Finding the truth doesn’t bring redemption
Yesterday I flew from the east coast to Los Angeles and watched two movies that were uncanny in the similarity of their view of the human condition.
The moral synchronicity was more startling for the cultural chasm between the two films: the uber-Wasp corporate reality of the Reitman brothers’ Up in the Air and the tsuris of the Coen brother’s A Serious Man.
You can find life’s truth, but you aren’t promised redemption, the filmmakers say.
The hero of Up in The Air lives a life of meticulous order, espousing a philosophy of unencumbered motion that would be Buddhist if it promised advancement. As external forces disrupts the deliberate order of his life, his essential humanity surfaces, and, in the emotional climax of the movie, he understands his desire for connection. He races to the Chicago home of the woman he yearns for, only to discover on her doorstep that he is part of a fantastical life she keeps wholly separate from her children and husband.
“You’re an escape, a fantasy,” she explains to him later. She proffers the continuation of their placeless connection, deaf to the opened quest of his heart.
The story ends with our hero back up in the air. He is different, we’re asked to understand, even in the sameness of his life.
But he isn’t saved. He has work to do, and his ethereal understanding of the importance of connection in his life can too easily be buried by the habits of his every day.
The Coen Brothers present a moral question: Can you find the meaning of life, and, if you do, does it matter?
At one point in the unraveling of his life from reason to un-reason, the main character Larry asks a Rabbi, “Why does [God] make us feel the questions if he doesn’t let us find the answers?”
To this physicist who revels in the elegance of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (deaf to the irony that his actions in life defy the existence of uncertainty) the realization that everyone around him is operating according to the principle that their needs should exert order on the universe is a disorienting and confounding reality.
The film closes with the catapulting elements organized into a stable order, the hero’s life regaining balance. But for the Coens, God is not a kind and forgiving God. When you think, like Job, that you’ve surmounted the big problems, an new, epic problem surfaces.
The final moments of A Serious Man carry us along with Jefferson Airplane’s soaring melody, looking for someone to love, as Larry contemplates the urgent request of his doctor to come in to talk about an x-ray and Larry’s son looks past the bully who had been the biggest fear of his young life at the ominous black spiral tornado closing the gap across the Omaha plain.
These two films present a new zeitgeist. You can win understanding even as you suffer through hardship, but with understanding doesn’t come redemption. There is just the piece work of putting a life together. For those of us who’ve found truth absent experience, there’s the potential for suffering, but within that suffering there’s no greater purpose. It’s just life. It’s the shit that happens.