I mentioned A Serious Man a few posts ago. It’s currently one of my favorite movies, mainly because it looks at storytelling, on how stories can fulfill us but also leave us with as many questions as before.
In the movie, the main character Larry Gopnik goes to see 3 rabbis, in hope of some guidance while his formerly familiar life grows more & more strange. I’ve already mentioned before the first rabbi’s advice. The second rabbi tells a story meant to illustrate the concept of how God speaks to his believers. He tells a story about Hebrew characters carved on the inside of a goy’s teeth, the phrases “Help me. Save me.” At the end Larry asks who the message was meant for. The rabbi responds, “Well, you can’t know everything.” To which Larry says, “Why does God make us feel the question if there isn’t any answer?”
I think it’s that very statement that makes A Serious Man a difficult film to watch. The Coens give viewers no clear cut answers, but the movie is not some vague idea, some toss-off excuse to say “well, it means whatever you want it to mean.” How we share insight & deal with our struggles is integral to A Serious Man; this is underlined in the last shot of the film. As the students of the Hebrew school wait in an empty parking lot, a tornado touches down feet away. The camera looks over Danny Gopnik’s shoulder at the impending trouble. Then, without moving the position of the camera, the focal plane shifts to the earbud in Danny’s ear playing Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” before cutting to a black title card. Given that the opening shot of the movie is also the earbud playing the same song, there’s something to ending the movie that way as well. In the beginning of the movie, Danny is listening to the song instead of paying attention to the Hebrew lesson being taught in class. One language speaks to him; the other one doesn’t.
I think both these shots state that a piece of music or a story or an image becomes meaningful only when it intersects with the right person, time & place. Given that the 3rd rabbi, the old venerated Marshak, recites the lyrics of the song to Danny after his Bar Mitzvah, instead of an ancient Hebrew blessing or piece of wisdom, it’s clear that there are numerous ways of reaching someone. But at the same time, with an earbud in one ear, Danny’s sense memory is partially blocked out. He’s not completely absorbing what’s happening around him. & in the scene in the parking lot, who can blame him? A life-changing event is about to suck him in.
I think the point is this: the potential to tell a story, to be touched by something profound is everywhere, waiting for the right circumstances to unfold. But, we don’t have the capacity to know it all at once. That same interpretive moment also insulates us from raw force, from a complete understanding that might be too much to bear. So, any kind of creative endeavor that looks to tell us something about life, if it is crafted well, will never work toward a complete end. Because there will always be more questions, more facets to life that we will struggle to understand.
Awareness is a hard outlook to commit to. But there is hope that our work can alleviate our suffering if we commit to it, if we choose to be serious about what sustains us.
(Also, as a small P.S., since I’ve twined my thoughts on A Serious Man with David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, I do wonder what he would have thought about it.)