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Guest Thinkers

Men Single and Serious

So for the slow weekend, I thought I’d stick in some more thoughts of movies I saw a year or so ago, before I became a BIG THINKer.

I saw A Single Man and A Serious Man on New Year’s Eve, 2009 and didn’t take any notes or anything. And I’m pretty old and my memory’s shot. But here’s what I wrote down the day after:

Both movies are about sad professors with seemingly really back luck teaching in America in the Sixties. Both are single in the sense of lonely and not deeply in love with anyone still alive. The single man is the example of a good English teacher–erudite, charming, has “something to say.” The serious man is the example of a bad physics teacher–too nerdy, self-absorbed, and motor-mouthed to get anything across in class. The (gay) single man is lonely because he oriented his whole life around a single young man who died in an accident. The (heterosexual) serious man is lonely because he’s contemptibly weak in a world very short on love, and so he’s shamelessly exploited by everyone around him. The single man, who spends most of the movie contemplating suicide, gets a pagan insight into the fact that everything is as it must be and becomes an ex-suicide. He immediately dies of a heart attack.

The serious man–having been tortured as the Bible’s Job–finally catches the break of getting tenure, although he’s done nothing to deserve it. He immediately gets an ominous call from his physician about something on his X-ray; he had provisionally been given a clean bill of health. That piece of bad luck, of course, can’t be traced to any deficiency in character.

The single man–played expertly by Colin Firth–claims that his life was complete or lacking in nothing in love with another single man. He tells his woman friend whom he loves but can’t take seriously as a lover that his life was complete without women and children. A single man was enough to make his life whole. Whatever might be true for most men and women, a general “natural law” theory of human longing  can’t comprehend the single life of this single man, who claims to be no more than a real and noble human exception to the bourgeois rule (well, he and the filmmaker do show far too much undeserved contempt for the way most people live). The movie is too serious and somewhat preachy, but there’s no denying that it’s pretty thoughtful on the mixture of the beautiful and the awful in the experience of this singular man.  In some ways, this eloquent character is the opposite of the stuttering, family guy king Firth plays in The King’s Speech.  Both characters, thanks to Firth, are full of class.

A Serious Man is one of the Coen brothers’ exploration of the meaninglessness of life and the point that is there is no point. It’s very funny, and I for one prefer a relatively subtle view of sordid suburban Minneapolis to the overbearing deterministic bloodiness of No Country for Old Men or even the more morally charged murders of True Grit. Still, everything is ugly and tasteless: the homes, the landscape, the schools and synagogues, the people. (New Urbanists, agrarians, and so forth will love what they might regard as a candid expose of what the 1967 suburbs were really like.)

The Jews are mostly self-absorbed and grasping. The gentiles are portrayed in terms of stereotypes–shamelessly corrupt Asians and gun-loving, violent, anti-Semitic working-class whites. (The movie might be regarded as anti-Semitic if it weren’t made by Jews.) The Rabbis are complacent and theologically clueless and don’t work to make personal connections with the unfortunate. There’s the occasional moment that might be interpreted as the Coens showing some affection for their childhood, but not many. (The Bar Mitzvah scene is genuinely touching and suggests that the mangled ritual somehow reflects something real–if only the shared identity of members of a tribe.)

The main character–who isn’t evil at all–does manage to get your sympathy, until you realize that what happens to him isn’t really bad luck at all but the result of his being really, really short on manliness. That seems to be an obvious, Nietzschean shot at taking too seriously the morality recommended by the Bible. The Coens might be praised for not following Woody Allen in combining existential meaningless with liberal platitudes and the promise of liberated sexual healing. They are also  more seriously nihilistic than the makers of A Single Man, who aren’t pagan or Nietzschean in their sentimental belief that personal love might be real and might be enough.


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