Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cranky at the Movies

A few days ago I saw the new Coen brothers' movie, A SERIOUS MAN. Its effect on me was serious: It set me thinking about expectations in fiction plus the experience of reading/viewing it.

A SERIOUS MAN is based on the Bible book of Job, sort of. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Arthur is a nebbish to an extreme degree; he is pushed around by his wife, his wife's lover, his kids, his deadbeat brother, his macho neighbor, and his students at the college where he teaches and is up for tenure. But he tries to do the right thing. A student failing his physics class (the kid can't do mathematics) tries to bribe Arthur to give him a passing grade. When Arthur refuses the bribe, the student threatens him. Then so does the student's father. Arthur does not give in, but in true Job fashion, misfortune after misfortune befalls him anyway, involving all those people and, seemingly, the universe. Arthur continues to struggle on, doing the best he can, and eventually things turn around for him. So far, so good.

But in order to get money for both his brother and his own legal debts, Arthur eventually takes the bribe from the student. This happens during the last five minutes of the movie. Immediately his son is threatened by a tornado and Arthur is diagnosed with cancer. The end.

My problem with this is its unrelenting misery: Arthur is ground down into the dirt when he does good and when he does ill. He never gets a break. This doesn't seem like life as I know it, nor does it seem like rewarding fiction. I don't ask that protagonists be sympathetic (every single person in this movie is both unlikable and unattractive), nor that endings be "happy." But I do ask that fiction illuminate reality in some way that makes sense to me, either as effective mirror of what is or as an ideal of what could be. This movie does neither.


José Iriarte said...

Ugh. That sounds dreadful.

Unknown said...

I guess the problem here is that you want it to reflect life only how you know it and not how it sometimes is for people other than yourself. That movie may be a tad extreme, but stuff like that does happen to people, even good people, all the time. Just imagine all the people right now who have lost their homes and are homeless and jobless, etc. They've lost everything and nothing seems to be getting better for them...

Lou said...

I have been a Coen Brothers fan for years, and find that their films either strike a wonderfully warm chord...or they don't. My favorite Coen Brothers film is "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and their last one, prior to this one, "Burn After Reading" was ... just okay.

Your points are accurate. Why spend entertainment money to watch relentless despair? We go to movies to be entertained, to have our emotions tugged one way or another, not to experience the same, dragging, "why are we here?..oh, to suffer" treadmill that doesn't...inspire.

That's it, right? We watch films to be inspired...either towards something or away from it.

Nice post, Nancy.

Nancy Kress said...

S.M.D. -- Do you really think life for some people never ever offers a break? Yes, there are people who "right now" have lost their homes and jobs, but have they also lost love, health, kids, and integrity all at the same time? And does the universe instantly pumish a single transgression just when things are getting better? I don't buy it.

Luke said...

While I am not a fan of Coen Brothers' more bleak work (see THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE), I don't think it is necessary for fiction to perfectly apportion positive and negative reward to its characters according to their just deserts. Nor is it realistic. Reality doesn't always provide for the theme, the overarching principle, the clear connection of reward to action.

Maybe it has to do for what you look for in your fiction: entertainment, or something else entirely.

JKessel said...


I liked the movie, though I agree that the ending has grim implications. But I thought the point was not necessarily that God overwhelmingly punishes even the least transgression (though check out the Old Testament sometime), but that perhaps the universe is completely arbitrary, and reward or punishment is only a fantasy created by humans out of what is essentially a quantum mechanical universe (Arthur, is, after all, a physics professor,and I don't think the Coens chose that by accident). And maybe at the end the doctor is simply calling about his bill, and the tornado misses the school.

I'm happy for your move to Seattle. We should talk sometime.

Ann said...

The point of the film seems to be that one's actions in no way influences the good or bad that happens to a person. It's sort of a chaos theory of life. Everything is random. There is no fate and our spiritual purity or lack thereof is meaningless.

Bleak indeed but not far off what some people believe.

r. r. vlorbik said...

there's some great despairing art.
dostoyevski perhaps its master.
but it's pretty unusual and maybe
most readers... and maybe almost
all moviegoers... never develop
much of a taste for it.

"you gotta give 'em hope"...
not just a political slogan
but a theory of storytelling.
vonnegut famously sez
make a character want something.
well, then, there's some *hope*
that they'll *get* it.

again and again one's stories
are about characters *choosing*
to accentuate-the-positive
and... win or lose... make things
*better* for having so chosen.

people want to hear these stories.
also they want *others* to hear 'em.
the gospel for instance.
*this* guy even died and came back!
greatest story ever told!
there's *always* hope!...
why, you can be slowly tortured to death
and have it be okay! tell the world!

i haven't seen the new picture and won't
till the DVD rolls around in netflix.
so i don't know what the coens
are up to there. probably something
that'll reward multiple viewings though.
how'd you like _barton_fink_?

Thomas Geza Miko said...

I said what Nancy said, but in one short paragraph. See:
If you want to see a movie with morally ambiguous protagonist(s) that you like, despite their bad choices, rent Appaloosa. Can't recommend it enough.
Tom Miko

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