Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 3

Enter Clive.

Clive is a student in Larry Gopnik’s physics class.  Clive has failed a recent test.  He wants Larry to raise his grade so that he can pass the class, otherwise he will lose his scholarship.  At first blush, it seems that Clive’s suit is without merit — he failed the test, he deserves what he gets.

But there is a linguistic problem between Clive and Larry.  Not only does Clive not speak clear English, which means Larry can’t always catch his meaning, but also Larry’s language, the language of mathematics, is unclear to Clive.  Clive feels, in a way, that he’s being unjustly punished for not understanding a language.  He’s come to appeal that unfairness, and Larry is adamant — if you don’t understand the math, you don’t understand the class and deserve to fail.

But we could contrast Clive’s problem with Danny’s, and also with Larry’s.  Danny is taking a Hebrew class that bores him, and he is punished, his radio taken away, because he has not paid attention.  Larry, later, will face a set of grossly unfair problems and appeal to a trio of rabbis, all of whom leave him frustrated because they, too, speak on some level beyond Larry’s grasp.  Clive tries a whole handful of ruses and end-runs to get Larry to give in to his suit, much in the same way Larry will beg and cajole his rabbis for some drop of a hint of enlightenment.  Both Clive and Larry feel that their authority figures possess enlightenment, enlightenment they withhold unfairly on some pretext of language.

In Clive’s problem, I am also reminded of something my Jewish friends often tell me about the whole Judaism-vs-Christianity question.  A "good Christian," they say goes, must have a leap of faith, but a "good Jew" just has to follow the rules.  Say the words and follow tradition and enlightenment will come, you don’t need to "believe" anything.  Which is, it seems, an echo of Larry’s advice to Clive — the story of the cat that either is or is not dead isn’t the point of physics, the math, the solid, predictable, unchanging language Clive doesn’t understand, is the point.  The dead cat is a parable, the math is the thing that really matters.  (And I am reminded that Christianity is based on the idea that there is a savior who — like Schrodinger’s Cat — is, or is not, dead.)

("Even I don’t understand the dead cat," says Larry — meaning, I think, that anything outside of his solid, predictable language of math is still something of a leap of faith for him, one he’s not prepared to make.)

So Larry rejects Clive’s suit and Clive leaves.  Larry goes to return a call to one Sy Abelman, but is interrupted by the discovery of an envelope on his desk, an envelope containing a large amount of money.  Alarmed, Larry goes looking for Clive but Clive is gone.

The inference is clear: Clive is attempting to bribe Larry into giving him a better grade.  And yet we don’t know for sure that the money came from Clive.  And we never will.  We see Clive in Larry’s office, and we see him leave, and we see an envelope left behind, but we don’t actually know that the envelope came from Clive.  It’s likely, but it is not certain.  I’ve watched the scene a dozen times, and there is no shot that shows Clive anywhere near Larry’s desk — I don’t see an opportunity for him to leave the envelope.  And yet the envelope must be his.  So Clive either has, or has not, attempted to bribe Larry.  The cat is either dead, or is not dead.  The student came in asking to re-take an unfair test, but at the end of the scene we find it is the teacher who is given a test.  And the decision Larry makes regarding that test will have, or will not have, grave consequences later.

Clive is the first of several tests sent to bedevil Larry Gopnik by the unseen, and possibly nonexistent, protagonist of A Serious Man.

hits counter


5 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 3”
  1. Anonymous says:

    After the film, I thought about all the instances when we see or hear about something that may or may not be true or real (in particular, the identity of the letter writer), but I did not catch at all the, uh… Schrodingerness of the money envelope. I assumed it was Clive. Makes me wonder what other ones I missed.

    Good job, Coens.

    — Kent M. Beeson

  2. ravengirl says:

    This particular point of the film was lost on me to a great degree. You shed some light here, thank you.

  3. Anonymous says:

    A Christian scholar could continue on Christ is both fully man and fully God, etc.