Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Chad Feldheimer marches to a different drum machine

One wonders exactly what motivates any artist to choose a particular project. It’s inscrutable enough if one is an individual artist. Why does one person write The Pisan Cantos and the next one a suite of haiku, or sonnets, or flarf? When capital gets involved, it gets funkier in a hurry. Why, for example, is Ed Ruscha a painter, a visual artist,  and not a writer? Why this word & not that one? Why this context & not that one? Why don’t we think of Ruscha when we consider the history of minimalism & the works of, say, Bob Grenier & Aram Saroyan?

These sorts of questions get even murkier when both capital & collaboration are involved. One reason that Once may be the best movie musical ever filmed, give or take Hard Days Night, is that it involved a relatively small body of collaborators and almost no budget whatsoever. The party scene was filmed in the flat of the film’s star, Glen Hansard. The older woman who sings is, in fact, his mother. The whole movie was made for just $100,000, done off of credit cards, and the filmmakers never had permits to shoot on the streets. No wonder Hansard is believable as a busker.

At the other end of the scale, way way on the other end, we have the bloated star fests like Armageddon or Ocean’s 7-eleven where far too many name actors get fat checks to mail in performances with scripts that they seem barely to glance at. At least Sinatra & the Rat Pack didn’t pretend to be thespians. They just needed something to do in the daytime before the clubs opened for the evening in Vegas.

Burn After Reading sure has that feel to it. There’s Tilda Swinton, one of the best actresses anywhere, imitating her mean bitch role from Michael Clayton, but with none of the having-second-thought nuances. There’s George Clooney, glad-handing (and more) every woman he meets with exactly the same wide-eyed big smile con-artist stare he used in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Instead of pomade, he’s switched to asking everybody what their floors are made of.)  Then there is Brad Pitt, better known these days as the afterthought in Brangelina, doing a send-up of sorts of his role as the clueless stud in Thelma & Louise. He’s really quite good, in a horrific sort of way. At least Frances McDormand isn’t reprising her laconic pregnant police chief from Fargo. But that’s because she’s channeling William Macy’s part from that same film. Indeed, the only actor here who seems to have bothered to act in this movie is John Malkovich. He’s tremendous as the tweedy CIA analyst with a giant bow-tie, right out of an Ivy League secret society (we’re treated to a Princeton reunion song in its entirety). Except that he’s a former CIA analyst & none too happy about this former stuff. And then something happens.

Now all of this nonsense doesn’t matter much because these squirrels have been set loose in what is pretty close to a perfect Rube Goldberg device, the narrative as sketched out by from the Brothers Coen, fresh off their second best-picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men & happy to sweep up something like nine digits of cash with the first big film of the autumn. One suspects that their story board looked just a little like one of Anthony Braxton’s scores. If the year’s movies were a multi-course meal &the summer fare were a bunch of oddly rich too sweet fare, like a giant bowl of ice cream right before the entrée of the Oscar contenders when winter comes on, then Burn After Reading would be the perfect amuse bouche, the tiny morsel served to cleanse the pallet of the heavy aftertaste of Batman et al. That’s a very modest goal, but the Coen Bros. wind their little contraption up very very tight. It’s fun to watch it spin through the motions.

There are two premises behind this movie. The first is a series of coincidences as to who knows who socially and in what roles, the makings of many a screwball Hollywood comedy. The second is a presumption about human nature – everyone, with just one exception, is venal, is screwing one another, terrified of commitment (if male) or about to file for divorce (if female). The only good person here – tho we don’t get to see too much of him – is a lovelorn defrocked Greek Orthodox priest played by Richard Jenkins, a superb character actor (he was the dead father on Six Feet Under).

So it’s not a thriller of good guys vs. bad guys, because there are no good guys really, just some folks with whom you might be more apt to identify (wide-eyed Clooney, wide-eyed McDormand) than with others (Malkovich & Swinton squint a lot). A lot of what makes this film work are the small bits of stage business or details that are ancillary at best to the main narrative, and which are often never explained, like why Clooney is interested in everyone’s floors & why he has to guess what they are (the people he asks are never really certain, like, is that really white pine?), or the large purple pillow he lugs around in a couple of scenes – apparently a sex toy of sorts, in that it allows the partner on the bottom to raise their hips & pelvis upward to interesting angles – but which nobody ever uses, mentions or otherwise identifies. Or that little invention Clooney’s constructed in his basement. I don’t believe my wife has laughed that loudly in a movie theater since at least A Mighty Wind. When this film comes out in DVD, I’m going to have to pay the closet confrontation scene frame by frame to see if it really is “muscle memory” that drives the plot. Malkovich also has a number of these bits as well, such as his various descriptions as to why he “left” the Agency, his attempts at dictating his memoirs and the great scene with his dad, who says nothing, because – we suspect – he couldn’t if he tried. We never do learn why Olson was in that meeting, or what Olson does or anything about him? The elements that articulate Malkovich’s depression – how can you be committing murder in your underwear & bathrobe that late in the day? – are all well done. There are also some details about Malkovich controlling his drinking by waiting until 5:00 pm to begin & by measuring just how much he pours into a glass that are smart & knowing as well as funny.

So this is a lark, as if the Coen Brothers want to show audiences that a comedy can actually be intelligent & funny, unlike, say, the drivel put out by so many former Saturday Night Live cast members. Not everybody gets out alive – it is a Coen Brothers film after all – but at least the brothers had the taste to leave their wood chipper at home. Now, one wonders, what if these guys actually decided some day to make a movie. Like something serious along the lines of Crash or Traffic or Nashville or Syrianna. Their ensemble-governing skills are perfectly suited to the task, but could they figure out where & when to tone it down? It would even be fun to see them attempt a chase-thriller like one of the Bourne films or the Bond franchise. You know that would be fun. Which brings me back to my ultimate question about Burn After Reading – why this film, with this cast, at this time? What were the boys thinking?


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