Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers' newest, A Serious Man, came to Eugene this week. Saw it in the town's only art cinema, a converted church - an interesting place to see this very Jewish film.

"Screwball tragedy," this article calls it. As apt a description as any. It's also an existential horror story, a meditation on understanding life, reality.

The secret is not, as that article says, in "accepting the mystery." That's maybe the solution, the only way to live with it, but it's not the secret. The secret is: the math. As Prof. Gopnik says, the math is the reality. Schrödinger's cat is just the picture we show ourselves to help us to understand the math: it's a representation of reality, and sometimes not a very good one. And we often don't even understand the cat. But the math: that is the reality. Understand that, and you're okay.

But who can understand the math? That, I think, is where this movie is coming from. Larry is a physics professor: he understands, he says, the math. Thinks he does, at least. But he certainly can't communicate that understanding to his students very effectively. And compared to his brother... Well, Arthur really understands the math. So well does he understand the math that he can't really understand anything else. He's so in touch with the reality underlying our illusions that he's unable really to function in the world of illusions. Compared to Arthur, Larry is still trying to get by on the illusions. He knows it's the math, not the cat, but he's concentrating on the cat anyway.

In other words: are there answers to the questions Job/Larry asks? Yes, there are: but nobody can understand them, at least not and stay sane. That's not the same as saying there are no answers. It's a different thing from nihilism (and remember how we're supposed to pronounce that), even though in the end it may amount to the same thing.

BTW, the Jefferson Airplane fan in me loved the music in this film. Here's an interesting explanation of the way they segues into "Somebody To Love." I thought that jamming might have been from the live version on Bless Its Pointed Little Head (hadn't heard it for a while), but according to this interview it's new.

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