Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hangmen

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This post is part of the Boris Karloff blogathon being hosted by Pierre Fournier at Frankensteinia. Spoilers for The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang follow.

Boris Karloff spent a lot of time trying to defeat death. Often in his films, leaps in medical technology offered the possibility of erasing death as a biological necessity, or at least a reversal of the aging process to such a degree that a person's lifespan could be doubled. Karloff's involvement in these breakthroughs could range from the driving intelligence to the assistant to the driving intelligence to the guinea pig. Whatever his place, Karloff always, finally, realized that death cannot be beaten, and to even try is an immoral act.
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Karloff's career in anti-morbidity began, of course, in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, where he played the stitched-together prototype of immortality to Colin Clive's basically decent, yet deluded, title scientific pioneer. One of Karloff's own first forays into the kind of role Clive portrayed in the earlier film was in Nick Grindé's 1939 The Man They Could Not Hang, in which Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard. Cutting through the script's pseudo-science, Savaard's idea is basically that the heart of a deceased individual, with the kind of medical assistance that includes lots of electricity and beakers, and provided the initial cause of death did not damage the heart, can be restarted, and the deceased can actually be brought back to life. He's attempting to prove this as the film begins, with one of his medical students cheerfully acting as a guinea pig, but he is thwarted by a police raid which has been instigated by the guinea pig's fianceé (and Savaard's nurse), who chose the exact wrong time to turn her private misgivings into action. When the police stop Savaard, he has just killed his assistant, with the intent of bringing him back to life. But the police do not allow him to do this, so the dead stays dead, and Savaard is tried and convicted of murder, sentenced to hang, and hanged. Only, of course, to be brought back to life by one of his partners in science.
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Before he's hanged, and before he goes all Dr. Phibes on everybody, Dr. Savaard is given the opportunity to speak in court. Here, Karloff is allowed to rage with moral indignation and frustration at everyone who has allowed the boy to die and condemned him, Savaard, for trying to save humanity from mortality. He tells the judge, the prosecutor, the foolish woman who called the police and ensured the death of her fiancé, that when their time comes, in the moments before they each breathe their last, they will remember him, and what he could have done for them. It is with Savaard's conviction, and with his outraged and bitter words directed at all those who he believes, correctly, to be far stupider than he, that all the love for the human race that might have originally spurred him to pursue his theories, drains away from him forever. When he returns from the dead, he is physically as fit as he was the moment before his appointment with the gallows; however, mentally, even philosophically, he is a changed man. His entire existence at this point is given over to exacting vengeance on everyone he blames for his death.
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The thing is, though, now he has proof! His every breath is a slap to the face of the doctors, judges and policemen who laughed at what he claimed were his motives for killing the young man. When presented with this unavoidable proof, each of these men and women is properly thunderstruck, but Savaard does not use this to push his new technology forward. He uses it to mock his enemies, and throw them off-balance long enough to kill them. When his revenge plans inevitably fall short of his ambitions, and Savaard has to use his invention to resuscitate his own daughter before expiring from a gunshot wound himself, his last act with his second life is to destroy all his work so that it can never be reproduced. The last line in the film is delivered to Savaard a split second before he dies, by one of his intended victims: "Why did you destroy it?" No answer is forthcoming, but the only possibility is that Savaard has decided that, outside of his daughter, mankind doesn't deserve what he's offered them.
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Had Savaard not been sentenced to hang, but rather given life imprisonment, an imprisonment from which he escaped, would he spend any time seeking revenge, or would he instead retreat to his lab to continue his life's work? Some of Savaard's bloodthirstiness can of course be explained by the gross injustice he suffered, but isn't it also possible that he lost something in the days he spent dead to the world? If a return from the dead is possible, might not something still be lost? In Before I Hang (1940), also directed by Nick Grindé, this question, or some loose variation of it, is also posed. This time playing the far more gentle-of-spirit Dr. John Garth, Karloff is attempting to reverse the aging process. His work, like that of Savaard, is brought to a halt by a death, this time that of an elderly patient. Dr. Garth could not help this man, who was suffering great pain due to his advanced years, so Dr. Garth performed euthanasia. Again, like Savaard, Garth is convicted and sentenced to hang. While in prison, he is allowed to work with the prison doctor, who is convinced that Dr. Garth's new anti-aging, serum-based methods can succeed, and that Garth must be allowed to complete his work. The serum requires blood, and Garth chooses to test the serum on himself, shortly before he's set to hang, using the blood of a recently executed multiple murderer. As it happens, though, Garth's sentences is soon commuted to life imprisonment, which is followed up by a full pardon. As the years Garth has piled up begin to fall away -- he no longer needs eyeglasses, his hair darkens -- he is, like Savaard, walking proof that his crazy ideas aren't so crazy after all. Except that any time he tries to perform his procedure on a patient, he finds himself strangling them to death instead.

