Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Should we take "A Serious Man" seriously?

Thinking about the Coen brothers' latest...

Let me say, first off, I'm more or less a Coen brothers fan. From "Raising Arizona," released the year I graduated from college, til now, I've seen and enjoyed most of their oeuvre. And I'm Jewish, and care about and enjoy most things Jewish.

This movie, however, is simultaneously vying for "most Jewish" and "least Jewish" film of the year. On the "most Jewish" side is a parade of crushing obviousness: Yiddish! A dybbuk! A bar mitzvah! A nose job! Whining! and so it goes. Yet -- unless this is "Midwestern Jewishness," of a variety this bicoastal Jew doesn't recognize -- the movie seems utterly to lack most of what I think of as a genuinely Jewish sensibility -- including irony and a sense of humor (except in brief flashes). Some of what is captured here is closely-observed: I would imagine most refugees from after-school Hebrew school will identify strongly with those scenes, whether they themselves snuck out to get high or only wished they might. The scenes with the "junior rabbi" and the "senior rabbi" certainly get a lot right in the general demeanor and mien of those kinds of men.

At the same time, much of the apparently "Jewish" content is clumsy and amateurish. A running "joke" in the movie is the wife's request for a get, before she can remarry. While it's not implausible that Larry, the main character, doesn't know what this is, it's just silly that two rabbis and a Jewish divorce lawyer wouldn't recognize the term. And to define it as a "ritual divorce", and not a "religious divorce" or a "Jewish divorce"? Who says that? No Jew I've ever met. (And the same goes for "goys," the term Mrs. Samsky uses to refer to the non-Jewish neighbors on the other side of the Gopniks. "Goyim", maybe - or "gentiles" -- though the people I grew up with would just have said, "Not Jewish?" But "goys"? No.) These characters are not actually speaking the argot of "real Jews".

Nor is the real Jewish calendar in effect. We are in Minneapolis or its environs, and the movie ends with a tornado. Tornado "season" in Minnesota is July-August; 60% of all Minnesota tornadoes happen in those two months. The naked sunbathing neighbor suggests summer. But the son, Danny's, Torah portion is Ki Tavo, chanted in the synagogue on September 23, 1967. But an attempted bribe over a "midterm" grade, and the meeting of a tenure committee? Those things can happen in October or November (or maybe, in the spring, March or April). The non-Jewish neighbor goes deer-hunting in the movie. Deer-hunting season in Minnesota is September to December. When is this moving taking place? What is the point of attempting to set a movie in a particular place and time, including events that only happen at particular times of year, and putting them at the wrong time? Jewishly speaking, it is as nonsensical to have a bar mitzvah chant Ki Tavo in the summer, while his neighbor goes deer-hunting, as it would be to set a Christmas movie in Minnesota and put the characters in bathing suits carving pumpkins.

A hoary old slogan for Jewish success in business (show and other) goes, "Dress British, Think Yiddish." A great deal of American movie and TV comedy has trafficked in some version of this - even the "Seinfeld" show with its obviously-Jewish but theoretically non-Jewish characters, is an example. A Jewish sensibility forced to some degree "underground" is actually far more effective, and more entertaining, for both insiders and outsiders -- for Jews who get the joke, and for non-Jews who don't need to. The Coen brothers might have made a better Jewish movie by making a much less obviously Jewish one.

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