In 2009, the Cohen brothers released a film that went somewhat under the radar within the cinematographic world.
A modern retelling of the biblical story of Job, A Serious Man follows the vertiginous collapse of Larry Gopnik through a life in which, if anything can go wrong, it will.
At the heart of the narrative is the question: how do you make sense of a world that seems, to all intents and purpose, meaningless.
Twice during the course of the film, Larry speaks to rabbis in a bid to have this question answered but both times the answers are unsatisfactory: the first tells him that his problems are the result of religious neglect and that he needs to find a new perspective on life, the second suggests that “These questions that are bothering you, Larry – maybe they’re like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away…”
There is, though, a final rabbi – the rabbi Marshak – who Larry tries to meet throughout the film. In the end, it is his son Danny, freshly bar mitzvahed, who gets an audience with Marshak.
Returning a Walkman banned earlier in the film, Marshak finally offers an “answer” to the question that has been troubling Larry.
“When the truth is found… to be lies (He pauses, clearing his throat.) And all the hope… within you dies… (Another beat. Danny waits. Marshak stares. He smacks his lips.)… Then what?”
The search for meaning
The message of A Serious Man, then, although it may seem entirely unsatisfying, tells us something intrinsic about our need to find meaning in the world.
Humans are fundamentally meaning-making creatures: we are on the lookout for meaning throughout our lives.
In some cases, that search passes beneath the radar but, at times when there is more at stake, the issues are given heightened status.
The most interesting cases, though, are the scenarios in which those systems of meanings which underpin our respective journeys’ through life are torn from underneath our feet.
In the words of Rabbi Marshak: “Then what?” There is no explanation offered. There is simply a question.
What is the meaning of football?
As far as meaning-making mechanisms go, football is one of the most compelling in the modern world.
Of course, it stands to reasons that, although some people make football into a matter of life or death (or, after Shankly, ‘much more serious than that’), the reality is that the meaning that football offers us functions in a far more subtle way.
For some of us, it presents us a calendar that allows us – quasi-liturgically – a form of cyclicality around which we can arrange our lives: the season starts in August, we have a buildup of fixtures at Christmas, the League Cup final happens in February, the FA Cup final and the Champions League final happen in May along with the end of the season, if we’re lucky we get a World Cup in the summer…
This meaning is not simply self-imposed, though. Some of it is fed to us by various outside parties: the media, the sponsors, the clubs themselves.
And one of these implicit ideas regards the Champions League and that is this: the Champions League, we are told, is the pinnacle of domestic competition.
“When the truth is found to be lies”
On the evidence of the competition this season, it would be difficult to argue against this notion.
Liverpool have popped and crackled their way through the tournament, Roma knocked out Barcelona against the odds, Juventus nearly knocked out Real Madrid against the odds, both Cristiano Ronaldo’s and Gareth Bale’s overhead kicks will go down in history.
But the final itself was hardly the spectacular we were offered.
As Jonathan Liew pointed out, the moments preceding the game functioned as some sort of generative “void” – a space of possibility in which the meaning that we ascribe to football matches bubbles over.
“There’s a strange, elusive magic to football stadiums in the hours before a big game,” Liew writes. “You can’t touch or taste or smell or hear the eruption, but somehow you can sense it.”
“You couldn’t yet picture Mo Salah crying with anguish on the turf, Gareth Bale flying through the night sky like a comet, Lorus Karius grasping at the ball like a man trying to catch snow. But you could feel its heft in the void that preceded it. There’s a potential there, an implication, a tautness and an emptiness.”
The loss of intrigue
All of this potential, though, was lost when Mohamed Salah, limbs entangled with Sergio Ramos, crumpled to the floor and emerged moments later shoulder sprained and tears already forming.
From then on, however you look at it, the game was a procession: a goalkeeping error saw Loris Karius gift a goal to Karim Benzema, Liverpool scored moments later from a ball pinballing around the box, Gareth Bale scored a goal that had even Zinedine Zidane amazed, and then – *that* goal from Bale in which the decline and fall of Karius was complete.
Was it entertaining? Perhaps. But was it entertaining for the right reasons? Probably not.
In fact, it feels as though any real entertainment for the fixture was generated by the momentousness of the occasion.
Had it been an unimportant game, the only posterity the game might have had would be in the inauspicious annals of the “Top Ten Goalkeeping Blunders of All Time” reel on YouTube.
But we are, as humans, uniquely suited for the creation of meaning.
In the aftermath of the game, there will be two different responses, no doubt.
The Liverpool fans will come away praising the character of their team, the satisfaction of their Champions League campaign, what this tells us about the club and their history. And they are right to do so.
The stories that we tell ourselves about our lives are fundamental to the sort of sense we make of them.
From the opposite perspective, stories will be told about Real Madrid. For some, the result is indicative of Zidane’s now-to-be-undisputed greatness as a manager.
For others, the result will offer a platform upon which to build a critique which highlights the luck which has typified Los Blancos’ campaign in the Champions League.
But perhaps the time has come to reject the implicit meaning ascribed to this “pinnacle of football”: to recognise that much of the motivation to have it so is driven by corporate greed and the various iterations of soft power?
Football is meaningful to us. It will never not be. But that meaning is ours. And it never needs to be dictated to us by the stooges of global capital.
When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies… then what?
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