Why? Because, in a tip of the cap to the creature's abnormal brain, of the killer's blood now running through his veins. Garth does no choose to murder -- he's overcome by an unstoppable impulse. When he realizes what he's been doing, he begs to be apprehended, even killed himself, so that he won't harm anyone else. His wish is granted, but his work is carried on by his daughter and young apprentice, and the film ends on a note of optimism completely absent from the climax of The Man They Could Not Hang.

Even so, in both films, the best of intentions -- to help mankind live well beyond their natural allotment of years -- results in horror and death. And before Dr. Garth's serum kicks in, both returning Garth to his youth and instilling him with a bloodlust he'd never known before, he spends several weeks in a coma, a condition often referred to as a "living death". Savaard and Garth both return from their graves with a desire to kill that in one case replaces, and in another case betrays, both men's original desire to give life and health to their patients. They don't return from the dead the same men they were when they began that last great journey we will all face, and which we all dread. In perverting nature, the capital N kind, Savaard and Garth also pervert their own private natures, and that piece of themselves that they left behind in their different deaths was their core humanity.

And now look at Karloff in Val Lewton and Robert Wise's The Body Snatcher, from 1945. Five years after Karloff died as the kindly Dr. Garth, he was revived as the cynically and gleefully amoral John Gray, who will do anything to provide his employer, Dr. MacFarlane, with fresh corpses. MacFarlane is a cold man of science who cares only to solve the puzzles that medical science lays before him. He has nothing of the care for mankind shared by Dr. Savaard and Dr. Garth, and Karloff's Gray is amused as he commits the murders that provide the bodies that allow MacFarlane to continue his research. He's further amused by MacFarlane's belief in his own goodness, as well as Gray's essential evilness. Gray knows that MacFarlane is just as nasty and unpleasant a figure, and every bit as culpable in the murders, as Gray himself. Gray also knows where MacFarlane's own brand of medical drive and ambition will lead him. Gray knows how this will end. He's been here before.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I See Your Lips Moving, But...

Here's something I'd like to see people stop doing: claiming that a novel is unfilmable because of the prose. This is an old conversational ploy that is intended to make the speaker appear superior and more knowledgeable about not only film, but literature, and the process of adaptation, than the person to whom he or she is speaking, particularly if the listener has expressed some enthusiasm for the film under discussion. The statement also betrays an astonishing ignorance.

I bring this up now because I'm stumbling across this particular bit of foolishness again and again in connection with John Hillcoat's film version of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road (for the record, I am not personally aware of any film critics who've gone this route in relation to Hillcoat's film, but I've seen it in comments section of blogs and other websites all across this great internet). The specific adaptability of The Road is irrelevent, because the very idea -- that a book cannot be adapted to film because of the author's prose style -- is bullshit almost across the board. Guess what? Nobody's prose gets "adapted" to the screen. What gets adapted, faithfully or not, is character, story, theme, mood, atmosphere, dialogue. It is impossible to adapt prose to film -- a filmmaker can depict what is being described, but he can't depict the description itself.

Adding to the silliness of the idea is that The Road is written in a style far more straightforward than anything else McCarthy has written, outside of No Country for Old Men. Here's an example of The Road's style:

The following day they crossed the river by a narrow iron bridge and entered an old mill town. They went through the wooden houses but they found nothing. A man sat on a porch in his coveralls dead for years. He looked a straw man set out to announce some holiday. They went down the long dark wall of the mill, the windows bricked up. The fine black soot raced along the street before them.

What can't be filmed from that is the deliberately antiquated phrasing of "He looked a straw man...", but you can sure as hell shoot the image described. Talent, or the lack thereof, dictates the rest.

