Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 8

Having received no comfort or perspective from "the first rabbi," Larry now seeks them from his divorce lawyer, whose character’s name is "Divorce Lawyer."  He tries, half-heartedly, to repeat the "look at the parking lot" wisdom he’s received from Rabbi Scott, but is utterly unconvincing and folds at the slightest expression of doubt from his lawyer.  What’s more, he proceeds to argue the case from Judith’s point-of-view, echoing the previous kitchen-table scene almost word for word, except backwards.  Larry, given the opportunity to nail his wife’s ass (as the refrain from the Coens’ earlier divorce comedy Intolerable Cruelty puts it), instead sides with the aggressor, hog-tying the lawyer’s ability to act — he defeats himself. 

On the other matter, Mr. Brandt’s invasion of Larry’s property, we are assured that help is on its way, that there is a special lawyer who will, no doubt about it, settle this once and for all, and, we assume, in Larry’s favor (since this lawyer is, after all, a very wise man, and what wise man could fail to see the injustice in Mr. Brandt’s bullying invasion?).

This is, of course, all very expensive, and, when the lawyer hears that Larry is strapped for cash he completely ignores him and lists his rates.  And Larry, of course, does not press the matter.  In the middle of this, Danny calls, interrupting the meeting, to remind Larry that "F-Troop is still fuzzy."  Danny’s primary urge, as we’ve discussed, is to absorb messages.  This desire, in his mind, trumps his father’s misery — he even forgets from time to time that Larry isn’t even living in the house any more.  Never mind that Larry’s whole world is currently fuzzy.

Next, we see life at the Jolly Roger.  Arthur (who is now bunking with Larry — it seems to be a package deal, Larry must carry his weaker, more-pathetic self around with him) gets up at dawn to drain his cyst and Larry gets rises for work.  The Jolly Roger is a bleak, empty place — no other cars in the lot, only Larry’s, under a slate-grey sky.  He is truly exiled.  Meanwhile, across town, Sy Abelman isn’t suffering at all, he’s getting ready for a day of golf.  It’s even a nicer day where he is, sunnier and warmer.  The movie cuts back and forth between Larry’s trudge to work and Sy’s leisurely trek to the country club.  Film lies, but the implication is that we’re seeing parallel action.  So when Larry is distracted by seeing Clive on the street (riding a bicycle and wearing a surgical mask, looking utterly alien in the suburban streets) and rear-ends the car in front of him, we believe, for a moment, that he has run into Sy’s car.  In fact, we learn later, Sy has run into another car, presumably at the same moment as Larry’s accident, and has been killed.

The question is, did Larry, somehow, cause Sy’s accident, from across town?  Reason tells us no, it is a mere coincidence.  And yet, Larry’s anger, his impotent rage against the cosmos, seems to have set off some kind of ripple, causing him to be Cain to Sy’s Abel.  No matter what Larry does, Hashem seems to have it in for him — if there is, in fact, a Hashem.

But back at the office, Larry has to first deal with Dick Dutton from the Columbia Record Club.  For those unfamiliar with the CRC, let me illuminate.  The CRC was an institution in the 60s and 70s, they placed ads in newspapers and magazines every week, luring people to join the club, offering 12 albums for 1 cent.  After you got your 12 albums, you were then shipped each month’s "monthly main selection" whether you asked for it or not, and had to pay full price for it, including shipping, prices that were, it goes without saying, were exorbitant.  If you didn’t want the monthly main selection, you had to ship it back to the CRC, and pay the postage.  When I was a child, during the time A Serious Man is set, our house was littered with monthly selections, records we never listened to and never even opened, all because we were too lazy to cancel the service, a human characteristic the CRC exploited from every possible angle.

So here’s Larry, cornered telephonically by Dick Dutton.  For Coen fans, Dick Dutton is voiced by the same actor who played Reilly Diefenbach, the telephone voice that bedeviled Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo.  Dick Dutton, like Reilly Diefenbach, has called to collect a debt — Danny has, apparently, been receiving records from the CRC at Larry’s expense and not paying for them.

Now then, there’s a weird temporal flux regarding Dick Dutton’s call.  Ethan Coen says that A Serious Man takes place in 1967, but both of the albums mentioned, many times, by Dick Dutton, Santana Abraxas and Cosmo’s Factory, both came out in 1970.  (To make matters stranger, Abraxas came out in September 1970 and Cosmo’s Factory came out in July, and yet Danny has already received Abraxas and is about to get the "June selection," Cosmo’s Factory.  June I believe, as the narrative is clearly set in the late spring, and, setting aside Abraxas‘s September release date, what is Danny doing ordering records that won’t be released for three years hence?  I’m tempted to believe that this is a mere oversight on the Coens’ part, that the movie is set in 1967 and they just didn’t bother to check their dates.  And yet, there were plenty of mind-blowing record titles out in the spring of 1967 (including Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), and Dick Dutton makes such a point of naming the records over and over again that I’m confused on this point.

