Friday, October 30, 2009

Secret Test!: A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: As always, please see A Serious Man before proceeding.



"As long as I learn I will make mistakes
What do I want? What do I need?
Why do I want it? What's in it for me?
It's the imagery of technology
Is what you get is what you see
Don't worry your mind
When you give it your best
One two one two this is just a test"

- Beastie Boys, "Just a Test"


A barrage of questions, then: Why is this happening? What does it mean? What are the rules? How do I behave properly? What choices are available? Which options should I take? And they culminate, really, in the one central mystery: What the fuck is going on?

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, looking and acting like an ideal live-action Opus the penguin) stands on his suburban roof under slate skies and adjusts the television aerial. Signals from the aether flow into the antenna, and the man hears garbled, incomprehensible messages from the heavens. Something is coming through, and he will continue to adjust the apparatus, strain to listen and see. The mystery of existence continues, and all Larry can get in reply is blurry broadcasts of F Troop.

Negative Theology

Like a Lenny Bruce retelling of a lost Ingmar Bergman script for The Book of Job: The Movie, A Serious Man is both nightclub sick joke style riff on Jewish identity crisis in postwar suburbia and a humane and silver-filigreed parable about the reasons and methods by which we derive spiritual and philosophical nourishment through hermeneutic process; it is about the relative value of lessons relayed by allegory, of the midrash of all things, from Torah to F Troop, Surrealistic Pillow to dreams, physics to kook literature, weather patterns to collections agency calls.

Myriad troubles compounding troubles begin swarming Larry until one day, without warning, his life is falling down around him. His protesting refrain is: "I didn't do anything!/ I haven't done anything!/ What did I do?" When his wife (Sari Lennick) demands a divorce, he asks what he did, and she tells him "You haven't 'done' anything. I haven't 'done' anything." When his impending tenure is threatened by anonymous letters to the board, he can think of no reason they should have been written. When harassed by the Columbia Record Club, which he did not join, he yelps "I didn't ask for Santana Abraxas!... I haven't done anything!" The indignities and calamities come swirling up from nowhere Larry can perceive, and his only conclusion can be that God is doing this to him. Or not.

And indeed, Larry is a good man, in the best way he knows how. He is intelligent and gentle, sensitive and responsible and unassuming. What he is not is demonstrative, confrontational, brash and headstrong, those qualities that pass for heroism in contemporary protagonists. He prides himself as a rational man, a fine thing for a physics professor to be. But his rigid framing of a cause-and-effect universe makes him indignant about lack of apparent cause when his wife and her boyfriend, the sympathy-oozing, pious Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) kick him out of his own home to live at the Jolly Roger Motel. As a teacher, Larry is accustomed to the use of stories to illustrate complex ideas. He explains as much to Korean student Clive (David Kang), who insists he understands the Schrödinger's Cat paradox; Larry counters that the "cat" is just a device for communicating a mathematical idea, and the math is the lesson. "They're like fables. To give you a picture... The math is how it really works." But as Clive tries to simultaneously bribe the professor for a passing grade and/or blackmail him for accepting the bribe (or perhaps does neither, the unmarked face of the envelope a blank screen of possibility), he seems to have grasped "dead cat" after all. Though he is familiar with the uncertainty principle and quantum superposition, Larry cannot see through the torment to apply chaos theory to his own situation (to be fair, it being the late '60s/early '70s, he'd have to be keeping ahead of the curve on his physics publications reading). The rational man is caught in a tangle; he uses the rhetorical technique, but does not do well when left to divine the lesson beneath the many signs, signals and allegories offered him. "I mean, even I don't understand the dead cat," he gasps to Clive.

The story being bent through the lens of Larry's perspective, the motivations of others are largely veiled, their intersections with Larry effectively blindsiding him. There are three exceptions, in sections of the film which swap perspective. The second most frequent point of view offered is Larry's son, Danny (Aaron Wolf), budding stoner and F Troop enthusiast who drowns out Hebrew school lessons with his transistor radio blaring Jefferson Airplane's secret message through his headphones. The Gopnik story proper begins here, inside Danny's ear canal, pulling outward into the light as "Somebody to Love" roars in the darkness, the film's leitmotif of alienation and thirst for simple salvation.

In the only other Minnesota moment entirely outside Larry's perspective, Sy Ableman drives to the golf course (even when no one is around, he drips self-satisfaction). Intercut synchronous car accidents befall both men, as Larry screams in impotent rage at the bicycling Clive and bangs up his auto, and Sy grows impatient waiting for a left-hand turn and is killed. Though (surprisingly) no one offers Larry the cold comfort that "it could've been you!," the value and meaninglessness of the sentiment that things could be worse is illustrated. Danny's life is not without problems — his aggravations include a harpy older sister, he owes his pot dealer twenty bucks, and dude, F Troop is coming in fuzzy — but he's not as bad off as his dad. And Larry does not quite recognize it, but his life is not so shambolic as his own destitute brother Arthur's (lovable gargoyle Richard Kind).

