“The films of the Coen brothers seem to take place in a postmodern Chelm, displaced chronologically and geographically.”
There’s an old Jewish joke from Czarist Russia, here altered slightly from the version that appears in Ruth R. Wisse’s book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero:
The Battle of Tannenburg was at its height when a czarist officer drew up his company and addressed them.“The moment has come! We’re going to charge the enemy. It’ll be man against man in hand to hand combat.” In the company was a Jewish soldier who was not fond of the czar or his war.“Please sir, show me my man!” he cried, “Perhaps I can come to an understanding with him.”
The Jewish soldier, of course, is a fool, but so is the czarist officer, and, ultimately, the Czar himself, along the whole damned mess of a Gentile world he’s involved in. The schlemiel’s desperate naiveté makes a mockery of something as unbearable as tyranny or impending death. Of course, the Jew’s plea to reason is futile, but that’s all part of the grand joke, and besides, knocking a Gentile authority figure like the Czar’s military down a few pegs is worth the futility, especially with tongue firmly in cheek.
Cinema’s equivalents of a Czar — i.e., a looming, powerful force with a non-Jewish bent — often comes in the form of directors, movie stars, and franchises, but genres can function in the same way. The western, as a pillar of American cinematic culture, largely stands on its own, now that John Ford and the like have come and gone, and filmmakers have spent the last forty years largely making commentaries on the western, like conflicting biographies of the same celebrity. The western genre is itself an authority figure, and an undeniably Gentile one, which, in the solid tradition of Jewish humor, makes it not only a potential threat to Jewish livelihood and identity, but an open target for shameless mockery. Mel Brooks realized this in 1974 when he made Blazing Saddles, and the Coen brothers have followed in his footsteps, spending the bulk of their career turning proud American genre films — the western, the film noir, the gangster thriller, the screwball comedy — into dark, ironic mockeries.
Despite their roots in a centuries-old tradition of Jewish humorists (and their surname), there is a surprising lack of explicit Jewishness in the Coens’ films. They do, however, still treat their characters with as much cynicism and anxious distance as more obviously Jewish comic filmmakers like Woody Allen do, which has led many critics — sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly — to call them condescending. It’s easy — too easy — to imagine these two Jewish brothers scoffing at the idiotic Gentiles that populate their films, smugly robbing stylistic techniques from the more profound storytellers they studied in film school, and dismiss them as crass, sadistic snobs.
The brothers’ most recent film, A Serious Man, is nearly an inverse of their previous work, at least in religious demographics — there are scarcely more than half a dozen Gentiles in the entire film. Yet everyone is just as inane, just as expendable, just as foolish as all the other people the Coens have run through the wringer of their imagination. Freud cited self-deprecation as one of the unique defining qualities of Jewish humor: “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.” Where earlier Coens films are mockeries of Gentile genres (e.g., The Big Lebowski and film noir), A Simple Man is a mockery of the Jewish art film, which they previously half-attempted with their Palme d’Or-winning Barton Fink, and, by extension, Jewish intellectualism in all its forms. This is the closest the Coens have come to baring their soul, the film where they finally turn their harsh grimace on themselves. Considering that much of the literature on the Coens films tends to focus on their inconsistent status as independent film artists, A Serious Man should prompt a re-evaluation of their earlier work in terms of their place in the continuing evolution of Jewish comedy, which is where they are most comfortable and successful.
Mimicry and Assimilation
One episode of Seinfeld revolved around the concept of “shiksappeal,” the alluring power a Gentile woman (a shiksa) has over Jewish men. Certainly Woody Allen is no stranger to this, with nearly every one of his films that he personally starred in featuring him lusting and longing after a female WASP, sometimes played by Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow. There’s even a scene during the end credits of What‘s Up, Tiger Lily? where he watches China Lee do a striptease. Allen’s short film, Oedipus Wrecks (the third portion of 1989’s short film collection New York Stories), offers a reason: Jewish men don’t want to be with Jewish women because they remind them of their mothers. Thus shiksappeal, the desire to be closer to the sexy Gentile than to your Jewish parents. Elaine May mercilessly satirized this strange Jewish male behavior in The Heartbreak Kid (recently remade by the Farrelly brothers into an unfunny, generic sex comedy), and Jerry Lewis practically made a career out of his insatiable desire to be a suave Gentile man who could woo the ladies. Allen himself pokes fun at this desire to assimilate — such as in the dinner scene in Annie Hall, the masterful Zelig, or the Anglo-Jewish hybrid character name “Fielding Mellish” in Sleeper — but he can escape neither the lust for Gentile social position nor the neurotic urge to be accepted outside Jewish circles. This is why he’s spent so much of his career impersonating Fellini and Bergman.
