A couple of weeks ago, former Times colleague Christian Toto sent me a DM on Twitter, asking me to do an e-mail debate on RAISING ARIZONA, which he called his all-time favorite film, for the movie’s release on Blu-ray. I had just seen the film as part of a retro at AFI Silver, where I’ve also since seen MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK — all three early films that I’d only seen once, way back when, and was willing to give another chance. And I had made clear my displeasure at ARIZONA. Christian posted the results, him first, at his site this morning under the title “A ‘Raising Arizona’ Hater Speaks.” And I post it here also. Read more »
BURN AFTER READING — Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2008, 8
I wish it could mean more for me to say that I liked BURN AFTER READING more than I ever have liked a Coen brothers comedy (list below is updated to reflect), setting aside one or two tonal missteps mostly involving reaction shots from Clooney producing flashbacks from the detestable O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU. Though in a very different tonal vein, BURN tells the same story as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN — the chaos unleashed when ordinary people engage in criminal scheming in a bid for social mobility. In fact, going back to RAISING ARIZONA for the basic plot and to BLOOD SIMPLE for the irony of a crime that’s all one big misunderstanding, BURN is as “typical” as a Coens movie gets.
Richard Schickel once made the point about Preston Sturges’s political comedies (THE GREAT McGINTY and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO) that they are so funny because Sturges — an American raised abroad and thus both an insider and an outsider at the same time — could see the American politician for what he timelessly is (a venal windbag) without a shred of conviction that he could be redeemed by being more liberal or more conservative. Ask yourself, what party did Everett Noble (the mayor in CONQUERING HERO) belong to? I don’t think I’d compare the Coen brothers to Sturges (they’re more the children of Billy Wilder), but they’ve certainly never given any sense in any of their previous films that there’s a partisan or ideological bone in either of their bodies.
The Coens could not be more explicit that they view politics sub specie aeternitatis in BURN AFTER READING, which both begins and ends with a God’s-eye POV, descending from above the earth into the CIA at the start, and then ascending back from the CIA at the end. It’s a conceit worthy of Kubrick — the whole tone of DR. STRANGELOVE and the final title card of BARRY LYNDON (another movie about social climbing). And just as that POV enabled STRANGELOVE to turn the death of 3 billion people into a cosmic joke, this is a very obviously “movie” movie (more on that later) where death is more serious to the characters but a joke for the viewers.
Any time the Coen Brothers come up among cinephiles or even moderately-conversant moviegoers, there seems to come over everyone a need to rank their films in order of preference.
More than any other film-makers, the Coen Brothers really offer a Rohrshach test for one’s own personality, because (and I’m indebted to Scott Tobias for this point) they nearly always make movies that are “perfect” with respect to their conceptions. And so one is primarily reacting to the film’s conception as an individual and not its execution as a critic. So … and keeping in mind I’ve seen all their movies except the latest BURN AFTER READING, here’s my list. And so, here’s my list updated to reflect BURN AFTER READING, which stunned me with how good it was.
- No Country for Old Men
- Blood Simple
- Burn After Reading
- Miller’s Crossing
- The Man Who Wasn’t There
- The Big Lebowski
- The Ladykillers
- Intolerable Cruelty
- Barton Fink
- The Hudsucker Proxy
- Raising Arizona
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The big gaps here are between 3 and 4, which has a big dropoff from “masterpiece” to “pretty good,” and then between 5 and 6, 6 and 7, which separates “pretty good” and “wildly uneven,” and 8 and 9, 9 and 10, which drops off from “uneven” to “don’t like even a little.”
Looking over this list, I’m pretty confident I will not care for BURN AFTER READING because I love the Coens’ crime movies and dislike (the point of detesting in some cases) their comedies, which I mostly consider to be too-clever-for-their-own-good snarkfests and too hit-and-miss (in LEBOWSKI: John Goodman and the funeral scene, great; Julianne Moore and JAY-zoos, no). Though I absolutely WILL see BURN, because I know that no matter how much I hated their last one (though I thought their last one was last year’s best film), the next one could always be a corker.