Sunday, November 08, 2009

A Serious Man

I've seen two movies in the last month: Zombieland and A Serious Man. This is pretty unusual for me as tickets are expensive, I am cheap, and movies are for the most part crap. However, these two were not. I liked Zombieland because it showed me how fundamentally American the Zombie myth is. I had previously contemplated how both Into the Wild and There Will Be Blood both were about how the American spirit is fundamentally misanthropic and hermitical. In one, a man hates all other people and wants to surround himself with material wealth to hold them out. In the other, a man hates all other people and wants to run away to be alone with his ideological purity. All America is here for the same thing: whether you are Jamestown or Plymouth, you are here to get away from the crush of Europe and those … people. Zombieland makes this all more literal. Everyone except your close loved ones (nuclear family) is a zombie. We hate our fellow Americans (only a little less than everyone), with a couple of exceptions for famous celebrities (who in turn should view us as a crush of deadly zombies, or else probably die or get zombified). This turns what I've said the Zombie Myth represents: fear of the humanity surrounding us constantly in modern civilization, into a representation of American style misanthropy (which always has exception for the nuclear family or their substitutes: this is the sin of the protagonists of ItW and TWBB that makes those movies tragedies instead of a comedy like Zombieland). I could go on, but this post is about A Serious Man.

Last week's Torah portion ends with the Sacrifice of Isaac. The linked Caravaggio painting was displayed in the climactic scene of the movie in Marshak's office, and it's gives insight to the Coen brother's meaning in this movie. Abraham, though not explicitly, is following the norms of the time in performing child sacrifice. This is something the Coen Brothers would be aware was referenced in the bible a number of times (exactly the sort of thing that sticks like glue to a teenage male mind bored in Hebrew School). His presumed natural urges not to follow through with this, and understanding this was a message from G-d, led him to break with norm, despite what his society told him. He accepted with simplicity the situation and did the simple thing: decided it was nuts and then carved up some ram.

But what does this mean: to "Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and depend on Him, and do not inquire of the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with [unadulterated] simplicity," as Rashi comments on Devarim 18:13. As the Coen Brothers see it, it is basically to be somewhat of a petulant child like Danny Gopnik.

This movie is an exhortation to not over-think, and to use your G-d given instincts when not in doubt rather than the advice of society. Danny of course, does this naturally like a child would: he smokes pot and curses (and is not malicious for the most part in his mischief, with the notable exception of stealing money that was already stolen: perhaps a comment on the Arab-Israeli conflict?). As part and parcel to this are two things: Do be appreciative of all that G-d provides, and Don't be too concerned about the consequences because they are unpredictable and usually turn out OK anyway. Be Happy, Don't worry.

Danny of course does this perfectly when he gets high right before he has to perform his aliyah at his Bar Mitzvah. And of course, rather than everything falling apart and going to hell as he stood and didn't do anything, things go kinda ok with somewhat of a bump and no one really notices. Everyone congratulates Larry and assume he takes much nachas from this occasion (and he does).

Similarly, all Larry's fretting over tenure is for naught (probably). Despite the issues going on and the forces aligned against him everything will turn out alright on that account. Indeed, Larry's only joy in the movie comes when he gets high himself while out of control of his primal instincts for other reasons.

Part of the reason that we can't rely on this common wisdom is that other people don't pay enough attention (a theme of Burn After Reading). This is touched upon when Larry goes to the three Rabbis. All three demonstrate great wisdom, yet all three don't tell Larry the things he needs to hear because they don't listen. The first should have told him to reject the situation with his divorce in some way, either get aggressive or try to reconcile. The second should have told him not to pay for the funeral of his wife's (probable) adulterous lover. The third refused to even hear him. But each of the three demonstrates wisdom: the first tells him to appreciate G-d's bounty, the second tells him not to demand answers (i.e. over analyze everything and worry). The third demonstrates that he is a child at heart.

If Danny is the positive role model in the movie, Arthur is the negative role model. Despite his brilliance, he is a shell of a man with no job nor lover nor children. He is a kind of soothsayer or diviner in that he is looking for a “probability map of the universe” to predict the future. This is exactly the prohibition that is discussed before and after the verse Rashi is commenting on in the chosen quote. He also complains, but that is to be expected. Everyone k'vetches, especially when the TV signal is coming in poorly. At the same time, he has much to be thankful for: he is a brilliant man who can mooch off his brother as long as he wants, and instead of being resented for this he is accepted and loved as a member of the family. Now if he could just stop working on his crazy divinations, he could make a good living as a professor.

Other than Danny, the goysha neighbor is also a positive role model in some ways. Though the neighbor's good life is less explicitly portrayed than Danny's, Larry seems to have a longing for the life of his goysha neighbor when he is gazing at them from his back yard or roof, or noticing them coming back from a school day hunting trip. Notably the neighbor is portrayed as wearing the exact same outfit as his son in each scene where they are both visible, and usually doing the same thing as his son is doing. This is symbolic of the child like simplicity of the neighbor. “The line is the poplar!” screw whatever the law books say, that is something a child could understand, no reason to over think it. Whether this is a fair portrayal of the goyim is another story: I have reason to believe that they are more complex but in different ways than Jews, so the complexity is less apparent (I still think we would edge them in raw amount of complex over analysis in any fair comparison, though). I am less sure of it, but the idea of helping others because it couldn't hurt may be partially illustrated by this character in the scene where he backs up Larry while somewhat threateningly handling a monkey wrench during Larry's confrontation with the Korean.

So if the message of the movie is to accept with simplicity what we are presented with, and to ignore the advice of others when contradicted by our instincts because that advice was probably given without proper attentiveness to the particulars of your situation, what light does this shed on the opening scene of the movie? Clearly this means the wife was wrong in following what others told her, both about the existence of dybbuks and the death of Fivesh Finkel's character. While we shouldn't be disappointed with a lack of answers, which G-d does not owe, we sometimes do get an answer after all.

So really the Coen brothers seem to be saying: Be a petulant child; demand F-Troop come in clearly. Sometimes G-d will not be able to accommodate your request, but he is really busy trying to do a whole lot of things, many of which indirectly or directly benefit you. However, sometimes he is able to get around to it if you're persistent. In the mean time, be thankful for all you already have.