Wednesday, October 29, 2008

VINYL IS PODCAST #4: Burning Through Coen Country

by Ryland Walker Knight and Mark Haslam

America is a two way street

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RWK here. Tonight Mark and I saw Burn After Reading at the Cerrito Speakeasy's 2-for-1 night where we enjoyed not just the film but some beers and some yummy 'zza. We decided that it would be a lot of fun to record some thoughts all immediate, so we tried our darn'dest to get back to my computer as quick as public transportation would aid us. It took a little longer than expected, and then we got sidetracked with songs, so our energy level was at a delirious low by the time I hit the record button. This episode is easily the funniest because it's a couple of tired goofballs joking through some scattered thoughts about a lot of things without much coherence. (In fact, Mark takes us on one helluva left turn at one point.) If anything, we hope this gets you goofin in the right way so that, while I may reiterate a lot of what I typed at Rob's place, and dominate our discussion, you might make your own sense of my/our argument in favor of this nasty, sad, hilarious film. That, or, you know, you could read this, maybe, since I share some thoughts with that smart alec. Or, failing purchase there, there's this witty dude, too. Finally: the songs in this episode speak for themselves, and you can find them here and here if, for some silly reason, you don't already have them. (Full disclosure: The Misfits track is all Mark, and, yes, I had to go find it to compliment our efforts here.) Oh, and, yeah, here's the quote from Cavell, ported over from this old post, and this book.
A summary of a film comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges suffers most in missing the continuous, virtuosic precision and intelligence of his dialogue, in no case more than in that of The Lady Eve. Sturges is one of the most remarkable mids to have found expression in Hollywood. Not until after the end of the Second World War, with the reception in America of the outburst of filmmaking in Europe -- including films of Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman -- did an American audience become accustomed to finding a film written and directed by the same person. And Sturges' tight corpus of comparatively small-scale films occupies a treasure place in the hearts of those who care about the world and art of film; for example, beyond The Lady Eve, there are Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story and Hail the Conquering Hero. An instance of this esteem is recorded in the title of the Coen brothers' recent film, O Brother Where Art Thou? (with George Clooney and John Turturro), one of the most notable films of the past few years. It is worth taking a minute to say how that title inscribes a Sturges film.

The hero of Sullivan's Travels (played by Joel McRea, who is also the male lead in the remarriage comedy The Palm Beach Story, an interesting actor of considerable range, but less well known than the male stars, his natural competitors, of the remarriage comedies of the period discussed in this book) is a filmmaker whose great success is based on making thrillers with little intellectual or political content, and who wishes to make a film about something true and important, about suffering. The travels of the film's title are those taken by this director, who escapes the world of Hollywood escape in order to experiece the suffering of, after all, most people in the world, in preparation for making his important film of witness. The narrative takes him to the bottom of the world, in the form of being falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to a southern chain gang, where he discovers that the laughter provided by a Hollywood cartoon may provide the only rare moments of respite in a stretch of fully desperate existence. He contrives to be recognized in this place of anonymity, and returns to Hollywood to apply his hard-won insight, which means leaving unrealized his film of suffering.

The title of his projected work was to be O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen film, which opens in a southern chain gang, realizes this unrealized work by, as it announces, adapting (or more accurately, silently remembering names, and imaging sequences to realize them, from) episodes of the Odyssey (the Sirens, the Cyclops), taking as the overall adventure the return of an extraordinarily resourceful, or resilient, man to his native town to reclaim his sought-after wife (and children). The challenge the Coens take up, or depart from, in Sturges' fantasy of witnessing suffering, and which they seem to declare as part of their film (indeed of their corpus of fascinating films), is neither to record nor to distract from suffering. It is rather to witness, on the part of people who recognize, despite all, that life may still hold adventure, say hold out a perfectionist aspiration, but that to sustain a desire to meet the fantastic, unpredictable episodes of everyday modern existence, one must, and one can, rationally and practically, imagine that one will, at need, discover in oneself, in the register of passion, the resourceful persistence of Odysseus, and the mixed, but preponderant, favor of the Gods, call it fortune.

I hope Eileen likes some more eyes, cuz, well, I want to share a couple links to some smart things she's written recently: her review of BAR and a defense of The Simpsons as, well, a picture of faith: "Because The Simpsons is more that just a great show, perhaps the greatest TV show ever made. The Simpsons is bigger than that. It’s a model of the world as observed by a god that loves humanity, if such a thing were possible, which Chistianity claims it is."

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