No. 20: A Serious Man
A faith-based initiative
2009, dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. In the Schrodinger’s Cat thought-experiment that the Coen brothers set at the center of their best film, the cat is in the box with radioactive material with a one-hour half-life; after one hour, there is a 50-50 chance the cat is dead; until the box is opened, the cat is both dead and alive. A Zen adherent would strategically, meaningfully, and joyfully forfeit understanding the cat’s state; a scientist would know that it’s the math that matters: The situation demonstrates the unconventionality of quantum physics. But to the Coens, the situation is an illustration of the Jewish faith in God, whose quirk (not quark) is to simultaneously possess a feel, an even comic comprehension, of the ridiculousness of that faith. The Jew must not be satisfied with the advanced physics that either do or don’t kill the cat, and sees the Zen “both alive and dead” pronunciation for the dodge it is. With a wistful shrug, he accepts the unknowability of the cat’s state while affirming one side anyway. A Serious Man shows why the Jews invented atheism, but the film is not atheistic. It also has a prelude in Yiddish, and the funniest bar mitzvah ever committed to film.