The past present serious tense

Roger Deakins’s brilliant cinematography has been conspicuous in some of the Coen Brothers’s films—in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for example, which is not one of their strongest releases, or the black and white The Man Who Wasn’t There, which was. But in other movies it’s just quietly excellent, conveying a narrative from actors to audience without a jot of flamboyance. Deakins applies himself with diligence, without ego, taking conscientious care of every detail, rendering the film-makers’ vision as precisely as he can without judgement or reservation. He is, in short, a mensch—a serious man. The sort of person that Joel and Ethan Coen relied on in their mission to send up that archetype.

Larry Gopnik, played with subdued precision by Michael Stuhlbarg, does everything he can to be a mensch, trying to do right by his wife, his children, his brother, his students at the university where he teaches physics, but none of it seems to work out. His diligence is unrecognised, and most of the things that could go wrong with his life, do. This is, I guess, a common enough experience in mid-life—I say I guess, because my own mid-life has arrived without me having done any of the things that bring disillusioned, middle-class men to this archetypal position. Perhaps it’s also why the Coens decided to set A Serious Man in 1967, when much of the ‘Western’ world, and America in particular, had its mid-life crisis.

Of course they also set it then because they love to re-create an era with all of its visual style, its jargon, its cultural peculiarities and all the rest of it. A corner of late-sixties suburban Minnesota is reproduced here in exquisite detail, with the same kind of lavish devotion that is usually reserved for more obviously historical settings, such as Regency England, or the Old West. The suburban ranch-style home of the era, which to most of us will seem a prosaic and commonplace thing, is in fact a rarity now, and it was a major effort to secure appropriate locations—interiors can be fabricated, but streets absent obvious anachronisms are hard to come by.

In the midst of this recognisable setting, relatable to our own era, yet removed from it in ways subtler and perhaps as fundamental as those that separate us from more historically distant loci, are characters that appear quite familiar and and graspable. We can put ourselves in their shoes, but we may be missing something when we do. A man in mid-life in 1967 might well have fought in the Second World War—and he likely grew up without a phone in his house, without TV, without any of the intermediate technologies that enable us to kid ourselves that 1967 is not really so different from today. Larry Gopnik is not a boomer, he’s a member of what is sometimes known as the Greatest Generation, the first generation to live their adult lives under the conditions of consumerist modernity, and the pioneers of all the anxieties and dissatisfactions that afflict us today.

But of course we do have an inside track to the interior lives of that generation, one that they did not have to those that preceded them: we have audio and moving pictures, we have access to the same entertainment product that formed their attitudes, and we can hear their voices. We can watch them mow their lawns, buy frozen food from Red Owl, eat hot dogs at Minnesota Twins games, and file into the Beth El Synagogue on the Sabbath—if we are discussing specifically the Jewish residents of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, among whom A Serious Man is set.

This ambiguous relationship between the past and the present, this wavering, indeterminate position between nostalgia and retrievability, is analogous to Gopnik’s inner life—his own struggle with regret, his tussle with the vagaries of his Jewish faith—and to important elements in the Jewish American experience as a whole. He belongs to possibly the first generation that can’t at least pretend to recall the mythic smell of the shtetl, in a community whose ties to their European past are all the stronger for the brutality and completeness with which they are severed. The film opens with a confected Yiddish folk tale, in which the impossible presence of the past, personified as a revenant dybbuk, is met with obliviousness on the one hand, and revulsion on the other. What appears to be a past you know to be dead, must be struck out and disavowed. But where does this lost middle-American go, when all certainties seem to be crumbling, but to the past as embodied in the wisdom of his faith?

This film is a comedy. And it is very funny. The ‘serious man’, the eponymous mensch, is such a ridiculous buffoon, that his elevation to this status by the community, and Gopnik’s wife’s preference for him, seem like greater injustices than the more serious problems that the protagonist faces, but it’s the totality that is heaped on his shoulders in which the joke is vested. The movie belongs to a long tradition in Jewish humour, of laughing at misfortune, and of satirising responses to misfortune, but it also belongs very much to the Coens’s oeuvre. It would be foolish to ascribe it to their Jewishness, and indeed it can be far more plausibly related to a spirit of narrative innovation that has developed across media in many cultures, but their consistent refusal of narrative closure and neat resolution bears some resemblance to that convention in Jewish humour. A Serious Man has been called a strange film, but it’s really no stranger than most of the brothers’ work—it just builds its world from less glamorous materials than they usually use. Rather than paying homage to a stylistic tradition, it pays homage to the ordinariness of a particular time and place, whose aesthetic it valorises with a dogged seriousness that it is usually denied.

1 Comment

  1. Great movie, and as you mention, one that communicates the absurdity of existence in every cultural sphere in which the protagonist exists –Jewish, American Jewish, American, Middle-American, Post-War Middle American, Academia, Family Life, Manhood, etc. Coen brothers amaze me sometimes (most of the time). So thorough yet still so light and funny.

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