By Harriet P. Gross
When I walked out of the theater dark into the lobby light, I was thinking of my Boubby the Philosopher, who would frequently opine, on a variety of topics: “I don’t think this is so good for the Jews.”
The film I had just seen was Joel and Ethan Coen’s newest, “A Serious Man,” which most present-day pundits agree is a remake of that distressing old “favorite,” the Biblical Book of Job. A good man is suddenly beset by a stream of troubles. In Job’s case, they are really, truly terrible. In the case of Larry Gopnik, living the classic suburban life of a Jewish family man in a flatland Minnesota development circa 1967, they are world-shaking — for him. But we viewers tend to laugh, sometimes quite heartily, at Larry’s problems.
Or maybe we’re laughing to keep from crying, because his problems are ours. We know this man, with his divorce-demanding wife, his out-of-control children, his eccentric brother, his workplace and neighbor difficulties, his moral dilemmas. In short, the disintegration of his personal world. The kinds of things that have torn apart many of our personal worlds, or parts of them, in the past — and perhaps are doing so in the present. This is not a film for escape from our own cares, even though it’s funny. Sometimes if we don’t laugh, we’re close to doom.
I read two recent pieces about this film in the New York Times by A.O. Scott, who’s Jewish himself. His questions are on a higher plane than mine: He’s wondering if it’s a lesson in atheism, or if it actually shows God’s view of the world. Are the Coens “making fun of God, or playing on God’s side in a rigged cosmic game”? I’m worried less about philosophic meanings, more about practicality. Will non-Jews who see “A Serious Man” — which is now in venues other than Jewish film festivals — think that all rabbis are as distant and inept as those depicted in it? Will they take offense at the characterization of some “goys” (yes, they’re called that in the film) as literal Jew-hunters and shooters? Will they associate a disproportionate number of us with pot-smoking young teenagers, pedantic buffoons and sex-crazed housewives, since they’re all here, and all identifiably Jewish?
A few days earlier, I’d seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” which raised, at least for me, more than a few Jewish questions of its own, but of a very different type. The most important, I think: Is it possible to accept a Holocaust “fantasy”? I came away thinking of this film as a demented fairy tale (maybe better called an “ogre tale”), something that the Brothers Grimm, those aptly-named German writers of brutal fictions that have given nightmares to generations of kids, might have cooked up on a very bad day.
The beginning is a tear-jerker: A Righteous Gentile must surrender the Jews he’s been sheltering. But after that, everyone is a stereotype: the manipulative Gestapo officer; the stupid Nazis à la “Hogan’s Heroes”; the brutally brave band of Jewish revenge-takers under the leadership of Brad Pitt, preposterous as a drawling Southerner who collects German scalps; and the beauteous, Jewish Shoshanna, who escapes annihilation and lives on to die as the ultimate payback queen.
And the end? Well, if we could rewrite history, we’d like a certain segment of it to finish this way. The word “Holocaust” is derived from the Greek and means, literally, “sacrifice by fire.” And that’s what we have here — Hitler and all his major toadies consumed in a gigantic blaze from which there’s no escape (and which, of course, had it occurred in reality rather than on and by celluloid, would have been very good, indeed, for the Jews!).
And the end of our “Serious Man”? Well, Gopnik and all the others who are parts of his wretchedness are watching, horrified, as something comes out of the sky that looks like it has the potential to put a permanent finish on all his suffering, and on everyone else’s as well. But the Coen brothers, teasing us — as they do with their protagonist — to the very end, fade into black credits.
So the head-shakers congregate in the light of the lobby to ask many unanswerable questions of all kinds. But for me, my Boubby’s voice sounds out again in the background with hers: “Is any of this really good for the Jews?”
Maybe you have some answers. If so, please share them with me. My Boubby and I are both eager to hear them.
By Harriet P. Gross