So Cormac McCarthy's prose won't be adapted by John Hillcoat, or anybody else. You know another writer whose prose will never make it to the big screen? Dan Brown. And Stephen King. And James Joyce. And Charles Dickens. And Vladimir Nabokov. And Leo Tolstoy. And Alain Robbe-Grillet. Although Joyce is maybe a bad example, because, for instance, Ulysses (never mind Finnegans Wake) might actually be unfilmable, at least as a whole, since, in that case, many large sections of that novel contains prose that is so baroque that it obscures action to the point of obliteration. Since this is part of the experience of Ulysses, putting the entirety of it on-screen might be impossible. Well, no. Improbable. I'm sticking with the less concrete word, because I could very well be proven wrong some day.

Oh, also, happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Show Your Patriotism...

...by jumping over to Krauthammer's place at 10:00 AM, EST, where The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club will be discussing this month's pick, Paul Schrader's highly unusual Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. I'm sure it will be a lively conversation, as always.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Testing, Testing

I know, I know....real clever. As the post title indicates, this is more of a test than anything else. For what, I don't know. Why you should have to be subjected to it, I also don't know.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Time Tavelling Capsule Reviews!!!

Work has been absolute murder this week, and I have no energy to write anything new. If you think that's rough for me, think about how it affects you. However, in there interest of laziness, I remembered that, in 2008, I wrote a whole ass-load of capsule film reviews for a (primarily) literature forum called Palimpsest. The reviews are extraordinarily short, and, given that, weirdly heavy on plot summary, but I thought it might be not-exactly-interesting-as-such to reproduce a few of the "better" ones here, so that we can all compare my lazy brain of 2008 with my lazy brain of today. And so!
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It’s Alive (d. Larry Cohen) - Lately, I've been developing a real fondness for genre films from the 1970s that, despite the restrictions of a small budget (and maybe partly because of them) at least set out to be both smart and entertaining. This one, a horror film by Larry Cohen, who has made many of the kinds of films I just described, is about a woman who gives birth to killer mutant baby. I know, but this is actually pretty restrained and serious-minded. The main character is actually the father, played very well by John Ryan, who has, let's say, mixed emotions about this whole mutant-son development. There are clear but subtle nods to the Thalidomide tragedy throughout.

James Ellroy Presents Bazaar Bizarre (d. Benjamin Meade) - James Ellroy presents this in the sense that he leant his name to the film, and every so often appears on camera to tell us how horrible a person serial killer Bob Berdella was. These clips of Ellroy are the only halfway engaging part of this documentary, which is otherwise a snivelling, weasely, immature piece of shit. You get the sense that Ellroy, at least, truly feels for Berdella's victims. Meanwhile, the film itself treats the whole disgusting affair as a big sensationalistic joke which it can exploit to shock its audience. Benjamin Meade should be ashamed of himself. Ellroy, who is ordinarily far above this sort of thing, probably should be, too.

Visitor Q (d. Takashi Miike) - From what I can tell, Takashi Miike's fans spend their time congratulating themselves for having the stomach to sit through his films. With the exception of the very effective, almost-Hitchcockian Audition, "gross" seems to be the whole point of Miike. In the case of Visitor Q, we get necrophilia, lots of fecal matter, lactation, incest, and all to what purpose? Hell if I know. The story seems to me to have been ripped off from Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle: a mysterious young man brings violence and abuse into an unsuspecting family's home, thereby revealing them for what they are. There is also a weak stab at a sleazy kind of redemption at the end -- which makes absolutely no sense -- an element I don't remember from the Potter film. Anyway, this is nothing more than pointless shock.

See the Sea (d. Francois Ozon) - What an extremely disturbing film. Clocking in at just over an hour, it tells the story of a young woman (and, not incidentally, her baby) who is spending the summer alone in a beach house, waiting for her husband to return from a business trip. Alone, that is, until another woman, a backpacker, camps out on their lawn. The relationship with this backpacker goes from pleasantly diverting to, oh my God, so very, very horribly wrong. This film is shocking, but unlike Visitor Q, it is deeply shocking, in the sense that you (or me, at least) care about what happens, and what happens is a square kick to the balls.

