Saturday, September 13, 2008

Spoiler Alert:

I'm not a Coen Brothers loyalist. I like many of their movies, especially Fargo, and I consider them to be very good filmmakers, but all-in-all, the construction of two-dimensional characters whose entire personalities rest on their tics, while it says something very definitive and insightful about atomized society, also bolsters the absence of character. The brilliance of a "Jesus," who is at once timid pedophile in his neighborhood and highly showy bragadoccio in the bowling alley is killed by the number of fraternity boys who, on Halloween, dress up as John Turturo and repeat, "You don't mess with the Jesus." For this reason, some of their movies I find more compelling than others. No Country for Old Men was entirely dependent on the positing of a central character - the Golem, Anton Chigur, who embodied what Zizek might call the "perverse remainder" of Capitalist rationality. The emptiness of the tale, the ultimate lack of something approximating a "moral" (and I would hasten to question what it is that we call a "moral" in film), ultimately reinforces the emptiness that it seeks to critique: the majority of moviegoers enjoy and delight in the film, just as they enjoy and delight in the Saw series.

The newest film by the brothers, Burn After Reading, continues what now seems to be an ongoing theme in their films: the ultimate construction of a world totally drained of purpose. All sacrifice leads to more absurdity. The hollowness of life replicates the hollowness on screen.

The Coen Brothers' enforce this message with what is now perhaps the most dominant trope of contemporary cinema: the revelation to the audience of that which was once forbidden on screen and could only be implied, namely, the fatal head injury.

The fatal head injury was seen in No Country for Old Men (above), in The Dark Knight, with The Joker's pencil trick, further in the past, we saw it in American History X, and we saw it multiple times in There Will Be Blood.... The fatal head injury is meant to shock viewers: suddenly, unexpectedly, we see that which we thought we weren't allowed to see. The head wound, sometimes with brain included, the penetration of the one area that we feel ought to be most protected.

The shot to the head accomplishes two things: first, it is the unearthing of a common suicide fantasy. The just-deceased David Foster Wallace articulated it in this manner at the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Speech:
It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. [Note: I find it very eerie that as I was writing this blog post, Gerry was posting on David Foster Wallace's death by suicide, and he included this speech, which is where I found it].
Thus, what the mind happens upon multiple times in the construction of a script is passed on to the audience. The second purpose that these head wounds serve is as a wake-up call, and I think the David Foster Wallace quote illustrates that, as well. "Wake the fuck up and pay attention, because all of this is garbage!" The fatal head injury caught on camera turns the audience away from the plot and focuses their entire attention on to this one event. It is no mistake that in every one of these shots, you get a moment of anticipation, then the act in which the head is concussed, and then an immediate cut away from the site of the injury. The quickness of the event is a direct antithesis of its weight in our minds. Thus, we shouldn't too hastily dismiss the facile comparison between the hole in the head and black holes (the Hadron Collider makes its appearance). The plot - all affect, all relationships, all cathexis that takes place in the unfolding of the narrative - is suddenly pulled in to this one image, an image that is gone before we actually have time to analyze it. All else is misery and waiting. Thus, after Daniel Plainview bashes Eli Sunday over the head with a bowling pin, all that is left is for him to declare, I'm finished. And the framing of Burn After Reading articulates this aspect even more strongly. We open with a typical CIA movie opening - a pan from outer space into the earth and then a block letter subtitle, "CIA Headquarters, Langley, VA." The pan out at the end of the film is the precise reverse image of this pan in, but it is following the declaration by the CIA superior (a relatively minor character played by J.K. Simmons [Juno's father and the Aryan Nation leader from Oz]) that we have learned nothing whatsoever in the course of this film except, maybe, "Don't do it again." The long shot of the earth - what serves in typical CIA films to illustrate the interconnectedness of the entire sphere and the global reach of various secret networks - now serves to illustrate the pointlessness of the entire endeavor. We have learned nothing, and we will go home having understood nothing.

Yet who are the objects of these head injuries? John Malkovich, before bashing one character in the head with an axe, declares that "You are from that league of morons, who I have been fighting against my entire life." The head injuries are thus directed against the stupid - the hole in the head is also a metaphor for stupidity, for those who blindly follow the same path, laugh where they are supposed to laugh, and continue blithely through everything without an ounce of reflection. Yet if that is the case, then the shots to the head miss their target. Most of us will be inclined to "do it again," to travel the same worn-out path to the cinema and experience the same shock and horror, in a kind of perverse eternal return. If the head shots are wake-up calls, they are only momentarily so; like an overactive hurricane season or genocide, they only stick in the minds of those immediately affected. But perhaps this, too, is captured in the hole - after all, there is no waking up from a bullet to the brain.


Anonymous said...

brilliant. i just saw this and had a similar emotional reaction, though of course without the intellectual synthesis.

the head wounds are literally the money shots. the stupidity, though, i would say is shared by everyone. the successful are the ones who have been trained to simply act without thinking (clooney and mcdormand's characters) and the ones so well-insulated by money and power that they have the privilege of commenting on what they don't comprehend in the slightest (the CIA people). stupidity is power for some and not for others.

in a sense the film displays what has to be true for social darwinism to be an accurate theory of society. so this deterministic 'worldview,' which doesn't really criticize itself just pushes the message twice as hard, is at once the film's strength and its weakness.

Alex Greenberg said...

I think you're right about stupidity being a completely shared trait. John Malkovich, who accuses everyone else of being stupid, does not escape the verdict. I'm going to rewrite some of this and incorporate that idea.

Alex Greenberg said...

At the same time, I think that there is a continuity between this film and No Country for Old Men, and that Anton Chigurh is not open to the same kind of critique. The question thus remains: are the filmmakers disdaining or lamenting with their audience?

Alex Greenberg said...

I made some changes, mostly to the last paragraph, to reflect this exchange.