have raised the bar with A Serious Man, a sledgehammer allegory delivered in a blizzard of wordplay and imagery so subtle I still don’t know what hit me. Nevertheless, I feel reasonably comfortable that, in a big way, the film is an assault upon its intended audience.
As a cine-masochist, I am plum delighted.
A survey of the criticism on imdb suggests three main readings.
A Serious Man is all of these, I reckon, and more. At once an apparently impossible riddle or Gordian Knot, an emo one-liner and a sort of magic trick, complete with a dazzling punch provided by the use of in situ music by Jefferson Airplane. So to start us off, we have three solid interps, which taken together ought to provide enough fodder for a good variety of critique and analysis well into the future.
But I deduce another and much tougher meaning. A Serious Man is a message, loud and clear and in no uncertain terms: there is a God and he is fucking pissed-off. See, folks have pretty much given up on him, Hashem, God, though some don’t know it or won’t admit it. The Coens take serious lengths to establish Hashem’s unique problems, going so far as to a hint of his ultimate identity.
Still, because it is impossible to illustrate the mind of God, ASM instead opts to tell the story of a man as far from godliness as can be described—a technique employed in a myriad of enduring media. What’s different here is that the man in question is in no way epic or even perceptibly interesting. No Hitler, Hamlet, or Hannibal, but a milquetoast loser so innately harmless and bland he might as well be invisible. Nevertheless, the awful fate of our hero, Larry Gopnik, is no less distasteful than the expected fate of the proverbially evil man. Larry is the worst kind of evil, he just doesn’t know it—evil not because he hates but because he cannot love and knows not the ways of the Lord. He must pay.
This carefully subtextual theme has the lingering effect of a brimstone sermon. A warning and a hard lesson. Love God. Learn and obey his commandments—or else. To make matters meaner, under the Coens’ wicked legerdemain, the viewer has no immediate redress to the issue of the films intent or even the philosophical attitude of its creators.
Is A Serious Man a spiritual morality tale or a widget in the propaganda of torment?
You must decide.
The movie begins with an untitled short film set in Krakow circa 1900 that has a limited connection to the rest of the movie. For our purposes we will call this film The Visit. I submit that many, in the hypnotic fog of the main body of A Serious Man, will forget even seeing The Visit, at least for a while after viewing, if not altogether.
OK: A man, Velvel, returns to his modest home rather late for dinner. He explains his tardiness to his wife. Lost in a winter squall, he strays from the road. A wheel falls from his cart and he is stranded in the night. Out of nowhere a stranger appears, and to his marvel, the man is known to his wife.
‘This cannot be’, exclaims the wife, ‘the man you name is dead’. She continues, ‘We are cursed’, and ‘you have met a dybbuk’ (dybbuk: an evil spirit who appears in the guise of one departed). It gets worse, because in his gratitude, the husband has invited his roadside helper to dinner.
Three knocks and the learned Rabbi Groshkover (Fyvush Finkel, in a darling turn) comes into the humble cabin. To her husband’s horror and without welcome or the slightest grace, the wife confronts the rabbi with a series of tests to prove him human, which he seems to fail. As he calmly mounts his defense to her charges, the wife stabs the rabbi without warning, using an ice pick. Bewildered, the old man stumbles out into the snowbound night.
At no point in the remaining hundred minutes of gut-clenching doubt that is A Serious Man is the audience invited into the definitive identity of the old rabbi. Finkel is close credited as . . . ‘dybbuk?’ to drive the needle home—is he or isn’t he an evil spirit?
The main action of ASM, a tense fortnight in the life of nebbish physics professor Larry Gopnik, is the delicious attenuation of the selfsame paradox he illustrates in his classroom: the infamous Schrodinger’s Cat of Quantum Theory. Is the cat alive or dead? Does God exist? Does love exist? Is it possible to be sure of anything—anything at all? Larry knows the math of uncertainty to a fine-toothed comb, but has no answers to apply to his pain.
But the painstaking artifice of A Serious Man has an answer. You might not like it.
Neatly dividing the movie in two, the sit-down between Larry and Rabbi Nachtner forces the question of Jewish mysticism and Kaballah to be addressed. Now, ancient mystic imagery is everywhere in the cinema these daze. Pretty much standard. Jesus—even Madonna is into it. This is not necessarily the result of any conspiracy. More likely is that art is developed through a real appreciation of other art. The finest artists seek the purest source of motive for their work. Natch.
