This essay sets out to interpret the moral philosophy in Ethan & Joel Coen’s 2009 film, A Serious Man. Following on from the phenomenal Hollywood success of No Country For Old Men, the Coens chose to return to their roots for this film, with the story of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics teacher in 1960s Midwestern America as his life begins to unravel. The twin aspects of Gopnik’s life, professional (science) and personal (religion) form and provide the basis for this essay’s investigations. I have chosen this film in particular because it marks a stark contrast with their previous offering and one that closely mines the brothers’ own roots, as they were brought up in the Jewish community of Minnesota through the 50s and 60s. With other filmmakers, we might find some nostalgia creeping into the story. However, the Coen brothers here maintain their critical and interrogative eye for all things close to them.
Whilst interrogating the story, I hope to demonstrate how the Coens deliberately weave philosophical concepts into their films in order to enrich the tapestry of the worlds they create – merging their obvious storytelling nous (and inimitable style) with concepts discussed by critical thinkers from Friedrich Nietzsche and Erwin Schrodinger through to contemporary film theorists and academics. I will engage with and discuss a number of philosophical ideas and schools of thought. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, will be the nature of Jewish identity; indeed, the nature of Midwestern American Judaism; mining the Coens’ existentialist critique of their own upbringing.
Next, and perhaps primarily, I will investigate the nature of moral order as an illusion – through the prism of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and the experiments of Schrodinger – as it relates to religion and science as the primary governing forces of our lives; finally (with links to examples in previous Coen films to reinforce the idea of the brothers as philosophical filmmakers), Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. That is, the idea that the more closely a thing is examined, the less precisely one can understand it. There will also be references to ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’, as it is mentioned explicitly and implicitly throughout the film, as Larry attempts to teach it to his students. Schrodinger’s Cat, for the uninitiated, was a quantum physics thought experiment developed by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935. Schrodinger argued that if you placed a cat in a box with something that could kill the cat and sealed the box, you would not know if the cat was dead until you opened the box; in a sense, therefore, the cat is both dead and alive until the box is opened. This is the concept Larry attempts to teach his students at the outset of the film, and as a philosophical idea (rather than a purely scientific, empirical one) has parallels in the ambiguity of Larry’s own story.
Within academic examinations of their work, the Coens are often related to or viewed through the paradigm of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work insomuch as their films are considered to harbour elements of nihilism, a concept Nietzsche was very much associated withthroughout his life. However, I will attempt to steer away from this one-dimensional trail of investigation and instead burrow into their shared engagement with Jewish identity and how it influences a perception of moral order that may in fact be an illusion. Therefore, although there may be instances within A Serious Man that are primed for discussion of nihilism, I will not be addressing them here.
As a screenwriter myself, I hope to unpick the story elements that utilise philosophical ideas to come to a deeper understanding of how the Coens craft a story. I had planned to be using extracts from the screenplay for A Serious Man as a way of connecting the theoretical ideas discussed in the essay with the creative ideas laid out on the page by the filmmakers. Alas, there are no official scripts available as far as I can find, so I will rely on my investigations and analyses of specific instances within the film to draw conclusions on this front.
Philosophical Origins in Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There
Before I begin my main case study in earnest, by way of establishing the Coen brothers as devout philosophical storytellers, I will present two minor case studies from other films of theirs – Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There. These have not been chosen arbitrarily; there are links between their themes and those of A Serious Man. Further, all three are films set decades in the past, and are to be viewed, therefore, through the lens of time as well as with the contemporary perspective with which they were made.
Barton Fink was released in 1991, but is set in 1941. Featuring a struggling, Jewish screenwriter, it provides an interesting counterpoint to A Serious Man. Where Larry’s professional life is rooted in math, numbers and the search for certainty, Barton’s is founded precisely in artistic fantasy. There are similarities, though, in their religious identity and the ‘series of obstacles that threaten to destroy’ them. Barton Fink struggles to write the movie he has been assigned, and throughout the film, his idealistic vision of representing the common man is shown to be beyond the capabilities of his chosen profession as a theatre writer. Nonetheless, he retains a cynicism towards film productions despite their ability to communicate more effectively with the common man that he wishes to celebrate.