In any case, the point of the scene is that the Columbia Record Club, like Hashem, punishes Larry because he "hasn’t done anything."  By not ordering Abraxas, he has guaranteed that it will be shipped to him and he must pay for it.  The universe of A Serious Man doesn’t merely demand action, it punishes for inaction.

Danny interrupts Dick Dutton’s call to inform him that "mom’s upset."  He doesn’t tell him that Sy Abelman is dead, only that "mom’s upset."  Danny, obviously, is not keyed in to the world of his parents.  Both kids, we learn, know about Sy Abelman’s death, and both remain completely disinterested — Sarah is concerned only about an interruption of her social plans and Danny can only think about the TV antenna.

THE SECOND RABBI.  Compounding enormity, Judith demands that Larry pay Sy’s funeral expenses.  Crushed and humiliated, Larry goes to see Rabbi Nachtner, who is the senior rabbi at Larry’s temple.  Another desk, another authority figure, another submission, another test.  Larry’s suffering has, at least, gained a foothold on his society’s attention — he’s no longer relegated to the bright-eyed youth, now he’ll get wisdom from a real rabbi.  Larry is now hopelessly lost — his Sy Abelman problem is solved, but the resolution has not repaired his marriage — his family is still shattered, he is still exiled.

Because Larry had his car accident at the same time as Sy, he is concerned that the "message" is that he, in some way, is Sy.  Which makes a certain amount of sense — both Larry and Sy consider themselves the rightful mate of Judith.  Larry, who already sees Arthur as a dark reflection of himself, perhaps also sees something of himself in Sy.

In any case, Nachtner’s response to Larry is A Serious Man’s high point, the story of The Goy’s Teeth.  Amazingly, the Coens play this wild, beautiful sequence both for laughs and for profundity, and at the same time use it to ratchet up Larry’s tension.

The dentist, Sussman, has a patient whose teeth have "Help me" engraved, in Hebrew, on the inner side of his lower front teeth.  This bizarre anomaly obsesses Sussman, and he pursues a number of insane routes to figuring out the "message" of the goy’s teeth.  It never occurs to him to actually ask the goy why he has "help me" engraved, in Hebrew, on the inner side of his lower front teeth.  The goy is, to Sussman, a mere weather condition, a bearer of teeth seemingly unconnected to their owner.  Nachtner’s advice to Sussman (which he insists is irrelevant) is, we don’t know about the teeth, but the message itself, "help," couldn’t hurt.  This makes Larry just about blow a gasket — the story of the goy’s teeth is garishly bizarre, freakishly incredible, and, seemingly, demands explanation.  But Nachtner’s advice to Larry, despite his frustration, is, like Rabbi Scott’s, actually quite profound: who knows why strange things happen?  It’s not our place to know.  Hashem doesn’t owe us an explanation, the sign is an oracle, a mirror, it means whatever you want it to mean, whatever you need it to mean, the struggle for an explanation is a minor pain that will eventually go away.  Or, "receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."  And Nachtner agrees with Sussman: who cares about the goy?  The fate of the goy is completely beside the point, like needing to know what kind of stone the ten commandments were carved on.

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29 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 8”
  1. “The universe of A Serious Man doesn’t merely demand action, it punishes for inaction.”

    Exactly. That seems to be the source of Larry’s problems in life – he hasn’t done anything.

    Is there more significance to The Goy’s Teeth?

    • Todd says:

      If there is, I have no idea what it could be. Like the UFO in The Man Who Wasn’t There or the mysterious vanishing Chigurh in No Country For Old Men or the taunting box in Barton Fink, the inexplicable seems to be there to be inexplicable.

    • voiceofisaac says:

      Do you know, it never dawned on me that the Dentist never thought — and that I in the audience never thought — of asking the goy himself what might be up with his teeth.

      I suppose that the idea that a goy (a non-jew, for those confused) might know hebrew, much less be so dedicated as to engrave a cryptic message in that language on his teeth, seems even more impossible than the fact that such engravings exist in the first place, that the occam’s razor of that Jew (and this Jew, much to my surprise) immediately attributes the engravings to Divine Action rather than Weird Human Action.