For the Coens, one of their main sources is and has been a profound knowledge of Jewish history and mysticism. Their regular use of Kaballistic imagery is dragged into daylight by ASM. At the level implied, this bold outing of Kaballah is a twin razz-berry at any fool that dares approach the mysteries of Cain. A fart in our general direction.
As a point of interest, there is another recent film, Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, which employs the same method to belittle the amateur Shamus, Occulty, and Freemason type. Eddie Marsan plays a driving instructor with a bad case of New World Order paranoia. The caricature is so overt that one could suggest Leigh might be having a laugh. But if you are a member of the group at which he takes aim (and I am), Happy Go Lucky is an arrow straight to the thorax.
ASM is no less fearsome—a thrown gauntlet invitation to a duel at dawn. Throughout the film the viewer is repeatedly challenged to make a technical investigation of Jewish mysticism. In particular, the oral history of dentist Lee Sussman, as told by the patronizing Rabbi Nachtner (played by the hilarious George Wyner) is brimming with misleading info about Kaballah. A most outrageous bluff. The Coens know that a serious investigation into the meaning of this scene will trend in the direction of some pretty technical shit—too oblique for general consumption. They do not want you looking into the secrets they themselves wish to flaunt, and aim to make a fool of you if you dare to try.
The Coens want to blow your mind. These guys understand cinema, and how, and so begin the film with a tried and true blue cine-maxim: every good movie has an exploding head. As the title credits roll, we are inside the brain of Danny Gopnik, a red-headed kid on the verge of bar mitzvah. With the camera, we travel out into space through his ear canal to the transistor groove of Somebody to Love—the Jefferson Airplane stadium stopper. Danny is in Hebrew school, Minnesota, circa late ’60s. He has one ear on the radio. As we will later discover, the kid is totally baked. I mean this boy is kronik, yo!
In a moment his teacher will pass him in the rows and tug the earphone out of the radio on his desk. Grace Slick reverberates into the classroom. As such, the music, the contents of Danny’s brain, has been blown-up into the school room. Blown-up real good. All the kids in school go wild thing.
The scene is phat with internal reference. We are being treated to a lesson in the media theory of McLuhan. A quick primer: to McLuhan, ‘everything’ is media. The Coens jazz it up. The brain as media, the ear, the earphone, the radio, the room, the movie theater, reality—all media. Fantastic.
As the darkly persistent media theorist of English Language cinema, a comparison to Cronenberg is timely. In Scanners, he opens to the spectacle of an exploding head—really visceral. In this first scene of ASM, Danny’s brain going inside-out, the Coens imitate old Crony, and with a hand so deft you won’t know they have just assassinated one of their main characters. But slaughter him they do, in slow-mo. The final moment of the show finds Danny listening to the same song, Somebody to Love, as his unfathomable future takes shape before his eyes.
In one way, the main body of the film is the exacting exploration of Danny’s gray matter—a psychic surgery and taxonomy. We begin inside Danny’s head and widen out into his imagined world. The world of his perception. Consider the image, from Danny’s TV sci-fi show, of the brain in the jar.
The complete implication of the motif of exploding head cannot be contained in this essay. Inquiries are invited.
The persona of Danny Gopnik is grafted directly from the cinema-corpse of yore called ‘Junior’, protagonist of the charming Problem Child ouvre. Problem Child is a series of goofball B-grade comedies circa very late ’80s. It tells the story of the adopted ‘Junior’, an ADHD Dennis the Menace—who may also be the rightful spawn of Satan. Crooked as he is, the series treats Junior gingerly.
The opposition of these two standards—A Serious Man and Problem Child—could be made an analog to the poles of Ancient Tradition and New Age, respectively. As a herald of the would-be New Age, the Problem Child series makes it clear: the new child, the indigo child, the child of light, is a difficult child, and he is ours not to rear, not to shape, or even educate, but to love.
Contrariwise, the Coens do not love these rotten little snots. Unlike Junior, Danny is a bad seed and must be winnowed out. Danny Gopnik is the last of the Minnesota Gopniks. By way of their movie, the Coens will flush him out, burn him up, and give him to the wind. Him and his whole bloodline.
