A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009) “The Comedy of Job”


What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls to tears.

Seneca, To Marcia On Consolation

The veracity of Seneca’s words can be debated upon, but they seem to fit to describe the Coen brothers character Larry’s fortune in the film. Yet, A Serious Man is a comedy. We laugh as Larry goes from a bad situation to a worse one. Coen brothers stated: “The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry.” It seems that the directors were on a ‘sadistic streak’ involving their character, but to what purpose, one may ask. Aside from their iconic black humor, Coen brothers’ films are an inquiry into human condition, either in the specific historical situation, as in Hail Caesar! or the eternal questions of human existence, like in No Country for Old Men. A Serious Man falls in the latter category; it is a film which deals with the mundane and the man’s relationship to divinity and fate (or fortune, one may say). In this film, Judaism is more present than in any other Coen brothers’ piece of work.

The film opens with a folk story in which a man comes to the house where a man and a wife live, and the wife claims that the man died a few years ago and he is a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit. She stabs him in the chest with a knife, and shortly after, he starts bleeding. Whether he is a dybbuk or not, we do not know. The Coen brothers stated that this scene does not mean much, that it just sets the tone for the film. The scene sets the tone in terms of atmosphere, but also thematically. The man who lives in the house says that he is a “rational person” and does not believe that man is a dybbuk, while his wife behavior may be termed as superstitious, although her vocabulary has religious overtones. The relationship between rationality and the irrational forces in life seems to be an important element in the film. The other imporant motif is that the folk story’s ending opens up two possibilites and we cannot be certain which one is true.

This kind of reasoning is crucial for the understanding of the film, since there is an uncertainty which permeates the film’s main character Larry. He comes home from work to his family, (he works as a physics professor at the university) and we can hear peaceful music, he watches his neighbour mowing the lawn and the setting of a typical American family is portrayed. The illusion of a perfect life is instantly crushed since his wife condescendigly tells him that she has someone else and wants a divorce. She tells him that she wants a ritual divorce, so she can marry another man and that he should “act like an adult” about it. His wife’s lover Sy patronizingly hugs him and tells him everything will be all right; Larry is forced to move to the cheap motel nearby. Forced may be a strong adjective to use, it would be more accurate to say that he complies with it.

He comes to see three Rabbis and engages with three lawyers; the rabbis represent the spiritual sphere and the lawyers the civic one. The first Rabbi is young and seems like a rather ignorant example of an ecstatic mystic. He tells him that he should change his perception and see God in things, in the parking lot for example. The second Rabbi tells him a rather long story about a dentist who found inscriptions in Yiddish on a patient’s teeth and asked for an explanation for it, the way to understand it as a sign from God. The conclusion of the second Rabbi is that one should be a good man and says that God “doesn’t owe us an answer. He doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” Larry’s confusion about the “first principles” that should guide his life’s path is equivalent to his lack of trust in everything that surrounds him.

His son gets involved in a  Columbia record scam, and his real-estate lawyer dies of heart attack when he needs to give legal advice about Larry’s home. The first lawyer Larry goes to becomes a sort of analyst who listens to his problems. The third lawyer sends him a bill for 3000$. Sy dies and Larry “has” to pay for his funeral. In short, Larry’s life gets worse and worse as “Uncle Arthur” gets involved with the police over gambling. His nightmares mirror his state of mind as he sees himself having sex with his married neighbour and Sy harassing him, practically putting a coffin on him. He dreams of himself writing formulas on the huge board and says: “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out.”

In the multiplicity of life’s misfortunes, he loses his sense of self and the way to encounter life with Lebowskian Taoist simplicity. This is simply not an option for him. The only moment when he relaxes is when he smokes marijuana with his neighbour but God (or Coen brothers in this case – it is sometimes hard to discern the two when this film is in question) does not leave the act unpunished. In the end, after he realizes that he can keep his job, although Sy was sending letters stating Larry is immoral to the university, the doctor calls him and implies that he has lung cancer.

 

The title card at the beginning of the film says: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” – Rashi. This may be an advice from Coens to their character: to stop searching for answers in the moments of misery, to reduce the complexity of chaotic life circumstences to an attitude of simplicity and renounce the need to establish divine order of things in a world, which is in itself chaotic. One should receive their misfortunes with a simplicity, like the character from a Wong Kar-wai film who compares the end of romantic relationship to the changing color of one’s hair. Or, it can be a rather cruel joke from Coens, since tortured Larry doesn’t seem to find the answer in a simple change of perception, in line with the advice from the first, young Rabbi.

