Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Serious Man

"Dybbuk Stops Here" or "Shlimazel Tov"

Mel Brooks once described comedy thus: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

Chevy Chase once queried: "If Helen Keller fell down in a forest, would she make a sound?"

The point being that the act of observation calls into question the validity and interpretation of something happening. The one thing on which anthropologists, media critics and quantum physicists agree is that looking at something may change it's behavior.* Without observation we can't be sure: is the cat in the box alive or dead?; would
the Louds have divorced without the filming of "An American Family?" Did the presence of Margaret Mead change the behavior of the Samoans she was studying? If a schlemiel spills hot soup on a shlimazel in an empty restaurant, is it a brokh or bupkes? Scrutiny changes things.

Take Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). When we first see him, Larry is being scrutinized right down to his bones—he's having a chest X-ray performed. But the dissection doesn't stop there. A physics professor, he's being considered ... closely ... for tenure by his department-heads. His curriculum involves lectures on understanding the Universe through mathematics to explain such scientific folklore as the quantum theories of Schr√∂dinger's cat and Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle."

But if Larry wanted to teach them about "
Verschränkung" and make it stick, all he'd have to do is plan a field-trip to his own Minneapolis house. There, his world is being mired in cosmic strings.

His wife (
Sari Lennick) wants a divorce—specifically a "get,"** a Jewish divorce decree, so that she can remarry in the faith—as she's been "seeing" family-friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed)—the "serious man" of the title. Sy's giving Larry "serious" tsuris by being gentlemanly about stealing his wife, but he has to stand in line to do it. His son Danny (Aaron Wolff), who's about to be bar-mitzvahed, is a pot-head and a nudzh, as self-absorbed as his daughter (Jessica McManus). Then there's Larry's brother Arthur (Richard Kind), an out-of-work nudnik who gambles and is constantly draining a sebaceous cyst, while working on his own form of physics—a "Mentaculus"—literally, scribblings in a notebook, that somehow develops a system for winning at poker. A South Korean student of Larry's is trying to get a better grade to keep his scholarship, and Larry finds an envelope of C-notes on his desk; is the student trying to bribe him? He can't really know without seeing the student place the envelope on his desk. He's also being vaguely warned by a colleague that his tenure is in danger from anonymous "denigrating" letters to the deciding committee. From whom? For what? Larry has no control over these events, does nothing (as he says again and again) to provoke them, and everywhere he turns, more pile on and on and on, like an equation, or an involved comedic story, that has no resolution.

As they say, it's always something.

But Larry keeps looking for answers—from his lawyers, from his rabbi's—some bissel, or quantum, of understanding of what is happening to him, trying to find the presence of
Hashem in all of this. But even from the roof-tops he can't gain perspective. The signals aren't clear, and there's always a new disaster around every corner, behind every phone-call. And in the close-knit Jewish community, there is always scrutiny, if only from God.

It's a wonderful conceit from the literate
Coen Brothers: taking the messy travails that assault the Jewish men in the works of, say, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth and looking for the answers in quantum mechanics, where the concerns of God might have been previously. But, they also take it to another meta level, where the artificial world of cinema (or fiction) adds another level of scrutiny.

Orson Welles said, "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." After a sense of complacency, "A Serious Man" ends on the cusp of two more disasters, literally going to black before they hit. Who knows? Maybe the very act of not observing the outcomes may change them. Maybe we're complicit in the disasters, as is implied by quantum mechanics, as God might have been in the old world.

What does God want? Maybe exactly the same thing that an audience wants—a good show. And the act of observing manifests it quantumly for the shlimazels.

Damned clever, these Coens. Turning movie-watching into a study in physics. You don't see that every day.

Having seen "A Serious Man," I think it's a Full-Price Ticket. Outcomes may vary.

* It's formal name is "
The Hawthorne Effect," or "Observer Effect."

** "A what?" asks all the specialists in the movie when confronted with this word.

*** Actually, you probably have if you've seen "No Country for Old Men," or "Burn After Reading." The film-makers, there, are concerned with the pre-determination of destiny and randomness.

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