Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man: Taking a Page from Winslow Homer

I saw A Serious Man in a serious city, New Haven, CT, surrounded by a sober audience of middle-aged and older, white men and women, many of the Jewish persuasion, who laughed loudly and often. I laughed a lot too, at the wit and wisdom of this cinematic middle-class Jewish community in suburban Minnesota, 1967.

It captures the Jewish spirit—-questioning, arguing, wry, witty, respectful, communal, tribal, educated—in a spirited way. The storytelling is so artful that the charge of “stereotype” never crossed my mind. Archetype (in a loose sense of the word), maybe, given how well-drawn the characters are.

Critics in an Indiewire poll have voted Serious as the year’s best film, but there are serious charges of anti-Semitism by several critics:

Denby, The New Yorker: “As a piece of moviemaking craft, “A Serious Man” is fascinating; in every other way, it’s intolerable. . . . . The Coens’ humor is distant, dry, and shrivelling, and they make the people so drably unappealing that you begin to wonder what kind of disgust the brothers are working off.”

Ella Taylor, Village Voice: “. . . the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews (even the movie's obligatory anti-Semite looks handsome by comparison) carries A Serious Man into the realm of the truly vicious. The production notes are larded with the Coen Brothers' disclaiming protestations of affection for their hapless characters, but make no mistake: We're being invited to share in their disgust. And God help the rube who can't take the joke.”

If Taylor had ANY understanding of this film her last sentence would have been, “And Hashem help the rube . . .” echoing the Jewish conversational use of “the Name” for G-d that is said over and over throughout the film. Clearly she has a tin ear for this entire story.

A Job for Our Times
The tale revolves around Larry Gopnik, a university physics professor whose life is imploding: he’s up for tenure, while a student tries to bribe him and an anonymous poison-pen writer denigrates him to the tenure committee; his wife is leaving him; his brother is unemployed and picked-up for loitering of a possibly sinister nature; he’s fighting legal battles on several fronts, straining his already strapped budget; his son and daughter are teenagers.

The big questions of the “whys” of life’s vicissitudes are part of the story’s fabric. He looks for guidance from the Rabbis, and doesn’t find much there, except for a great tale about messages etched in the backed of a goy’s teeth.

Larry is frightened and bewildered that he is having so many troubles, because he knows that he is a good person. The most telling proof of that is in the movie poster image for the film, Larry on the roof of his house, near the tv antenna. Critics have deconstructed this image for the bleakness and isolation of modern life. But I see it differently. He’s up there because his brat of a son has repeatedly asked him to fix the reception so that he can watch F Troop. It’s an act of kindness and generosity by a father for a son.

This Is Where Homer Comes In

The film is filled with surprising twists, as characters’ actions impact one another like bumper cars and the unfolding of Burn After Reading. The ending is surprising in its own way.


The film ends completely unresolved, like a song with an unresolved chord: a tornado is coming, and the son has yet to get to the shelter; Larry gets a hint from the chair of the tenure committee that “he will not be displeased tomorrow”; he gets a call from his doctor about x-rays taken in the first scene, and the doc says he must come in now to discuss. Cut to black.

Is he going to get tenure, and get that part of his life on track, and/or does he have some terrible disease, and/or is his son going to be hurt/killed in the storm?

This ending brought to mind a famous painting by Winslow Homer called “The Gulf Stream.” In it, a black man is lying on a small boat with no mast and no rudder amidst shark-infested waves, as a tornado funnel is approaching in the distance. A ship is faintly seen in the other corner of the canvas (very hard to see in this picture).

My brother had a print of this painting, because it hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he bought in on a school trip. For some reason my father once looked at it with me, and I vividly remember him saying, “ What’s going to happen? Is the storm going to get him, or the sharks, or is the ship going to save him first?” I looked at that print for hours, to see if I could find a clue to what was most likely to happen.

The Coen’s ending is pretty similar, don’t you think?


I’ve been reading more about Homer and the Gulf Stream painting. Most of the commentary on the painting speaks of the ship as distant, unseeing, uncaring, sailing away from the human in need. My father definitely thought it was possible that the ship could save the man.

But then my father was of Irish descent, and we all know about the soul bonding between the Irish and the Jews. Anything with Hashem is possible.

It turns out that Dad was right. This is from a letter from Homer to his art dealer:

“You can tell these ladies that the unfortunate negro who is now so dazed & parboiled, will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.”

Hopefully our Larry will be as lucky.