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

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) “Tragic Character of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz”

Preliminary remarks: There are several different versions of Apocalypse Now, including the theatrical release, the Redux version which is 53 minutes longer than the original and the 259 minutes long “VHS” version, which is now all but lost. This article is based on the Redux version, while the ending of the VHS version will be mentioned, and will be crucial to the interpretation. The Redux version significantly changes the film thematically, it draws the film closer to the book on which it is based, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

While speaking in Cannes, Francis Ford Coppola said that the film was not about Vietnam, it was Vietnam. The very conditions of the shooting resembled the madness of war so closely that, in the words of the director, the crew went mad. In the famous documentary about the making of the film Hearts of Darkness: Filmmaker’s Apocalypse Coppola said that they had too much money, too much equipment and that the crew (and Coppola himself) descended into madness step by step.

Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the shooting and Coppola’s response was that no one was allowed to have a heart attack on his set. Quentin Tarantino said that this was the moment when Coppola’s madness had started. When interpreting the film, one can take into consideration various sets of ideas which put a different light on the movie. The emphasis could be laid on the clash of civilizations, the critique of imperialism, the Vietnam war and the character study of Lt. Kurtz. This interpretation will connect the last two and focus on Lt. Kurtz, an army officer deeply commited to his ideals and his descent into the abbys.

In the remarkable opening scene we see the trees in the wind and The Doors’ song The End is playing. The forest is soon engulfed in flames and the face of captain Willard (Martin Sheen) appears which conveys emptiness bordering on despair. He is naked, drunk and dancing, breaks the mirror and his hand is bloodied.  He is shown in the most vulnerable position and says that, very hour he spends in the room he gets weaker, while they get stronger. We see a gun and from the very beginning we understand that we are in the realm of thanatos and despair.

 

He is taken by the army and set upon a task to find and assassinate an army officer named Kurtz who resides deep in the jungles of Cambodia an whose methods, as the army officer says, have become unsound. Kurtz is accused of ordering assassinations of the Vietnamese intelligence agents he believed to be working for the enemy. It is important to note that in contrast to Marlow, who in the novel Heart of Darkness embarks on an imperialist journey in Africa as an advanturer, Willard’s journey is not of his own will. This can be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that the Americans were “thrown” into Vietnam without choice, considering the balance of powers. This thesis is soon rejected when we hear Willard’s thoughts: It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory any more than being back in Saigon was an accident.

Willard’s superiors emphasize that Kurtz was brilliant and outstanding in every way, but has “obviously gone insane”. We hear Kurtz’s words on the cassete player:

I watched a snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor and surviving… But we must kill them. We must incinerate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. And they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie and we have to be merciful to those who lie. Those nabobs. I do hate them.

Nabobs were British governors in East India, wealthy individuals who worked for the East India Company. Here, we witness the first reference to imperialism and Kurtz associating the Americans with imperialist powers. A snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor is a metaphor for Kurtz’s own condition and the Americans in Vietnam. His words can be compared to the condition of the crew working on the film in the Phillipines, going mad step by step. Kurtz advocates mass killings, the destruction of animals, villages and armies; he sees hypocrisy and lies around him and proclaims the Last Judgment in the Christ-like manner, as Michelangelo depicted it in his fresco in the Sistine Chapel. His agenda is annihilation as a reaction to the utter moral corruption and meaningless destruction. At the end of the film, we can see the following words written in blood on a temple wall: Apocalypse Now! A military officer says to Willard: “Out there with these natives, there must be a temptation to be God.” This is the very definition of hubris which for the Greeks meant the will to become like gods.

Willard’s first reaction to the order to assassinate Kurtz was: Shit, charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. As Willard reads documents on Kurtz he finds out that he graduated on Harvard with a thesis on the Philippine uprising in 1898. The American invasion of the Philippines in the end of the 19th century was clearly an imperialist conquest. This is the second allusion in the film which associates Kurtz with the critique of imperialism. In the famous scene in which the American helicopters invade a Vietnamese village and Wagner plays on the stereos the American understanding of the spectacle is more than evident.

 

The spectacle and the killings merge in an all-out show wich when compared with the scene with the Playboy bunnies portrays the interplay of eros, thanatos and spectacle. The scene in which a military officer explains how they bombarded the hill for hours and found out that there was nothing there, and that the smell later was of victory shows the non-utilitarian destruction which was commonplace in Vietnam. Hannah Arendt in her book Imperialism writes: “The most radical and the only secure form of possession is destruction for only what we have destroyed is safely and forever ours.”

