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Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

The © copyright of all content on Daily Plastic belongs to the respective authors.

Focus Features
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Brad Pitt shooting Burn After Reading

If there's a trait I hate to see in a film critic it's the willingness to dismiss with little thought a film that doesn't immediately reveal itself. So when I sense that tendency in myself, I feel a little guilty.

Take the Coen brothers. I was a fan in college but eventually decided that I'd seen all their tricks and lost interest. College seems like the right age to appreciate their stuff, and while I always wished they'd attempt something a little more ambitious with their obvious gifts, that mythical film has never materialized. I kept watching their movies up through Intolerable Cruelty, the one with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the one with the asthma inhaler gag, the one with the rapid fire conversations that -- I remember noting -- I'd like to watch again one day, separate from the rest of the film, if possible.

But it was the last straw. The Coens were no longer an auto-see. I skipped The Ladykillers.

Even No Country for Old Men, which I watched in the ritzy digs of Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival, felt to me like an exercise of their technical abilities -- their way with storytelling mechanics more than anything else -- and an exercise that sustained a good hour before it drifted into pretensions I didn't believe.

But after a quick dismissal and the subsequent guilt, I gave it more effort. Everyone else was. It seemed only fair. Revisiting No Country for Old Men didn't turn me around, but it reminded me that their exceptionally well-crafted films do offer certain pleasures, like the pleasure of releasing a shoelace from its knot. But when the knot seems to exist for its own sake, when it seems to have been created only for me to unravel -- gee, thanks -- I'm inclined to use the scissors and get it over with.

Burn After Reading isn't generating the same critical dialogue that No Country for Old Men did, for whatever reason. As our sample of quotes in the grid attest (which are not, of course, representative of the universe of criticism; they're just our faves), this one is disappointing to many people who see it as the return to a lesser form. Me, I'm not sure they ever strayed very far.

But when Michael Sicinski, Mike D'Angelo, Victor Morton, and Karina Longworth actually sort of agree that Burn After Reading has merits and find plenty to roll around in (a couple of them placing it among their favorite films of the year!), maybe it's worth a little more time, even while steeling myself against the the aroma that's always steaming from the Coens stew: that we the viewers -- and especially we the critics -- are one of the joke's many butts. To bark in all caps at the idiocy of other reviewers, to complain that some of the film's detractors in Toronto* were "people who like to spend a lot of time bitching," is reminiscent of its own noisiest characters.

Focus Features
Here's the turtle who's drawn in his head and uhh-- Feet.

As Vic points out, cinema is used as a measure of worth in the film, but I'll add that it's not an absolute scale. In this film, everyone is looking down on someone else, just as everyone is a spy and everyone is spied upon. Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) measures her dates by whether they laugh at a particular movie that she finds funny, and she measures herself against a Hollywood ideal ("You don't have one of those Hollywood bodies," says Ted. "No, I'd be laughed out of Hollywood!" she replies, justifying her need for surgery.) But the film-within-the-film is nothing sacred to the Coens, who use it as their own yard stick to situate anyone who might enjoy it. Coming Up Daisy, they call it, with Claire Danes identified as the smiling Daisy on the poster.

I saw the film again. Sigh. I saw the film again, and I chuckled once, at Brad Pitt's first scene, mostly because of his offbeat delivery. Maybe I smiled at George Clooney's "shellfood" and "lactose reflux." But you can't argue with someone's sense of humor. If someone found the movie funny, it's funny, and I can't convince him or her otherwise. I'm Linda's loser date who sits stone-faced staring at the screen. ("You think he has a sense of humor?" "Well, I think his optometrist has a sense of humor.") Ouch. Once again the Coens are ironically inoculated.

In my review at Paste I called the cycle of put-downs in the film a "hierarchy of condescension," noting that Brad Pitt is a goof who sarcastically makes fun of other people even as the Coens make fun of him. What I notice most about the second viewing is that the hierarchy of condescension is a very flat pyramid. Every character classifies someone else as a moron, and nearly all of these folks take as much as they dish out. Reciprocal haughtiness is the agar into which the plot is injected, and if I had the energy for the train spotting that the Coens' films inspire, I'd diagram this network of finger-pointing. Malkovich calls Pitt empty-headed, and in the next shot Pitt laughs at Malkovich for thinking his bike is a Schwinn. Ted the nebbish, even Ted the nebbish, seems impatient at Linda's inability to understand his hints about looking "in your back yard." Etc.

