Sounds of Job in the American Midwest: A Serious “Jewish” Man vs. a “Christian” Tree of Life

The Jewish Music Research Centre is proud to present Sounds of Job in the American Midwest: A Serious “Jewish” Man vs. a “Christian” Tree of Life, a new Yuval article by Hebrew University Professor Ruth HaCohen (Pinczower). The article is in Hebrew, and can be read or downloaded here. Below is the English language abstract.

Abstract

The article discusses the soundtracks of two “Joban” movies whose plots take place in the 1950s and 60s in the American Midwest. The first film, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009), is “Jewish” in the sense that its protagonists are active members of a practicing Jewish community in a Minnesota suburbia. The second, Terence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) is “Christian,” as it centers on a family who are members of a Catholic community in Texas. Both movies are autobiographical, as their authors attest. The article takes as its point of departure the long legacy of the Book of Job’s reception in each of the respective religious communities as well as their traditional contrasting approaches to questions of noise and harmony. It seeks to show the critical role played by the sonic dimension of the movies for fathoming their deeper meaning vis-à-vis their Joban orientation.  

The article hinges on possible interpretations of Job 38, 7: “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” which Malick took as a motto for his movie: Did the stars cum sons of God sing and shout in harmony, or did they produce noise? In theological terms, does the Book of Job, its finale notwithstanding, point towards salvation or disillusionment? And to what sort of salvation or disillusionment does it point, when viewed in terms of the movies’ retrospective gaze at the America of their childhood time?

In A Serious Man the major Joban figure, Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, is battered by a series of inflictions. Searching for a theological understanding of their meaning, he seeks out the council of three different rabbis - a modern version of Job’s three comforters. The music in his world, mainly diegetic and unequivocally non-celestial, derives from folk, liturgical, and popular genres. Yet, whether listening to music or producing it, the protagonists, I argue, mainly ventriloquized it, like a Dybbuk (a figure that features in the film’s opening episode). In their attempts to hide their purposes or conceal desires and agonies, all are possessed by certain spectral forces that speak or are heard through them. Sound thus points to what remains latent: a profound rupture from a troubled Jewish past, a rift between generations, phony piety, and above all, a deeply entrenched dissimulating social behaviour.

Of the three rabbis, only the oldest holds a key to understanding the root of Larry’s tragedies. To the ears of Larry’s bar-mitzvah son, the rabbi quotes the song’s lyrics the latter avidly consumes – Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love: “When the truth is found / To be lies / And all the joy / Within you dies.” Skipping the haunting refrain, the movie suggests that Larry, deprived of love, is the victim of other people’s bad faith (Sartre) and immoral actions. Fate, or God for that matter, is only marginally involved. Disillusioned and earthbound through and through, the movie’s final intertextual reference, I suggest, gives us a clue as to where its authors seek deliverance: somewhere over the rainbow - in an enchanted land of Oz – but not the one Job dwells in.

In Tree of Life the Joban lot is distributed among all family members, as all are afflicted by the death of the second son. Reflecting back on his childhood memories, the oldest son, decades later, wishes to work through this past that weighs so heavily on him. Grace vs. Nature, figured through a mother’s love and a father’s arbitrary law, respectively, are the major forces at work in this small universe. I argue that the rich soundtrack divides itself accordingly. Wavering between non-diegetic sound that turns diegetic, and vice versa, it dichotomizes Catholic to Protestant music from a J. S. Bach fugue to a Zbigniew Preisner Lachrymose. Postwar latency (Gumbrecht) prevails here, as it does in the Coen film, rooted in military traumas, professional failure, and an unspoken chasm between parents who unable to cope with their turbulent adolescent son. It likewise produces bad faith. Unlike the Coen film, however, here God’s presence is beyond doubt, and though He hides Himself, He is sought by the protagonists through passionate whispers. (God’s traces can be recognized in an evolutionary version of Whirlwind Revelation [Job 38-41]: His sublime Creation dazzles our eyes and caresses our ears, in the movie’s second prelude.)

In the end, as I interpret it, Grace prevails, and an “Agnus Dei” son is sacrificed by a mother-pieta to Berlioz’s purgatorial sounds. Malick, a frustrated philosopher, in this cinematic “Assumption” of the virgin-like mother, joins forces with Pope Pius XII’s 1950 dogmatization of Virgin Mary’s divine status. (A divination that Carl Jung saw as God’s ultimate answer to Job.) In the movie, a postmortem reconciliation reaches out to embrace all, enabling the prodigal adult son to restart his life.

The sublime vs. the grotesque; a divine mother sacrificing her son vs. a domestic deity (“Hashem”) who becomes metaphysically irrelevant – these two films move in opposite directions. The respective, concluding musical gesture in each – Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love" vs. Berlioz’ “Agnus Dei” – captures it all. Taken as a whole, the films thus artistically express significant trends in Jewish and Christian theologies, and wittingly or unwittingly, write new chapters in each.

The article is a chapter from a book manuscript in progress, on Job’s sonic adventures.

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