There is a God and he is pissed.
Bravo. Well done.
Deciding whether or not God exists, or is angry with Larry has no place in analyzing this film. I would argue that the Goy’s Teeth story is the key to understanding the film.
Sussman discovers something which appears to be transcendental; it is completely beyond his scope of understanding and leads him on a quest. Who wrote this on the goy’s teeth? Why? How should he deal with this information? The Coens show Sussman’s quest to discover meaning from the message. He goes to the Red Owl grocery store, he looks through other teeth, etc. but finds no meaning, only random, stray connections. He is driven mad by the meaninglessness he finds. The solution to his problem? He forgets about it, and lives his life. He gives up on his quest, and is able to sleep again.
The Goy’s Teeth story is an parable about our search for meaning in life, which is what the film is all about. We find something unexplainable which feels transcendental, and we engage in a search, trying to verify our desperate suspicion of something beyond ourselves. Religion can offer some tangential solutions: the rabbi tells him the message he should take is “help others”. But this is not satisfactory: our desire to know has not been filled. The message on the goy’s teeth is decidedly ambivalent, random, but fills us with existential dread for some reason. We feel as if we are being told something, but we can’t know. So we should live our lives as we did before the search, because nothing matters and everything matters at the same time - Schrödinger’s cat, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
The end of the film as God’s wrath? I would argue that it is, along with the whole film, another parable like the goy’s teeth. A trick perpetrated upon the audience by the Coens. They want us to try to see meaning in the ending in the form of God’s judgment upon Larry as Sussman sees in the goy’s teeth. But we can never know. We may embark on a search for meaning in the film like Sussman, but the film itself is an ambivalent message from the Coen brothers. The film is the message written on the goy’s teeth.
I would love to hear some responses, this is one of my favorite films.
It’s interesting that the story of the teeth stands out for you as the focal point in the film. To me (and, I believe the Coens) the goy’s teeth story is just one example of the unexplainable nature of life - no more or less important than the other dozen or so stories of injustice, confusion, and nonsense introduced during the story. It is no more illustrative than the “parking lot” metaphor told by the junior rabbi, or the “reading of the lyrics” by the elder rabbi, or the “guilt-free screwing of the neighbors” by the naked neighbor, or the “idiotic book” compiled by the useless brother, etc.
I also find it unlikely that the Coens would have the cajones (unlike everybody’s favorite - “God”) to punish Larry by wiping out the entire youth bible- study group and half of St Louis Park. I’ve always found the self-centered bullshit of religious beliefs - the belief that one individual person’s sins could or should result in some sort of biblical catastrophe killing entire cities - interesting. It’s like a child’s perspective of the universe circling around them.
I am ashamed to admit that I have become so accustomed to being spoon-fed with movies that I really did not give this one enough thought. Perhaps it’s my punishment for enjoying Confessions of a Shopaholic…
As a Jew I found myself laughing hysterically with understanding through much of this movie.
ASM shows Judaism to be so inordinately complex as to escape the understanding of even the wisest Jews. They have to “fake it till they make it”. I submit that it’s the “wise” that have complicated a very simple religion. I suppose the blessing and the curse of Judaism is the acceptance of the word “why”.
In my opinion, Judaism is simple and does not push the limits of faith. How hard is it to believe that “the Lord is God, the Lord is one”? Hear O’ Israel!!! Got it? Good.
Remember the virtues, mind the sins, (Christian or not, they work for me), and never boil a calf in its mother’s milk. OK, that last one no one really understands. But thanks to the “wise” we have separate dishes, flatware, and pots. See what I mean?
I laughed so much at the “wise” because while I am not wise, I have always distilled unanswerable questions into a simple one: “Who am I to know?” That question is a simple statement of faith. Is there a heaven or hell? See above. It liberates one for more productive pursuits.
Had Larry been a “simple kind of man” (there’s my pop-culture reference for the day), he would not have found himself with all of these troubles. He is a sinner. He neglected his wife, his children, his job, and his moral duties. He had it all coming. How can ASM be the story of Job? It cannot be. Job was not a sinner, but the subject of a cosmic bet. So much for God as a cuddly celestial butler.
Sy was the “Serious Man” aka a “wise” man. But he got his punishment, didn’t he? Larry may have ignored the simple path Gad put right in front of him, but Sy was completely aware of the path and made a mockery of God. Larry was given one last chance to get back on the path. The notion that an unpublished academic could receive tenure is so ridiculous that it had to be God blatantly twisting Larry’s head to point in the right direction. But Larry confused his final deadly sin of greed with compassion. Sy was not given any second chances, for he was smote. God had compassion for Larry, and contempt for Sy. But in the end, they both got what they deserved.
As far as the wiping out of the bloodline, I’m not surprised. It’s the Old Testament God that wiped entire cities, and civilizations off the face of the Earth. Better watch your back…
A superb analysis, like fah rizzle. I think you’ve got it dead on.