Beowulf (d. Robert Zemeckis) - Well, that was a surprise. My enthusiasm for a full-blooded film version of Beowulf was at a fever pitch, until I learned that it was animated. My delight in finding out that Neil Gaiman was a screenwriter was tempered when I learned that his co-writer was Roger Avary. So when I finally got around to seeing this, I did so sort out of a sense of obligation (to whom or what, I don't know). And initially, I thought my fears were well-founded: bad jokes are many in the first fifteen minutes or so. But then Grendel shows up. Often, this film plays like one of the creepiest, most unnerving horror films of the last decade, and it is at those moments that Zemeckis and his team really shine. When it's not doing that (or throwing out more lame jokes), it decides to be an eye-popping, blood-and-thunder adventure, and it does a fine job in that respect, too. I still don't understand why the characters are animated to look like the actors voicing them, but I can forgive that particular quirk for movies as dark and weird as this one.
Atonement (d. Joe Wright) - By and large, I found this adaptation of Ian McEwan's near-masterpiece (sorry, it didn't quite get there for me) to be very good. I found Keira Knightley and James MacAvoy to be much better in their roles than I'd expected them to be, and I was thoroughly impressed by all manifestations of Briony. My problem with the film is primarily that the things that McEwan allowed to sit quietly without comment are underlined with various degrees of vigorousness by Joe Wright (the close-up of MacAvoy screaming "BRIONY!!!" is simply not necessary). Also, if I remember correctly, a slightly wrong note is struck in the last scene. Vanessa Redgrave plays the scene with far too much awareness of the situation.

One, Two, Three (d. Billy Wilder) - I believe that it's about time that I admitted to myself that I do not find Billy Wilder comedies funny. I love his serious films, but his comedies are so "zany", and dated, that my face remains a frozen mask of unhappiness throughout. This one is a madcap Cold War comedy starring James Cagney as a Coca-Cola executive in Berlin who is dealing with his boss, his boss's daughter, and his boss's daughter's Communist fiancee. Hilarity fails to ensue (I'm pretty sure I stole that from somewhere) as the aforementioned zaniness increases in pitch. The last shot of the film is witheringly unfunny. I give extra marks only because I love Cagney, who is as solid as ever here.

The Lost (d. Chris Sivertson) - Stephen King-approved writer Jack Ketchum wrote the novel on which this film is based, a novel which I have read. It tells the story (supposedly based on fact) of a short, sadistic bastard who impulsively kills two female campers, and forces his pal and his girlfriend to act as his accomplices. The murders go unsolved for many years, much to the torment of one of the detectives involved. Meanwhile, the sadist remains primed for more violence, and so forth. The book has a raw, cheap power, but I nevertheless do not recommend it. I recommend the film version even less. It keeps the raw and the cheap, but leaves out the power. Director Sivertson makes the least of his small budget (what the hell year is this supposed to be set in, anyhow?), and has no style save what he lifted from other bad films.

Ghosts of Mississippi (d. Rob Reiner) - If this film didn't tell such a tragic, true story, more people would feel comfortable pointing at it in public and laughing. Have you ever seen a movie that was both smug and guilty? Sanctamonious and groveling? If not, here's your chance. The story is about the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, and the corruption of justice that allowed his murderer, a white supremacist named Byron de la Beckwith, to walk around as a free man for decades, until he was finally successfully prosecuted and imprisoned in 1994. A fit subject for a movie, no question, but this movie...oh my sweet Christ. This thing is so programmatic that you could probably, with reasonable accuracy, predict when it's going to drop in a couple of jokes, so the audience can be fooled into believing it's human. Many racially themed Hollywood films have been criticized for placing white characters at the forefront of stories that should be about black people, but sometimes those movies are still good, and should be judged on artistic merit alone. Ghosts of Mississippi, however, is so incompetent and insulting that the dearth of black actors becomes more than a little notable. Not only that, but the black actors who are here are either bad, or are given nothing to do, or both. Whoopi Goldberg is embarrassing as Evers's widow, but, then again, all she's asked to do is be a symbol. Speaking of symbols, don't get me started on that title.

The Long Good Friday (d. John MacKenzie) - A truly masterful crime thriller, this stars Bob Hoskins as a snubby, bulldog of a British crime boss, who, on the day he is supposed to be closing a deal with an American mob family that will take his "career" to new heights, finds that someone is suddenly and violently blowing his world apart. Lifelong friends are being murdered, businesses are being bombed: who is doing this? Along with the strong, straightfoward, no bullshit filmmaking, one of the main things I liked about this film was that the characters are actually allowed to show fear. Often in crime films, if faced with death a character will be stoic or simply open fire; in this film, however, they're visibly terrified. Helen Mirren, who plays Hoskins's wife, has a great moment along these lines. Top-notch film.

