Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 7

So Larry has been thrown out of his own house by his wife Judith.  In a rare moment of bonding with Danny, he stops in to ask for his son’s stereo to use at the Jolly Roger (Larry is apparently a music lover).  Danny, although he never says anything as sentimental as "Gee dad, tough break, getting thrown out of the house," nevertheless generously hands over his record player, a machine which has great significance to him — it’s how he listens to his Torah recordings for his bar mitzvah, and it’s also how he listens to rock-n-roll, now that his radio has been confiscated.  This is, as far as I can tell, the only moment of tenderness between father and son in the movie.  On the other hand, neither Danny nor Larry’s daughter Sarah seem to care one whit about their family falling to pieces — Larry’s departure carries less weight in the household than Arthur monopolizing the bathroom.

Before he can get out of the driveway, however, Larry must deal with Mr. Park, Clive’s father, who brings a rather incredible circular argument to Larry’s attention.  My son, Park’s argument goes, did not bribe you, and if you say he did I will sue you for defamation.  If, on the other hand, you don’t say he bribed you, I will sue you for taking the bribe and not delivering the passing grade.  It’s an argument worthy of Humpty Dumpty.  And it all rests on the crucial element of uncertainty — since Larry cannot prove that the money came from Clive, he is, in theory anyway, damned if he does and damned if he does not.  Larry, for the first time, states the Schrodinger-inspired theme of the movie: either Clive did, or did not, bribe Larry.  Larry states this as though it’s a clear distinction, but Mr. Park counters with a more interesting ultimatum: "Accept the mystery."  That is, yes, exactly, either Clive bribed Larry, or he did not — Larry has the answer right there, but his "serious mind" can’t accept it.  Either Groskover is a dybbuk, or he is not, either Clive bribed Larry, or he did not, either Judith has had sex with Sy Abelman, or she has not, either The Mentaculus is a work of genius, or it is not, and, finally, either Hashem exists, and is torturing Larry for a reason, or he does not and Larry’s suffering is meaningless.  (And, for those of a more philosophical bent, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or posits that there are two lives to lead: either hedonistic, or ethical.  I don’t know if Larry has read Kierkegaard (either he has, or has not) but it’s a good bet the Coens have, if Miller’s Crossing is any indication.

Some time later, at the lake, Danny and his bespectacled pal smoke pot up in a tree while Larry commiserates with a friend at a picnic (who is listed as "Friend at the Picnic").  (Danny must be a very frugal pot smoker, his $20 worth of pot is lasting him a long time.)  Larry and his friend (a woman in leg braces) bond over their sympathy for Arthur, who they see as a social cripple and possibly insane, a kind of overgrown child, a kin to Lenny from Of Mice and Men.  They mean their sympathy as kindness, but it’s tinged with an edge of superiority: "Well, at least we’re not as bad as that."  They then talk about Larry’s marriage, and how he never knew Judith was unhappy, and the friend’s advice is that his misfortune is an opportunity to find out "how things really are," that is, to look inside the box and see if the cat is, or is not, dead.

"We’re Jews," says the friend.  "We have that well of tradition to draw on, to help us understand."  Going back to an earlier point I made about a "good Jew" being someone who follows the rules.  The path has been laid for "good Jews," over thousands of years — there is no reason to doubt or question or suffer, every human drama has been played out millions of times over since the beginning of time, all you have to do is ask your rabbi for wisdom and he’ll give it to you.  And yet, this is the 1960s — "tradition" ain’t working no more, everything seems like it’s up in the air.  The hippie dream is at its high-water mark, and a genuine revolution in thought seems like a very real possibility.  The "old ways" are crumbling in a big way, although the three generations of rabbis Larry eventually consults don’t see it that way.

"If someone could bottle this air, they’d make a million dollars!" exclaims Arthur as he trudges out of the lake.  Which, in a way, is what The Mentaculus tries to do: pin down a concept as vague as "universal probability" in mathematical form.  For that matter, that’s what Larry tries to do with his own class: take a concept as mind-bending as quantum physics and reduce it to a chain of equations.

THE FIRST RABBI.  Rabbi Scott, the junior rabbi, sees Larry first.  Not Nachtner, he’s away on business, but Scott, who is a bit younger than Larry.  What wisdom, Larry frets, can a man younger than himself impart?

Another office, another desk, another authority figure.  Larry sat in his office and judged Clive, now he sits in judgment from a man he clearly does not respect, but who nevertheless outranks him spiritually.  He’s come looking only for advice about his marriage, but the rabbi changes the subject to Hashem.  Larry is earthbound in his concerns, wanting something practical, but the rabbi ignores him, basically, and moves to a subject he’s more comfortable with, something more vague and undefinable.  "Look at the parking lot!" he says, as Larry goggles and the viewer laughs.  Rabbi Scott’s advice has nothing to do with Larry’s problem, and yet, what is wrong with it?  Hashem, if there is a Hashem, is, or should be anyway, everywhere, expressed in the beautiful and the ordinary, the sacred and the profane, in the Torah and on F-Troop.  If there is a Hashem, then Judith’s inexplicable betrayal of Larry is an expression of it.  And yet, Larry is, too, an expression of Hashem’s will — what does he have to say in this equation?  Must he simply accept things, or can he change them?  Should he change them?  "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you" is the epigram that opens the movie, which seems to argue that Larry’s lack of action is a kind of holiness in and of itself.  He doesn’t struggle, and, in the end, when he does do the thing that everyone seems to want him to do, he is seemingly punished severely for it.

