Sunset on The Pond

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Long Island, New York, United States

‘A Serious Man’ – Film Review and Analysis

“Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.”

Man can be tested again and again but how exactly he deals with life’s challenges and his overall resolve and mettle will be seen as the measure of his true character. If I had to sum up the excellent movie, ‘A Serious Man’, it is a dark comedy but also a human drama regarding fate, fortune, and whether the role of a higher being can ultimately affect our destiny. Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.

‘A Serious Man’ (2009) is an excellent modern-day film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who I would imagine have had a similar childhood to the lead character of Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), which is the inspiration for this adapted screenplay, which is brilliantly written and relatable even if you’re not of the Jewish faith. The Coen Brothers both were raised and grew up as Jews in 1960s – 1970s Minnesota near the Twin Cities. It is likely they had to deal with being religious minorities in a mostly goyim (non-Jewish state) as well as with the growing counterculture and changing attitudes towards parental authority, sex, style, personal responsibility, and other societal upheavals including regarding race, gender, and politics.

While the Coen Brothers have had successful movies before and have won Academy Awards for movies such as ‘No Country for Old Men’, this film, ‘A Serious Man’ is quite unique given that it combines both comedic and dramatic elements, usually in the same scene. Overall, it triumphs as a film in doing that and is also laugh-out-loud funny and additionally heart-wrenchingly sad and melancholic. This film was universally praised and as I re-watched the film again after many years, it stands as one of the best films of the 2000s. Not only is the screenplay and writing engaging and insightful but also the acting is top notch thanks to the hard work of Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, among others in the film.

When you consider the main themes of ‘A Serious Man’, you think of several of them that deal with human nature such as upholding your morality under stress, taking care of those closest to you, dealing with adversity and unforeseen hurdles, and how to deal with questions of faith when you feel that you have been abandoned. As I mentioned earlier on, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to be taken seriously given the way he has lived his life and he has strived to do so with his academic and professional accomplishments. Sadly though, he is not only not able to get as much success with his professional pursuits, but he also struggles to hold his personal life together.

Despite how ‘serious’ of a man Larry thinks he is, those in his life can’t help but not take him seriously or choose not to. Instead of reassessing his actions and trying to make some behavioral changes or work on any personal defects he may has in addressing his challenges, Larry instead challenges his faith in God and wonders if the Rabbis of his synagogue will have the answers to the questions God has challenged Larry with.

As the film starts out, Larry appears to be relatively successful as a Physics professor waiting to be tenured. He teaches his classes, does research (albeit has not published anything), and enjoys the work he does. Larry is married with two teenage children and a modest house in the suburbs. Him and his family want for nothing, and it looks like he has everything you could want out of life on the surface.

As appearances can be deceiving, the film breaks down how one man’s life can be turned upside down and inferring what events beyond Larry’s control could have tipped his fortune to be negative, as in a curse, years or centuries ago. It is a series of events that tend to turn Larry’s life upside down even when he has not done anything wrong. A Korean student in his Physics class tries to bribe Larry to get a better grade and leaves before Larry can return the money and punish him for the illegal act.

Larry also comes home to his wife, Judith, who asks him for a divorce and for a ‘gett’ or permission to do so she can remarry within the faith to Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) who everyone takes seriously as a ‘Serious Man’ except for Larry. Larry is envious of Sy to some degree and feels like he has everything given to him whereas Larry has had to work hard for his success. Suddenly, ‘the domino effect’ of one negative event after another happens including Larry losing his home, access to his bank accounts, his marriage, and even his relationship to his teenage children become estranged.

This string of unfortunate events has Larry looking to cast judgment on God and questioning his faith in Judaism. Larry goes to three different rabbis whose advice and counsel does not help him any further. He cannot relate to what they tell them especially as the eldest, he considers to be too unavailable or unwilling and the youngest rabbi being too inexperienced or immature, who end up wasting his time. The 2nd and wisest rabbi give him the advice through an allegory, that while fictional, has a good message to it ends up helping Larry the most that God can only provide the questions, but you must find your own answers. The best way the 2nd rabbi implies to Larry is that he must “help himself by helping others.”

