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A screenwriter and a neuroscientist on randomness, God and A Serious Man

Whenever I feel a profound connection to a work of art, I can't help but see signs of it everywhere, all around me. The Coens' "A Serious Man" is, unsurprisingly, no exception -- because it is such a magnificent synthesis of my strongest interests: movies, music, philosophy, religion, morality, mortality (especially as an ex-dead person), mystery, humor, passive-aggressiveness, uncertainty, randomness, coincidence, probability, the new freedoms, sleep...

Screenwriter Todd Alcott has written the most detailed analysis of the Coens' masterpiece that I've yet encountered, and he begins by addressing those who have said they don't like the movie because it has "a passive protagonist." Ha! Why, you may as well be talking about the disappearance of the interventionist God between the "Old Testament" (Torah) and the "New Testament"! Indeed, I would argue, that is exactly what you're talking about. Alcott puts it this way:

"A Serious Man" challenges the protagonist question in a way I've never seen a movie do before, and it's not just idle observation, it's built into the structure of the entire movie. Because A Serious Man does not have a passive protagonist, it has a very active protagonist. A very active -- and very powerful -- protagonist.

Unless, of course, it does not. Which is exactly where the mystery lies.

His take is somewhat different from Father Robert Barron's. The way Alcott sees it (and me, too), the paradox of Schrödinger's Cat is at the heart of the film:

Either [Larry Gopnick's] wife is cheating on him, or she is not. Either a student is bribing him to get a better grade, or he is not. Either his brother is a mathematical genius, or he is not. Either his neighbor wants to have sex with him, or she does not. Larry doesn't know anything, and the biggest thing he doesn't know is why all this trouble is happening to him, which brings us back to the original question: either there is a force, a protagonist, setting the events of the plot of the movie in motion, or there is not -- we never really know. And that protagonist, or not, is God, or Hashem, as he's called here. Hashem takes it upon himself, or does not, to torture Larry Gopnik, and the drama of "A Serious Man" springs from Larry's attempts to discover the Hashem's intent, or, for that matter, his existence. [Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"] has a protagonist who doesn't show up on screen, but "A Serious Man" goes further, and gives us a protagonist who not only doesn't show up on screen, but may not even be there. And the screenplay uses that mystery -- the last mystery, really, the ultimate mystery -- to drive the entire narrative.

I like that a lot, even though I don't fully endorse that reading. In Alcott's first series of statements above, I would do away with the word "either" and substitute "and" for "or": Larry's wife is cheating on him and she is not... Obviously, Judith wants to leave him, but as to whether she's having sex with Sy Ableman, Rabbi Nachtner puts it best: "Who cares?" Hapless Arthur has developed a mathematical "system" that works for him, but is it a substitute for Hashem (or as powerful as the narrator of "Barry Lyndon"?). Who knows? Does Mrs. Samsky want to have sex with Larry? Bad question. The not-knowing is what matters. (It's as pointless as asking if Pat is a man or a woman, fer chrissakes!)

That thing that makes people like Coen bros movies? I don't have that thing. -- Twitter user, March 24, 2010

I know people who don't appreciate the Coens, and I feel the same way: What's not to appreciate? I've heard some say that they think "A Serious Man" is mean or pitiless -- when nothing could be further from the truth, in my eyes. I see quite a few parallels to "Barry Lyndon" -- the Coens being the most Kubrickian of contemporary filmmakers -- but while Redmond Barry is punished by Kubrick (and the Narrator -- there being no active presence of god in "Barry Lyndon" any more in "A Serious Man"), Larry Gopnick is not being punished for or by anyone or anything. He's just alive.

Jonah Lehrer, one of my favorite writers on neuroscience, posted something at his blog The Frontal Cortex recently under the heading "Randomness and God. He wasn't explicitly writing about "A Serious Man"... and he was, whether he was intending to do so or not:

The world is a confusing place. Correlation looks like causation; the signal sounds like the noise; randomness is everywhere. This raises the obvious question: How does the human brain cope with such an epistemic mess? How do we deal with the helter-skelter of reality? One approach would be to ground all of our beliefs in modesty and uncertainty, to recognize that we know so little and understand even less.

Needless to say, that's not what we do. Instead of grappling with the problem of induction, we believe in God. Instead of applying Bayesian logic, we slip into rigid ideologies, which lead us to neglect all sorts of salient facts.

A new paper by psychologists at the University of Waterloo explores the connection between the presence of randomness and our belief in the supernatural. (The existence of God is the ultimate refutation of randomness, unless God throws dice.) The scientists argue that we abhor randomness so much that when confronted with it -- when we're reminded that nothing makes very much sense -- we become more likely to subscribe to "spiritual control," or the belief that everything is caused by an invisible hand.

Consider "A Serious Man" -- especially the parallel montage of the opening and final sequences -- in that light...

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