FilmJuice have my review of Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film Blood Simple. Or rather, the slightly shorter director’s cut that was released about fifteen years after the original film.
I found this review quite difficult to write as while I have seen and enjoyed most of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’m also acutely aware that their work invariably seems less substantial the more you think about it. Though some of their films are easily dismissed as more-or-less enjoyable tosh, some of their films feel like substantial dramas. Indeed, both A Simple Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There seemed intellectually robust when I first saw them but I am now hard pressed to remember anything about them aside from a couple of throwaway gags. Blood Simple felt very similar in that it is a film that does a great job of looking smart even though it is really little more than a pastiche:
Clearly inspired by such hardboiled crime novels as Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, Blood Simple takes a collection of film noir clichés, drives them out of the city and deposits them in a crummy bar at the tail end of Texas. Stripped of their tilted fedoras and artfully crumpled raincoats, the clichés valiantly attempt to start new lives but eventually find themselves sliding back into old familiar habits.
Watching Blood Simple, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the fact that the dividing line between a ‘smart’ film and a ‘dumb’ film is often a question of viewer charity as a charitable viewer is more likely to detect meaning and symbolism than someone who is bored out of their tiny mind. Indeed, skilled directors know that it is possible to make a film seem smarter by using some of the visual and stylistic cues that people associate with smartness. For example, even though Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises do not actually say anything substantial about either the War against Terror or the Occupy movement, visual references to both of those real world events goaded critics into assuming both films had elaborate political messages. Similarly, art house films such as Eugene Green’s The Portuguese Nun and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light are so good at looking like serious intellectual films (long takes, lots of silence, beautiful photography, impressions of interiority) that many critics simply assume that they were in fact serious art house films filled with deep and meaningful truths.
Blood Simple is very much like a Batman comic in so far as it looks really dark, twisted and psychological but that look is ultimately all it has to offer. Watching Blood Simple I began to think about whether No Country For Old Men is a smart film or merely a film that looks smart… is there any difference? Does ‘smartness’ actually exist outside of the audience’s heads?
I think there is a difference, but capturing what it is is admittedly tricky.
Pastiche is an issue with the Coen Brothers’ work, though I don’t think Blood Simple is pastiche. To me it’s a solid genre exercise (as you say in your review), a well executed slice of noir cinema notable mostly for coming along long after that genre had largely been prounced a matter of movie history.
The Man Who Wasn’t There by contrast I thought was pastiche, because for me it carried the trappings of noir but didn’t have any depth to it. I didn’t expect depth of Blood Simple, nor did I think it made claims for it. The Man Who Wasn’t There I think did make such claims, but didn’t deliver.
In a way they’re the film equivalent of Michael Chabon. The skate the fine line between homage and pastiche, and which side a given work falls on could depend on little more than whether one likes it or not, and so gives it a push to one side or the other of that divide.
Nolan’s Batman movies certainly don’t have “elaborate political messages” but I think they engage rather more with ideas than the far more glib Iron Man. Sort of similar to how I feel about a movie like A Serious Man vs Burn After Reading, for instance. I think you can argue the ‘smartness’ of a movie depends simply how thought provoking you find it. When asked about the meaning of 2001, Kubrick replied:
“They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded.”
Assuming Kubrick’s personal ideas about 2001 are indeed ‘smart’ or smarter than the average, would 2001 have been ‘smarter’ if he had at least somewhat clearly articulated them in the movie?
I think the line between pastiche and core genre is largely a matter of intention and so not really detectable in the body of the text. I found it entertaining, but ultimately quite lightweight and so I’m happy to apply the far less charitable term of ‘pastiche’. I do take your point though :-)
To be honest, it sounds to me as though Kubrick was doing exactly what I mentioned in my post: Pushing buttons and then stepping back and allowing the audience to reach for their own conclusions.
I’d say that 2001 was a smart film because it invoked certain feelings using a setting that had not really been used in the cinema before. He laid down a cinematic vocabulary that resurfaced in films like Sunshine.
Intention, really? At risk of being a tad absolutist I don’t find intention particularly interesting and certainly not dispositive. Leaving aside the question of why the director’s is the only intention we should have regard to (auteur theory, I know, but it’s a highly questionable theory) I think one can intend to contribute a genre work but fall into mere pastiche.
In a sense the work is all there is. Without director’s commentaries (often produced significantly after the fact and with an eye of course to their commercial consumption), interviews (mostly entered into for the purposes of promoting the film in question) and ascribed motive how do we know what the intention is? Is it even meaningful to talk of an intention, as opposed to intentions? Are all intentions conscious, and so on.
2001 is smart because it does something new, shows a new way to approach film (or in part invigorates old ways that have been overlooked, the cut from bone to spaceship isn’t original but the precursor in some old film of the Canterbury Tales is not well known).
The Man who Wasn’t There, and similarly Burn after Reading, aren’t smart because they take the trappings of a genre and apply them without really understanding the essence of the genre (particularly surprising in Man, given Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple do succeed). They get too engaged with the surface, hence the decision to shoot Man in black and white. Did they intend to be mere pastiche? I doubt it, I think they were intended to be exercises in genre (intention again, difficult to escape), but failed to achieve that.
Put another way, while I wouldn’t quite go as far as objectivity, I do think the text is all that is useful in terms of analysis. I may intend a serious horror movie, but make a slapstick comedy. My intention is ultimately irrelevant, the work is what it is.
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