Joel and Ethan Coen, likewise, have made genuine attempts to assimilate into Gentile-oriented narrative forms. Their most successful was Miller‘s Crossing, a pseudo-noir that has a reputation for either winding up on Top Ten lists or being dismissed as style over substance. While Miller‘s Crossing does feature Jewish characters, they are mostly incidental to the story, the third part of an early twentieth-century ethnic immigrant triad: Irish, Italians, and Israelites. The Coens toy with some religious imagery, contrasting Judaism with Catholicism, but it’s largely in the background, and analyses of the film in terms of Christian dogma seem overreaching and flimsy. The film’s emotional core, and what makes it more than simply a genre exercise, is that the Coens turn two tough-as-nails Dashiell Hammett novels (The Glass Key, Red Harvest) into a tense tragedy about same-sex love between dangerous men. It’s not as sincere as A Serious Man — or even The Big Lebowski — and the implied joke that noir maybe isn’t so tough because all the men are secretly a little gay is a tad troublesome, but Miller‘s Crossing is the Coens’ best film that can reasonably be called a non-comedy.
Then again, the Coens have only made three films that could rightly be called non-comedies, the most recent of which was the over-praised No Country for Old Men, for which the Coens won an Academy Award for Best Picture. The film’s lack of Jewish characters is as incidental as Miller‘s Crossing having them — if a Jew had turned up in No Country for Old Men, he or she almost certainly would have been slaughtered by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), probably before the audience even had time to figure out that a Jew was on screen. This is the Coens’ most serious film, a Gentile horror western filtered through a comic-book version of film noir, where all the Coens’ trademark touches — such as the gawking teenagers who witness Chigurh’s car accident — are painfully incongruous. Aside from Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones, both of whom give excellent performances, the film’s merits are almost entirely due to Cormac McCarthy’s novel and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. The Coens’ only other non-comedy is their first feature, Blood Simple, a noir western of sorts that, in hindsight, feels like an overlong dry run for No Country for Old Men.
It’s telling that all three Coen non-comedies involve convoluted plots where everyone either winds up dead or hopeless, making them, essentially, non-comic screwball comedies — screwball tragedies, perhaps. The Coens have shown a greater affinity for the screwball comedy than any other genre, and specifically the Gentile-dominated strain popularized by Preston Sturges. The Coens never indulge in the uniquely Jewish screwball anarchy of the Marx brothers, and they also have a strange compulsion to hybridize the screwball with other typically Gentile genres. Raising Arizona, their first and still best screwball, is a western with an even more twisted plot than No Country for Old Men, but it works better comedically as a parody of the western genre than it does as an actual heir to the 1930s and ’40s screwball.
The Coens’ other screwballs all have their hilarious moments, but they’re generally unsuccessful for one reason or another. The Hudsucker Proxy is a caricature of Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies, which are so harebrained and splendidly ridiculous that the Coens add little to the mix by exaggerating what are already nearly self-caricatures anyway, and Intolerable Cruelty does the same for Sturges. The Ladykillers is an unsophisticated remake of a British classic, though, as an experiment, it has a certain value: who would have otherwise predicted that American screwball zaniness would blend so awkwardly with post-War Ealing Studios zaniness? The closest the brothers have come to repeating their success with Raising Arizona is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which, again, is not due to the Coens’ skill with the screwball, but their shameless skewering of Gentile authority (Homeric epics and the South in general, though O Brother errs on the side of too insulting for its own good).
