"What can such a sign mean?": the schlemiel and inscrutable judgment in A Serious Man

"Our laws are not generally known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us. We are convinced that these ancient laws are scrupulously administered; nevertheless it is an extremely painful thing to be ruled by laws that one does not know." --Franz Kafka

"The uncertainty principle. It proves we can never really know what's going on."--Larry Gopnik

"So, an epistemological comedy as well as an existential one, "A Serious Man" is a relentless inquiry into how we think we know what we think we know, and then asks where the knowing (or not knowing) gets us." --Jim Emerson's "A Serious Man: Kafka in Minneapolis"

[Note: major spoilers]

With A Serious Man, the Coen brothers partake in the Jewish exegetical tradition of interpreting the burdens of life in terms of God's mysterious providence. As physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuklbarg) suffers his wife leaving him, the need to move to a local hotel, the possibility of not getting tenure, health problems and so on, he goes on a quest for answers by visiting rabbis to ask questions like "What does it all mean?" The short answer is that he's a creation of exceptionally cruel gods, the Coen brothers, and one need only turn to the hellish world of Burn Before Reading to see how remorseless their view of middle-aged characters can be. Yet whereas Burn has characters twitching like electrified frogs' legs in their anxieties over growing old, A Serious Man is the first Coen film that I can think of that is built around a quest for meaning. Some notes:

1) At first I wondered: why does Larry have to be such a schlemiel? Richard Corliss points out that "Larry is a familiar figure from Jewish literature that dates back to the Old Testament and up to Bruce Jay Friedman's 1962 novel Stern, about a Jew who moves to the suburbs and endures a plague of abuse from neighbors and nature," but I get tired of seeing so many men in movies play such poltroons, such hapless toys of fate. Even when Larry finds out that his wife Judith's new paramour Sy Ableman died in a car crash, something that one might consider good news, his wife (Sari Lenneck) forces pitiful Larry to pay for Sy's funeral. As the scenes involving grown men crying accumulate, I got annoyed with all of the masculine debasement on display. It reminded me of a similarly mysterious movie centered around a putz: Synechdoche, New York. In The Big Lebowski, by contrast, the Dude is a schlemiel too, but the Coen brothers grant his cluelessness a kind of Taoist cool. Jeff Bridge's Dude is something like Charlie Brown or Pooh, the everyman that everyone can relate to. Instead of dwelling on his failures, the Dude shrugs off his unemployed stoner status by listening to soothing whale cries as he soaks in his bathtub. Larry, however, is mostly the butt of various cosmic shaggy dog jokes at his expense. Whereas Larry suffers pointlessly, the Dude abides.

2) At any rate, I liked the way Larry strives for a transcendental view of his plight. Quite literally, he attempts to rise above his 1967 suburban perspective by standing on his roof and surveying the land around him (although even here he gets sunburnt). The rabbis he visits form a kind of hierarchy that moves from the youthful rabbi, Scott (Simon Helberg) to the more substantial rabbi, Nachtner (George Wyner) to the most unavailable rabbi, Marshak (Alan Mandell). Rabbi Scott exhorts Larry to try to see Hashem or God in the parking lot outside of his office window. The second rabbi tells a fun story of a Jewish dentist who stumbles upon a mysterious message "Help me save me" in Hebrew written on a goy's teeth. In the story, the dentist gets all caught up in deciphering the mystery. Is God speaking directly to him? What does "Help me save me" mean? When the dentist asks the rabbi what to do, should he view the teeth as a sign to help others, the rabbi answers nonchalantly, "Helping others? Couldn't hurt." When, after hearing the story, Larry gets exasperated with the rabbi's disinterest in the teeth's meaning, he asks what happened to the goy? He answers, "The goy? Who cares?"

