Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Serious Schmuck

Guest Blogger Review by Leah Garrett

David Denby of the New Yorker, in one of the few really negative reviews of the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man said it well: the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer “would have been disgusted” by the behavior of the main character, Lawrence Gopnik, the whining schmuck who acquiesces in all situations, never stands up for himself, is tricked, beaten, refuses the come ons from his next door neighbor (very un-Singer) and is the eternal victim. Gopnik is the caricature of the quietly suffering Jewish loser who becomes a human punching bag. Rather than imbuing Gopnik with the traits standard in Yiddish and Jewish American writing from Sholem Aleichem to the brothers Singer - ironic humor, sarcasm, the ability to laugh at oneself and others - Gopnik is a sad sack with no redeeming qualities. He doesn’t crack wise, he doesn’t speak truth to power, he doesn’t go down zinging. He just goes down.
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In a way A Serious Man telegraphs its intent in the first segment of the film set in the shtetl. This scene is entirely in Yiddish and the English subtitles miss half of what is actually being said. Likewise A Serious Man spectacularly misses the whole point of Yiddish literature (and Yiddish cinema) which is that, yeah, life is going to get you in the end but the way to cheat Death is to make a gag about his scythe and viciously mock his choice of cloak.
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The film is set in suburban Minnesota in the late 60’s when the Coen brothers were growing up there. True this isn’t New York or Chicago but Jewish Minneapolis isn’t that different from the North American hubs of Jewish culture; the Coens’ representation of Jewish American suburbia, however, is the polar opposite of Woody Allen's or Mel Brooks’ world where the machers who annoy the hell out of you get eviscerated by superior wit. The Coens' universe is a morose, dreary, and paranoid landscape, without intellectualism or wit. We know the Coens have read Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler but have they dipped into, say, Philip Roth? The textured, dark hilarity of Roth’s Jewish suburbs is nowhere to be seen in their oddly bland film.
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In a way Gopnik is actually more akin to "The Wandering Jew" a Christian trope whose task it is to eternally suffer until redemption or death arrives to lift him from this vale of tears. Gopnik is very different from the standard schlemiels of Jewish culture, from Tevye the Dairyman to Larry David, who are afflicted by small and large hardships, but who survive and in fact thrive by mocking themselves and their predicament. Gopnik just sulks around, moaning tediously, reel after reel as his job implodes, his wife leaves him, his children rebel and his health declines. No wonder he, and the movie, have appealed so strongly to a broad range of primarily non Jewish critics: Gopnik is a perfect Wandering Jew or Job or Jesus figure who takes on all the sins of mankind, suffering without question and who, through this misery, supposedly purges and purifies others.
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Reworking the Job story in a modern context has been done several times before but nowhere better than in I. L. Peretz’s 1894 iconic Yiddish masterpiece “Bontshe Shvayg” [Bontshe the Silent]. Bontshe is a shtetl version of Lawrence Gopnik who responds with silence to the torrents of abuse he faces thoughout his life. Of course, because this is a Yiddish story, it ends with Bontshe going to heaven and being mocked mercilessly for his passivity by a prosecuting angel who cracks wise at Bontshe’s expense. When Bontshe is asked what he would like in recompense for all his suffering he blows it yet again by humbly asking for a “bagel with some butter” which is met with by howls of laughter. Peretz’s hugely popular and important short story was clearly challenging the misuse of the Job trope in Jewish life and showing that there is nothing worthy to be found in passivity and that all it really does is make the sufferer into a pathetic schmuck. It is both troubling and tedious to see the Coen brothers turn the clock back to a hackneyed Jewish caricature that went out of date more than a century ago. IB Singer might indeed have been disgusted by this film but more likely he would have fallen asleep first.