One of the things the Coen brothers already knew that no doubt attracted them to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was the importance of theoretical physics for 20th and 21st century aesthetics. That the nature of matter involved at the most fundamental levels chance, uncertainty, and vast dense calculations of probability was a gift for an ideologically bankrupt West, flailing around for a resolution in the aesthetic sphere amidst the continual recurrence of the clash between Romanticism and Modernism. From Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment to McCarthy’s coin-tossing hitman Anton Chigurh the resonances of quantum physics have intrigued and dazzled those who see in its surface metaphors and illustrative tropes aesthetic experiential truths. A Serious Man addresses such matters quite directly by having its lead character, Larry Gopnik, a professor of physics tell his failing student that even he doesn’t understand ‘the cat’ (Schrodinger’s), it’s just an illustration. Nonetheless the film is quite brilliant in its evocation of a world that is built up from such cosmic regularities as matter, evolution and the ferocious desire for meaning, for the answer.
The scene where Larry ascends his house to adjust the television aerial ranks for me as one of the great moments where cinema evokes but does not define a cluster of ideas and resonances about such things. Watching from this height Larry notices the world, set here in a budding suburban outpost, where human regularities of habit and play are underlined for us but not bound into a tight meaning that would stifle its evocative power. A car, two bicycles, two humans throw an object to one another and calculate the effect of gravity so that they might calibrate their limbs in order to catch it… It is a Kubrick moment, a 2001 set in a summer’s day in mid 1960s Minnesota and because of its very everydayness ( which is not one haunted as in Lynch or McCarthy by intimations of atavistic disease or apocalyptic violence) rather than spectacular melodrama, it is more difficult, more gloomy even since it promises nothing more than this, without – at least at this moment, although sadly not for the rest of the film – denigrating or belittling the value of the suburban world we see. It is at the end of this sequence where Larry sees his neighbour sunbathing naked and we have a sense of the primal nature of beauty. At the end of the film we get a vivid illustration of what Kant calls the dynamically sublime in nature, a tornado rapidly approaching the schoolyard, and watched by Larry’s son as he listens to music on a transistor radio.