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16 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 7”
  1. voiceofisaac says:

    The three rabbis are a key part of this film to me. Like everything else, they’re either deeply profound, or completely full of shit, and it’s unclear which is true. Or maybe both or neither.

    The first rabbi, who embodies the archetype of the Junior Rabbi so perfectly to a Jew like myself, is still new to his profession. Fresh out of rabbinical school, his eyes are still alight with idealism and untried theories learned at said school. Theories about Jewish law, about how you’re supposed to interact with your congregants, and about spiritual life in general.

    “Look at the Parking Lot!” sums him up very nicely. He’s still got wide open eyes, seeing god in everything (as many argue we should), and marveling in the miracle of existence.

    The problem for Larry is that it’s too broad a view. He thinks he needs a focused view, a specific answer to a specific question. The first rabbi not only can’t give this to him, but doesn’t understand the need for it. To the young rabbi, if you learn to appreciate and understand how wonderful the world is in the big picture, then the small details work themselves out.

    But who’s right? Perhaps Larry’s main problem is that he lacks a view of the big picture? He was completely blindsided by Judith’s desire for a divorce. He’s only slowly gaining awareness of his aggressive neighbor’s yard. Of his sexy sunbathing other-neighbor. Of his brother’s possible insanity. It’s all creeping up on him — perhaps if he examined the world around him more, all these details would make a little more sense.

    Or perhaps the young rabbi is full of shit. He’s young, he doesn’t have the life experience to match Larry, much less advise him. He gabbles on about the parking lot because has no concept of the Real World, freshly minted as he his from Hebrew Union College or wherever. He sees mystical wonder in pavement because he’s too stupid to apply his spirituality to the more concrete (haha) concerns of his congregants, which is what a rabbi is supposed to be for.

    Or is he?

    I love this movie so much.

    • Anonymous says:

      You continue to completely miss the issues in this movie. You’re trying to base your critique on the repeated theme of Schoedinger’s Cat playing out in Larry’s life. The analogy is too simplistic. To answer some of your rhetorical questions – yes the $20 was for Fagel, yes Judith was an adulterer,…Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

      • Judith wants a divorce, but claims she isn’t sleeping with Sy Abelman. We don’t have conclusive evidence whether or not she’s lying. Besides, the film opens with a scenario that establishes the either/or motif right there at the beginning of the film. The Coens are smart enough storytellers that if there’s all these inconclusive situations in the narrative, it’s something they’re doing on purpose. If they wanted to fill the story with cigars, so to speak, they could easily do so (and, y’know, HAVE in other films).

        Out of curiosity, though – what is it you see as the main issue(s) in this movie, if the Cat concept is extraneous?

  2. (Parenthetically, for someone who has only a passing knowledge of Kierkegaard, how does his work relate to Miller’s Crossing?)

  3. The point of whether or not Larry should struggle against his problems is an interesting one. I’ve read the book of Job and the lesson in Job is that Job was good because he did not struggle. And in the end of the story when he finally cries out to God, God is angry at Job for questioning his undeserved punishment. God in the book of Job comes across as a bullying monster child tormenting his puppy to prove to his friend that the puppy will love him anyway.
    Job was at the very least rewarded for his unfailing loyalty at the end of the book (tons of money new kids new house new live stock) . I feel that if Hashem exists in this story that if Larry did fight his struggles he would just be struck down completely.
    The fact that Larry’s repeated point to everyone is “I havent done anything” really makes me think that it IS a retelling of Job because that’s what Job would tell all his accusing friends when they said that he must have done something horrible to deserve his fate. That makes the opening quote all the more fitting. To obey Hashem (be he good or a horrible monster) you have to accept whatever happens to you.

    • The whole “I’m God, and I gave you these great things in your life, and it’s my right to take them away” part of the Job story was never as hard for me to swallow as “your kids are dead as part of this whole ‘test’ thing, but now at the end of your suffering I’m restoring everything – your house, cattle, wealth, etc. – but, uh, your kids are definitely still dead.”

      I can’t remember – did Job do righteous acts during his life to honor God prior to his tribulations? If so, that’s a difference between him and Larry – Larry hasn’t done anything actively WRONG per se, but also hasn’t done anything specifically RIGHT. But, as any actor knows, deliberate inaction is still a form of action, just as deciding not to decide is still a decision. Larry thinks that the lack of bad is the equivalent of good – he lives his life in neutrality, thinking that’s enough.

