The Coen Brothers opened last year’s No Country for Old Men, a movie on whose landscape evidence of God was in short supply, with an arid montage of darkened desert Texas tableau that obliquely suggested the spiritless, harshly beautiful surroundings that characterized Kubrick’s Dawn of Man. Their new movie, Burn After Reading, opens with a different perspective on that same landscape, one at an even further remove from any specific beauty through which its characters might stumble, ignorant of said beauty, toward their randomly absurd fates. Burn, a typically riotous take on high-tech spy movie conventions scored to the Coens’ uniquely syncopated inner beats, takes the wryly clinical God’s-eye-view of Hitchcock’s The Birds and attaches it to the wonders of technology. The grand overview of humanity with which the movie commences is that provided by satellite surveillance—the point of view of Kubrick’s bone after it transforms into a spaceship—and quickly zeroes down from the heavens to the surface of the Earth where the characters have been rendered so miniscule and microscopic—they don’t become more significant the closer we get to them-- as to have had their meaning as anything other than self-important 1’s and 0’s compressed right out of them. The heavens may be vastly indifferent, but it turns out they have a taste for existential slapstick—they think it’s funny as hell to watch as we fragile and foolish humans slip and fall on banana peel after banana peel on our way to our great rewards-- which may include the means to a long-sought-after pursuit of happiness via plastic surgery, a one-way ticket to a life riddled with unwarranted and excessive paranoia (delusions of grandeur manifest themselves in amusing ways in this picture), or perhaps an early and unexpected death while wearing a stupid grin on one’s face.
The joke of Burn After Reading is a nasty variation on the old bromide about things not being what they seem— in this movie, nothing—personal remembrances, faux government secrets, loveless marriages-- is worth the effort put into the scramble undertaken to procure or preserve them. It’s a movie populated by demoted C.I.A. analysts and philandering federal marshals and clueless health club employees who end up chasing each other's tails over a bunch of notes for a memoir no one will ever read; notes which themselves are mistaken for encrypted high-clearance government secrets that, strangely enough, no one who would recognize such secrets when they saw them seem to be interested in. The Coens maintain the bemused aerial detachment of their movie's opening image by making sure that the only folks who have the whole picture, confusing and absurd though it may be, are those of us in the audience, who heartlessly laugh like hell as everyday Joes squint their eyes knowingly, play-acting like Richard Burton having just come out of the cold, and government nabobs implode over everyday heart-breakers like divorce attorney surveillance and overdrawn checking accounts. And of course their every encounter is fraught with head-scratching misunderstanding and the aforementioned delusions of grandeur. Everyone in the cast plays dumb brilliantly; the volcanic and alcoholic spook (John Malkovich) whose humiliating demotion kicks the action off; his icy, manipulative wife (Tilda Swinton); the lonely and desperate gym employee (Frances McDormand) who decides that funding the elective rhinoplasty and liposuction her H.M.O. won’t pay for is justification for what she assumes is a betrayal of her country; the mechanically inclined ladies man (George Clooney) who trolls the Internet for sexual encounters to counterbalance the lies he tells himself about his marriage to a successful children’s book author (he’s sleeping with both Swinton and McDormand); and the hyperactive musclehead (Brad Pitt) who goads McDormand into ill-fated blackmail without the necessary leverage— during a clumsy payoff attempt he’s effortlessly pegged as a rube by Malkovich, whose angry rants don’t hit as hard as an unexpected blow to the nose or a profound insult to Pitt’s preferred mode of transportation. (“You think that’s a Schwinn?” the gym-bot asks incredulously.)
The movie carries through on its wheel-spinning scenario with a running commentary by a pair of Washington pencil-pushers (David Raschke and J.K. Simmons) who poke curiously at the moves of all the major players and with increasing impatience wait for it all to make sense. That it never does is, of course, the movie’s crowning joke, one whose ultimate comic value will correlate precisely to how much you enjoy indulging in the perspective of that indifferent, omniscient, technological god whose orbiting point of view is restored as the closing credits commence. Were it not so consistently hilarious, full of oddball character moments (Richard Jenkins’ gym manager is revealed to have a past as an Orthodox Greek priest, a back story which goes uncommented upon) and, for such a brutal farce, unexpected levels of empathy for its parade of fools. The characters in Burn After Reading have no depths and resonances to be plumbed a la The Big Lebowski, but its bitterness, while certainly less than humanist, doesn’t leave the metallic after-taste of a relatively empty noir exercise like Blood Simple or a sterile Boschian puzzle box like Barton Fink. (Then again, I liked Intolerable Cruelty.) The pleasures of Burn After Reading, nasty (and cineasty) though they may be, are all right there on the surface, just like the self-important ants scurrying around on that big globe that bookends the movie itself. The vast indifference of heaven proves to be a proper attitude after all.
