Who isn’t smoking a little too much weed these days? A heroic drag, a supine position on a flat floor, some Jefferson Airplane on the HiFi. Works for me. Worked for me ten years ago when I first saw A Serious Man and found myself eerily transported into a part of my own psyche I tend not to talk about, since nothing kills the room like existential nihilism.
I’m neither Jewish nor did I grow up in Minneapolis in the 60s, but I have learned the lesson, attributed to Rashi at the opening of the film, to accept all things that happen to me with simplicity. As discussed elsewhere on this bizarre digital platform I’m calling a blog, one only has to live but so long, and through only so many weird-ass events, before you realize that all the things you fret and agonize over are just more fodder for the beckoning whirlwind.
“Please. Accept the mystery,” says the only character in the film who successfully games the system. I fucking love that. It’s a phrase I’d tattoo on my forehead if I thought it would lend the world more peace, and the only real answer to any of the questions the film poses. “Be a good boy,” is the wisdom handed down from the most reclusive and legendary of the living rabbis to a newly bar mitzvah’d Grace Slick fan. I like that advice, too. In fact, if you haven’t already, stop reading this and donate some spare cash to your local food bank, and continue to stay your ass at home if you’re able. Our neighbors really need us to be good right now.
Does any of this really mean anything? No, but enjoy the Easter eggs.
I’ve always enjoyed a double feature, so I’d actually juxtapose this cinematic peep into the void with a very controversial pairing, Under the Silver Lake. It’s essentially a two hour journey into the mystery of the goy’s teeth, positing that even if there are hidden messages everywhere, even if there are codes and conspiracies and one rich old white guy really is behind it all, does it ultimately have any bearing on the fact that our hero detective hasn’t paid his rent for several months and is now going to be summarily evicted from his bungalow?
I enjoyed it, anyhow.
One film asks the question “Does any of this really mean anything?” and the other answers, resoundingly, “No, but enjoy the Easter eggs!” I like that.* The great gift of our simian brains is that while we have no real sense of the future, we can enjoy immense, almost impenetrable depths within the present. Agony, mystery, delight, love, hilarity, absurdity, despair. In A Serious Man, a rubric called the Mentaculus fuels endless card sharking and buys plenty of brain-numbing pot; in Under the Silver Lake, it’s the Depression-era hobo code that points the way to untold, underground riches, replete with naked twentysomethings to spoon as the end of days closes in.
Does every story really have a moral, or have we just been groomed to expect one?
All around us, in both films, are plenty of things we might delight in if we stopped working so hard to try and solve the goddamn mystery of what they mean. (None of those things are the parking lot, but!) Films, and songs, and smoke, and sunshine, and Jefferson Airplane, and tradition, and a good bordeaux, and doomed romance, and orange juice and crackers. There’s a reason these two pictures have such a polarizing impact on their audiences. They fuck with us on a reptilian level. Since the first cave man painted a buffalo hunt on a wall, we’ve been groomed to believe that every story must have a moral, that even the most fucked up things happen for a reason. The expectation of meaning is in our DNA at this point, along with transgenerational trauma and alcoholism and arthritis. The answers are there, says the overconfident, under-experienced junior rabbi—but if you don’t know how to look, you won’t see them. (Or in the case of Under the Silver Lake, if you didn’t think to keep all your childhood Nintendo Power magazines.)
But the fact that we even exist as a species, that I’m even shouting my thoughts into a void called the Internet, is a mystery that’s never really going to be solved. Sure, we can trace our organic presence back through tiers of monkeys and eventually to a fish that decided to take a crack at ambling in mud and sure, further still, to that one big-ass lightning bolt and the primordial tincture of just the right lichens and tardigrades, but the cosmic why of how all that culminates in all this is at the end of the day a phenomenon we must accept with simplicity. It’s all happened. Here we are.
Grief is the one kind of pain that no wisdom can salve.
As COVID 19 menaces our species, making climate change look like the common cold, more and more of us feel the very real and lasting grip of grief around our hearts. These are traumatic times we are living through, leaving us with sadness for the seemingly preventable loss of life, despair for political posturing in a time that begs for global unity, and genuine heartache for our relative powerlessness to do anything more than slow the momentum of the blight. As with all times of mourning, there’s a real temptation to resort to the same old hollow tropes that well-meaning friends trot out at funerals, to insist that it all happens for a reason. To believe that God has a plan. Or, in the case of some people even further out on the fucking edge than I currently live, to advance absolutely stupid and dangerous conspiracy theories about cell phones and wifi and insist that Somebody Right Here Made This Happen.
It couldn’t have just, you know, transpired, organically, inexplicably, the same way all the rest of this did, for no damn good reason?
The dangerous insistence that we all have some inherent right to be here, that there’s all some noble purpose driving this suffering, well, it’s a puzzle you can spend your whole life decoding, and some really brilliant and wonderful and tortured and lost people do. But these days, anymore, I don’t so much, myself. My favorite moments of A Serious Man are those last seven, in which Professor Gopnik realizes he’s got tenure coming, appeasing his blackmailer isn’t as impossible as he once thought, and he’ll have the cash to cover the attorney’s fees, and shit, his wife might even take him back—but his chest X rays have come back with some urgent and worrisome news. Across town, his son takes similar stock of his own relative good fortune, but decides to skip out on settling up with his pot dealer when he realizes the scope of that F5 churning toward the Hebrew school parking lot.
Maybe it all means nothing, and maybe it’s doomed to end terribly. But still, it’s just as fucking splendid to be here as it is heartbreaking. Load your copy of Surrealistic Pillow on the turntable, get supine, and please: accept the mystery.