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Coen brothers' 'A Serious Man' defines a people, an era

Ethan and Joel Coen recall the 60s and interrogate American Jewish identity in new film

The latest picture from brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, "A Serious Man," tenaciously insists on the specificity of its setting. It doesn’t just conjure a diffuse sense of a bygone era like "O Brother, Where Art Thou," "Barton Fink," and "The Hudsucker Proxy," but locates its story in a highly particular place and time: a suburban, middle-class Jewish community in Minnesota on the cusp of the Summer of Love.

Larry Gopnik, the film’s protagonist, teaches physics at a university. At the beginning, his future looks bright, despite the stress of upcoming tenure review. With a wife, two children, a new car and a nice suburban home, he appears to have the middle-class American Dream firmly in his grasp. Gopnik's life seems to be “rock solid,” to deploy the phrase his lawyer uses later in the picture.

What he soon learns, however, is that a proverbial “bolt from the blue” can sever him from his existential foundation with stunning speed. While the Coen Brothers never invoke the story of Job directly, there is no doubt they want audiences to measure Larry’s misadventures by that depressing standard.

There’s no evidence that this “serious man” has done anything to merit the tsores – the Yiddish term he chooses – that befalls him. When the chair of his tenure review leans into his office late in the film, just as Larry’s troubles have reached an unbearable level, our protagonist feels compelled to confess some wrongdoing. But the only misdeed he can come up with is having seen an arty erotic film from Sweden.

Invoking Job raises questions about God’s role in the narrative. Is Larry being deliberately tested? Or is his plight simply the result of accidents that only seem to be related? And to what extent can his troubles be attributed to the sweeping societal changes in which he, like other middle-aged Americans of his era, feel helplessly caught up?

All in the details

One of the film’s most important scenes shows Larry’s first attempt to get spiritual guidance. He wants to get the perspective of his congregation’s senior rabbi, imagining the man’s life experiences would prove germane to a discussion of marital troubles. Instead, he finds himself in conversation the junior rabbi, an amiable fellow named Scott, who seems perplexed by having to ponder a mature heterosexual relationship. But Scott's inability to provide concrete advice actually turns out to be a boon.

Inviting Larry to look through his louvered blinds at the parking lot beyond, Scott insists that it proves that Hashem – a Jewish term for “God” – is not some watchmaker deity grown detached from his creation, but an active presence in the world. “Look at the parking lot!” he exclaims.

From one perspective, this injunction seems absurd. After all, it’s just a a medium-sized macadam parking lot, unremarkable in every way. But Scott’s enthusiastic insistence that even that drab grid is flush with God’s will resonates in a curious way with the drug-fueled illumination sought by members of the burgeoning counterculture.

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The power of this scene lies in its clever presentation of detail. Although our attention, like Gopnick’s, is directed to what lies outside the window, the mundane reality we need to register is on the adjoining wall. Hanging there in plain sight is a two-month calendar showing May and June of 1967.

It is this detail that transforms Jefferson Airplane’s music, into another means of precisely dating the film’s narrative. Released as a single in April of that year, “Somebody To Love” began to climb the charts in May, pulling the band’s album "Surrealistic Pillow" along with it. By early June, both had reached the Billboard Top Ten.

Jefferson Airplane's steady rise is inversely proportional to Gopnik’s fall, suggesting that his tribulations are in some way tied to the rise of the band’s countercultural sensibility. But this precise chronology also serves a more subtle and sophisticated purpose, one that reviews of "A Serious Man" have overlooked.

While commentators on the film have mused on its hyperbolic Jewishness, noting that it contains far more autobiographical content than the Coen Brothers’ previous films, the historical significance of the story’s time span for American Jews has been ignored in the mainstream press.

A serious war

When the single “Somebody To Love” was peaking in early June of 1967, Jewish identity was being irrevocably altered by the events of the Six Day War. The scene in the office helps viewers make this connection by displaying a blue collection tin for donations to Israel on his desk, slightly out of focus but still easy to make out, and a map of the country on the wall next to the calendar. To be sure, these are entirely realistic props, the sort of details that flesh the scene out to the filmmakers’ high standards, but they also make it possible to discern hidden meaning.

The film opens with a strange allegorical scene – entirely in Yiddish, a language rarely spoken in American cinema – set in a Polish shtetl straight out of "Fiddler on the Roof." A tradesman returns home to tell his wife he has met someone interesting on his trip back from the marketplace, a respected elder that she knows. When he names the man, however, she flips out, insisting that this gentleman died of typhus three years before. She tells her husband that he must have encountered a dybbuk, a malicious spirit in the mythology of Eastern European Jews.

Just then, there’s a knock on the door – the husband has invited the man back for some soup – and the elderly traveler comes inside. When the visitor refuses the soup, the wife takes it as proof that he really is a dybbuk – spirits don’t eat – and stabs him to prove her point. At first there’s no blood, leading her to adopt an I-told-you-so attitude. But then we see the old man’s shirt begin to darken. Saying he does not feel well, he gets up and stumbles outside into the snow. The husband laments his ill fortune, while the wife, still convinced that the visitor was already dead, tells him to relax. And then the scene fades to black, as the opening notes of “Somebody To Love” kick in.