The film that finally proved that the Coens’ black comedy was totally incompatible with the screwball format was, appropriately enough, their most recent screwball, showing that the brothers maybe haven’t yet realized that they’ve grown out of their hand-me-downs. Burn After Reading, their worst film and their first after winning a Best Picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men, is a commentary on the screwball as much as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is a commentary on the western, but, as Jon Lanthier noted in his review of the film in Bright Lights After Dark, screwballs hinge largely on the concept of the plot doing a pratfall. In a slapstick comedy — screwball’s less cerebral cousin — the actor may do a tumble off the side of a steamboat and land on a passing dinghy, defying our expectations regarding the laws of physics. In screwballs, the plot serves the same function, tumbling through logic. However, when Buster Keaton does a tumble, he always turns up again, unharmed, either in the same scene or the next. The plot of an effective screwball, likewise, comes full circle — or, more accurately, full pretzel — and usually ends with everyone getting married or becoming rich, and frequently both. Burn After Reading chucks this gleeful optimism out the window in favor of the brothers’ more typical penchant for watching their idiotic characters suffer hopelessly. When Burn After Reading‘s plot does a tumble, it falls off the boat and dies horribly.
Kafka and Galgenhumor
A.O. Scott of The New York Times described A Serious Man as written and structured like a farce and shot and edited like a horror film. Fear and laughter, of course, are close cousins, both stemming from anxiety we experience when the predictions our brains constantly make about the world are suddenly and inexplicably jolted. The woman in the James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters was clearly a dunce when she said — in reference to Whale’s comic horror masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein — that films should either be scary or funny, but not both at the same time. Even if it were sound advice, it would be impossible to execute given the subjective difference between the two: I find Friday the 13th unintentionally funny and the lightweight documentary Spellbound positively horrifying, and I know people who thought Fargo was hilarious but stifled their laughter the first time they saw it because other people in the room thought it was “serious.”
The Coens hardly see a difference between horror and farce, and if they do, A Serious Man has them in such balance that it’s impossible to separate them. This seems to echo Woody Allen’s joke in Annie Hall that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable, but the Coens’ outlook is actually closer to Kafka than it is to Allen or Sturges or any of their cinematic models. The hapless hero of A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), fits Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of a Kafkan hero to a T: a man who, for reasons never explained, suddenly has horrible things happen to him one after another, with everything getting worse and worse until his life is destroyed. In Kafka’s novels — and the finest adaptation of one of them to the screen, Orson Welles’s The Trial — this typically involves a descent into a surrealistic nightmare world that’s not only as hysterically funny as it is unbearably frightening, but funny precisely because it’s frightening. This is the basic format of A Serious Man (Barton Fink is Kafkaesque, but not as wholly). The police chief’s reaction to a speakeasy raid in Miller‘s Crossing is appropriate: “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Kakfan heroes are shlimazels (i.e. people with chronic, inexplicable bad luck who fail at everything because of it), and tragic ones at that. The shlimazel’s natural partner, the schlemiel, often pops up in the Coens’ films: The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski, H. I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) in Raising Arizona, and all their other bumbling protagonists whose lack of understanding and lazy optimism constantly get them into ridiculous jams. These are typically the Coens’ most likeable characters — the exceptions being Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo, who is not a schlemiel, and Barton Fink (John Turturro), who is not likeable — continuing a narrative tradition that can be directly traced back at least to the early nineteenth century. As Ruth R. Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (the title of which says a lot about the Coens’ films), the schlemiels of Jewish jokes and stories “are simpletons, provoking our recognition that in an insane world, the fool may be the only morally sane man.” It’s a cruel twist of fate — or sadistic screenwriting — that A Serious Man combines the Kafkan hero with Wisse’s hero: Larry Gopnik is both schlemiel and shlimazel, his life being destroyed both by his own foolish bungling and cosmic bad luck.
It’s all in the name of Galgenhumor, the German word for “gallows humor” used by Ashkenazim to describe their comic response to death. I use the term to distinguish it from American gallows humor, which is rooted more in schadenfreude than suffering. This is perhaps the single most important attribute of Jewish humor, the ability to greet horror with irony, and it turns up in everything from Yiddish folk tales to Sholem Aleichem’s short stories to Mel Brooks’ musical numbers. As countless writers have already said, one of the reasons the Jews survive so well, even under oppression disproportionate to other ethnic groups of similar size, is their indomitable comic spirit. Laughter is protest, mourning, and catharsis all in one.
The particular strand of Galgenhumor the Coens specialize in has usually been directed at Gentiles, and it often seems that they simply create characters for the sole purpose of laughing at their pain. A Serious Man highlights the empathy between the brothers and their characters that was always there in the first place: set in a Jewish Minnesota neighborhood like the one they grew up in, there’s no doubt that the Coens are the characters in the film. When Larry Gopnik’s life begins to fall apart, the Coens aren’t laughing at their marionette getting pelted with tomatoes — they’re masochistically enacting their own pains and sorrows. Their Gentile characters often cloud this connection, but gallows humor is rarely all that funny when it’s directed at others. That’s just sadism, and the Coens do occasionally indulge in it (e.g., the brutish hitman in Intolerable Cruelty accidentally committing suicide). The core of true Galgenhumor is the intense empathy between sufferer and viewer, and this is what makes all good Coen comedies tick.