Code Unknown (d. Michael Haneke) - It's an act of rudeness, for lack of a better term, that kicks off the action in this hard-to-describe film. A young man is walking to his sister-in-law's apartment when he casually (and possibly unintentionally) throws a piece of trash at a homeless illegal immigrant, who is sitting on a street corner. We follow the lives of the young man, the immigrant, the sister-in-law, her husband, and various others in scenes that function, for the most part, as self-contained short stories. This is an incredibly effective and interesting film, with great performances, particularly by Juliette Binoche. There's a tense scene that takes place on a bus that is a small masterpiece.

Mesmer (d. Roger Spottiswoode) - Good Lord. I was fairly excited about this one, due to its having been written by Dennis Potter. But if ever one needed proof that great writers do not always produce great work, look no further than Mesmer, a film that appears to have been made for about $47, most of which went to pay for the 20 watt bulbs and broken microphones used to enrich the visual and aural experience of us, the viewers. On the plus side, the film is a potentially interesting look at the world and work of Hans Anton Mesmer, early proponent of New Age alternative medicine horseshit; on the negative side, it does include lines like this one, spoken by Mesmer himself: "This girl clearly needs the help of Hans Anton Mesmer!"

Rambo (d. Sylvester Stallone) - If you don't include the end credits, this film is 80 minutes long. It is about Rambo, who, quite frankly, doesn't want any part of it anymore. But then some people come in and say, "Hey, Rambo, can you help us?" He says okay, but they get kidnapped anyway, by people who are quite incredibly evil. So Rambo, with a small team of mercenaries, goes to rescue them. The End. And who wouldn't enjoy a movie like that? Well, if you have a problem with genuinely alarming levels of horrendously brutal violence, then I suppose you wouldn't. I did enjoy it, however. So there you go.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (d. Roman Polanski) - What would it be like if Roman Polanski decided to co-write, direct, and star in his own version of Abbott and Costello Meet Dracula? It would look exactly like this film. Polanski plays the bumbling assistant to a shamelessly mugging Jack MacGowran, and both of them are on the trail of a vampire in 19th century Transylvania, or there-abouts. What's strange about this movie is how beautiful it is, how stunning much of the imagery is, while all of it is in service to a pretty unfunny comedy. There was one bit of physical comedy (and essentially all of the comedy is physical) that I thought was good, but that's it. One other thing in the plus column is Sharon Tate, as the woman who must be rescued from the vampire's clutches. She was utterly beautiful, of course, but there was a sweetness to her, as well. And although she doesn't have all that much to do in this film, it appeared that she had talent. Alas.

Monday, November 16, 2009

RIP Edward Woodward

Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Very Brief Thoughts on The Hitcher

Very Brief Thought #1: Did the term "hitcher" exist before the original 1986 Hauer/Howell opus? Is it supposed to sound somehow more dreadful and soul-chilling than "the hitchhiker"? Did the fact that there had already been several films and television shows entitled The Hitchhiker induce screenwriter Eric Red to contrive a phony bit of slang in order to distinguish his by-the-numbers stalker wank? Or did he just not like those two Hs right next to each other? In any case, the public was saved from entering into the 2007 remake thinking that they were seeing a retread of Ida Lupino's 1953 film The Hitch-Hiker, and for that we must be grateful.
Very Brief Thought #2: When John Ryder (Sean Bean), the Hitcher himself, first catches a ride with our young college student heroes Jim (Zachary Knighton) and Grace (Sophia Bush), Grace moves to the back seat of the car and cranks her iPod, leaving Ryder and Jim to chat in peace. Ryder asks where the young couple is heading, and Jim says "Spring Break, in Lake Havasu." Doesn't this revelation ensure that we, the audience, will hope desperately for their lives to quickly end in blood and horror? That was my reaction (my wish was only half granted), though I noticed that the script slid towards unreality when Ryder then inappropriately asks Jim how long he's been fucking Grace, and Jim reacts as a normal, decent person would by becoming offended and disturbed. In reality, a guy like him would have said, "Oh, eight or nine months. I'm also banging her sister. You know, whatever whatever."
Very Brief Thought #3: At the end, Jim having been ripped in half and the police proving entirely ineffective, it falls on Grace to end Ryder's reign of terror. Ryder has been captured by the police, but manages to slaughter all the cops in the police van, and causing the car behind him, which is occupied by Grace and Lt. Estridge (Neal McDonough, who I like, and who looks completely embarrassed throughout) to crash. Estridge is trapped, but Grace, with grim resolve, is able to extract herself, with the clear intent of taking Ryder down. "You don't know what you're doing!" Estridge warns her. "Yes I do," Grace responds, while holding a gun or something. The thing is, though, she has no idea what she's doing, and all she manages to do is to suck long enough for Ryder to kill Estridge, and then wait until Ryder very deliberately presents himself to her as a sacrifice. The audience knows he wants to die, so Grace's Sarah Connor act doesn't fly at all. The fact that, by this point, we're desperate to see her get murdered with a hammer doesn't help to cement our rooting interest in her success. But the movie's over now, and I never have to see it again. Also, sorry, Sean Bean.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Correction

