Monday, November 30, 2009

Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Modern Job

by Brandon Colvin

Despite being the least stylized, most aesthetically conventional example of the Coen Bros’ auteur-tastic cinema, A Serious Man is so damn unusual that it might be their most radical, difficult film.

Pondering the film’s (intentionally) obscure narrative and thematic intricacies is akin to stretching one’s brain around an elusive (meta-) physical paradox, encouraging what could be called a “quantum” viewing experience, one hinging upon the fundamental principle of underlying uncertainty—the principle that defines the existence of A Serious Man’s pathetically unfortunate protagonist, Jewish mathematics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Overcast with a complex and complicating membrane of impenetrable spiritual and existential malaise, A Serious Man narrates Larry’s Job-like downward spiral with exceeding intrigue while being more than a little disjointed. As one might observe upon viewing A Serious Man, however, the film’s puzzling disunity may be the Coens’ exact intention, the narrative fulfillment of physics theories and mathematics proofs that suggest our universe is indomitably chaotic.

Larry, an archetypical conventional mensch plodding through a banal existence in suburban Minneapolis c. 1970, finds himself in the midst of a vertiginous descent into an inescapable abyss of mind-crippling, heartbreaking, soul-crushing inscrutability. Beset by fate or randomness or Hashem (God) or nothingness, Larry suffers a series of mounting crises, from the dissolution of his marriage to the bizarre death of his wife’s (Sari Lennick) manstress to his extortion at the hands of frustrated Korean student (David Kang) to his accruing debt and failing attempt to earn tenure.

Attempting to model himself after and seek advice from the “serious” Jews around him—including a slew of ineffectual rabbis, uncaring community leaders, and his wife’s self-important lover, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed)—Larry probes the (non?)meaning behind his misery, fruitlessly investigating the confusing collision of religious enigma and cryptic mathematics showering ambiguous shrapnel all around him. Though his questioning is undertaken in earnest, it is also darkly hilarious—ironic and biting in its unrelenting honesty, sharply devastating in its unsolvable futility. Larry’s tribulations are, like A Serious Man as a whole, tonally paradoxical, both emotionally-lacerating and cackle-inducing—as ambivalent as the uncertain universe its characters populate.

This elusive universe is best interpreted according to two complimentary quantum concepts discussed by Larry in his lectures: the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The first is a thought experiment revolving around the indeterminacy of atomic particles, specifically the unpredictability of radioactive decay. Schrödinger explained that if a cat were locked in a box with a device that released a tiny amount of radioactive substance that could cause atomic decay (but might not), after a certain amount of time, the cat could theoretically be either alive or dead. Because the decay is unpredictable, one could not know for certain. In this instance, with the box locked, the cat is both alive and dead, demonstrating the quantum concept of superposition—the overlapping coexistence of multiple outcomes/realities—in concrete, macrocosmic terms. The cat is not either living or dead; it is both. That is, until one opens the box.

There are, however, some boxes that cannot be opened. Their contents remain immeasurable. Larry’s trials constitute such a “box,” and, as Heisenberg suggests in his uncertainty principle, as he seems to begin comprehending some aspects of the universe, the others retreat from his grasp with ferocious intensity. Nothing can be pinned down for sure. It is always shifting, always indefinite. This is the reality of A Serious Man.

The film’s bizarre prologue establishes the nature of the narrative’s ambiguous circumstances before Larry even appears onscreen. A 15-minute Jewish parable taking place in 19th Century Poland, A Serious Man’s introductory scene depicts the eerie experience a curmudgeonly couple has with what is either a man or a dybbuk (demon) masquerading as a man. The husband (Allen Lewis Rickman), who has offered the entity (Fyvush Finkel) entrance into his home in order to repay its previous kindness, believes it to be human, a local acquaintance. His wife (Yelena Shmulenson) is convinced it is a dybbuk, citing evidence that the man in question is three years dead. The husband remains skeptical.

As they debate, the entity remains seated in a chair, until, suddenly, the wife stabs it through the heart with an ice pick. The entity’s reaction is curious. At first, it does not bleed; it merely chuckles. The wife notes the lack of blood. Suddenly, red begins staining the entity’s shirt, rippling out from the wound. Befuddled and bleeding, the entity leaves into the snowy cold, remarking that it knows when it is unwelcome. Horrified, the husband worries what will happen when the body is found in the morning, feeling his wife has committed murder. Confidently, the wife remarks that she has merely forced evil out of the house. The entity is presented as both man and dybbuk. The Coens leave the box unopened.

Despite a few clichéd moments, a couple of bland dream sequences, and a handful of unnecessarily canted angles, A Serious Man proves to be an intriguing entry in the Coens’ oeuvre. Like Job, Larry and the viewer never receive an answer to the persistent “why?”

All that is displayed in the awesomely destructive power of the universe/Hashem/uncertainty, epitomized by A Serious Man’s stunningly unexpected conclusion. Whether one is a pot-smoking teenager, like Larry’s good-for-nothing son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), or a whacked-out numerological quack, like Larry’s brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), the universe remains incalculable, even with the assistance of Danny’s marijuana or Arthur’s garbled prophecy, The Mentaculus.

No solution is stable. Threats await in the form of racist neighbors, bullies, unfulfilled sexual liaisons, car crashes, subscription scams, lawsuits, anonymous defamatory letters, natural disasters, and x-ray results only delivered in-person. Though Larry is “trying to be” a serious man, he is left dangling over an abyss of obscurity, just like the viewer. There is only uncertainty; and, perhaps, even that is uncertain.


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