By Rev. Hieronymous Moondog
It’s 3AM at the Duder Bar. Ron and Nancy asked me to close up, so I’m sitting here alone in the back corner booth making some notes about a movie I saw recently…the Coen Bros. (as in Ringling Bros. ?) latest…A Serious Man. I am also expecting a knock on the door. Two old friends, Diego and Lucia, asked if they could stop by after closing and use the Duder dance floor for tango practice…big contest coming up. They are not practicing at home because she kicked him out the other night. Should make for an interesting session…
…anyhow…some Pin Dudeist thoughts on the movie…
As I mentioned in an review I wrote of Cathleen Falsani’s The Dude Abides, I sometimes think the Coen brothers should be named the Koan brothers. Their movies, or at least parts of their movies have always seemed like zen koans to me. This is especially true of A Serious Man. Our hero, Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, is first seen, giving a lecture on Schrodinger’s Paradox…the notorious alive/dead cat…presented, as is his proof of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, on an immense blackboard filled with scrawled equations. Riddles "clarified"…right? "Proofs"…right? Hilarious…visually overwhelming and baffling to most in the audience (and classroom) I think…at least to me…
I hear Diego and Lucia screaming at each other as they approach the rear door of the bar. There is not a knock on the door…there is a banging. I open the door. They both greet me in a perfunctory fashion, place a boom box on a table near the dance floor, turn it on…still engrossed in their arguing…and proceed to tango. As they move, the arguing becomes bickering, then ceases completely, replaced by intense looks into each others angry eyes. If they dance like this in the contest, how can they lose?
Back to the movie…let the cognitive dissonance work its magic…
Larry Gopnik is introduced "explaining" a famous paradox. Then he goes home to another set of riddles. Larry’s wife wants to leave him for an unctuous, weasel-tongued new ("Is his poor wife cold yet? Three years?") widower and Larry has no idea why. His son Danny (a true Dude in the making, as we will see)…days away from his bar mitzvah, is lost in a pot fog. Larry’s unemployed and very twisted brother, Arthur, is crashing on his couch. And…his next door neighbor, Mrs. Samsky, whose husband travels, is tormenting him with her nude backyard sunbathing…which he discovers while on the roof adjusting his TV antenna so that Danny can watch F Troop with clarity…the prelude to the devolution…
Are these the baroque machinations of a trickster God? A latter day replay of Job’s soap opera? A bad, carnivalesque secondary theater production staged by Larry David and art directed by Diane Arbus?
Odd twists and turns…a lot of ins and outs and what-have-yous…crop up at Larry’s university as things move along on down the road. He’s up for tenure and the tenure committee is receiving letter after anonymous letter questioning Larry’s moral turpitude. On top of that (here comes a dash of Asian thought to flavor the stew folks), one of his students, a Korean young man named Clive Park, apparently leaves an unmarked envelope containing three grand on Larry’s desk in an attempt to bribe Larry not to fail him. When Larry questions this, Clive’s father shows up at his house and threatens to sue…(from the screenplay)…
Larry turns to Mr. Park.
Larry:…I, uh…See, if it were defamation there would have to be someone I was defaming him to, or I…All right, I…let’s keep it simple. I could pretend the money never appeared. That’s not defaming anyone.
Mr. Park: Yes. And passing grade.
Larry: Passing grade.
Mr. Park: Yes.
Larry: Or you’ll sue me.
Mr. Park: For taking money.
Larry: So…he did leave the money.
Mr. Park: This is defamation
Larry stares at him.
Larry: Look. It doesn’t make sense. Either he left the money or he didn’t…
Mr. Park: Please. Accept mystery.
Yes Larry…the mystery, indeed. Seeking answers to all of these doings, which are getting "curiouser and curiouser", as Wavy Gravy would say, Larry seeks the advice of his rabbi and winds up having to consult with the junior rabbi instead, who admonishes Larry to…"Look at the parking lot, Larry"…a phrase which may work its way into our lexicon in much the same way as…well…shush…listen to me going on…better not go there just yet…
Anyhow…what the rabbi means is that Larry is looking at his life, as he would the mundane parking lot outside, with tired, world weary eyes. He asks Larry to imagine himself a visitor (from a primitive tribe?), someone who isn’t familiar with autos and such, "somebody still with a capacity to wonder, someone with a fresh perspective…Things aren’t so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry."