Bogus, dudes, bogus.
. . . don’t exist. When the new deal comes rolling in, everybody absquatulates. Eminent domain, my peeps.
We meet Prof. Larry Gopnik as he squats, ass toward his physics class, writing an equation at the bottom corner of a blackboard completely covered in scrawl. He doesn’t know it yet but ‘it’s all shit’. His precise hold on reality is about to fall apart, when in spite of his cultivated respect for ‘the facts of life’, the walls come tumbling down.
As ASM unravels, Larry’s life is tested in light of several questions posed with care and yet unanswered.
We look at these in particular.
And other mysteries.
During Larry’s dream, it is Sy who bespeaks himself ‘a serious man’. Larry fails to manage the same as he begs an audience with super-luminal Rabbi Marshak. ‘I’ve tried to be a serious man . . .’ whimpers Larry. Access denied.
The setting of Sy’s serious claim, in Larry’s dreambound physics class, equates to the uncertainty principle that Larry demonstrates on the blackboard. It’s a 50–50 deal. The pesky question about the ghost of Hamlet’s father poses the reflexive image. Is the ghost a legitimate specter of Hammy’s pappy, or is he a demonic prankster come to raise a little hell? ASM mirrors: is the dream of Sy a voice from beyond the grave or is it the authentic voice of God?
Hamlet has no clue. Neither does Larry.
Pudgy loverboy Sy Ableman and Larry’s wife Judith have been screwing for nigh on fifteen years. And Larry has not the slightest hint of it.
Worse, poor Larry is a dead lay and probably impotent. It is quite possible both his children are sired by Ableman, though he doesn’t know it. Larry’s ignorance on this matter is conflated with his inability to communicate with women. This theme is also relevant to the incorporation of Jewish mysticism. To the Jewish soul, the supreme source of divine knowledge upon the earth is found through the prize of a woman’s love. This is called Shekina. The attrition upon Larry can be conflated directly with his inability to satisfy at least one woman, which is the utmost requisite of tecun olam.
To repair the universe, one must love a woman and reproduce. More to come.
Arthur, Larry’s brother, is the author of the hate mail. Not Clive Park, who is literally a red herring. Not Sy, who would have the common sense to protect potential income. Not these, but Arthur.
Arthur, you see, hates his brother. He hates Larry because he understands through his rigorous study of the sacred that those who fail to reproduce are condemned by Hashem.
Given his likely proclivities, along with his repugnant body and appearance, Arthur knows he will not sire offspring. This theme is reinforced poolside at the Jolly Roger Motel, where Arthur and Larry are holed up. The pool is empty; there is no springboard. To those familiar with Kaballah, as Arthur most surely is, the empty pool couldn’t be more terrible to behold. The symbolic meaning of water is at the center of Kaballah and the Hebrew Language. Pools hold water and water is the wellspring of memory. Although he may seem childish in his rage, Arthur is facing not only genetic extinction, but the dissolution of his integrated memory—outright annihilation—and for my dollar, he handles it pretty well.
He will apologize to Larry, in subtext, for his letter campaign to hurt his brother. Pay close attention lakeside, when Larry gives his brother an envelope of cash. They are standing in the water.
The neighbors, Mr. Brandt and son Mitch are cool nizzy, after a fashion. Very traditional. Strong father-son bond. The wife does not socialize outside of the family, but she’s in there, making bread and new babies. Brandt is a good-guy in disguise. Willing to come to the aid of the community but respectful of personal privacy. Much more Jewish than Gopnik. If Gopnik was a legitimate Jew, his family would be more like that of the Brandts. Such brilliancy from the bros Coen: the audience is carefully entrained to see the neighbor and his son through Gopnik’s lenses, and its a trap. If you feel the slightest contempt at all for these seemingly cryptic next door neighbors, you, like Larry, are marked a bigot.
Larry’s lawyer Sol drops dead as he is about to begin his legal argument re: the property line with the Brandts. The subtle message is that, because of the detail and skill necessary to establish Larry’s claim, the claim is therefore limited if not completely unjust—another fairly cunning statement that underneath the surface perception, Larry is not a nice man. Not a sower of seeds, but a builder of walls.
