Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 6

Enter Arlen Finkle.

Arlen Finkle is a co-worker of Larry’s and head of the college tenure committee.  What does Arlen want?  Arlen wants to assure Larry that, despite the fact that there have been several letters sent to the tenure committee defaming Larry, his tenure is in no way hanging in the balance and he should by no means worry about anything.  Arlen, like Sy Abelman, is an indelible character, acted to perfection in an incredible brief performance by an actor I’ve never heard of before.  The grain and detail brought to his overwhelmingly ineffective reassurances to Larry is breathtaking.

And so, yet another injustice is heaped upon Larry, another outrage, against which he is powerless.  The strong hint is that Clive, the disgruntled student, wrote the letters to the tenure committee, but Arlen seems to dismiss this possibility out of hand.  And it begins to emerge that A Serious Man is an adaptation of the Book of Job, and that Larry, the professor, is being tested.  Everything that can go wrong in a man’s life will eventually go wrong in Larry’s life.  The question in Job is: will Job renounce God?  Will Satan win his bet?  But the question in A Serious Man seems to be slightly different: is Larry lost in a sea of chaos, or is there a controlling force who is torturing him for some unknown reason?  That is, Larry doesn’t seem to mind being tortured, as long as there’s a reason, but to suffer for nothing is unacceptable to him.  Which, to me, is as interesting an argument about the existence of God as I’ve ever come by: if God wants us to suffer, well all right then.  But if God isn’t there, then why the hell do we put up with this world?

That afternoon, Larry is out in his yard, studying an incursion from Mr. Brandt, when Brandt and his son return from their day of hunting, with a dead deer on their roof.  Brandt is prepared to kill, we see, and he’s prepared to teach his son to kill as well — he’s even taken him out of school "so he could hunt with his dad."  For those who say that Mr. Brandt is God, then does that make little fat-headed Mitch Jesus?  Because I lose the thread there.  There is, however, something to be said for Mr. Brandt’s relationship with his son.  He plays catch with the boy, a lot, and takes him out of school to spend time with him.  The time he spends with him may be spent pursuing killing things, but, by Mr. Brandt’s lights, he’s being a good father.  Larry, on the other hand, keeps his son in school and has no connection with him whatsoever, has no idea what’s happening in his own house.  (Mr. Brandt’s wife, on the other hand, is most likely dead, whereas Larry’s is merely an opaque mystery to him.)  Mr. Brandt, it seems, is clearly, and aggressively, invading Larry’s territory with his boat shed, taking advantage of Larry’s intelligence and timidity, forcing him into submission with his blunt gruffness.  Mr. Brandt, like a Republican politician, baldly states things that are easily proven false and relies on bullying and intimidation to get what he wants.

Mike Fagel, on the other hand, may be a bully, but at least he’s in the right, and Danny is, in his world, right to fear him.  Fagel gave Danny the pot before Danny paid for it, an act of generosity, even kindness, and Danny lost the $20 to the Hebrew teacher.  We could even say that Fagel is righteous in his anger — he is, oddly enough, a kin to Treitl Groskover, the perhaps-dybbuk, who did a kindness for the prologue’s peasant and ended up with an icepick in his chest for his trouble.

To examine the Fagel-Danny-Hebrew Teacher triangle further, however: Danny got his radio, with its devil’s music, confiscated by his teacher.  With the radio is the $20 he owes Fagel.  The $20 he owes Fagel is for pot.  So here is the 1960s youth problem in a nutshell.  Rock-n-roll on the radio leads to 12-year-olds smoking pot and stealing money from their parents (we think) in order to pay for it, and disrupting great institutions like Hebrew class.  Add to that the enormity of Danny failing to pay Fagel for pot already smoked, and Danny seems quite the fallen angel indeed.  All of this taken into consideration (the new values of the 1960s vs the old values of the Hebrew school), the eventual fate of the radio, and the $20, is all the more astonishing.

After another storm of cluelessness in his foyer ("What’s going on?" he dimly wonders again), Larry is shanghaied into a dinner out with Judith and Sy Abelman.  Sy ups the ante on his touchy-feely superciliousness — he hugs Larry like a bereaved relative and offers him heartfelt advice on dealing with his suffering, while, in the same breath, throwing him out of his house and stealing his wife (and more, as it turns out).  In his way, Sy Abelman is more monstrous than the monstrous Mr. Brandt.  Mr. Brandt’s predatory intentions are obvious, but at least he doesn’t cloak them in oily condescension.