Cleverly, the music leads us visually out of some indeterminate space up through the ear canal of Gopnik’s son Danny, who is listening to his transistor radio during his Hebrew lesson. None of the students in the class seem interested in the material they are studying, their bodies demonstratively resisting the imposition of tradition. And yet "A Serious Man" suggests that the song with which Danny is attempting to tune out his heritage somehow represents a direct link to his ancestors, one that has magically bypassed the Holocaust.

Given the nature of that first scene in the shtetl, it might be more accurate to say that the song represents a direct link to literary ancestors. The dybbuk derives from a folk tradition at odds with the conventions of realism, one reworked in Yiddish literature from the tales of Rabbi Nachman through the work of Issac Bashevis Singer.

Because “Somebody To Love” is identified with the mainstreaming of psychedelia, it makes sense to regard the passage through Danny’s inner ear as an attempt to make connections between Jewish mysticism and the sort favored by the counterculture, both of them radically opposed to the suburban lifestyle the family is living.

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But the shadow of that opening scene looms over the rest of "A Serious Man" in another, more complicated sense. By encouraging us to think of situations where we are confronted by ambiguous happenings that could be evidence of supernatural powers, it destabilizes even the most mundane details in the film’s mise-en-scène. What initially looks like mere decoration, a way of reinforcing the impression of historical specificity that the film works so hard to achieve, may turn out to be a portal to another reality.

Israel isn’t mentioned once in the film. Yet the convergence of Jefferson Airplane’s success with the Israeli Army’s resounding triumph in the Six Day War – hostilities ended on June 10th – holds out the possibility that, just as the song links Danny to the shtetl, it also links him to the West Bank and Golan Heights. The carelessness that he and his classmates demonstrate, their freedom from the backward-facing gravity of their parents’ generation, the confidence they demonstrate in resisting even religiously grounded authority – Danny gets high on the way to his Bar Mitzvah – is strangely in tune with Israel’s self-image after vanquishing its opponents in the conflict.

Tuning in and dropping out

For Danny’s father, however, the “new freedoms” only seem to add to his insecurities. When his sexy new neighbor invites him inside to smoke marijuana – his wife has already exiled him to a motel at this point – they only end up discussing his visit to the junior rabbi. And the erotic dream he has about this woman, with her on top of him and Larry looking almost as if he’s in pain, only reinforces the point. His idea of relaxation is not sex, but lying down to listen to old Yiddish records.

One of the film’s funniest scenes involves him talking to someone from the Columbia Record Club, for which Danny has signed up in his name. Larry keeps telling the representative that he didn’t do anything. The representative responds that doing nothing will result in being billed for the “selection of the month.” In other words, there’s a price for passivity. The tide of history can only be resisted actively.

While the Coen Brothers’ ultimate intentions for "A Serious Man" are inscrutable, ending as it does on the verge of a personal apocalypse, there is no doubt that they want viewers to think hard about the relationship between timeless wisdom and the latest fashion. After the hilarious Bar Mitzvah scene, in which Danny muddles through the ritual reading in a bleary-eyed stupor while the congregation beams, then hears someone mutter “Jesus Christ!” after almost dropping the Torah, he is directed to visit the congregration’s spiritual leader Marshuk.

Earlier in the film, Danny’s father tries in vain, after being unsatisfied with the results of his visits to both the junior and senior rabbis, to consult with this wizened oracle. But Marshuk will only sees boys after their Bar Mitzvah now. Does this refusal to deal with adults signal wisdom or senility? Danny's brief visit with Marshuk can bolster both interpretations.

The sage’s sole statement on this auspicious occasion – if you can even call it that – consists of him quoting the first lines of "Somebody To Love" and then reciting the names of four members of the Jefferson Airplane. He then hands over Danny’s transistor radio, confiscated at the beginning of the film, and smiles. Whether this exchange is meant to impart a serious lesson or simply reflects the degree to which youth and senescence mirror one another, it clearly represents a passing of the torch, one that bypasses the anxieties of Gopnik’s generation, which came to political awareness during the Holocaust.

The postwar American Jewish identity so vividly portrayed in the works of writers like Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, is here an identity that will ultimately prove sterile. Perhaps the murder of the purported dybbuk in the opening scene is a commentary on the mindset of a generation so preoccupied with death that it can’t discern the vitality of tradition.

Or perhaps it’s simply a warning to us that, given the choice of seeing a parking lot as a mere parking lot or as the habitation of God, we would be better off erring on the side of spirit.

Charlie Bertsch has been based in Tucson since 2000. He has written about music, film and books for a variety of publications, including The Oxford American, Zeek, Tikkun, Phoenix New Times and the pioneering internet publication Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, which he helped to found back in 1992. He welcomes your feedback.

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If you go

"A Serious Man" is now playing at the Loft Cinema, 3233 East Speedway Boulevard. Call 795-7777 for showtimes.