Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Serious Man

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." - Rashi

"A Serious Man" begins with the quote above; apparently Rashi is an ancient Jewish scholar. Though this film is "Jewish", it strikes me that its message, if there is one, is very Buddhist.

This is a film that I'm thinking most people don't really want to watch. You must think about this film and it does not necessarily make itself clear. There is a certain lack of closure perhaps that many will find too open. As I note these aspects of the film, I begin to understand the film even more. Dualities - think/watch, think/clear, closure/open - are the heart of Buddhism. It seems they may also be the heart of Judaism. I'm sure they are the heart of mythology. And they are the heart of life, no matter how, when and where it is lived. But both sides are always present, or at least possible.

"A Serious Man" begins with a shot of a winter snowstorm, falling beautifully down on an old Jewish shtetl. The film ends with a tornado bearing down on a mostly Jewish high school in 1967. The duality of inclement weather - both awesome; one brings wonder,the other brings fear. How we receive these events - these random events - is what matters to us, not necessarily the events themselves. Larry Gopnik does not really know how to receive the events taking place in his life. For the most part, they are not positive events. When things look up, there is always the possibility of a downturn.

But this is why I see Buddhism here - Larry is not aware of what is going on around him until it comes and bites him in the ass. Good or bad. If he had been more aware, his life would not have deteriorated as it has. For me, the original and most Buddhist idea about Buddhism is that you must be Aware of yourself and what surrounds you. It's frustrating to watch Larry because he never tries to deal with anything or take control of his life. He asks for advice, gets pushed around and lives in an understated cloud of fear. To be sure, some of that fear is justified.

How to understand this movie? What does the title mean, or try to convey? Without awareness, Larry is too serious. He has "tried to live a serious life", but he has ignored that life is not always serious. Even when we're aware of what surrounds us, a snowstorm falls, a tornado hits. We cannoy control most events. We can only control ourselves and how we receive those events. If we're aware, it's easier. Not easy though. And if we are unaware, watch out. We will get blind-sided.

The film begins with a prologue, a short tale, in that wintry shtetl, of a husband and wife confronting a possible dybbuk, a Jewish demon of possession. The husband does not believe the wise man in front of him is a dybbuk. The wife never falters in her belief that evil has come to visit. She must make it leave her home. Which is he? Old man, or dybbuk? The film makes no resolution. Each receives the event in a completely opposite way. The duality is formed. Until perhaps the next day, which we never see, the issue is solved. We don't always get to know the details, whether we are right or wrong in any big picture. Just for ourselves. I imagine the husband up all night, sweating, while his wife sleeps as soundly as she ever has.

How do we receive events? I believe it depends on how aware we are of what comes before them. Larry is woefully unaware of some things, perfectly aware of others, and completely unable to have any knowledge of others. Like anyone's life.

*** This film is one of ten nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Without adressing how silly - and economically calculated - it is to have so many films nominated, I will say this film is not a perfect film. If you don't want to think about a film, you really won't like it at all. Avatar, this ain't.***

Friday, February 26, 2010

Abraham Lincoln in Fiction and... Fiction

 An interesting duality last night as Netflix brought John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" and Mike Mignola's "The Amazing Screw-On Head". Ford's movie is a highly fictional account of one of Lincoln's first cases and is a classic film. Henry Fonda is made to look like Lincoln in many ways and it is a tour-de-force for him. Screw-On Head is one of the craziest things I've seen in awhile. Mignola is the genius behind Hellboy - this apparently was a one-shot comic featuring a secret agent robot that worked under Abraham Lincoln. It is crazy and hilarious - Mignola states in the Making of feature that he won't be doing more stories about Screw-On Head - what else was there to do?

There are no two films that could be more different - except for the fact that Abraham Lincoln is in both. And the character - as you would expect - is remarkably similar in both. Perhaps the best-regarded President in American history, the quiet man who makes hard though utterly human decisions, may be the myth of Lincoln. Having Lincoln in the craziness that is "Screw-On Head" grounds the narrative and lends it a gravitas that can only help such a spinning tale. John Ford focuses on the same - Fonda's Lincoln is deliberate, magnetic on-screen as his slow, reasoned actions lead to quiet mobs and correct decisions.

There often seems to be a disconnect that leads to high and low culture, academia and popular, that too often simply shows one side's ignorance of the other. Watch these two in tandem and let it all mix up together.