Arts & Culture

The Coen Brothers: Serious(ly Funny) Men

Cathleen Falsani is the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and the author of  The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. She is guest blogging on Jewcy all week, and this is her first post.   … Read More

By / October 5, 2009

Cathleen Falsani is the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and the author of  The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. She is guest blogging on Jewcy all week, and this is her first post.

 

A few weeks ago, I had a bad day. Epically bad.

I ran out of cash.

I lost my credit card.

I missed my flight.

And then, standing outside the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare, I dropped my cell phone, and as if in slow motion, watched in horror as it bounced and dropped over the barrier and onto the roof of the baggage claim area 10 feet below into an inch-deep layer of pigeon guano and dead cigarettes.

First I cried, and then I laughed as several chivalrous gentlemen from TSA, the Chicago Police Department and the city’s Department of Engineering came to my rescue, eventually retrieving my (mercifully) still-working phone.

In those tense moments at the airport, beset by one minor calamity after another, I began to feel a bit like that poor fellow Job from Hebrew scripture (minus the nasty case of boils). Job lost all his money, his wife, his children and his health, but he refused to curse God. He was a good man, a serious man.

My having-a-bad-day woes reminded me of Larry Gopnik, the protagonist of the spiritually powerful (and powerfully funny) new film "A Serious Man," the 14th feature-length film from brotherly writers/producers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen.

Set in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, Minn., in 1967, the dark comedy follows the trials and tribulations of Gopnik (played by newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor and all-around decent fellow whose life falls apart in the course of a few weeks before and after his son’s bar mitzvah.

The Coens, the Oscar-winning duo who brought you "No Country for Old Men," "Fargo," "Raising Arizona," and "The Big Lebowski," among others, are natives of St. Louis Park and were reared in an academic Jewish milieu much like that of "A Serious Man." In fact, the Coens’ parents were both university professors, and 1967 would have been the year Joel had his bar mitzvah.

Gopnik’s suburban serenity begins to unravel when his wife announces she’s leaving him for Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), a bloviating, faux-pious fellow professor. A litany of seemingly minor, but life-altering calumny leads Gopnik to question the existence of God and the meaning of life — and of suffering.

He turns to three rabbis for answers to his questions, all of which are, the filmmakers seem to be saying, essentially, unanswerable.

"When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies … Then what?"

It’s the question (yes, taken from the Jefferson Airplane lyric) posed by an ancient rabbi toward the end of the glorious "A Serious Man," a film that is as much a spiritual masterpiece as a comic work of genius.

The question is one that transcends any faith tradition and, although it’s coming from a rabbi and posed to the bar mitzvah boy Danny Gopnik, it’s a conundrum that all of us at some point in our lives try, without success, to answer.

It’s the universal why. Why do we suffer? Why do we lose that which we love?

What is the meaning of suffering?

Perhaps an answer, insomuch as there can be one, lies in something Rilke said in his Letters to a Young Poet:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves … Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answer.

Before dismissing him from his synagogue office, the old rabbi tells Danny, simply, “Be a good boy.”

But even if he can succeed in being a “good boy,” there is no guarantee that Danny’s life will not be fraught, filled with sorrow, loss and suffering.

It’s a hard lesson Danny’s father, Larry, is in the midst of learning, poor soul.

Rather than behave like the biblical Job, Larry is like the rest of us. He thrashes  through life trying to make sense of the senseless and, while perhaps not cursing God, seriously questioning what the hell is going on.

“What did I do?” Larry asks. “I didn’t do anything!”

The questions Joel and Ethan Coen posed in "A Serious Man" are as brutal as they are universal. The answers the brothers provide are unsatisfactory, but truthful.

There is no quid pro quo with God. We tend to want to take responsibility for the bad things that happen in our lives, but we’re not always responsible. We’re not in charge. We only get glimpses of the big picture. We want to believe that everything in life is cause and effect because if it’s not, that truth — that the innocent will suffer — is too  awful to grasp.

Sometimes the righteous suffer and the evil, like the onerous Sy Ableman, prosper. It doesn’t make any sense, and it never will. The filmmakers seem to be saying that we should be good for goodness sake alone; that life is not about finding answers to the questions we have, but about the living — the journey — itself.

What you believe really doesn’t matter. What matters is how you live.

 

 

Since their directorial debut in 1984 with the neo-noir thriller "Blood Simple," the Coens have created some of the most enigmatic and enduring films of my generation. The average moviegoer may not realize the duo who gave us whimsical comedies such as "The Hudsucker Proxy," "The Ladykillers" and "Burn After Reading," are the same guys who made the bleakly post-modern "The Man Who Wasn’t There" and the gangland period piece "Miller’s Crossing."

The cinematic styles, periods and themes of their films are so varied, some critics have wondered whether there is an overarching vision to the Coens’ work. I would argue that it is the spirituality — the theological notions, the existential questions, and the religious ideas — of their films that, to paraphrase one of the oft-quoted lines from "Lebowski," really ties the room together.

Beginning with Blood Simple, the story of a man who has serious doubts about his wife’s fidelity and what happens when he attempts to uncover the "truth," the Coens have boldly engaged serious existential questions with darkly intelligent humor.

Each Coen brothers’ films is marked by theological, philosophical and mythological touchstones that enrich even the slapstickiest moments. Each film probes confounding ethical and spiritual quandaries, giving us a tour of nuanced moral universes that may be individual (in the case of "Barton Fink"), geographic (as in "Fargo"), or historic (such as the Depression Era of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?")

When I told people I was writing a book examining the spiritual content — the gospel, if you will — of the Coens’ films, most of them thought I was joking. Those who didn’t figured it would be a really short book.

But for those true fans (and Coen brothers’ fans tend to be passionately so), the project struck a resonant spiritual chord. Whether you’ve seen only a couple or every single one of their films enough times to quote them by heart, you know Joel and Ethan Coen make movies like no one else in cinema. The Coens’ quirky and sometimes confounding films are rich with meaning — much of it hidden just beneath the surface — gems of spiritual insight waiting to be excavated.

Biblical truths run rampant throughout the Coens’ 25-year cinematic oeuvre. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. The love of money is the root of all evil. Love conquers all — even death.

And that’s just in Fargo alone.

The Coens have created moral universes in which some of life’s essential questions are asked — if not always answered. These queries run the gamut from the meaning of life and enlightenment, to the fundamental nature of grace, truth and love. There is seemingly no question the brothers are afraid to tackle, either with a wink and a smile or brutal honesty (and sometimes both).

There is a moral order to the worlds the Coens create. Whether it’s a farcical crime caper or an American Gothic tale of betrayal, there always are consequences to the characters’ actions, for better or for worse.  Bad guys are punished and the decent are rewarded for their innate goodness, though beware the viewer who assumes it will be easy to discern which is which.

Sins come to light; lies and deception are revealed. Occasionally, the hand of God intervenes to restore order from chaos.

"A Serious Man" encapsulates all of the spiritual themes the Coens have examined in their past films and introduces audiences to one of the more intriguing (if little-known) theological notions from Judaism — that of the Lamed Vovnik, the 36 righteous souls in every generation upon whom the fate of the rest of the world rests.

The film continues the Coens’ work as secular theologians whose body of work one astute critic described as "the most sneakily moralistic in recent American cinema."