Burn After Reading

BAR1Today we examine the 12th script in our survey of The Brothers Coen. You can find a link to the script on the site forums. The other eleven reviews in the series can be found here.

Too many times I find myself reading a script from my favorite screenwriting siblings and thinking… ‘these brothers intentionally make things hard on the audience’. Burn After Reading is a great example. Once again, tremendous talent and technical execution are on display. The fly in the ointment [peculiar to the writing of these brothers] is: there isn’t a likable character within an ordinary reader’s tolerance radius. If you aren’t a dedicated misanthrope, you are going to have a hard time endorsing this story. There is, literally, no one to root for.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) I want to look at the opening scene for my answer to this exposition question. I choose this scene because we get a LOT of exposition [unusual for the Coen’s] which, nonetheless, works. Their technique can be imitated to allow you to include exposition into your scenes [IF YOU FEEL YOU MUST]. In spite of the extended length, I will quote almost the entire first scene:

INT. CIA – HALLWAY – DAY 2
We track at floor level, following the well shined shoes of
someone walking down the well polished hallway.

3 INT. PALMER’S OFFICE – DAY 3
We hear a door opening and a silver-haired man rises behind
his desk. A nameplate on the desk identifies him as Palmer
DeBakey Smith.

PALMER
Ozzie. Sit down.

Osbourne Cox, entering, is a middle-aged man in a striped
shirt and bow tie.

OSBOURNE
Palmer. What’s up.

PALMER
You know Peck, and Olson.

The two men, sitting on chairs facing the desk, nod at
Osbourne, who is surprised to see them.

OSBOURNE
Peck, yes, hiya. Olson, by
reputation. Hi, Osbourne Cox.

OLSON
Yeah, hiyah.

OSBOURNE
Aren’t you with…aren’t you,
uh…

Palmer jumps in:

PALMER
Yeah, that’s right. Oz, look.
There’s no easy way to say this.
We’re taking you off the Balkans desk.
OSBOURNE
You’re——what? Why?

PALMER
In fact we’re moving you out of Sigint
entirely.

OSBOURNE
…What? No discussion, just——you’re
out?

PALMER
Well, we’re having the discussion now
Oz. This doesn’t have to be
unpleasant.

OSBOURNE
Palmer, with all due respect——what the
fuck are you talking about?

A beat.

OSBOURNE (CONT’D)
… And why is Olson here?
Another uncomfortable beat.

PALMER
… Look, Ozzie——

OSBOURNE
What the fuck is this?! Is it my——I
know it’s not my work.

PALMER
Ozzie——

OSBOURNE
I’m a great fucking analyst! Is it——

PALMER
Oz, things are not going well. As you
know.

PECK
You have a drinking problem.

Stunned silence. Ozzie turns to look at Peck.
At length:

OSBOURNE
I have a drinking problem.

PALMER
This doesn’t have to be unpleasant.
We found you something in State. It’s
a, uh…

He gropes, uncomfortable.

PALMER (CONT’D)
… It’s a lower clearance level.
Yes. But we’re not, this isn’t, we’re
not terminating you.

OSBOURNE
(quietly)
This is an assault.

PECK
Come on, Ozzie.

OSBOURNE
This is an assault. I have a drinking
problem? Fuck you, Peck, you’re a
Mormon!

PECK
Ozzie——

OSBOURNE
Next to you we all have a drinking
problem! Fuck you guys! Whose ass
didn’t I kiss? Let’s be honest!

Palmer nods at Olson.

PALMER
Okay, Olson——

OSBOURNE
Let’s be fucking honest…

Osbourne gets to his feet, agitated.

OSBOURNE (CONT’D)
… This is a crucifixion! This is
political! Don’t tell me it’s not!

He storms out the door.

OSBOURNE (CONT’D)
… I have a drinking problem!

In this scene we learn two-thirds of all the information we need to know in order to understand Osbourne’s story:

1. He has just lost the semi-important job he had prior to his story’s beginning.
2. He DEFINITELY has a drinking problem.

[The only other piece of information we need is that his marriage is in crisis. Were there more space, I’d quote the very next scene to show how the brothers continue their opening expo-dump by also detailing this in an exposition-laced confrontation between Osbourne and his wife, Kate.]

The first reason this scene works is because of how quickly it moves from a cooperative to a confrontational conversation frame. The Brothers bait us with the pleasantries:

PALMER
You know Peck, and Olson.

The two men, sitting on chairs facing the desk, nod at
Osbourne, who is surprised to see them.

