Jungian Archetypes applied to Burn After Reading - Elliot Selby

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Jungian Archetypes applied to Burn After Reading - Elliot Selby

Post  Elliot Selby on Fri Jan 28, 2011 9:06 am

The film Burn After Reading is a Cohen brother’s comedy in which simple Washington DC citizens discover an ex-government official’s memoirs and believe it is privileged information. They go on a journey to give it back to him for a reward, and chaos ensues.
The most obvious symbolic archetype in the film Burn After Reading would be the ‘battle between good and evil’. There are the many obvious examples of this. First off, the ending see’s Osbourne Cox murdering Ted Truffon in the climax of the film. Osbourne is driven by selfish needs, alcoholism, and is breaking into his house which his wife locked him out of. While Ted is also breaking into the house, he is doing it with much more noble intentions, such as the love for and safety of Linda Litzke. Then there is the traditional political contradiction between Russia and the United States. Throughout the film, we see the United States government as a secretive yet rather harmless and beaurocratic organization, and while the Russians claim they have made peace with the United States, they still are very interested in the information. Then there are the more subtle battles. Osbourne’s battle with alcoholism is an example throughout, and evil clearly wins as he falls from a high-paying job with the government to a murderer. There is also a possibility that we could see Katie Cox’s divorce battle as a battle of good and evil. This theme is scattered throughout the film as we also see Harry Pharrer and his wife getting a divorce, likely due to his womanizing and constant affairs. There is perhaps a touch of good vs. evil symbolism in Linda’s battle with self-consciousness as she tries desperately to afford her cosmetic surgeries.
There are many situational archetypes in Burn After Reading, being that there are a multitude of characters and storylines intertwining. The most commonly occurring storyline is ‘the quest’. Linda is plagued by the quest to find a financial reward for the CD with the information she assumes is valuable. The ‘restored fertility’ is essentially the financial reward, and the illness she has is self-consciousness and an imperfect body. A better body would furthermore help her in her job at a gym, which could also be seen as a ‘restored fertility’. There is also a quest motif in her search for a companion. If she finds a loving relationship, she will feel much more confident which will help her insecurities. The task is demonstrated by Ted when he goes snooping in Katie’s home to find more information. This is nearly impossible for him relative to his cautious personality, however if he completed this task it would, according to Linda, give them more information to sell to the Russian government. The initiation appears somewhat with Chad Feldheimer. Due to his childish and carefree personality, he represents a child or adolescent-type character in a film absent of an actual one. His finding of Osbourne’s memoirs, which he believes to be highly secretive political information, sends him 'on a journey which matures him significantly, even if it is inappropriate, misleaded, and ending in a violent death. There is a partial depiction of the journey with Katie’s decision to divorce Osbourne. Her attorney tells her she must search for all of Osbourne’s personal and financial information, and in the middle of all of this snooping and lying (she is having an affair with Harry), she faces serious psychological and personal stresses. The fall is an obvious archetype present with Osbourne's descent from a successful government agent to an alcoholic whose wife is planning on divorcing him and kicking him out of his house (forcing him to live a solitary life on a boat.) The unhealable wound is present in Harry’s descent into paranoia and madness. A series of events, including Chad being in Katie’s house and Linda’s connections to Chad’s, leave him seriously psychologically damaged. He soon leaves the country to hide in Venezuela. Finally, there is a hinting of the magic weapon in Osbourne’s memoirs (the highly ‘secretive’ information that Linda and Chad have found), as even though it is in fact useless, it still can easily manipulate Osbourne.
The character archetypes in Burn After reading are rather complex. The protagonist is certainly Harry as he is the central connection between all of the characters. It is difficult to place him in a specific archetype. However he is quite a womanizer, and could be seen as the temptress or the unfaithful wife if he were female. Perhaps this is a reference to his anima. Osbourne could be seen as an outcast, as he is fired from his job for persistent alcoholism (the crime), and his wife leaves him, soon followed by many of his friends. Chad is probably a scapegoat, as he is murdered by George Clooney, and the rippling effects of his disappearance cause serious problems within the films social setting. Katie’s obvious archetype is the unfaithful wife, as she is having an affair with the more exotic Harry. Linda’s character seems to be rooter in the damsel in distress category, and it is Ted’s role to save her, though he is murdered near the end of the film. Sandy Pfarrer, Harry’s wife, could distantly be viewed as the earth mother, as she is a children’s book writer, and is innocent compared to the rest of the females in the film.
Clearly the film is successful in applying much of Carl Jung’s psychological theory and successfully uses it to motivate characters. The result is an absurd yet driven story which has few serious flaws.

Elliot Selby

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Post  Mr. C on Sun Feb 06, 2011 1:47 pm

Elliot - a very thorough analysis. Well done! I was especially impressed with how you tied in Linda's public quest for financial reward with her private quest to secure a mate and how both imply restored fertility. Brilliant! And your desire to use female archetypes with a male character is excellent. You are moving the analysis away from recognizing a simple stereotype to a deeper understanding of literary characters. Cheers!
Mr. C

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