*Ben Walters and J. M. Tyree have been talking about movies, often amicably, since 1995. Together, they wrote a critical appreciation of The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute's Film Classics series of books, and reviewed No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading for Sight & Sound. They recently had a transatlantic chat about Blood Simple, the Coens' first feature. Blood Simple has been remade by Zhang Yimou as A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop, set for a limited theatrical release in the States on 3 September. This prompted thoughts about homage, genre looting, pulp, and Wong Kar-Wai's Barton Fink…
12:46 PM JMT: Just watching the end of Body Heat…
wanna finish it?
12:47 PM JMT: Not unless you want to wait 15 mins…no need…I know what happens…
BW: i don't mind
JMT: Let's start!
BW: all righty then
12:50 PM JMT: I'd been thinking about Blood Simple and Body Heat after watching the Australian noir The Square. Then we noticed that Zhang Yimou’s remake of Blood Simple, called A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop, was getting reviewed and released. A good excuse to revisit Blood Simple…
12:51 PM BW: tell me about the square, i don't know that one
12:53 PM JMT: Brothers Nash & Joel Edgerton made this delightfully grim Aussie crime thriller in 2008 featuring infidelity, murder, and arson. The deadly fire is set off using Christmas tree lights!
12:54 PM BW: ho ho ho
that passed me by. is it notably similar to blood simple or more of a fellow pastiche?
12:57 PM JMT: It has that same sense of pressure and humor – a dog is eaten by an alligator and it's played for laughs.
BW: well, that's pretty funny
i think noir has always had a sense of humour
12:58 PM it's easy to overlook now that it's such a venerated genre but most of them had some kind of absurdity
JMT: Like the bowling in Double Indemnity!
12:59 PM and they're usually full of puns and dramatic irony
JMT: Interesting you say that, because I keep circling back to Pauline Kael's comments about Blood Simple.
Ben: she wasn't a fan, right?
1:00 PM JMT: She said it was “Hollywood by-product.” She also disliked Body Heat – for one reason because she felt it was slavish vis-a-vis classic noir. But Blood Simple and Body Heat are very different – although they're in the same mid-80s neo-noir wave. In classic noir, the sap kills the husband and then gets betrayed by the wife, right? Body Heat follows that pretty much all the way to the end of the line. But the fun of Blood Simple lies in inverting the classical scheme. Here, the sap mistakenly thinks the wife has killed the husband, setting this whole train of events in motion…
1:04 PM BW: right – so the coens made it new and their picture remains strong while kasdan's was mere pastiche so hasn't weathered well?
1:05 PM JMT: I don't want to run down Body Heat but I do think Kael's complaint is slightly more interesting in that case than in the the case of Blood Simple, where, as with Cassavetes and the Maysles brothers, she missed the boat on major filmmakers.
1:06 PM In fact, the Coens have never had much luck with The New Yorker…David Denby called A Serious Man “intolerable”…
BW: i suppose they've learned to live with it
1:08 PM JMT: Another clever inversion has to do with the female lead, don't you think? Body Heat is actively prurient, whereas everybody in Blood Simple looks worse for wear. As Abby, McDormand is the opposite of a femme fatale.
1:09 PM BW: right, they push the absurdity at the expense of the glamour
1:10 PM …and refuse to punish the dame!
JMT: I'd say while Body Heat is knowing about noir, Blood Simple is more heavily invested in irony.
1:11 PM BW: yes, the coens are much more upfront about playing with genre. it's almost a form of cinematic drag
1:12 PM JMT: Ha! The love is genuine. I believe they've said that they thought the names of Cain, Chandler, and Hammett ought to be chiseled into the stone above the Columbia University Library.
1:13 PM BW: oh, it's out of love, absolutely
JMT: Blood Simple came out in 1984 when I was like 10 years old – it was the year of Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins and The Karate Kid! So I saw it much later on VHS. But I had been reading a lot of pulp in high school. Jim Thompson, Davis Goodis, the Black Lizard Crime series from Vintage. Blood Simple is deeply engaged with pulp.
1:14 PM Pulp fiction…
1:15 PM BW: that's one of the things that's so striking about blood simple as a directorial debut. rather than trying to offer a new kind of cinematic language, they demonstrate their understand* and control of an existing form. it's a very sophisticated piece of filmmaking – you might call it a kind of late style, formally speaking, which is not what you expect from first timers!