Stereotypes, Stock Characters, and Authority Figures
European Jews often joked about the town of Chelm, a Polish village where everyone was impossibly foolish. It’s said that, after God made the earth and gave an angel all possible wisdom in one bag and all possible foolishness in another, the angel tripped over a mountain and spilled the foolishness into Chelm. The poor citizens of Chelm were turned into insufferable dunces through countless jokes, yet all their idiotic behaviors stemmed from Jewish self-deprecation: the people of Chelm were, of course, Jews, and many of their ludicrous exploits revolved around the idiosyncrasies of Jewish life. The films of the Coen brothers seem to take place in a postmodern Chelm, displaced chronologically and geographically. Chelm served as sort of a symbolic place where all Jewish foolishness could be pointed at and ridiculed, and the Coens’ movie universe serves the same purpose among the genres they emulate and mock.
Their two parodies of film noir, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn‘t There, essentially relocate the stories of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain to their version of Chelm, where stock pulp characters are replaced by foolish caricatures (Miller‘s Crossing also has notes of parody in it, but the film as a whole is too sincere a genre effort to fully qualify). The film noir is not as Gentile-oriented as the screwball comedy or western, as it often deals with outsiders, Hollywood, urban poverty, and other tangentially Jewish themes. Billy Wilder, whose noirs Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity heavily influenced Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There respectively, was Jewish, and the Coens frequently allude to and borrow from many other Jewish-made noirs (such as Siodmak’s The Killers, and, to the extent that it’s a “true” film noir, Polanski’s Chinatown). Nevertheless, the Coens still treat film noir as a Gentile’s game, focusing more on non-Jewish crime authors and, surprisingly, rarely using Jewish self-deprecation to parody those Jewish directors.
The Big Lebowski, for my money the funniest parody of film noir out there, demythologizes the sexy Gentiles of Chandler’s novels — the Phillip Marlowes, the Vivian Sternwoods — by portraying their 1990s counterparts as lazy bums, maniacs, and idiots. Nearly all the characters in The Big Sleep have an analogue in The Big Lebowski, and all of them come out looking like grand fools. The Dude, the Coens’ counterpart to Marlowe, gets most of the attention, but his comic partner Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is the most transgressive: a “Polish Catholic” who is constantly trying to convince himself that he’s Jewish, inverting “shiksappeal” and scrambling Gentile vanity regarding the Jews’ attitude toward them. That Walter is also a screaming lunatic and a buffoon doesn’t say much good about either side. The film’s serpentine plot is a massive joke against the entire noir genre (though I’m hesitant to call it a genre at all), which is by its very nature deadly serious. None of this is made any less effective as either comedy or commentary by the fact that the Coens are at least partially motivated by envy.
Raising Arizona does precisely the same thing with the western, though more indirectly. On paper, the film has all the elements of an action-packed western: a bleak desert setting, kidnapping, bank robberies and hold-ups, outlaws on the lam, a jail break, a ruthless bounty hunter, and a duel to the death. The cowboys, sheriffs, and bandits are gone, though, and in their place are a bunch of imbecilic Gentile bumpkins. A western with no intelligent, cool, or heroic characters is, to the Coens, basically a screwball comedy anyway, a theoretical conceit that hardly demolishes the western’s mythic power, but at least offers plenty of laughs.
Some things just need to be mocked — not necessarily because they’re bad, but just because they’re too big, too potentially threatening. Mel Brooks is a specialist of this: the Spanish Inquisition song in The History of the World: Part I and “Springtime for Hitler” are classic examples of his striking at anti-Semitism, but he does just as well thumbing his nose at everything from the Ten Commandments to Star Wars. There’s a stock character the Coens often reuse in their films, The Big Man Behind a Desk, who appears in different guises but always foolish and pompous: the political boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) in Miller‘s Crossing; the studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) in Barton Fink; the rich cripple Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) in The Big Lebowski; Governor Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning) in O Brother Where Art Thou?; and so on. The Big Man Behind a Desk represents the idiocy of the powerful, the pretension of the wealthy, and any and all other unwelcome things associated with authority. The purest expression of this character is Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) in A Serious Man, who is either immeasurably wise or dementedly simple (or both), and I would venture a guess that the Coens’ hesitant distrust of such men stems from an encounter not unlike the one in the film when Larry Gopnik’s son (Aaron Wolff) has a brief, bizarre conversation with the old rabbi after his bar mitzvah.
