Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The impossibility of knowing what the fuck is going on in other people's heads...

I really liked Burn After Reading (The Coen Bros., 2008) and have no reservations ranking it among the Coens best work - Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It feels a little more open than these earlier movies, though: the performances aren't as tightly controlled, the compositions are a little looser, the Rube Goldbergism of the plot is softer. I'm tempted to describe it as John Updike's version of a Ross Thomas novel, but I'm not sure that anyone but my brother Mike would know what I mean by that.

A couple of weeks ago I had a dream that I had seen the movie and I was explaining to a friend that it was about "the impossibility of communicating with each other", which is actually part of what I think Fargo is about. It turns out that Burn After Reading is not quite about this, but is, rather, an allegory about the failure of the American intelligence system. Communication here is a problem only in as much as no one ever really knows what the fuck anyone else is really thinking, which means that everyone is operating with a severe lack of information. The Preston Sturges influence comes through in that the absence of understanding doesn't stop anyone from making their moves. For a lot of these characters, just standing still would solve all their problems, but standing still is not the American Way.

I have to admit that I found a lot of the writing on this movie pretty puzzling. Going by many of the reviews at Metacritic (where the movie has a 62 aggregate rating), you'd get the sense that this was just a little bit of a step up from The Ladykillers (which had a 56 aggregate Metacritic rating). I like The Ladykillers well enough, but that movie is definite "Minor" Coen Bros. and Burn After Reading is definitely "Major".

I suspect that critics would be a lot more enthusiastic about this movie if it had a helpful voice over to explain its themes to them.

I also suspect that most critics had already figured out what they were going to say about it - some kind of variation on "Coens taking a break with a minor genre spoof after the majestic No Country" - before they even saw it.


Mark said...

Not so sure I agree with your detective work there. I'm not so sure how this is an allegory about CIA failures, though speaking as a resident of DC (well, the 'burbs anyway) it is a very sharp satire on the kind of people that get drawn to this city. I'd argue it's more Tom Wolfe (or Tom Perrota) than uhm Thomas Frank.

Although I do think your assessment of where it ranks on the Coen Bros canon is pretty much dead on, though I think O Brother marks the start of a brief period when the Coen Brothers were spinning their wheels a bit. I think they have a cult hit that is every bit as memorable as the The Big Lebowski. I don't think I've been this blown away by a comedy since I saw Idiocracy

Jon Hastings said...

Hi Mark -

The allegorical bits: Chad and Linda still thinking in "Cold War terms", even though the Cold War is long over; the CIA knowing exactly where everyone is and what they are doing but having no clue as to why they're doing any of it.

Like the good little Kubrickians they are, the Coens are concerned here (as they almost always are) with systems breaking down.

I wasn't blown away when I saw Idiocracy. As with Office Space I had a lukewarm reaction to it at first. But my admiration grows for both of them on an almost daily basis as the world continues to reveal to me how insightful those movies really are.

Mark said...

That's a good point - lately I've been leaning towards the Coen brothers as nihilists school of thought, so at first blush I would usually resist a political reading.

Lin Swimmer said...

Major Cohen indeed. Just caught it last night. Great reading as always, Jon.