1:18 PM JMT: Or the creation of deliberately “minor” literature. Chandler once wrote a letter to Hamish Hamilton explaining that people always asked him when he'd write something “serious.” He talks about Pindar and Sappho and mocks “the Book of the Month Club, the Hearst press, and the Coca-Cola machine.” He prefers “a savage, dirty age.” Like the 1980s!
1:19 PM BW: like there's an age that isn't savage and dirty…
1:20 PM and zhang seems – on the basis of the trailer and the bits i've read about a woman, a gun and a noodle shop – to be applying it to another 'low' genre
1:22 PM although he's an interesting case in that he's become a specialist at classy pulp – the kind of pulp the book-of-the-month sensibility accepts as 'high'
hence his being recruited for the olympics gig, perhaps?
1:23 PM JMT: Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry are following in his footsteps!
1:24 PM but adaptability is very much in the coens' dna. zhang is remaking a remake
1:26 PM JMT: Yes, there's that weird sense in many Coens films of a remake even when it's not the case – like O Brother w/r/t Sullivan's Travels, and The Man Who Wasn't There w/r/t the notorious execution scene cut from Double Indemnity. Most markedly in Miller's Crossing, which is almost like a missing Hammett novel adapted to film.
Which isn't to discount the originality in the films, at all.
1:29 PM BW: well, originality is always only a form of variation. their consummate ability to go with the tide, formally, is what allows them to surf it so well
1:30 PM JMT: Right – Kael didn't realize that they were more like Wilder or Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is quoted in the original trailer.
1:31 PM JMT: “It is very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill someone.”
1:32 PM That quotation is interspersed with various images, including the grave digging scene out in the Texas fields.
1:33 PM BW: they certainly share hitchcock's sense of humour about violence and death…but yes, wilder and hitchcock are very useful reference points – wilder especially, the idea of genre-skipping almost as a project in itself
1:37 PM JMT: I was just reading David Thomson's book The Moment of Psycho. He suggests that the whole first half of Psycho evokes American loneliness and banality. So does Blood Simple. Something's not right in the landscape. Everyone's pretty much alone – even the couple, Abby and Ray. When the husband Marty dies he has a bleeping computer to keep him company. It's like the low-rent assassin Loren Visser says, “Down here, you're on your own.”
Whereas in Body Heat, William Hurt is like this smug jogger! Imagine anyone in Blood Simple jogging? (Maybe Meurice – he wears those great sneakers!)
1:38 PM BW: haha – visser at the gym
JMT: His “yellow lounge suit” is specified in the screenplay.
1:39 PM BW: amazing. he's what's wrong with the landscape
1:40 PM JMT: He's so intriguing!
1:41 PM I love his interest in the Soviet Union…
1:42 PM BW: there's a sort of compensation in the pastiche – the milieu is, as you say, alienation and ignorance and solitude, but the form, even though it's subversive, relies on the audience's recognition, its community of appreciation
JMT: You mean, we get the joke, like Visser?
1:43 PM JMT: Got it!
BW: we get it and appreciate it, and by getting it we assert fellow-feeling with the coens and other genre fans
and visser totally appreciates the irony too
the way he laughs at the absurdity of his own death – that's ecstatic!
1:45 PM JMT: Visser's wonderful. He does the killing for the money, reasoning that it's free enterprise – “in Russia they make fifty cent a day” – but he does the math and recognizes that it's more efficient to kill Marty than the couple. He's like a shady parody of one of those management consultants that says you can eliminate 50% of your workforce and streamline everything…
What a performance by Walsh! Talk about the banality of evil.
1:46 PM BW: he's amazing. they all are – utterly archetypal but also utterly, ridiculously unique
1:47 PM coming back to the remaking thing, it's interesting that the coens are currently finishing off their second official remake
JMT: True Grit
1:48 PM BW: right. though i think technically their film is based on the charles portis novel rather than the john wayne film
but as the film is much better known, it's kind of a remake in pop-culture terms
1:49 PM (or something)
amazing cover to the novel btw: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Grit_(novel)
1:51 PM JMT: I've got that version! Another very strong female lead. This is one thing I really like about the Coens’ work. McDormand's lead in Blood Simple sets up her later role in Fargo as a source of “ordinary strength,” for lack of a better phrase.
