Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Collection Project: When it All Makes Sense

I was feeling rather lumpish last night, both physically and mentally, when suddenly, very late at night, I found myself thinking about the Coen brothers. This, in itself, is not noteworthy. If you and I were to play the "What are You Thinking?" game (that's a game, right?), and you guessed I was thinking about the Coen brothers, you'd probably be right, and sometimes I feel like this blog is just one or two posts away from turning into a full-blown Coens fansite. We're not there yet, but look, right now you're reading one of those very posts.
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The specific Coens film I found myself contemplating was Burn After Reading, from 2008. Not enormously well-loved by critics or audiences at the time, which is something the film has in common with The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading has subsequently failed to develop any kind of strong cult following, which is something the film does not have in common with The Big Lebowski. This strange little black comedy seems to have mildly befuddled or slightly disappointed just about everybody, a reaction heightened, no doubt, by the fact that it followed their top-to-bottom triumph of No Country for Old Men. Personally, I view Burn After Reading as every bit a part of their creative renaissance (for lack of a less stupid phrase, and in comparison to Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, two not-bad films that nevertheless cast die-hards like myself into a state of gloomy concern) as that previous film and their eventual follow-up, A Serious Man. In the same way that Fargo's break-out success slightly confused me -- it's a great movie, but what was it about that one that critics and audiences felt was missing from their earlier work? -- the indifferent backing away that greeted Burn After Reading's release continues to leave me puzzled. Do people still really not know what to expect from the Coen brothers? Or I suppose most people could simply not find the film's collection of selfish, deluded, even stupid, characters, mixed with a few bursts of shocking violence, not all that funny, but, again, if you're a fan going in, what's leaving you cold?
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I'm not really asking those questions, by the way (though feel free to answer!); I'm merely registering my befuddlement. And besides, it's quite possible I know the answer, which is that Burn After Reading is one of the most sublimely (to me) pointless film I've ever seen. None of the major characters -- the disgraced CIA analyst (John Malkovich); the pair of moronic gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt); their lonely, love-stricken boss (Richard Jenkins); the cocky, unfaithful, practically meat-headed US Marshal (George Clooney) -- have any clue, at any time, what they're doing, or what anyone else is doing, or why any of this is happening -- and it's well worth mentioning that the core reason any of this is happening is that Malkovich decided to angrily quit his job and write his entirely worthless memoirs. Each character gets lost in his or her own motives and wants (as opposed to needs), each has decided, incorrectly, that he or she is smart, and all but one of them loses out in the end, to the point that three of them die violently. For no good goddamn reason at all.
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In that way, Burn After Reading is of a piece with earlier Coens films like their intentionally less funny (but still sometimes intentionally funny) debut, Blood Simple, whose plot is also dependent on all the main players being utterly clueless about what's going on. In that film, cluelessness also leads to some pretty nasty violence, but not only is Blood Simple less funny, it also, like pretty much all dark crime films, comes pre-burdened (which I don't mean as a knock) with a cosmic message -- something along the lines of "Look what behaving in this way and/or associating with these people gets you." Plus, fate. Similarly, The Big Lebowski is as absurd and meaningless in its plotting as Burn After Reading, but Lebowski has a great deal of heart, which the later film is almost completely lacking. I say "almost", because I don't see how one can be fully immune to the disappointment, sadness, and touching guile of, respectively, the Malkovich (I'm thinking of his early scenes, mainly), Jenkins and Pitt characters, but the fates of those three are not only similar in their completeness, let's say, but in the way the Coens practically gloss over them. The result being that one doesn't walk away from Burn After Reading mourning those lost, so much as thinking "That was pretty messed up."
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Of all the complaints against a film, or any work of art, that particularly grate on me, the one I hear most often is "It had no point." The idea that a film, or a story, needs to have a specific "point" for it to be deemed good, or in any way worthwhile, is about as short-sighted as you can get, and this perhaps accounts for the mass indifference that greeted Burn After Reading, because, as I say, it is entirely pointless. It's a film whose story initially flows out of the offices of the CIA, but it's not a political film. It contains criminal acts, including murder, but has no message, no insight into criminal behavior or psychology, or clear satirical point of view. It's just a bunch of shit that happens, because a bunch of people weren't paying attention. And I think the ultimate summarization of Burn After Reading's towering absurdism is this quote from Joel Coen, describing the film:
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It's sort of about the Central Intelligence Agency, and physical fitness, and what happens when those two worlds collide.
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16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I read it. :) - Denise

bill r. said...

At least somebody did!

Dan Jardine said...

I read it too. Nice job. Damn fine defence of a bloody good and funny film.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Dan. Yes, it is damn funny, so funny at times that I had tears running down my face the first time I saw it. I was like Clooney and McDormand when they went to see COMING UP, DAISY.

shane013a said...

