A Serious Man

Put a cat in a box which, at any given second, may or may not kill it and close the lid. Presume, for the moment, that the cat is incapable of any conscious observation of itself and its surroundings. Perhaps it is asleep, or too highly stoned, or insufficiently evolved to possess what might be called awareness.

Is the cat alive? Is it dead? Starved of any defining external observation, does reality within the box collapse into a state of mere probability, therefore in some sense including both possibilities, with the facts to be determined at a later date? If you delay that crucial moment of determination so long that there could be no breathable air left in the box, does any observer, conscious or otherwise, become a little obsolete?

What’s it all about, eh? Are there answers to be had? Do we want those answers if there are? Is it more satisfying when we don’t know what we don’t know, or when we strive to discover what we can never understand, or when we stop worrying about what we just don’t get and just get on with enjoying it?

Am I referring now to Life, or to A Serious Man?

I’ve had to settle for partial understanding, but I’m not too worried. In a Madrid cinema, with the first five all Yiddish minutes only fractionally enlightened by all Spanish subtitles, an ignorant viewer like myself could be forgiven (if forgiveness was sought, or is waiting) for fearing he was missing out on some vital information; but we all start off in the dark, don’t we? Maybe we get to see the big picture, but that doesn’t mean we’ll understand it. Anyone expecting to have all the facts when the show’s over is asking for disappointment.

Was I talking about Life, or Death, or Cinema?

Let’s concentrate on the certainties. Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Michael Lerner and Amy Landecker are all in it, amongst others. Roger Deakins pointed the cameras, which he is rather good at. Carter Burwell composed the score, as he has done on several occasions for Joel and Ethan Coen, who in the process of coordinating these many variables wrote, produced, directed and edited a film called A Serious Man, the existence of which can be asserted as fact. What does all this data tell us, though? Nothing. We need something else to explain it to us, some way of presenting these facts that will provide us with meaning, that will thus answer our questions – don’t we?

Let’s tell a simple story to explain it all. Larry Gopnik comprehends the incomprehensible for a living. He grasps perfectly the mathematics which underpin all reality, chains of numbers so tangled and complex that the only way to express them effectively is to tell a simple story with roughly the same meaning that anyone can understand. Of course, there is a difference between understanding the details of a story and understanding its meaning, but let’s put that to one side for now. He’s an ordinary man, but when he finds his life is falling apart he feels driven to search for an explanation, a reason, a meaning behind his ongoing downfall. No-one can help him. All they can do is offer advice, or sympathy, or an intoxicant, or a practical lesson that mathematics and reality aren’t perfect bedfellows, or perhaps tell a simple story… but can any simple story really explain everything?

In A Serious Man, the Coen brothers have done what they tend to. They push us into a world already in progress and make us leave it before it seems we ought. Other people enter and leave it too, often only once and never to return, invariably giving the impression that there is much more to them than we have time to note. The story is quite simple, but is complicated by the details. Exactly what is in the details – God, or the Devil, or retail, or whatever – probably depends on who you ask. But should you even ask? Maybe, instead, you should simply let it go, breathe easily, and enjoy the thing while it lasts.

What was I talking about again?

Schrödinger’s old thought experiment suggests, in passing, that until you take the cat from the box you can’t know if it’s dead or not for sure. The Coen’s new thought experiment suggests, in passing, that until a man is dead and has been put into a box, he won’t know anything for sure. Maybe not even then.

But that, obviously, is a massive oversimplification.

Someone else’s thoughts. Worth reading, and not just because he occasionally says nice things about me or my friends. That post title is bloody good too for a start.

Another person’s thoughts, one whom I don’t know and which are a little more specific in terms of detail respectively, but equally interesting.


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