Which leads me to rephrase Larry’s struggle: Job knows that God is testing him, but the troubles that beset Larry are more human.  Why does he not fight them?  If he wants to know what’s going on in his house, why doesn’t he find out?  If he doesn’t want Judith to leave him, why doesn’t he try to win her back?  Or, as several characters put this last question, "Sy Abelman?!" Struggling against chaos is one thing, but what the Sy Abelman’s of the world need is some righteous anger directed at them.  LIke Mr. Brandt, Sy Abelman is a bully.  Unlike Mr. Brandt, he’s also a coward.  Stand up to Mr. Brandt and you might get killed, what does Larry have to lose by standing up to Sy Abelman?  He makes the "reasonable man"’s mistake of thinking that logic and justice will somehow prevail — his religion of actions and consequences is all he’s got.

And so Larry is exiled from his own family, to a place called The Jolly Roger, no less.  The Jolly Roger, it’s worth noting, is a pirate’s flag, the flag ships would sail under when they no longer belonged to any nation but declared themselves stateless and answerable to no one.  Larry has become stateless, but finds he still must answer to just about everybody.

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12 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 6”
  1. Anonymous says:

    I love your analyses:

    The Venture Bros recaps drew me in, but everything is gold,and helps me understand these films at a higher level. However, As someone who votes Republican more often than not, I do have to take issue with your description of Republican politicians. I might even go as far to say that you are baldly stating things that are easily proven false.

    Keep up the great work,


    • dougo says:

      Re: I love your analyses:

      This is probably not the place for a political discussion, but here’s one recent example and here’s another.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: I love your analyses:

        I don’t mean to claim that all Republican politicians are paragons of integrity and virtue, far from it. That blanket assertion that they’re all liars and bullies is just as false. Lying and bullying knows no party, just as integrity and virtue knows no party.

        I will say though, in the second link, that Krugman acknowledges that Alexander is telling the truth. “Wow. I guess you could say that he wasn’t technically lying,” because his summary of the CBO report was correct.

        • Re: I love your analyses:

          I myself would find it more accurate if Todd shortened it to “politicians,” but that’s my cynicism for ya. 🙂

        • dougo says:

          Re: I love your analyses:

          If “not technically lying” counts as “telling the truth”, then we should agree to disagree.

          • Anonymous says:

            Re: I love your analyses:

            I have to agree with cassanovaquinn. That was the point I was attempting to make. We can argue about health insurance reform, but I don’t think this is the place.

  2. craigjclark says:

    The other thing about people’s objections to Sy Abelman’s encroachment on Larry’s family is that Sy’s wife Esther, who has been dead for three years, is “barely cold.” Larry raises this objection himself and is shot down by his wife. When Larry’s lawyer raises it later on, Larry is the one who dismisses it. In this way, like The Dude, Larry is constantly picking up talking points from others and parroting them.

  3. curt_holman says:

    “moral turpitude”

    “Larry doesn’t seem to mind being tortured, as long as there’s a reason, but to suffer for nothing is unacceptable to him.”

    Nicely put. Rather than fight against his particular problems, Larry seems mostly motivated to talk to the rabbis about the meaning of suffering in general.

    In the restaurant scene, Sy Abelman counts to 10 in another example of the film’s use of letters, numbers, mathematical symbols and other glyphs.

    I have trouble seeing Mr. Brandt as “God,” because he’s clearly anti-Semitic (or Larry seems him that way), and the concept of an anti-Semitic God is a bit much for me.

    I wonder if “Fagel” is a joke on “faygeleh.”

    • Todd says:

      Re: “moral turpitude”

      I suspected as much when I first saw the movie, when Danny hisses “Fagel!” in Hebrew class, I first assumed he was calling his friend gay, in the classic manner of 12-year-old midwestern boys.

  4. Anonymous says:

    big question that is maybe addressed in subsequent posts: why do we assume anything bad about Mr. Brandt? we never find out what the property assessment says. For all we know, Mr. Brandt could be right. He may be gruff, but as you say, he spends lots of time with his son. He even steps up to defend Larry, asking if Clive’s father is bothering him. both the property-cheating and the anti-semitism only exist in Larry’s mind as far as we know.