If the ending of No Country for Old Men left you unsatisfied, the Coen Brothers’ latest film, A Serious Man, will drive you insane. Because, although on the surface it seems like a film about how we tell stories to make sense of life, it reveals itself as a film about how stories can’t make sense of life.
A Serious Man opens with a prologue that, while it may have no direct connection to the events and characters that follow (unless it does), sets the tone for the film. In it, a Jewish peasant couple is visited by a man who may or may not be a dybbuk (Fyvush Finkel). The uncertainty that the dybbuk? represents (he’s Schrodinger’s cat, simultaneously alive and dead) becomes a recurring theme in the film, but more important here is the source of the uncertainty: a story. While the husband has met and recognized the dybbuk? as a man and invited him in, his wife has heard a story that the dybbuk? standing in front of her had died. The situation is straightforward until a story introduces uncertainty (personified). Even though the wife acts decisively, the consequences of her actions – indeed the outcome of the entire situation – is uncertain.
Cut to the American Midwest in 1967, where Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), an untenured physics professor looks for meaning in stories, even as narratives break down around him.
In what Syd Field would call the inciting incident, the narrative of Gopnik’s marriage is thrown a plot twist, one that he doesn’t see coming: his wife wants a divorce. Actually, she wants two, a legal divorce and a ritual one, a gett. She wants to be separated from him both in the real world, and in the world of the stories we tell. She recognizes the difference, while Gopnik doesn’t – and that failure is what drives him through the rest of the movie.
Hoping to make sense of his marriage’s sudden turn for the worse, Gopnik sets out on a quest to speak to his synagogue’s three rabbis. But the rabbis’ stories shed no light on Gopnik’s problems. The first offers a parable (seemingly cribbed from Jesus): consider the parking lot. The second tells him a shaggy dog story about a dentist who discovers seemingly significant, and ultimately meaningless, messages etched into a patient’s teeth.
Eventually, Gopnik’s search for meaning becomes an unfinished narrative in and of itself, as the third rabbi refuses even to see him. At the same time, the organization of this storyline frustrates narrative. While it provides the film’s only imposed structure (title cards that announce The First Rabbi and The Second Rabbi), these titles appear haphazardly, providing no more help in organizing the event of Gopnik’s life than the stories the rabbis tell.
Throughout the film, Gopnik gets other clues that life and narrative are incompatible. He gets glimpses into the lives of his neighbours: a woman who sunbathes nude within a tiny cubicle of fence; a crew-cut man who cuts his lawn over the property line and takes his son out of school to go hunting. We get no context for their actions – no back story, and no sense of narrative thrust – and yet we understand that they are not without meaning.
And yet, the more stories fail him, the more Gopnik turns to stories.
He dreams happy endings and resolutions to his various challenges, but they spiral into death and failure, especially when they try to take advantage of established plot devices (to “pay off” the “set up” in screenplay jargon). Most notably, when he imagines trying to help his brother escape from a gambling debt, his scenario takes advantage of two set ups: first, a mention of Canada that compares it with L’olam Ha-Ba, the World to Come (which is notably not analogous to neat resolution of Christian heaven); and second, an envelope of money that appeared in Gopnik’s office (and which may or may not be a bribe). The tidiness of it would be admirable screenwriting. The fact that it comes apart so messily is great screenwriting.
In perhaps the most telling dream sequence, Gopnik fills a wall of blackboards with equations to derive Heisenberg’s uncertainty theorem, explaining to his class: “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out.” For Gopnik, this is a nightmare.
Gopnik’s chalk labyrinth bears deliberate resemblance to his brother’s life’s work, a mathematical probability theory in a book he calls The Mentaculus. When Gopnik looks at the Mentaculus, he sees nothing but page after page of gibberish and doodles. No structure. No pattern other than whim. And yet, it works. The Mentaculus allows Gopnik’s brother to beat the system and consistently win at gambling. It gets him into trouble, but it works. It makes sense of the world precisely because it doesn’t make sense of the world.
A Serious Man functions as a companion piece to The Man Who Wasn’t There, the Coens’ cold fusion of film noir tropes with quantum physics. The uncertainty principle plays a key role in that film as well, and Tony Shaloub, playing the lawyer defending Billy Bob Thornton against murder charges, builds his argument not on reasonable doubt, but on the un-reasonableness of anything but doubt:
You wanna test something… well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would’ve happened if you hadn’t-a stuck in your own goddamn schnozz. So there is no “what happened”? Not in any sense that we can grasp, with our puny minds. Because our minds… our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the “Uncertainty Principle”. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s on to something.
The more you know about something, the less you know about where it is, and vice versa. The cat is dead. Long live the cat. All is, as the student who (possibly) tries to bribe Gopnik says of the accusations of bribery, “Mere surmise, Sir.”
Life doesn’t work the way stories do. Biography is not narrative.
Because here’s what it boils down to: Stories end. Lives just stop.
And then Ian Driscoll woke up.