Several days ago, I posted an announcement that read:

Robin Williams is currently rampaging through the countryside, butchering the citizenry and feasting on their entrails. He wields cleaver and scythe, like the Grim Reaper himself, and his eyes are black as midnight. He looms at a height of 9'10", and as the killing fury grows in his breast, his flesh deepens to a red the color of spilled blood. Stay indoors! Stay indoors! It is doubtful if this will save your life, or even your eternal soul, but it at least will ensure that when you are violently split from this earth, you will enjoy one final, fleeting second of familial warmth. May God have mercy on us all.

This was an error. The announcement should have read:

Robin Williams's new film Old Dogs opens November 25 at theaters everywhere.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Schrödinger's Man

Early in the Coen brothers' astonishing new film, A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a small college in Minnesota, sits down with one of his students, a South Korean immigrant named Clive Park (David Kang). Gopnik has just finished a class in which he has tried, while furiously scribbling equations on a giant blackboard, to explain to his students the concept of Schrödinger's Cat. Now, he is meeting with Park because the student is upset that he got an F on the midterm, believes the grade was unfair, and insists that he understands the material. The only thing he doesn't get is the math.
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But, Gopnik asserts, the math is the entire point. Park may well understand the basic theories, but if he doesn't understand the math, he doesn't understand physics. The stories that Gopnik tells his class -- the things that Park says he understands -- are merely illustrations of the math, to make it easier to digest. The stories don't really matter. "I'm not even sure I get the cat," Gopnik says.
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Like everything else in Larry Gopnik's life, his meeting with Park will turn out badly. Gopnik will also find out that his shot at tenure is in doubt, that his wife is leaving him for Sy Abelman ("Sy Abelman!?") played by Fred Melamed, that his brilliant but troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is involved in things he probably shouldn't be, and, in short, everything in Larry's life is collapsing, quite suddenly. This relentless collapse makes up the vast majority of A Serious Man, that and Larry's tortured and blackly hilarious quest for meaning through what amount to essentially absurd conversations with a series of rabbis. But I believe that early scene with Gopnik and Park is the key to this whole film.
.After watching the amazing last five minutes of A Serious Man, it's easy to walk out and think of it, as so many people seem to have done, as a big, cruel joke, a mockery of faith and the idea of meaning in the universe. Certainly it plays like that on the surface, and certainly it even works that way -- the film's ending felt to me like a kick in the teeth. However, let's look at what Gopnik says to Park again. First, he says the math is what counts. In other words, the universal order that can be traced through mathematics, or the lack of chaos that math represents. Second, the stories that illustrate the math don't ultimately mean much -- we tell ourselves these stories as a way of deceiving ourselves that we understand, but the truth is that if we don't understand the math -- which, when you look upon Gopnik's blackboard, seems to be an impossible task -- we don't know squat. We don't know what we don't know.
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One of the rabbis (George Wyner) Larry consults about his growing existential and real-world crises tells Larry a story, which I won't get into here, that involves, among other things, the fact that in the Hebrew alphabet, each letter has a corresponding number. In the story, knowledge of this fact leads a man on a quest for meaning that appears to Larry to have been fruitless, but I think he misses the point entirely, and in fact I think the rabbi does, too. This meeting is incredibly frustrating to Larry, because the rabbi does not wrap up his story in a way that satisfies Larry's understanding of its resolution or its point, but he doesn't notice (and why should he, really?) the optimistic swing the story takes at the end. The protagonist of the rabbi's story -- a real man who lives in the same Minnesota Jewish community as the rabbi and Larry -- followed numbers, followed math, towards a happier life, or rather back to a happy life. How did he get there? He doesn't know, but he got there.
