Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 5

Larry is back at work.  He’s got a message from Sy Abelman, the man whom his wife is leaving him for: "Let’s have a nice talk."  Clive, his student who wants a new mid-term grade, has come in again.  Larry holds up the envelope full of cash and indirectly accuses Clive of bribing him.  Clive remains opaque, while at the same time seeming to know what’s in the envelope.  "Actions have consequences," says Larry, but Clive isn’t entirely with him. "Yes, often" is the best he can do.  This sends Larry into a frenzy: all actions, he says, have consequences — not just in physics, but morally.  This is an important insight into Larry’s mind: to him, life makes sense only when actions have consequences.  Things don’t just "happen" for no reason, an envelope full of money doesn’t just appear on his desk for no reason.  Clive either did, or did not, try to bribe Larry.  Based on the evidence, it seems clear that he did, but there’s nothing Larry can do to prove it, and Clive doesn’t give him an inch.  As I’ve mentioned before, Larry is being tested here.  If Clive did not leave the money on Larry’s desk, who did?  Did Hashem?  An envelope full of money seems well within the realm of the possible, given some of the events that eventually transpire in this movie.  The notion that actions always have consequences will have a special resonance in the closing moments of the movie, especially regarding this envelope of money.

Back at Larry’s house, Danny is listening to music again.  Not the radio this time, and not some ungodly rock-n-roll music, but to a Jewish liturgical album, in preparation for his upcoming bar mitzvah.  So Danny doesn’t only absorb popular culture, he also dips his toes into the culture of his heritage, if only for the sake of appearances.  Or, as Danny puts it when Sarah interrupts him, "Studying Torah, asshole."  Sarah is mad at Danny because he’s stolen twenty dollars from her (which she, in turn, had stolen from Larry).  We think, for a moment, that this is where Danny got his $20 to pay Fagel.

Larry comes home and is besieged.  Judith wants to know if he’s gotten a lawyer yet for the divorce, Danny complains about F-Troop being fuzzy, Sarah complains about Danny, and all Larry can do is stand in his foyer and ask "What’s going on?"  As well he might — Larry doesn’t seem to have much of an idea about what’s going on anywhere.  That is, I think, why he’s so upset with Clive: here’s one thing where he’s sure he knows what the story is, and Clive neatly skates around his interpretation.  Larry, I think, is related to Dylan’s Mr. Jones: something is going on, but he don’t know what it is.  ("What’s Going On" was, of course, also a song by Marvin Gaye, intended, in its own way, to sum up the problems of the tumultuous 1960s.)

That night, Larry tries to relax on a reclining chair in the living room while Arthur drains his cyst and works on The Mentaculus — which is, apparently, something of a pastime for Arthur.  He’s been dispossessed from his bedroom and is now with the miserable.

His good times with Arthur are interrupted by a late-night appearance from Sy Abelman.  What does Sy want?  Sy wants Larry to give up Judith without a fight — that is, Sy wants a get.  To get his get, Sy butters up Larry, compliments him, brings him a bottle of wine.  Not cheap wine, mind you, "not Mogen David," but, we are led to understand a serious wine.  Sy’s attack on Larry is one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in movie history — he’s threatening, humble, obsequious, dismissive, condescending, touchy-feely and parental all within the space of a single brief scene.  Sy Abelman brings a new level to the word "oily."  Like Clive, Sy is another test presented to Larry, another test that Larry is in the midst of failing.

Next day, Danny and one of his friends smoke pot in the boys’ room at the Hebrew school to prepare to raid the principal’s office.  Danny wants his radio back, and the $20 inside it.  The radio, however, is gone.  Where has it gone, and why, is a mystery that won’t be solved until the end of the movie.  Meanwhile, Fagel still wants his money back — apparently, the $20 Danny stole from Sarah was the same money he intended to give to Fagel.  Or was it?

Larry climbs up onto his roof to fix the TV antenna, so that Danny can watch F-Troop clearly.  As he adjusts it, fleeting signals come in from all around.  Messages — "signs, tokens" as Sy puts it — are everywhere, in life and in A Serious Man.  Larry is certainly looking for a message, something that will tell him what he’s supposed to do with his life, with his tsuris — but will he find it atop his roof?  Is it the sort of message that can be gleaned from the sea of broadcast airwaves?

Or is it a more, ahem, down to earth message he needs, as provided by his neighbord Mrs. Samski, who sunbathes, nude, in her backyard?  Some readers have suggested that Mr. Brandt, the gruff gentile, represents God, while Mrs. Samski represents Satan — one is there to punish Larry, the other is there to tempt him.  I can see the point of this, but God, or Hashem, fills every corner of this curious parable (or does not, as the case may be).  I don’t see him being reduced to a simple aggressive neighbor.  But the Coen Bros movie this most reminds me of, Barton Fink, is an allegory about a man who wrestles with the devil, so it makes sense that the Coens might one day make its opposite number, a movie about a man who wrestles with God.

