Until the Mess Comes Along

Garret Dillahunt’s Wendell, deputy to Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, looking over the carnage of a drug smuggler shoot out in the West Texas desert:

“It’s a mess.”

Sheriff Bell in reply:

“If it isn’t, it’ll do until the mess comes along.”

And the mess, Old Country portends at every turn, is surely coming.

Traveling for a year through places, even West Texas itself, where movie theaters were sparser than watering holes (Dry county? Dry county!), we missed a lot of movies. The Coen brothers’ A Serious Man was one of them. And for some reason, it wasn’t playing in the nearest theater to Red Bay, Alabama. Last night, we finally caught up with the film on cable.

It is sometimes said of the rare taste that it is an acquired taste. This is, I think, often a misnomer. Caviar may be an acquired taste. Few are raised on it.  Not everyone will ever like its sharp, salty attack on the tongue. Some, with exposure, will come to relish it. Jewish food, to the contrary, is in my experience not an acquired taste. I have yet to meet the individual who, not having been raised eating them, has, for instance, acquired a taste for gefilte fish or kishke. In the latter instance, a little knowledge (it is stuffed derma, or cow intestine) is a dangerous thing. Visuals are not of great assistance either.

The Coen brothers may be arguable, but I lean toward their not being an acquired taste. True, they are often a sharp, salty attack on aesthetic and human sensibilities – in Jewish mode, or, mostly, not – and it is a faith among aesthetes that such sensibility can be educated and developed, at least among some. Nonetheless, there are literary people who, even of the titanic Joyce, demur and cry “No I said no I won’t no.” So, of the Coen’s readiness for acquisition, I think not, and I have seen little evidence to refute my inclination. They are hardly the greatest assault on our more comforting conceptions of the human. They are not Jean Genet. Still, unlike an author such as Anne Tyler, whose compassion for even her dysfunctional characters is often observed, the Coens are in that tradition of artists whose own inclination is to tour quite unsentimentally the less comforting sites of the human geography. Most often, their characters are grotesques, and the comedy the Coens draw from these grotesques, the comedy of the half truth. The halves always have their partisans.

A.O. Scott wrote in his review for The New York Times

So a question put before the congregation by “A Serious Man” is whether it makes the case for atheism or looks at the world from a divine point of view. Are the Coens mocking God, playing God or taking his side in a rigged cosmic game? What’s the difference?

He concludes

the local details are, in the end, incidental. “A Serious Man” is, like its biblical source, a distilled, hyperbolic account of the human condition. The punch line is a little different, but you know the joke. And it’s on you, of course.

I think this all gets it about right. You don’t like the joke? They don’t care. They know what they see.

Michael Stuhlberg’s Larry Gopnick is a modern day Job, whose life falls apart and, when, it seems things can hardly get worse, and after he has borne his travails with profound if befuddled patience, is not brought back into God’s loving embrace, but is set to discover that for him, and for all of us, things may yet get darker.

In the film’s long anticipated and thematically culminating encounter, Larry finally reaches the antechamber of the renowned and revered, mostly retired senior Rabbi Marshalk, third up the Rabbinical chain Larry has followed, the nearly Godlike figure who should have, at long last, the profound guidance to offer. Larry stands before the Kafkaesque gatekeeper that is Marshalk’s scowling secretary and petitions for an audience. The secretary begrudgingly opens the door and walks to the end of a long office, where, in the wood paneled distance, behind his desk, an ancient Rabbi Marshalk, not noticeably alive, motionlessly sits. The secretary appears to confer. She makes the long walk back and closes the door behind her. She gazes at Larry without sympathy.

“He’s busy,” she says.

Larry’s eyes go wide.

“He didn’t look busy,” he cries.

At the corners of the secretary’s mouth and eyes we see pitiless amusement.

“He’s thinking,” she replies.

AJA

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