While Barton Fink is often discussed as a serious art film, it’s no less a parody than The Big Lebowski, though what exactly it parodies is more difficult to define: the “art film,” inasmuch as it’s a marketable genre. David Lynch (Gentile) and Roman Polanski (Jew) are both mocked when the Coens use their distinctive stylistic techniques not to make artistic points but to underline the fact that they have none to make, but this is the film’s major weak point because both Lynch and Polanski are occasionally practitioners of the same Kafkan nightmare comedy the Coens use in A Serious Man.
More effective is the wanton destruction of non-cinematic authority figures wherever the Coens find them. The title character, a classic neurotic Jewish intellectual ostensibly modeled after Clifford Odets but with hints of Woody Allen tossed in for postmodern irony, is a fraud, whether he knows it or not. W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a composite of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, is likewise a fraud, and considering how heavily the film’s structure borrows from Faulkner’s short stories, that should say something about just how seriously the Coens take this “serious” film. The studio head and all the Jewish showbiz peons that work under him aren’t frauds, per se, but they care less about their fellow Jews than their lunch appointments and squander all their time appealing to the Gentile masses. Said Gentiles, embodied in Barton’s friendly, affable neighbor Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), are secretly rabid, murderous anti-Semites — Meadows at one point utters “Heil Hitler” before blowing a cop’s brains out with a shotgun — and they’re not to be trusted. The only glimmer of hope is a cheesy portrait of a woman on a beach, which is, as critic Erica Rowell noted, just another “parody of form.”
If there is a single geographic locale that the Coens treat like Chelm, it is Minnesota, specifically the area around the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Fargo is as much a screwball western parody as Raising Arizona, but its frigid pace, noir bleakness, and depressing treatment of midwestern culture makes it a far darker commentary on Gentile life. Sheriff Gunderson is, as already mentioned, not a schlemiel — she is actually closer to Tommy Lee Jones’s weary Texas sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men than any other character in the Coens’ ouevre. Her journey through the moronic ramblings of central Minnesota are our own, but it’s all the more pitiful that she has to actually live there. The pointlessness and hopelessness of it all is the harshest critique the Coens have yet offered on American Gentiles, but A Serious Man offers a satisfying complement to it, a Jewish counterpoint that is no less pointless or hopeless but which illustrates that the Coens aren’t simply taking cheap shots at the Minnesotans with funny accents. It’s impossible to ignore or dismiss, as some have, that the Coens are Minnesotans themselves, and this puts them among the rest of the laughable citizens of Chelm, though neither the traditional Chelm nor the Coens’ conception of it have any borders. The popularity of Chelm jokes is due to the implication that everybody lives in Chelm.
Jewish Identity and the Hebrew Bible
The Jews of A Serious Man, despite living in the midwestern United States in a sprawling suburbia, essentially are still confined to a shtetl, villages on the outskirts of Eastern European towns where Jews often lived. There’s no czar, no pogroms, no famine or plague, but Gopnik and his neighbors still suffer from oppression, and not just from the daily grind of modern life that they also have to endure. The Jewish culture, with its blend of religion and ethnicity woven into daily life, is more imposing than God or the Gentiles, who scarcely have anything to do with the narrative at all. One reason is the newfound identity of American Jews after World War II: after the generation of turn-of-the-century immigrants spent their lives trying to integrate themselves into American culture, their children found themselves outsiders on both sides. The anxiety felt by post-War American Jews when they tried to contend with their parents’ cultures, American Gentile culture, and their own identity as “American Jews” is the unarticulated drive behind Woody Allen’s neurotic persona, and the cultural shadow looming over Gopnik’s Minnesota shtetl.