Essentially, Larry Gopnik must look beyond his own pain and selfish wants and look to control what he can and do what he can to get his life back on track. Larry can also do ‘mitzvahs’ especially regarding his own family. Larry’s younger brother, Arthur, is homeless and not mentally sound so Larry tries to get him on his feet but struggles to find the money or the resources to help his brother with his many troubles. He still attempts to maintain better relations with his kids, his soon to be ex-wife, and with his work colleagues. Without spoiling the rest of the movie, Larry understands that he must look to help others rather than looking to God to intervene. While ‘The Boss’ is present to give questions, the answers must come from within.

How Larry stands up to challenges and adversity is like the Torah’s stories about men like Job and Jonah who had their lives thrown into upheaval but were able to get over the anguish by holding true to their faith in God but looking inwards in their own strength, knowledge, and belief in morality and good will to make it through on the other side better than before. Life throws challenges at us every day and how we react to them and try to get through it with our God-given wisdom, kindness, compassion, patience, and reasoning will decide how far we can proceed in life to get back to being successful. Fortune is not everlasting, and faith will not provide good fortune. What can provide good fortune is to do your best, help yourself and others around you, and look to your own inner beliefs and values to guide you through the tough times.

‘A Serious Man’ is about a man who considers himself to be serious but has to struggle for others to call him ‘serious.’ In an effort to be taken seriously, Larry does end up struggling to fulfill the other important parts of his life that require his attention. He can forget to be loving and caring to his wife, attentive and helpful to his children, and more involved within the Jewish community including at his son’s Hebrew school. Larry is not a bad man but the cracks in his life cause some bad events to happen including events for which there is no logical explanation. Larry does his best to be a good man and although he is flawed, bad things happen out of nowhere to him.

The test throughout this excellent film is how do you claw back from adversity and try to give yourself the best shot at having good things happen in your life. Even if your family may appear to be cursed or have a string of bad fortune dating back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, how do you turn it around so your son or your daughter don’t deal with the same tragedies and setbacks? There are no easy answers in ‘A Serious Man’ but the Coen Brothers make it clear that it is not wise to look to God to solve the problems for you or provide the answers.

The central message of this film is not just for Jews but for all people. God may have provided life’s questions for you to answer but it’s up to you alone to answer them throughout your life. While you may lose faith in hose providing counsel or advice or in the religion itself, the film makes clear that you have to believe in yourself, to help yourself pull through the pain and sorrow, and to help other people, especially the family and friends closest to you, who are going through tough times as well, whose aid and assistance you can provide may be able to help you get to the right direction in life again and to lead you to a better place than you were before.

Loew Vineyards

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Mount Airy, Maryland, United States

Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff

“Now, it can be easy to overlook the small stuff because of how tedious and unrewarding the small details or tasks can be sometimes. However, to build up to handling the big things in life, you can’t sweat the small stuff.”

In other articles, I have stressed the importance of focusing on what you have control over in your life and not worrying about what is out of your control. I also have discussed why you should start each day by tackling small you can do to build confidence and belief in yourself such as making your bed each morning or being able to cook meals consistently each week. Now, it can be easy to overlook the small stuff because of how tedious and unrewarding the small details or tasks can be sometimes. However, to build up to handling the big things in life, you can’t sweat the small stuff.

In this post, I am going to focus on how to make the small ‘stuff’ or ‘tasks’ a little bit easier than before. While you may have no choice to get the small stuff done so they don’t become big problems later, I do believe it is easier now than ever to get the small stuff done as quickly and as painlessly as possible without sweating it too much. I am going to cover three different ways where you at home can get the small stuff done and to be done well with no issues. Between automation, making list(s) / calendar tracking, and keeping a consistent weekly or daily routine, you won’t have to worry about the small stuff because you’ll have a system ready to go that is organized and efficient to handle all your menial tasks.

Step 1: Automate, Automate, Automate

When most people think of automation, they think of giant robots handling packages in a factory or a counter where you can order McDonald’s without talking to a human being because they’ve been replaced by an interactive screen; while that is automation, that’s not the kind of automation I am talking about. You can automate many menial or annoying tasks or chores these days with the palm of your hand.