Barton Fink deals with Jewish identity much more indirectly than does A Serious Man, given its big-city setting and the occupations of its principle characters. Religion never (at least not on the surface) plays a significant part in the actions and reactions of the protagonists. However, it is still there, simmering beneath Fink’s tribulations and his wilful fantasies. Fink’s inability to budge from the ideals that hinder him has its roots, I think, in the idea of ‘Talmudic argument’. A.C. Grayling describes this as the ‘love of argument and contention rather characteristic of the Jewish mind’, the inherent self-questioning aspect of the Jewish mind that Friedrich Nietzsche also referred to throughout his body of work (see The Birth of Tragedy & On The Genealogy of Morals). The German summed it up in terms of a test of faith, that the Jewish individual is responsible for his own fortunes, as opposed to God or the Rabbis who represent their faith. I will delve into this in more detail further on in the essay. But it is clear to see that there is a philosophical bedrock beneath Barton Fink that the Coens have shored up with ideas from their own cultural heritage. Written early on in their career, not long after Ethan had studied philosophy at Princeton University, it reflects a strand running throughout the Coen brothers’ films that cross-examines the ideas that form the basis of contemporary society.
The Man Who Wasn’t There, meanwhile, was released a decade later in 2001. However, it is once again set in the 40s, this time later in the decade, with World War 2 over and the cold war gathering momentum. Set against this backdrop, the Coens choose to confront their protagonist, an almost-mute barber called Ed Crane, with the increasing spectre of uncertainty that was troubling society at that time. The film employs many of the Coens’ usual trademarks: a noir-ish tale of infidelity, murder and crime. Similar in this sense to their debut Blood Simple, it nonetheless represents a maturing sense of story, utilising Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a way to enrich the predicament of their main character.
R Barton Palmer analysed this film in his book Joel and Ethan Coen. In it, he relates Ed Crane’s struggle to present alibis and a convincing defence for his wife (who somehow falls into the frame for the murder of her lover, committed by Ed himself) to the uncertainty principle as represented by her lawyer. Riedenschneider, the lawyer, proclaims that it is his job to convince the jurors that, no matter how close they look, they can never truly know what happened. Although neither Heisenberg or his principle are ever specifically referred to, Riedenschneider does mention a ‘guy in Germany’, and it is a somewhat transparent reference. This frustrates Ed’s attempts at confession – in that he can no more prove his version of events than his wife’s – and provides the central contradiction which drives the conflict of this film.
Once again, the Coens draw a character who struggles to accept his inability to know how things are or will be, and again they do so by weaving what is, in essence, a philosophical strand throughout the tapestry of their film. The backdrop of the Cold War and the possibility of a Soviet attack reinforces all of this uncertainty within their character, and seems to be the ideal backdrop for a story which investigates this uncertainty principle.
With these short examples, it’s easy to see the case for the Coens as philosophically aware filmmakers. However, A Serious Man is perhaps their most overtly philosophical film to date. As the film’s plot, such as it is, has been explained briefly above, I will endeavour not to repeat myself and, instead, move straight onto the case study.
‘What’s Going On?’ – The Philosophical Morality of A Serious Man
The inescapable aspect of this film is the Jewishness at the heart of it. Nothing in this film can be examined without its relation to Larry’s Judaism being considered – his family life is steeped in it, and it is to his faith that he turns when things go awry. At the outset of the film, he is beset with difficulties: a potential divorce, problematic students, his brother Arthur’s continued disruption of the family home. However, it is only when he speaks to his friend at the beach picnic that his impending ‘hero’s journey’ is revealed to us. As follows:
LARRY: Everything I thought was one way turns out to be another.
FRIEND: Then it’s an opportunity to learn how things really are.
