A Serious Man (2)

slice_a_serious_man_01It’s taken more than a week to get back to this review because [in the interim] I have become proud father to an unbelievably adorable brand new baby girl. She is fascinatingly distracting; I do not fault her for her SUMA.

Part One of the review can be found here.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) As I began to mentally organize my thoughts about the reveals in this script, I realized that I struggled to name them—at first. I mean I immediately named:

1. Judith’s bombshell about Sy

but, then stalled. In my head I began a paragraph about how the Coen Brothers work can be ridiculously complex [Miller’s Crossing] or relatively simple […].

I had no script to put into the second half of that disjunction.

I realized I was trying to funnel the Coen Brothers work into a critically prefabricated mold that would make my job easier. The mold would do the work of thinking; I would simply jot down a bunch of critical clichés that would seem intelligent because they would remind the reader of things she had heard said about other works of Art. My critical heuristics would gain the heft of validity because of your familiarity with them.

I was rescued from my close encounter with critical laziness by the structure of the questions themselves. I could not award points based on a feeling. I had to produce something objective to which I could refer to as justification.

Regrouping, I revisited my memory of the setups and reveals in this script. This time listing them with my keyboard [and using my notes to help me].

1 Clive Park gets the “dead cat”. [I love stating the reveal this way.]
2 Larry interrupts his conversation with Sy to return Clive’s bribe.
3 His attempt is unsuccessful.
4 Mr. Brandt keeps claiming more and more of Larry’s lawn with his lawnmower.
5 Larry’s college is reviewing him for tenure.
6 Judith tells Larry about Sy.
7 A representative of Columbia Records leaves messages with Larry’s secretary.
8 Larry tries to return Clive’s bribe.
9 Clive claims it is “very uncertain” he was actually trying to bribe Larry.
10 Judtith says the kids know about the divorce.
11 Danny first asks Larry to fix the aerial so he can watch F Troop.
12 Sarah opines about Arthur’s bathroom cyst habits.
13 Arthur has no luck finding an apartment.
14 Sy comes by to see Larry.
15 While trying to fix the aerial, Larry sees Mrs. Samsky sunbathing naked.
16 Arlen Finkle tells Larry the tenure committee has received denigrating letters from an anonymous source.
17 Larry tries to confront Mr. Brandt about his property line encroachment.
18 Judith takes Larry out to dinner with Cy at Embers.
19 Larry gets relocated to the Jolly Roger.
20 Clive’s father threatens to sue Larry for defamation.
21 Larry explains that Arthur’s Mentaculus is a probablility map.
22 Mimi tells Larry to go see Rabbi Nachtner.
23 Larry sees Rabbi Scott.
24 Rabbi Scott tells Larry to “look at the [spiritual?] parking lot”.
25 Larry defends Judith and Sy to his divorce lawyer.
26 Danny interrupts this meeting with news of the aerial.
27 Distracted by a bicycling Clive, Larry rearends someone.
28 The guy at Columbia Records becomes Dick Dutton. The record charges are substantial.
29 Sy Ableman dies in a car crash.
30 Judith wants Larry to pay for Sy’s funeral.
31 Larry goes to see Rabbi Nachtner.
32 He is told the story of “the goy’s teeth”.
33 The police threaten to arrest Arthur for gambling.
34 Judith empties the joint bank account and retains an “aggressive” divorce attorney.
35 Larry dreams about Sy. Sy defames math, physics, and Larry’s manhood. Tells him to see the last Rabbi.
36 Larry smokes pot with Mrs. Samsky.
37 Arthur is arrested for solicitation and sodomy.
38 A heart attack claims Sol before he can give the good news about Mr. Brandt.
39 Dick Dutton, from Columbia Records, is ignored again.
40 Arlen tells Larry to submit any published work to the tenure committee. Larry has no work.
41 Larry dreams about his tormentors: Sy, Clive, and Mr. Brandt while [in the same dream] Mrs. Samsky has sex with him while smoking a cigarette.
42 After waking, Arthur tells Larry that Larry has it all in comparison to him, Arthur.
43 After going back to sleep, Larry dreams that Mr. Brandt’s son shoots Arthur as Arthur escapes with Clive’s money in a getaway canoe.
44 Danny shows up high for his bar mitzvah. Judith tells Larry that Sy wrote letters to the tenure committee.
45 Rabbi Marshak quotes American Poet Grace Slick to Danny as he sends the high boy into manhood.
46 Arlen tells Larry he got tenure.
47 The town experiences a tornado warning.
48 Larry gets a bill from Arthur’s lawyer for 3,000 dollars.
49 Larry changes Clive’s grade from an F to a C, than a C-.
50 Dr. Shapiro asks Larry to come into his office to discuss the x-ray results.
51 The script ends with a funnel cloud in the distance.