OSBOURNE
Peck, yes, hiya. Olson, by
reputation. Hi, Osbourne Cox.

OLSON
Yeah, hiyah.

OSBOURNE
Aren’t you with…aren’t you,
uh…

Pleasantries for sure, but notice how they are conversational cookies baked in a stove of foreboding:

The two men, sitting on chairs facing the desk, nod at
Osbourne, who is surprised to see them.

OSBOURNE
Aren’t you with…aren’t you,
uh…

The line from Osbourne is doubly effective because the department Olson is with, never gets named. It is intimidating enough to Osbourne, however, that he is reduced to nonsense. He can’t even complete the sentence.

The VERY brief moment of cooperation immediately turns aggressive:

PALMER
Yeah, that’s right. Oz, look.
There’s no easy way to say this.
We’re taking you off the Balkans desk.

No sooner have we met our protagonist in a setting which implies his competence and importance, then he suffers a humiliating demotion. All of this is made worse by the way Palmer talks to him. The character cues imply that Osbourne goes by his full name, but Palmer first refers to him by the [literally] diminutive “Ozzie”, and then follows that with the even more [literally] diminutive Oz. Each time Palmer speaks to Osbourne, he makes him smaller. Even worse, he does it under the guise of friendship.

According to the rules of conversation, you don’t use the diminutive form of someone’s name unless you are significantly older than the person you’re speaking to, or you’re very friendly with the person and s/he has given you that conversational privilege.

I don’t know whether the Brothers do this kind of thing by accident, or if they plan it [I fully believe it’s planned.], but these are all techniques that you can incorporate into your own writing. Any conversational rout will be aided by having the power usurper call the other person by shorter and shorter versions of her real name. It’s brilliant subtextual technique.

The other thing I love about this scene [the other thing that makes it work in spite of the exposition] is the repetition. Palmer’s belief that “this doesn’t have to be unpleasant”, is offset by Osbourne’s shock at the idea that “I have a drinking problem”.

You can think of repetition as the most overt signal conversation can deliver that the participants have become confrontational. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of handing someone a lit stick of dynamite and asking them to hold it for you. When you repeat something, it means you are saying the other person is lying—they are undermining the purpose of conversation in order to achieve a cheap victory.

Palmer is reminding Osbourne that he is the one in charge with his “this doesn’t have to be unpleasant”, that it is within his rights as “boss” to demote Osbourne… for whatever reason he, as “boss”, decides. Stripped down to bare metal, Palmer is basically reminding Osbourne that they live in a society, society has rules, and that, by objecting, Osbourne is breaking the conversational contract which keeps society operating.

Osbourne’s repetition of “I have a drinking problem”, is the most aggressive statement he can craft which shows he believes Palmer is lying to him—without actually saying… Palmer is lying to him. He thinks his demotion is “political” and has nothing to do with his [alleged] drinking problem.

Osbourne also repeats his feeling that the meeting is “an assault”. In conversational terms, he is exactly correct. What you have to admire about the way the brothers wrote this scene, is the large amount of subtext they manage to squeeze into the small number of lines in which Osbourne gets this idea across. We learn, definitively, that Osbourne’s reaction to wrongs [imagined or real] done to him rapidly escalates to disproportionate levels. Several times, he refers to their conversation as an assault [already a degree or two beyond what an ordinary person would consider proportionate description]. He ends, however, by referring to it as a crucifixion. Which, if you follow the metaphor to its bottom, makes him the Jesus of his story. This is, I think, stunningly brilliant.

Read this script if you want to know how to render exposition unto your script without it defeating your reader’s interest in your script:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) We already talked a great deal about all the subtext in the dialogue during the first part of this question. It won’t be a surprise, then, that I feel Burn After Reading excels in this area too.

As was the case with our previous two Coen Brothers reviews, this script’s thematic message comes in tiers. Since the Brothers are masters at tying subtext to theme, there are corresponding tiers in their subtextual delivery. Tier One concerns the silliness of the intelligence efforts of Modern States—we will not formally discuss this aspect of the subtext until question three. Tier Two concerns the pointlessness of human efforts to love one another—this aspect of the subtext will face evaluation, now. The example scene comes from pages 34-36:

INT. MONKEY 50 DAVE’S – NIGHT 50
Linda Litzke and Ted Treffon, the soulful manager of
Hardbodies, are at a table in the yuppie bar Monkey Dave’s.

To a waitress:

LINDA
Absolut Saketini, please?

TED
Just a Tab.