As artists who give some great eye-candy I can only hope the the Coen brothers eventually team up with a David Mamet styled writer to flesh out their other wise comic book fare. they are not given to making memorable movies unless they are dedicated to an actor,as in the case of Frances McDormand,because they just don't have what it takes to write from the heart. I find it harder from film to film to remember the plots, devises and actors because it seems they are running out of anything other than visual devises and plots which will always entertain for the moment but which will prove to have little if any staying power.

somecamerunning said...

Good stuff, Bill. Any appreciation of the Coens overall has to begin with a liking for what used to be called the "Shaggy Dog" story. I've really got no idea why some people demand "meaning" or its simulacrum from every goddamn piece of art they come across. They need to read more Mr. Natural episodes, or something...

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Some day, I'm going to write that passionate defense of The Ladykillers that I promised Keith Ulrich years ago. I honestly think it's the Coen's Bergman film, a genuinely deep and sincere look at how to preserve goodness in the face of God's silence. No, really, I really do think that!

Sean said...

Each character gets lost in his or her own motives and wants (as opposed to needs), each has decided, incorrectly, that he or she is smart, and all but one of them loses out in the end, to the point that three of them die violently. For no good goddamn reason at all.

You compare this to BLOOD SIMPLE -- and, sure, that fits -- but really, your statement points out what a companion piece this is to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

bill r. said...

Shane - I respectfully disagree. I think there's heart all over many of their films -- they just sometimes have a funny way of showing it. But RAISING ARIZONA, HUDSUCKER PROXY, FARGO (absolutely FARGO), O BROTHER, LEBOWSKI, and so on.

Glenn - Thanks very much. It's a frustrating wall to hit when talking about movies, or books, and somebody demands that I defend something by asking me "What was the point?", because I often have no answer. The point is that it's art? That's not going to get me anywhere with those people.

Fuzzy - I have no idea what you could possibly be talking about, but I would read that piece. Yes, I would.

Sean - That's true, except that at least Chigurh and Wells have a pretty good idea of what's going on in that film. In BLOOD SIMPLE, nobody has a clue.

Dean Treadway said...

I still can't believe it myself, but this is the one Coen film I have somehow avoided (I let the tepid reviews get to me, and just couldn't face a disappointing Coen movie. It's been on my agenda, of course, to see it, but now I feel this need more urgently. Tonight, definitely. Great piece, and thanks for the reminder. I think I need to add TKOFYH to my blogroll...

kenjfuj said...

Great defense of an underrated film! I think Burn After Reading can be seen as a corollary to No Country for Old Men: If the latter film took a more mournful view toward what the Coens see as a random and perhaps meaningless world, Burn After Reading mines that worldview for pitch-black comedy. Some have even found the later film more cutting than No Country. I think they work pretty well hand-in-hand.

And the demise of Richard Jenkins's well-meaning boss was a deeply unfortunate thing, to my mind.

bill r. said...

Dean - Thank you very much, and of course you should add me to your blogroll!

kenjfuj - Thanks very much. Yes, the connection to NCFOM does seem more clear to me, now that you and Sean point it out. It's just that in the earlier film, there were some pretty clear themes, a more obvious purpose (as opposed to "point") behind it. I'm not sure "random" or "meaningless" quite fit with that film. Moss's demise can seem random in its presentation, but I'm not sure it is thematically.

Pat said...

I've come to really like movies that have no point. My day job forces me to be extemely goal-driven; when I want to escape from that stress, I tend to gravitate, not so much towards films like "Burn After Reading" (which is ultimately pointless, but pretty heavily plotted) as to films more in the vein of Antonioni - rich imagery to ponder, not much dialogue, not much plot. Which is why I recently saw, and adored "I Am Love."

But I'm getting off track...

I tend to agree with kenjfuj's comment above; I think of "Burn After Reading" as the comedic counterpart to the dead-serious darkness of "No Country for Old Men" - nihilism seen two ways. Both are fine films.

bill r. said...

I'm sort of the exact opposite, Pat - if I need to unwind, I do NOT go to Antonioni. I'm more of your standard-issue lots-of-killing-and-plot guys, when I feel like that.

As for NO COUNTRY... and BURN AFTER READING: Like I say, I can see it, but I don't think NO COUNTRY... is all that easily defined. I do NOT think it's nihilistic, for example, but it would be difficult, in this format, and at this time, to get into why. But I just don't see the movie that way.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks to this film both "The League Of Morons" and "You're a Mormon next to you we all have a drinking problem." have entered my lexicon.

I do have to disagree, that I think the film is gaining a sizable following. Maybe not a Big Lebowski sized following. But what does. I'd argue that its just as popular as Barton, Hudsucker, or O'Brother. If not as critically respected.

And even that's starting to change. The AV Club in particular has been very vocal in the film's reevaluation.

GregT said...

The real question for me is how can I love Burn After Reading and be left cold by The Big Lebowski. The exact same shaggy-dog structure that frustrates me in early Coen films is what makes Burn After Reading brilliant.

Similarly with Fargo - the structure in Fargo still feels, to me, lazy, while the exact same stylistic touches in No Country seem both beautiful and eternal.

Anyway, thanks for a great article

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