Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Blood Simple


It's been an absolutely unusual few weeks which is why it's been so difficult for me to update all of you fans out there in the dark on the details of my glamorous Hollywood existence. Every time I think I'm going to have a free moment to watch a film or to set down a few thoughts on the latest releases to the cinema, something seems to intervene like an invitation to a lavish tinsel town bash, or another production crisis on my latest venture, the Broadway premiere of Mother Teresa: The Musical. (The show is nearly ready to go, we just seem to be having difficulty getting the correct venue on Broadway for a show with three revolving turntables, seventy-one set changes and a cast of four hundred and thirty two). 

Of course, the biggest challenge has been the aftermath of the séance held by Madame Arcati here at Chateau Maine some days ago. As promised, she did manage to entrap the reckless spirit of my beloved Norman so that he is no longer rampaging through the house; of course, the results were not quite what I had anticipated. While she promised he would be held in a lovely bronze vase as a vessel for his spirit (which I could display proudly in the trophy room next to my Oscar), she seems to have miscalculated somewhat. Norman's spirit isn't trapped in the vase, but rather inside the body of the person who was holding it at the time of entry, my personal Jungian therapist, Tommy. Tommy is now apt to start acting like Norman at odd moments and while it's wonderful to have my beloved back in the flesh, it can be at times disconcerting. I've allowed him to move into Norman's old suite while I have Fajer and Hellmann, my lawyers, check into the effect of reincarnation on the marriage laws. 

I have tried to get hold of Madame Arcati to see if we can get back to the original plan, but she seems to have left the area. Her phone has been disconnected and neighbors told my chauffeur that she's moved to Minnesota to work for a family named Condimine. I'm trying to track them down now before permanent damage is done to either Tommy or to Norman's spirit. The Minnesota reference reminded me of a promise to my friend, Stephen Murray, a native Minnesotan to write about a film with a connection to that state.  I sorted through my 'to view' piles looking for anything that had a Minnesota theme. I first found Feeling Minnesota but someone seemed to have been using the disc as a coaster and I could not get the DVD to play. My next choice was to find a film by the Minnesota film makers, the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Fortunately, the DVD to their first film, Blood Simple was there, wedged between my new plasma HDTV and a rococo end table I recently picked up at a Neverland yard sale. 

Joel and Ethan Coen, originally from Minneapolis, set out in their late twenties to be film makers. They collaborate on all creative aspects of their projects, including writing, direction and production, then arbitrarily separate their credits so that they both claim a writing credit, Joel the directors credit and Ethan the producers credit. Their twenty year collaboration has produced stellar landmarks of independent cinema including Fargo, Raising Arizona, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. They often cast the same performers in their films, giving character actors like John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand and John Goodman some of their best roles. Their films often center around botched crimes and they bring a unique sensibility to their work, mixing the farcical and the tragic in unique ways, finding the comic in even the grimmest aspects of the human condition. 

Blood Simple, their debut film, was in part funded by money raised from friends of their parents in Minnesota. Not only did it introduce them to Hollywood, it also was the film debut of then unknown actress Frances McDormand (who later married Joel Coen) and it provided a major career boost to two fine character actors, Dan Hedaya and M. Emmett Walsh. Rather than tell a story of the upper Midwest, the brothers wrote a taut script of love and betrayal involving a small group of characters in rural East Texas. 

Marty (Hedaya) is the proprietor of a successful roadhouse honky-tonk. He has two bartenders Ray (John Getz) and Meurice (Samm-Art Williams) and a bored wife Abby (McDormand) who, in the tradition of film noir, deals with her isolation by beginning an affair with Ray. Marty finds out about the affair and hires a crooked private investigator (Walsh), a moron with a certain low cunning who wears a leisure suit the color of June Allyson's sheets and who drives a decrepit VW, to spy on them as they tryst in a cheap motel. Marty decides to rid himself of Abby by hiring the PI to quietly off her and her man and so a game of double crosses and mistaken identities begins, leading to deception, multiple homicide, and resurrection. The plot twists and turns with nods to Hitchcock and to the classic noir films of the forties as it moves towards an inevitable showdown involving guns, knives, lighted windows and bathroom plumbing. The plot proves the title - where blood is involved, nothing is ever simple. 

The film is inexpensively made, with a minimum of cast (there are really no characters other than the central five) but never looks or feels cheap. The deft work of director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld (another gift to Hollywood from this film) brings this land of cheap tract homes, freshly plowed fields and neon honky-tonks to exquisite life. The film is also impeccably cast, making even the more outré moments believable. 

Even at this early date, the film shows all the hallmarks of the Coen Brothers unique collaborations. The inventive camera work; the setting of major plot sequences to strictly musical accompaniment without dialog; the use of inanimate objects to make plot and character points; the ability to convey most of the information through subtext, rather than through obvious conversational gambits. It was an auspicious debut and the critics raved at the time of its initial release in 1984. 

The film was re-released in 1998 in a director's cut (which had minimal changes from the original, mainly some tightening of sequences based on what the brothers had learned about film in the interim) and it's this cut that's available on the DVD. The DVD includes a commentary by film historian Kenneth Loring. (This is a joke of the Coens; Loring is a fictional creation of theirs, voiced by actor Jim Piddick and his commentary was entirely scripted by the Coens). There's also the original trailer and some production notes. 

The film is worth seeing for understanding the roots of great film making. They could have set this same story in Minnesota, but the weather's better in Texas. They did return to Minnesota for Fargo, arguably the best of their films to date. 

Evangelical radio program. Naked John Getz. No naked M. Emmett Walsh (thank goodness). Premature burial. Safe cracking. Photo retouching. Knife through hand. Shoe throwing. 

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