26 January 2010

A Serious Flaw

Let me begin by stating a happy fact: I love the Coen Brothers. And I think their greatest work of epic genius was "O Brother Where Art Thou?" Their gift for capturing the broad strokes of American history through the lens of Homer showed an understanding of cultural trope that was deeply impressive. And sadly missing from "A Serious Man," their most "Jewish" film, which, as is typical for most Hollywood writers and directors, makes up for its shallow understanding of Jewish history and ideas with mockish caricature of the self-referential.

I place Jewish in "quotes" because I would argue that "O Brother Where Art Thou" was more "Jewish" in its inherent willingness to inhabit a myth, explode it out in new ways and retell a familiar story, yielding new insights. That is what the Torah did with ancient Near Eastern myth and what the Mishnah and the Talmud did with Greco-Roman thought. But "A Serious Man" simply does to American suburban Judaism of the 1960s what "Good Times" did for black culture in the 1970s--create a cartoonish depiction of a complex culture with a few serious flaws along the way.

Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik is meant to be Job--suffering horribly for seemingly inexplicable reasons, possibly tracing back to an equally inexplicable curse or exorcism that may or may not have taken place in the Shtetl two generations earlier. There is a ghost that occupies the film--less like a real ghost, which would have been interesting, and more like an annoying guest who won't leave. And the ghost's name is, "Did we kill religion back there in Europe before we moved to America or not?"

That ghost rears its goofy head in Larry's supposed tortured moral dilemmas: the childish bribe of a moderately racist depiction of a Korean graduate student; the murky sexual meanderings of a weird, lovable but possibly perverted uncle; shallow, corporate synagogue rabbis; and a two dimensional swinging neighbor with weed, who seduces Larry into some flower-power themed sex in her dimly lit lair with the mezuzah affixed (cos Jewish ed manuals would have said "affixed" in the Sixties) on the wrong side of the door.

Oh, and don't let me forget the big kahuna: after much predictable build-up (like, the entire movie) Larry's son Danny is finally called to the Torah on his bar mitzvah day stoned! (Oh, you Boomers and your pot! So transgressive!) And he's called with the wrong Torah blessing (he approaches the Torah with someone else--weird in its own right--calling him according to the closing blessing, not the opening blessing, a rendering that is either dumb or passive aggressive.) It's so glaring a pairing of oversights--the mezuzah on the wrong side of the door and the wrong blessing for the Torah--that it actually proves the greater point, that when it comes to Jewish questions, sadly, these Jewish geniuses are functionally illiterate. They ought to stick to Homer. Or do their homework.

I went to bed after watching this film and woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this film and then woke up the next morning thinking about this film--and concluded that this film was the cause of the headache I had all day.

Such a rich canvas to play with: theodicy and the role of God in human suffering; the endless and mysterious connection between ancient generations and practices and our own tortured ways of navigating those challenges in the world; the tension between fulfilling the promise of our ancestors and charting a new course in a new world; and finally, the pain and suffering of the every day--dilemmas of work and home and family that call into question our values as individuals and representatives of deep, familial rivers. There was so much to work with. But at each stop along the way I felt from them an empty disdain for it all, which is honest, I guess, but nonetheless, had the feeling of a vast scheme or an intellectual cop-out.

It may be, I thought, that the joke is on us. That what the Coen Brothers were "trying to say" was that we American Jews invest so much in our own self-referential depictions on the screen that we are bound to leave ourselves feeling bereft in a universe of comic-book drawings of real-life questions and dilemmas. In America there is no text except that which is projected for our own viewing.

If only.

That prize, in my opinion, goes to the real Larry, Larry David, who originally and obnoxiously, has used no filtered lens, no veneer of the Sixties or faux philosophical cinema, to put a Jewish soul front and center during the last several years on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and explored race (the Blacks!), charity (anonymous giving!), Shabbos (edible underwear on a ski-lift), goyim (eating Jesus, the botched baptism), and just plain old Jewish character (fill in the blank.)

It pains me, actually, how much Jews are talking about "A Serious Man." It says more about this nutty solipsism -- "Look, it's us, in the suburbs, in the Sixties! It was like that, I swear!"--than it does about the actual questions it purports to raise.

And like a mezuzah on the wrong side of the door or a botched bar mitzvah blessing, that's a serious flaw.

1 comment:

DP Greenberg said...

This post has been eating at me all week and I'm not sure why. I liked the movie very much, although since I didn't grow up in the suburbs or the midwest, it certainly wasn't because I identified with the Jewish lifestyle depicted or ridiculed (depending on your point of view). Yet, I did identify with the movie in another, non-literal way. Perhaps I was simply looking past the immediate story line to find the movie I wanted to see, but what I took away from "A Serious Man," wasn't scorn or ridicule, but ambivalence, and, when it comes to religion, and Judaism, in particular, ambivalence usually resonates with me. Let me narrow that a bit - loving ambivalence resonates. I don't think the Coens make this movie if all they feel is scorn. I think, instead, the message was that their Jewish upbringing had its palpably goofy elements, mixed in as it was with the partially goofy social ferment of the 60s, but that it remains a part of them. Don't forget that this Jewish movie isn't the first time that they've interjected a Jewish theme into their work. My sons and I own tee-shirts emblazoned with John Goodman's menacing image and the words "I don't roll on Shabbas" in honor of perhaps the most memorable scene in the signature movie, "The Big Lebowski." The lessons learned in their Jewish day school seem to have a way of filtering back into the Coens work, don't they? I'd really prefer to understand the place of Judaism in the lives of A Serious Man's fraught characters as a source of wonder, awe at the universe's mysteries, absurdities and as a source of strength in the face of life's inexplicable challenges and tragedies (even as those challenges and tragedies go off the deep end). The rabbonim in this movie are, indeed, spiritually and intellectually vacuous, except, of course, the old sage rabbi, who, in the end, communes with the bar mitzvah over the words of a Jefferson Airplane song. I thought that was pretty cool (despite how annoying I've always found Grace "Morning Maniac Music" Slick). So, no, I didn't come away from this movie thinking that its makers either felt scarred by or loathing for the Judaism of their youths. Instead, as for many of us, it remains central even though it doesn't always go down smoothly or make sense. Rather, it functions as a lens through which we try to make sense of a senseless out-of-control world, sometimes, if only, for the laughter it provides.