Larry finally gets to talk with a higher level rabbi who tells him the tale of a dentist’s weird discovery in a patient’s mouth…the letters spelling "help me" in Hebrew engraved on the inside of the patient’s lower teeth…and its aftermath…after awhile the dentist stopped worrying about what it meant…shaggy dogs continue to bark. Still not satisfied with the answers he is getting to his "What the fuck is happening here?" question, he tries to talk to the wisest rabbi in town who refuses to see him because…as his snide, puffy and aged secretary informs him…the rabbi is busy…thinking.
Not wanting to be left out of the party, synchronicity now comes stumbling down the road in the form of simultaneous car crashes…one involving Larry, one involving his wife’s lover. The other guy is killed and Larry’s wife insists that Larry pay for the funeral. Onward…
Bar mitzvah day arrives and Larry’s son, Danny, is stoned. He makes it through the ceremony and is escorted away for the final step in the process…an audience with the oldest and wisest of the rabbis…the one who refused to see Larry. The boy trembles as the old man looks up at him and speaks slowly… "When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies/Don’t you want somebody to love."…then turns on the portable tape recorder that had been confiscated from the boy in class at Hebrew school. Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane…Danny’s favorite band (the young Dude’s Creedence?)…fill the room and the old rabbi smiles. Wisdom has been passed, once again, from old to young…
And so…is the young, new Dude able to chill? Not quite over yet folks. Back at the university, Larry finds out that he probably has been granted tenure. He also decides to do things the Korean way and take the money Clive left…to pay a criminal attorney now needed to keep his brother out of jail, actually…but that’s a part of the story I won’t divulge. Don’t want to ruin every surprise for those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet. Things seem to be looking up. The phone rings. It is Larry’s doctor telling him that he has gotten the X-rays back…another detail I left out…and can Larry come in for a personal consultation immediately. No, it cannot be dealt with over the phone. Larry stumbles out of his office…
In the meantime at young Dude’s school a storm approaches. The teacher gets a tornado warning and is told to take the students to the storm shelter next door. Outside, we watch as the teacher cannot get the door to the storm shelter unlocked. The tornado bears down as Danny, oblivious, tries to pay off an old pot debt…
Fade to black…and more black? Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you pardner. Take comfort in knowing that young Danny, the designated new Dude, will probably be bounced around a little, but just as probably will roll on out of this OK…to eat the bear another day. And abide…
Diego and Lucia conclude their tango practice and disappear into the night. Once again, the Duder Bar is empty…except for me…
…and the Koans…
That was a good film. I’m hoping to see it again soon. I think one of the funniest parts was the Walter-esque neighbor asking if Mr. Park was bothering Larry. I need to see this again. Hopefully we get some good conversation going for our upcoming episode.
the flick isnt in my time and place yet.
The Arch Dudeship says
Nice write up as always, Rev. H.
I’m really looking forward to seeing this movie, too, when it finally makes it around to my time and place.
Ed Churchman says
Had to do some digging around to find a local showing, and eventually we found an art-house cinema playing it not too far away, one of the few places showing it outside of London or Manchester (the marketeers of this movie were really trying to piss on a lot of Coenite’s rugs here, man).
Nearly lost if when the Rabbi opens his mouth and starts to spout out Jefferson, while the rest of the cinema was silent… got digs in the ribs for that one. Obviously no other JA fans around.
I do love the points you’ve mentioned, but I’d be intrigued to hear what you thought of the prologue of the movie and its relation to the rest of the story. I personally wondered if it was, y’know, like, a lesson in the problems of having a reactionary jewish wife, which is then echoed in the present century(ish) by Larry’s troubles. Or is there something deeper I’ve missed. The answer? Probably. Any thoughts, people?
With Coen films, there’s always something deeper behind their films. The weird thing is once you figure that out, it all seems so simple. I really need to see this again. It’s been 3 months since I saw it and I’m having trouble remembering parts.