[That list, while thorough, is far from complete. In the future I will refer to this list as support for any blanket statement that the Brothers are great plotters. I wanted to be this exhaustive once, for the sake of the record.]

Now that I’ve taken the time to be objective [and partially ruined the readability of the review], I’m prepared to say this script is exceptionally plotted.

A Serious Man convinces me that the Coens, who are always given so much credit for their dialogue, are vastly underrated when it comes to story structure. They are as good at plotting as they are at dialogue.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) The engine that runs this story is Larry’s quest to understand the injustice of the world’s treatment of him.

The amazing quality and quantity of the misfortunes which Larry suffers through earn him the distinction of being compared [in the critical literature] to Job. I haven’t been able to determine [yet] whether this strand of criticism began with the Coens themselves or with a Roger Ebert type. In spite of the fact that I see surface symmetry between the engine of Job’s quest and the engine of Larry’s quest, I find myself unmotivated by the Job comparison. It may be right, but it just doesn’t inspire me.

What does inspire me is the number of times Larry asks someone a question without getting an answer. I’ve already spent too much time listing elements of this script, otherwise I would go through and pull out every instance of this plot device. It’s pretty impressive. It had to be intentional. It deserves all the points.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) I feel like the pinch point of this story comes with Arthur’s arrest for solicitation. From page 106:

Cop
Sir, we picked this man up at the North Dakota.

Larry is brought up short.

Larry
. . . The North Dakota!

The implication here [and it is expressed more fully later in the script] is that Arthur is gay. Although I can infer what the Coen Brothers might have meant with this plot point from my general knowledge of the topic, I don’t feel that the Brothers are explicit with their intentions in relation to Arthur’s homosexuality.

I acknowledge it’s even possible that I have picked this out for a pinch point as much because of its dissonance within the story as its suitability as a pinch point.

When faced with a dilemma like this, I always look first for repeated instances of the anomalous plot point. In this case, the Brothers do give us a dry run of Arthur’s solicitation arrest. It comes on pages 90-91:

Cop 1
Look. Tell Gopnik—Arthur Gopnik—he’s breaking the
law. We’re not arresting him now but next time we will.
Gambling is against the law in this state. That’s just the
way it is. All right. Go back to your. . .

Cop 2
Sorry, sir.

There is meaning in the response Arthur’s different “crimes” generate from the police [and society as they are represented by the police] but, overall, the Coen Brothers criticism is blunted by its lack of specificity. Also, I think the gap, in pages, between the arrests is too small. This is a plot point which requires a much wider orbit.

This beam in the structure of the story is easily the weakest:

0 out of 5 points.

Part D) Let me first say that an intriguing case could be made for my “go to” theme when it comes to Coen Brothers script analysis:

Love is impossible.

If I made this case, I would be helping the sales of my [future self’s] paperback version of the Coen Brothers book which I [my current self] accidentally started writing. There would be critical consistency in making every script of theirs conform to the same theme. People like consistency. People understand consistency. In Academia, people [unknowingly] think consistency is equivalent to originality.

In the Land of Hobgoblins the itinerant man is… serf.

Like Larry, I am an itinerant man. Therefore, let me propose the theme of A Serious Man is skeptical. Larry, and all his friends are trying to tell us:

You can’t know anything for certain.

The second time we meet Larry, he is telling his class of physics students exactly this fact about the universe. We watch as he concludes an uninspiring lecture on Schrodinger’s Cat. A physical paradox so visceral in its force, it makes a mockery of every one of Heisenberg’s matrices. Is the cat dead or alive? Simple.

And yet, Heisenberg, supported by all his matrices, insists you can’t know for sure. He dresses his insistence up in the clothes of a principle and, because of him, we now believe:

It is impossible to know simultaneously the exact position and momentum of a particle.

Schrodinger misapplies the CONSISTENCIES of verbal logic to this “Uncertainty Principle” and arrives at a cat that is neither dead nor alive. Our authors come along and design a protagonist whose engine is his need for comprehension and then they subjugate that protagonist to a discipline which would have you believe the absurd—if you put a cat in a box and check on it later the cat will be neither dead nor alive until you check on it. They’ve invented a protagonist desperately seeking knowledge whose entire SECULAR existence is built on an adherence to a Principle of Absurdity.

Fortunately, for Larry, secular existence does not a complete existence make. Larry also has his religion. His search for an answer to the questions of life extends to the three Rabbis of his synagogue. Let’s briefly familiarize ourselves with the responses Larry gets from his religious leaders.