The use of the Biblical Job as a basis for the character of Larry is openly acknowledged by the filmmakers. No less powerful is the theme of King David and Bathsheba. Through connections provided, we can isolate the inevitable relationship between Larry and the sexy Mrs. Samsky.
Larry, a diddler on the roof and David in disguise, spies the naked Samsky as she sunbathes. Camera on the nude, composer Carter Burwell switches from heavy strings to a solo guitar and flute. King David was a musician of some talent, and his instrument the lyre. Later, Mrs. Samsky will tell Larry that her husband ‘travels’. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is away at war. This set of data is a tantalizing clue.
First, it recalls the discreet quality of Larry’s visit to Mrs. Samsky. David commits adultery with Bathsheba—and event that angers God, and blasphemes his name. Although it is delicate matter and by no means literal, there is a message that Larry has indeed made good with Mrs. Samsky and perhaps conceived a child, and that this act is responsible for Larry's continuing tsuris.
Also of interest. In Hebrew David is written DVD. On the roof, Larry tunes the aerial; as analog David tunes his lyre. A stack of signals. Radio waves, TV transmissions, and the like, are paired with the humming of David strings and the vibrato of the fluted wind. And we are again reminded of media theory. The Coens are making a giant leap here. A leap that responds to the notion of concentric perpetuation, which describes reality not as a linear event, but as a series of thin layers, like an onion.
At the center of all is God. The Word of God expands into the word of Torah and into material perception. Word made flesh. David is a DVD and DVD is a media device. Word made flesh becometh media. The shield of David, sometimes called ‘The Star of David’ is modeled on the sun. As Larry staggers under the afternoon heat, the camera tilts skyward into the sun. The flash produced simulates the flash that all of us see fourteen times a day, handling a CD or a DVD.
We are become media. Long live the new flesh. Long live the King.
Arthur’s boggling numerologic masterpiece is his active response to repressed sexuality and the threat of extinction. He is a great lumbering oaf with a leaky cyst on his neck. A hunchback, a leper. Degenerate gambler. Pederast or pedophile. Not marriage material. Not Kosher.
Arthur knows he is an abomination, and hates himself accordingly, but why must it be so? God must know. As such Arthur will take his one chance at existential survival, and it’s a doozy. Confront God, Hashem, face to face, for an explanation. The Mentaculus is Arthur’s attempt to understand himself in the language of God. To find himself in the barren and deterministic landscape of Hell. Somewhere, anywhere, peeking out like Where’s Waldo. Happy in the summer sun and innocent at last.
Paul Thomas Anderson delivers a similar characterization in Magnolia. Like Arthur, Magnolia‘s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith is a genius with a Proustian predeliction, a posteriori . He cries, ‘I have so much love to give, I just don’t know where to put it’. And so it is for Arthur Gopnik. So much love to give. So much sin to bear.
Jesus H. Christ.
Proceeding over the late Sy Ableman, who is killed in a car crash, Rabbi Nachtner puts the ‘fun’ back in ‘funeral’. The image of the Rabbi, one finger pointing upward, a flame burning above the crown of his head, mirrors the posture of Baphomet. There is a specific occult meaning to the reference to Canada that is neatly linked to a later reference to North Dakota. These clues have great import, but require lengthy proofs.
To start, I suggest you watch the Christopher Reeve version of Superman and get back to me.
Son Danny is balls-out wrecked for the entire movie. He likes the reefer and with a cash front from Uncle Arthur’s poker winnings, he has scored a goodly stash. The famous 420 code, so loved by potheads, is a smoking gun. By now it is ‘in the know’ that 420 is the Kaballistic enumeration of the Hebrew word for smoke. Furthermore, as per the Gospel of Matthew, Christ is the 42nd generation from the bosom of Abraham. The Coens seal the deal at Danny’s bar mitzvah when, blasted out of his gourd, Danny is the only one to a hear a rabbi mutter ‘Jesus Christ’ as he strains to lift the Torah overhead.
Jesus is of course J-Zeus. Jupiter. Jew Peter. 42. 420. The puns multiply like a yeast. Oddly, the use of this motif gives ASM a sharply Christian afterburn. Let’s look closer.
