catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 17 :: 2008.09.26 — 2008.10.10


Surrender after viewing

I really have never seen a Coen brothers film I didn’t like.  Yes, some are better than others, but there’s always something interesting going on with story or the characters or with the Coens’ perspective on films and American culture.  I was horrified by the world portrayed in No Country for Old Men , which was adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name.  What was most shocking to me was the role Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) played in this violent cat and mouse drama.  The Sheriff always arrives on the scene too late.  My expectation that the old wise cop would be able to intervene in the horrific events, at least by the time the film reached its conclusion, was frustrated by a frightening reality—it is the nature of the police officer to arrive on the scene too late.   Throughout the film, the Sheriff has very little power to prevent anything.  He is always nothing more than a witness to the evildoings of men. 

This theme continues in Burn After Reading , only this time the witness role is played by the CIA—and the audience—who look on helplessly as Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) embroil an ex-CIA employee (John Malkovich), a sex-addicted husband (George Clooney), an orthodox-priest-turned-fitness-gym-manager (Richard Jenkins) and the Russians (“the Russians?”) in a pointless drama that ends tragically for all but one.  Amazingly, the Coens are able to milk this horrific premise for laughs.  The humor starts slowly, but as the unnecessarily complex plot builds, the insanity of the situation grows and reaches a crescendo when the events are finally presented to the head of the CIA (JK Simmons).  Finally we hope someone will step in and put a stop to the mayhem, or at least prevent more of our favorite characters from being eliminated.  The biggest laugh comes, though, when Simmons’ character responds incredulously to the chain of events that have been unfolding.  His advice? Don’t do anything.  “Just get back to me when something makes sense.”

This is the punch line of the entire film.  The final scene brings the point home as the camera pans back from the seemingly insignificant events that have taken place.  We are pulled all the way up and out of CIA headquarters and into space where it now appears our story, which we have invested almost two hours into, has become just one small blip on the globe of possible nonsensical stories of this kind.  We can now add Burn After Reading to the growing canon of art that says we are living in an age of insanity.  The world of meaningful happenings is gone.  Better to laugh at our predicament than fight it, because we’ll only make it worse by stepping in to do something about it. 

The Coens respond to this reality of meaningless existence with a Seinfeld-ian daring.  Burn After Reading is just another show about nothing that will probably amount to nothing, which is probably for the better.  In The Big Lebowski , Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) comforts Donny who wonders if the Nazis have destroyed their car.  “No, Donny,” Walter says, “These men are nihilists.  There’s nothing to be afraid of.”  You could almost say the same thing for the Dude and his friends.  For the Coens, the hero of our age is more like the tumblin’ tumbleweed.  The villains are the ambitious go-getters of the early 20th Century—the Nazis, the greedy, the ambitious schemers of the world of business, the over-achievers.  “The Dude abides,” the narrator of Lebowski tells us.  “I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ’er easy for all us sinners.”

I don’t believe the Coens are nihilists, Donny, but they certainly sympathize with those who remain outside of the action—because as storywriters they know it’s in the action where all the bad stuff happens.  Maybe this is why the Coen brothers seemed so uncomfortable accepting their Oscar awards last year and why they expressed gratitude for being allowed to do things on their own, away from all the hubbub of Hollywood.  They want to stay outside of the action.  For them, it’s the moral thing to do in this crazy day and age.  If so, perhaps the unsettling sense of satisfaction I had after seeing Burn After Reading reflects the kind of wish fulfillment the Coens are offering in the 21st century—escape from the demands of meaning, purpose and perceived honor that contributed to the horrors of the 20th.

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