As perverse as it is, a sense of communal suffering is often what helps to define a Jewish community, and the post-Eisenhower Jews of A Serious Man, trapped between the Talmud and the selfish impulses of the baby boom, suffer alone, alienated from one another by their inability to determine where, exactly, they are in the grand scheme of things — or, even, in the grand scheme of American Jewish life. Few characters in the film seem capable of practicing self-deprecating humor, a fault not just with their own senses of humor but the community at large. Self-deprecation, personally and communally, has helped hold together Jewish communities for centuries, both as a means of sharing common experience and as a tool for self-critical social progress. It’s a masochistic cycle — the Jews must suffer before they can complain or joke about it — but it’s this cycle that’s at the heart of Jewish humor’s continuous relevance.
Gentile writers sometimes pick up on a sense of complaint in the Coens’ films, but I’ve yet to read a serious piece on their work that singles it out specifically as kvetching. On an abstract level, their films function as feature-length kvetches about the pointlessness of life, the futility of hope, the arbitrary nature of fate, and a thousand other things that concern them not so much in the spiritual way these themes do existentialists like Ingmar Bergman, but more as things that are just available to kvetch about. Kvetching is not just grumpiness or ingratitude but a way of life, rooted in a Jewish cultural distrust of anything that seems too good to be true. Again, there’s a deep vein of masochism that runs through Jewish humor, and the Coens — like Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Seinfeld, and nearly all other Jewish stand-up comedians — revel in the opportunities to kvetch that show business affords them.
The most ancient piece of literature that could only somewhat implausibly be called the ancestor of kvetching is The Book of Job, which A Serious Man is largely a modernization of. Larry Gopnik, like Job, gradually has everything he loves taken away from him, though, unlike in the Bible, the audience is not allowed the convenient knowledge that it is God’s alone. There are even three rabbis for Gopnik to seek counsel with, correlating very roughly to the three unhelpful friends who feebly try to console Job in his grief. Job may also be the original shlimazel, but he’s certainly no schlemiel: Job easily counters his friends’ poor arguments, and he demands that God explain himself. Gopnik barely has the gumption to make appointments to see his rabbis, and when he is finally denied entry to the venerated Marshak’s office, he does not persist, as Job would have. He just swallows his dignity and goes home, unsatisfied, unanswered. Gopnik is a true schlemiel, perhaps even more foolish than a typical one, and the Coens scoff at the religious authority posed by The Book of Job in turning its wise hero into an insecure bungler. The removal of God as a literal character and the erasure of Job’s status as a righteous man — replaced by Gopnik’s protest that he’s “tried to be a serious man!” — deepens the cosmic jokes that overshadow both book and film.
A more subtle slight against religious authority is what Marshak says to Gopnik’s son, misquoting lyrics from Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” in a solemn, octogenarian tone. The joke is twofold: Common rock music is elevated to the status of Talmudic wisdom, and Jewish wisdom is reduced to the level of a pop song or slang. It’s the film’s most focused joke about the tension between the old Jewish identity and the new, between the Jewish mother and the sexy Gentile, between the shtetl and what the shtetl could be. Gopnik’s son may very well find wisdom in the words of Jefferson Airplane — he certainly doesn’t seem interested in his Torah reading — in which case it would hardly make a difference whether Marshak was truly being a wise sage, using pop culture to impart ancient wisdom, or simply senile. The Coens deliberately, coyly, and masterfully refuse to reveal the truth.
Ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying endings appear three times in A Serious Man, all of which are descended from the notoriously unsatisfying end of The Book of Job. The film’s prologue enacts a Yiddish folk tale (invented by the Coens) about a wise man (a Fyvush Finkel) who may be a dybbuk (a demonic ghost). The story ends with the tzadik bleeding, seemingly unperturbed, with the audience totally confused about whether or not he actually was a dybbuk. No resolution is given, the film jumps straight into the opening credits, and the story is never mentioned again. There’s also an anecdote about a “goy’s teeth” that the second rabbi (George Wyner) tells a befuddled Gopnik, and the film’s own ending, which is simultaneously haunting, tragically funny, and beautiful. The Coens are no stranger to inconclusive endings (Barton Fink), but the ambiguous fog these abrupt cut-offs leave A Serious Man in is an intangible eeriness unlike anything in their other films (this is also certainly due to the always excellent Roger Deakins, who does some of his best work with the stark cinematography).
