We all have our prejudices. Some say that the reason that the Coen Bros Burn After Reading was a dud at the domestic box-office, after a strong opening week, is that it is viciously anti-American. It proposes a US intelligence establishment full of vain, selfish, pompous dunderheads, chronically incapable of understanding even the simplest fact or comprehending the most obvious event. They are contemptuous of husbands, wives, colleagues and rivals. (“Shall I inform the FBI?” “Oh God no. Don’t bring those idiots in on this!” …or something like that, says one.)* The working class stiffs, toiling away for a low hourly rate at a gym, who move the plot along when they stumble on what they think are state secrets, are also vain, stupid egocentric and selfish.
The actors called upon to deliver this raucousness are brilliant at portraying such vanity. In fact, making the movie must have been a hoot for all those Hollywood liberals involved. Even the usually abysmal John Malkovich is perfectly cast as an alcoholic analyst shafted in a bit of bureaucratic byplay. Never in fact has such fun been had from a Coen Bros movie, despite a lot of attempts. Even the editor of Sight & Sound, not renowned for a sense of humour, found the movie affecting enough to describe it as “a minor Coens comedy with major stars goofing off”. Very kind.
Notwithstanding, Americans apparently, and American critics especially, though they get the joke, don’t like it. Australians on the other hand are going to it in such numbers that it is defying all attempts to knock it off the box office leadership charts.
But Australians are not immune to this syndrome. The only time I went to Cannes, along with the world’s film critics, I had the misfortune to suffer through Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream, a film which played fast, loose and inventively with Aboriginal mythology. Needless to say the white guys were the bad guys. The rest of the world judged it largely as another of Herzog’s badly directed japes at civilisation but the Australians went apoplectic at the thought that the world might believe Herzog’s inventions were, rather like Bruce Chatwin’s in his novel “The Songlines”, the product of documentary reportage.
Philip Adams, then Chair of the AFC, was so enraged as to write a “Dear Werner you are a complete idiot” open letter published gleefully in the Cannes daily press. If there had been an organisation called Handwringers Anonymous we would all have been forced to join, such was the collective dismay.
The poor sods who try and control the cinema in China also have to suffer such indignity frequently as well. Each year a bunch of tyros with digital cameras go into the streets, back alleys and byways of far flung outposts of the celestial empire, usually without troubling even the local authorities for permission, and make movies like Xiao Wu, Blind Shaft, Blind Mountain and Little Moth to name just some. At Vancouver this year there was Sweet Food City among others. All of them are portraits of how the underclasses, the left behinds, the forgotten and the misbegotten go about their daily lives in tough times. Blatant misrepresentations no doubt abound, but as the Coens and Herzog know, these only serve to make the movies smarter, more pointed, more accessible and, frankly, more interesting to the wider world. Those whose sensitivities are affected, like genteel critics, po-faced officials, censors and rabid nationalists wont be given more than scant regard. So be it always.
*That may be why a film like Traitor, is so boring and, after its main twist is revealed, predictable, in its attempts to be fair to all sides. In so doing it employs a principled and highly ‘moral’ FBI agent as a key protagonist. Who can believe that? Americans I guess.