And in the end, I guess that's where the film loses me. The circles and connections of the plot are woven impressively tight, but achieving that locking balance requires not just miles of mutual disdain but quantities of stupidity, the deus ex machina of a character study. I don't think it's a moral failing; as Sicinski points out, these aren't real people. I just think it's Saturday-Night-Live easy. To make a stupid person's behavior kick off a chain reaction, it helps to surround him with more stupid people. Say, now you've got something. But building these structures is more impressive when you don't have the crutch of idiocy.

* slightly reworded from the original draft to clarify who the quotation is directed at

10 Responses to “Burn After Reading Redux”

  1. Karina says:

    I wasn't necessarily referring to critics with that line -- it was more a reaction to the industry and media types who stand in line at film festivals complaining. Sometimes they're critics, but often they're not, and that voice as a whole goes against the actual practice of criticism, because it's not analytical, it's emotional.

  2. Robert DAVIS says:

    Ah, fair enough. I agree with that general reaction to the media types who need to slot films into cubbies, and quickly. I just wanted to mention that not everyone who disliked the film necessarily wanted to dislike it.

    It may not be obvious from what I wrote here, but I appreciate your review for making me think about BAR more than I did initially, especially -- but not only -- because you weren't necessarily enamored with No Country for Old Men. If, you know, someone from AICN said you gotta gotta see Burn After Reading, I don't think I'd have been spurred to revisit it. "And yet with a few days perspective, I see the film differently."

  3. I think it's better than _No Country_ (which I dig, but not as much as many other do) in large part because I, like MS, laughed my butt off despite the film being one of the angriest, saddest screeds against, um, late capitalist America (?) I've seen in recent times. As Brian noted, there's a wicked-sly joke here about the chameleons of Ho'wood being equated with the chameleons of DC. And they resist any direct stab at the more public face of DC politics because it's scarier, and funnier, to see how these idiot plebes pinball without regard, really, for anything beyond them. The Coens have always been interested in the failure of the human and what that activates in a conversation about morals (specifically in America, too, I'd argue). Hell, I think it may be darker than _No Country_ and better for it: who said comedies had to resolve, right? I thought about writing about it but it seemed the moment was gone. Perhaps, amidst all my other distractions, I'll make the time now. I'm pretty curious to see how this one ages, too, as it won't take on any kind of _Lebowski_ shelf life -- it's got no rooting interest, for one -- nor is it as gemlike and "perfect" as (my maybe favorite) _The Man Who Wasn't There_, which also features an "ugly" turn by Frances McDormand, btw.

  4. Robert DAVIS says:

    I think it's darker because everyone is a milder version of Anton Chigur. The deepest blacks are blacker in No Country, but the average across all the characters in Burn is darker because it lacks points of light. :-)

    I think I'd read more into the DC-Hollywood equation if it weren't just another way to make fun of everybody. Shifting from the DC elite -- who serve chevre and attend functions with Toni Morrison -- to the lowest rungs of a strip mall fitness center gives the film a nice dynamic range and a fun, Rube Goldberg-esque plot, but I feel like their structures invite deeper readings without actually supporting any ideas.

    The memoire gets from Cox's computer to the gym like this: Cox's wife copies data from the computer to a disk, turns it over to her lawyer, who gives it to his secretary, who leaves it in a women's locker room, where it's found by Manolo. It's a class hierarchy. And yet what is that beyond a clever structure? (And by the way one of the things I like most about their scripts are the elisions, some of which get filled in and some of which are left unknowable. Someone goes to Hardbodies asking about Linda. We find out because Ted tells her. Later Cox recognizes Ted in his house as "the guy from the gym." Cox is the one who was asking about Linda. It's not terribly important, but I like the way their scripts lock together.)