3) The problem with getting caught up in the significance of a man's set of teeth as if they were tablets brought down from the mountain with the 10 commandments engraved on them is that that line of thinking can quickly drive you crazy. Yet critics indulge in this line of inquiry all of the time. The scene reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov's short story "Signs and Symbols" where a young man suffers from "Referential Mania." He imagines that "everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. . . . Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees." Nabokov wrote the story so that this manner of "signs and symbols" thinking starts to rub off on the reader by the end. At the conclusion of the story, a phone rings, and we are led to believe that the young man has committed suicide even though the story cuts off before anyone answers the phone. Similarly, A Serious Man ends with an ominous phone call where, just after Larry has learned that he has likely earned tenure, Larry's doctor informs him that he needs to see him about some x-rays. Again, as in the case of "Signs and Symbols," the Coen brothers tease the viewer with multiple interpretations. Larry had just decided to accept a bribe and change a grade. Will Larry die from a freak illness because he allowed himself to be bribed? Soon after, Larry's son Danny encounters a tornado outside of school. Does the tornado have something to do with Larry's bribe?

4) I happened upon this point in the IMDB trivia page for A Serious Man:

"In his argument with the Columbia House records employee over the phone, Larry Gopnik repeatedly rejects the album Abraxas by Santana, in a variety of ways. He did not order Abraxas, he doesn't want Abraxas, he won't listen to Abraxas. Abraxas is a Gnostic term for God, particularly a God who is encompasses all things from Creator of the Universe to the Devil, and an etymological root for "abracadabra". It is thus implied that Larry Gopnik is vehemently rejecting God and magic."

5) Then there's Larry's brother Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), another hapless fellow who continually drains a sebaceous cyst on his neck and gets busted for gambling. He has been writing/drawing a book called Mentaculus that Larry finds to be an inscrutable mishmash of lines and figures that somewhat resembles Larry's own exaggeratedly large chalkboard filled with physics equations. These inscrutable texts, images of the inscrutable forces that torment Larry, reminded me of a scene in Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony." "The Penal Colony" features a ghastly torture machine that reflects the way one can suffer judgment for one's crimes on one's body. The machine "writes" its judgment on the condemned until he "deciphers it with his wounds" (As Larry says, "Why does He make us feel the questions if He's never going to give us any answers?") When an explorer investigating the machine asks to see the plans behind this evil contraption, "all he could see was a labyrinth of lines crossing and recrossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly that it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them," again much like the inscrutable texts in A Serious Man.

6) When, in his quest for meaning, Larry moves on to the third oldest and most prestigious rabbi named Marshak, he's not even allowed to talk to the man, even though we get a tantalizing glimpse of the old sage sitting in the distance of his huge office. The secretary sits like a gatekeeper of Kafka's "Before the Law" parable in The Trial, not allowing Larry entrance. When Larry asks why, we get this dialogue:
"He is busy."
"He didn't look busy!"
"He's thinking."
Larry is never allowed in, although his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) does get to talk to Marshak by the end of the film. In his last novel The Castle, Kafka explores the nature of power in the way Castle officials exclude access to them, a tactic which of course tantalizes the reader and the protagonist K with the continual hopeless hope of gaining access to them (K never does get any). At one point, however, K does get a glimpse of the Castle official Klamm sitting serenely at a desk and doing nothing, much like Marshak. Power asserts itself through absolute exclusion. When Danny does get access to Marshak after his stoned Bar Mitzvah, he notices some teeth mounted on something in the office (suggesting that Marshak knows the answer to the riddle of the goy's teeth). Marshak's wise words turn out to be "`When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies,' what then?" Then he says, "Be a good boy." What are we to make of this? Yes, Larry has found that much of the truth (his marriage, his happy family, job security, etc.) of his life has become lies, and one can see that he could suffer from anhedonia, the "inability to experience pleasure." But, once again, in shaggy dog fashion, we get bromides, Jefferson Airplane lyrics, and jokes when led to expect words of wisdom.

