So you saw A Serious Man, the 2009 offering from the Coen Brothers, and you watched and said, “Uh…” Why does this picture have a passive protagonist? What are these dream sequences? What is the Mentaculous? What’s with the cyst? What’s with the tornado? What’s with the Goy’s teeth? Questions, questions, questions…
And let’s say ten years ago, you ran to the theatres, geeked up as you may have been to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. That you know you didn’t like, and you know why. Or at least, you had some idea why.
Why am I talking about both movies at once? Because I love cinema, I love filmmaking, and I love smart people taking the time to go inside films and unpack what you are experiencing. So check out screenwriter Todd Alcott‘s eleven-part breakdown of A Serious Man, and goodness gracious, if you have not done so already, plunk on down and watch the epic 70-minute Phantom Menace review by the legendary Mike From Milwaukee. An excerpt of Alcott’s review is posted below, as are all seven parts of the Phantom Menace review.
from Part 8 of the Serious Man review:
THE SECOND RABBI. Compounding enormity, Judith demands that Larry pay Sy’s funeral expenses. Crushed and humiliated, Larry goes to see Rabbi Nachtner, who is the senior rabbi at Larry’s temple. Another desk, another authority figure, another submission, another test. Larry’s suffering has, at least, gained a foothold on his society’s attention — he’s no longer relegated to the bright-eyed youth, now he’ll get wisdom from a real rabbi. Larry is now hopelessly lost — his Sy Abelman problem is solved, but the resolution has not repaired his marriage — his family is still shattered, he is still exiled.
Because Larry had his car accident at the same time as Sy, he is concerned that the “message” is that he, in some way, is Sy. Which makes a certain amount of sense — both Larry and Sy consider themselves the rightful mate of Judith. Larry, who already sees Arthur as a dark reflection of himself, perhaps also sees something of himself in Sy.
In any case, Nachtner’s response to Larry is A Serious Man’s high point, the story of The Goy’s Teeth. Amazingly, the Coens play this wild, beautiful sequence both for laughs and for profundity, and at the same time use it to ratchet up Larry’s tension.
The dentist, Sussman, has a patient whose teeth have “Help me” engraved, in Hebrew, on the inner side of his lower front teeth. This bizarre anomaly obsesses Sussman, and he pursues a number of insane routes to figuring out the “message” of the goy’s teeth. It never occurs to him to actually ask the goy why he has “help me” engraved, in Hebrew, on the inner side of his lower front teeth. The goy is, to Sussman, a mere weather condition, a bearer of teeth seemingly unconnected to their owner. Nachtner’s advice to Sussman (which he insists is irrelevant) is, we don’t know about the teeth, but the message itself, “help,” couldn’t hurt. This makes Larry just about blow a gasket — the story of the goy’s teeth is garishly bizarre, freakishly incredible, and, seemingly, demands explanation. But Nachtner’s advice to Larry, despite his frustration, is, like Rabbi Scott’s, actually quite profound: who knows why strange things happen? It’s not our place to know. Hashem doesn’t owe us an explanation, the sign is an oracle, a mirror, it means whatever you want it to mean, whatever you need it to mean, the struggle for an explanation is a minor pain that will eventually go away. Or, “receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” And Nachtner agrees with Sussman: who cares about the goy? The fate of the goy is completely beside the point, like needing to know what kind of stone the ten commandments were carved on.
Mike from Milwaukee shows us exactly how The Phantom Menace stepped in the poopy