Thursday, October 22, 2009

A SERIOUS MAN. I see that my Voice colleagueElla Taylor* finds in this movie "an avalanche of Ugly Jew iconography." As a goy semitophile raised on Mad magazine, I see it as an overdeveloped Dave Berg cartoon.

I assume the Coens, whom I have always suspected of being heavy stoners and ultracosmopolitan Jews, made a conscious decision to people their latest morality play with 60s-vintage intraJewish stereotypes -- like the hero of Frank Gallop's "Irving" parody of "Ringo", like characters in late Molly Picon vehicles such as Paris Is Out, and on the trailing edge of early Woody Allen routines, like Russo ("they wanted all his cash, and Russo like a jerk tried to sign for it for tax purposes").

In other words, the Coens picked 60s suburban American Jews because they are easy and harmless figures of fun that automatically provide some comic distance to the general audience -- like the Minnesotans of Fargo (Joel Coen called Minnesota, recall, "Siberia with family restaurants"), the white trash of Raising Arizona, the sorta-50s, sorta-40s city slickers of The Hudsucker Proxy, etc.

We may have been un-reminded by the serious cred afforded to No Country for Old Men that this has always been their schtick: to pick a stereotype and, while staying conscious of the reality behind it, fuck around with it. No one bitches about The Big Lebowski (still my favorite Coen joint) because no one feels the need to defend Cali stoner culture, but in A Serious Man the Coens have done no more to, or with, American Jews than they did with Lebowksi to a different, Anti-Defamation League-deprived constituency.

Setting the self-hating Jew nonsense aside, what do we have? In a way, a twist on Barton Fink. The humorously Semitic caricature-hero Michael Stuhlbarg in this case -- bespectacled, hair only slightly less unruly than Fink's, academic, and passive -- is more schlimazel than schlemiel; that is, the one on whom the hapless schlemiel spills his soup.

Where Fink in his Hollywood quest ran a gauntlet mostly of equally-alienated strangers, Stuhlbarg is persecuted by local fellow Semites -- the nightmarishly insensitive family, the paranoiac and physically challenged brother, his wife's vaguely bohemian and thoroughly ruthless lover, and a variety of Jewish professionals (lawyers, rabbis) who defend their own position against his interest. While Fink found himself in a foreign, sun-drenched goyische paradise/hell, Stuhlbarg is comfortable and happy in his 60s-suburban development until everything and everyone he's been accustomed to trust turns against him.

Big difference there: Fink went looking for the promised land, whereas Stuhlbarg merely wants to stay on the tenure track. Fink finds his new environment disastrously unaccommodating; stay-at-home Stuhlbarg is genuinely betrayed. In short, Fink went looking for trouble, and trouble went looking for Stuhlbarg.

This might promote the notion that the Coens' lead Jew here is a total victim, but for the complementary story arc of his son, a weed-smoking rock-loving Yeshiva boy who not only enlists the support of the top rabbi -- with whom his hapless father can't even get an appointment -- but manages, despite seemingly incapacitating stonage, to read the Torah aloud at his Bar Mitzvah.

Stuhlbarg fils is the counterweight to Stuhlbarg pere's agony. Confronted by his own, junior-grade authority figures (teachers, dealer, sister), he is perfectly and by brute instinct able to handle them. His self-preserving instinct -- untroubled by the moral querulousness that has his dad running among authority figures, seeking existential answers -- lifts him above all the conventions that make his dad a schlimazel. He's nowhere near as smart or conscientious as his father, but is clearly destined to work through the maze of life more successfully. And for his father he shows nothing but contempt.

This -- as does much of A Serious Man -- seems a first merely a cruel Oedipal joke. Dad's search for truth leads only to suffering; Son's search for good dope and better reception of F Troop leads to comfort and a promising future.

The punchline, though, is a little more interesting. Without spoiling too much, I'll say that the father finally agonizes out of the weeds only to find an unexpected new obstacle; the son, meanwhile, appears to have his ducks very comfortably in a row when a natural disaster -- looming over the shoulder of one of his former antagonists -- seems to threaten his future.

I'm not sure that this isn't just a Dave Berg punchline: the smartass kid getting his comeuppance in the final frame. It might be my own lack of depth is assessing it, but I think the Coens rolled too much on instinct here. They clearly wanted the morally-concerned nebbish-patriarch to fail -- and heaped externalities on him to make sure of it -- while they wanted the morally-neutral son to succeed. That reflects a sour home-truth that fits with most of their movies. (Fargo is a big, and popular, exception.) But it seems they wanted a cop-out, too, in the form of a climactic tornado, and in the post-9/11 era that's about as cheap a dodge as you can get. What if the boy simply outstripped his dad?

Maybe the Coens felt the stereotypes they were playing with hit too close to home, and summoned a disaster to rescue them. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened in the movies. But it's a shame to see a few of our best filmmakers fudging like that.

(* Fixed attribution)


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  2. I'm now of two minds on A Serious Man.

    For a long while now, I've seen it through the prism of the opening fable: Stuhlbarg is in the process of becoming a figurative dybbuk. When he cedes the power of his impending tenure by changing the grade of his crappy student, the process is complete. And then Stuhlbarg goes one further. He has to add that minus sign. He draws a line in the sand, as it were, when he has just given up the right to have that power. It's an aping of the swift blow for personhood and integrity the Russian wife performs without hesitation in the beginning, but under the circumstances in the end, it's incredibly offensive in this world. And the consequences are swift from his God. Do you want to be taken seriously, Stuhlbarg? OK, this is me taking you seriously.

    But your reference to the schlimazel-schlemiel relationship has given me something to think about. If Stahlbarg is the schlimazel, who's the schlemiel? In A Serious Man, the answer is obvious: God. Perhaps that's the lesson Stahlbarg's son learns in the final moments of the film. His successful navigation of the pitfalls of adolescence is for nothing. His God is a clumsy God.