Thursday 4 February 2010


“A book must be an ice-ax to break the frozen sea inside us.” said Kafka. It sounds painful – and it is painful. Yet we submit to pain, most happily, when it comes to art. We even anticipate it, this pain of blinders torn by design, of delicately woven untruths rudely ripped apart. We submit to the pain of coming out of the darkness into the unkindly bright sun, from ignorance or self-deception into truth. But let us not assume that any pain is welcome. Art-lovers are not masochists, after all, welcoming pain for its own sake.

This trust, given by the art-lover to the artist as easily as a child gives it to his mother, can be abused. And it is precisely this feeling of abuse and betrayal that I felt while watching A Serious Man. It is clear what its creators, Joel and Ethan Coen, had intended – a dark comedy that disturbs and enlightens, in style of Solondz’s ‘Happiness’. It has been touted as their best work ever. Yet despite wondrous performances by some of the supporting actors, the film didn’t manage to disturb and enlighten in right proportions. It disturbed too much and enlightened too little.

The disturbing parts of the film seemed gratuitous – graphically violent scenes punctuate the flow of the film without being meaningful counterpoints to the rest of the plot. It was as if the Coen brothers tickled us playfully underneath our chins, just before they slapped us viciously on the cheek. This is wrong kind of disturbing for a film that means to awake something truthful inside its viewers.

Most of us come to films both innocent and savvy. We bring our openness and trust, and know, too, that growing requires pains. Artists know they can do with our trust as they wish. They can hurt us, and hurt us needlessly. But just because they can, it doesn’t mean it should be done.

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