This brief exchange convinces Larry to search for the meaning of things and why his life seems to be creaking under the weight of multiple simultaneous tests of character. It is following this that Larry goes to see the first rabbi – Rabbi Scott – and the ‘opportunity’ quickly becomes a source of torment for Larry. As he turns to his religion, so it turns away, and this provides the through line of the film, the issue the Coens seek to tackle.
And yet, this seems not to be a film about Judaism, per se, but an interrogation of the illusory moral order we live our lives by with such a faith. Larry’s case is peculiar in that he is caught between faith in physics and faith in the tenets of his religion. In this, he is completely at the behest of his belief in the order that these bestow, in the meaning that they provide to his life. When they begin to fail him, it seems that life itself is collapsing and devoid of meaning – the message of this film seems to be that our social, ethical and moral orders are illusory and impractical when we need them most. It is a sombre message, but it is delivered nonetheless with idiosyncratic Coen verve and irony.
There is another conjunction between the Coens and Friedrich Nietzsche. As Peter Mathews puts it, ‘their works converge in the shared task of engaging, through the prism of Jewish identity, in a poignant interrogation of the destructive illusions that so often plague humanity’. This is no surprise, given the brothers’ Midwestern upbringing in the Jewish faith. As Mathews notes, they have approached the topic of Judaism from a cynical perspective, treating it is an outsider’s faith, rejected ‘by American Society’ (Mathews, 63). This is prevalent in films such as Barton Fink, as already covered, and Miller’s Crossing. This film, however, sees Jewishness as the predominant identity in the community in which Larry resides. Therefore, he is not an outsider in as much as Barton Fink or Bernie Bernbaum in Miller’s Crossing.
This version of Jewishness must be examined with, in the words of Gregg Bachman, ‘the emphasis in contemporary Judaism [is] on action over faith’. That is, the view that ethical/non-ethical behaviour and the consequences thereof rest surely on the shoulders of the individual – not on those who preach Judaism and certainly not on the God that it hails to. This is at the core of Larry’s story as he struggles to make sense of what is happening around him. His marriage is falling apart, his children don’t respect him and his progress in work is jeopardized. When he turns to the rabbis that represent the religion he devotes himself to, his assertions that he is ‘a serious man’ who follows the ethical code he is supposed to fall not so much on deaf ears as dismissive ones. Each rabbi in turn leaves Larry to flounder because it is not their job to provide this guidance. One might question what exactly it is that they are there for in that case, but it remains for Larry to find his own solutions.
As is noted in Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, the Coen brothers tend to give characters a rough time when they resemble themselves, and Larry is no exception. An upper-Midwestern Jew, he seems to come in for dire treatment borne of, as Jon Lewis calls it ‘worrisome self-loathing’. I personally find Lewis’ essay – in which he rails against the Coens’ immaturity and tendency for ridiculing their subjects – to be overly subjective and thinly evidenced, but he has a point in this sense. I would contend, however, that the Coens do not put characters such as Larry through the mill gratuitously. Rather, they fiercely interrogate aspects of their own identities in order to fully understand themselves and the world in which they reside.
There is something very Jewish, too, in the way the characters of A Serious Man approach their interactions. Talmudic reasoning, as referenced and explained earlier, seems to be the chosen manner in which the characters – especially the rabbis – address unknowable truths and questions of morality and personal responsibility. It is a dialogic, contentious fashion in which the first two rabbis respond to Larry pleading for advice. Rabbi Scott is the first to whom Larry turns. A shockingly young rabbi, Larry is met with dumb silence when he informs Scott that his wife wants a ‘Gett’ (a divorce document in Jewish law). Far from receiving the advice he needs in this situation, he has to explain what a ‘gett’ is before being told it is Larry’s responsibility to remember how to see Hashem. Rabbi Scott’s advice stems little further than telling Larry to ‘look at the parking lot’ outside his office window. This first meeting, therefore, seems to represent the incapacity of the gatekeepers of Judaism to fulfil their stated roles or to offer meaningful, practicable advice on life’s problems.
