Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Burn After Reading

Saw Burn After Reading by the Coen Brothers over the weekend. The following contains mild spoilers.

It begins with a God's-eye view descending into a CIA building in DC. Inside, the camera follows, from floor-level, someone. Because the camera is so low, we are necessarily looking up at this person, giving them a sense of stature and importance. Yet we can hardly see above his knees. Immediately, the film jokes by contrasting the all seeing, which lacks detail, with the all-detailed, which lacks context.

It's a farce about middle aged characters, most of whom are sleeping around with each other, all of whom are trying to assert control over their lives and world around them. The MacGuffin is a CD-Rom with, as Brad Pitt's character puts it, "intelligent shit" from the CIA. So in addition to being a sex farce, it also works as a spy farce. While everyone strives for control, nobody, not even the CIA, has any idea what's going on. It's a perfect parody of conspiracism.

Turns out this person we're following, played by John Malkovich, wearing a 3-piece suit and bow tie, enters a meeting where he is demoted. The stature and importance the camera gave to him in the hallway is a bit of a joke. A coworker accuses the Malkovich character, Ozzie Cox, of being a drunk. The accusation is true (a later allusion to the Rio Bravo scene where Dean Martin pours a shot of whiskey back into the bottle without spilling a drop makes this clear), but Cox responds by accusing his Mormon coworker of seeing everyone as a drunk. Cox claims in the meeting he is being crucified.

At home, his wife walks in and asks if he picked up the cheeses. It's intentionally difficult to hear, as his wife is at the front door while the audio is from the kitchen. It wasn't just me - after the reference to crucifixion in the previous scene, Soo also heard some mumbling about "Jesus" instead of "cheeses." The mishearing speaks to limited information with which to understand the world, undermining notions of knowability.

Later, after meeting the Frances McDormand character, after her insurance company has refused to cover several cosmetics surgeries, she is seen with her head down and palms up as if pleading in frustration. On the wall behind her is a meditating Buddha, head up and palms on knees, which really digs in at her inability to accept change.

All of these references to religion so early on -counting liberally, there's 5 that I mentioned; to be overly conservative, there's at least 3- made me wonder if the Coens were saying something from a Jewish perspective. We know they picked up the adaptation of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, so it seems they'd like to say at least a little from that particular perspective. The timing is about right for the film to be a response to Mearsheimer and Walt. But I doubt it. It seems like an over-determined reading.

Except for one minor character being Mormon, all of the religious references -even the cheeses- speak directly to power and control, obvious themes in the film. So they don't really push for a "Jewish" interpretation. Unless we deny that the Mormon reference can just be folded into the others. (For what it's worth, there's no reason to think religion should suggest morality. There is no sense of morality, just absurdity and irony.)

I wonder if anyone else would argue for the film as a response to antisemitic conspiracism?

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