      There’s a famous Jewish parable about direct divine manifestation, and its relevance to our daily lives, that might apply here. In this story, a group of learned Rabbis is having a theological discussion — what they were discussing exactly isn’t important, only that there was a very thorough debate. As the conflict continues, one rabbi who is possibly the most holy and learned among them escalates the stakes by claiming divine revelation: “If I am right, let Hashem cause fruit to burst forth from this tree in the yard!” And lo, the tree is suddenly full of apples. But the other rabbis are still skeptical. “If I am right, let Hashem cause this wall to be engraved with holy writings before us!” And lo, the wall suddenly becomes covered in such. But still the other rabbis hold onto their opposing view, and the holy dissenter continues to insist his case, and backing it up with evidence that God agrees with him, as indicated by divine action. Finally, one of the opposing rabbis points directly to heaven and cries out, “YOU STAY OUT OF THIS!” God is chastened, the divine revelations cease, and the debate resumes a more mundane atmosphere.

      This is usually seen as an affirmation of free will and the importance of thoughtful rather than dogmatic debate, but I mention it here because of the Second Rabbi. So what if God took direct divine action and engraved “help me” on the goy’s teeth? It’s not for us to know, just as it is not for God to interfere in our lives. So, in Rabbi Nachtner’s view, God is not punishing Larry Gopnik. Larry’s going through life, and sometimes life sucks — and that Larry’s attempts to find divine methodology in his crisis is pointless at best, and that perhaps he would be better off spending his energies addressing the problem directly — in other words, Doing Something.

      • Well-put. Larry is focusing on the wrong thing, trying to know the unknowable instead of dealing with the problem that the calamities in his life are exposing – that he doesn’t DO anything. Of course, at the end of the film it appears that he finally DOES do something and gets immediately punished for it. Or maybe it’s coincidence – we don’t know.

        Which reminds me – nothing’s been discussed here regarding the curse that may or may not be on their family, following the stabbing of the dybbuk/innocent old man in the film’s prologue. But maybe we’ll get to that at the end. (It IS Larry’s ancestor who stabs the maybe-dybbuk, right? I’ve only seen the film once, when it was out in theatres, though I plan to watch it again with a friend next week, so my memory’s foggy.)

        • flyyoufools says:

          It’s never explicitly stated that they’re related to anyone else in the movie. But it’s easy to assume that that’s what the Coen’s wanted us to believe, much like it’s easy to assume that Clive left the envelope.

          • Okay, thanks for the clarification. I thought they had the same last name or something, but I couldn’t remember if that was just an inference I’d made. I guess it could just be a thematic statement of intent, though.

  2. I guess it almost goes without saying that Larry and Sy’s accidents are another example of Schrödinger’s cat–both are confined in boxes (cars), both accidents occur simultaneously, and yet one lives and one dies.

    • mimitabu says:

      i don’t think it goes without saying (i’d not thought of it), and i also think that’s a pretty cool spot.

    • flyyoufools says:

      See, when the idea of quantum mechanics was first brought up in earlier analyses, I immediately thought of the car crash scene in relationship to the idea of quantum entanglement:

      Basically, the idea that two quantum systems are “entangled”, that a change in one will produce a similar change in the other despite a lack of any spatial relationship.

      If one is to view this movie through a lens of quantum mechanics, it’s hard to pass up seeing this scene (and the entire Larry/Sy relationship) as quantum entanglement between two people. I’m sure this view falls apart on closer inspection, but an interesting thought none the less.

      And I’m also a little surprised no one brought up Sy’s first name, seeing as Psi is a Greek letter used in Schrodinger’s equation. I’m trying to flesh this out a little more, but my quantum mechanics knowledge is strictly laymen. Along with my film analysis skills.

  3. jbacardi says:

    In all fairness to Columbia House, you did receive a card every month or so that informed you in advance what they were going to send you, unless you coughed up the money for postage, marked the “do not send” box, and sent the card back. Ignore the cards, you got rewarded with stacks of records you may or may not want, and the bills to match. I always made it a point to fill out those cards, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the alternative.

    • Todd says:

      When I had my short-lived dealings with the CRC, I made sure to scrupulously fill out the cards each month and send them back. Man oh man did it hurt to pay full list price, plus postage, for records. And then I found out that the CRC editions of the records didn’t come with all the packaging — none of the ones I bought had printed inner-sleeves. I fulfilled my contract asap and dropped the CRC like the proverbial hot potato.

  4. piehead says:

    Abraxas, as a title, probably not chosen at random:

  5. This provides no clue within the context of the film itself for “why” the anachronisms of those two albums, but it has been pointed out that Joel Coen was the same age as Danny in 1967, and Ethan Coen in 1970. For a piece about the community they grew up in at the time they grew up, they may have just not cared about the anachronisms (I can’t imagine they didn’t know they were there) in mixing their cultural touchstones.

