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Curiosity and the Cat: Quantum Theory and the Coen Brothers

By Seb Sutcliffe.

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We’re used to a world in which seeing is believing, which we test through the evidence of our own eyes. It’s why expressions like these exist in the first place. Whether we’re scientists, artists or just looking at the view, what we see is a Newtonian world. Apples drop from trees, capsules hurtle into space and Van Gogh’s sunflowers can’t be anything else, no matter how hard we screw up our eyes in an effort to see something different. Anything outside of our Newtonian comfort zone seems immediately counter-intuitive, unreal, and often disturbing. But we’re in a comfort-zone nonetheless, because what we might like to think of as ‘real’ is bigger. We know that now. At the level of ultimate detail, the one on which everything else is built, the rules of engagement are different. Welcome to the quantum level. And welcome, too, to the Coen Brothers, those frustrating indie auteurs whose films seem most at ease when they occupy a space which seems both recognisable and alien in turn. Now we see it… or do we?

The quantum level is a different arena altogether from our old-school, Newtonian comfort zone. It’s a world where you might find particles existing in various places at once, influencing other particles potentially light-years away. And one of the most astonishing ideas in this quantum world is that of ‘superpositioning’, the curious theory that, at the subatomic level, a particle exists along a continuum of probabilities, or in multiple states, until it is recorded, at which point its identity becomes fixed. The phenomenon was first observed in the electron ‘double-slit’ experiment, which revealed ‘interference peaks’ caused by a surprise electron ‘wave’ (an electron was supposed to be a particle), and raised a conundrum: the impossibility of knowing both a particle’s position and its momentum at the same time. Werner Heisenberg, who recently received an homage as Walter White’s notorious alter ego in Breaking Bad, is famous for concluding, from this experiment, that the unknown property could only be described by probabilities. This is what is referred to as the ‘uncertainty principle’. And it is alluded to several times in the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man (2009): ‘The uncertainty principle’, yelps Larry to his college physics class, ‘proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on’. As he then explains, ‘The only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty’. And in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – a title with quantum echoes of its own – chain-smoking barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) blackmails his wife’s lover to invest in what turns out to be a fraudulent dry-cleaning business, which he describes as ‘the wave of the future’. If taken to be a film about how false predictions have dire consequences, this would frame a ‘wave of the future’ as a subtle quantum joke, ‘future’ hinting at the unpredictability of matter in a quantum age and also how quantum ideas are becoming an emerging new fashion.

Let’s take things forward a few paces. One of the first breakthroughs of quantum mechanics confounded what scientists thought they knew about the known world. It also confounded one of the basic principles of scientific method. The ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics, devised by Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, states that all ‘reality’ only becomes real when we measure it; everything preceding observation is mere probability. But observation at quantum level brings with it the ‘observer’s effect’, where the electrons sneakily revert from acting like waves to behaving like particles again. It’s the grandmother’s footsteps of physics. So, in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), in attempting to create a false alibi for Doris Crane (Frances McDormand), is defending his methods with a quantum argument when he asserts:

You can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would have happened if you hadn’t stuck in your goddamn schnoz… Looking at something changes it… Science, perception, reality, doubt, reasonable doubt… I’m saying that sometimes the more you look, the less you really know.

And Riedenschneider, when faced with quantum dilemmas, draws a similar lesson to Larry Gopnik: ‘In a way, it’s the only fact there is’. During his speech, Riedenschneider walks between bands of light projected through the bars of Doris’ cell. When the shot cuts back, these bands powerfully evoke the pattern of electron streaks recorded on the measuring device during the double-slit experiment.

With the bars functioning both symbolically as a quantum motif and, of course, as the cell bars they are, the image itself is in a kind of superposition between a literal and a quantum interpretation. Only when the viewer is forced to make a reading, or observation, does this superposition collapse. In this way, the Coens’ quantum games are a sort of playful commentary on the act of viewing itself and, indeed, on the very frustrations brought about by their highly ambiguous craft, where nothing means anything for sure.

