Sunday, 3 July 2011

Sunday Openings: Burn After Reading

It’s not that I’ve gotten tired of “Scene On A Sunday”, because of natural indecisiveness I often spend more time than necessary deciding on which scene to cover. So, I’m making my job simpler by replacing “Scene On A Sunday” (temporarily) with “Sunday Openings” – the same concept, but openings only – meaning the first scene of the movie (exclusive of credits).
I have an odd tendency of choosing potential oddballs as my favourite films from the filmogography of a number of celebrated directors. My favourite Spielberg film is Minority Report, my favourite Cameron film is easily Titanic and my favourite piece from the Coen Brothers is their sometimes forgotten and often reviled Burn After Reading. It sits amongst the last decade list of smartest comedies in my book. Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of the Coen Brothers but they have some excellent cinematic habits. It sounds trite but they know to shoot scenes well, they’re conscientious and succinct and it’s a reason why even their darkest pieces often give off that pithy nature you’d expect from black comedy. There’s a reason why comedies are usually shorter than dramas, the comedian has less time to make his point in less time and Coen Brothers are proof of that. Their films are expertly edited and the comedic beats lands so quickly, sometimes they even go over your head.
I love Burn After Reading for Brad Pitt the most, he did top my supporting actor list that year, but Malkovich is just as excellent and the film’s opening depends on his acting abilities coupled with the Coen’s tendency for oddness.
As the credits end we get an obscure aerial shot of a building.
Then, feet.
Those are Malkovich’s feet there. One of the reasons that the film admittedly ridiculous plot sustains is because Malkovich’s Osborne Cox is the sort of hasty man who’s terribly garish. There he goes into the office.

We get our first shot of his face there. It’s over a decade after the fact, and he’s bald but Malkovich still manages to precipitate all the terror from his Vicomte in Dangerous Liaisons.

Just that would-be glare makes you think it’s logical to have three men in a room to fire one.

Palmer: “Ozzie. Come on in.”
It even looks like a stakeout, even though two of them seem disinterested in the affairs at hand.

Cox: “Palmer, what’s up?”

Palmer: “You know Peck and Olson.”

Cox: “Peck, yes, hiya. Olson by reputation.”

Cox: I’m Osborne Cox.”

Olson: “Yeah, hi.”

Cox: “Aren’t you with... Isn’t he...”
Armand Schultz playing Olson is responsible for random bouts of humour in this opening. It’s in the vein of the film’s conceit – making things much more serious than they should be. Olson looks so official, foreboding but not frightening, on the sofa there.

Palmer: “Yeah, actually, that’s right. Have a seat.”
Osborne is already getting a feeling that this is a dubious meeting.

Palmer: “Look, Oz. There’s no easy way to say this. We’re taking you off the Balkans desk.”

His thinking face...

Cox: “What? Why?”
The more I re-watch this, the more I wonder if I erred in not having Malkovich in my top 5 that year (and not just as a runner up). He avoids what could be the broadest of characterisations opting to play Osborne so seriously, which only makes the hilarity around him that much more brilliant.

Palmer: “In fact we’re moving you out of SIGINT entirely.”
(Is it just me, or does David Rashce look like a cross between Willem Defoe and a lizard there?)

Cox: “ discussion? Just “You’re out”?”
Additional props to the Coen’s for actually making use of the wide shot in this scene. I could imagine so many directors getting carried away with the close-ups, but there’s a great deal of subtle humour to be found in how the three gentlemen are immobile as Osborne begins spiralling.

Palmer: “Well, we’re having the discussion now.”

Palmer: “Look Oz, this doesn’t have to be unpleasant.”
I love that series of shots as Ozzie starts playing with his forehead and making the most inane expressions – he’s preparing for the blowout. We don’t care what Palmer is saying, it’s unimportant – Osborne isn’t listening, either. He’s planning his strategy,

Only John Malkovich can pull off faces like that and still maintain a modicum of dignity.

Cox: “Palmer, with all due respect, what the fuck are you talking about?”
I wish I could sound as classy as Malkovich sounds when he swears. It’s all in the enunciation; he opts for the strangest phrasing making it sound less like an insult and more like a bitingly caustic question.
Another fine shot, the Coen’s are admittedly good at photography and editing.
Cox: “And why is Olson here?”

Palmer: “Ozzie, look...”

Cox: “What the fuck is this? I know it’s not my work.”
That penetrating state coming from Peck never fails to unnerve me.

Palmer: “Ozzie.”

Cox: “I’m a great fucking analyst.”

Palmer: “Okay, Ozzie. Ozzie, things have not been going well as you know.”
Peck: “You have a drinking problem.”
It’s so good how the Coen’s decide to have that line emerge. You almost miss it because they don’t do a close-up of Peck, and it’s so quiet – void of any antagonism, not even an accusation. Just a statement.

And, there he goes – first a head, then a full body tilt.
Lizard #2.
What’s so great is that during all this Olson is still there, contributing nothing – simply an overseer.

Cox: “I have a drinking problem?”

Palmer: “This doesn’t have to be unpleasant. We found something for you in State. It’s a...well; it’s a lower clearance level. Yes, but its not...we’re not terminating you.”

As is the norm, Palmer’s words are less important for their worth and more significant for what Malkovich has Osborne do during them.

That’s my favourite close-up of him during the scene.

Cox: “This is an assault.”

Cox: “I have a drinking problem?”

Cox: “Fuck you, Peck. You’re a Mormon. Next to you we all have a drinking problem!”
Undoubtedly, one of the finest lines of the film – and finally, something more than a stoic reaction from the sanctimonious Peck.

Cox: “What the fuck is this? Whose ass didn’t I kiss?
I’m sure that more than a few viewers are asking what the fuck is this when the film opens. It takes more than a slight explanation to tie this office scene to the rest of the film, and its eventual dénouement, but that’s precisely why it’s such an interesting film. It’s saturated with plot-point upon plot-point giving you the feeling that these characters were living their lives long before the Coen’s came along.

Cox: “Huh? Let’s be honest! I mean let’s be fucking honest.”

Cox: “This is a crucifixion! This is political! And don’t tell me it’s not!”
There’s another fine example of John’s physicality as an actor. The part where he puts his arms out, as if he’s actually being crucified works on two levels – it shows just how in touch with the character he is, and the concept of Osborne being a Jesus-figure becomes hilarious as the film continues.

He storms out and we end on Olson, which is such a random move on the Coen’s part but it underscores how the directors are a bit terrible to their characters. They have little investment in them, and as some of them die and some of them leave the film in the oddest of ways it accentuates one of the film’s themes – which is how dispensable humans are. Ozzie, who ostensibly gets set up as our lead character (although he isn’t) is fired and we don’t even leave with him, the scene ends with a shot of a man who hasn’t had a line yet.
How’s that for irony? And it’s harsh irony that’s most important to the beauty of Burn After Reading.
As far as openings go, and otherwise to be honest, Burn After Reading gets a gold star. How does it fare for you?


Duke said...

Nice post.

Where do you find all these photos?

Brandon said...

Did you get my email?

Candice Frederick said...

i love when you break it down scene by scene ike this. i really like this movie, at least the first half of it. i get kinda disinterested when clooney takes over the second half. but malkovich, mcdormand, and pitt are golden.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

duke they're all screen captures taken from the dvd.

candice YAY, praise!