During The Visit, Groshkover remarks somewhat bitterly upon the dubious nature of his reward for a good deed (an ice pick in the chest). It is a fate ironically similar to that of Christ. Next, Rabbi Groshkover is deliberately framed in an open doorway—à la the famous closing shot of The Searchers. Christ tells us ‘I am the doorway’, so it is possible to read that the superstitious wife has murdered her savior.
Back at his bar mitzvah, Danny is higher than a kite. During his reading of the Torah, Danny is handed a long silver pick to follow the text. The sound effect is boosted so that as he handles this instrument, it sings like a samurai sword. Now, exactly because Danny conflates the rabbi’s profanity (Jesus Christ) with the weight of the Torah, the riddle of Groshkover’s chilly fate is solved. As Danny stabs at the Torah, so Velvel’s evil wife has just murdered God.
Marijuana/Smoke/420/42nd generation after Abraham/Jesus/J-Zeus/Jupiter. See the symbol for the planet Jupiter. It’s all in the record.
Without missing a tick, the Coens telegraph Larry’s ultimate fate immediately upon his introduction at the start of the movie.
In his office as he explains Clive’s failing grade, Larry says to Clive, ‘I guess we’re gonna have to bite the bullet on this one’. But as we will soon learn, it is Larry alone who must bite the bullet. Over and over.
The encoded Easter egg is thuswise: unable to face the unfathomable ambi-valence of his world and deteriorating health, Larry will take his own life. A Charter Arms Bulldog, I suspect. In the mouth. Ever worse, Larry will embrace the void without a single memory that is ‘true’. His wife a jezebel, he don’t know. His children illegitimate, he don’t know. His reality real, he don’t know.
Now verily, this fate of Larry’s suicide is not made explicit in the Coens’ latest chicanery, but if one will stay close to follow, you’ll get it sure enough. The image of poor Arthur as his head explodes is a key pointer.
By now, this movie makes David Lynch look like Dora the Explorer. Could it be that ASM is a kind of psycho-eugenic sorcery, or even some necromantic soul-thresher, drawing out the tares, the chaff, into the radiant fires of Hell? We’ll see, I guess. But for Larry, the Coens spell it out all right.
. . . it’s all shit . . . good-bye,
For the fanboyz: I think Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik is modeled after Harold Lloyd. Discuss.
Right now, I propose a small investigation into Hebrew numerology and Kaballistic symbolism. Twenty (20) is paired with the Hebrew letter Kaph, which in turn means palm of the hand. Danny palms the radio. He palms the twenty. Palmed it off his sister did he, who palmed it off her papa.
The depth of this motif is improbable.
We see the twenty dollar bill at the beginning and again at the and of the movie. The puns are plenty. 20–20. The eye as media. Hand-eye co-ordination. It goes on and on—round and round.
Facing a tornado, Danny Gopnik has the whole world in his hands. Folded and tucked into the leatherette carrier on his slick transistor radio. The whole world, and in a moment he will bet it all on a chance to default. In a moment he will ponder—and that’s all one has to do, ponder. Danny will ponder the slim possibility that he may avoid paying for the weed from Fagel after all.
We muse once more on reefer lore. The 420 Code.
Danny’s Uncle Arthur is the source of Danny’s cash supply. Arthur has a spacious cyst on the back of his neck. The Hebrew letter Qoph means back of the neck and has a value of 100. A neat wink to the probable dollar amount of Arthur’s cash gift to his nephew. Qoph is a perfect homonym for the English word cough—as I once heard a stoner aver, ‘you don’t cough, you don’t get off’. But this motif has much more than just a measly pun to offer—like some pretty serious mysteries of the Crucifixion and how that bloody spectacle resonates not only the toughest question of sociology, but of quantum reality itself.
420 transliterates . . . 42 and the Planet Jupiter.
Jupiter operates as an eye; the tip of a penis; a milkfull breast. As such it feeds the mind with image; the womb of space with seed; the stomach with food. The crowning implication is that God provides All. Everything we see or seem, all that we eat, and everyone we meet. And the Coen boys aren’t shy about it, neither, and gross it out to the max. We will hear the suction of Arthur’s compact cyst drainage pump. Later, in a modulated soundalike to the pump, Judith and the kids slurp their soup. Suck and Slurp. Slurping up their dinner, puss from Arthur’s neck—manna-live. His cyst is the spot on the face of Jupiter. Arthur is Jupiter. Arthur is God. No wonder he can’t find himself. He is being transubstantiated. Yummy!
