Thursday, September 25, 2008

SOUND COMEDY: BURN AFTER READING



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.

17 comments:

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Jason Bellamy said...

I have to agree with Digital Photo manipulation Services | Photoshop image manipulation services -- sorry, I couldn't pass up an opportunity to say that -- interesting stuff. The use-of-sound question gives me something to ponder on a Friday.

Meantime, friendly correction: It's CIA Headquarters in Langley where the scenes you describe go down. (The Pentagon is in Arlington.)

seth said...

i was really anticipating Burn After Reading but when I saw how their marketing people twisted critics' quotes it really bothered me. They completely reversed people in some cases - http://www.gelfmagazine.com/archives/the_coens_emotionfree_uneven_thriller.php

Rick Olson said...

I haven't seen it for awhile, but I think of the brilliant use of sound in Das Boot, and the way it creates tension as the men on the sub -- quiet, because of the sonar -- listen to every tiny noise.

It's all the more effective because it is so familiar ... every submarine movie ever made has similar scenes, and we know quite as well as the guys onscreen what each noise means. Petersen and his sound editor do such a great job here.

Rick Olson said...

I haven't seen it for awhile, but I think of the brilliant use of sound in Das Boot, and the way it creates tension as the men on the sub -- quiet, because of the sonar -- listen to every tiny noise.

It's all the more effective because it is so familiar ... every submarine movie ever made has similar scenes, and we know quite as well as the guys onscreen what each noise means. Petersen and his sound editor do such a great job here.

(sorry if this is a repeat comment)

J.D. said...

David Lynch's films always feature a brilliant, layered soundscape that really adds to the atmosphere of creepy dread that seems to permeate so many of his films. I think of the buzzing of electricity in FIRE WALK WITH ME or the surreal sound and visual montages in BLUE VELVET where people's voices are distorted monstrously.

Dave S said...

the sound design throughout 'the exorcist' is amazing. so many layers of upsetting things, from pigs led to slaughter to bees trapped under glass...

then there's hitchcock's 'the birds', a movie entirely without a musical soundtrack; instead we get electronic bird sounds.

hitchcock again, this time with the first british talkie,'blackmail'. our heroine has stabbed an aggressor in self defence, but she's kept the killing secret. sitting at the dinner table with her family, burdened with guilt, the conversation around her is a muddy buzz with only the word "knife" audible and frequently repeated.

bill r. said...

I finally saw Burn After Reading today. Dennis, you probably know that I'm a hardcore Coen fan, and I'm one of the many people who thought No Country for Old Men was the best movie last year. Despite all that, for some reason I was a bit worried about this one. Their comedies often tread a very fine line between hilarity and the bad kind of absurdity, and I guess because they've tread this line so consistently I was worried that this time they would finally tip over onto the bad side (I say this as someone who liked, to one degree or another, both Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers.

But I loved this film. I think it's one of their strongest in years, and -- as you could assume by my trepidations about it -- it was not at all what I expected. I've been thinking about it all day, and one thing I can't shake (along with what I consider to be Brad Pitt's career best performance) is Richard Jenkins, his performance, his character, and where that character ends up. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is the heart, in every sense of that word, of Burn After Reading. I may do my own post about the film, but for now I'll just say this is one fascinatingly bizarre film.

Oh yeah, and it's hilarious. Although, I should admit, I didn't catch the aural joke you refer to. Maybe next time I watch it I will. And I have a feeling that when I get this on DVD, I'm going to watch it a hell of a lot.

Anonymous said...

Spoiler Alert:

As much as I enjoyed this movie and I believe that it makes many important comments upon the state of affairs (pun intended) in our society today, I can't get over the fact that we are practically compelled to laugh at Malkovich practically scalping Richard Jenkins's character. Such a moment may be making a point about my lack of soul/empathy, but it also seems to kill that empathy/soul simultaneously. Does anyone know what I mean?

-Nick G.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jason: Thanks for the correction. Duly noted. I do appreciate you pointing that out! And isn't that DPMSPIMS a sentimental sort? I hate it when it gushes like that...

Seth: Well, I'm not sure I'd hold the Coens responsible for the Universal/Focus Features marketing people twisting quotes to their own devices. I'm surprised about that, though, as there were enough genuinely good reviews for this movie-- maybe not gushing, but solid-- to make such maneuvering unnecessary, I would think.

Dave S.: Thanks for the reminder about Blackmail. Your description gave me chills remembering the chills seeing the movie gave me.