The vision of French soldiers in the mist, which appears only in the Redux version of the film, casts a new light on the narration. Now, the allusion to imperialism is explicit. We can conclude that the scene with the French was important for Coppola from the beginning, since he mentions it in the documentary, but somehow it did not reach the theatrical version. The French are presented as phantasms of the past, who refuse to leave Vietnam, although the situation for them is hopeless. They persist with the idea that Vietnam is their home, that they cannot and will not leave. They discuss the foreign policies of their country with Willard and criticize the American endeavour as a fight “for the biggest nothing in history”. The old Frenchman keeps on saying I know that we can stay… We can stay…

 

Vigorous line:

The horror, the horror…

(said in a whisper)

Colonel Kurtz

At the very end of the movie, when Willard comes to the temple where Kurtz resides with his followers, Willard sees bodies hanged, heads on the ground and a deranged photojournalist who speaks frantically about Kurtz, calling him “a warrior poet” and recalling the scene when Kurtz wanted to kill him. Willard is in contact with a plane squadron bearing a suggestive name “Almighty”, which is prepared to bomb the temple, Kurtz and his followers. This reference to the Divine is a suggestion that Kurtz is a false deity, a golden calf, and the Americans are called upon to restore the Divine order by destroying the idolatry and restoring the true order. It can also be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that  hubris of the Americans is even greater than that of Kurtz. The Americans see themselves as the impersonation of the Divine will and thus their will to be gods is absolute.

When Willard meets Kurtz, his silence is indicative. He was mesmerized by Kurtz while reading documents about him and when he meets him he is captivated by the grandiose image Kurtz projects. Kurtz says that his allies are “horror” and “moral terror”. It is obvious that his motives are of moral nature and the reading of late Nietzche’s philosophy strongly suggests that crimes done in the name of morality are the most atrocious. Speaking of his recollections when he saw the Vietnamese cutting the arms of inoculated children, Kurtz speaks of the purity of the act and the bravery those men were capable of. He is the only one who refers to the Vietnamese as men, while the rest of the characters dehumanize them (gooks). What is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of Apocalypse Now is the easiness with which Coppola transposed the behaviour of the Europeans toward African natives from Heart of Darkness  to the Vietnamese setting. Kurtz says that he can be killed, but cannot be judged; this is most probably a direct reference to Nietzsche’s Will to Power in which he wrote that for nihilism to be prevailed, values that pass judgment must be prevailed as well.

In stark contrast to the ending of Heart of Darkness in which Marlow lies to Kurtz’s wife about his demise, Colonel Kurtz wants Willard to tell his son the truth about him. The question which needs to be posed is whether the truth about someone so inhuman yet all-too-human can be said to those who live in the comforts of civilization. This is one of the tragic elements of Kurtz’s destiny. During the scene in which by brilliant editing (cross-cutting) Willard’s murder of Kurtz is shown (who wanted to die like Socrates, if we are to believe Nietzsche), it is juxtaposed to the ritual slaughter of an animal. This suggests that Kurtz’s murder is also of ritual nature; in ancient civilizations the ritual slaughter of an animal was associated with an act of purifiction. Thus, Kurtz’s murder is puryfing, in the first place for him, since his life had become a circle of death and madness without end. His last whispers the horror, the horror, suggest that proposition.

When considering Nietzsche’s philosophy, it is necessary to highlight the distinction considering the word “tragic”, which exists in Croatian language. These are “tragično” and “tragičko”. The first one denotes the everyday use of the word “tragic”, which borders on banal. On the other hand, “tragičko” is characteristic of Nietzsche’s philosophy which foresees a tragic age (which existed in the pre-Socratic Greece) which will be the age of great purification, outbursts of genius and creative energy, but also the destructive age abundant with horrors and disasters.

Nietzsche saw Greek tragedy as the affirmation of life, but it must be highlighted that tragic characters in, for example, Aeschylus’ tragedies brought their fate upon themselves by their hubris. The same is implied for Kurtz; when he accepted to play role of a deity for the natives (as have all the imperialist powers) he precipitated his doom. The tragedy of Walter E. Kurtz is that the best of us can be tempted, fail to resist and fall into the horror of darkness. When Kurtz is killed, Willard sees a book in which the following written: Drop the bomb, exterminate them all. In the longest version of the film, the natives surrender and nevertheless, the bomb is dropped on them and they are all exterminated, as is vividly shown as a spectacle in the ending credits. Allmighty strikes, and the “Divine Order” of annihilation is established.