Plastic Podcast

The venerable and exceedingly intermittent Plastic Podcast, which has outlived the two blogs with which it was intertwined, and whose audio archives were difficult to ...

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Plastic Podcast

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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.

Inspired by Rob’s re-evaluation of the Coen brothers’ latest (even if his original opinion remains largely intact) and various defenses of the film (check out the great comments thread in that post), I’ve been trying to understand my own relationship to the Coens. Because unlike a lot of critics, I’m not consistent. I think O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of the great comedies of the last fifteen years, and I was more than happy when No Country won Oscar earlier this year. I even remember liking Intolerable Cruelty, though I don’t remember much about it besides Roger Deakins’s incredible cinematography and George Clooney’s white teeth. But I’m much less comfortable with their brand of humor in Burn after Reading, and even Fargo troubles me. So when Rob remarks about Burn, “I’m not sure they ever strayed far,” I disagree and obviously think the film a serious step backwards. But why?

I think much of it has to do with mockery. The Coen brothers have enjoyed making fun of the dolts from the very beginning. Blood Simple might be a tight little noir, but it still relies for much of its humor on mocking the idiots. Ditto, Raising Arizona, of course. I re-watched Miller’s Crossing last night, another fave of mine, and noticed how many of the secondary characters are just caricatures set up for the Coens’ mocking camera. But why does it bother me in Burn and Fargo but not in O Brother and Miller’s Crossing?

Much of it has to do with what’s being mocked. In Miller’s Crossing, the jokes revolve around power and venality, how people strive for power or toady up to those who already have it. A great rhyming device occurs as the police chief changes sides between two mob bosses, and the Coens skewer him for it. There’s also the obvious hypocrisy among those who’ve gained power. An early scene involves one mob boss screaming about the ethics of a fixed fight (special mention must be made of Jon Polito as the Italian mob boss--I had forgotten how great he is).

But in Fargo, too much of the humor revolves around making fun of people just because they’re pathetic. I’m thinking of the torturous scene in a restaurant when an Asian-American guy tries to profess his love to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. The Coens stretch that scene out well beyond the breaking point just so we can laugh at the ridiculousness of the character and chuckle at his exaggerated Minnesota accent.

Of course, some critics found the same faults in O Brother, taking the filmmakers to task for their condescension towards Southerners. But there, the movie seems to be making fun of the stupid while at the same time embracing them for their humanity (the movie’s beautifully affectionate use of music goes a long way with that). Yes, Everett, Pete, and Delmar aren’t the brightest bulbs, and the audience enjoys giggling at their antics. But we root for them all the same. We laugh when they try to put on airs or when they fall prey to an obvious ruse, but we also want Everett to get back with his wife and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson as the dumbest of the dumb) to find his way. When Delmar gets baptized in an attempt to get right with the Lord, his conversation with the skeptical Everett (George Clooney in one of his finest performances) is priceless:

Delmar: The preacher said all my sins are warshed away, including that piggly-wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.
Everett: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges.
Delmar: [pause] Well, I was lying, and the preacher said that sin’s been warshed away, too. Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now.

The Coens can make fun of Delmar’s naivety and enthusiasm, but they do it in a way that doesn’t strip him of his humanity.

• • •

Burn after Reading strikes me as fundamentally different. The characters in that movie seem to exist merely as stupidity personified. Idiots ready to take their place in the Coen brothers’ shooting gallery. Ding! Each character gets shot down, quickly up again so he can be shot down in exactly the same way. Just like no one would confuse hitting the ducks on a boardwalk game with real hunting, I'm not sure this kind of humor takes any skill.

It hurts, too, that there’s no moral center to the film. Everyone is bad, everyone is clueless, everyone is selfish. Even Ted, who might be the only halfway decent person in the movie, is hardly worthy of our admiration. It’s as if the Coens have embraced Homer Simpson’s dictum: “Everyone’s stupid but me.”

And this unfortunately fits into our culture’s larger problem with mockery, where everything seems to exist merely as a foil for our cynical humor. Anyone who takes anything seriously is fodder for the stand-up comic, anything that smacks of intelligence needs to be taken down a notch. I taught a class for high school students this summer, and I was trying to illustrate film style by showing them a couple scenes from Citizen Kane. Bad choice on my part, because the kids couldn’t get past a Family Guy episode where Peter mocks anyone who’d want to take the time to watch Kane. Admittedly, those are teenagers, but I’ve noticed the same attitude in my older college students. They arrogantly assume that every handout I give them that includes words they don’t understand is evidence of a writer who’s putting on airs and, therefore, not worthy of their time.

Now some critics can embrace that dark vision of the world, but I think movies like Burn after Reading are part of the problem, that they encourage people to sit back in their chairs and laugh at everyone else. That they flatter people of their own superiority. That they let us off the hook for our own moral failings because at least we’re not like those idiots.

3 Responses to “Burn after Reading Reduxdedux”

  1. The Coens can make fun of Delmar’s naivety and enthusiasm, but they do it in a way that doesn’t strip him of his humanity.

    Do they? Does that exchange really show that?

    Delmar is about the stupidest character I've ever encountered in a movie -- "what's a braintrust" -- and the ONLY level on which he exists is to be laughed at and/or condescended to cuz he a hick po' boy. And it's not a one-scene role, where even if you think the FARGO scene with Mike is dubious (and I don't), it IS only one scene.

    I'll never forgive the Coens for the exchange when Clooney confesses there's no treasure and that they'll all get another 50 years. Turturro figures out he'll be 84 when he's freed. Nelson says with the triumphal air of Barney Fife: "well, I'll only be 82."

    Look at the overplaying Nelson gives us in the scene where he thinks the Sirens have turned Turturro into a frog (did even dumb-asses believe that in the 30s??) and starts bawling like a little baby. And what do the Coens do to "preserve Delmar's humanity"? Shoot it in enormous gargoyle-style closeups. (That's another thing I will never forgive the Coens for.)

  2. Wow, look at Victor Morton sticking up for the condescened-to poor. Will wonders never cease? Next thing I know, he'll be admitting that Ms. Heels and Teeth might not be qualified to be president. :)

    I agree that Delmar is a dolt. But I have great sympathy for him and the others. And I think that the film leads us that way by having much of the humor revolve around very human foibles. That exchange I included gets at this idea of how people often act when they're caught in a lie--we quickly try to excuse it or change the subject. I agree that the frog scene is a bit much, though it does lead to one of my favorite moments in the movie ("we thought you were a tooaaadd"). And I have no problem with the huge facial closeups, given how exaggerated everything about the film is.

    Whereas in Burn after Reading, we're not meant to sympathize with any of these idiots, merely marvel at their spectacular selfishness, as if that kind of behavior couldn't possibly have anything to do with me. And it's that kind of mockery I find offensive.

  3. look at Victor Morton sticking up for the condescended-to poor.

    Yeah, Delmar's probably still bitterly clinging to his guns and religion. And somewhat more critically-relevant, it annoyed me no end that I was seeing a set of stereotypes that actually have current cachet in respectable circles being played purely and as-themselves for their "humor" value. (It no doubt didn't do the Coens any favors that it was coming hard on the heels of Spike Lee's vile BAMBOOZLED.)

    I actually prefer the BURN AFTER READING approach as you describe it. If a movie is going to be caricature, the last thing you want is sympathy getting in the way, at least at the "first level" of escapist identification with the characters as anything like real persons.

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