Riedenschneider is calling into question the reliability of a universe in which observation impacts reality. Such a universe fails to provide a suitable basis for knowledge of some objective, collectively validated ‘truth’. And the Coens intuitively appear to share the same rejection, presenting us with a seemingly recognisable, frequently everyday, world which, the more we look at it, the further it takes us from any assumptions we collectively share about its ‘reality’.

Let me give you an example. The alternation between ‘real’ and unreal worlds is explored in their most recent film. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is the almost-story of a folk singer living in a not-quite-yet-hip-enough part of Greenwich Village in the years before Bob Dylan. In it, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) visits an established folk club in Chicago, looking for a career break. The club is The Gate of Horn, a real folk venue from the 1960s which takes its name from The Odyssey where the gate is a space in which achievable dreams are called to be verified (its opposite being the Gate of Ivory). In the car on the way back from The Gate of Horn, Llewyn passes a sign for ‘Akron’, the town where his ex-lover and son now live. The sign seems to prompt an imagining in Llewyn of an alternate reality where he’s living with his family. This opening up of alternate realities is an important reading in a quantum discussion because the principal scientific explanation of Erwin Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment (with the cat: see below) is the many-worlds interpretation, where everything is in a superposition and all possible realities occur simultaneously. Not only do the Coens reference Schrodinger’s experiment a lot in their films, in this sequence they even quote the analogy that scientists use to explain the many-worlds interpretation: Llewyn is flipping between radio stations as he drives past the sign. And they use another reference from classical Greece to hammer home the quantum significance: Akron, Ohio derives its name from ἄκρον, a summit in ancient Greek – a literal superposition.

Ok, so if quantum reality is a set of multiple worlds that exist simultaneously, and we as observers only ever get to see one of these at any time, how do we ever figure out whether what we’re seeing is ‘true’? To which the answer is of course that ‘truth’ becomes irrelevant under these circumstances. A flip-side of the alternate realities theory then is the capability, inherent within it, for making stuff up on the grounds that there can’t be one, stable ‘what happened’. Indeed, Riedenschneider argues that a lack of evidence allows for such lies and myth-making. The Coens, in turn, mythologise their own work; by obfuscating the facts surrounding their films, they challenge what philosopher and literary critic Christopher Norris describes in Quantum Theory and the Flight from Realism as the tendency, prevalent in historical discourses, ‘to say that “this or that event either did or did not occur,” irrespective of whether we know (or have means of finding out) the particular facts in question’. Norris suggests that such a historical tendency is inclined to overlook the anti-realism brought to the fore by a quantum mechanics where ‘reality’ never deals with the singular.

My favourite example of mythologising by the Coens might be their short Yiddish parable introducing A Serious Man. The Coens insist that this parable – a form which demands a superposition between a literal and a didactic meaning – ‘doesn’t really have any direct relationship to the rest of the movie or the story that follows’, but their location manager on the film, Tyson Bidner, has conjectured that, in fact, ‘it creates an interesting set of resonances with the rest of the story’. So what is the parable? A couple host a visit from a man who helped fix her husband’s cart. He’s been invited for a bowl of soup in return for his good deed. Then the wife hears the man’s name, Traitle Groshkover, which she recognises as that of a locally suspected dybbuk. And when Groshkover gently refuses to eat, the wife believes her suspicions are confirmed. Groshkover is confronted: ‘Your corpse was left unattended for many minutes when Pesel’s father broke shiva – it must have been then that the Evil One – took you.’ Groshkover laughs heartily at this. ‘Honestly! What a wife you have!’ But the wife persists: ‘They were preparing the body. Pesel’s father shaved one cheek …’ she passes her hand across his smooth right cheek ‘Then he left the room. He came back …’ she drags her hand across the other cheek; a bristly sound ‘… You were already gone!’ Groshkover laughs again. He explains that he must have missed a bit when he was shaving that morning, that there was that time he was staying with Pesel when he was sick with typhus, ‘But I recovered, as you can plainly see, and now I …’ But at this point the wife plants an ice pick in his chest. ‘What do you say now about spirits?’ she says to her husband. ‘He is unharmed!’. ‘On the contrary! I don’t feel at all well.’ protests Groshkover, who seems to have started to bleed. ‘Perhaps I will have some soup … Or perhaps I should go’. And with this he staggers off into the night and the audience is never given the opportunity to make the crucial observation. What’s fascinating about this example when looked at in detail is that it clearly flips successively from looking at Groshkover as dybbuk to Groshkover as mortal while keeping both states in superposition. The ‘resonances’ evoked by this opening seem ultimately to be about the ‘Schrodinger’s cat’ experiment which Larry teaches his students. In Schrodinger’s well-known thought experiment, which takes place inside a box, radioactive atoms have a fifty per cent chance of decaying. If this happens, it will set off a Geiger counter, which will release poison, which will kill the cat. The radioactive subatomic particles are in a superposition, as is the cat. Theoretically the cat is both dead and alive (although never in principle). Its superposition remains possible until the point of observation into the box, when it collapses because, of course, it’s not allowed to be observed.

