where the writers are
Coen Brothers--"Burn After Reading" and Other Thoughts on Humor
Fishing in Minnesota

It was my birthday, so my wife let me choose the movie. She hadn't quite forgiven me from last year when I convinced her and my cousin to rush to No Country For Old Men. Not knowing anything about the movie at the time, I found the title funny, and I said, "You want to laugh, don't you? You'll love the Coen Brothers and this movie."

When they were both bent over cringing and shielding their eyes from the ruthless killer Chigurh killing yet another person with a bulky cattle gun, my wife gasped, "So when's the funny part?"

Last week I might have been pushing it when I said let's see the Coens' Burn After Reading--but it was my birthday. My wife said okay and smiled. It's a small moment that made me cheer.

Perhaps because I grew up in Minnesota like the Coens, and our mutually shared cultural background included grazing at the local Swedish Smorgasbord when we were young, or, as a young adult, drinking at the "Mew-knee" (i.e. the Municipal Bar). I get their humor--even the funny bits that were in No Country for Old Men such as the conversations with Moss and his wife.

I'm happy to report my wife laughed in Burn After Reading--outright sustained laughter. It's a comedy, and a brilliant, controlled one at that. Time magazine's movie critic Richard Corliss, however, says, "If there's a knock on Joel and Ethan Coen, the writer-director brothers who otherwise have enjoyed a quarter-century of critical acclaim, it's that they betray a condescension, almost a contempt, for the people they've created." Corliss basically feels the movie is about stupid people doing stupid things.

I can agree that the characters portrayed by George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pit and others do stupid things, and that they are also not necessarily imbued with a lot of gray matter, but the Coens and the actors love these people--and those people are us. We do stupid things.

And isn't that what comedy is--real life amped up by hyperbole? I recently saw again Some Like It Hot, which had Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon dressed up as women to play in an all-girl band with Marilyn Monroe. Was what they did rationale? No, it was stupid--and funny.

In Raising Arizona, another Coen comedy, Nicholas Cage's character, Hi, may as well be a comedic Willy Loman. He's trying to get by in this world as we all are, and a trip to the convenience store to get diapers is pushed beyond belief and includes an amazing car chase. Yet the pathos beneath it all is believable.

What about the humor in The Incredibles? That family is our family. Did you see Superbad? It's stupid people doing stupid things, and I can't help but love McLovin and the others. Those teenagers are funny to me--and beneath it all, real.

In fact, great humor reveals truths. In Burn After Reading, Frances McDormand's character tries calling her HMO to speak with an agent about why she was denied coverage for cosmetic surgery. The automated phone system drives her nuts--and who hasn't felt that? In fact, it's the small moments these characters have that make me nod in agreement: this is life. It's an absurd one. It's one I can wrap my arms around, just as I do my wife.

If you don't laugh at the movie's end--well,then, I guess you don't get it. Corliss doesn't.

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Looking forward to it

No Country For Old Men was my favorite movie of 2007, and I was pleasantly surprised when the Academy agreed with me for once. I've been looking forward to Burn After Reading, even more so after reading this. Thanks, Chris!

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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Likeability Vs. Empathy

Huntington:

I brought up Burn After Reading to my class today, and 6 out of 18 students had seen it, which impressed me.  One woman in particular agreed with Richard Corliss perhaps when she said she did not like any of the characters. Because this is a creative writing class, that brought up the point of "Do characters have to be likeable?"  None of these characters would be people you'd bring home to dinner or enjoy chatting with over drinks.  As another person pointed out, you're compelled to watch them.  They are interesting.  No one, even the woman who didn't like them, thought the film was boring.  She said she enjoyed it.  She added that she forgot about the film ten minutes later.

My definition of a good film or book is one you ponder after finishing.  With the ending on No Country for Old Men, you can't help but think about it.  Burn After Reading isn't as deep, but it's stayed with me.  I smile, for instance, when I think of John Malkovich telling his wife that he found a new key. (You'll see.) 

In sum, a good story doesn't need characters that you like, but you should be able to empathize with them.  I don't condone Tony Soprano's career and killing, for instance, but I can empathize with him often enough.  You'll empathize with the characters in Burn After Reading.

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Happy Birthday, late, but

Happy Birthday, late, but best wishes all the same.

I am rather nervous to see this one, and I am still think of "No Country for Old Men."

Wasn't the title from a Yeats poem?  Anyway, I still don't get it, and I think I might have sort of liked it.

I thought Tommy Lee was much better in "In the Valley of Ellah."

Thanks for your thoughts, though.

Best,

J Jessica Barksdale Inclan www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com

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Sailing to Byzantium

Jessica, I learned thanks to you that the title "No Country for Old Men" comes from Yeats, specifically from his poem, "Sailing to Byzantium," which is about the cycle of life in contrast to ageless art.  The first stanza of the poem goes:

           That is no country for old men. The young
            In one another's arms, birds in the trees
            - Those dying generations - at their song,
            The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
            Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
            Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
            Caught in that sensual music all neglect
            Monuments of unageing intellect.

Yeats himself left Ireland in 1924, which for him may have been no country for an old man.  Clearly Cormac McCarthy, the author of the book that the movie was based on, knew a good source from which to draw an allusion.

What I like about the Coen Brothers' last two movies is there is a lot to ponder.  People may not think very deeply about Burn After Reading because the main characters are obsessed, self-absorbed people and not thinkers, but it's clear to me the Coens in both movies offer strong interpretations of life on earth, or at least in this country.

Burn After Reading is as about as absurd as anything Samuel Beckett might come up with, which interests me because Beckett was reacting to life after two world wars.  One of his characters, Nell, in "Endgame" says, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. ... Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more."

What are the Coens reacting to?  That is, what is it about our culture that might inform the Coens and other artists?  After this last week with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (could we find funnier names than these?) being taken over, Lehman Brothers and AIG going under, and Bush propping up money markets, aren't we living in an absurd world?  (Do we want eight more years of this Republican existence?)  Really, are the Coens far off the mark?