And though this is all framed through a Jewish prism, the Coens are saying something fundamental about humanity that speaks to their interest in examining big philosophical and existential questions. It is a warning, almost, that the extremes of the human condition become eminently more intense when things like community, cultural shelter and religion are stripped away (Naifeh). This is where A Serious Man intersects with the uncertainty principle. As Larry draws closer and closer to the nub of his existence, he becomes less able to understand what it all means and, crucially, why it is happening to him. They also mirror Schrodinger’s thought experiment back to us as viewers; is Larry the cat? Will he survive the tribulations of the film? Such an answer is unknowable given the ambiguous ending the Coens leave us with.
Having Larry as a physicist, the Coens draw him as a man who yearns for the certainty of things, of mathematical and empirical solutions – and yet, this arena falls silent of answers just as the rabbis do. The Coens are very clever here in crafting this story. They embed foundations of Larry’s life almost as complementary to one another – spiritual and scientific investment – and yet, when things begin to fall apart for Larry, neither faith in maths or God seems to make any difference.
This is where Mathews and his comparison of Nietzsche come in handy when analysing the film. Nietzsche spoke of the Jewish idea of individual responsibility as a defensive response to historical suffering at the hands of oppressive and hostile regimes (On The Genealogy Of Morals). That is, a tactic for seeing suffering as a sign not that their religion is the problem, but that the individual practicing it has failed to live up to his covenant with God. Mathews analyses this as a rather twisted survival strategy, and though it seems far-fetched to say this is a conscious effort to rescue the spiritual wellbeing of Jewish people, the idea has correlatives in Larry’s experiences. He is repeatedly told, or has it implied, that it is he who needs to change in order to turn his life around. No advice is given that lays any blame or responsibility on his cheating wife, obstreperous Sy Ableman or the blackmailing student Clive.
The Coens play with the intersectionality of Larry’s life – that crossroads where his scientific and religious dilemmas converge. Returning to a point touched upon earlier, – that of Schrodinger’s experiment and its relation to Larry’s life – Clive, a Korean student, confronts him with the problem of the ‘dead cat’, after we see Larry teaching it to his students. The brilliantly funny moment when Clive informs Larry that his suspicions of bribery are ‘mere surmise’ (heard initially as ‘meer sir, my sir’) flip the uncertainty principle back on Larry. Clive is confronting Larry with the fact the he cannot find conclusive proof of what hampers him, much as the scientist can never truly know the nature of a thing – and in a subsequent scene, when Clive’s father visits Larry’s home, he urges him to ‘accept the mystery’. This, perhaps, is the message of A Serious Man in microcosm –when clarity and order cannot be established, perhaps it is best for one’s sanity to accept the mystery instead.
Uncertainty permeates into Larry’s home life, too. As touched upon briefly before, this portrays Larry as analogous to the cat in Schrodinger’s Paradox. Mathews refers to this in his essay, ‘The Morality Meme’, describing the uncertainty with which Larry’s fate is treated, not just at the end of the film but throughout.
Two very key motifs in this film are repeated lines of dialogue. Larry continually asks ‘what’s going on?’ – when arguing with his neighbour Brandt, when his son Danny runs into the house away from a fellow student, when Danny and daughter Sarah are arguing over $20 and when the police inform him of Arthur’s gambling. It is a question he never receives the answer to until the dream sequence with Sy Ableman – the former friend who his wife had left him for. After Sy has been killed in a car crash, he comes to Larry in a dream and tells him ‘I fucked your wife, Larry…that’s what’s going on’, and urges him to see Rabbi Marshak. Larry attempts to do so but is rejected because Marshak is busy ‘thinking’. The uncertainty remains.
The second dialogic motif in A Serious Man is Larry’s repeated insistence that ‘I haven’t done anything’. This goes from a profession of innocence (when his wife first asks for the divorce) to an indictment of his failure to act and take control of his life – when Arlen (head of faculty at work) requests evidence of external work to support his tenure application. Larry fails to recognise this; he is urged by both Rabbi Scott and Nachter to change his perspective. Indeed, Nachter informs him that ‘Hashem’ has no obligation towards Larry and that the obligation, in fact, runs the other way. As Mathews writes, such a message echoes Nietzsche’s aphoristic conclusion of the Jewish emphasis on personal responsibility.
