A SERIOUS MAN opens with the line “receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” While this quote could ostensibly be intended for the movie’s protagonist, it functions as a thesis statement from the Coens’ to their receptive audience. Scott Tobias of the AV Club stated that 2011 was the year of ambiguity in film, and that through many of 2011’s best efforts, we should take it upon ourselves to “Accept the Mystery.” The idea here is that we (as the audience) should accept the narrative for what it is: we shouldn’t look further than we need to or to apply meaning where perhaps there is none. This idea (outside of film) isn’t a new one, but it can be appealing. The Coens’ don’t want audiences to analyze or over-rationalize their work, but I believe that this notion may take away from the overall experience of a movie, rather than enhancing it. This post’s purpose is to combat the idea that the audience should receive with simplicity everything they see.
By taking source material and repurposing it into our own hypotheses and schemas, we are able to give it new life that wasn’t once there. By not accepting the mystery, we are able to enhance the mystery; we open up doors and ideas. Rejecting the mystery makes us passionate. Rejecting the mystery makes us critical. It makes us pour over details. It involves us in the story. It makes us scientists, lawyers, investigators, or murderers.
By design, MULHOLLAND DRIVE is slippery; it behaves like a dream, and it is impossible to pin all of its ideas down. Just because this movie was intended to be surreal and strange at times, does that mean we should ignore the ideas it has as just part of the “mystery”? MULHOLLAND DRIVE’s greatest achievement isn’t the dreamlike quality that its narrative weaves: it’s the way it encourages its audience to look, think, feel, and search for anything to hold on to. Rather than accepting that the story plays out like a dream, we try to understand just what it is David Lynch is trying to show us. The same could be said for a lot of his work (ERASERHEAD, LOST HIGHWAY, parts of TWIN PEAKS); part of the brilliance of it is what the audience does with the information given on screen. This framework has allowed for near-endless study, conversation, and replay of these movies.
This is the way that poetry has worked for ages now; for example, T.S. Eliot’s THE LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK’s narrator addresses an audience that is never clearly defined. The search for this particular audience is futile, because the poem, by design, does not allow us the privilege of it, but one of the wonderful thing about the poem is that we are given the opportunity to guess. We can create hypotheses and theories, test them, think of the material in new ways to fit new contexts. In this case, Eliot never intended for the reader to know who this audience was, but that shouldn’t mean we should deprive ourselves from trying to discover it on our own. Garbriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude offers another example; the author claims that the novel is a series of in-jokes between friends, but the content has gone on to touch people internationally. Marquez may not have intended meaning in some of his work, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t meaning to be found. In this way, the audience holds more control over the work than the original creator.
Even some examples of modern music have received attention because they intrigue us: the SPACE ODDITY by David Bowie, HOTEL CALIFORNIA by the Eagles, or STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN by Led Zeppelin. These songs have been purported to not really be about anything in particular, but we are still driven to given these stories lives beyond their initial shelf-life. Because we aren’t just “accepting the mystery,” these narratives are able to give us a richer perspective on them by letting us interact with the source material. Like MULHOLLAND DRIVE, most of the fun comes from this interaction and our ability to play detective.
There have been cases in which an artist releases material that, thanks to audiences unwilling to accept ambiguity, transcends its original reception. Neutral Milk Hotel’s IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA comes to mind. An low-fi indie rock album received (practically posthumous praise) due to some intriguing themes and allusions to Anne Frank. Although frontman Jeff Mangum does not really weigh in on these strange, cryptic lyrics, the community has embraced the weirdness and given it a revered status that many other similar albums never receive. What was once old fashioned and repurposed imagery becomes a dark love story about Anne Frank.
Through the history of entertainment, many of the enduring classics have become classics because people refuse to let stories stay ambiguous. Today, some people are pushing for us to drop this critical eye in favor for a deeper appreciation for what we simply see on screen. Not only does this render the audience mostly obsolete, but it suggests that the medium needs to be experienced exactly as it was created. There is no room for rethinking or reconsidering. The thing that irks me though (just to bring this full circle) is the ending of A SERIOUS MAN. This scene is ambiguous — it’s purposefully ambiguous. The entire movie wants people to see things as they are and not as a deterministic, complex narrative, but the only way that this message is able to really be conveyed is by breaking that rule. The “lesson” that A SERIOUS MAN offers is unattainable if we all just accept the mystery.
So follow the movie’s lead and don’t.