe he’s even going to move back home.  Arlen stops by to tell him he has nothing to worry about regarding his tenure, so he still has his job, and he’s done his job as a father, raising his son to honorable manhood.

Back in Hebrew class, the narrative, having come full circle, Danny again has his radio, and again uses it to block out the boring sounds of his Hebrew teacher droning on in a language he doesn’t understand or care about.  He has the blessing of Marshak, what does he need this low-level teacher for? 

He’s about to give the $20 to Fagel when the school secretary walks in and stops the class.  There is a tornado warning (perhaps this one), and the class is to get to the basement of the school. 

Across town, Larry has gotten a bill from Arthur’s lawyer, for $3000.  Larry, feeling good about how life has turned around, finally takes action: he decides to pay the lawyer’s bill with Clive’s bribe money and give Clive a passing grade.  Arthur will get a fair shake at avoiding prison, he will have saved himself, and who is really hurt?

And yet, seemingly, just as Larry’s anger at Clive may have caused Sy’s death, and just as his approaching Mrs. Samsky may have caused Arthur’s arrest, and just as Larry’s property suit may have caused his property lawyer’s heart attack, A Serious Man suggests that Larry changing Clive’s grade may cause Danny’s death by tornado.  Not to mention his own death by an unnamed disease — no sooner does he change the grade than his doctor calls with news too grave to be spoken over the phone.  (This is the same cigarette-smoking doctor who said he was fine earlier.)

Why is Danny in danger?  Not to layer on the symbolism too heavily, but the Hebrew teacher doesn’t have the key to the school basement.  "The fucking flag’s gonna rip right off the flagpole," shouts Danny’s most profane schoolmate, observing, perhaps, that, despite Marshak’s wisdom in reconciling the decade’s struggles, 1968, Watergate and defeat in Vietnam still lie in the future.  Hebrew cannot save Danny, and the Jefferson Airplane, still playing on his radio, can’t save him either.  Paying back Fagel can’t save him either, although that’s the last thing we see Danny try to do.

What happens?  The movie ends with the lesson of the prologue, and the lesson of the dead cat: we don’t know.  Either Larry has a terminal disease, or he does not.  Either Danny will survive the tornado, or he won’t.  (For those not from the Midwest, if it’s any consolation, casualties in tornado disasters are always surprisingly small — even in 1967s outbreak, which affected a huge amount of territory, only 13 people died.)  Either the protagonist, the great protagonist, Hashem, has it in for Larry, or else he does not exist and all this trouble is completely meaningless.  The fact is, we don’t know, it’s not up to us. We don’t know it about Larry, and we don’t know it about ourselves.

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23 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 11”
  1. voiceofisaac says:

    The Bar Mitzvah scene is another one that reached right through my eyes, into my brain, and yanked out old memories not thought of in years.

    While I didn’t get stoned at my ceremony, the overall vibe of that Bar Mitzvah is still very resonant, with the pot acting as an amplifier for what nearly every Bar Mitzvah boy has felt. Disorientation, no small amount of terror, and the weight of the entire Jewish community bearing down upon you in that moment. No pressure, honest! Yeah, right. But you get through it, somehow.

    The final scene with Larry fascinates me. He has FINALLY “done something” — he’s used the bribe money, but more to the point, he’s changed Clive’s grade. Despite the final spiteful minus added to the C grade, he’s still caved in on what he earlier described as a moral stance. If one interprets the movie to say that Hashem does exist and has been orchestrating this all along, then this is the moment where Larry has failed his divine test, and God’s true anger and retribution are immediate.

    • Anonymous says:

      I keep seeing various people comment that Larry has done nothing that he is not a “serious man”, when in fact he has raised two children, has a stable job, a home, on his way to tenure and just seen his son to a bar mitzvah. All these simple things which I took for granted as a child, I understand as an adult and parent to be difficult to accomplish – they require work and perseverance. No small feat.

      I feel about this film what I felt about “No Country for Old Men”; the Coen Bros just spent a couple of hours telling me the obvious. Shit happens, life is often not in your control.

  2. curt_holman says:

    I was thinking about the three dreams and wondering if they each begin with Larry trying to work out an answer to his whole meaning-of-life problem. It’s like in each, he tests a difference answer: mathematics; sex, drugs and rock n roll; and brotherly love. Or, the mind, the appetites and the heart. None of them work out and he gets attacked and/or killed, although the latter dream comes across as more satisfying.

    (Mr. Brandt might be mad because Larry and his brother stole his canoe.)

    I don’t like the line about flagpole; it seems too obvious a symbol of late 1960s American turmoil.

    In the film’s last moments, Larry and Danny resolve one problem and face a far worse one: Clive’s bribe vs. the health crisis; Fagel vs. the tornado. Something that struck me is that for most of the film, Fagel is presented as a huge, faceless pursuer (although on second viewing I noted that we do see Fagel’s face a couple of times). In the last shot, we Fagel, the figure of wrath, in the same frame as the tornado, an even more powerful, wrathful phenomenon. And in the immediate foreground is back of Danny’s head as he keeps listening to his transistor radio.

    I think ending with the image of the tornado points at the film’s connection to the Book of Job. After long-suffering Job talks to three friends, God appears in column of smoke (I think) and basically says, I’m God and you’re you and I don’t explain Myself to you. Which is not a satisfying answer, but the fact that Job got God Himself to answer at all can be considered a triumph. At least, some people read Job that way.