  4. curt_holman says:

    If someone could bottle this air

    “Friend at the Picnic” comes across as the friendliest, most likable character in the movie. Why can’t Larry try to “get with that?” Maybe he doesn’t like leg braces.

    There’s something about that shot of Arthur when he exclaims, “…They’d make a million dollars!” It’s really low, so he looms over the camera, and then the film cuts to black with a booming sound effect. It’s like Arthur is Abel in the midst of being struck down. I even had an impression of Arthur as some kind of idiot deity.

    The ironic thing about Rabbi Scott’s fatuous-sounding advice is that it might actually be the best advice anyone gets from a Rabbi during the film.

    BTW, to jump back to the fake sci-fi film Danny was watching: we see a close-up of the fakey/monstrous brain the jar while hearing the Jewish liturgical music. Maybe that image is Larry in a nutshell: all brain, with echoes of his Jewish heritage.

  5. voiceofisaac says:

    One other item from this section that I want to touch upon: the reaction of the gentile neighbor when Clive’s father comes to visit.

    Larry is, let’s face it, utterly terrified of his gentile neighbor. Said man is encroaching on his property, goes out and hunts for fun, has an intimidating baseline manner, and tops it all off by coming across as a better father. He upsets Larry on many levels, and the man doesn’t seem to have much opinion about Larry either.

    And yet, when Clive’s dad comes to visit with his defamation-or-bribe scenario, this neighbor actually offers help to Larry. “Is this guy bothering you?”, or words to that effect. It’s a very protective and neighborly thing to say, and at odds with Larry’s perception of him. Perhaps Larry’s test in that moment was to accept the neighbor’s help, that moment of outreach against the not-from-this-neighborhood invader. But the moment passes, Larry waves off the neighbor’s offer, and has to face Clive=dad alone. And despite this gruff kindness the neighbor offered, we’ll see Larry’s fear of the neighbor made manifest later on in the dream sequence.

    By the by, I don’t buy the Neighbor = God scenario. It doesn’t quite fit for me. Furthermore, Jewish myth isn’t big on Hashem/Yaweh/etc. visiting earth in human form, so in a movie full to the brim of Jewishness, such a device would feel out of place. Furthermore, the companion metaphor of Mrs. Fagel The Sexy Sunbathing Lady as Satan doesn’t play out for me either — if she was actively trying to tempt him, she would’ve done more. When he does go to visit her, she doesn’t go as far as a Satanic Temptress metaphor usually would.

    Just a thought.

    • Todd says:

      You know, I’ve watched the driveway scene with Mr. Park a dozen times, and I’m not sure Mr. Brandt is offering defense of Larry or Mr. Park. Larry responds as though Mr. Brandt is trying to defend him, but I’d swear Mr. Brandt is actually addressing Mr. Park.

      Given Mr. Park’s Korean-ness, though, it’s a fair bet that Mr. Brandt is a Korean-war vet and would view Larry as the lesser of two evils.

      • Mr. Brandt really doesn’t seem all that hostile toward Larry. He may well be making a mistake about the property line (what’s more, it might be Larry who’s making the mistake), and taking your son out of school one day to go hunting is a father-son kind of thing to do, though rather a culture clash idea for Larry. The ambiguity is certainly there, as it is throughout the film in almost every encounter Larry has, but as with Mrs. Fagel’s invitation, we see it more from Larry’s POV and it’s followed up by a dream where his feelings are further entrenched. Both neighbors might simply be being neighborly.

        • (Oops – “Mrs. Fagel” there should read “Mrs. Samski.”)

          Just saw the film again, and while Mr. Brandt is certainly gruff, he’s never outwardly hostile toward Larry, aside from the ever-present scowl on his face. At his worst, he’s standing his ground when Larry questions him about what he’s doing.

  6. jbacardi says:

    (Danny must be a very frugal pot smoker, his $20 worth of pot is lasting him a long time.)

    $20 bought a lot more pot back then, in 1967 or 1971, than it does now…

  7. Anonymous says:

    To me the movie is a brutal send up of modern Jewish life in the suburbs. The Coens expose the hypocrisy of that community from every angle – adultery, drug use, office politics, and religious abuses. As the Coens do not want to face the slings and arrows of one of their core constituencies, they have a superficial plot line that misdirects the masses to look at either uncertainty or the life of Job to keep them comfortable. In fact, A Serious Man is the Coens showing the world what a cesspool Jewish suburbia really is. Larry is a nice guy surrounded by a community that betrays him at every turn. When he seeks guidance from his respected clergymen, they all offer nothing. They are as hollow as the community they serve.

    • I think that’s an over-simplification. The friend at the picnic is a member of the community and is quite warm towards Larry, and many others offer him sympathy and an attempt at wisdom. It’s not so much hypocrisy as it is that they don’t have the answers, and generally see the answers as being beside the point.

  8. Anonymous says:

    It just saw the film again. I know the Coen Brothers are meticulous with every single detail of the film, but the first Rabbi was not wearing a Yarmulke on his head. Rabbis supposed to wear yarmulkes, I don’t whether this is a mistake, or whether there’s some meaning behind it.