These endings speak less to the equally abrupt ending of No Country for Old Men and more to the film’s emphasis on insurmountable uncertainty. Schrödinger’s cat is referenced throughout the film, literally, allegorically, and metaphysically: with something like the film’s prologue, where there are two equally possible but mutually exclusive conclusions, the Coens declare that it’s both at once and scoff at attempts to prove otherwise (The Man Who Wasn‘t There also makes mention of the uncertainty principle, indicating that this has been in their thoughts for at least a decade). One of Gopnik’s dream sequences has a ghost of sorts dismiss mathematics as “the art of the possible,” as if there were something more, making the impossibility of the Coens’ quantum mechanical solution to ambiguous endings spiritually meaningful. Then again, it’s just a dream, and Gopnik’s other dreams reflect more of his own fears than anything profound, so it might very well be just another layer of punch lines. One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it’s impossible to resolve these problems, and the impossibility — that is, the hopelessness — of it, is not just part of the joke but the entire point.
Aside from the ending, the prologue about the possible dybbuk indicates at least one other indispensable interpretive clue about the film as a whole: A Serious Man is a folk tale, one about life in modern America rather than Eastern Europe, but set in a shtetl nonetheless and featuring the same age-old philosophical problems. This isn’t the first film the Coens have cast a folk tale mystique over — recall The Stranger (Sam Elliott) narrating The Big Lebowski, the phony disclaimer about a “true story” in Fargo, the analogues to The Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou? — but they never succeeded in the way A Serious Man does because there was no precedent nor need for humorous, Gentile-oriented cinematic folklore. Jews, like all mobile ethnic groups, have traditionally relied on folk tales as a way to hold them together across time and space, but the age of the motion picture has offered few new ones. Yentl comes to mind, and Fiddler on the Roof , but they are mainly non-comedies, and Jewish folk humor is as rich as Jewish folk wisdom — in fact, it’s difficult to separate the two at times. A Serious Man, following dark shtetl tales rich in Galgenhumor, is American Jewish folklore that uses film screenings to tie its community of audience members together.
In her introduction to Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor, Sarah Blacher Cohen names several humorous elements of the Hebrew Bible that she describes as “isolated comic fragments,” including the Tower of Babel, Laban’s deceit of Jacob, and Sarah’s laughter, among others. Excluding the prophets, all the examples she lists come from the hypothetical source text used in the final editing of the Torah known as the Yahwist Source, attributed to an author called “J.” Harold Bloom’s book The Book of J conceives of the author as a female writer of sophisticated satire and irony, closer to Jane Austen and Shakespeare than to other authors whose work appears in the final lumbering thing we call The Old Testament. J’s stories portray God as a morally ambiguous imp, treats animal sacrifice as an embarrassing horror, and jabs at the flaws of patriarchy with countless puns and humorous parables. Her portrayal of revered characters like Moses, Jacob, and Abraham are hardly favorable or generous, but she has no heroes or villains. God’s punishments are ludicrously out of proportion to the “crimes” committed by humankind, and J — who shows little evidence of piety, in Bloom’s assessment — sees Yahweh’s monstrous grandstanding as both horrible and laughable. Her portrayal of the impossibly stubborn Pharaoh is the prototype of all Jewish comic representations of ridiculous Gentile authority.
A Serious Man takes a version of J’s ironic satire and applies it to the comically fertile ground of The Book of Job (which is an even older text than the Yahwist Source). It’s no coincidence that Bloom regularly compares J to Kafka: the inexplicable suffering Kafka’s heroes undergo is completely disproportionate to any crimes they may have committed, just as the punishments of Adam, Cain, antediluvian humanity, and the people at Babel were way out of proportion. Larry Gopnik’s suffering is not only out of proportion with his sins but also with the suffering of Job — Gopnik lost his wife to another man, his job security is uncertain, and he has money troubles, but Job’s children all died, his house collapsed, and his body was covered with boils. This ironically overstates Gopnik’s suffering (another kvetch) while underscoring the inherent unfairness in The Book of Job, which the Coens have a good laugh at since it’s no more a literal story than J’s episode about the talking donkey (Numbers 22:22, if you haven’t read it). The Coens have sprinkled a few elements of religious subtext into their films — hence Cathleen Falsani’s book The Gospel According to the Coens — but this is their only film that’s truly biblical, and closer to the spirit of J’s Moses stories than DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (which was always more anti-communist than pro-Israelite anyway).
