This week, I am exploring theological themes in relation to screenwriting, considering them metaphorically because in my view, we see these themes in movies all the time. By understanding them, we can use these theological themes to enhance the meaning and depth of our stories.
For background on the general subject, you may read my introductory comments in Part 1 here.
Today in Part 5: Doubt. This post derives from a comment by Bryan Colley, a terrific analysis of the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man. Here is that analysis reprinted in full:
These theological posts have been fascinating and provide an opportunity to discuss one of the most profound religious films I’ve seen in years, “A Serious Man,” and address one theological issue you didn’t bring up: Doubt.
The problem with storytelling is that it is inherently God-affirming. A story is constructed by an all-knowing writer, who predetermines the fate of the characters. There’s an assumption that everything happens for a reason, and that ultimately there is meaning to be drawn from the actions of the characters. This meaning is usually derived from the conclusion of the story; when the character is either heroic, redeemed, destroyed, or banished by their actions. This is the reason the Bible and other religious texts are full of stories. Stories imply there is a higher power that will judge you and determine your fate – the storyteller is God. It makes us judge real life in the same way – a series of actions and consequences that must therefore have some meaning because then it becomes a story.
“A Serious Man” features a character that questions his belief in God, but the question is never answered because none of the multiple storylines in “A Serious Man” have a resolve. From the opening scene to the act-of-God conclusion, everything is left hanging in a way that evades didactic finality. The movie refuses to give meaning to Larry Gopnik’s life and expresses doubt and uncertainty in the most profound way.
Of course, constructing a story that refuses to give conclusion has its own meaning – that the real truth or meaning is unknowable, and unknowable is also God-affirming, because God is unknowable. Many might argue the final shot is conclusive, because it brings God into the story. Without a solid conclusion, I remain in doubt.
It’s unlikely that any form of storytelling can be entirely secular. The whole purpose of telling a story is to give order to the world, and any imposed order implies a higher power. Some might say that man gives order to the world, but you could counter that man merely discovers the order in the world.
It’s ironic then that “A Serious Man” is based on the story of Job from the Bible, but it’s Job without the meaningful conclusion. It’s Job without God’s hand, a test of faith that Larry Gopnik will never know if he passes or fails, because that knowledge is only gained in stories, not real life.
At the very least, “A Serious Man” shows the Coen brothers masterful grasp of how stories work and how simply bending the rules of storytelling can make a profound statement. Is there a God? Will Larry Gopnik ever get his life in order? Does he die at the end? The movie doesn’t provide answers, only questions.
If you look at other Coen brothers films, you’ll find their reluctance to neatly conclude a story is one of their greatest weaknesses. Most of their films fumble in the final act – most arguably in “No Country for Old Men” and most obviously in “Burn After Reading.” It’s almost as if they’re avoiding giving their films too much meaning, lest they be mistaken for gods, but this is betrayed by their other noted weakness, a tendency to look down on their characters from a superior, God-like position. Like it or not, the storyteller is God.
And this follow-up from Bryan:
Immediately after writing the above, I found this on IMDB:
In his argument with the Columbia House records employee over the phone, Larry Gopnik repeatedly rejects the album Abraxas by Santana. Abraxas is a Gnostic term for God, particularly a God who encompasses all things from Creator of the Universe to the Devil, and an etymological root for “abracadabra”. It is thus implied that Larry Gopnik is vehemently rejecting God and magic.
Doubt is a common theme in movies. Think of Red in The Shawshank Redemption doubting if he can survive outside prison. One man’s doubt in a court case is the entire basis of Twelve Angry Men. Bruce Wayne doubting whether he should continue as Batman or not in The Dark Knight.
Why is doubt such a powerful narrative dynamic?
First, it shows characters in conflict, subject to warring aspects of their psyche, then often translating into conflict with other characters. And as we hear all the time, a story can not have drama without conflict.
Second, doubt is universal, an experience you and I have had countless times in our lives, so we will naturally, even if unconsciously identify with movie characters who go through such experiences.
But the most powerful use of this narrative element is the existential, raising a question if life is worth living:
Thanks, Bryan, for your analysis of A Serious Man. I invite everyone to join in on a discussion of doubt as a theme or any of the other theological themes we’ve discussed this week: Sin, Conversion, Predestination, Salvation.
I have many more posts I could do on the theology of screenwriting. Would you like to see more? Let me know if you are finding this series helpful and engaging, and I’ll be happy to continue it.