This ties in with an idea propounded by Sam Naifeh in his Jung Journal article, in which he says ‘the Coen brothers use cultural settings as a starting point for their characters who quickly become immersed in liminality’. Liminality is an anthropological term for a sense of ambiguity or disorientation experienced by one going through a transitional phase or rite of passage, throughout which the individual has no perceived rank or status.  It is an interesting argument, one that Naifeh puts forward as a template for all Coen films, though he is referring specifically to A Serious Man. However, what is more pertinent for the purpose of this essay is that this insight reveals something different about A Serious Man. The cultural setting is not just a starting point here, as it may be in Barton Fink or The Man Who Wasn’t There. Instead, the cliché of setting-as-character very much rings true here. The cultural background – Jewish, Midwestern America, 60s – is absolutely key because it is the written and unwritten rules and maxims of this cultural setting that present Larry ‘with an unravelling of what he thought his life was about, both at work and at home’. It is the Jewish reversal of responsibility from Rabbi to individual, it is the Talmudic argument that peppers his home life, it is the sparsity of the location and the sequestered and rigid nature of the community that resides there; all of these are roadblocks in Larry’s search for meaning and justice.
Again, this harks back to Nietzsche in On The Genealogy Of Morals and The Anti-Christ in which he investigates the ‘psychological survival techniques that emerged during the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of the Israelites’. It must be noted here, that although Nietzsche has been accused of anti-Semitism for his repeated use of the words ‘sickly’ and ‘poisonous’ throughout those texts to describe Jewish thought, I am in concurrence with Mathews and the numerous theorists (Bataille, Kaufmann, Weaver Santaniello) who have worked to debunk that idea in favour of the view that Nietzsche’s interest in Judaism is a chronological one, an act of tracing the developments of Jewish morality structures through historical investigation. Although it seems we might have slipped into a different argument here, it is crucial to understand the parallels with the Coen brothers and their treatment of Jewishness. As mentioned before, Jon Lewis defines this as self-loathing. But the multi-layered story of A Serious Man, as explored here and elsewhere, clearly rubbishes this. The Coens are not navel-gazing or attacking their heritage. They are seeking to unearth the truth behind the illusion, and Larry is a conduit for this. His frustrations are the Coens’ frustrations, I contend, and the lack of meaning and closure he finds is a very real representation of the moral order illusion as written on extensively by Nietzsche and distilled finely by Mathews.
But how does this all tie into the screenwriting aspect I proposed to explore in my introduction? I was unable to find a verified version of the screenplay for A Serious Man – only transcripts seem to exist online and they cannot be relied upon to correctly interpret the writer’s vision. However, the Coens characterise their story through dialogue, as is their watermark, and in A Serious Man, a significant driver of the dialogic style originates from the specific portrayal of Jewishness and its love for Talmudic argument and eternal reflection. From this one may extrapolate, as an aspiring screenwriter, that dialogue must be borne of cultural setting in order for it to reside convincingly within the realm of the story.
With regards to story and structure, the Coens employ the ‘rule of three’; in particular with the rabbis who Larry seeks help from, as well as the lawyer he meets three times and the three-act structure the film is broken into. While this is not an Earth-shattering revelation, it nonetheless carries weight when we consider how the Coens balance philosophical interrogation with well-established story structure. More importantly, however, they do away with the typical Hollywood ending of resolution and closure. And this is vital to note because to wrap things up in a neat little box like many mainstream movies do, the Coens would be betraying their theme and the truths it exposes to them: that the spiritual and moral path through life is clouded and uncertain, and guidance is often lacking. For me, this is a crucial concept to discover because I believe it will bolster the development of my own stories and instil a principle of fealty to my themes and subjects.
