Monday, August 29, 2011

"What I know about is Texas."

"The world is full of complainers. The fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. Now, I don't care if you're the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or Man of the Year -- something can always go wrong. Go ahead, y'know, complain. Tell your problems to your neighbor. Ask for help, and watch him fly. Now, in Russia they've got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas. And down here, you're on your own."

So begins "Blood Simple," the Coens' first film. With its deliberate shots of a vacant Texas landscape, and its dry, thick voice reciting the words with a deep forlornness, it might as well be the opening of "No Country for Old Men." And while "Blood Simple" may be eclipsed by their later (and, well, better) work, it still lays the foundations for their complicated plots of dumb characters doing dumb things and meeting violence along the way.

Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand) are in the midst of a passionate affair, but when Abby's violently jealous bar-owner of a husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) finds out, he sends Detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) out on a bounty to kill. By the end of the film, three of those four people are dead.

"Blood Simple" is a film I don't watch enough, only because I tend to just watch the Coens' other movies. But for all the lunacy, power plays, and dissections of culture and genre at the heart of their work, "Blood" serves as the floodgate. As it opens up, we can see the chief interests of the brothers begin to take shape. This goes beyond the repetitious dialogue, the characters who try to behave smarter than the audience knows they are, or the macabre dips into violence that turn the narrative into knots.

It has more to do with their very deliberate visual style. This is before they put cinematographer Roger Deakins on their seemingly permanent roster of players, but Barry Sonnenfeld gives the brothers frames that teeter between the stoic -- close-ups of characters gazing off into directions, eyes wide or fixed -- and the fluent -- tracking shots that move from a floor-view to a top-down view of a crime scene.

Rooms are almost empty, save for the important details -- fish carcasses that end up concealing important information, signs on bulletin boards that become misdirection, guns that are hidden and used to stage a seemingly perfect murder. "Blood Simple" puts great emphasis on individual objects, often cutting conversation scenes around looks at and away from things situated between characters.

All of this is used to make the viewer aware of "knowledge." What the characters know about each other, who's playing whom, who's done what to whom and everyone trying to cover at least two things up at once. It's something they would explore to zanier heights in, say, "Burn After Reading" or "The Man Who Wasn't There," but here it's a calmer, almost devastating means of evolving the narrative. There's dark humor here, to be sure, especially in how much of a foul-up everyone is (a typical Coen characterization), but the cumulative effect is almost scary and sad. We learn things as they happen (which generally means we know things before anyone else) such that everything that ends up happening has a cruel, foreboding irony.

But as with the opening monologue, it all comes back to a strict sense of place and time. The opening monologue invokes two things: Russia, the Cold War enemy, and Texas, a wholly different place with laws and cultural conduct that take on a kind of mythological quality -- for the cinematic construction the Coens put forth, it's where cowboy-wannabes in cheap suits can sling around violent rhetoric. Russia is the collective; Texas is the individual. And "Blood Simple" reveals how alone the characters are, how their world is very much "every man for himself," as greed and lust create incredible violence.

This is where the Coens started their madcap tour of America and its time places, peeking in at the stupid people who think they can move up the social order with grand dreams and idealizations. They are dark filmmakers who punish those who dare stray from the social order with cunning retribution. They set fire to the American dream of self-prosperity at every turn and in multiple settings and periods. And it all started in Texas.

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