Burn After Reading (2)

burn_after_reading06Today we conclude the review of our twelfth script from The Brothers Coen. You can download a copy of the script on the site forums. A link to part one of the review can be found here.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

I enjoyed reading these first 10 pages, in spite of my inability to connect with any character in terms of her/his likeableness. I suppose what makes each new effort from the Coens interesting, no matter the subject matter, is their unrivaled talent for maximizing the torture inherent in their humble premises. These guys are masters at finding excruciating emotional frustration in the least likely places. We dial in [and remain engaged] because we want to see them indulge their perverse sense of humor.

Often they spot the tightrope stretched between Funny and Dark, and walk it with dexterity. Occasionally, their choices never leave Dark. For me, Burn After Reading sees the rope, wobbles three-fourths of the way to Funny… and then falls. The first 10 mirror the overall effect:

15 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) My assessment of Burn After Reading places it on the True Grit rather than the A Serious Man side of the suitable number of reveals spectrum in Coen Brothers scripts. As discussed in the first question, most of the “reveals” are really dialogue-based exposition in which one character fills in missing details in the story for another character who is really just an audience substitute.

The only thing I count as a Real Reveal is the identity of Harry’s stalker—a private investigator hired by Harry’s wife Sandy. (1)

3 out of 10 points.

Part B) Once again the Brothers foil my protagonist’s engine question by refusing to write a script with a clear protagonist. You could make cases for several characters, but I think the issue is settled by the fact that, if not for Osbourne’s choice to leave his job rather than be demoted, none of the rest of the story takes place. So, if we accept this is truly Osbourne’s story, what propels him to his [literal] Fade Out?

I find it fascinating that Osbourne [as protagonist] has the vaguest engine of any other choice you might make for the role.

Harry’s Engine: Vanity in the form of Sexual Exploitation of Women
Linda’s Engine: Vanity in the form of Cosmetic Surgery

Chad, Katie, and Sandy are each propelled through their lives by some manifestation of vanity too, but none of them are significant enough to the plot to merit consideration as protagonist. (2)

Given all this symmetry, we should expect that Osbourne’s engine will also have its mounts in the vehicle of vanity. But, of what form?

I suggest that our biggest clue comes in the opening scene:

Let’s be fucking honest…

Osbourne gets to his feet, agitated.

… This is a crucifixion!

As stated in part one of the review, this language is wildly disproportionate to what is happening to Osbourne—even if his analysis [delivered in the next breath] is correct:

… This is a crucifixion! This is
political! Don’t tell me it’s not!

Even if he is right and his demotion is political and completely unrelated to his drinking problem, the language used to describe the offence is not commensurate with the scope of the offence. As Palmer noted earlier in this scene:

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

A change in clearance level is not the same thing as being the son of God hung from a cross. Osbourne’s engine, then, exists in the disparity between his view of his self-worth and society’s view of his self worth. In other words:

Osbourne has a persecution complex.

A grandstanding memoirist who loses his life because he can’t accurately denote his own value is PERFECT engine to protagonist matching.

5 out 5 points.

Part C) It would not be entirely frivolous to suggest that the pinch point of this script comes on page 4, with the twice quoted:

… This is a crucifixion!

To try and make this argument work would require an intense revaluation of all my previous aesthetic values. I am not up to that effort. In substitution, I’ll offer this line from page 98:

… What?

He brings the notice close, squints at it.

… What the fuck?

[This is when Osbourne finally sees that his wife has stolen all his money and left him with nothing but a boat which can’t be docked because the check for the docking fees has bounced.]

Initially, this could strike you as one of the least forceful pinch points ever written. But, our Brothers are nothing if they are not clever, and this may be the perfect expression of  Osbourne’s realization of the theme of his story. ‘What the fuck’ translates as:

I do not understand my species.


5 out of 5 points.

Part D) If you remember back to part one of this review, I stated this script had dual themes. One is characteristic to their work in that I have found it to exist in EVERY one of their scripts:

Love is impossible.

burn-after-reading-malkovich 2As is usual, the Brothers demonstrate why they think this is true by focusing on the ways in which humans infallibly miscommunicate. We’ve discussed this theme exclusively throughout the rest of this review, so we will consider that case proved.

The other theme relates specifically to the Intelligence efforts of Modern Western States. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to realize the Brothers are telling us, at best:

The Intelligence Efforts of Modern Western States Are Ineffectual.

At worst, they are telling us:

The Intelligence Efforts of Modern Western States Are Stupid.

I think everyone would agree that this theme is in the material. I am not “deconstructing” this sugar into their pie. As proof, we need only cite the concluding scene:

Yes sir. Should I pay it out of,
should it be from——

One of the black accounts, I don’t
give a shit. The January fund.


Jesus. Jesus fucking Christ.

He shakes his head.

… What did we learn, Palmer.

I don’t know, sir.

I don’t fucking know either. I guess
we learned not to do it again.

Yes sir.

Although I’m fucked if I know what we

Yes sir. Hard to say.

Game set and match.

What is interesting, though, is the way the Brothers went about proving their syllogism about Modern Intelligence Efforts. They did it through the lives and miscommunications of ordinary people. If I am permitted a moment of refabrication, they connect the failure of society [and the instruments of society] at achieving the aims they were designed for to a flaw in the design of the building blocks of society. Namely, human beings.

Those poor people collecting “intelligence” in little cubicles all over the world don’t even realize they were defeated before they had even begun to play.

Humans can’t be understood… by other humans.

Again, I think this is brilliant.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) My discussion of theme guarantees you already know I think the story being told is unique. There are not many authors who can tie their theme to their subtext. These guys manage to tie BOTH their themes to their subtext, and then have it reinforce the message of their entire life’s work. That is radically brilliant.

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) I cannot wax as poetic about the writing, however. The insistence on misanthropy is disconcerting. Perhaps had they developed the idea [An idea that is latent in the pages—or discernible only through a deconstructive lens. No matter what Derrida thinks he thinks he’s doing, he didn’t change the critical approach, he just renamed it.] that misanthropy=persecution complex, they would have had something unique. As it is, I’ve been down this road before. A dozen times.

2 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

Oh lord. Look, I’ve already talked enough about [and subtracted enough points] from this script for the fundamental philosophical disagreement I have with the Coens. I won’t punish Burn After Reading anymore for its misanthropic shortcomings.

The fact is, this script does inspire me. I love to look at things which approximate perfection, and these Brothers have given us another piece of Art which is technically sublime. I am inspired by their craftsmanship and their imagination.

10 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 78


1. As I was writing this sentence, it occurred to me that private investigators figure prominently in a LOT of Coen Brothers screenplays. They are always outwitted by whomever they are tracking. Whenever I have time to turn all this information I’ve collated about the Brother’s scripts into more specific chunks of refabrication, I will look into the private investigator as symbol in their work. I have some ideas…

2. Another topic for a future summarization essay is Ted’s engine. He ACTUALLY loves Linda. In the Brothers corpus I’ve now encountered five characters capable of love:

1. Ray—Blood Simple
2. Larry—A Serious Man
3. Rooster—True Grit
4. Mattie—True Grit
5. Ted—Burn After Reading


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