There is a certain kind of Jewish joke that doesn’t end, but peters out in a shoulder-shrugging way, as if to say: ‘You thought this was going to be a joke?’ I’ll spare you the details of the one about what is green, hangs on the wall, and plays the violin. These jokes are not funny, just mildly desperate. Except that of course desperation is funny too, if you tell it right.
The Coen Brothers’ new movie, A Serious Man, contains several jokes of this kind, and is such a joke itself. It doesn’t get funny until you start thinking about how ineptly unfunny it is. The ineptness of the genre is captured with disturbing conviction, and makes you wonder how the Coens can have put up with being so clever all these years. The setting is the American 1960s, a Midwestern town not far from Canada, a sort of summertime suburban Fargo, and the film is wonderfully shot by Roger Deakins in high colour and sharp light, so that the whole thing looks mildly cartoon-like, often resembling, as David Denby says, hyperrealist painting. Or the way we imagined the 1960s when we thought they were still the 1950s.
Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg with a fine capacity for recurring surprise, as if he were Clark Kent who kept forgetting he had another identity, is an assistant professor of physics at the local university. He is just coming up for tenure, and one form of the petering-out joke is the series of visits he gets from his department chair telling him not to worry. The sadism here is so excruciating it has to stem from a natural talent, or the nature of Larry’s universe, rather than any personal intention.
Larry has two children borrowed from comic strips – his daughter is always washing her hair, his son always watching F-Troop on TV, or more precisely complaining about the fuzzy picture which gets in the way of his watching F-Troop – and a wife who wants to leave him and go off with a sanctimonious widower. This man will presumably provide her with all the slimy attention Larry is too busy (and too slimeless) to supply. One of the happiest moments in the movie is when the contender dies in a car accident, but we don’t enjoy it at the time, since we haven’t yet worked out whether anything is or could be funny in this world. Oh, and Larry has a retarded brother to whom he is devoted, and who keeps getting himself into trouble with the police for gambling and at least the suspicion of sexual deviance. In one of Larry’s tormented dreams he sends his brother off to Canada in a canoe, only to see him crumple in the boat, shot dead from the shore by a man and his son out hunting Jews. You’ll recognise the homage to Woody Allen.
The narrative of the film is structured around Larry’s quest for advice from three rabbis. The film’s second-best version of the reigning joke occurs in the last of these scenes when the rabbi’s stolid receptionist, after staring at Larry for a long time, finally goes off to ask if the rabbi can see him: we follow her as she plods away from the camera through rooms within rooms, to where Rabbi Marshak sits at the end of the vista. We can’t hear what she says to him, or what he says in reply, if anything. She comes back through the rooms, and sits down. After a considerable while she says: ‘The rabbi is busy.’ Larry, worried enough not to be his usual polite self, says: ‘He doesn’t look busy.’ Several months seem to pass. The receptionist says: ‘He’s thinking.’
The second sage, Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), nearly steals the movie, because of his air of infinite if never tested wisdom, and his grand indifference to anything other than the sound of his own beautifully modulated voice. He seeks to help Larry by telling him a story, the central version of our joke. A Jewish dentist, making a cast of a Gentile patient’s teeth, is amazed to discover Hebrew letters incised on the inside of the lower row. The letters say: ‘Help me.’ He looks at the patient’s teeth again, to make sure the apparition doesn’t belong only to the cast. The letters are there. He wonders whether other people have messages on their teeth: other patients, himself, his wife. No, this is the only case. He asks his rabbi whether God, whom this community calls Hashem, could have placed the letters on the teeth. The rabbi says Hashem doesn’t tell him everything, and thinks the message might mean there’s no harm in helping people. The dentist helps a few people in small ways, then forgets about the whole thing and lives happily ever after. Larry is fascinated by the story and waits eagerly for its meaning. Rabbi Nachtner wisely asks whether everything has to have a meaning, and says the story was just a story. Larry, still puzzled and ever thoughtful, says: ‘What happened to the goy?’ The rabbi says: ‘Who cares?’
