The lost tribe of Judah wandering, shambling through the suburbs of Minneapolis. Caught in this strange web of dependency and interdependency, on each other and on their omnipresent identity which hangs over them like a black cloud with intermittent and infrequent rays of tainted optimism.In the Coen brothers, A Serious Man, it is actually a serious cult, a tribe spreading the gospel of shock and worry until they find the few who know the secret…those who see the world as an irrational place inhabited by humans driven by base desires they themselves hardly understand.
Its a dark and nasty view of human nature.This world of the Coen’s is not an understandable and desireable world in which victims are innocent and may triumph over the reverses life hands them.They are playing with a bad hand of cards and they openly cheat.And why not? Life is intemittent periods of serenity sandwiched between large doses of psychological violence and random punishments. They succumb too easily to the culturally ingrained path of least resistance which is the fine art of victimhood refined and perfected, playing to a seemingly new audience.
A Serious Man is a man within and a man without and everything in between. A skeptical outsider loosly rooted in the attitudes and traditions of small town America but without any real refuge from the storied calamities that make up Jewish dread: the fear of being turned on at any moment. Confidence is always being put to the acid test. Masks are employed. deadpan. Self deprecating poses that veil the underlying terror rooted in the pogroms, anti-semitism, holocaust.
What to appropriate… the con artist as leitmotif running through American culture is mask and disguise of choice.Everyone uses it, from blustering Rush Limbaugh to Michael Moore, snake oil vendor of the left. Jump into the identity . We don’t know the background of the Coen characters: A surmise is proud forebears of the Khazar Legend elaborated by Arthur Koestler, A basically uncivilized, gabbing, thieving , crew of perhaps horse thieves from Galicia, lacking rudimentary manners of the Western European gentile tradition. Its being ”American”. The juxtaposition and contradiction is the one the recurring themes in ”A Serious Man” by the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan as they,hawk their wares , and stock in trade ,of themes of greed, violence and the legacy of rugged individualism to a very picky and discriminating sort of buyer. But as usual,the characters, as if by reflex, grab the bait and run into the headwaters of disaster.
The backdrop of protagonist Larry Gopnik ( Michael Stuhlbarg ) and his world, is dealing with the paranoia of gentile aggression. The desire to be accepted and the concern for a culture disappearing, such as it is understood. The genius of the Coen’s is bringing us closer to this mask through humour so we can touch it and make fun of it. Characters hanging onto the American dream but realizing its a fantasy America completely whitewashed of their own identity.Which may not be a bad thing, to sand and smooth out the jagged edges The Jewish identity being so strong and focused that it drags and folds the characters back into themselves, devouring them until they become caricatures; acting in ways which reinforce the archetypes, myth and history however illusory that may be.The weight of all this karma serving as repressive force rather than liberating element. … the noise ,like bridge tables being folded after a synagogue bazaar. The question is posed. So this is it? A triumph of disappointment. The only answer is an ironic wry smile at the absurdity.
And the Coen’s through their characters fight against this beatific vision of American life invented by Hollywood. The protagonists and antagonists are almost identical;ambivalently and ambiguously aggressive. The dried out sentimentality nonetheless forms connections to the frontier myth and its demand for progess defined as deviation from
norm, though the characters are simply too hung up to be up to the challenge. .Yet the turning back on heritage creates a potential guilt which provides a certain shaky and unstable tension to the narrative, with the characters taking the pain and sting out of guilt and concealing it through humour, arcane rationality, and their adequate capabilities to torment each other instead of confronting themselves.
Is the nerdy characterization of Gopnik part of a disguise designed to catch you off guard.? A subterfuge perhaps to cloak his own subversion. A anti-victim who perhaps feels liberated. He is, in all likelihood,probably too pathetically passive for his own good to be sympathetic.A trifle too decent to be authentic. Its the Maccabean theater where the audience participates in the cruelty, sadistic or not. A precursor to the spectators throwing tomatos in Shakespeare’s time, here they throw verbal arrows and fling spears at outed and closeted Hellenized jews. Jewish taliban undergoing their own purification project in Minnesota’s land of a thousand lakes.
The Coen’s tell stories about people who are not often included in the picturesque version of the American dream.In A Serious man, its the floating theme of an oppressed people oppressing others in their turn, the village jealousies and cruelties of Coen’s characters transposed from the shtetl to America. The characters are too cosmopolitan, belying their roots somewhere in the boondocks east of the Vistula.