Friday, September 10, 2010

Getting It versus the Coen brothers

The Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading came out two years ago, but I only got around to seeing it on DVD last night. I liked it, and as a family activity in a household with 2 teenagers it was a big success, as the film’s snark level proved highly age-appropriate (though it worked for the adults as well).

For those who haven’t seen Burn After Reading, it's a dark and absurdist farce, mixing a sex comedy with a spy caper, in which a bunch of scoundrels and fools largely fail at everything they try to do (and if it's one against another, they both fail). Like much of the Coen brothers' work, it's in a sense aesthetically radical for a mainstream release with a decent budget, distribution, and well-known stars (such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt). Nearly all of the characters are either unpleasant or stupid, and most are both. Hence, there is no one conventionally to root for in the Hollywood tradition, and if you insist on that you won't like the movie. Moreover, the great thing about the spy plot (if one can call it that, and I'm laughing with not at the Coen brothers in saying so) is that, between a few coincidences and the characters' stupidity, what ends up (or rather keeps on) happening makes absolutely no sense to trained professionals whose job it is to look for purpose and meaning.

I very much identify aesthetically with this type of thing, and thus perhaps it's unsurprising that Getting It has a similar aesthetic. Except, in my novel the comedy comes from grotesque disproportion between the value of the characters' aims (to themselves or anyone else) and the efforts they invest in trying to achieve them, as well as from the characters' self-importance and grandiosity, rather than from stupidity and meaninglessness as such.

But one difference betweeen the two relates to what I think is the main problem that some people who are quite willing to embrace the aesthetically radical or non-mainstream often have with the Coen brothers' movies. At times the Coens so dislike and appear to feel superior to their characters, to whom they can be quite cruel, that it can come off as a bit smarmy on their part and also adolescent. Which is too bad, because there truly is an aesthetically radical element there as well. E.g., consider the delightful cynicism of the endings of, say, Burn After Reading, Barton Fink (which I nonetheless don't entirely like, though parts of it are great, such as the Coens' vicious critique of the otherwise forgotten Clifford Odets), and The Big Lebowski. There really is something in these films that's pretty bracing for a major commercial release, though hard to separate entirely from the aspects one might find too self-satisfied.

In Getting It, I tried to have a bit of compassion even for my most odious characters, without softening them up or giving them redeeming features, and while I could be hard on them I tried not to be gratuitously cruel. I saw them as victims of delusion and false consciousness, and thus in the end to be pitied for that, rather than hated for their bad behavior. "There but for the grace of whatever go I," I was inclined to think while writing it. Hence, I hope it can appeal to people who like the Coen brothers' aesthetic other than when the Coens seem too persuaded that they are much better than their characters.

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