7) Still, I find it compelling that A Serious Man ends with both the whiplash judgment wherein Larry may die for accepting a bribe, and his son, Danny, may get blown away by a tornado. Is the tornado an ironic variation on the rainbow, a sign of God's wrath instead of God's covenant? For all of the cosmic joking of the movie, the Coen brothers show how, even given the unknowability of fate, judgment can still be swift and deadly. Sy Ableman's absurd car crash testifies to that.


claude said…
While I confess that Kafka never crossed my mind while watching the movie, I find your insight very meaningful ;P
Jason Bellamy said…
Some terrific thoughts and trivia (Abraxas) here. One of the things I like most about this post is that I can't tell whether you liked this movie, and/or how much. When it comes to A Serious Man, I think that's a compliment. (I'm a wary of those who seem to see genius in everything when it comes to this film, or the Coens in general.)

Anyway ...

Though I enjoyed your comparisons to the Dude, I actually identify much more with Larry than with his Dudeness.

I have conflicted feelings about the film, but I enjoy what is says (and doesn't say) about the quest for meaning. As you point out, there's danger in reading deep meaning into everything, and yet the story of the goy's teeth is one of those in which one thinks, "Wait, how can you possibly not see meaning in this?" whereas the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane (or the parking lot, etc) are treated as if they're profound.

All in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.
Thanks, claude.


I had mixed feelings about A Serious Man mostly because of Larry's weaknesses (I couldn't believe that he gave into his wife to pay for Sy's funeral), and all of the scenes of men comforting men reminded me of the scene where the Dude hugged Walter during their memorial service for Donny toward the end of The Big Lebowski. What was one effective scene in the former film became a bad habit in A Serious Man, with the sad scene in the empty pool being the most maudlin/satirical.

But, I did like all of the Kafkaesque stuff. Kafka would have never allowed the viewer into Marshak's office. A Serious Man still hides behind a glaze of Coen-ish irony, but the brothers inch ever closer to serious drama about adult themes. I definitely preferred A Serious Man to the more histrionic Shutter Island
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr - What a masterful job. You certainly put a lot of time and effort and links and allusions into trying to come to grips with a somewhat inscrutable, frustrating movie.

I enjoyed aspects of this movie, but I wasn't that impressed by it. As for the tornado, does it have to be interpreted to mean that the son will be swept away? Yes, the tornado is coming to destroy, but there's a kind of awesome beauty to it that arrests the boy. I just took it to mean that bad stuff happens, but that's part of nature, part of life. I don't know. You can articulate thoughts about this movie better than I can.

But here's a question for you.

If this is true about thematic trends in the Coens' movies -

The short answer is that he's a creation of exceptionally cruel gods, the Coen brothers, and one need only turn to the hellish world of Burn Before Reading to see how remorseless their view of middle-aged characters can be. (And that might include No Country for Old Men as well.)

- then what will their remake of True Grit be like? I'll be eager to find out.
Thanks, Hokahey. I know little about True Grit. Isn't that a rather cheesy movie saying goodbye to John Wayne? I imagine that the Coen brothers' version will be far more ironic than the original.
Richard Bellamy said…
Actually, True Grit isn't so cheesy. I think a post is in order. It is actually violent and somewhat sad. Yes, I'm sure the Coens will be much more ironic and sardonic - but True Grit is a good movie.
Thanks for correcting me on that point, Hokahey. I saw True Grit as a kid and I don't remember it all that well. I look forward to your post on the movie.
Jason Bellamy said…
True Grit isn't "so cheesy." That's very true.

But certain bites do taste wholly of cheddar.

Good idea for a post, Hokahey.
Richard Bellamy said…
Yes, parts are cheddar: Glen Campbell's performance, for example. But... post will come - to get us all ready for the Coens' take on this story.
Great, Hokahey.

Some other observations about A Serious Man:

The emphasis on the white envelope with the money echoes Hitchcock's use of the $40,000 in Psycho.

Michael Stuhlbarg (without glasses) at times strongly reminded me of Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line.

Is Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) intended to resemble Grace Slick?

I also find it odd to think that the film is set during the same year (1967) that Bonnie and Clyde was made.

