Thursday, January 7, 2010

From Reginald Marsh to Agnes Martin

I appreciate what Joel and Ethan Coen do much of the time but as a whole their work can leave me cold. It's too airtight in a certain way. It tends to be a little smug. I respond to about one in three of their films, which seems generous, given how prolific they are. I'd never really paid much attention to their editing, though I know it's a huge part of what they do. These days, I'm watching movies very critically, from a distance, first as a spectator, caught up in their effects, then, as much as possible, as an impartial observer, trying to dissect how they made me feel the way I did. I was surprised by my reaction to Burn After Reading. I really liked it; really responded to it, not just intellectually but emotionally, which is odd for something so ostensibly farcical. I found myself watching the edits pretty closely in several scenes.

The Coens' work is pretty measured, everything happening just so. They keep a tight rein on things, so it's interesting that their films typically deal with a need for and a loss of control. Like Fargo and No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading concerns itself primarily with powerless people who imagine they're in charge. That's more of a subtext in Fargo and Country. Petty criminals get in over their heads. In both there is some larger, malignant force steering things, shifting the focus so that people like William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, however central, register as periphery, Keystone Kops running in and out of doors behind the driving action. Much of Country is focused on Javier Bardem, who carries out his mercenary directives with the efficiency and remorselessness of a pre-programmed machine. Javier is God by default, meaning there isn't anything else to take his place. Fargo is more hopeful, balancing good and evil with Frances Macdormand's perky imperviousness on the one hand and Peter Stormare's superficially placid sociopath on the other. Everyone else bumbles around somewhere between them.

Burn After Reading has no real moral center. There is no Marge Gunderson. And it has no existential figurehead, no Grim Reaper, calling to collect. Even the people who should be in control, the CIA, are clueless and amoral. The hand of the director is always palpable in a Coen film. There's a stylist behind every style, a director directing what is clearly a movie. In Burn, there's more of a free for all feel, lessening that sense of directorial presence. Standing in for director, moral center, and the grim reaper are CIA officials, and the joke is that they aren't in control of their own film. The inmates are running the asylum. The energy of Burn is chaotic; the thru-lines more complicated than the simple narrative threads of Country and Fargo. Both Fargo and Country are set against wide open vistas. The characters look out into them the way some people look at the ocean, as something easily navigated, whereas what's really there, the Coens seem to be saying, is unfathomably vast, an unnavigable nightmare abyss.

Burn's characters are urban dwellers. Clooney's retired CIA analyst jogs not through the country or even on a track but through the heart of DC, a town where unseen forces can be said to run the show. Outdoor scenes are crowded with people. Indoor scenes are openly inhospitable. Macdormand and Pitt, the film's petty thieves, are fitness instructors at a gym. These scenes are handled in ways that emphasize the transience of the environment; it's a place through which hundreds of people pass, and while there they go into private zones, tuning out PA announcements, the sounds of spinning wheels, music, TVs, weights dropping on the floor. The characters have none of the methodical reflection allowed in the other films. Nevermind that space for reflection only allowed for bigger mistakes in Country and Fargo. The crowded cast of characters in Burn After Reading are forced to think on their feet, and the assurances they make to themselves and each other about sovereignty over their decisions and lives have a noisy, childlike ring to them which makes Pitt's death that much more abrupt, shocking, and affecting, more so than anything I can remember in a Coen film.

I rewound it several times. Like all good editing the scene, simply constructed, feels dense and complex, and its placement within the story reinforces everything that came before it and colors everything that happens after. Before novice blackmailer Pitt sneaks into Clooney's house to hunt for more incriminating evidence (which turns out to be abundantly worthless, natch) he sits in his car singing loudly to the music on his headphones, slurping from a straw. He dances in his seat. Inside, things get quieter, but that sense of unbridled mania has been so well established with his character that Pitt's felonious presence in a still place creates an unbearable tension, however much he tones down. Clooney returns unexpectedly, sweating from his jog. Pitt hides in the closet, watching through the slats as homeowner showers, dresses, heads his way.

Clooney, too, is a petty thief, a scam artist juggling several women at once. Like Pitt and Macdormand he exaggerates. Earlier, he'd bragged about his gun. "It's no big deal. Never discharged it, twenty years of service. Security blanket now. I don't think about it--of course, you're not supposed to think about it; in a situation where your man is threatened the training kicks in. Muscle memory. Reflex." He wears a holster, keeping the gun with him at all times. He's just picked the gun up and is going for the holster in the closet when Pitt, standing there with a stupid smile on his face, startles him. The gun goes off reflexively, spraying the closet wall with blood and brain matter. The incident reduces Clooney to a babbling idiot, showing just how similar he and Pitt were underneath his more polished surface. The aftermath of the shooting features Clooney crawling around on the floor, half scampering, half stumbling.

Nothing in Country or Fargo is as effective in quite this way. Careless deaths are routine in Coen films, as is abrupt, dispassionate violence. Things often go wrong and someone gets hurt. Buscemi is shot by the man he's blackmailing when he goes to collect, leaving much of his jaw exposed. Elsewhere, Woody Harrelson is dispatched point blank with a sawed off shotgun. What differs most blatantly are tone and backdrop. The Coens frequently do slapstick, sometimes punctuated by violence or the threat of it. But Burn blends comedy and suspense in ways I haven't seen in many Coen movies. Everything is antic, as busy as a Reginald Marsh crowd scene, until Pitt's shooting, giving the scene and the rest of the film an unusual gravity and resonance. By contrast, everything in Fargo and Country takes place within a context of relative silence and repose. Quiet is followed by gunshot is followed by more silence, so that even when the violence is a surprise, it isn't entirely unexpected, the silent backdrop by then having created a pervasive feeling of dread.

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