Early in A Serious Man, Larry, talking about this paradox with his class, raises the question, ‘is the cat dead or not dead?’, to which there’s no answer. A Serious Man is the only one of the Coens’ films in which a quantum theme -­ Schrodinger’s cat – is referred to explicitly in the script. But many critics have found its use characteristically unclear: the relevance of Schrodinger’s experiment to A Serious Man has puzzled them into pure speculation. Peter Bradshaw wonders whether Larry is himself ‘Schrodinger’s cat, both alive and dead’. Perhaps. The first shot we have of our modern-day Job, after all, is in a doctor’s office, undergoing a check-up, mortality hanging in the balance as he has his ears inspected. Larry’s predicament at the end of the film is pretty uncertain too: he’s called by the doctor’s secretary with news of the test results, but they’re never disclosed to the viewer. He might also be about to die, along with his entire family, in an approaching storm, but the film ends before the tornado arrives. The only way we could know his eventual state, as with Groshkover, is for the film to continue. Until then, the observer has to decide whether Larry is alive or dead. And the final shot of A Serious Man, where the storm approaches the parking lot where Danny (Aaron Wolff), Larry’s son, stands with his classmates, is perhaps the most extreme superposition in the film.

Over it, we hear the chorus from Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’ (1967) playing through Danny’s cassette headphones. Its howling lyrics include, ‘When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies’. So the film closes with a binary between life and death in vision mirrored by a binary between truth and lies in the soundtrack, both of them in superposition.

It doesn’t end there. There are other Schrodinger cats in the film. Larry’s brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), is shot by his neo-Nazi neighbours in a dream that Larry has, only for Larry to wake up and find him still alive. There’s the dead buck on the neighbour’s car, which in the script is reported as ‘staring off through sightless eyes’, an image reminiscent of the buck that’s shot but not killed by Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in the opening sequence of No Country for Old Men (2007). Then there’s the brain suspended in a fish tank, watched by the children on TV, that ‘pulses, alive’, and the ‘mourner’s kaddish’ at Sy’s funeral, which, as Rabbi Nachtner explains, ‘does not mention the dead. It praises Hashem; it praises what abides’. Incidentally, in a suggestive clue to the Coens’ fascination with a quantum world in which ‘reality’ can be approached through a mathematical representation while still remaining a fundamentally unpredictable beast, Arthur is seen spending most of his free-time writing ‘The Mentaculus’, ‘a probability map of the universe’.