Bill: I'm glad you liked this movie too. I've been so out of the loop lately that, outside of some writers like David Edelstein and David Ansen, I'm not entirely sure what the general feeling on the movie is, other than mixed-- David E. seemed to like it but not as much as David A., or you and I for that matter. I got into its groove almost immediately the first time I saw it and found myself much more affected by it than I thought I would be, and I relsihed seeing it again. I can't imagine it expanding in my consciousness the way great Coen Brothers movies like No Country or Miller's Crossing or The Big Lebowski have, buyt I thought it was pretty grand all the same, and I look forward to reading anything you write on it. How are you liking blogging? (I apologize for not having commented on your 12 movies yet too-- writing and getting around in general is going to be difficult for me for the next three months or so, more so than I anticipated.)

****FURTHER SPOILER ALERT********

Nick G.: Not that the Coens are beyond having a bitter laugh over gruesome death (the closet scene here, the wood chipper in Fargo), but I didn't get the impression they're soliciting laughs at the fate that befalls Jenkins' character here. Certainly I wasn't laughing. His is just about the only character who earns or is allowed a measure of sympathy because, although he is rather ineffectual and milquestoastish he does rather innocently get mixed up in the futile and fatal events that McDormand and Pitt stir up. And beside McDormand, his is easily the most likable character too. Finally, Malkovich does more than scalp him-- J.K. Simmons C.I.A. bigwig reveals at the end of the movie that Jenkins is, in fact, dead. It's Malkovich who survives, but only technically speaking.

Driveindude said...

Not sure if this is in line with the topic at hand, but there was a scene in Jackie Brown that has always given me a little chill everytime I watch it. In fact, coincidentally TBS is showing it as I write in glorious HD.

Anyway, it's the scene where Max Cherry played by Robert Forester is waiting outside the womans jail to pick up Jackie Brown.

He's reading a book when the guard tells him his "bond" is on her way out. He stands up and takes a few steps towards the gate, turns and looks her direction as she slowly walks the path to the gate.

The camera locks in on his stare and suddenly the song Natural High by Bloodstone starts to play as Max Cherry begins to notice this vision of a woman step out of the shadows and into the light.

The look on Robert Foresters face touches something in me that I know nearly every guy has experienced when they've seen a girl or woman that they could never get to know but would nearly kill to make it happen.

Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9A7ZoXSBxPg

bill r. said...

Blogging has been...interesting so far. I'm enjoying it, but I feel a fair amount of pressure to put up something regularly, and to try and, you know, be interesting. I have a big October horror project coming up, which, if you don't mind, I'll go ahead and plug right now...

http://wwwbillblog.blogspot.com/2008/09/kind-of-face-your-hate-where-your.html

Basically, I'll be reading horror fiction, of all types, during the whole month, and writing about the experience. I hope you can pop over now and then and at least see how I'm doing (no pressure to comment).

When you say that in the next three months you're going to have a hard time "getting around", you don't mean physically, do you? I hope everything's okay...

Don Mancini said...

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, dudes!

It's all about the advent of sound in filmmaking, and how that new technology affects Hollywood and everyone who works there.

Narcissistic actress Lina Lamont (the great, Oscar-nominated Jean Hagen) has enjoyed years of stardom in silent films -- which cannot portray (or betray) her braying, nails-on-a-chalkboard Bronx voice. Desperate, Lina has to be dubbed by Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), the kind, talented ingenue trying to break into films, who just happens to be the secret, off-screen girlfriend of of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), Lina's love interest on-screen, and, as far as the public assumes, off-screen as well.

A classic Hollywood musical that is all about sound.

Patrick said...

***SPOILER ALERT***

I thought the moment where Malkovich goes after Richard Jenkins was the Coens deliberately echoing themselves. The camera angles and the character paths (walking, swinging, falling) are exact mirrors of the way Steve Buscemi met his end in Fargo. It startled me to see it again like that.

***END SPOILER***

As for sound moments (pun!), I always appreciated how 2001 had only the astronaut's breathing in space, and then the absolute dead silence as the camera progressively smash cut to a close-up of Hal. Chilling. And as long as we're talking Kubrick, the sound of the Big Wheel going from floor to carpet to floor in The Shining was pretty great too.

Another deep space moment I appreciated was the very start of Contact, where we hear thousands of sound clips, and as we move further into space, the clips grow older and cracklier until we finally reach silence. It was a very effective opening.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLQF-4uyD4Y

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Don, thanks for reminding us all of the most obvious, and perhaps the greatest example of what I was getting at. The use of sound in Singin’ in the Rain is both smashingly effective as comedy and also very pointed in illustrating the history of the dilemma Hollywood found itself in as the new technology became dominant. It's a wonderful disconnect between Hagen’s glamorous countenance and that squeaky-scratchy-brittle voice, a hilarious and perfect summation of the corner many stars found themselves painted into when their real voices didn’t jibe with their established screen personas. Singin’ in the Rain is not only the obvious choice here, but also one of my favorite movies—why I didn’t immediately think of it can only be explained by temporarily insanity.

adele said...

this movie is mind blasting...I hav a link..try this once Download burn after reading and enjoi!!!

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