LINDA
You know, it wouldn’t cover all of it,
but if I got some advance on my salary
I could at least get the surgery ball
rolling.

TED
Whoa! There’s a payroll company, you
know. They don’t just advance people
money. They just don’t do that. I
mean, sure, I could say, Yes, I *
authorize it, but that’s not going to
mean anything to them.

008BAR_Frances_McDormand_003LINDA
Well why do they have us on a
cockamamie health plan? I need these
surgeries, Ted!

TED
You’re a beautiful woman! You don’t
need–

LINDA
Ted, I have gone just as far as I can
go with this body! I——

TED
I think it’s a very beautiful——it’s
not a phoney-baloney Hollywood body——

LINDA
That’s right, Ted, I would be laughed
out of Hollywood. I have very limited
breasts and a gi-normous ass and I
have this gut that swings back and
forth in front a me like a shopping
cart with a bent wheel.

TED
Oh come on!

LINDA
I am trying to get back in
circulation. I have appetites and so
forth, and, uh——

TED
Well there’s a lot of guys who’d like
you just the way you are.

LINDA
Yeah——losers!

TED
Well, I don’t know. Am I a loser?
Lemme tell you something. I wasn’t
always a manager at Hardbodies. I,
um…
*
He looks at her, appraising. He decides.

TED (CONT’D) *
Let me show you something.

He reaches into his wallet. He pulls out a picture:
A snapshot of a soulful man in a dark robe and a high caftan
standing on a curb in front of a large stone building.

Linda shrieks:

LINDA
Omygod——is that you?!

Ted nods gravely.

TED
Fourteen years, a Greek Orthodox
priest. Congregation in Chevy Chase.

LINDA
Well jeez, that’s a good job!

TED
Mm-hm.

LINDA
What happened?

TED
Well…

He looks at the picture for a sad beat, then shrugs. He
stuffs it back in his wallet.

TED (CONT’D)
… It’s a long story. Anyway, lotta
ways I’m happier now. My point is…
my point is… it’s a journey.

LINDA
Well that’s my point! I don’t want to
stay where I am! I want to find
someone to share my journey!

TED
Well, sometimes, you know, you don’t
look in your own back yard, you’re
never gonna see——

LINDA
That’s right! That’s why I’ve started
this internet dating!

TED
Uh-huh, but I’m saying, maybe you
don’t have to, you know… to——

LINDA
Look Ted, I know you can’t authorize
an advance on my salary but you can
put in a request, can’t you?

TED
It’s not going to do any good, Linda.

LINDA
Ted, have you ever heard of the power
of positive thinking?

By my count, Ted discloses SEVEN times his interest in Linda. Each time she fails to identify his statements as the interest-bearing comments they really are. In subtextual terms, the Brothers are telling us:

Humans are dramatically incapable of communicating with each other.

What I find fascinating about this hypothesis is THE WAY it is revealed. Ted likes Linda and wants to pursue a relationship with her. There are a wide range of women who would pick up on the cues Ted sends—it’s just that Linda isn’t one of them. There are a corresponding wide range of men who would get frustrated by Linda’s lack of perception and just come right out and ask her for a date—Ted isn’t one of those men. What the brothers are saying, subtextually, is:

Human relationships tend toward miscommunication… by our own choosing.

It’s important to remember [when we get to theme] that in the Brothers lexicography, communication is synonymous with love. I feel confident [after all these scripts] in saying they are making an epistemological statement about Other Minds. We can never know [love] others because we cannot find the words to communicate properly.

Our language is insufficient for our emotional fulfillment.

This philosophical statement is not only interesting-in-itself, but also, quite possibly, worth taking seriously from an epistemological standpoint. These Brothers MAY be right.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) So far, I have been more fan than critic. I will reverse that trend when it comes to individuation. Not because the characters are hard to tell apart—they aren’t. I do this because they are all so ridiculously unlikable. Ted and Chad are tolerable, but the rest of our major participants make all those miscreants in The Ladykillers look like angels.

Not one of our major players has any redeeming quality. They are vain, selfish, and [often] cruel. I get that the brothers have half-dedicated themselves to a study of misanthropic virtues, but their insistence on tilling this field can grow tiresome. Not everyone is vain, selfish, and cruel. This is just as much an epistemological fact about humans as its opposite. To spend so much effort and ability on half, or [pessimistically] three-fourths of the human race… misses the point about our species.

I’m okay with a first premise that says humans are irredeemable BUT, I will insist you prove it if you’re dedicating your Art to that idea.

3 out of 10 points.

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