I mentioned the “cineasty” pleasures of Burn After Reading (which extend to the faux-Saul Bass design of its one-sheet) and, as in nearly every Coen Brothers movie, there are many of those to be relished. In the beginning, after dropping down from space and through the roof of C.I.A. Headquarters, we get the title card at the lower left of frame informing us that we are indeed roaming the corridors at C.I.A., Langley, Virginia, accompanied by the familiar beeping and clicking as each letter appears-- a deadpan joke in this age of excessive 24-Bourne style geographical (dis)orientation. The chyron is superimposed over another spy-movie staple, the low-to-the-ground angle on a pair of patent leather shoes purposefully pounding their way down a carpeted hall to a destination of what is sure to be, given the graphic weight of the image and speed at which they are traveling, a very important destination. And later in the movie, just after a particularly surprising turn of events, the Coens return to this swift-step tracking for a series of shots leading from the halls of the Pentagon to some inner chamber that might be the single funniest (and deadest-panned) joke in the entire movie—certainly deadpan enough that I think I was the only one in the opening-night audience who laughed. The montage consists of only about five shots in toto, and what makes it hilarious is what the brothers, in collaboration with genius sound editor Skip Lievsay (who somehow avoided an Oscar for No Country for Old Men), create on the soundtrack-- a patchwork of ambient, air-conditioning-inflected ambient sound that alters slightly, in tone, pitch and intensity, and increases in hilarity with each shot. It’s there if you hear it and gone in a flash if you don’t, a throwaway gag, a juicy riff on the vacuum-packed visual language of these kinds of films, another one for the Coen Brothers peanut gallery. It's also quite easy to imagine Joel and Ethan racked with laughter in the editing room, not giving a damn if anyone else thinks the joke is funny.
The moment made me think of other great movie jokes about or created by the inventive use of sound. I’m sure there are plenty of examples that go far beyond the scope and time frame of the ones I could think of, but in the aftermath of seeing Burn After Reading a second time this past week I came up with four other great uses of sound in movies that either make us laugh, or comment upon the action (or our expectations and dread), or make a point about how sound in movies can manipulate us just as easily as the image can. You will undoubtedly be able to think of other instances, and I’d love to hear about ones that demonstrate the medium’s self-awareness and creative use of sound in the early days of the movies’ marriage to audio. As always, I look forward to what you will have thought of that will have inevitably passed me by.
In chronological order:
Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970) begins with a great joke on generations who have come to expect a certain something when confronted with Leo the Lion and the famous MGM studio logo. Instead of a loud roar asserting the potency of the studio and its far-reaching vision of entertainment, Altman fittingly frames the days of turmoil and bankruptcy that would characterize MGM in the early ‘70s with a declaration of puzzlement and disorientation. The first words heard on the soundtrack are from Rene Auberjoinois’ avian-looking professor, who will himself morph into a strange stork-like creature over the course of the movie, who is heard muttering, “I’ve forgotten the opening line,” a bizarre admission revealed as an on-set blooper by the attendant laughter of the crew that immediately follows. The opening credits themselves are another typically Altmanesque jamboree of sound-and-image manipulation that really must be seen to be believed. (That’s Margaret Hamilton “singing” the National Anthem…)
Taste went out the window in a rather ostentatious way in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) when the director orchestrated what is surely the rudest tribute to the musical fruit ever committed to film. The bean-inspired burps and farts are funny in an of themselves, without a doubt, but what’s really funny about the sequence is how the toots escalate and vary in pitch and shape, from an inaugural honking blast into a virtual symphony of whiffs and explosions and uncontrolled methane production. That and the look on Slim Pickens’ face as he comes out of the tent…
In a great horror movie, anticipation and dread can be as potent as any revelation of the face behind the mask (or the masked face behind the heavy sliding metal door). Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) efficiently plays on its audience’s dread for what they know, courtesy of the none-too-subtle (and now iconographic) advertising campaign, will be coming soon enough. The movie, startlingly inventive on a scale of suggestive use of sound, knows we know what’s coming too. Our protagonists, a bunch of kids on a van tour across Texas, make their way, in broad daylight, through a field toward an old house, probably abandoned, and as they get closer we become aware of a faint sound in the distance, something that sounds like an engine. A revving engine. The sound gets louder as they (and we) get closer to the house, and we know that moving forward is not going to be a good idea—there is mention in the title of the movie of chainsaws, after all. The sound becomes louder, droning, nearly deafening as the kids approach the dilapidated yard, slowly making their way through mangled fences and around a beat-up shack, rounding a corner to reveal… a gas-powered electric generator running at full speed, a completely innocuous sound source. We laugh with relief, even as we wonder who started the generator and where they might be. A few moments later we find out when the engine sound is replaced by the one we guessed to begin with…
Before becoming ensnared in a series of shadowy political machinations that are, in all likelihood, more profound and disquieting in their depth and sphere of influence than even his paranoia will allow, the sound editor played by John Travolta in Brian De Palma’s masterpiece Blow Out (1981) is seen with his sleazy producer watching a naked screamer in the cheap horror movie they are creating let loose a spectacularly insufficient shriek on the event of being stabbed in the shower. The dissatisfaction of these filmmakers, born of that hollow space between the effective visual terror of the actress and the ineffectual moans on the soundtrack, will send Travolta on a search, among the movie’s many other concerns, for a really good scream. In one of De Palma’s many brilliant textual commentaries on how sound is manipulated by the movies, we later see a recording session in which auditions are being held for female screamers whose vocal performances are to be laid over the limp mewling emanating from the original actress. The scene is played for broad comedy—none of the actresses hired for their voice-over abilities are much more talented than the woman whose voice is being replaced, and neither Travolta nor we can quite believe what we’re hearing.
The tragedy at the center of Blow Out, a movie about the gulf between what we see and what we hear, is that Travolta finally finds the ultimate scream, a howl of despair that will likely haunt the inside of his head forever. The bitterest of jokes is how the scream is memorialized, and of course trivialized, by being put into the service of that routine exploitation shocker. We unknowingly hear the same scream, decontextualized, as Blow Out starts, and there it works as simple ear candy, suspense movie decoration. By the movie’s end it has its own horrific reverberation.