  3. curt_holman says:

    “Ven zhe trootz iss found tu be liess…”

    On second viewing, it struck me that Danny’s transistor radio works almost like an iPod more than a radio, since it seems play the same song every time someone listens to it. Or maybe there was an all-Jefferson Airplane station in Minnesota at the time…

  4. marcochacon says:

    So this analysis is (as always) freakin’ fantastic. It still leaves me where I was when I watched the movie: doing nothing gets you punished. Doing the wrong thing gets you punished. No one tells you what the right thing is.

    This is pretty darn bleak–I’m not not sure I see what you find particularly redeeming about the movie other than its craft. It seems that if Larry had gotten to see Marshak he might’ve gotten some good advice (although I concede he probably wouldn’t have known how to use it) but his failure to see him is really very, very much like Kafka’s parable of the law (which someone mentioned here and I thought of immediately when watching the movie).

    I guess I don’t see how, other than its excellent craft, the movie is noteworthy. Are we at a loss for people telling us we’re deserving targets of God’s punishment?


    • Todd says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “redeeming.” The movie is about one of the gravest, most important themes possible, a man’s relationship to God, and it tells its story with keen observational skills, sweeping vision, and overwhelming tenderness and humanity. Its vision is bleak, but its drama is hugely compelling and heartbreaking. There are no easy answers in good drama, only well-presented situations.

    • dougo says:

      I agree with Todd, I don’t think “bleak” and “noteworthy” are mutually exclusive.

  5. dougo says:

    Is there more to the use of “Somebody To Love” than just a signifier of 1967 youth culture? I’m wondering if Marshak (and the Coens) are pointing out some deeper meaning to the lyrics than what Danny understands.

    • Todd says:

      I don’t think there’s anything deeper than the plain-spoken surface level of: When nothing makes sense, when everything seems hopeless, you’d better have somebody to love. The reason it works in this context is because the banality of the sentiment is as shallow, and as deep, as the advice from Rabbis Scott and Nachtner. And yet it’s not coming from “wise men,” it’s coming from young people. What goes around comes around, there is nothing new under the sun, so forth.

      • dougo says:

        I guess I was thinking along the lines of the “somebody to love” being Hashem, whom “you better find” whether he exists or not.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “… A Serious Man suggests that Larry changing Clive’s grade may cause Danny’s death by tornado. Not to mention his own death by an unnamed disease — no sooner does he change the grade than his doctor calls with news too grave to be spoken over the phone.”

    Exactly! Near the beginning of the film, Larry emphatically tells Clive that “In this office actions have consequences” while, if memory serve me correctly, pointing forcefully at his own desk. And no sooner does he change the grade, thereby accepting the bribe, does the ominous medical news come.

    And I’m not sure if you touched on this already, but the many trials of Larry echoes the many, seemingly inexplicable trials heaped upon the Biblical Job. All of Job’s children, interestingly, were allowed to be killed when a “mighty wind” struck their home. It does all end as if a mighty wind were to strike Larry’s son.

    • Todd says:

      The Coens have been pretty open about how their movie is based on Job. The “in this office” connection is an excellent observation.

  7. thebitterguy says:

    I could go on for hours about connections I missed when I saw it (admittedly, I’ve only seen it once and you are smarter than me), but the connection between the mandible in Marshak’s office and the Goy’s Teeth was a particularly good one.

    Excellent dissection of the work. I love it when you do this.

    My only suggestion would be that you might want to add a tag for “a serious man”, sinec you’ve got 11 posts on the film.

  8. A friend of mine, seeing the film for the first time last night, felt the message of the film was more or less what Rabbi Nachtner tells Larry by way of The Goy’s Teeth. Hashem and his will are unknowable, so just do good as if Hashem existed, whether he does or not. That is, the box cannot be looked into, so “be a good boy,” as Rabbi Marshak tells Danny.

    It seems like doing nothing gets you punished, but doing something to retaliate also gets you punished (which I guess furthers the Job connection). But is positive action also punished? Is Larry’s brother Arthur being punished for trying to do something by way of the Mentaculus? Or is the Mentaculus not actually positive in the world of the film – is it another attempt at knowing the unknowable, Larry’s quest in the film, and is Arthur being punished for his attempt at seeing the face of God?

  9. greyaenigma says:

    A Serious Man is on my desk waiting to be watched, in the meantime, I wonder if you’ve seen this: Tarantino’s clapboard operator montage.

  10. blake_reitz says:

    I waited for this series to be done before I watched A Serious Man. It might seem odd, but I felt like I was watching the “grown-up” version of Donnie Darko.

    • Todd says:

      Given the subject matter of Donnie Darko, it’s entirely possible that Richard Kelly saw A Serious Man and then traveled back in time to make his movie.

  11. yorkshiresky says:

    I think one important thing to remember is that at the end it’s not only Larry Gopnik who’s being punished for his actions but his son Danny too. After his bar mitzvah he has an audience with Marshak who tells him ‘be a good boy’. He’s not an innocent anymore but is responsible for his actions if he fails to follow the law, which Marshak has explicitly told him.

    In retrospect it seems less of a wise bit of advice but an order which if failed will have consequences. Of course Danny ignores that and starts listening to his radio in the classroom, almost immediately followed by the tornado descending upon them. It’s quite possible that he may be punished by the implied loss of his father.

    Hashem may be many things to many people, but you don’t mess with him in the Coen’s world.

  12. Jamasiel says:

    Thanks for all of this – it gave me a richer appreciation for what will uncertainly be a less noticed work, probably intentionally.

    My girlfriend kept all-but-shouting afterwards – “Where do they find all these actors? They were cartoonishly perfect for their roles!”