An extreme magnification of Larry, Arthur is crashing on his brother's couch, plagued by a cyst in constant need of draining, can neither hold a job nor appears to want one. That Arthur may be suffering serious psychological dysfunction becomes an increasingly likely possibility as he asks Larry's professional opinion of The Mentaculus, which he identifies as "a probability map," a Theory of Everything of his own devising. When Larry examines the little notebook, the pages roar with the white noise of madness, scribbles and equations cover every surface in mandalas of incomprehensible mathematics. Larry cannot make heads or tails of the Mentaculus. We might guess that it makes no sense, but Arthur's "system" apparently "works" as intended, and he applies it to winning at back room card games. And still, Arthur is hounded by police for gambling and solicitation and sodomy in seedy bars. Arthur understands the math and it solves none of his problems. The possibility exists that understanding the math has prompted Arthur's mental snap. While the Mentaculus appears to perfectly outline probabilities of limited stochastic systems like card games, perhaps Arthur does not think to apply its output to his personal life, or perhaps its wisdom holds no bearing when contemplating the nature of God.

Whether plagued by profoundly connected events or a designless swarm of fluke locusts, Larry cannot say. But even the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories has a structure, and the fundament of mathematical chaos is not disorder, but ungraspably complex determinist systems that can only look like pandemonium to the unaided eye. Larry may be haunted by a void of meaning, or by a surplus.

Maimonides tells us that the only statements we can make about the nature of God are statements of negation: all we may affirm is what God is not.

At the Mixer with Rambam and Rabad I: Of Advisors and Stories

Arthur does come closest to telling Larry what he may need to hear, wailing in the night at a hotel poolside freak out: "Look at everything Hashem has given you! And what do I get?! I get fucking shit!" Larry can't hear it, counters: "Arthur. What do I have? I live at the Jolly Roger."

In attempt to resolve his crisis of meaning, Larry visits three rabbis. Junior Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg, nerve-wracked and befuddled, as if he can't believe he's a holy man) proposes that Larry has lost his perspective, and advises looking at the world with refreshed vision. Rabbi Scott is sympathetic but his empathy is stunted, and his illustration ends and begins with the temple parking lot: "... imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn't familiar with these autos and such. Somebody still with a capacity for wonder. Someone with a fresh... perspective. That's what it is, Larry!... Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world!" Larry already believes that one potential of his situation is God's presence, the other is God's non-presence, and the difference is stacking up as a narrow one. The first rabbi's advice is sound, but he does not adequately connect the dots to Larry's circumstance for the idea to get through. "Just look at that parking lot."

To put his divorce proceedings in order, Larry consults his lawyer, Don Milgram (Adam Arkin). The principles of Judaic faith and practice are philosophically framed in legalistic terms, and Larry's trips to his lawyers are conferences with moral advisors as much as those with the rabbis. Though he visits Milgram to sort out the divorce and clarify a property line issue, Jewish law — Halakhah, the path on which one walks — informs all of Larry's choices. He sees the possibility and feels the weight of every day as a series of choices, large and small, to greet seriously or ignore. Should he grant a do-over "secret test," as Clive requests? Should the family wait for Arthur to finish in the bathroom before eating dinner? Should he pay for Sy's funeral?

A gruff, monosyllabic gentile neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) begins asserting ownership of what Larry believes to be part of the Gopnik yard. Mr. Brandt asserts that the property line ends at the poplar tree. Larry doesn't, apparently, but has no counter-evidence. On neighboring, possibly overlapping territory, a blurred boundry becomes matter of interpretation, one the self-assured gentile is going to win by default. Both satirizing the degree to which these suburban Jews have and have not become integrated, and addressing Larry's concern that he is correctly interpreting the law, the matter of the Gopnik yard is never resolved: the property lawyer (Michael Lerner) up and dies before Larry's eyes without uttering a word of his strategy.

And so to the second rabbi, Nachtner (hilarious character actor superpower George Wyner), who provides two critical lessons, one in comic council with Larry and one while presiding over Sy Ableman's funeral. To Larry, Nachtner relates the half-joke half-object lesson story of The Goy's Teeth, revealed as the rabbi's one-size-fits-all anecdote for any occasion. In brief, a dentist finds the words "Help Me" engraved? grown? into a patient's lower incisors. The riddle haunts the doctor, no answers are forthcoming, and he eventually stops worrying about it and finds peace. Larry stares and gapes, aghast at what he takes to be a shaggy dog story. Though he strains to hear the essence the advice, the rabbi refuses to elaborate.