Did the Coen brothers mean for the stoned bar mitzvah to be a kind of funny, ironic, Mad magazine-satirical religious experience? I did not really get the joke there, considering the scene is the climax of the film.
The most satisfying way to understand the doctor's phone call and tornado at the end of the film is, for me at least, to approach them as the pessimistic punchline to the rest of the film: It Can Always Get worse.
christian said…
I really hated this film, as I seem to with every third Coen brothers film. Meticulous filmmaking with the most shallow, obvious point of view and one note characters dancing to the Coen's smug strings.
Castor said…
Extremely insightful post for a movie that was really heavy on Jewish esoteric. Thanks for clarifying a great deal of the movie!
Thanks, Incaustic Ignostic,

I agree, but the image is made more ambiguous because the Coen brothers associate the tornado with the boy's desire to return the 20 dollars to the big kid who kept chasing him. One also thinks of The Wizard of Oz. I like the open-ended nature of the ending.

Thanks, christian. I felt that way about Burn After Reading, but I have much respect for Coen films like Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, and The Big Lebowski.

Thanks, Castor.

It *is* an ambiguous ending, I'll give you that. However, I think that the ambiguity lies in the implications of the events. Granting that the Coens always show exactly what they mean to show and no more, I think it's reasonable to read the call from Larry's doctor or the tornado as looming disasters. The manner in which both are presented leaves little doubt in my mind about what it coming: Larry is about to discover that he is seriously ill, and Danny is about to be injured or even killed by the tornado.

The thematic relationship between Larry and Danny is really fascinating. As much as Danny's travails--which often strike a more comical tone than those of his father--seem like digressions at times, I don't think the film would have been half as powerful without Danny's subplots, whether it's the menacing drug dealer, confiscated radio, or stoned bar mitzvah. It doesn't seem to me that the appearance tornado is overtly linked to Danny's tardy attempt to repay his dealer, because the Coens make it clear throughout the film that it is fruitless to draw conclusions from the juxtaposition of a particular human action and a particular event. This is especially true when, like Sy's car crash or the tornado, the actions of the person who suffers (or will suffer) can't directly be linked to the event. Danny has made some poor choices (read: committed sins) but it's hard to see how the tornado is a direct result of his actions. It's just a natural phenomenon. The film overtly rejects the notion that God interferes directly in the world to punish the wicked or reward the righteous. So I find it hard to read the tornado as anything other than a deeply pessimistic bit of "Shit Happens" punctuation, one that complements Larry's dire phone call. Interestingly, while I tend to cast a hard eye on Larry lack of assertiveness--"I didn't do *anything*!"--and blame him for many of his own woes, a terminal illness and a tornado are pretty clear examples of calamities that are outside our control. The universe is under no obligation to take it easy on Larry, Danny, or anyone else, regardless of their actions or intentions. The universe just is, and sometimes we must "accept the mystery" even as it applies to life's horrors and disasters. What is the alternative? To rail against hurricanes and cancer and killer bees? If there is agency behind such things, then it must be a cruel, cruel god indeed.
Excellent points, Caustic. You wrote:

"it is fruitless to draw conclusions from the juxtaposition of a particular human action and a particular event."

And yet, at times, the Coen brothers also suggest that there can be communication between man and God/fate/whatever at times. One gets that feeling when Larry stands on his roof and adjusts his antenna. The signifying teeth imply some avenue of communication. Also, Larry's attempts to see rabbis for higher guidance imply that the Jewish exegetical tradition could point toward some answers, or at least refine the questions. I've pointed out that the Coen brothers make cruel gods over their creations, but when the phone rings immediately after Larry changes the grade, it is hard not to assume that fate fully meant payback.

Also, I have a hard time associating Danny's travails with Larry's (although you do an excellent job exploring that possibility), just because Danny does not feel the possibility of judgment as much as Larry does. Danny is a blithe punk in comparison to Larry facing middle-aged mortality, his wife's rejection, impingements on his property, job loss, etc.