Life is almost never episodic. It is less like a TV show and more like a river. It flows.
When a movie does not tack on an ending, when the "story" is not wrapped up in a nice neat package, a lot of people complain. There were howls from many people over the sudden ending of the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men (2007). A few more could be heard from their latest film, A Serious Man (2009). Both films concluded somewhat abruptly without resolution, with questions unanswered.
Evidently many movie goers have a hard time with ambiguity. They want their stories to have a "once upon a time" beginning and a "they lived happily ever after" ending. Others of us are happy to be invited to have our brains indulged in a little thinking. I welcome stories that ask me to ponder possibilities.
Film is, after all, art and art at its best encourages us to exercise our intellect. The absence of denouement is but one method. A Serious Man gives us much to ponder while still being fully satisfying at face value.
I recently enjoyed my third viewing of the film. This time I was particularly struck by a very minor character encouraging the main character, Larry Gopnik (Mark Stuhlbarg) to "accept the mystery." He could well have been the voice of the Coens telling the audience that not all this film's riddles need be solved. Indeed maybe they aren't even meant to be.
Larry's life is plagued with a series of Job like troubles. Answers, would be nice. Very nice. He visits three rabbis. The first, the junior rabbi, can do little better than marvel at the parking lot (emphasis his and mine). The second tells Larry the story of dentist who is a mutual acquaintance. The dentist once had a patient, a goy by-the-by, who had a message inscribed in the back of his teeth. The dentist puzzled over both the meaning of the message and its origins, written as it was in Hebrew, in a goy's mouth. Only when the dentist embraced the mystery was he again able to sleep, eat and enjoy life.
Larry was not amused.
The third rabbi, the senior of the synagogue's three, was "too busy thinking" to see Larry. So it goes.
Why is this all happening to Larry? Wife wanting a divorce (didn't see that coming) brother in trouble with the law (who knew?) and the tenure committee deciding Larry's future is receiving scurrilous letters about him (huh?). Oh yes and he's wrecked his car and the Colombia House Record company is on his ass. Wait, I forget about the menacing neighbor who seems to be violating their property line, the student trying to bribe him and the damage his car sustained....
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why aren't there answers to all our questions, or at least the important ones? Why is that as we get older, instead of everything becoming clearer, new mysteries emerge? WHY?
I think many people with strong religious faith (regardless of denomination) would agree that much is to be left unanswered in this life. Yet we continually struggle, if not for answers, for meaning. What about karmic laws? The old what goes around comes around business. We want to make events represent something. There must be a point. Things can't just happen. Can they?
Can and do.
So the Coens gave us this wonderful stew of a film. If you haven't seen A Serious Man you may at this point be picturing something rather bleak. On the contrary it is rich with humor. It has to be, life is rich with humor. A Serious Man succeeds in reveling truths about life while asking if we wouldn't like to contemplate meanings, whys and wherefores. Or not, up to us.
Stuhlbarg's Larry is the perfect protagonist for such a story. He never tries to impose his will on events. No, he's trying to survive and prosper and wants only to understand so that he can navigate events. Understanding is not a philosophical exercise for Larry, it is a survival mechanism. He is, after all, a physics professor. He is, after all, a serious man. It would be a different movie and maybe not so satisfying a movie, if Larry were raging, or ironic or anything other than...a nice guy.
Larry rides the river. Which, as I said, is what life is like.
Some meaning can be enough meaning. A lot of meaning can be faking it.