Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Accept the Mystery

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." - Rashi.

I recently rewatched the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man for the first time since its Blu-Ray/DVD release back in February, and enjoyed it much more this time out. The Coens have always been merchants of misanthropy, but it was just so intense and over-the-top in this film that I could barely stand to watch it.

Re-appraising it over the weekend, however, I managed to tune out the bulk of the film - consisting mostly of scene after scene after scene of harassment and humiliation heaped on lead character Larry Gopnik - and focus on the subtle goodies sprinkled lightly throughout. The periphery is always where the most interesting stuff happens in Coen films anyway, but you really have to mine for it a little harder in A Serious Man.

The film opens with a seemingly non-sequitur bit about a Jewish couple (Velvel and Dora) about a hundred years ago. They are visited in the middle of a dark and snowy night by a man claiming to be Reb Groshkover. Dora, aghast, insists the man must be a Dybbuk because she knows the real Groshkover is dead.

(In Jewish tradition, a Dybbuk is a possessing spirit that floats around seeking bodies to attach itself to and inhabit, like a virus and its host. The word itself literally means "attachment".)

Dora stabs him in the sternum with an icepick, and it appears at first that her superstitious theory is true: Groshkover has virtually no reaction to the stabbing, and in fact laughs heartily at her. Just before he gets up to leave (saying "one knows when one is not wanted"), however, we see a pool of blood forming around the icepick that is still protruding from his chest. Groshkover disappears into the night, and the couple still disagree on whether this was a Dybbuk or not. Since the scene ends there, we will never know - was he or wasn't he?

This places Dora and Velvel's mysterious visitor in the same unknowable Eigenstate as Schrödinger's Cat, the example commonly used to illustrate the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics.

Gopnik, later in the film, actually gives his students a lesson on Schrödinger's Cat, and points out to them the futility of trying to truly know anything - even as he expects them to study the subject and subsequently take a test on it. Gopnik clearly seems incapable of applying the lesson of Schrödinger's Cat to his own life - two different people in the course of the film urge him to just "accept the mystery", and he just doesn't get it.

Gopnik's brother Arthur, meanwhile, is an idiot savant who lives with him and spends all his time working on a mysterious document he calls The Mentaculus. Arthur believes that the Mentaculus, when completed, will be the end-all, be-all, unified field theory of everything in the Universe. Gopnik largely ignores him, and wishes he'd just get his own apartment and go away. But we see hints that Arthur is actually on to something: Arthur applies his theories to gambling, and in so doing becomes quite successful at it. Seemingly he really can predict the future with his Mentaculus and its "probability map", but he's too socially inept and withdrawn to harness this knowledge properly.

At one point, Gopnik interestingly uses the phrase "bolt from the blue" to describe the upheavals in his life, and says "everything I thought was one way turn out to be another." And at another point, a Rabbi uses the phrase "right where you are sitting now" in the course of telling a convoluted story with no apparent point, about a dentist who thinks he sees the words "help me" (עִזרוּ לִ) in Hebrew on the teeth of a patient.

At film's end (sorry about the spoiler, but the movie has been out for well over a year now) we're left with another unresolved Schrödinger's Cat. Gopnik gets a call from his doctor that he needs to come in immediately for a serious discussion about his X-ray results. The doctor then repeats and underscores the seriousness of it by stressing that Gopnik must come in to see him right now.

Meanwhile, across town, we see Gopnik's son staring at a tornado headed directly for him as his teacher is unable to get the storm shelter door open.

Fade to black. Credits.

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