Watched “A Serious Man,” really liked it. I got a really Dostoevsky-ish vibe from the whole film, maybe because of the absurdity, the religious confusion, the oscillation between moments of intensity verging on catastrophe (but not really getting there) and lament for the mundane fatigue that fills up the spaces between. Plus, quick reference to gambling, creepy dreams, the theme of doubles, etc. The title/content reminds me of Dostoevsky’s distinction between the ‘underground man’ and the ‘serious man’ (did I get that right?) in Notes from Underground. D. is in my brain.
Here is my humble and sloppily-written analysis of one amazing scene.
Larry awkwardly climbs up the roof of his suburban house to adjust the antenna. The camera looks down at his face from the sky as he adjusts one component, then another. As he moves the antenna we hear channel voices coming in and out of focus between bits of white noise. When he turns around he notices his neighbour sun-bathing nude in her yard. Her body is obscured by the fence due to his position. He moves down the roof in order to get a full view of her body. She holds out one hand to the table and moves it around, without moving or taking her sunglasses off, as though blindly looking for something. She finds her cigarette and moves it to her mouth.
The relationship between Larry and the visual image produced by his fidgeting with the antenna is indirect. He is literally disengaged from the image he is producing (albeit production mediated by technology). There are different levels of disengagement and alienation going on here, 1) the image itself 2) the technological medium/mediating tool. A lot of communication in the film is mediated by technology, contrasting the more religious/spiritual component. The television is inside the home, a symbol of security but also constraint. The nondescript suburban home generally symbolizes 1) stagnancy and complacency 2) libidinal sublimation and/or repression. Larry is still connected to his home; he has not escaped it, however, he is at this point outside of it, above it – still within the limits but not entirely contained. There is a lot of concern about this whole ‘transgressing the boundaries’ of home in the film – Larry is often preoccupied about the neighbour crossing the invisible property line separating their lawns. Significaaaaant.
So it is interesting that the sequence of events relating to the naked neighbour directly parallels this episode with the antenna. When he turns away from the antenna, the image of his neighbour becomes immediately visible, but the image of her body is also obscured by another symbol of domestic complacency and libidinal restraint – a white picket fence. This limited and restricted image is only accessible to him ‘outside’ the bounds of his home (ie. outside the standards of ‘normative social behaviour’). Nevertheless, he is alienated from the image of the naked female body and, by extension, alienated from his own desire – he cannot realize this desire within the psychological/material ‘home’ he has established. This is why he only realizes this desire for the neighbour in his dream. Many of Larry’s important relationships are mediated, suggesting that his desire is necessarily sublimated.
It’s also interesting that despite being entirely naked, the woman’s eyes are obscured by sunglasses and she literally gropes around indifferently for the cigarette, echoing Larry’s attempts to fix the antenna and his attempts to get a clearer image of the woman’s body. In both cases, he is attempting to access an alienated and fragmented image but he never really comes into direct relation with these images. Both Larry and the neighbour are ‘blind’ in a certain sense, which perhaps explains their weird connection. But both of their playing-around-with-phallic symbols results in different pleasures: Larry’s searching is desperate and alienated, whereas she is in direct relation to her desires and is capable of pleasure.
The score of the movie is really amazing too, like in all Coen brothers’ movies…in this case, it was so well-timed: the more melancholic score only starts up during these really significant scenes, like cues to pay attention. There’s lots of other sequences of images that I’d like to (and probably will, because I've decided to stay home on this fine Friday evening) write about.
1) all the images in the final Rabbi’s room (especially the painting of Abraham & Isaac)
2) the moment when Larry rummages through his brother Arthur’s crazy notebook (insert crazy music) and the brother being in trouble for 1) gambling and 2) sodomy
3) the dream sequences
4) the teacher struggling to open a locked door while the students stand outside watching a fucking tornado, and Larry’s son is trying to repay a debt to his fellow classmate – argh, so goooood.