“Mere Surmise, Sir”: Uncertainty in the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and A Serious Man (2009)

Both The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and A Serious Man (2009) utilize Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as an organizing metaphor. Knowledge, according to this quantum mechanical interpretation, is fundamentally imprecise: the more we know about one property, the less we can know about another. This notion is in keeping with the Coen brothers’ longstanding fascination with the limits of knowledge and the fundamental difficulties of communication. In practically every Coen film, characters misunderstand the motivations of the other characters. This misappraisal can stem from either the gap between appearance and reality—exemplified, for instance, by “The Big” Lebowski in that film, whose façade of wealth and power is revealed by film’s end to be an utter sham—or the fallible nature of language itself: Larry Gopnik’s comic misunderstanding of Clive Park’s phrase “Mere surmise, sir” in A Serious Man, itself an expression of the unknowable nature of human actions.

The_Man_Who_Wasnt_ThereIn The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), attorney Freddy Riedenschneider invokes Heisenberg in a misguided attempt to gain acquittal for Ed Crane. In voiceover, Ed relates: “He told them to look not at the facts but at the meaning of the facts, and then he said that the facts had no meaning.” Freddy’s grand speech is interrupted by Ed’s brother-in-law Frank, who attacks Ed and prompts the declaration of a mistrial. The mistrial, in fact, is inherent to the proceedings: Ed is charged with murdering Creighton Tolliver, who was actually beaten to death by Big Dave Brewster. When Ed returns to consciousness after the car accident and is informed that he’s being charged with murder, he naturally assumed his passenger, Birdy, has been killed. This Gordian Knot of misunderstanding continues throughout the film, lacking any solution that might be provided by Ed’s voiceover narration.

The film’s end reveals that Ed has been writing his memoirs for a pulp magazine and—being paid by the word—very well might have “embellished” his story. Commerce dictates revelation here. The truth—and the very notion of The Truth as an objective entity—is up for sale. Existence lacks meaning and language is a game played for profit: “Writing has helped me sort it all out. They’re paying me five cents a word.” The film’s last lines hint at the possibility of transcendence or at least the desire for such: “I don’t know what waits for me, beyond the earth and sky. But I’m not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don’t understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away…Maybe Doris will be there…And maybe there I can tell her all the things they don’t have words for here…”

AseriousmanIn A Serious Man (2009), Larry Gopnik instructs his college Physics class in the mathematics behind Heisenberg’s principle. The scene echoes an earlier one in which Larry instructed his class on the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. The scenes start similarly, but the later scene soon becomes incongruous: A cut reveals a massive chalkboard, dwarfing Larry’s figure, crammed with equations. Larry says, “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves that we can’t ever really know…what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out.” Now we see Sy Ableman sitting in the audience. At this point in the narrative, Sy is dead. Only now is the viewer cued that this scene is a dream sequence, the first of three. Sy responds, “I’ll concede that it’s subtle, it’s clever, but at the end of the day, is it convincing?” Larry replies: “Well, yes it’s convincing. It’s a proof. It’s mathematics.” Sy: “Excuse me, Larry. Mathematics is…the art of the possible.” Larry: “I don’t think so. The art of the possible…that’s…I can’t remember…something else…” In point of fact, the art of the possible is politics, at least according to Otto von Bismarck.

Larry expresses a withering confidence in mathematical certainty, in proof, even while espousing Heisenberg. Uncertainty can be proved to the extent that it can be incorporated into a system. Kurt Gödel’s theorems state that 1) no consistent system can prove all facts and 2) one fact that cannot be proven about the system is that it is in fact consistent. In short, any system aspiring to consistency must include the fact of its own incompleteness. On a theological level, these notions find their embodiment in the story of Job, which parallels Larry’s experiences. From out of the whirlwind (the tornado at the film’s conclusion…?), God tells Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (40:2) and “Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” (40:8)

In this view, the divine order is utterly incommensurate with human codes of ethics or morality and God owes nobody any answers, a view supported in the film by Rabbi Nachtner. Suffering is no more punishment than prosperity is a reward: the text makes this quite clear. Closer to the truth of this word is the view that suffering forms and purifies us. But even this notion only goes so far. The transcendent, in the scripture’s tautological assertion, transcends. “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” a quote from the 11th century French Talmudic scholar Rashi, opens the film. “Accept the mystery,” says Mr. Park.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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One Response to “Mere Surmise, Sir”: Uncertainty in the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and A Serious Man (2009)

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