Story in fragments

So, what to do with yourself when you’re confined to your house during a global pandemic? Watch all of the Coen Brothers’ films in release order, obviously. Although we actually started in the middle by re-watching Fargo so that Spawn could start watching the TV series with us. But now we’ve rewound to the mid 80s, to a time before Joel and Ethan Coen had refined their technique, or had the kudos to secure big budgets and well-known actors. In fact, a huge part of their achievement in making Blood Simple was in getting it made, as a self-produced project with total unknowns directing and in the leading role.

The term ‘blood simple’ was apparently coined by Dashiell Hammett, to refer to the increasing confusion and poor decision-making that can afflict those immersed in protracted violent situations. That’s the thematic core of the movie, although the term itself is never mentioned. Every character’s view of the narrative is partial, fragmentary, and mistaken: only the audience is in a position to assemble the pieces into a coherent whole. The effect of this is to foreground the textual function that in prose fiction we would call the narrator, something that is usually elided or even dissembled in cinema, except in those films with literal voice-over narration. There is a particular perspective, that of the storyteller, which presents us with those parts of the narrative that we need to see in order to understand what it is that is happening to the isolated and uncomprehending characters. Rather than offering the impression that we are simply watching events unfold, it tells us more or less overtly that this particular account has been constructed for our benefit. It lends the film, looking back from its final scene, the quality of a fable.

In part, this feeling is abetted by the atmosphere and the performances, but the film hovers delicately between a kind of hallucinogenic unreality, and a downtempo simplicity. Sometimes the actors are quite cinematic in their delivery, but they are rarely dramatic: even when the emotional or existential stakes are high, nobody overplays their part. Frances McDormand shows the subtlety and nuance that would eventually win her two Oscars. M. Emmett Walsh is flamboyant and entertaining as a sleazy private detective, but only inasmuch as the film requires it. John Getz and Dan Hedaya give scrupulously low-key accounts of their characters. When a story has such strong bones, little else is required.

The narrative is constructed around a number of cinematic images or moments. The Coen Brothers secured funding for the movie by touting a trailer which contained two of Blood Simple’s most striking and stylish images, and these kinds of filmic juncture clearly constitute the material with which the brothers compose. This was made strikingly clear by our recent viewing of Fargo, a film made twelve years later, which contains many of the same visual and narrative themes. A long straight road in a flat landscape, with bodies being dragged around near parked cars. A husband commissioning criminals to commit violence on his wife. A fragmented narration in which no single character grasps the whole picture. McDormand surviving, even ‘winning’, without fully understanding the terms of the contest.

Some of these moments live vividly in the memory. The two images around which the trailer was built are of a figure dragging a shovel along blacktop towards an injured victim they appear intent on finishing off, and of light shining through the bullet-holes in a wall. The Coens correctly identified these as the two most striking moments in the film, and if I think of Blood Simple it is these images which come to mind. It’s another image which seems to summarise the entire creative thesis, however. The final image of the film is of a bathroom basin, seen from below. It is the final image seen by one character, who lies dying on the floor.

Clearly it becomes important to him, because it is the last thing he will see, the last of the many sensory experiences he has stitched together to produce the impression of having had a biography. It tells us vividly and unexpectedly, that this rather unsavoury and unsympathetic character has an inner life. And it tells us emphatically, presenting a narrative moral at the last possible moment, that such disconnected and prosaic images or moments, always partial, never adding up from any individual perspective to a ‘true’ or even coherent account, are the material we have to work with—whether we are making films, or just making a life.

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