Ed Churchman says
That’s fine, we’ll both get the DVD in the new year and compare notes C-man!
The Arch Dudeship says
I finally got to see this movie last night and was glad to see I wasn’t like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie…
Instead, I completely dug this film and want to see it again (which is a nice improvement over my feelings toward Burn After Reading, which I wasn’t as into when I saw it).
To answer the question Ed Churchman raises about the beginning of the movie: My take on it is that scene establishes the theme of uncertainty that pervades the movie (and other Coen Bros films). Is the old man who visits really a dybbuk, as the wife believes, or is he just a rather jovial old dude who seems interested in sharing a warm fire on a cold night with someone who’s familiar to him?
Well, dudes, we just don’t know.
If it’s the latter (which, to me, is most plausible), the ultimate uncertainty of the situation (and the false assumptions we, like the wife, cling to in order to compensate for that uncertainty) ends up causing the old dude to suffer unjustly and, as the husband hints, may possibly end up causing suffering for him and his wife as a result of what she does (I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it).
This sets up what happens throughout the rest of the movie in which all of Gopnik’s certainties evaporate and he’s left suffering from the assumptions, actions, and inactions of people around him in a seemingly random and indifferent universe.
In general, I think the movie is sort of the Coens’ version of Job without the relatively happy ending.
I’m ramblin’ again, but that’s just like my opinion, man.
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say the movie had an un-happy ending AD. I think we were just left with the same uncertainty with which the film started.
The Arch Dudeship says
Yeah, you’re right, Chalupa, it’s definitely an uncertain ending. But the Coens don’t wrap ‘er all up the way the Book Job does, which what I was trying to say.
And even Job has something of a questionable happy ending in some ways. Yes, God restores everything taken from Job (including his children), but it still leaves me uncomfortable that Job (like Gopnik) never gets any comprehensible explanation for the calamities that befall him.
I think the tornado at the end of the movie may be a reference to the divine whirlwind in Job. If that’s the case, there is a lot of ambiguity around how we are to take it.
Good points AD, I noticed a lot of similarities too – especially with the rabbis kind of taking on the role of Job’s friends.
And as far as having no idea why bad things are happening, I think everyone has experienced that to some degree. Most haven’t lost everything like Job did, but I see it as sort of a child-adult relationship. We don’t explain everything to children because sometimes they don’t need to know of they couldn’t comprehend even if we told them. I see the relation between man and God in that same light. It may not be comforting when trying to reason with certain circumstances in life, but it helps me try to understand things a bit better.
The Arch Dudeship says
Indeed, I do believe we’ve all seen a bad moon a-rising, some more than others (Haiti comes to mind at the moment).
I agree with you to an extent about the child-adult relationship (having a few little A-Ds that I tend to, I know there are many different levels of understanding). And, without going into the details, I can say that I have had quite a rough road to travel since beginning my earthly sojourn.
In terms of the making sense of tragic events and suffering: I keep bumping against thinking that if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, then God would have the ability to figure out a way to have everyone everywhere understand what all this is about.
But I’m not splitting theological hairs with you. I think you and I agree that, like the movie suggests, no matter what you believe there are just some whirlwinds in life that we will never make sense of. All we can do is work out ways to come to terms with and accept that reality whenever we encounter it.
The Arch Dudeship says
Oh and PS: That’s a good point about the rabbis (and the lawyer) being like Job’s friends.
Not that I think God is necessarily a woman or Canadian, I do like Kevin Smith’s portrayal of God in his film Dogma. The imagery of God speaking and heads exploding from the awesomeness was kind of insightful. Although, I don’t really agree with the idea of the supreme deity being stuck in some old dude’s body after being beaten by hoodlums.
The Arch Dudeship says
I don’t subscribe to the whole “personal God” thing myself (although I believe we can experience the divine on a personal level). My view of the divine as something similar to Hinduism’s “impersonal” Brahman or Taoism’s Tao.
When I spoke about “God” in my previous post, I was talking about the view many Western religions have of a personal Diety who is involved in and concerned for humanity in the same way a parent is with a child.
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