Dead/alive superpositions aren’t the only ones to be encountered in A Serious Man. The father of one of Larry’s students has bribed Larry to increase his son’s grade after he failed a mid-term exam, appropriately on the Schrodinger experiment, defending him with, ‘either he took the money or he didn’t. Please accept the mystery’. An instance of Schrodinger’s paradox applied to an incident involving it is a neat and typically ‘Coenesque’ twist here. In fact, the film is filled with quantum ‘mysteries’. Is Arthur’s ‘Mentaculus’ a sign of mathematical genius or mental instability? Does Larry’s neighbour want to seduce him or is this just his wishful thinking? And the biggest of these mysteries is God. The film is set in a suburban Jewish community in the 1960s, a time when there was a theological trend, influenced by Nietzsche’s aphorism, to question whether ‘God is dead’. In 1966, the year Jefferson Airplane wrote ‘Somebody to Love’, Time magazine ran an issue on the ‘The Death of God’ movement in America. God, and Larry’s Jewish faith, act as both the antithesis and the embodiment of the quantum uncertainties he teaches at his university. And God, like Groshkover with an ice pick through his chest, is in a quantum superposition – all and yet nothing, mere potential – Larry having ‘lost track’ of Hashem, ‘what abides’.

As soon as strongly suggestive examples such as these open up the Coen Brothers’ films to this type of interpretation, we can begin to see quantum themes running through much of their work, and right from the start, the neo-noir Blood Simple (1984). In this, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), bar owner and local whacko, hires a private detective to spy on his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand). And when the detective discovers Abby’s adultery, Marty asks the investigator to murder her for a fee. But the investigator fabricates the murders, takes the money and shoots Marty instead. And it’s Abby’s lover, Ray (John Getz), who arrives at Marty’s office to find him dead. Assuming that Abby must have been the perpetrator, he takes Marty’s body out to his car and attempts to dispose of it in a remote field. But Marty is still alive. In a panic, Ray continues to bury him. This suspension of status, a quantum superposition of life and death, has been predicted in an earlier scene in which Marty tells a barman that he’s going to spend longer, ‘right here in Hell’.

The investigator, returning to Marty’s office, discovers that Marty’s body has been moved and sees he must now kill Ray and Abby to protect himself. Ray returns from Marty’s burial, obsessed by the idea that Marty wants to come back from the dead and take revenge. Ray and Abby don’t know anything about an investigator, assuming, in the film’s closing scenes, that the figure firing shots into their apartment is Marty, having risen from the grave. Finally, the investigator, who’s now broken into the apartment, is shot through the locked bathroom door by Abby, who thinks she’s killing Marty. Other than the bathroom, the apartment is in darkness. Through the single bullet-hole made by Abby comes a beam of light – offering observation, at last, in the closing moments of the film, into this Schrodinger box with the superposition that up until to this point has sustained the characters simultaneously in their different worlds about to collapse.

Quantum theory stresses probability and the importance of observation on fixing outcomes that would otherwise remain as potential. Throughout Blood Simple, Abby never observes the investigator, so she’s left unaware of his potential identity. Superposition also represents jeopardy, as comically touched on in a scene where daybreak ends Ray’s attempts to dispose of Marty’s body, exposing a farmhouse, not previously visible, only about fifty metres from where Ray has dug his grave.

In Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn arrives with a moggie at his lover’s apartment, provoking an inquisition that besets the whole film: ‘Explain the cat’. Indeed, it’s a critical challenge. And it’s a very difficult one to respond to, because the cat is perpetually in superposition. Is this Schrodinger’s cat? Nominally in the film it’s the Gorfeins’, tellingly called Ulysses, entrusted to Llewyn for safekeeping. But as the film progresses, Ulysses is lost and found (repeatedly), abandoned, run over, returned to the Gorfeins, rejected by Mrs Gorfein as an imposter, then apparently turns up on its own. We’re faced with the classic observer’s paradox, that although ‘Ulysses’ must have multiple versions and lives, including all the proverbial ones, whenever we look we only ever see one. And there’s an extraordinary superposition of the cat towards the end of the film. Llewyn is sharing a lift to get to The Gate of Horn and taking the cat with him. En route, his driver is arrested and Llewyn forced to hitchhike the rest of the way. So he’s got to leave the cat he’s travelled with at the roadside in the abandoned car. When he returns from The Gate of Horn, hitching another lift, he sees a cat dash out in front of him and stops to assess the damage. The cat stumbles into a patch of trees, leaving you uncertain about its status, just as we’re uncertain about the Groshkover at the beginning of A Serious Man and Larry at the end: is the cat dead or alive? Llewyn returns home to discover that Ulysses has found its way back. As David Edelstein writes in New York Magazine, ‘there’s a cat that Llewyn keeps losing and finding – the running gag has a two-pronged punchline, one tragic, the other absurdly triumphant’ – apparently incompatible outcomes co-existing, as in the Schrodinger experiment. And, as with A Serious Man, there are other, intriguing superpositions in Inside Llewyn Davis. Jean (Carey Mulligan) does not know the paternity of the child she’s pregnant with. Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend meanwhile has given birth to Llewyn’s child without telling him, Llewyn believing his son’s life was terminated when he is, in fact, still alive. And in a subway car scene, the cat, inside Llewyn’s jacket, stares at its non-living reflection in the window.

