Tuesday, October 13, 2009

As For Film: A Serious Man


Someone once told me that since I don't offer solutions, my opinions cannot be taken seriously. Two emotions struck me when I heard this. First, I felt offended. Another individual tried to negate my personal opinions. And that hurt. What else do I have but opinions? If I can't share opinions, I can't share anything of my own (spoken like a true Stoic, right?). But this emotional reaction quickly subsided in place of something bigger. I realized that this individual had pointed out some truth about me. He said that I don't offer solutions.

The weird thing about this conversation was that it occurred between two Christians. We both believe in Jesus, but we have very different opinions of him. I refuse to believe that God gives a human being an infinite answer. He gives us a lot of questions, but keeps the answer for himself. So of course I won't offer a solution, I don't believe in one.

Unless we're talking about Ecclesiastes, which has to be the Coen brothers favorite book of the Bible (either that or Job). Ecclesiastes offers an answer in the second verse of the first chapter that I find quite remarkable:

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."

With that inspired word of God in mind, let's have a look at A Serious Man. We see a character suddenly struck by misfortune. Coincidence after horrible coincidence seems to tell Larry something. Something... important. Something about life, himself, and the meaning of it all. Larry asks questions, but only because he wants a competent answer. "Why is God doing these things?"

... (crickets keep chirping) ...

One of the funniest scenes in the film tells the story of a gentile who gets a checkup from a Jewish dentist. The dentist notices that on the back sides of his patient's teeth is an inscription of Hebrew lettering. The dentist lies awake, trying to figure out why the inscription is in a non-Jewish person's mouth. Every day at work, he looks at all of his patients' teeth for more Hebrew messages on incisors, but never finds a thing. The dentist goes to the rabbi for advice. And the rabbi tells him to help out in the community more. This is apparently good enough for the dentist, but not for Larry. Larry wants to know why that inscription was chiseled into those teeth.

The rabbi offers a suggestion. He wonders if, perhaps, the search for life's answers is like a toothache. Suddenly there's great pain and confusion, but after a while, the ache simply goes away.

It seems that there are two choices we all have. To worry about things, or to not worry about things. And this can be applied to every area of life, be that spiritual, romantic, physical, visceral or intellectual. If this wasn't the message that the Coens were trying to get across in A Serious Man, then I must be taking them too seriously.

But I don't want to take them too seriously. They're pretty much the single reason that I still love film. They are such masters of their craft, it's easy to give them high praises. Again they've brought cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins in as their director of photography, and the film couldn't look more beautiful as a result. The casting is perfect as always, making the audience wonder if the Coens actually paid actors for these roles or just found local townspeople in rural Minnesota truck stops.

And above all, the writing is superb. I can't wait to watch this movie again, find little details that I missed the first time and connect them to things I forgot about. The dialogue is as funny as anything in Lebowski, Fargo or Burn After Reading. From a schoolboy obsessed with saying "fuck" between as many words as possible to a self-prescribing psychiatrist with an eminently overambitious vocabulary that runs dry quicker than he cares to realize.

All of the elements are there, and this is as good as the Coen brothers get. And with that said, A Serious Man is as good as movies get.

In the history of cinema, we have a short list of truly artistic American directors. But Joel and Ethan Coen do us proud. Every one of their films is undoubtedly American. Slowly but surely they go through each decade and give it their own funny hat to wear. They're never preachy, never stupid and never boring. A Serious Man is certainly one of their best, most closely aligned in style with the still underrated masterpiece, Barton Fink.

Whatever they believe seems to be somewhere in the metaphysical mathematics of an eternal chalkboard or a personal metaculus. But I don't want to know it. I don't want them to give me a solution. Luckily, they never do. Instead, they make me laugh and ask questions. And that's enough. I don't need any more solutions or answers than what I've already attained. After all:

"For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief."

That wise writer of Ecclesiastes knew something then that the Coens know today. That it's not necessarily a benefit to have an answer. As Bulgakov wrote in Master and Margarita, "Everything will turn out right, the world is built on that." It's just that we can never say for sure what "right" really means, only God can say that. Maybe we should just continue to ask questions without counting on any answers. And all that is to say is, let's not get too serious about our selves.

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