There are multiple mobile applications or websites where you can automate your payments whether its’ your mortgage / rent, your utility bills including Internet, electric, gas, etc. or even when it comes to your retirement, insurance, or other long-term commitments. You no longer need to send a check or use the mailing system to automate these chores or tasks. Bills are among the most annoying of the small stuff that we must take care of but even though we still have to pay them, it’s easier now than ever to set up a system that month to month, year to year, takes care of it for you with minimal effort.

In addition, there used to be a lot more work involved to rent a car, to get your driver’s license, to apply for a passport. I believe many of these tasks, while still tedious involve less bureaucracy than before and are more technologically advanced where you don’t need to go to the DMV, the post office, etc. You can do most of these menial tasks from the comfort of your home and that makes the ‘small stuff’ much less to sweat about.

Step 2: Making List(s) / Track with Your Calendar

Related to automating your small tasks, it’s easier now with the Internet or the digital age in general to create new portable lists or having different kinds of calendars to track your daily, weekly, and/or monthly tasks. You can easily categorize your lists by kinds of tasks whether it’s for errands, bills, family obligations, travel, work items, business tasks, etc. and keep track of what you need to still do with check lists. The best part is with the digitalization, you can keep your lists with you on the go rather than having to carry a notepad or small book with you everywhere you go to remind you of what’s on the list(s).

Similarly, to the digitization of lists, using digital calendars to mark down different work, personal, school, travel, family events is key, and you can also color code them to not mix them up. You can use various applications to set up your calendars and to set reminders, so you won’t forget the tasks, obligations, or other ‘small stuff’ you need to take care of. The best thing about calendars is you can also mark them by time and place and to put them in chronological order to not overlap.

Calendars used to be big sheets of white paper that were physically based and a bit hard to read depending on the person’s handwriting. Now, similar to lists, you can take your calendars with you on the go. It is good for the environment too as you waste less paper too when you put your lists and calendars on your phone or laptop rather than a piece of paper. Just remember to protect your privacy and make sure your personal lists and events remain personal.

Step 3: Stay Consistent with Your Routine(s)

This last step may seem a bit redundant, but you are your own worst enemy or best friend when it comes to keeping consistent with your routines. You can set them up however you want but just make sure they work for getting all the small stuff in your life done well. If you’re better at doing a bunch of things in one day, then you should do it. If you are instead a master at spreading out tasks over a week or even a month, that should be your route to small stuff completion. I recommend going through a trial and error to see if a daily routine or a weekly routine, or even a monthly routine for certain tasks would work best for you.

You should not get frustrated if you need to add to your routine(s) or take things away when you no longer do them. Maybe you prefer automating grocery delivery on a different day instead of going on a Saturday when you have karate practice; you should be comfortable with adapting your routine as new tasks and even new hobbies fill your schedule. The key to consistency is to keep doing what you have to do every day, every week, or every month to keep life going right as much as you can control. Making sure your bills are paid on time, saving up for your rent or mortgage by keeping a set budget, or showing up to your soccer practices each week and not skipping will all make huge differences in your life.

To improve your overall life satisfaction, I believe it’s necessary especially as you get older to embrace these three steps to help you overcome the small stuff that could end up derailing you in life if you don’t take care of them and don’t do so consistently. You may think you only need one out of these three steps, but I think all three steps are great to utilize to some degree.

They also really complement each other as well as you can set your calendar to what bills you pay through an automated application each month and make a routine of following that system you set up for not just a month but a year and beyond. To not end up sweating the small stuff, you got to plan and strategize in advance to make sure you don’t even have to think about the small stuff in the future because you’ll already have planned to have each menial task, chore, or errand set up to be taken care of without waiting until the last minute.

Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty; New York, New York, United States

Anatomy of A Scene – “I came in at the end…The best is over.”