And this recalls similar instances elsewhere. In No Country for Old Men, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), and later Sherriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), also stare at their reflections, in these cases in television screens, their living/non-living images mirroring.

Quantum uncertainty takes a different direction in No Country For Old Men. At a gas station, the old proprietor (Gene Jones) cowers behind his desk as Chigurh tosses a coin and asks him to ‘call it’. The proprietor has no idea what he’s calling for, and neither do we, the viewers. But Chigurh stresses its gravity, so we know it’s got to be serious. The proprietor seems to risk losing everything if he calls it wrong. But the call is correct and Chigurh politely leaves. Yet despite its amicable closure, what makes the scene compelling is the underlying potential for harm. Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) is offered a similar coin toss in a closing sequence. She’s not as fortunate. But is fortune really at issue in these sequences? The spinning coin acts like a quantum wave of probability. The coin is in a superposition, only collapsing to become a singular, known quantity when the hand is taken away and it’s called, or observed. Chigurh may have killed the proprietor with no other motive than the fifty/fifty chance of the coin landing in his favour, in the same way that a cat may be killed by the fifty percent chance of radioactive material decaying in the thought experiment. Later, in No Country for Old Men, another coin is found, lying on the floor of a motel where sheriff Bell is searching for stolen money in an air vent. Bell is unaware of Chigurh, lurking around the corner, able to kill him at any moment. He’s spared without knowing it. In the next shot, Bell arrives at his brother’s house, which only half-surprisingly is filled with cats. And in the midst is Chigurh, his anti-morality an extreme example of quantum randomness. As he tells Carla Jean, ‘I have only one way to live. It does not allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps’.

If you’re a quantum watcher like me, you might have noticed how many times cars seem to play an integral part in the quantum world lurking beneath the surface of the Coen Brothers’ films. For instance, Larry and Arthur are driving on a sunlit highway in Larry’s dream in A Serious Man, their road-trip freedom and friendship the antithesis of how the dream pictures Arthur’s death. And in Blood Simple, Marty – who is to later become both dead and alive – finds his car stops and starts as he drives away from Ray’s house. In turn, Ray’s car fails to start after he’s discarded Marty’s body in the field. Intriguingly, the two Coens films that refer most directly to the ‘uncertainty principle’ – The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man – both contain fatal car crashes. In A Serious Man, the simultaneous, unrelated car accidents of Sy and Larry are particularly quantum, suggesting an entanglement, a phenomenon that occurs when two sub-atomic particles are linked by an unknown force. When this happens, the direction of one particle’s spin influences the other’s spin in a set way: Sy is killed in his accident when Larry survives. Incidentally, the conventional symbol used by physicists to denote a quantum state is the Greek letter ‘Psi’.