BW: yes, they have bottomless faith in the ability of sensible women to get on with it
1:52 PM JMT: Whereas, again, not to flog Body Heat, but there Kathleen Turner is viewed as a toy who turns malicious.
Abby is more subtle.
1:53 PM There's a great bit of noir-type laconic dialogue when they're first leaving town.
Abby: …What was that back there?
Man: Back where?
Man: I don't know. Motel…
==>Another cruddy Coen motel coming up!==>
1:55 PM BW: moving around never does anyone any good in coen films, yet it's the american condition…
1:56 PM JMT: Like in Psycho!
BW: ha, totally
1:57 PM JMT: Thomson talks about how “in America the poetry is often in the official signage.” Like “interstate.” The desire to be elsewhere. And that terrible road loneliness. The Hopperesque.
1:58 PM That's what James M. Cain was getting at, too!
BW: it's another kind of subversion – taking these emblems of american furtherment like hitting the road and looking for the big payday – this applies to psycho and most of the coens' work – and showing it as sheer folly
1:59 PM JMT: All those bags of money dangled in Coen films. Marge in Fargo speaks to Visser, in a way, when she says “All for a little bit of money.”
2:01 PM BW: and to ed crane and the big lebowski and llewelyn moss andlinda litzke…
2:02 PM JMT: “Dry cleaning – was I crazy to be thinking about it?” (Ed Crane.) He needs that $10,000 to start his business.
Visser gets…how much? Is it $10,000? Due to inflation, the standard Coen payout has increased to around $1 mil over the years…
2:03 PM BW: it's A Lot Of Money
2:04 PM you could almost do a breakdown of coen movies by deadly sin
blood simple – wrath and avarice
raising arizona – envy
2:05 PM miller's crossing… um…
2:06 PM JMT: Hmmm…
2:07 PM –Yes, it's $10,000 – “a right smart of money,” Visser says – “smart” and “stupid” being another big theme here.
BW: smart also being what you do when you're hit. like a pummel of cash or a bruise of change
2:08 PM JMT: “When you smart me, it ruins it.” As Bernie says in Miller's Crossing.
BW: in the chair
2:09 PM his big hollywood reveal! waiting in the dark to put the frighteners on regan in true noir style, but regan spoils it by laughing
that's what classical hollywood could say to the coens, really
'when you smart me, it ruins it'
JMT: Yeah! “Who looks stupid now?” What Visser says to Marty after he's killed him.
2:10 PM BW: a quote from the ladykillers, which in due course the coens would recycle in full!
or at least riff off. it's their own approach to sources that makes them so ripe for remaking (or remixing) themselves
it would be great to see them remake one of their own movies, like hitch with the man who knew too much
2:12 PM JMT: Whoa – which one? Huh…
BW: maybe raising arizona? updated with ref to fertility technology?
2:13 PM i guess it's complicated by the fact that they do so many period pieces
JMT: They joked for awhile about remaking Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Since the story wouldn't phase anybody, they could focus on production design exclusively…wallpaper, etc.
like van sant's psycho but more so
2:14 PM but also it would be intriguing to see, say, wong kar-wai's take on barton fink
the writer trapped in the hotel…
2:15 PM JMT: Wonderful!
BW: paul rudd as the big lebowski?
2:16 PM JMT: Which brings us back to Zhang's remake. I don't know enough about it. But it got me thinking about how memorable Blood Simple remains. What New Wave figures like Truffaut and Godard saw clearly was that America has a fundamental relationship with crime literature. This is the country that produced Poe, Hammett, Chandler, Goodis…Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution discusses how both Truffaut and Godard had an abiding interest in Bonnie & Clyde – in directing it – a script which was itself influenced by the New Wave. This remake seems to set up Blood Simple as a weirdly quasi-canonical work, at least in the sense that it’s being reworked and adapted to another culture.
2:17 PM BW: certainly there's a whole conversation to be had about the transmission of cinematic ideas across cultures – american genres drawing on and returning to japanese, italian, french and indeed chinese cinema… kurosawa, new wave, leone, now zhang.
it's the same old song, but with a different meaning…
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