    I linked to David Edelstein above, but here's the paragraph from his No Country essay that I thought of most recently:

    Writing about the Coens -- and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas -- is a sure way of looking like an ass. When the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman contended that the climax of Miller’s Crossing was a Holocaust allegory, the Coens didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. And when I interviewed them for American Film in 1986, on the occasion of their second film, Raising Arizona, they greeted my pointy-headed critical theories with the look of the Sundance Kid hearing a cockamamy new scheme: “You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.” Their cinematographer at the time, Barry Sonnefeld, told me, “Topics are incredibly unimportant to them—it’s structure and style and words. If you ask them for their priorities, they’ll tell you script, editing, coverage, and lighting.” Later, I pressed Joel for his thoughts on the movie’s ostensible subject—procreation, infertility, child-rearing—and he squirmed and smoked and finally said a baby’s face is “fodder,” like a gunshot with blood running down someone’s shirt: something you can play with in surprising (and perverse) ways. “Fodder” sounds a little glib. I’d prefer a more highbrow formulation: The Coens take found objects and arrange them for maximum disjunction.

    One things for sure, though. The Coens have a knack for activating conversations about their films, if not morals exactly.

  5. Structure, style and words as tenants scream "ethics" and "morals" to me. Cuz, really, that's the ongoing question with them, right? That whole idiotic style vs substance argument. I'm not going to say they're equivalent, but I'm also not going to say they're opposed. I'm further not going to say you're making that argument; rather, it's a trap too easy to fall into. And I think the outgrowth of those interests is an argument about ethics, and morals (which subtend ethics, I guess). Every one of their protagonists (if I should use that word) appears to be some kind of amoral sore thumb stuck contending with an amoral world, right? Maybe that's it -- they see the world as a toilet. And, of course, that can rub some people the wrong way.

    The thing I dig about your post here, Rob, is your interest in questioning your reaction. I think that's all we're supposed to do. I don't really care you didn't care for it; I'm interested in how that carries forward, and how you're speaking about it. For all their aversion to criticism, I think they would probably appreciate that, too, since it boils down to structure, style and words.

  6. Robert DAVIS says:

    Yeah, I remember the Susan Sontag essay where she generously says that people no longer separate style and content like they used to before they were enlightened... but then she goes on to list some ways in which they do it implicitly without realizing it.

    And certainly one measure of a film is the type of discussion it generates.

    The world is a toilet. I can get behind that. Is there a difference between pointing at someone and laughing "HA ha" -- someone tripping over the fishing line strung across a doorway -- and being outraged at the whiff of a sewer, at the absurdity of the world? Movies are artificial, of course, and maybe the ones that are obviously fake are more honest about that than the ones that appear realistic. But something about the disconnect between the toilet on the screen and the toilet out my window makes the Coens seem disinterested in the latter 'cause the former is funnier.

  7. Brian says:

    Great conversation. All I know is that I didn't find it as funny a movie as I did a profoundly sad one. Maybe even a scary one. I'm finding my evaluative structures (as flimsy as they were in the first place) collapsing beneath my feet these days, so I'd be hard pressed to argue whether I think that's good or not. But I'm glad I saw it.

  8. Although their movies are often cartoony, and especially _BAR_, which is just one goof after another (that reaches some kind of apogee with the helicopter shot), I'm particularly interested in how these toilets they construct interpret the toilet out the window. Cuz you're right: nothing is ever quite "real"...and I appreciate how that can be grating if you aren't laughing. But if you're on their wavelength, it's pretty hard to resist. Maybe that's what this one boiled down to for you?

    And, Brian, don't trip. That's something I'm perpetually questioning, too. Some day I may have an answer, but, for now at least, I just trust myself to investigate first. And be willing to change my mind. --I'd like to see _BAR_ again, to pay better attention and, yes, to laugh.

  9. Robert DAVIS says:

    That helicopter -- either Linda's delusions of being followed are real or we've slipped into something subjective, kind of like the first time time we see Clooney jogging, pausing to look back, and watching a black car speed past. Later people actually are following him (almost everybody is spied upon), but at that early point I'm not so sure.

  10. Robert DAVIS says:

    Ryland and his fellow podcaster Mark Haslam talked about seeing Burn After Reading on their most recent podcast.

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