In going biblical, though, the Coens have betrayed the agnosticism that was always just beneath the surface of their other works. Job asks many questions of God, and, whether God’s answers are satisfactory or not, he does answer them. The Coens — who sometimes seem to fancy themselves twin gods of their own private universe — refuse to answer anyone’s questions, either Gopnik’s or the audiences. Gopnik asks the second rabbi “Why does [God] make us feel the questions if he’s not going to give us the answers?,” immediately calling to mind — deliberately, I think, given the Coens taste for the postmodern — that, as a fictional character, Gopnik only feels those questions because the Coens wrote him that way. The Book of Job, as I have read it, seems to doubt the existence of satisfying answers at all, and the Coens certainly take that to heart, laughing all the way at anyone fool enough to try and find out “why.” A Serious Man is meticulously structured to make us want to know “why,” and since the Coens see themselves behind and in front of the camera, on the screen and in the audience, there may be a disappointed sigh amidst their laughter.
It’s not entirely accurate to compare the Coens to Bloom’s conception of J, though: while J always distrust religious and patriarchal authority, she thoroughly loves people. She is a humanist, and it’s impossible to ignore the difference between the deep humanism of most Jewish humor and the Coens’ flagrant nihilism. Mel Brooks, for all his vulgarity, has his most poignant comic moments when he uses camp and farce to right the wrongs of history, to try and protect the innocent. When Brooks goes after someone like the Nazis with his rapier in one hand and rubber chicken in the other, he has a social purpose. The Coens have no social purpose, no noble goal behind their comedy, and they know this makes them look like angry teenagers to a great many people who consider themselves sophisticated and moral. Like Gopnik’s anxiety, the only reason the characters in Blood Simple behave like perfect asses and get themselves killed in the process is because the Coens wrote them that way in order to make their movie entertaining. Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author comes to mind, but the Coens have no such theoretical loftiness. A Serious Man is their most personal film, but the German nihilists in The Big Lebowski who “believe in nothing” are the closest they’ve come to self-caricature: ranting, hilarious maniacs with no idea of how foolish they are, setting cars on fire for pocket change.
The comedian George Carlin (a Gentile, but that’s irrelevant in this case) said that the first earthquake he experienced in Los Angeles was one of the most exciting moments of his life because he found it invigorating and hilarious that human beings have absolutely no control. Where J, Mel Brooks, and other humanist satirists have admirable social purpose, the Coens have a philosophy closer to Carlin’s cynicism, a masochistic glee in how utterly awful everything is and how there’s nothing to be done about it. Many critics cite this as the Coens’ major flaw, but it hardly seems fair to condemn artists simply because one finds their philosophy “unpleasant,” as Christopher Orr put it, and at least they’re sincere and confront their ostensibly depressing outlook with humor. Alejandro González Iñárritu has a similar attitude, judging from Amores perros and Babel, but he has no sense of humor about himself or life.
Carlin also said he didn’t find his comic voice until 1990, a full thirty years after his stand-up career started. The Coens found their voice when they made Fargo, but A Serious Man seems to be where they found their identity as Jewish artists. Re-watching their films after my first viewing of A Serious Man, everything from Blood Simple to Burn After Reading has glimmers of A Serious Man in it, but always buried beneath something else, something less “Coenesque.” The genre-dabbling they’ve done is similar to the title character in Woody Allen’s Zelig, a Jew who just wants people to like him and takes on the physical form and voice of whatever he thinks will make him most accepted. The Coens are individualists to the point of eccentricity, but the blunt honesty of A Serious Man makes their earlier work seem insecure and slightly neurotic, a series of twenty-five identity crises.
If A Serious Man isn’t a significant shift in the Coens’ form, it is at least a maturation of it. This is the kind of film artists sometimes make before their greatest masterpieces — Raging Bull before The King of Comedy, The Bridge on the River Kwai before Lawrence of Arabia — but, judging from what I’ve heard of the Coens’ upcoming projects, A Serious Man may turn out to be a disappointing peak in their career. They’re too intelligent to have made a film as brilliant (and brilliantly Jewish) as A Serious Man without realizing that their true calling isn’t in winning Oscars and making fun of various yokels, but in revitalizing cinematic Jewish humor for postmodern-savvy audiences in the 21st century. Woody Allen was once hip and young and spoke to the nation’s anxious youth, but now he’s old and his films are taught in film schools as “classics.” The Coens are already in their fifties, and there are no other Jewish comic film artists on par with what Allen was in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a cinematic void that Americans, Jew and Gentile alike, need filled.