I caught the newest Coen over the weekend. I’ll save the crux of my critical argument for a more official review, but I mostly liked it; although as a screwball comedy it was a bit lazy. The pace never really climbs to that maniacal pandaemonium we’ve always wanted from los hermanos Coen — they keep withdrawing from the scenes of their own crimes, marginalizing clever plot twists by “presenting” rather than “representing” action (oh Syd Field, when will they learn?), allowing characters to spout exposition (and denouement!), etc. But while the madness feels mannered, there’s a brilliant post-Cold War farce buried in there that justifies the mechanical, icy tone (think Dr. Strangelove‘s glacial spirit, especially when mocking sex).
The early-to-mid 90’s setting influences far more of the plot than the Coens let on, primarily in the form of a CD-ROM containing the memoirs (and financial documents) of a mid-level clearance CIA man (John Malkovich). The CD falls into the hands of two mid-level brainpower gym employees (the magnificent Frances McDormand and surprisingly boobish Brad Pitt) who decide first to blackmail (in so many words) the CIA man, and then sell the CD to the Russians (and yet the Cold War had already thawed, making this folly hilariously innocent…McDormand and Pitt are the kind of Americans who would have complained that the felling of the Berlin Wall preempted a televised football game). When McDormand presents the disc to an agent at the Russian embassy, he knows the only inquiry worth asking is “PC or Mac?”
Internet critics are heralding this CD-ROM as the Coen’s grandest Macguffin, but I think that this misses a key level of their satirical structure. The disc is a kind of uber-Macguffin, if we’ll allow some neologism; a plot device that has no bearing on the plot (which in turn has no bearing on ANYTHING) but that in and of itself is highly more relevant than the action it inspires. In other words, it’s a Macguffin, yes, but a Macguffin that we’d (or that I’d) rather follow than the storyline itself.
I’m surprised that no reviews of the film that I’ve read (although I’m sure there’s one out there) have made mention of this film’s most successful, most probing joke — the double-edged pun of the title. A typical instruction attached to sensitive documents, this classified triad was turned on its ear in the digital age. It’s not often that a word can mean its precise inverse depending on the context, but “burn” managed to achieve this all but unique status. To burn is either to annihilate — by fire, if you want to get technical, which brings about a very complete destruction — or to duplicate by way of CD (or now DVD). The characters in this film are both duplicating and destroying simultaneously, ad infinitum — in the best example the CIA man’s wife (Tilda Swinton) “burns” the CD in order to “burn” him (she divorces him and freezes his bank accounts preemptively, using his financial information against him). The other characters mirror this in more oblique ways. In particular, the actions of George Clooney’s character (the CIA man’s wife’s lover…*whew*!) and Frances McDormand’s seem to be a meaningless repetition of poor choices — the way they lead their lives “burns” them and other members of their social web, leaving a mottled trail of corpses behind. But their intense egocentricism suggests that they approach most situations with no more or less interest (or deliberation) than one would while copying a CD in Toast Titanium. Frances McDormand seems to be pining for Brad Pitt’s character at one point, when he goes missing…but we discover that her selfish tears are due to the loss of her main go-to boy in the quest for plastic surgery funds (another plot device that truly must be seen in context to be appreciated).
Finally, the film’s underbelly forms a slyly nihilist criticism of the futility of information exchange (common Coen fodder). The contents of the CD-ROM are meaningless (the memoirs suck, the CIA “secrets” are garden variety), and yet they are treated as anything but by most characters, and carbon-copied endlessly. One of my favorite lines in the movie occurs when Tilda Swinton’s legal secretary realizes she’s misplaced the CD-ROM at the gym (the source of this gnarled spiral of dementia) — I’m paraphrasing, but she basically says “Oh, I’ll make another copy with my hard drive backup”. We could almost imagine another five or six movies in that one line — the secretary “burns” more discs, loses them all, and sets into motion several devastating parallel universes of stupidity all over Washington DC as the CD-ROMs are retrieved by the clueless mudbugs of our nation’s capital.
That so much is invested in these vacant discs — these flat, portable orbs of Armageddon — is very telling. The Coens seem to be whispering in our ears: What’s the greater crime? The propagation of vacuous information or the destruction of valid information? Or is there a difference between the two acts? And, ultimately, does the information signify far less than the method of transmission? This, in the end, is the definitive cinematic truth — that the “experience” of a movie (the method of transmission) is far more precious than the film-maker’s thesis (the information being transmitted). And by the way, should the Coens ever tackle the existential undertones of internet use it might be the bleakest (and sharpest) artist’s depiction of social interaction ever made.