Next week, the first feature made by Joel and Ethan Coen will reopen in theaters, a non-event motivated by the release of the film on DVD. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Ethan Coen wrote that Blood Simple is being peddled by USA Films as ”a new ’director‘s cut.’“ He asserted that the entire notion of a ”director‘s cut“ is suspect, and that it’s a ”short, ghastly step“ from Erich von Stroheim‘s original Greed to Kevin Costner’s final Dances With Wolves. Coen shouldn‘t have stopped there, and indeed he didn’t: He subsequently explained how, for their director‘s cut, he and his brother shortened Blood Simple by some five minutes, slightly re-editing for, as Coen writes, ”editorial smoothing.“ On viewing, the cuts seem negligible, but what is new and clearly improved is the sound, which now booms with each door slam and gunshot. The dialogue, too, emerges from a sonic bog; if you’ve only experienced the film on video or television, you will finally be able to hear M. Emmet Walsh, playing a cheap detective in a cheaper suit, deliver the Coens‘ sly pulp patois, his every nasal-rounded cackle an epic of malice and unalloyed corruption.
The Coens, who grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, shot Blood Simple in Texas during the winter of 1982-83. The film was directed by Joel, produced by Ethan and distributed by Circle Releasing, one of a handful of spunky independent distributors that had a piece of the action before the Miramax offensive. Circle picked up Blood Simple after it screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 1984. It was lavished with praise, playing to acclaim at the New York Film Festival and earning money reviews from coast to coast. Time’s Richard Corliss went so far as to call the Coens‘ debut ”as scarifyingly assured as any since Orson Welles.“ In Vanity Fair, Stephen Schiff promised his readers that independent film was no longer just for downtown. With Blood Simple, explained the future screenwriter of Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, there was proof that a film ”doesn‘t have to save the whales to be independent and doesn’t have to go to Hollywood to show us a good time.“ By the end of 1985, Blood Simple had earned over $2 million in domestic rentals, easily recouping its production costs and more. The film had its detractors, but with those reviews and numbers, who cared? It‘s no wonder that, as indie shaker John Pierson once wrote, the Coens would soon seem like ”the independents with the most commercial appeal.“
Or, rather, the commercial directors with the most independent appeal. In the 16 years since Blood Simple, the Coens have made seven feature films. All have been technically impeccable, characterized by loopy, swooning camera moves and luxuriant in the sort of meticulous production design that would have earned the brothers an upper berth at MGM during the golden age, or at least a gig with William Cameron Menzies. The films are consistently funny, though The Hudsucker Proxy, co-written with their friend, filmmaker Sam Raimi, is a dud, a gimmick devoid of laughter and thought. One of their more lauded films, Fargo, doesn’t have a lot on its mind either, but it does have Joel‘s wife, Frances McDormand, waddling through the blood and snow with a hugely pregnant belly and snuggling with her duck-painter husband in a rare instance of authentic feeling in a Coen brothers film. The Big Lebowski was maligned with nearly the same fervor as Fargo had been overpraised, but Jeff Bridges’ radiantly human and generous title performance, as well as the film‘s celebration of friendship, Captain Beefheart and a life that’s examined though never engineered (beyond the bowling alley), made it the great film of the brothers‘ career.
Blood Simple is so derivative — of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and a thousand and one noirs — that who or what is being ripped off is essentially beside the point. In 1985, with Back to the Future and Rambo: First Blood Part II topping the charts, the film certainly looked and sounded different; both first-time feature cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and first-time feature composer Carter Burwell were already as accomplished as the director and producer. The camera moves had a prankish wit, exemplified by one scene in which the camera glides along a bar only to ”hop“ over a collapsed drunk, and another in which it rushes the characters like a bull and seems to stop just short of slamming into McDormand, who, as the film’s strayed wife, struggles in the arms of her husband, an inflamed pustule memorably played by Dan Hedaya. The most impressive, or merely flashiest, camera moves in the film are unmotivated, which some critics have taken as proof that the Coen brothers are irredeemable showoffs. They are, but no more so than Sam Fuller, who, after once aiming a camera up through a glass-top desk, was asked by actor (and later director) Bill Duke to explain whose point of view the camera was meant to suggest. ”It‘s my goddamned point of view,“ fumed Fuller. ”Mine!“
The difference is, Fuller believed in something, like good and evil and the pain of human suffering, not just its comedy. His pulp always had heart, even if it didn’t always have enough brains; it‘s tough to think of even one Fuller movie that makes fun of its own characters. And while it’s untrue, even unfair to say that the Coens never love their characters (they always love whoever McDormand plays), it‘s tough to think of a single Coen film that doesn’t make fun of a few. It‘s equally difficult to find one death in a Coen film that isn’t milked for laughs. In the critically venerated Miller‘s Crossing, everybody either dies funny or makes one hell of a funny corpse — the fat guy with the lopsided toupee, the machine-gun killer whose dead body keeps jiggling upright because of the fusillade of bullets tearing his flesh, the social-club customer who flies out the door engulfed in flames. In Blood Simple, there’s an entire, wordless scene that lasts about 10 interminable minutes in which a man, bad but nonetheless recognizably human, is slowly and deliberately ushered, as much by the filmmakers as his killer, into his grave while he‘s still alive, his screams muffled by shoveled dirt and not a little of our sniggering.
For the most part, it is uneasy laughter, but not entirely. And it is this laughter, as well as their own lack of imagination about the transcendent possibilities of art, that has kept the Coens from greatness, kept them in the prison house of their own reputation as well as the prison house of genre. From the beginning, the Coens have been praised for their worst tendencies rather than for their sporadic flights of imaginative fancy. Critics and audiences have rewarded them for their flawless craft, rat-a-tat jokes and, because it’s the source of so much of their humor, their gift for cruelty, a gift that can seem indistinguishable from their cleverness. In the halcyon winter of 1984-85, the best independent films were about a lot of things, including dislocation (Stranger Than Paradise), race (The Brother From Another Planet), art (Stop Making Sense), love (Paris, Texas), desire (Choose Me), hurting children (Streetwise), corrosive greed (Flash of Green) and more dislocation (Dim Sum). Blood Simple was about genre and movies; mainly, it was about itself. It was a hermetic puzzle, a closed system, and it wasn‘t long after its enormous success that other similarly self-limited and -limiting movies arrived on the scene. Some of these were giggly and others not, some were great, even wonderful (Reservoir Dogs), though most were terrible in the extreme (Amongst Friends). Too many filmmakers continue to make movies filled only with death and technique. A lot of these filmmakers like to call themselves independent, but mostly they’re just looking to get paid. Is it news to anyone that the next Coen brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, will be released by Disney?
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