“A lot of the best scenes in the show revolve around this conflicted mobster, Tony Soprano (played brilliantly by James Gandolfini), who suffers from both innate anxiety and depression, along with his dysfunctional families who intend to drag him down if he can’t help doing it himself.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cQOej9nuho

‘The Sopranos’ is one of the most highly acclaimed television shows of all-time and is not just a show about a man caught between his real family and his mafia family but also about a certain period in American life. A lot of the best scenes in the show revolve around this conflicted mobster, Tony Soprano (played brilliantly by James Gandolfini), who suffers from both innate anxiety and depression, along with his dysfunctional families who intend to drag him down if he can’t help doing it himself.

There is a particular scene early in the 1st season where we are first getting to know the character of Tony Soprano and what makes him tick. The first scene in his therapist’s office, which would be a recurring motif throughout the show, has Tony trying to pin down the roots of his depression, which is what brought him to Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in the first place. Tony has no idea what is causing him the blues, pontificating openly that it could be “stress, maybe?” especially as he has recently started to have panic attacks occur out of nowhere.

Dr. Melfi asks him about what could be causing the stress he is feeling? Tony isn’t sure but believes that “it’s good to be at something at the ground floor.” Now, the audience can assume what he is referring to is the La Cosa Nostra or Italian-American mafia, which is on the decline as the show first aired in 1999 and could be on its way out. However, since Dr. Melfi isn’t aware yet who Tony Soprano is and what his life in the mafia like, she assumes he means about life in suburban America in the 1990s, which had a lot of amenities including bigger houses and bigger cars with a more privacy, but for which has left many Americans feel unfulfilled.

“I came in at the end…the best is over.” While Tony may be referring to the historical arc of the Italian mafia and how it’s in irrevocable decline, the show paints it to Melfi and the audience as something deeper yet not as pronounced. Melfi replies, “Many Americans, I think, feel that way”, implying that while the country has gotten materially wealthier and more prosperous to a degree, our family and perhaps spiritual life has been on the decline for quite some time and perhaps has led to a moral decline.

While Tony was inferred to be talking about the mafia and how he is now boss of his Soprano crime family unlike his father who never ‘reached the heights like him’ or wasn’t as successful materially in terms of his life in the suburbs, Tony still feels unfulfilled by his success.

While his father wasn’t as successful in the mafia life, he still passed it down to his son, but in those days, Tony feels as many Americans would relate to that there was more pride and togetherness in their communities among families of different backgrounds. In the atomized suburbs, it’s harder to connect with those in your family or to form as tight of cultural or religious or social bonds with people of your background.

“But in a lot of ways, he had it better. He (Tony’s father) had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. Their pride. Now, today, what do we got?” The scene also demonstrates that this was filmed in 1999, just at the turn to the 21st century, before 9/11 happened, the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Donald Trump as President, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Even on the cusp of 2000, the show demonstrates that not all was rosy in America and there was a sense of dissatisfaction back then with where the country was headed and that the ’best days may be behind us’ in more ways than one.

While the focus is on the decline of mob life in this scene and in the show, which does so consistently over six brilliant seasons, it also highlights a parallel loss of faith and trust in American institutions as well as the rise of greed, malaise, and apathy in our cultural attitudes, and a sense that maybe American decline is our future. While the scene is not overtly political, you have Tony reading the Newark Star-Ledger, a New Jersey daily paper, indicating that “President Clinton warns of Medicare going bust in Year 2000.”

The front-page newspaper headline tells you that even back then in 1999, there were worries about our institutions eroding, the promises meant to be kept at danger of being broken after many decades of effort, and the average middle-aged suburbanite feeling unsatisfied about the prospect of a dimmer future, especially for his or her children. While Tony’s parents were better off because of their closer family and community ties in the big city or the exurbs nearby, he was not able to say the same about his suburban life. Even at a time where his generation were able to still have had a better life materially and perhaps financially than their parents, would their children be worse off in both ways if the decline is to pass, both financially and spiritually?

Twenty-two years later since this scene first aired on HBO, it is interesting to look back at Tony’s anxieties as being prophetic rather than misplaced. Younger Americans of my generation and the generation behind me look at it reasonably and think that Tony Soprano, despite his crimes and misdeeds and his Mafia boss life, may have had one thing right: “I came in at the end, the best is over…” Now, the question remains, how do we deal with it as a country and as a people?

%d bloggers like this: