Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Serious Man

I just saw the Coen Brothers' latest film, A Serious Man. It's about Larry Gopnik, a young Jewish paterfamilias, up for tenure in a physics department, a few days before his son's Bar Mitzvah. His life sounds great, right? Nope! A Serious Man is a psychic horror film in which the wounds inflicted on the protagonist are not physical but narcissistic. Unlike, say, 1984, A Serious Man was campy enough not to terrify me away from the screen, but easily more frightening than the last monster movie I saw (Aliens, 1986). Why is Gopnik's world a Hell? One problem is that it's 1967. Another, the story's ancestors are the Book of Job and Kafka's Metamorphosis, each about a single man afflicted in his prime. Third, he is the archetypal nebbish, the very last thing any Jewish man wants to be: ineffectual, cowardly, naive, gullible, submissive, innocent, lacking in self-knowledge, and so unfortunate that all manner of bullies and predators easily perceive his vulnerability and converge to exploit him. His wife is a catty, imperious, thieving cheater who dumps him for a sage-looking swine named Ableman. This able man's touchy-feely warmth is really just aggression under heaps of sugar and butter, a bad faith so saturated with barely-repressed hostility as to be really shocking. When Gopnik dreams Ableman is beating him up, it's a relief to see the violence become physical and undisguised.

I was born in 1968, and Bar Mitzvahed in front of my physics professor father in 1981. I had a version of the hand-held transistor radio used by Gopnik's son Danny in A Serious Man, and when I got one that played tapes I played a hell of a lot of Jefferson Airplane, the band whose most famous song forms a thread running through the movie, especially its opening verse: "When the truth is found to be lies..." There is parallel bullying of Gopnik the Jewish father by his cornpone-fascist Goy neighbor, and of his Jewish son Danny by the oddly named big kid, Fagle. Nobody ever bullied my father as an adult, because he would have mauled the shit out of anybody who tried; but as a boy he was bullied for being Jewish. I was bullied for having traits that were Jewish traits, not for being Jewish. Some of the kids who beset me were Jews too, but without the bookish Ashkenazi traits.

The film has a prologue that seems to spring from Singer, summarized thus by Wikipedia:

In a prologue set in the early 20th century, in an Eastern European shtetl, a Jewish man named Velvel comes home during a snowstorm and tells his wife that he had been helped along his way by an acquaintance of hers, Reb Groshkover (Fyvush Finkel), whom he has invited in for soup. The wife informs him that Reb had died three years prior, and that this visitor must be a dybbuk, an undead being of Jewish folklore. The guest laughs off this suggestion, but eventually she stabs the visitor, and he goes back out to the snow.

In Jewish folklore a dybbuk is generally a malicious spirit that has to be opposed (unless it's only among the living in order to acquit itself of some task that does someone good, in which case it has to be helped until the task is done, whereupon the dybbuk departs). But the story looks uncomfortably like the theoxeny stories in Greek folklore, e.g., where Zeus and Hermes come disguised as beggars to the house of the old couple Philamon and Baucis; or in Hebrew sources, like the visit of the stranger angels in the story of Lot. The point of every theoxeny is the same: whoever welcomes the needy stranger as a guest, feeds him, protects him, will receive the same reward as if he had hosted God; whoever rejects him rejects God, and will be cursed for it as Gopnik's ancestors were cursed.

But a dybbuk is neither God nor a god; it's a spirit, and supposedly it's a bad one. Well, this Reb Groshkover, dybbuk or man, had helped Velvel and perhaps saved his life. As for Velvel (who is probably Gopnik's grandfather), he seems full of life and love, strong and competent if uneducated, a bit hapless for having been caught in a late-night snowstorm, yet lucky in getting the Reb's unlooked-for help. His wife is dour, miserable, and cynical. She is apparently correct in her insistence that the old Reb sitting in their kitchen chair is a dybbuk, since he laughs when she stabs him. But then he bleeds, which a three-years corpse might not. It is much harder to figure out whether the figure was a dybbuk or a man, than to answer this "moral dilemma": A man helps you out of a deadly storm. You invite him over for soup. Later, he arrives. Should you stab him? When the stabbed figure bled, I thought of Shylock: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" Dybbuks are bad, right?

If the Singeresque prologue were the keynote of the film, we might suppose its parable to extend further still; maybe America is the bad host who stabs the helpful Jew-Guest. This doesn't sit right, yet there may be something in it: Larry Gopnik is so beleaguered and ill-equipped for life that he seems half alive, and in this he's like the dybbuk whose aliveness is also in question.