Nachtner's timing is off and Larry isn't communicating his needs. Gopnik is seeking comfort and the rabbi provides an intellectual explanation to a theological question. The answer is sound — God neither provides nor owes any explanations — but the advice is misplaced. It is not what Larry wants to hear, so he does not.

Through all Larry hears is an irrelevant, anticlimactic joke, the Goy's Teeth is, in essence, a story about unknowable mystery, its presence and purpose in our lives. In the story, Sussman the dentist guesses at a moral — should he help others? Nachtner neither confirms nor denises: couldn't hurt. There is a disconnect between this conclusion and the questions. Helping people is an action to take in this world, a way to conduct oneself which, sure, couldn't hurt. It has not much to do with the nature of God or the question Sussman and Gopnik share with Job:

If this is sign, what does it mean?,
and: Why me?

The Goy's Teeth is linked to Schrödinger's Cat and the invented folktale prologue to Larry's story. In that miniature Yiddish comedy sketch of A Serious Man, a man and wife are visited one dark and snowy eve by a Torah scholar (Fyvush Finkle) who may (or may not) be a dead man inhabited by a dybbuk. Surely not, chuckles the rational husband. Obviously so, says his deadly serious wife, and stabs the guest in the heart. But Schrödinger's dybbuk shuffles off into the night, wounded and insulted. Doomed or saved or maybe neither, the couple never learns. The snow falls on the just and unjust.

At Ableman's funeral, Rabbi Nachtner gives a stirring and warm hesped in honor of the deceased and to guide the bereaved. He explains the Jewish concept of the afterlife, L'olam Ha-Ba, the World to Come. "It is not a geographic place like Canada..." (pause for laughter), it is not about a reward of riches and physical comforts, not entirely analogous to a Christian concept of an individual dividend Heaven. Nachtner outlines at length what the afterlife is not, and offers that L'olam Ha-Ba "is in the soul of this community which nurtured Sy Ableman and to which Sy Ableman now returns."

As for the third rabbi, Marshak refuses to see Larry at all. The old man devotes his time only to religious study and briefly advising the new Bar Mitzvahs. As Larry moves up the chain of wisdom, the advice becomes more succinct and cuts to the heart of the matter, while the comfort grows slim. Marshak does allow conference with Danny Gopnik, who triumphs through his Torah reading while righteously stoned. The ancient man stares across his empty desk, quotes Jefferson Airplane and advises Danny: "Be a good boy."

Perhaps the most concise version of these esteemed commentators is Clive Park's father. As Larry protests that either Clive is bribing him or not, and he cannot be blackmailed for a bribe he isn't accepting, Mr. Park's zen reply: "Please. Accept mystery."

Job Didn't Ask for Santana Abraxas: Five-Minute Exegesis

Joel and Ethan Coen tend to favor noir and screwball comedy, genres which may be played as farce or thriller, and that take as their base the dogpiling of misery and accident onto hapless protagonists. In its way, A Serious Man is a small primer on how to read the moral philosophy of the entire Coen oeuvre. We should not mistake a portrait of an absurdist universe for nihilism. The only self-identified nihilists the Coens have placed onscreen are in The Big Lebowski, and they are dismissed as buffoons, if slightly more dangerous than the rest of a cast of buffoons.

The real point of The Goy's Teeth, Nachtner simply hands to Larry. Eventually, these nagging questions will go away, in the face of small, everyday happiness, or at least the business of living life while cosmic mystery roars in the background. The point of Rabbi Scott's advice is similarly to marvel at what portion of the universe one does understand, and to tend personal relationships and behavior in that context. Marshak to Larry: following this line of questioning ends with a life of devoted, serious Torah study, and furthermore, when you get to the top of the chain, you may find deafening silence.

In a dream — the only Coen films with no dream sequences are Fargo and Burn After Reading — Larry tells his class that the Uncertainty Principle "proves we can never really know what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you, not knowing what's going on." While it sounds good and ominous, the Uncertainty Principle does not quite say that. Sy Ableman appears and says that he does know what's going on. Though in this anxiety dream, Ableman is overstating the case, this unshaken confidence is part of why Nachtner had deemed Sy "a serious man." And they debate. Larry goggles that mathematics is proof, and the principle applies. Sy says that what happens in the afterlife, the cosmic balance of justice, is not the issue, and Larry need concern himself with present life. He says that "mathematics is the art of the possible." Otto von Bismarck said that was politics, of course: "... the attainable, the art of the next-best." Sy is talking about a place where the math cannot go.

