Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 2

After the Eastern-European parable that precedes the titles, A Serious Man shifts it focus to Danny Gopnik.  The Coens literally put us inside Danny’s head, tunneling outward toward the tiny speaker stuck in his ear.

What does Danny want?  For the moment, Danny wants (a) to listen to Jefferson Airplane on his transistor radio, and (b) to get $20 to Fagel, another boy in his Hebrew class.  The song he’s listening to is "Somebody to Love," which, at the moment, sounds silly, weird and incongruous after the dark, snow-filled shetl scene, but which will become more important later.

Danny absorbs culture.  Most of his actions in A Serious Man involve listening to music, watching TV and smoking pot.  Danny is looking for something, what we don’t really know, and perhaps he doesn’t know either, but it’s something he feels he’s not getting in Hebrew class.  The old ways, the ways of his parents, the ways of the people back in the shetl, don’t appeal to Danny, and instead he’s looking through the trash-heap of popular culture for some sort of clue about how to live his life.  Either that, or he’s simply a bored teenager who wishes to be served entertainment.  The point is, these messages — the message of "Somebody to Love," the messages of F-Troop and b-grade science-fiction movies, reach him through the broadcast waves.  Other messages — both sacred and secular — reach him through vinyl recordings, which will become a problem later.

While Danny listens to "Somebody to Love" in Hebrew class, his father, Larry, has his ears examined by a doctor across town.  Music fills Danny’s ears while light fills Larry’s.  And, since we start the narrative inside Danny’s head, it’s worth mentioning Schrodinger’s Cat again — Larry’s doctor, we could say, is "looking inside the box" to see if Larry is, oris not, still alive, or is in some state in between.  The state of Larry’s head will be the main thrust of the narrative of A Serious Man.

It’s worth mentioning that none of the kids in Danny’s Hebrew class are interested in what the elderly teacher is telling them — they are uniformly bored, slack-jawed and heavy-lidded.  The "old ways" aren’t just dead for Danny, they’re dead for the whole generation.  Which is why it’s important that the movie is set in the 1960s (more or less, more on which later) — it’s a time when despair with "the old ways" is not limited to bored suburban teens, but was spreading everywhere. 

Danny tries to get the $20 to Fagel (this is when $20 was a lot of money for a suburban teen to carry around), then tucks the bill into his radio’s slipcover.  Like a lot of things in the movie, this will become important later.

The Hebrew teacher catches Danny with his radio and, enraged, exposes him.  His plan to humiliate Danny in front of the class backfires when the sudden blast of "Somebody to Love" sends the class into paroxysms of riotous behavior.  They laugh, throw things, pound on desks, jump up and down.  Briefly, the kids in Danny’s Hebrew class look like the apes in 2001 responding to the music of the monolith, such is the power of cheap rock-n-roll to rile the youth.  Which was, of course, exactly the fear of the keepers of "the old ways" in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, across town, Larry’s doctor declares him "in good health" (after offering him a cigarette, which should tell you something about the doctor’s idea of good health).  We haven’t introduced Schrodinger’s Cat yet, but by the end of the movie it’ll become clear that when a doctor in A Serious Man says you’re in good health, it means that you either are, or are not, in good health.  The doctor asks Larry how his wife and kids are, and Larry blithely replies that everyone’s "good."  Ordinarily, this sort of comment would be forgivable as small talk, but in fact, Larry, at this point, actually believes that everything with his family is "good," and the extent to which Larry has looked into his own "box" to check if the cat is alive or dead is an important factor in the movie’s plot.  We also learn that Danny is about to be bar mitzvahed — he is about to "become a man," to leave childhood behind, to become "serious," as it were.

Danny is sent to the principal’s office.  The principal examines his transistor radio as though it were something dangerous or distasteful, like a bomb, or a sex toy.  In the context of the time, it would be seen as both.  Hesitant, he finally sticks the earpiece in his ear and hears music.  He is either appalled or enlightened by what he hears, we can’t really tell, and Danny doesn’t seem interested — all he can think is how lame these old people are.

Meanwhile, across town, Larry is in class, telling his students about Schrodinger’s Cat.  Danny is a student, but Larry is a teacher.  The students in Larry’s class seem little more interested in the mathematical formulas he’s writing on his blackboard than Danny’s class was interested in the Hebrew phrases their teacher was proffering.  Both the math and the Hebrew are foreign languages to the students, and both teachers may be wasting their time.  Larry is clearly excited about Schrodinger’s Cat, but if his students care they don’t show it.  Larry is caught in an interesting spot in A Serious Man; he is both a symptom of "the old ways" (as he is an adult) but he is also frustrated and disappointed by "the old ways" as they apply to his increasingly complicated life.

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8 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 2”
  1. curt_holman says:

    Full of Grace

    Why do you think the Coens chose “Somebody To Love?” Could the Coens be signalling the idea that love is the (or an) answer to the problem of living in an indifferent, unpredictable universe? Maybe “All You Need Is Love” would have been too on the nose.

    On the other hand, the song says “Don’t you want somebody to love?” It makes no guarantees that you deserve love, will get love, or that love will solve your problems.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Full of Grace

      As far as addressing the questions of A Serious Man, “Somebody to Love” turns out to be perfect. It’s also a much “harder” rock song than “All You Need is Love,” more challenging to the authorities. The Beatles united people, they weren’t calling for revolution.

    • notthebuddha says:

      Re: Full of Grace

      Why do you think the Coens chose “Somebody To Love?”

      It keeps with the theme of interchangable opposites. “When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies….”

    • malsperanza says:

      Re: Full of Grace

      Also, it’s a warning: You better find somebody to love, or else you’re doomed. Whom does Larry love? Does he love God? His wife and kids? His work? Does he love his own life?

      At the end (jumping ahead here) Rabbi Marshak misquotes the lyric as: “hope dies” rather than “joy.”

      The words of the song are paralleled by the quotation that appears at the beginning of the movie (supposedly from Rashi): “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Rashi counsels passivity and humility (Job’s position); Grace Slick counsels aggressive action and warns against passivity.

  2. nom_de_grr says:

    Do you make anything of the fact that a “gopnik” is a Russian thug?

  3. pbastien says:

    There is nothing here I disagree with.

    But I still think this is a strange, uncontemporary science fiction film. A thought experiment by the coens about what it would be like to experience the infinitely changing flux of reality that is quantum particles. Where reality changes so fast it can be said that it doesn’t even exist at all. They then take this idea and begin to apply it to the narrative context of film.

    Now all larry needs is a Delorian, A flux capacitor and the urge to go back and invent rock and roll.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Israel reference?

    One thing I picked up on, when I saw the film, was a more specific chronology. The calendar in the young rabbi’s office said that it was June 1967: a highly significant time in the history of Israel. You might say that the existence of the state of Israel hung in the balance, while the Six Day War raged. I don’t know what this means for Larry, if anything, since he was thousands of miles away and seemingly oblivious to world events; but I think the Rabbis were aware …