  6. voiceofisaac says:

    Something just occurred to me — does anyone here have even a passing medical knowledge of what goes on with the cyst that Larry’s brother has? I’m wondering if there’s something to that, that I’ve missed or overlooked. This is probably getting a little too arcane, but I figure there’s no harm in overturned that stone, so to speak.

    As another Jewish Life aside, I have to make another note about the brilliance of the Rabbis in this movie. Nachtner not only moves, sounds, and talks like every senior Rabbi I’ve ever met, but he looks the part with an eerie perfection. I don’t know what it is, but it’s something that I’ve discussed at length with fellow jews in the past — there’s a vibe about Rabbis that is unmistakable, that seems to even bleed into their physical look. Chances are, if a Jew walks into a room full of identically dressed Jewish strangers with the knowledge that there is a Rabbi amongst that group, he’ll be able to pick out the rabbi in less than thirty seconds, just by looking around.

    My point being, that the actor portraying Rabbi Nachtner NAILS it. Oh dear god, I was having flashbacks to Rabbi Fuchs at Sunday school in the late 80’s and early 90’s when Nachtner showed up, it was that eerie.

    • Todd says:

      A Serious Man is full to overstuffed with incredible performances from actors who, often, have never made a movie before. I don’t know the Coens do it, but yeah, over and over again, these complete unknowns completely nail these scenes.

      (Of course, the actor playing Nachtner is an exception — he’s an old TV hand. But still, his performance, as you note, is pitch-perfect: precise, detailed, complex, multi-layered. Amazing.)

      • Richard Kind, Fyvush Finkel, and Michael Lerner (who played studio exec Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink) stood out dramatically as the only actors in the entire film I even recognized. Phenomenal performances all around, though Fred Melamed’s Sy Abelman gives us the most on the old bang/buck ratio. The Coens have always been good at casting…

      • voiceofisaac says:

        One other note about Rabbi Nachtner. When Larry speaks of this meeting to others later, isn’t the general reaction something like, “Did he tell you that old story about Sussman and the Goy’s teeth? He always tells that story, and everyone’s sick of hearing it.” It further invalidates the Rabbi’s advice in Larry’s mind, confirming that he’s on the right track in trying to find real meaning in his life’s woes, rather than focusing on solving the actual problems directly.

        • curt_holman says:

          As I remember it, when the character asked Larry, “Did he tell you the story of the Goy’s teeth?” the inflection was enthusiastic, as if to imply, ‘Surely the story of the Goy’s teeth gave you some guidance.”

          • That was how I’d remembered it myself, but I saw the film again last night and it turns out the character (Larry’s divorce lawyer) delivers the line in a somewhat dismissive way and recommends Larry go see the third rabbi.

  7. curt_holman says:

    Red Owl

    Does anyone know if the Red Owl, the store where Sussman goes, is a real, period-appropriate chain? (Supermarket, I think.) I assume so, and it also fits symbolically, with owls being a symbol for wisdom.

    Rabbi Nachtner’s attitude towards the moral of his story seems highly similar to Mr. Park’s “Accept the mystery.”

    The Sussman story is heightened, of course, by the presence of the Jimi Hendrix guitar on the soundtrack. Rock music seems to serve as a counterpoint to scenes with some kind of spiritual or revelatory content throughout the film.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Red Owl

      I am told that the Red Owl is a real supermarket chain, but that it was not in existence at the time the story takes place. I’m sure there’s an anagram or acrostic or something significant hidden in the name.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The Columbia Record House is still in business – they sell DVDs now.

    To me the “Goy’s Teeth” is the perfect example of the core issue in the movie. Larry prods the rabbi, “What happened to the Goy?” to hear “Who Cares?” Larry is struggling with many moral issues only to find out that his rabbi (supposedly a sage counsel) is a bigot. I guess in the rabbi’s world Goy’s are subhuman.

  9. Anonymous says:

    well by this point you’ve addressed everything i brought up in my comments on the previous entries, so, well done.
    BUT I cannot buy that Abraxas just sounds funny. It refers to an ancient Gnostic concept of god, or the universe, depending on your source. Larry says, in effect, “I didn’t ask for God, I don’t want God” etc. An interesting note I found on the wiki for Abraxas (the Gnostic concept, not the album) “It was engraved on certain antique gemstones, called on that account Abrasax stones, which were used as amulets or charms.” Hmm, reminiscent of the Goy’s teeth?

    another ps: when i look at the divorce lawyer, i can’t help but see a slightly doughy George Clooney