Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Seriously Funny - Or Flawed?

Here's my challenge - to write some serious reflections about "A Serious Man," a film that seems to try very hard not to take itself seriously. But when, I think about it, the biblical book after which it was modeled, Job, was itself the Woody Allen flick of its day. I mean, what else can you say about a book that begins with an absurd wager between God and Satan, carries the gag through a sequence of inane encounters with three clueless advisers and then ends with God's ways being revealed as unknowable, roaring away in the midst of a tornado?

Wait a minute. Am I talking about the book... or the movie?

If there is a serious message at all to the film, and I have to assume that because I really didn't find it to be laugh-out-loud-early-Woody Allen - earlier-Philip Roth funny, it is that God's ways are unknowable in an unjust, absurd world. In the end, the only one laughing is God.

As the saying goes, מענטש טראַכט, גאָט לאַכט. Man plans, God laughs.

That's a key message of Job, where the friends try to explain Job's predicament in conventional ways that never stray from the box. They never fully understand that the times are a changin' and old theological formulas just don't cut it. Meanwhile, Job senses that he's just a pawn in some celestial game of chess, saying in verse 20:3 "Why should man be born to wander blindly, hedged in by God on every side?" Job, hardly the passive sufferer of lore, rails against the darkness of his plight, screaming out in chapter 20, verse 11, "Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not perish at birth?

Job the sufferer has it all over Job the "serious man."

Larry Gopnik never goes Joban, or even postal, in the movie. His wife is unfaithful, his kids are unredeemable brats more concerned with hair and TV reception than their parent' failing marriage; his job is tedious and unrewarding, his neighbor is a Jew-hater and his other neighbor a nymphomaniac, and his synagogue is an empty shell. The teachers can't teach and the rabbis can't empathize. The services are boring, the bar mitzvahs meaningless.

In some interviews, the Coen brothers alluded to their "nostalgic" look at the Minneapolis suburb of their childhood. This is hardly the nurturing shtetl fireplace, the "Oyfn Pripitchek"of Yiddish lore, where the elderly mentor slowly taught the wide-eyed child the "alef-beis." In this landscape, in fact, the rabbis are Satan, right from the very start of the movie, where, in an otherwise inexplicable prologue, a shtetl wife mistakes (we think) a saintly old man for a dybbuk. (On one level, the prologue works as an indictment of religious fundamentalism and superstition, which creates moral blinders so powerful as to allow good people to murder innocents out of a dream-provoked fear - but that's only if the strange visitor wasn't in fact, a dybbuk, something that is not firmly established).

I grew up in a community that had similar types, at a similar time. We had Hebrew School teachers that were utterly clueless to the ways of assimilated American baby boomers (though, unlike the kids of this movie, my passion was more for baseball cards than smoking pot, unlike the bar mitzvah students of this film. But, like them, I did sneak a transistor radio into Hebrew School during the 1967 World Series to hear the Red Sox). Our rabbis were not shallow idiots, however pedesteled ( see The Problem With Pedestal Rabbis) and pedestrian they were. I followed my muse to Allen, Roth, loved "The Graduate," and viewed rabbis and religion with a healthy skepticism, if not at times an unhealthy cynicism. At times I saw them as emblematic of the plastic culture we were railing against.

In college, I wrote scathing critiques of those clueless Hebrew teachers, essays and stories that would make even the Coens cringe. But I also was able to lift them off the page and give them some humanity. There was Abraham Solomon Schindler (we kids loved his initials) - who was jolly, until someone stuck gum on his chair. There were the teachers who taught only in Hebrew, admiring their work on the blackboard, even as the Woodstock sky was falling and the late '60s teenage hormones raging behind them.

I once wrote a poem about rabbis called "Painted Plastic." You can guess where that one was going. It bemoaned those half-baked handshakes and the banal advice:

"Hello dear friend," he's say, and walk away....

But there was a counterculture Judaism that I also grew up with, and that Judaism was exciting and vibrant and meaningful - and it had a home in the very same synagogue, my synagogue, that also housed the creaky - crumbling Judaism of the Coens' film. It is sad to think that the Coens had one but not the other. This might be the difference between Minneapolis, where they lived, and Boston, which was at the time churning with new ideas. They had the conformity and conventionality, a synagogue as cold as that church at the end of "The Graduate," but none of the juice of the early Havurah movement. They had A.S.S. but none of the teachers with the long hair who hummed "The Times They are a Changin.'" I had both.

They had snot spitting, phlegm-y walking corpses. I had the disciples of Heschel and Buber.

That's what saddened me about the film, them lack of appreciation for the life that was being injected into Jewish communities at that time, and while there were scenes that hinted at authenticity, the lack of humanity in any of the characters left me gasping.

When Larry moved out of the house at the request of his wife and her lover, that's where he stopped being Job and morphed into Bontsha the Silent, the I.L. Peretz character (see notes here) whose passivity crosses that fine line from goodness to madness. Passivity is not good - nor is the biblical Job passive (or "patient," as the Christian stereotype suggests). Turning the other cheek is not a Jewish idea, especially with a guy who is making off - and out - with your wife. So Larry stopped being a serious Joban character at that moment for me, and this ceased being a serious attempt to grapple with Job.

As for God's place in all this. God only knows. The message seems to be a Joban one, that we have no idea what are God's ways, so as Archibald MacLeish wrote in his Joban midrash, J.B., "Blow on the coal of your heart. and we'll know..." The idea is simply to live and love and make the most of an absurd world.

Abraham Joshua Heschel put it best in his last serious (and only known) TV interview, recorded shortly before his death:

The interviewer Carl Stern asked him, “What message have you for young people?”

Heschel's reply: “Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can all do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. And, above all, [let them] remember…to build a life as if it were a work of art.”

At the end of the movie (spoiler alert), Larry finally succumbs to the temptations facing him, and either because of or despite his moral lapse, a tornado is bearing down on his son's class and the doctor alludes to some bad news regarding his health. There is no rhyme or reason, no rhythm to this world spinning out of control, save for the tunes on the boy's coveted transistor radio.

It's hard to find the meaning beyond absurdity in this kind of resolution. God gets the last laugh, but only if there is a God. Sort of reminds me of something I saw in a men's room stall in my sophomore year at Brown, on the third floor of the Rockefeller Library:

"God is dead." - Nietzsche

"Nietzsche is dead." - God

God always has the last laugh.

Did you hear the one about the tornado that decimated the Hebrew School?

1 comment:

Ronald Pies MD said...

Hi, Mr. Hammerman--I am not sure if you and I are the only ones who picked up the "Bontsha Schweig" [Bontsha the Silent] subtext in "A Serious Man"--I rather doubt it--but I am preparing an essay exploring this, with due credit to your blog. (I discovered your allusion to Peretz's story only after I started writing about it as critical to the Coen brothers' film!). More on this anon...I'll be happy to send you the piece when it is done.--Best regards,
Ronald Pies MD