 

Vigorous lines:

I haven’t done anything… 

Larry

Doing nothing is not bad. Ipso facto.

Professor at the University

 

The conversation in the context of Larry’s tenure on the university seems to be a key to understanding Larry’s character and his actions. In one way, he can be compared to the Old Testament figure of Job, who is tested by God by being afflicted various misfortunes, which makes Job lose his faith. On the other hand, he is not like Job, whose family is killed, who is assailed by deseases and ends up in the belly of a whale. Job simply cannot answer this misfortunes with actions, they are of such gravity that only passive acceptance is the way of dealing with them. Larry, on other hand, could rise up to his misfortunes and stand up for himself. He does not. His character in some ways echoes the nihilists in The Big Lebowski, who lie in the pool dressed in black and do nothing for days. In other words, in A Serious Man a Coen brothers’ vindication of passive nihilism is vivid.

The scale of Larry’s compliance to the actions of others which bring him misfortunes is admirable. He does next to nothing when confronted with the agents of his misfortunes. The philosophical or religious doctrines that preach detachment from the world, passive stance, renunciation of passions and desire, as Emil Cioran’s thought or Buddhism do, may be admirable worldviews. Yet, even Buddha had to distance himself from the position of a prince to start teaching and practicing his ideas. If one is entangled in numerous social obligations, the stance of passivity may very well be one’s downfall. Larry may had been born under an unlucky star, as the Ancients would understand it, but the degree of his suffering could have been different if he took a different stance. Nevertheless, as we learn  that Larry has cancer, his fate seems to be more similar to that of Job. The engineers of his doom are, on the other hand, Coens themselves.

 

References:


Seneca, Moral Essays Vol. 2, Harvard University Press, London, 1990

Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) “Ship of Fools”

Dr. Strangelove, based on the Peter George novel Red Alert is clearly deeply rooted in its own time; shot when Cold War was in its zenith, yet it manages to speak to us. It will speak to us as long as Doomsday Machine in the form of the nuclear arsenal possessed by the major world powers exists. When the film came out in 1964, one reviewer called it: “dangerous… an evil thing about an evil thing”. Some compared it to Soviet propaganda, while others called it implausible, since allegedly, nuclear attack could not be ordered without the knowledge of the president of the USA. Today, we know this not to be true, as the New Yorker reports.

The relevance of Dr. Strangelove is all the more clear when we consider the fact that human species has lived with the possibility of an all out nuclear conflict for decades and it may be asserted that the fear of nuclear destruction is the hidden matrix of the modern mind. The shape of the nuclear detonation may very well be incripted in our collective unconsciousness, if we follow Carl Jung’s psychology and accept that there is such a thing as collective unconsciousness. We can also say that Dr. Strangelove represents the state of the Western mind at the time of the Cold War and is an invaluable historical document, or even a documentary, since the events in the film could happen in the way it was filmed.

 Mushroom Cloud

The code that the pilots in the film get, and start a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, is supposed to be used in case Washington is attacked and the president is not in a position to order a counterattack. President Eisenhower did in fact authorize six US officers to order a nuclear attack if there is not enough time to contact the president. Secretary of Defense McNamara expressed his concern regarding the possibility of a scenario we see in Dr. Strangelove, although we may presuppose that his imagination was not up to Kubrick’s.

The Cold War strategy relevant for the understnading of the movie, mutually assured destruction (MAD) implies that the nuclear conflict would lead to annihilation of all the countries engaged in the war, regardless of the military strategies used. For example, the strategy of massive retaliation, which means that the state responds with much greater force after the initial attack, can be useless if the other state’s capacity is of equal power in terms of nuclear weaponry. Doomsday Machine, a device in the film that the Soviets planned to activate and frighten the Americans, is based on the principle of releasing chemicals in the atmosphere that could make the world inhabitable for the next 100 years. In the spirit of Dr. Strangelove’s black comedy, the Soviets planned to announce that they have the device on Monday  but General Ripper already ordered the attack. Doomsday Machine is a brilliant metaphor for the nuclear arsenal the USA and the USSR possesssed, and the unimaginable repercussions an all-out war would have on the planet.

