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Culture Warrior: The Coens’ Uncertainty Principle

By  · Published on March 2nd, 2010

“The Uncertainty Principle: It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.”

As illustrated by this scene in the Coens’ latest Best Picture nominee A Serious Man, certainty – as stated in so many words by Sy Abelman – is subtle, clever, but ultimately unconvincing in an overwhelmingly uncertain world. The uncertainty principle, as articulated in this film, is evidence that even in the realm of mathematics – that discipline where logic, evidence, and patterns of order reign supreme – contains its degrees of the unknown, the indefinite, even the ambiguous. Even in disciplines that rely solely on what is known, the unknown elements of everyday life still permeate, for mathematics (and, inferentially, science), is the art of the possible, as Sy states, rather than the art of the real. According to the recent work by the Coen brothers, cinema is, in so many ways, the art of the real.

The last three films by the Coen brothers – No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man – represent something of a trilogy of work exploring uncertainty and meaninglessness in varied forms. These are not films that exist, in and of themselves, in intentional meaninglessness like some sort of Dada/Coen hybrid, but films that explore profoundly the ways in which meaninglessness operates, not necessarily as a direct reflection of reality (as the Coens’ films are more a reflection of cinema than an attempt at realism), but an exploration of meaninglessness operating in a medium in which meaning is typically intent through form as well as constantly sought and dissected. We look for meaning in most films, but the Coens provide no easy access to such a destination.

With No Country for Old Men, the Cormac McCarthy/Coen collaboration brings uncertainty to one of the filmic landscape’s most distinct arenas employing specifically certain rules, expectations, and outcomes: the western genre. For Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the clear delineation between crime and law/order becomes challenged as he encounters horrifying acts with no motive – pure, unadulterated chaos. The meaninglessness, incomprehensibility, and inconsequence of chaos brings confusion to the western’s previously clear distinctions between good guys and bad as the supposed “bad guy” operates on just as rigid of an ethos characterized by unbreakable principles as the inferred “good,” but the ethos is of personal value rather than a universal standard of ethics. The impenetrable nature of chaos is ultimately, inevitably escapable for the “old man” (Bell) who can’t adapt to a new landscape that challenges the distinctions of his past which gave his life meaning and order up to this point.

The ending is reflective but ambiguous, no closure is attained, and the closest thing the movie has to the Western hero (Llewelyn Moss) dies unheroically and off-screen. For Bell and for the film’s audience, this is never how such narratives are supposed to play out, but as the films of the Coen brothers are more reflective of cinema history than of daily human life (in their constant games with genre and homage to cinema’s past), Bell’s vision of a clearly understandable past leading to a progressively worse future in terms of human behavior is suggested to have no grounding in reality as his perception of an ideal perpetuated by the Western myth of honor and civility in the face of the (defeatable) uncivilized enemy which has no grounding in the frequent incidents of injustice he faces daily.

Burn After Reading provides an interesting counterpoint to No Country. Where No Country was thematically dense, Burn After Reading revels in the cosmic insignificance not only of the events within the film, but the film itself. Seeming to be intently minor-Coen entry as sandwiched between the thematic juggernauts of No Country and A Serious Man, Burn After Reading delights in a narrative that deliberately features no message at all. Like all three films, nothing is resolved and seemingly nothing is learned for its characters, but only in Burn After Reading does the meaninglessness reflect on the film itself to an almost, yes, Dadaist degree. Unlike the sudden, shocking drop-off-the map endings of their films before and after, Burn After Reading is framed stylistically by a CIA meeting featuring the same characters – a narrative device which would normally suggest a progress of story up to a point of closure – but when we the audience reach the point the started with, we’ve gone in a circle rather than to a comprehensible, natural linear endpoint. By the time we reach the end, signaled by J. K. Simmons’ literal closing of the book, the entire turn of events are framed as comically insignificant both for the audience and the characters involved.

Great consequences are undertaken. Characters unexpectedly die horrible deaths, while others unwittingly become murderers in a grand scheme which is only imagined, but these signs of consequence, narrative progress, and significance are rooted in characters’ fundamental misunderstandings of current politics (it’s a post-Cold War Cold War comedy, a postmodern Dr. Strangelove that satirizes nothing) and the illusion of conflict where it doesn’t really exist in a desperate attempt to break the infinite, deadening cycle of their lives (as symbols, events, and character encounters repeat themselves with only slight differences) – and these cycles reflect the circular, futile illusion of progress within the narrative itself as literalized by the film’s framing device.

“…But even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm.”

Instead of pursuing a theme of meaninglessness in alterations of meaning-intent Hollywood genres like the Western or the Cold War satire/screwball comedy, A Serious Man delves into one of society’s most potent sources of extracting deep meaning: religion. What encapsulates the thematic spectrum of this film is the fascinating Guy’s Tooth sequence where protag Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) comes to Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) to search for the answers to the many simultaneous troubled cards his life has been dealt (in a story argued to be reminiscent of the Biblical fable of Job), and is received with a cryptic tale regarding a Goy’s tooth that clarifies nothing in Gopnik’s life except for what lies constantly right in front of him: that the futile search for the meaning of suffering will only manifest more suffering and endure more meaninglessness. Gopnik has familiarized himself with the rituals and rhetoric of Judiasm, jumping to the most available Hebrew term here and there whenever he encounters one of life’s great enigmas rather than acknowledging life’s impossible mysteries head on. For the Coen brothers, religion – Judiasm or otherwise – is never a shortcut to answer life’s greatest questions, rather it bestows even greater questions in the intimidating shadow of what often feels like cosmic insignificance. It yields more questions than answers, and more troubling realities of the universe than sources of comfort (for Gopnik and for us, an unquestioning reminder of the truly illustrious nature of a seemingly insignificant parking lot is farcical and impossible).

Thus, it makes perfect sense that Gopnik approaches religion the same way he approaches physics, as exemplified in the dream sequence that features this post’s two quotes. For Gopnik, mathematics is understandable to him because it’s convincing (although the imagined Sy states otherwise, preferring the ‘art of the possible’) – convincing like the Hebrew words he implements without bothering to truly understand, and convincing like the parables of the Torah that he believes should prepare him to tackle life’s every moment. Yet, as the film’s last shot illustrates, a search for meaning in some circumstances itself becomes meaningless as even more troubling circumstances arrive. Like (for him) the physics parable of the dead cat and (for us) the fabricated Yiddish parable of the film’s narratively unconnected prologue, the religious parables in which Gopnik searches for meaning elude true understanding.

Funny that this all makes the marginal character of Clive’s father the greatest source of advice when viewing the Coens’ latest work: “Please. Accept the mystery.”

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