Later, Larry, sunburned and miserable, again, tries to relax in his reclining chair, again, while Arthur works on The Mentaculus, again.  The difference now is that Arthur is, for once, not draining his cyst — Larry is now, officially, more miserable than Arthur, a man who has no home and lives in pain.  Arthur even goes so far as to extend sympathy to Larry — the miserable comforting the more miserable.

Early the next morning, a sleepless Larry gets up to make himself coffee.  Mr. Brandt and his son are heading out — on a school day — to hunt.  This registers only as an oddity to Larry, but it will come back later to, literally, haunt his dreams.

He sees Arthur’s Mentaculus on the kitchen counter and leafs through it.  It is, clearly, the work of a madman.  Larry has given up a portion of his home to a madman.  Arthur’s reason for not seeking other lodging, it is implied, is because he is hard at work on this volume, The Mentaculus — which turns out to be a notebook of insane scribblings, diagrams and notations.

Or is it?  We’ve seen, in the movie so far, students bored in Hebrew class, and students bored in physics class.  Both times, the boredom stems from a lack of understanding about the language being spoken by the teacher.  Is it possible that Arthur’s Mentaculus, although it appears to be the ravings of a lunatic, are actually a deep and important work, and Larry simply does not possess the skills to interpret it?  For that matter, could we not say the same about the world, that is, Hashem’s work?

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24 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 5”
  1. The Mentaculus notebook is astonishingly well-designed. It’s so specific while also being so foreign that it’s impossible to tell whether it’s genius or gibberish.

    Sy Abelman is one of the Coens’ greatest creations. Hilariously funny, yet insidiously dangerous at the same time. Full of contradiction and dimension. And that scene in particular is masterfully written and performed. Is anything to be made of the name Abelman in connection to the murdered brother of Cain?

    Is there any significance to the show being F-Troop specifically? I don’t know the show, so I’m curious.

    Notice that Larry goes up on the roof in search of a clear signal, but doesn’t succeed – he is either distracted away from his task or simply is inept at the job. Throughout the story, Larry tries to find a clear signal, a clear reason why, an honest answer… and all he gets is fuel for more questions.

    • voiceofisaac says:

      F-troop was about a bumbling group of soldiers in a fort, whom if I recall correctly often had to deal with amusingly stereotypical Indians. I don’t think there’s any significance to F-Troop, but that it’s meant to represent the most banal and uninspiring drivel that modern pop culture has to offer, a direct challenge to the deep, historical, but (to Danny) dull and/or incomprehensible Jewish culture that Danny is required to learn. Any other period sitcom would probably worked nearly as well, but F-Troop is so infamously lowbrow and bad that it’s probably the best choice for this metaphor.

      I completely agree about Sy Abelman. I would’ve loved to see him nominated for Best Supporting Actor (although I’m glad that Inglorious seemingly has that locked up, that’s where that statue really should go). The enveloping hug so completely disorients Larry from the beginning, and it causes Larry to allow himself to be cast as the villain of that triangle. He’s obstructing what Sy and Judith say *needs* to happen. Who is he to say they’re wrong? And by opening the encounter with a hug, Larry’s cut off from a cathartic act of violence (verbal or physical), because that would cast him even more firmly as the bad guy here. Or would it? 🙂

      • Thanks for the reading on F-Troop. “Infamously lowbrow,” hahaha, nice.

        As much as I hope Christoph Waltz wins best supporting actor for Landa in Basterds, I definitely think Fred Melamed deserved a nomination. Looking at the role of Sy Abelman as an actor myself, it strikes me as complex and concisely written – a rich little role, and a rewarding challenge for an actor. But only one actor in a hundred (or a thousand?) would play it the way Melamed does, with the disarming, purring gentility – most actors would make Abelman more obviously-comedic and upbeat (more “buck up, chum!” and braggy about the wine, etc.), or swing the other way and make him more matter-of-fact. Melamed’s delivery oozes sympathy for Larry, even as it’s his character who’s causing Larry’s suffering (at least in part, in this particular area of Larry’s suffering). The Coens have played with this concept before (Jon Polito in Miller’s Crossing strike his son and then comforts him as he cries, saying, “Whattsa matter, did somebody hit you?”), but never, to my mind, as satisfyingly. That kind of contrast in a performance is a rarely-seen treat (though it brings to mind one of my favorite movie villains, Kirk Douglas’ character in Out of the Past – he’s all smiles and good humor, knowing he doesn’t have to play intimidation because his reputation is intimidating enough). The contrast between Abelman’s behavior on and off screen is part of why he’s so funny and fascinating. And Melamed makes acting choices so unique (but fitting) that the role becomes a thing of even more beauty than it already is on the page.