In the film, the infamous General Ripper, states that Clemenceau was maybe right in the First World War when he said that war should not be left to the generals, but in his words, the time has come when politicans are useless and the true strategists are in the military. This is a direct attack on democratic values which postulate that military is subordinated to the civil authority and echoes Okamoto’s film Japan’s Longest Day in which part of the military stages a coup to overthrow the government and continue fighting the Pacific War. The military in Okamoto’s film postulates that the country is lead by senile and cowardly politicians who need to be overthrown so that the martial spirit of the army can lead the nation. In Dr. Strangelove, General Buck explains that in case the war breaks out civilian casualties would be “only” 10-20 million and the Soviet Union would be destroyed.

Dr. Strangelove is a former Nazi scientist originally called “Merkwürdigliebe”, in English literally  Strangelove – whose name ironically alludes to Freudian eros, while General Ripper’s name is an allusion to thanatos, the destructive death drive. Strangelove is Pentagon’s leading scientist and his role in the film is that of a warning. The president of the USA listens to his advice of eugenic nature: chances to survive the catastrophe are non-existent, unless the selected few retreat 300 meters under the surface and start a new civilization. The question is, who will get the chance. The new civilization will need experts in governance and politicians are an obvious choice – that is said in a room crowded with politicans.

Those that are the superior in intelligence and strength get the chance to survive, and the means to select them are interesting. State statistics, medical records, census, all the biopolitical tools of the modern state, speaking in Foucauldian manner, are the means to select those who are “the best” to start a new civilization. The ratio of men to women is 1:10 and only attractive women should be selected “according to their sexual characteristics… of highly stimulating nature”. The warning Kubrick gives is alarming: Western democracies may be ready to accept the ideas of its sworn ideological enemy and ensure the existence of only those considered biologically superior in the face of extinction. In other words, deep down, men value eugenic and racist inclinations more than they are prepared to admit. The civilization which accepts the eugenic principles in the face of thanatopolitics is not only engineering its own destruction in terms of physical annihilation, but moral as well. Consciously attempting to create a new race of men is a straightforward National Socialist project. Dr. Strangelove calls the US president Mein Führer in a Freudian slip and instinctively raises his hand in a Nazi salute.

 

Vigorous lines:

You know when fluoridation first began?… Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.

General Jack D. Ripper

The Telegraph writes: “Paranoia was common during the Cold War – the natural offspring of propaganda, ignorance, fear and secrecy”. The portrayal of Cold War paranoia is particularly vivid in the character of General Ripper who is obsessed with ideas of purity, contamination and losing one’s essence. He gets the idea, “during the physical act of love”, that America is losing its essence and is being physiologically contaminated by the communists via flouridation of water. He says to Mandrake, his subordinate: “Have you ever seen a commie drink a glass of water?… Vodka, that’s what they drink”.

In her article Purity of Essence in the Cold War: Dr. Strangelove, paranoia and bodily boundaries Scarlet Higgins writes: “General Ripper narrativises his move towards nuclear apocalypse through an understanding of the (male) body – physical and national – as penetrated and fragmented by the substance most necessary to its survival – water. The paranoid subject perceives the national and/or physical body as constantly under threat of penetration by dangerous foreign forces and objects”. Ripper says that seven tenths of one’s body is made of water and seven tenths of Earth’s surface is water. He does not lead it to a conclusion, but it may very well be that since the communists don’t drink water and it is intimately connected both to the preservation of human body and Earth, the communists are bound to destroy both.

Water circle

 In one of his speeches J.F. Kennedy said: “For we are opposed around the world, by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means…” In the popular culture of the time (comic books, movies, novels), in the most popular genres, the political speeches, the signs of a paranoid structure of thought can be discerned. This can be easily understood through the fact that for the first time in history of mankind, the humanity has been lead to the possibility of complete annihilation. At the end of the film, when the bombs are falling on the Soviet Union, a pilot jumps along with the bomb, snaking and twisting as if on a rodeo horse, with a cowboy hat on his head, accompanied by a jazz tune. Kubrick majestically shows radical evil in a comic manner, and potrays how civilization ends; by forfeiting its own values, surrendering to the death drive and backed by a jazz tune.

 

References:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/bridge-of-spies/cold_war_paranoia

Scarlet Higgins, Purity of Essence in the Cold War: Dr. Strangelove, paranoia and bodily boundaries, Textual Practice, Vol. 32, 2018