Briefly, there are many examples of this same pun in popular media. One still fresh is the abysmal rock anthem ‘Drops of Jupiter’, from Train. ‘. . . now she’s out in the atmosphere with drops of Jupiter in her hair . . .’ Drops of semen from a blow-job big-bang. Unforgivably corny. Better but less widely known is Hillary Duff’s ‘Coming Clean’, which lyric boldly delves into secret mystery, willy-nilly, one might say. Give it a listen.
To continue, 420 minus 20 leaves 400.
The Hebrew letter Tau, which means cross, cross as in crucifix, has a value of 400. It is here that theme of the $20 bill is most crafty and elusive. As discussed, the Coens unite the sacrifice of Christ with that of Rabbi Groskover in The Visit. I think that Arthur is likewise conflated. Arthur fronted Danny so he could score some weed from Fagel. Soon, it’ll all come out and Arthur will bear the blame. Pervert and corrupter of innocence. They’ll crucify him. And that twenty bucks in Danny’s hot little hand—it’s the nail to hang him by, poor Arthur.
Danny’s gonna keep it—the fucker.
ASM is a grim fandango and a serious mindfuck—and yet the Coens vex the effort to apply any legitimate indictment to their intent. The Copenhagen Interpretation of Schrodinger’s Cat is that the cat is ALIVE or DEAD. 50–50. But there can be little doubt. These boys play with a vengeance. ASM opens to theaters in Denmark.
I mean, c’mon!
There is some discussion over the legitimate meaning of the term. Wiki gives one possible meaning. A ‘Jefferson Airplane’ is a split paper match that can be used to hold a joint that has become too small for the fingers. Given the importance, in ASM, of marijuana use, the use of such a symbol might appeal to the filmmakers and give depth to their motif and motive. However, if you will indulge a personal anecdote, I have a terrible tale to tell.
As I was going to St. Ives, I meet a man who claims to know the real—the really real—meaning of Jefferson Airplane. He tells me that it originates from a phenomenon discovered quite by accident in the massive project to build the first atomic bomb. He goes on to beguile me, stating that someday, looking back, I will remember what he tells me and understand its awesome truth.
A Jefferson Airplane, says he, is a piece of paper, folded in a special way. When this paper is set to flame, it begins to rise on air in a graceful flat spin. At the moment it burns out, the ash falls to the ground while a curlicue of pure white smoke rises into the ether and disappears.
Interesting and poetic, I decide, and no more. But I am young and green. Time will tell.
Now adaze, getting old and it is clear. There’s a fellow. A certain Stan Tenen. His work is mainly that of complex maths, but can be easily summed up. The sequence of Torah is a lead pipe cinch for the shape—the topography—of a smoke ring as it rises into unbound space. Similar maps can be modeled on the Koran. Tenen goes to elegant length and I get it all right. The math is the proof. Everybody is breathing dust. Everything is dust—smoke. Smoke and getting higher. Riding the whirlwind. And this is the meaning of the final image of our movie—Danny gazes not only on a gathering storm, but a pillar of smoke come to reap what it has sown.
Dig it, baby. Dig it the most.
There is plenty that Coens fail to deliver in their opus at large. Like a single believable character, for instance. Really, the bros rarely deliver even a single believable scene. Incapable, it seems, to step outside the armor of allegory. In this regard A Serious Man is a solo departure. Allegorical to be sure, but very and dangerously believable. The events of ASM could happen, will happen, are happening, and they are fearsome. I think it quite apropos to suggest that A Serious Man may be the greatest horror movie of all time. Mortally haunting—a kind of torture.
And yet, literally entranced by the improbable, almost unthinkable prodigy of the film, I am somehow, and in a way I can’t explain, thankful to those glorious bastards, Joel and Ethan Coen, for the lessons that they try and learn me.
I worry, Misters Coen, that your efforts are in vain, but thank you just the same. I am, you see, a hopeless case. A pile of ash. Hell bound for the Hell of it. I suppose it’s written down somewhere, for the record. Expect it makes for some good reading.