More conventionally, there is also a sense of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ – the presentation of larger and more frustrating obstacles to the protagonist that underpins much screenwriting theory (see Syd Field and Robert McKee). For example, in the third meeting with the lawyer, another lawyer (Sol) is called in who, we are told, may have a great solution to Larry’s property-line dispute with his neighbour Brandt. Before Sol can divulge this information, he suffers a heart attack and dies. Larry enjoys an afternoon with Mrs Samsky, the neighbour on the other side, during which he smokes marijuana and is seemingly content. This is immediately followed by the disruption of his brother being brought home by the police and being charged with sodomy – and Larry must foot the legal expenses. Although this idea of obstacles is not a new one in screenwriting theory, the Coens take it further than most. Where normally the protagonist would conquer seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the Coens overload Larry with so much (at times trivial) adversity that he begins to question the meaning of life and his faith – a tactic that takes the film into the realm of philosophical exploration.
Moving on to the style of the writing, the Coens have employed satire to expose social injustice or imbalance many times before, most notably in O Brother Where Art Thou, which comically deconstructs inequality in Depression-era Mississippi. Here again, they inject what is actually a rather sombre, morbid and sadistic story with humour and irony not in order to dampen its gravitas but because it is the best way to reflect the absurdity or suffering of a situation. This ability to lessen the power of adverse concepts and experiences is something the Coens are masters at, and it is something key to the craft of screenwriting, I believe.
The film ends as Larry receives a phone call from the physician who x-rayed him in the opening scenes. This occurs just after Larry chooses to change Clive’s grade from an F to a C minus, an indication of change or acceptance that we believe may give us our resolution. However, the doctor calls and asks Larry in to discuss the x-rays. The call carries with it the implication of bad news, and framed within the context of the looming tornado approaching Danny’s school, is a doom-laden missive that the Coens choose to leave hanging, ending with as much uncertainty and tribulation as ran through the rest of the film.
With all this, it is evident that the strands of moral and spiritual thought running through this film are intentionally woven to enrich the story and pose more questions to the audience. It is also an idiosyncratic choice for the Coens to leave these questions hanging, thus provoking philosophical questions that may not linger in the mind as long if they were answered dutifully. They are therefore weaving storytelling nous with long-established philosophical concepts to enrich the tapestry of their movie, a phrase I have repeated throughout this essay because it is its raison d’etre. My research has led me to believe that Ethan and Joel Coen were conducting their own research here, into the measure of their own affection for the Jewish faith; testing themselves. Mathews puts it eloquently as the Coens issuing their own ‘gett’ to Judaism. So, as Judith does to Larry, the Coens do to Judaism. And once they have stepped free of the covenant with Hashem, they are able to step back and observe why it is they are passionate about it.
Having researched No Country For Old Men for a previous project, it is also possible to refer to the wealth of academic work which, while discussing other Coen films, nonetheless reveal fundamental characteristics of their filmmaking that tend to transcend the plot and subject matter of each individually and instead help to build a body of work which is, in essence, an ongoing existentialist investigation into the meaning of morality. As Gregg Bachmann finely frames it: ‘their films truly are the embodiment of an old Yiddish admonition: Der Mensch trakt, un Got lakht. Man plans, God laughs’. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in A Serious Man.
My research into this film and its strands has revealed a great deal to me, not just about Jewishness, Nietzsche and the big question of a search for life’s meaning, but also about storytelling. In that sense, it has been a success because I shall be able to apply the fruits of this research to my own screenwriting in future.
The Youtube analyst ‘Nerdwriter1’ has an in-depth study of A Serious Man, in which he contends that the film asks ‘can life be understood?’. In it, he discusses a great deal of what I have touched upon here, but I think the key takeaway is that this film is not the Coens gratuitously putting their protagonist through the mill, as some critics might have it (Lewis). Rather, the film is a fine and subtle call for us to look into the truths of our own existence, to question the moral codes that guide us, and to ask ourselves if we really have the fortitude to find out ‘what’s going on?’.
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