Rabbi Scott
No, of course not. I am the junior rabbi. And it’s true, the
point-of-view of somebody who’s older and perhaps had
similar problems might be more valid. And you should see
the senior rabbi as well, by all means. Or even Marshak if
you can get in, he’s quite busy. But maybe—can I share
something with you? Because I too have had the feeling of
losing track of Hashem, which is the problem here. I too
have forgotten how to see Him in the world. And when
that happens you think, well, if I can’t see Him, He isn’t
there any more, He’s gone. But that’s not the case. You
just need to remember how to see Him. Am I right?

Summarized, Rabbi Scott is telling Larry that the lack of physical evidence for God does not count as an actual lack of evidence for God. Instead, it counts as an indictment of Human Imagination. If we were better imaginers, we would see God everywhere.

Rabbi Nachtner
What would happen? Not much. He went back to work.
For a while he checked every patient’s teeth for new
messages; didn’t see any; in time, he found he’d stopped
checking. He returned to life.

Sussman, at home, chats with his wife over dinner.

. . . These questions that are bothering you, Larry—maybe
they’re like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then
they go away.

Rabbi Nachtner is telling Larry that nothing is knowable. The knowledge that nothing is knowable is extremely annoying but, eventually, the annoyance fades.

Marshak
When the truth is found. To be lies.

He pauses. He clears his throat.
At length:

. . . And all the hope. Within you dies.

Another beat. Danny waits. Marshak stares.
He smacks his lips again. He thinks.

. . . Then what?

Rabbi Marshak is not even offering this “advice” to Larry. Marshak is always “too busy” to meet with Larry. These “how to live your life” gems are dispensed to Larry’s son, Danny. They are completed with Marshak’s request that Danny:

. . . Be a good boy.

Before we dismiss Marshak as irrelevant to the point of the story, ask yourself how that Jefferson Airplane verse begun as life advice for Danny gets completed. Is there anything significant in what Marshak didn’t say? Let’s quote the rest of the verse and see where it takes us:

Don’t you want somebody to love, don’t you
Need somebody to love, wouldn’t you
Love somebody to love, you better
Find somebody to love.

tornadoThey did it again. The Coen Brothers have preserved my critical consistency for another review. My paperback is not in jeopardy. They ARE telling us:

Love is impossible.

Putting it all together, the Coens have given us a story world in which an informed examination of secular life leads to absurdity and an informed examination of religious life leads to absurdity. Therefore, the WHOLE of life is absurd so you better:

Find somebody to love.

But, who, in Larry Gopnik’s entire universe Loves Larry Gopnik. No one. Larry says that he has “tried to be a serious man”, what he didn’t know he meant by this is that he tried to love the people in his life. This was absurd because life is absurd.

If love is impossible, then the only thing you can know for certain is that you will never… find somebody to love.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) I’ve stretched my mind to find some way to make this story “unique” in the sense that I meant it when I designed this question. I can do it, but it would be very obvious that I were just trying to award points to the brothers because I think this script is very close to perfect, and I want the score to be as high as possible. I will resist that temptation. This question is designed to measure the creativity of the premise. A physics teacher with a certain love problem can only count for so much:

2 out of 5 points.

Part B) Once again, however, the brilliance of the writing of these brothers counterbalances the effect of the points lost in the first part of this question. The Coens are the only screenwriters I know of who treat their craft as though it were an art. I will always thank them for this. They are the empirical example of what I think screenwriting can be. Every time I get upset that John Swetnam has sold ANOTHER found footage piece of ridiculousness, I will think of the Coens.

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

At last we return to the Jewish “fable” which opens this story. Does it really mean nothing? When we first discussed the fable we ended with the idea that maybe:

“…God has cursed the world with evil, but those who fight against it are blessed [whether they win or not].”

Now that we have been through the process of the review, I think it’s fair to ask, what is the nature of this evil with which God has cursed the world? Could it be that:

Love is impossible.

COMBINED with our omnipresent need to “find somebody to love”. God has placed us into an absurd situation which does not bear any hope for resolution.

Amazingly, the Coens resist giving either of the [diametrically opposed] clichéd answers to the question they raise. In most other literature which challenges the absurdity of God’s creation, the author[s] end with a call to faith, or free will. We humans with our insufferable inability to see in anything other than black or white, respond to God’s absurdity by saying, either:

1. You have to faith in Her Will.

Or

2. You have to have faith in Our Will.

I respect the hell out of the Coens for declining both of these easy ways out. They conclude life is absurd because love is impossible and they do not shrink from the conclusion. They end with a tornado and an ominous x-ray result.

10 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 92

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