The first rabbi, seemingly just a red or green herring, turns out to be more help, to us if not to Larry. He is a junior partner, standing in for Nachtner, and can scarcely hear what Larry is saying because he is so keen to share the news that Hashem is everywhere, that the whole world, even the parking lot outside his window, glitters with God’s invisible presence. Larry’s world certainly glitters with something, if only the accumulation of small disasters, and we begin to suspect that the long joke is really some sort of short fable, or philosophical query. How much bad luck do we have to have before we start calling it something other than luck? Is there a norm, or a reasonable quantity, or is paranoia just the right response when the pile gets high enough? I haven’t mentioned Larry’s X-ray results yet.
One answer lies in another, more familiar form of joke, best known to us from Catch-22. The structure is that of the double-trap. If you are insane, the American air-force regulations say in the novel, you can be excused from flying bombing missions. If you think (correctly, the implication is) that the missions are insane then you have to fly them because you have just proved your sanity. In A Serious Man, Larry gives a Korean student a failing grade on an exam. The student explains that he understood the whole story about Schrödinger and his cat, and therefore has surely grasped enough of quantum theory. Larry (like Rabbi Nachtner) says the story is just a story, and he doesn’t really understand it himself. It’s the maths that prove the theory, and they are what the student hasn’t mastered. A little later, Larry finds an envelope stuffed with money on his desk. When he confronts the student again, the boy denies all connection with the cash, and when the student’s father shows up he turns out to be a master of catch-22. If Larry doesn’t pass the man’s son he will be sued for defamation – that is, for insinuating that the boy had tried to bribe him. Larry says he hasn’t reported anything, and the father says in that case he’ll sue him for corruption. Larry says he can’t do that without mentioning the money. That’s defamation, the man says.
The joke that isn’t a joke and the alternatives that are structured to vanish as soon as you look at them are complementary pictures of helplessness: no story or all story. There is nothing a serious man can do about either of them. Or one kind of serious man. The unctuous widower defines himself in this way, and means only that his hypocrisy will never end. Larry is what this man pretends to be, honest and afraid of vice (bribery, the bare breasts of the woman next door), and he keeps saying, in various contexts: ‘I didn’t do anything.’ That is his problem. There is nothing he can do, and he isn’t doing it. The Coens even manage to turn an everyday American institution into a parable. Larry (or his son, as it turns out) has signed up for one of those CD clubs that automatically send you their monthly selection unless you do something to stop it, and quite often send it even if you do try to stop it. It’s a picture of a world where agency always belongs to someone else.
This, I’m afraid, is where we need to think about the dybbuk, the soul of a dead person who has possessed the body of a living one: not the person you know but the person who has taken over the person you know. The film opens in Yiddish and back in the old, cold country. A man comes home to his wife. He’s sold his stuff at the market, but a wheel came off his cart on the way home. Luckily he got some help from an acquaintance, whom he’s invited in for soup. He’ll be here shortly. At the mention of the acquaintance’s name the wife stops cracking ice or breaking bones in her pot, or whatever she is doing, and stares. That man has been dead for three years, the husband must have seen a dybbuk and they’ll be cursed with ill fortune. Shortly afterwards the affable helper or spirit appears and the husband laughs at his wife’s superstition. The wife plunges a knife into the visitor, who appears to be unharmed, thereby rather confirming her view. Then the blood starts to spread across the man’s shirt. He says he doesn’t feel all that well, and steps out into the snowy night. Is he human after all, or just a dybbuk the worse for wear? Cut to the America of the 1960s, where Larry is having a medical examination and his son is listening to Jefferson Airplane on his tape recorder during his Hebrew class. There is a point where the presence of Hashem, the curse of the dybbuk and lousy 1960s karma all look like names for the same thing, written in unseen algebra on the inside of our teeth. The stories we tell are something else.