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Math is order. For many of us, beyond a certain point, it doesn't make a lick of sense, but it is the map of the entire universe. We know and accept that, as we also know and accept that even those who can understand the math hit a point where the math simply charts things we don't understand. Certain elements of quantum physics we know to be true -- the math says so -- but why it is the way it is still bewilders even the most brilliant among us.
.So. If, in Judaism, math is not only order, but language, then math is also God, or evidence of God. We tell stories about God, such as the Old and New Testaments, as we tell stories about math, such as Schrödinger's Cat. These stories provide us with the opportunity to grasp concepts, but these concepts remain entirely abstract in our day-to-day reality. Gopnik deals with both the vastly complex math, but also the stories, on a daily basis, but when his own sense of order begins to disintegrate he is unable to apply his own knowledge of, say, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, a theory about which he dreams, but is unable to take to heart. Who can blame him, and yet...
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In his
review and analysis of A Serious Man in Tablet, an on-line Jewish magazine, Liel Leibovitz talks about Gopnik's quest for an answer, and explanation of life and the universe. Gopnik thinks he's going to find this in just a few days, and that the answer will be easily understandable -- the fact that he never does find it strikes him as enormously unfair. But Leibovitz says:
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Simplicity is the enemy of modernity. So is doubt. Modernity—in its American strand, at least—requires of its practitioners a growing specialization, an increased sophistication, a neverending striving towards certainty. It is, in other words, the very opposite of the Talmudic undertaking, in which the argument itself is the central pursuit and a finite truth, should it ever materialize, is of little concern. When Jews rid themselves of the Talmud, the ars gratia artis, the scholarly license to see the world for all of its competing and contrasting strands, and when they immerse themselves instead in the target-oriented, painfully concrete, and intolerably specific modern world, then, the Coens tell us, they’re in deep spiritual trouble.
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Gopnik, the poor bastard, doesn't get it, but who does, these days? It's my belief that the reason A Serious Man is being regarded by so many as a mean-spirited mockery of the very idea of spiritual faith is because a lot of people don't understand how much of faith and religious thought revolves around the ideas of doubt and questioning. Many atheists think that those with religious faith do not, or pretend to not, ever experience doubt, or accept doubt as a part of their belief (present company very possibly excluded, but this has been the bulk of my experience in recent years). They think that doubt -- or, maybe more precisely in this context, uncertainty -- is the same thing as atheism, and therefore anything that expresses doubt or incredulity towards a religious quest is ipso facto a victory for their side. Well, it's not, and never has been, and the Coens, I think, know this.
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Because, ultimately, what is it that Gopnik doesn't understand? His life. He doesn't get why his life story is suddenly playing out like this. And, of course, "story" is the operative word (forced in there by me, but still valid, I think). Unlike Clive Park, Larry Gopnik understands the math, but not the story. And what's the story in this case? A Serious Man. So A Serious Man is the cat.
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Taking it Easy

That's me after agreeing to eat five Cadbury Cream Eggs. It was kind of a dare. My good friend George Kennedy said to me, "Why'd you say five? One woulda been just as good!" Well, I never play it easy, nor do I show my cards. That's why they call me "No Card Shower Luke", even though my name's Bill. So I proved myself, except now I feel sleepy, and a little sick. Which means it's time to be smart: only Mary Sue Easter Eggs for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A New Dawn

Well, October's over. Thank Christ.
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This is just a brief post to thank everyone who stopped by during The Kind of Face You SLASH!!!, whether you left a comment or not (though if you didn't, what the hell??). I'm going to be taking it easy for the next week -- I'll post, but nothing very substantial, probably. In the meantime, I decided that I would repeat what I did last year when October was over, and post an image of the lovely Naomi Watts, as something of a palate cleanser. Observe:

I feel better already.

Followers