What did we learn?

Burn After Reading

The fundamental message of the Coen Brothers’ films seems to be , across the board, summed up by the CIA superior (J. K. Simmons) in 2008’s Burn After Reading:”What did we learn, Palmer?” The general gist of the answer – “fucked if I know” – means that essentially, the Coen Brothers think we just have to live in the world and cannot worry about those petty things like how to do so. A Serious Man (2009) is all about this dilemma, overtly so, and encourages us to just get on with our lives, ignoring the fact that problems can be pretty shit. The thing that makes it kind of hard to take in A Serious Man, though, is that the challenges that front up to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) are really terrible, and would be if you only had to take one at a time. I know that Larry’s unlikely excess of problems is the point of the Coens satirical bent, but it is just uncomfortable to watch him suffer so much. The Coens might be telling us to stop wondering why and just get over it, but I think that would be genuinely hard to do if I were faced with Larry’s situation.

Larry's uncertain reality

In a dream, Larry is teaching class and writing up mathematic formulas on a blackboard. The camera pans out to reveal an oversized blackboard filled with neverending formulas which all prove, Larry claims, the uncertainty principle that we can never actually know anything at all. This is a clever moment; it symbolizes the amount of time that we spend trying to figure out the complexities of life, when really we often can’t at all, and just need to go with the flow.

An element of stress in his dreams and in his reality, deciphering the source and meaning of his problems seems to be Larry’s real problem, rather than the consequences of their actuality. This focus is the saviour of A Serious Man, and the one aspect that makes me believe that the Coen Brothers aren’t total nihilists. The reality scenario is only background for them, and it is the thinking that is the focus. So don’t imagine going through Larry’s misfortune, that will only make you depressed. Just imagine yourself like Danny Gopnik at the end of the film – there’s plenty of things in life (doesn’t have to be a tornado) that can make stuff go away. And listen to music, because that’s one of your only escapes. It’s sure better than running away, because then you might get shot in the leg.


About cinemelo

I love to write about film and comment on culture. Hopefully providing insight and interesting thoughts for fellow cultural itinerants.
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3 Responses to What did we learn?

  1. Ben says:

    I enjoyed this film because of its analogy to quantum physics. I didn’t think this would ever be done well in a film (for example, What the Bleep Do We Know…awful) but I think the Coen’s succeeded.

    Larry’s board full of equations are from quantum physics, which does indeed state that at some fundamental level it is impossible to know precisely the state of the universe at any given time. Further, quantum physics describes a thought experiment known as Schrodinger’s cat, which imagines the fate of a cat being affected by this uncertainty. In a strange but real way, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time.

    As with the cat, the dybbuk at the beginning of the film is seemingly alive and dead at the same time. Similarly, Larry spends most of the film in sort of ‘superposition’ in which he both genuinely suffers, as a result of his search for answers, and does not suffer, as (most) all of his concerns are resolved by the film’s end. The analogy highlights the strange but real effect this inherent uncertainty has on our lives and suggests we have no choice but to accept it.

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