Tuesday, April 26, 2022

There Simply Will Be Blood: The Coens’ “Blood Simple”

Last night I partied hearty with two of filmdom’s most talented bros: Joel and Ethan Coen. Fran McDormand was there too, along with a gaggle of Coen pals, on the main street of the quaint semi-rural village where they make their home. My goal was to conduct an interview about filmmaking, but my questions were swept away as we ate, drank, and caroused, culminating in a exuberant hora.

 Then I woke up.  (Well, it was fun while it lasted.)

 The cause of this dream, I am sure, was my late-night viewing of the Coens’ very first feature, Blood Simple. This twisty neo-noir from 1984 marked a number of other firsts for the brothers. It was shot by Barry Sonnenfeld, then a recent film-school graduate but now an acclaimed director of such films as Get Shorty. The score was the Coens’ first of many collaborations with the talented Carter Burwell. It was the first film editor credit for Roderick Jaynes, the Dickensian film editor who is the pseudonym for the busy Coens when they’re in editing mode. It was the first-ever professional screen credit for McDormand, who has been married to Joel Coen since the year the film was made.

 The Coens are known for bloody tales laced with black humor. And they love to explore out-of-the-way geographical locales where violence is always on the brink of erupting. That’s what brought them to suburban Texas for a story about a crass bar owner (Dan Hedaya) his restless wife (McDormand), a no-better-than-he-should-be employee (John Getz), and a private detective who’s up to no good (played by the always memorable M. Emmet Walsh). As is often true in the Coen universe, none of them is exactly made of heroic material. But their various forms of greed and lust intertwine in ways that are sometimes gruesome, sometimes darkly funny, as when a corpse doesn’t seem to want to stay dead.

 The video release of Blood Simple I watched had an extra treat for film buffs: a featurette in which Sonnenfeld and the two Coens look back at this early work and explain in detail what they could and should have done differently. Blood Simple was made on the slimmest of budgets, after the brothers created an enticing trailer as a way to drum up funding, and some of their economizing proves amusing to discuss. In an early dialogue scene, Getz and McDormand are seen seated in a moving car as the rain pours down. As we learn, the “rain” is actually a crew member on the roof, manning a water-squirting contraption, and the car in question is three highly different vehicles, each of which has certain qualities (like seats close together) that the scene requires. Much later, there’s a violent clash between McDormand and her screen husband on a suburban lawn. In the featurette, Joel and Ethan  explicitly point out which parts of the cobbled-together scene were shot on the Texas location, and which parts were pickup shots staged in various east coast locales.

 That’s the nature of filmmaking on a low budget, but the brothers are also frank about the ways in which their newness to the filming process ended up working against the aesthetic results. They complain now about their early fondness for lurid lighting effects (like “congo blue” filters) and about their apparent inability to keep some of the actors in focus. They point out with chagrin that the light source on their characters’ faces keeps changing directions, and admit to other lazy choices. They can afford to be honest, because they’re now among the most honored filmmakers of their generation.  




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