Monday, October 26, 2009

Yesterday I saw the new film by the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man, which ends abruptly with the dark, swelling form of a tornado bearing down on the protagonist's son. The film is essentially a series of uninterpretable signs, the tornado being the last. The question that haunts A Serious Man, and that the protagonist, Larry Gopnik, asks on several occasions, is What does it mean? Why is this happening? At the center of the film lies the beautiful (and profoundly funny) vignette of "the goy's teeth," wherein a Jewish dentist discovers a series of Hebrew letters inexplicably carved on the inside of a series of teeth in the mouth of one of his Gentile patients. The letters read "help me, save me." The dentist ponders these words. He consults scripture. He translates them into numbers and rings up the resulting seven-digit sequence: a grocery store. He visits the store. Nothing. Finally he consults his rabbi, and discovers ... nothing. End of story.

Near the conclusion of the film, just as things seem to be looking up a little for poor Larry, he receives a phone call from his doctor. We are certain only that it is bad news. Then the tornado arrives. Given that A Serious Man is about God, and about signs, the lesson would seem to be clear: God just doesn't like Larry Gopnik. But instead, and brilliantly, I think, in its simplicity and subtlety, that tornado doesn't mean anything--or rather, it is uninterpretable. This is the lesson of the goy's teeth: we don't know. Earlier in the film, Larry gets into a car accident at apparently the same moment as his rival, Sy Ableman, and it means ... nothing. Or rather, it is uninterpretable. A Serious Man is not about the absence of meaning (no nihilists in this film); it is about the signs that God leaves around for us to find, Walt Whitman's handkerchief of the Lord--signs that we cannot read with any certainty.

Whether or not you believe in God, the weather is a kind of information. All weather is a sign of weather to come, and of other things as well, if only we could read it right. But for various reasons, it is likely that we will not be able to, that the signs will be uninterpretable--as Arden Reed elegantly puts it in Romantic Weather, the weather is "a kind of static or interference that distorts clear and distinct understanding." And the weather, after all, occurs between us and heaven. Which is all just to say, the weather makes a fitting ending for A Serious Man, and A Serious Man says something very important about the weather.

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