A Simple Man opens with an epigram from Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, vital and most influential Tanakh and Talmud commentator: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Rashi was writing on Deuteronomy, instructing that we trust in God's plan and not strain to predict the unseeable future. Larry is not too far off in evaluating this — and The Goy's Teeth, and the Example of the Parking Lot, and Marshak's silence, and Mr. Park's koan — as "it shouldn't bother you, not knowing what's going on." It can only cause us further consternation to be ordered stop there, though, because that is a pitiless interpretation. On the other hand, one is not sure who told Larry Gopnik that Judaism involved easy answers.

So to Job.

The Book of Job shares a structure roughly in common with A Serious Man. As protagonist, a good man by most standards, a man of some prosperity, a man of solid faith, and a man to whom atrocious things happen in unceasing barrage. He kvetches and questions why, but maintains that he did not do anything to merit the treatment. At the end, a whirlwind, out of which appears a voice both frightening and soothing. In Job, God does answer. In A Serious Man, the voice is Grace Slick's.

There is a key difference between the horrors that befall Job and those experienced by Larry Gopnik. Job is bedeviled by Acts of God. Until the grand finale, Larry's problems are the result of the behaviors of other people, or his interaction with other people. The reverse implication of Deuteronomy 18:13 and Rashi's note is that while God should be received wholeheartedly, other people may be suspect. So be a good boy. You will be responsible for this on the midterm.

The climax in which God responds to Job contains one of history's most burning, beautiful and profound answers to the problem of evil and the myriad uncertainties that come part and parcel with being a living human. No hero of these books speaks to God the way Job does without being rebuked. Few of them are given such visions — and be sure, God's defense/questioning of Job is so vivid that Job sees the words from the storm.

God answers the charges against him by pummeling Job with a series of questions. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?..." That is just the beginning, as God provides a stirring account of the marvel of creation. God holds forth on the perfect system of the natural world in such poetic fashion that it sounds like even God is impressed with the intricacy of ecosystem and solar system. God speaks of a vast planet and a vastness in which it whirls, physical and abstract: "Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?" God plumbs the symbol-myths of human imagination: would you tangle with Behemoth, go fishing for Leviathan?

A number of points are being made and woven together in awesome rhetorical display. The universe's design is too complex for the human eye to take in at once, and what looks like hellish disorder is part of an incomprehensible system. For some of this, we may devise maths and sciences for prediction and explanation. There are those places where the math cannot reach, the place where position and momentum may be known at once, where the cat is alive and dead, we call those "God". Most vitally, the human beast lives in an amoral, unsympathetic world that is crammed with wonders, and any system of moral judgment, any divination of meaning belongs to the peculiar needs and inventions of the human mind. God's justice is not man's justice. Nature needs no justice or meaning: it is its own law and purpose.

These are majestic ideas and uncomfortable ones. Job retracts his accusations and embraces the freedom of being a creature of dust and ashes. This is not about milk and honey. Accept mystery? Good luck with that, though you don't have much choice. Here is what Larry has that Arthur does not: "You've got a family. You've got a job." As Marge Gunderson said, "There's more to life than a little bit of money, don't you know that? And here you are. And it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it." God answers Job by explaining exactly why he will get no answers: not only are the questions ill-formed, but the answer is immeasurably vast and all around him. Popular shorthand would have it that God "tests" Job, but the game is always stacked — God's playing with a Mentaculus in his back pocket and knows the outcome. Job suffers torment and vision so that we will have this story, this poem, this song about man's yearning. So you have it, I have it, Larry Gopnik has it. This is a far cry from "it shouldn't bother you, not knowing what's going on."

We need these stories, because it is hard to just remember the math parts of the lesson during the test. "...[T]hey're illustrative. They're like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model." One can even walk away from a story about persistent inscrutability, only to be frustrated by how life makes no sense. The vision God gives Job is powerful enough to affect the man's spiritual refinement, but it too is an imperfect model, the totality being an infinity that cannot be squashed into language. Believing he can master the math and evacuate all secrets, Larry does not hear the voice. As Dick Dutton of Columbia Record Club says, "we can't make you listen to the records, sir."

Danny listens to the records, and stepping out of Marshak's office, onto the path of the serious man, he faces down the Whirlwind. The awesome, fearful black chaos of a tornado — or does it just look like chaos to us? — rips through darkening skies, the Airplane jangles and bellows. In the moment of pain and fear, philosophical and theological argument dissolve into abstracts and human yearning takes over. You want to know why it picked you? If you're being tested? Want to know what it means? Want answers? Or... don't you want somebody to love?

In a universe lacking in inherent, built-in meaning, our task is to forge our own meaning. A Serious Man is the world as a terrible, beautiful parking lot. Just look at that parking lot!