Pete's Blog

"Burn After Reading"

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Some of you might remember a column I wrote here about "No Country for Old Men," the Coen Brothers flick that won the Best Picture Oscar last year or the year before. Anyway, I didn't like it. I may have called it "the worst film I have ever seen" although there are other recipients of that honor, including "Dazed and Confused," "Getting Straight," and that Woody Allen flick where everybody floats around on invisible wires next to the Seine. Anyway, I saw the latest Coen Brothers outing "Burn After Reading" last night and, while it's no "Seven Samurai," it was not insulting, pretentious or stupid - really quite entertaining, in fact. And it made me think of others of their films, especially "The Big Lebowski" which has become something of a cult favorite. Both "Burn After Reading" and "The Big Lebowski" show the Coens as masters of the MacGuffin, a term used in mystery fiction for the ostensible reason the protagonists get involved in the caper at hand, but which over time becomes increasingly irrelevant as the larger picture comes gradually into focus. For instance, in "Chinatown" a private investigator named Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) uncovers a huge fraud while searching for the husband of a woman named Evelyn Mulwray. The search for Mr. Mulwray is the MacGuffin. In "Burn After Reading" and "The Big Lebowski" the Coen Brothers don't let the MacGuffin slowly disperse into irrelevance. They doggedly keep at the story they've laid out from the beginning, so that it's only afterwards that you realize what the movie is really about. "The Big Lebowski" may follow a hippie slacker called The Dude through a complicated case of mistaken identity, but in the end the way the story resolves, or doesn't resolve, is less important or memorable than the way the Dude and his friend, a psychotic Vietnam veteran played by John Goodman, work through the differences between them. The film is an allegory of the reconciliation of two separate strands in our society. In the same way "Burn After Reading" may be "about" the implausible chain of events set off by an incompetent group of blackmailers, but in the end the story doesn't so much resolve itself as end, and what we're left with is not so much the details of the caper to remember as the emotional truths behind the action. "Burn After Reading" is about women. The film's two principal female characters, who never meet, represent opposite poles of modern femininity. The one (played by Frances McDormand) is a dim-witted chatterbox whose obsession with cosmetic surgery starts the caper rolling. The other (played by Tllda Swinton) is a brainy ice queen whose inability to cater to anyone but herself enables the caper to go spectacularly wrong. Both women, through their demands and self-centeredness, are toxic to the four men around them, three of whom end up dead. It's a masterful piece of indirection - in a way the whole plot is the MacGuffin and the audience is the detective, being pulled through the story to a conclusion that none of us expected. I still think "No Country for Old Men" is junk, but maybe that's because the Coen Brothers script was an adaptation, not original. Maybe that film's murky motivations and meaningless celebration of violence is Cormac McCarthy's fault. I'd buy that, given the subtlety and humanity of "The Big Lebowski" and "Burn After Reading."

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