(And also, what's the meaning of life?)
I know lots of people tout Joel and Ethan Coen's films as brilliant, and probably a lot of other people say they're just lots of unresolved little stories. You know, the way they're always, always ending without true resolution, and with equal parts sadness and mystery. One sign of a Coen brothers movie: when it ends, you have more questions than you did when it began.
I adore this style of storytelling.
It strikes me as the truest of storytelling -- because, there's no clean resolution in real life. We can end on some high note in a story, only to leave a character to die tragically two days later, or be fired, or lose his life savings, or hit someone with his car. What struck me the most in the Coen bros. film A Serious Man was how I followed the main character, Larry Gopnik, down the same spiral of confusion he himself is headed down throughout the events we are witnessing -- the unraveling of his life in an unidentified number of days in 1967. He's a physics teacher at a Minnesota college. He's trying to lead a serious life.
So many things come at him in a short span of time, it's overwhelming. But oh yeah, that's what happens in my life, too. It's a poignant portrait of one man caught like a deer in headlights as everything comes crashing in at once. Everything's up, then everything nose-dives, but then, near the end of the on-film story, we begin to feel like maybe things will turn out all right for Mr. Gopnik. But then, we're left with an impending tornado--literally. I felt confused right along with him as he cannot seem to make his wife or the telephone salesman understand what he means. He is not ever able to resolve unsaid issues with his threatening neighbor. Rabbi and after rabbi continues to fail him, as he seeks insight into what the hell this all means, this series of events in his life. And we arrive at the end of our journey with Gopnik, but not the end of his, and we're screaming, what does it all mean? while that is just the point: that's not the point.
It's about the story, about humanity. Joel and Ethan Coen have wound us down through the details of this man's life simply to show us a snapshot of "a serious life." You should know by now, that's how this works. The point is not to figure everything out by the end of the film. Because you, too, will not ever have it figured out by the end of your story, either. Just like the maddening fable the rabbi recounts to Gopnik, about the dentist who searched for meaning, and it consumed him, until he just had to stop searching for it. There was nothing else to do about it.
Damn if they don't always end right when I am on the edge of my seat, and I'm thinking, No! There are so many things left to resolve! But then, when the credits roll, I reflect back on which things are actually bothering me most, what is really unresolved, and I realize, there's not that much. Not that could be easily answered anyway. Exactly as they're always trying to show me. It's okay, let it go.
The opening quotation, which sums up the point of the little vignette of Lawrence Gopnik's life quite well, is:
Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.
And then it proceeds to an opening scene that I am still mystified by. Was he dead or was he alive?! I'm forever curious.
The most important component of this entire story is the hilarity in the very unfunny events of Gopnik's life. Probably my favorite line of all, perhaps the truest kind of humor, is when he's explaining to one of the rabbis that his life is seemingly falling apart and he needs serious help.
[quote cite="Gopnik via IMDB" url="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1019452/quotes"]This is not a frivolous request. This is a ser- I'm a ser- I'm, uh, I've tried to be a serious man, you know? Tried to do right, be a member of the community, raise the- Danny, Sarah, they both go to school, Hebrew school, a good breakfast... Well, Danny goes to Hebrew school, Sarah doesn't have time, she mostly... washes her hair. Apparently there are several steps involved, but you don't have to tell Marshak that. Just tell him I need help. Please? I need *help*.[/quote]
I've come to appreciate the humor in life's lowest points. It's so real, so raw, and it's what saves you. And this always seems to be below the surface, in any of the stories the Coens tell. The darkness, the madness, the hopelessness, it's all quite hilarious. Never do I laugh more at things that are not really jokes at all, than in a movie like A Serious Man, or Fargo, or Burn After Reading. This movie is very Jewish, it's veiled in references to Jewish life and culture, and that sense of humor is also a huge part of the story, I think (at least, what I could catch of it, what didn't go over my Goy head).
And after all, if your own problems don't seem that funny to you, just turn on a dark story like one of these instead, and lose yourself in someone else's hilarious and doomed fate. There's nothing I love more than losing myself in a great little story. And though little resolution is sometimes frustrating, it's so very, very real. I love that too; there's no sugar coating.
Disclaimer: I may or may not be turning into some kind of Coen brothers fangirl. If I wasn't already. They just write the best characters!