However, there is still the problem, of this particular sequence, that false info about Kabbalah is given. The Coen’s had to know that they were doing this. There may be a coded meaning.
And I thought my essay on <a href=“http://www.cinemafunk.com/film-criticism/serious-man-revisited.html”>A Serious Man</a> was intense! I was wrong. But then again, we came to different conclusions.
Very nice. This comment on its own is a very worthwhile essay.
When I was in college, I discovered the writings of Robert Anton Wilson. His work on James Joyce in “Coincidance” was and is, well, just read it if you haven’t. Read it again if you have. The work of the Wiz is on par with Wilson, and to make the connection, Wilson (also McCluhan, Joe Campbell) was an accomplished Joyce scholar, and the Wiz is an accomplished Coen scholar. And Kubrick scholar. The guy is functioning at a high level, one that most certainly will kill him. At least Lenny Bruce had Ralph Gleason. Hopefully the Wiz will find his praise soon enough.
I am flattered by your comment, and less afraid of my “certain” demise. To compared, even slightly, to RAW is better than a Nobel prize.
Yeah, that’s right, I’m in a class by myself… a class called “detention”.
Rereading this for the fourth time and still extracting. Just now connecting the tornado/Dorothy/Inception thread and finding a little bit of hope. Again, an incredible piece of work.
wow c, I couldn’t disagree more.
I felt that the first Rabbi provided some excellent advice. he was lost in his own vision of God and reality, and perhaps didn’t portray the meaning well enough to Larry.
still, notice that Larry doesn’t listen for a single moment. I get out of that scene that Larry is too caught up in his emotions and ideas of reality to take a real look outside of the box. at the ‘parking lot’ for instance.
he is so out of it that he is dead set on not listening to a single word the Rabbi says.
I respectfully doubt that Arthur Gopnik was the writer of the negative letters. At the water he seemed to apolgize for what he said “last night” at the pool, not for any letters. The tenure committee member stated that the author of the letters was “even eloquent”..Arthur’s speech and command of the english language is far from eloquent. On the other hand, Sy tries to sound “eloquent” , although he comes off as foolish and self absorbed, and would more likely be the author. You dismiss this possibility by saying he has enough sense to protect a source of income..however, people in the throes of emotional stressors, ie, Sy is having an immoral affair, would not act logically. At the Bar Mitzvah, Judith says to Larry that Sy wrote supportive letters to the tenure committee..but how would she really know ? If you say that Arthur also wrote letters, then we have 2 people writing letters to the committee..in this case, I call upon Occam’s Razor to simplfy.. one letter writer is enough for the plot to go forth. Also… minor point, sebaceous cyst, not “spacious” cyst…but overall, thank you, for the thought provoking article !
I feel like you are onto something in a lot of parts of this, but your writing style is absolutely awful.
I greatly enjoyed your insight on ASM. It seems with time I only acquire more questions about this film, nearly all of which remain a mystery. Since we dont have an eternity do discuss them (or do we?) I will limit them to the most baffling. What clues were given to lead you to believing there was a sexual relationship between Larry and Mrs. Samsky? (I get lost on the David and Bathsheba stuff). I apologize if I seem dense, but it seems like a reach and realize you hinted as much. Also, I am very confused by the Arthur/God comparison and any expanding on that would be appreaciated. Thanks.
Blazzing “Goy’s Tooth sequence with Hendrix’ Machine Gun - is worth tracking the lyrics. Sy Abelmann is likelier the dybbuk than Traitle Groshkover in the Yiddish prequel ( and likely the literate author of the poison pen letters) but the prequel’s Torah expert lines up with the Schrödinger’s Cat uncertainty.
ASM is dazzling filmaking where the protagonist, however, does not directly question the existence of God but asks the wider existential questions of Sheriff Ed Thomas Bell (No Country) and soundalike Knight Antonius Block 50 years earlier. Listen under the No Country final credits to confirm that No Country is not homage to “Flight to Tangier” but to a famous wood carving play ... brought to the screen. Larry Gopnick demands the same answers as Antonius Block ... Dec 11 2011
Larry is evil? He commits suicide? Arthur sent hate mail? Arthur’s head exploded? Easter eggs? Charter Arms Bulldog? Er…did we see the same movie???
The Dudespaper article below on ‘A serious man’ goes into the Coens brothers method, heavily based on Kabbalah and Tarot imagery, but it is very different from the interpretation given by Artislav Mel.
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Just watched this last night. Nice piece. Makes me want to watch it again.
Why do you think Sy Ableman is the father of Larry’s kids?? I didn’t see anything to suggest that.
Why do you think Sy Ableman is the father of Larry’s kids and that Larry is impotent?? I didn’t see anything to suggest that.
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