Blood on the Tracks

A cut above: Blood Simple's Dan Hedaya and Frances McDormand

Tell the truth, but tell it slant--/Success in Circuit lies...

--Emily Dickinson


"When he doesn't say anything, it's usually something nasty. When you don't, it's usually nice," says Frances McDormand's Abby to her laconic lover in the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple. Journalists interviewing the Coens have gotten used to making similar inferences from near silence, scrutinizing a few wry responses and yards of blank tape for traces of sugar, spice, saccharine, cyanide.

This month the famously oblique Coens have released the "director's cut"--literally a cut, not an expanded version--of their indie-noir debut smash from 1984. This arbitrary gesture was actually inspired by the film's slated transfer to DVD: While overseeing the conversion, the brothers decided to recut some original bits, remaster the sound, and, ultimately, goof on the bloated pretense of releasing a director's cut to the big screen. In fact, the rerelease kicks off with a hilarious preface fatuously delivered by "Mortimer Young," a tweedy pipe-swinger in a book-filled study who intimates that, thanks to his "Forever Young" restoration team, the film's "boring parts have been cut out" and its audio revivified through "ultra-ultrasound."

Fun and games aside, a first film is a vulnerable film--the callow exuberance and desperation are close to the surface, as are, in this case, the stylistic tics that plague the Coens to this day. A first film, like a first record or novel, packs the compounded passion of 20 or more years spent absorbing, imagining, practicing, posing, and, finally, producing. As with most creative debuts, Blood Simple contains the seeds for all that came after: There's the sharp pulp dialogue that ignites Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink; the larger-than-life character acting that jacks scenes in all subsequent Coen Brothers films; and the fascination with silence and wordless interludes (drawn, perhaps, from the filmmakers' own) that makes the forest reckonings of Miller's Crossing so desperate, the babies of Raising Arizona so alien, the head trips of The Big Lebowski so vacuously transporting, and the tacit codes of Fargo's married Minnesotans Marge and Norm so creepily endearing.

For anyone who didn't catch its local premiere run at the Cooper Theatre in 1985, film-fest tinsel still gleaming (or in revival since), Blood Simple is an artsploitation gore-fest set in a desolate Texas everytown, where a cuckolded bar-owner husband (Dan Hedaya) hires a sleazy, Stetsoned private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to disappear his wife (McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). Lotsa stuff goes wrong, and everyone is just smart enough to misread clues and dig themselves (and each other) in too deep. The title ("borrowed," in the first of many such permanent loans, from Dashiell Hammett) describes the state of adrenalized stupidity that accompanies the act of murder. As in all of the Coens' movies (not to mention those of their former mentor, Sam Raimi), the athletic camera is a major scene-stealer.

Thematically speaking, the most powerful movies the Coens have made are Blood Simple, Barton Fink, and Fargo, all of which cut closer to the core of their ambitions, abilities, and origins than the others. Funny that all three of these--Blood Simple, the youthful stylistic wad-shooter; Fink, the writer's-block nightmare; and Fargo, the admission that you can take the boy out of the tundra, but not the reverse--should involve messy murders and the difficult disposal of bodies. The Coens' fascination with crime (pushing beyond good and evil) and the impossibility of justice (exposing the myth of consensus) seems also to inform their hesitancy to position themselves as advocates or representatives of anything.

Or anywhere. While the brothers' relationship to Minneapolis hasn't quite been a flip-off on the scale of, say, Trent Reznor's hate affair with Cleveland, you don't see them riding on Aquatennial floats, either. When they blinked up from the underground amid the worldwide praise for Fargo, anyone in Minnesota who figured they'd come out and say that the jabs were all in jest was sorely mistaken. Always off-kilter interviewees, the Coens finally earned the descriptor "cagey" around the time of Fargo when it came to discussing (or appearing in) their hometown.

From the beginning the Coens have asserted that their creative expression (and their worldview) was shaped less by the "real" Minneapolis than by afternoons spent being harangued by Twin Cities TV pitchman Mel Jass, whose midday "Mel's Matinee" ran diverse high and low fare such as 8-1/2 and The Naked Prey for 'burb brats metrowide. "We thought he made them and that Muntz TV and Downtown Chevytown produced them," said Joel to the Star Tribune in '85. And, for all their supposed regionalism (Blood Simple's Texas, Raising Arizona's Southwest, Barton Fink's L.A.), it does seem that their career has been more about citizenship in the TV Nation than about insight into actual regional nuance. After all, they grew up in the same territory as most working- to upper-middle-class kids their age--that being the one on the floor in front of the tube.

In '85 the brothers' friend and associate Ben Barenholtz gushed, "[They] don't think of film as a great art form that has to have some great message...they're not afraid to entertain." But it's precisely that low-cult, TV sensibility--coupled with their high-cult affectations (giving Homer a screen credit for having inspired their new O Brother, Where Art Thou? for instance), along with their apparent lack of responsibility when it comes to undergirding symbolism and footnoting quotations--that has been the lightning rod for most critical frustration. In a 1985 interview with the Pioneer Press's Bill Diehl (who, along with the Strib's then-reviewer Bob Lundegaard, would get affectionately name-dropped in Fargo), Ethan blithely recounted childhood days spent making Flag Street Super-8 versions of the classics. "They were remakes," he said. "We obviously didn't have much imagination, we'd steal shamelessly."

The Coens' increasing reluctance to talk about what they do wasn't hard to see coming. Even in the Eighties, Joel was tiring of critical analysis. While Blood Simple earned mostly rave reviews, gimlet-eyed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called it a "thin, rain-on-the-windshield picture." At the time, Joel was quoted as saying--with "mock hauteur, as if anticipating reviews"--that their planned followup (the delayed Hudsucker Proxy) "takes place in a skyscraper, which makes it a vertical film, unlike Blood Simple, which has all those horizontal Texas scenes." And when asked why they let the Blood Simple audience in on all the clues, while the characters were left to dangle, Ethan responded: "We just wanted to avoid the dull part where one character explains everything."

So much for explanations.


Blood Simple starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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