Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #83

The actor:Adam Arkin
The character:Don Milgram
The film:A Serious Man
The quote:“What, did he tell you about the goy’s teeth.”

I wish there were still key changes in pop music. This article provides a pretty good overview about how and why they’ve been phased out of popular music, and I understand that no trend lasts forever. But…man, a good key change just totally honks. I’ll grant that most of the most popular ones are corny, even compared to the corny songs they inhabit: “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” and I am an absolute mark for that one in “Take My Breath Away.” They still work on me. Invariably they stretch the vocal cords of the singer, pushing them to the limits of their range. (I mean, not “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Whitney was different.) I like hearing people pushed to those limits; particularly in tenors there’s this little space so near to where voices start to crack or collapse into falsettos that sounds terrific. Yet as the pop ballad has faded, so too has the key change on the last chorus.

Truly lengthy comic monologues in movies have never been as popular as bouncy ballads and torch songs were in the ’80s, which makes sense given the whole “brevity is the soul of wit” jawn. There are a few exceptions to this rule, and one of the best of those exceptions is in A Serious Man, where Rabbi Nachtner, the Dave Grohl of rabbis at Larry Gopnik’s temple—he’s already seen the Krist Novoselic in Rabbit Scott, and Rabbi Marshak is as impossibly distant as Kurt Cobain—tells the story of the Goy’s Teeth. I love it. It’s like if a mad scientist took a shaggy dog story and stitched it to a parable and then took like, an arm off a sales pitch and attached that to the stomach of his monstrosity. It’s mysterious and unpredictable and ultimately so dissatisfying that Larry loses his cool. “We can’t know everything,” Rabbi Nachtner says. “It sounds like you don’t know anything!” Larry cries. The story is, in some ways, completely pointless. Sussman the dentist finds these words written in Hebrew in the goy’s teeth (“Help me”), makes himself crazy trying to figure out what they mean, and can’t really get an answer out of the teeth, the Kabbalah, or of course Rabbi Nachtner. Eventually Sussman reaches equilibrium again. And in other ways it feels quite wise. We can’t know everything; why obsess yourself with asking questions which cannot be answered?

Larry Gopnik, the poor lamb, is sweating by the time this interview with Rabbi Nachtner is over.

The funeral of Sy Ableman occurs. Larry goes to his lawyer, Don. He is even more stressed and frazzled now than he was when he saw Nachtner. “Was he helpful at all?” Don asks. Larry makes a sign that he was not. And then…it is among the most exquisite, beautifully timed key changes I’ve ever come across. Don’s face is stony, his voice ironic.

“What, did he tell you about the goy’s teeth.”

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