Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Look at the parking lot, Larry."

The Wisdom of the Coen Brothers
By A.J. Jacobs for Esquire

Listen, I know there's a temptation to overanalyze the Coen brothers' movies. In the course of researching this article, I found a paper that argued — with all apparent sincerity — that the bowling ball in The Big Lebowski was meant to represent Sisyphus' boulder.

The Coen brothers' cerebral and allusion-packed style invites such folly. So let me take a risk and dive in. Because their new movie — A Serious Man (out October 2) — contains the best onscreen wisdom since, well, since Jeff Bridges uttered his Taoist insight "The Dude abides."

A Serious Man is about Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a middling Jewish physics professor in 1967 in an unnamed midwestern town not unlike the suburban Minneapolis where the Coen brothers spent their childhood. Things are not going well for him. His wife leaves him for a fat windbag. His daughter steals money for a nose job. One of his students is threatening to sue him if he doesn't get a better grade.

Exasperated, Larry goes to several rabbis in search of counsel. The rabbis are portrayed with a mixture of condescension and affection. Their advice is played for laughs, but the funny thing is, the advice is actually incredibly wise. Or at least it's the best summary of my life philosophy I've heard.

The first rabbi is an earnest twenty-something rabbi in high-waisted pants. Rabbi Scott tells Larry that he needs a radical reframing of reality.

"I mean, the parking lot here," says Rabbi Scott. He points to a drab parking lot outside his office window. "Not much to see. But if you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn't familiar with these autos and such, somebody still with a capacity for wonder, someone with a fresh perspective... You're looking at the world through tired eyes... Things aren't so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry."

Look at the parking lot, Larry. Since seeing A Serious Man, I find myself repeating that line to myself like a mantra. It really is one of the big secrets to a happy life: The ability to look at the mundane and the seemingly ugly with a sense of awe.

The junior rabbi's parking-lot spiel doesn't work for Larry, though. So he goes to a second rabbi, Rabbi Nachtner, a pretentious, baritone-voiced middle-aged man. Nachtner tells him a story about a dentist in the congregation. The dentist was doing bridgework on a patient — a Christian no less — and noticed, to his surprise, Hebrew letters carved into the back of the man's teeth. The letters said "Help me" in Hebrew.

The dentist flips out. He can't sleep. He can't eat. Whom is the message for? What does it mean? How did it get there? He searches for answers everywhere. In the end, he finds none. So, after a few weeks of torment, the dentist goes back to his normal life of golf and dinners with his wife, perhaps more eager to help others but bothered no more by existential questions.

It's not a new idea. My favorite book of the Bible — Ecclesiastes — basically says the same thing: Life is inscrutable. It makes no sense. Good people suffer horrible setbacks while bad people often end up happy, successful, and hosts of their own reality shows. The best we can do is enjoy good food, good drink, and honest labor. It's the most epicurean part of the Bible. It also happens to be the prevailing philosophy of The Big Lebowski's Dude. As the Web site Dudeism: The Church of the Latter Day Dude puts it, "Life is full of strikes and gutters. So fuck it, let's go bowling."

Or better yet, let's go stare at a parking lot.

Shut the fuck up, Donny.


fxdwhl said...

"bullshit walter, mark it eight dude."
that's been flying around work the last couple weeks.

Gunnar Berg said...

The town is St.Louis Park. In the self-imposed cleverness of my youth it was "St.Jewish Park". At one time it had Thomas Friedman, Al Franken, the Coens, and a bunch of others I don't recall at the moment all living within blocks of each other. Something in the water?

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