Man on Wire and Burn after Reading: You Can Never Encompass the Absence*

by zunguzungu

You can’t watch either Burn after Reading or Man on Wire without knowing that the twin towers have fallen and that the American century is, if not finished, at least highly fraught. This is not because of anything in the movies themselves, which are specifically–perhaps hysterically–careful not to allude to anything that’s going on right now in the world. Instead, I would assert, it is simply because the world we live in is consumed with that problem, such that the interpretive context into which movies like these are inscribed prevents such filmmakers from not being read through it. You cannot make a non-political movie about the twin towers in 2008, nor can you talk about American covert ops and intelligence gathering without reflecting on the GWOT. The fact that this is exactly what both filmmakers do, then, is a really interesting interpretive problem.

In Man on Wire, of course, this is almost explicit: the title rhymes with “man on fire,” and while 9-11 peeks around the edges (it’s mentioned, for example, that no one else will do this kind of stunt again) the very fact that such statements are never qualified, that they’re never followed up on, helps make them into a thing, a thing whose significance is its very absence. It doesn’t become the elephant in the room until no one mentions it, after all, so the fact that everyone carefully doesn’t mention it makes it into that. What after all, is a trauma but an imagined absence? And in that sense, I question whether Man on Wire doesn’t (counterintuitively) do an incredible amount of work to re-imagine 9-11 as an absence, in a time when the spectacle of the Iraq war has made it difficult to do so; as the past half decade has filled “9-11” up with content, freighted it with political connotations to do with preemption, Mesopotamia, and Bush, that absence has been harder and harder to imagine for those who want or need to do so. And if that’s right, I’m not at all sure what to think the way this movie digs out that empty core again, carefully forgetting everything that been accumulating there en route to remembering that emptiness.

To think about Burn after Reading through Man on Wire then helps me make some sense of what would otherwise feel like the warmed up leftovers of The Big Lebowski; it was, I thought, the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories, callously playing death for laughs and notably lacking any of the charm that made it a shame when Donny died. When Brad Pitt’s character–the Jar Jar Binks of this movie–is killed, I felt only relief, the infamous hatchet scene plays like pure physical comedy, and the most purely successful moment in the film is also the most meaningless, the sight of George Clooney’s “special” chair. Thinking about the crafted absence at the heart of Man on Wire, though, makes me think the main point of it all is the very pointlessness of it, and a pointlessness which we, here and now, have a particular use for. After all, the only sane character in the film seems to be the CIA guy who cleans up after everything, the guy who has no real interest in getting to know what’s really going on. In fact, he has a particular interest in not knowing what happened: for him, information is the problem, and there’s a quizzative tone in his voice when he asks his idiot associate if we’ve learned anything today. “No?” he seems to say. “Good.” The work of empire, now and here, is as much an un-knowing as anything else, a necessary forgetfulness; and if the facts are not, from that perspective, useful, isn’t it purely rational to deal with them by dis-imagining them?

*(As always, the person to whom we should turn to for advice in these troubled times, what with all the American imperialism and all, is Emily Dickinson)