Quantum physicists use entanglement to disprove the existence of the God which Larry spends most of A Serious Man searching for. Einstein, on the other hand, perhaps just to be difficult, believed the results of entanglement were actually rigged by God. He alleged that any outcomes would be pre-determined – particles don’t behave randomly – and on this basis might have said that Larry was destined to survive and Sy to die, assuming they are entangled, and despite the randomness of appearances. In No Country For Old Men, Chigurh explains the coin toss he uses which, in spite of appearances, isn’t to him a form of total randomness. As he explains to Carla Jean, just before he spins the coin that reveals her fate, ‘The shape of your path was visible from the beginning’ – a quantum phenomenon seen from an Einsteinian perspective, the results rigged by a transcendental power. Christopher Norris again:

In Einstein’s view there was simply no room in science for a theory – such as Bohr’s -that involved either the suspension of classical truth/falsehood values or the idea of some “spooky action-at-a-distance” which contravenes… common sense realism.

To complicate things, Bohr would have disagreed with Einstein about the aliveness or otherwise of Sy and Larry after their respective car accidents, claiming that neither state exists until one is observed, at which point secret messages are passed between the two entangled particles to determine the other’s state. What’s important about Bohr’s interpretation is that it leaves no room for a dealer, creator or intermediary, so for Bohr, God can’t exist. But A Serious Man never tells us whether Larry and Sy’s accidents are, indeed, linked. It holds the question itself in superposition, leaving God both dead and alive.

Where does all this uncertainty leave the Coens’ characters? Do they have any free will? Are they in any way autonomous? When Sheriff Cooley (Daniel Von Bargen) gives his opinion, in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), that ‘The law. Well the law is a human institution’, he’s backing a standpoint in which all such institutions are mere social convention. It seems that autonomy is what you make it. But, as soon as Cooley has uttered the words, an enormous flood spares his captives from execution. This is taken as a mark of apparent and unexpected divine intervention. Then Everett (George Clooney) offers an entirely different view: ‘There is a perfectly scientific explanation for what just happened… the fact is they’re flooding this valley so they can hydroelectric up the whole darn state’. This sort of sudden transfer from an anti-theological constructivism to a God-friendly absolutism (and then back again) is a common trend in their films and the cause of a lot of conflict and ambiguity.

In his essay ‘The Coens’ Tragic Western’, Richard Gilmore sees similar apparently irreconcilable behaviours in No Country For Old Men:

Each of these characters is expressing a twofold understanding about the world… there is an inevitability, a sense that the world goes on in its way and that it does not have much to do with our human desires and concerns. On the other hand there is a sense that we contribute to our own inevitable futures with every decision we make.

In Chigurh then, and his unlikely Einsteinian worldview, that twofold understanding coalesces. Carla Jean, on the other hand, believes in a system opposed to Chigurh’s underlying determinism. As she tells him, ‘The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you’. And to an extent, in a quantum world, her seemingly unreasonable optimism may hold true. As philosopher of physics Carl Hoefer has written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Many physicists in the past sixty years or so have been convinced of determinism’s falsity’. The presence of the observer doesn’t so much fix what is seen in a superposition, it actually alters the superposition: ‘seeing something changes it’ as Riedenschneider says. It may be then, in a quantum world, that the presence of Chigurh as observer does change the nature of the coin toss. If so, the coin-toss scene with Carla Jean is not a general dispute over determinism, but an even more specialized argument over various interpretations of quantum mechanics itself – the Bohr-Einstein debates round two.

But one paradox remains. We simply have no way of knowing the multiple states or the many worlds that superposition has within it, and this has implications for the world we think we inhabit and the life we think we experience. Whether we have the ability to influence our reality or whether there’s a greater power at work, within this ultimate superposition, even destiny is contained, and our interpretations simply indicate that we can never really be sure even of what it is that we’re looking at or unsure about. As Ed Crane puts it bluntly, ‘Life has dealt me some bum cards. Or maybe I just haven’t played them right. I don’t know’. It’s to this sort of place that the Coen Brothers take us. And then they leave us there.

Seb Sutcliffe is a writer and performer. A former member of the Cambridge Footlights, he is now the shortest member of sketch trio Babylon Disco. He is currently working on a play. Contact him here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 7th, 2015.