        • Todd says:

          I, like Ethan Coen, was obsessed with F Troop in the late 1960s. It was, as a log-line, Fort Apache as a comedy, crossed with Sgt Bilko. It was a show about the least-important outpost fort in the Union Army, with a crew of misfits and losers at its helm. The Indians, the Hakawi, were similarly harmless bumblers. I agree with voiceofisaac’s reading: it’s the dumbest show on the air at the time. That, and the fake 1950s sci-fi movie Danny watches, are meant, I think, to show the range of messages that he’s receiving as he reaches manhood.

          • We’re the Hakawi?

            It hadn’t occurred to me until F-Troop came up here, but the bumbling Hakawi tribe was also as I remember (and Wikipedia somewhat backs up my memory on this) a repository of Yiddishisms and old Jewish vaudeville routines and performers, which may be a coincidence, but experience has shown that very little is “coincidental” in the world of the Coens.

            • voiceofisaac says:

              Re: We’re the Hakawi?

              Which was then parodied by Mel Brooks in BLAZING SADDLES, where he played an Indian Chief. The sheriff had a flashback where his family survived an Indian attack, whereupon Brooks rode up to them, decked out in feathers and facepaint, and proclaims with much surprise and amusement, “Schvartzes!”

              Nearly every Jew I know has fallen off their couch and nearly pissed themselves laughing at that scene.

      • dougo says:

        At Friday night’s Independent Spirit Awards, the cast of A Serious Man won the Robert Altman Award for best ensemble. So, that’s something.

    • dougo says:

      I’ve been trying to find close-up images of the Mentaculus, but no luck. Has anyone come across any?

        • dougo says:


          Looks like it’s all mirror-imaged, is that a reference to Hebrew script?

          • voiceofisaac says:

            I don’t think it’s mirror imaged — and in that first picture above, the hebrew word “Elohim” is repeated over and over again, which is one of the many words for God.

            One of the fun things about this movie for me is that there’s odd bits of numerology and kabala sprinkled in this movie, seemingly at random — and then with the second rabbi’s story, the directors as much say to the audience, “yes, there’s some weird details here, and you may even recognize some kabalistic bits. It doesn’t mean ANYTHING, we just put it there to fuck with you, because we know some of you are going to pore over this with your finger spasming over the pause button on your remote.” I suspect the Mentaculus is one of those things.

            • dougo says:

              Hm, I guess it’s just the fourth image, where HIGGS BOSON is clearly written backwards. Maybe Arthur just wrote some things backwards, like Leonardo da Vinci.

              • laminator_x says:

                While inserting words from a L2R flowing language in the middle of a text in an otherwise R2L language, he was conforming the foreign words to the overall textual flow.

    • laminator_x says:

      I think the “Ableman” allusion is more direct. He is the “able man” in contrast to Larry’s less-than-effectual existance.

      • Anonymous says:

        To me, the more obvious conclusion was this, the “able man”. Larry’s wife picks an able man over her husband.

        But there might be something to the “Abel” theory, after all our “abel man” ends up getting killed.

        It probably swings both ways and we’re here to figure it out.

      • Anonymous says:

        well but the biblical Abel was “able” to please God with burnt offerings, while Cain’s offerings were ineffectual. that’s how I always remembered which was which in Sunday School. if you look at it that way, Larry makes for quite an appropriately ineffectual Cain. Larry’s yelling at Clive from inside his car is this incredibly impotent outpouring of anger, not just for Clive, but for everything that has happened, including Sy Abelman (who immediately nullified anything angry Larry might have had to say with his bear hug, etc). the juxtaposition of the two auto collisions is no accident, and to me implies that Larry is indirectly responsible for Sy’s death. double-indirectly, even, since the collision was not (consciously) intentional.

  2. curt_holman says:

    F Troop

    It’s also a period-appropriate TV show that has the letter “F” in the title, and one of the film’s plots hinges on whether or not Clive will get an F. (I also think that the use of letters, numbers, mathematical symbols, etc. is one of the running threads of the movie.)

    To read way too much into this, “F Troop” can be read as a comedy about manifest destiny and white Americans encroaching on Native American territory. Since the neighbor encroaches on the Gopnik’s yard, he could represent the show’s white soldiers, and the Gopniks the Hakawi. Then again, if the Jewish people are new to the WASPy suburbs, they could be the unwelcome newcomers in a larger demographic sense.

    • Todd says:

      Re: F Troop

      Except that the Gopnik’s neighborhood seems to be some kind of Jewish enclave, which are apparently not uncommon in Minnesota. Mr. Brandt seems to be the odd man out here.

    • Todd says:

      Re: F Troop

      And if you come up with the kabbalah-acrostic solution for all the letters and numbers asserted in the movie, let me know.

  3. I just watched the film again last night, and it occurred to me that the first appearance of Mrs. Samski has a David/Bathsheba correlation – I assume this is done for a reason, but I don’t know what that reason might be, unless to hint toward an affair between Larry and Mrs. Samski (which never winds up happening).