30 June 2011

Life Not Simple, The Movie Blood Simple, You Get Two Posts in One! Simple!

Life is perplexing.

Today I saw a friendly old acquaintance at the gym who, for reasons I cannot fathom, proceeded to act like a total jerk. Minutes later I ran into another old friend who I hadn't seen in three years and he was perfectly charming. You're up, you're down. Good day, bad day. Bad encounter, nice encounter. Rain, sun. The best prediction is the one you never make.

On the bus home from the gym most seats were occupied by university students here for the Summer session. For the most part they were quiet, head in a book or texting, or day dreaming. But there was also a couple of high school age kids. A male and female. The female in particular had no sense of volume control. She could be heard loud and clear all over the bus and likely outside of it as well. This despite the fact that her companion sat across from her.

As many young people do, she referred to her fellow females as "bitches." Not as a insult but as a generic term for women. I'm so old that I remember when bitch was a derogatory term. In the same way, she and her friend referred to all males as, niggers, again as a generic and not as an insult. Here I have elected to use all the word’s letter rather than put an asterisk in place of the letter "i." I have also spelled it out instead of typing: "the n word." You see, the young couple in question said the whole word without an asterisk. And they did not say "n words" but niggers.

Yes, nigger is an offensive term. But this business about not even dare speaking it in any context whatsoever has gone too far and gone on long enough. Mind you, I do not advocate white people using it publicly, except of course in the context of an example such as: "the racist called all black people niggers." I don't believe it should be treated as if it had magic powers and will turn Caucasians who utter into pillars of salt. I further believe that "faggot" is extremely offensive and should be avoided at all costs too. But let's not start saying "the f word." For that matter I do not like it when men say "bitch" in reference to female humans. I could list many other words that I find highly objectionable as well as phrases, sentences, paragraphs and entire books. But I also find censorship extremely offensive. Cultural as well as governmental and self.

Words have a lot of power. But we shouldn't live in fear of any single one of them. Being sensitive is fine. Being paranoid not.

Here's a thought: let's rely on common courtesy in the use of language. Let's consider other people's feelings. The schmoe I saw earlier today didn't use common courtesy in speaking with me in that he clearly didn’t care how I would feel about what he said. Offending someone else is fine when its in the furtherance of a cause or idea. If you are offended by my suggesting that continuing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans is tantamount to declaring war on the poor, that's okay. I was expressing a sincere opinion on a political issue. I'm offended by 90% of what the Tea Party says but don't believe that they should silenced for saying it. It's when comments are gratuitous and serve no point that they are rude and objectionable. Just as violence in films is not bad in and of itself unless it is gratuitous.

What's so confounding about life is how it comes around and bites or caresses you regardless of what you're doing. In the gym, standing on a corner, on the bus. There are always people about who intentionally or otherwise brighten or darken your day or just cause you to think and feel and thus grow. The old phrase I used to hear was that you have to take things in stride. It's not only trite but suggests that nothing should stay your inexorable march towards wherever. I'm of the opinion that you should not take everything in stride. You should stop and slap some things right in the face. Others you should stop and hug. (I mean figuratively in both instances although hugging is a good thing.) Still others should cause you to ruminate. It's not so all fired important to continue in a straight line all the time.

All of this leads me to the film of the day I enjoyed after returning to my humble abode. (I know I took long enough to get to it.) Blood Simple (1984) the Coen Brothers' first feature. I hadn't seen it since it's initial run which by math is over a quarter of century ago. So this was basically a new movie to me.

Here we have people who have all kinna stuff happening to them. Whether they brought in on themselves or not is a separate point. They're being cuckolded, followed, getting shot at, shot to death, shot not quite to death, stealing money, having it stolen, leaving behind incriminating evidence and of course being buried alive (don't you just hate that?).

One person, Marty (Dan Hedaya) sets everything in motion when he correctly suspects that his wife Abby (Frances MacDormand) is cheating on him. His pursuit of vengeance leads him to hire a private detective (M. Emmett Walsh) whose dark sense of humor is the heart and soul of Blood Simple. He's a cackler, he's a schemer, he's as cuddly as a the lazy old crocodile.

Thing is, people in this movie keep following the natural course of events. They see something like a dying man and don't ask questions. They assume (when you assume you make an ass out of you and me, or so I've been told). In fact you can see Blood Simple is all about people taking things in stride and going on with what seems the next logical step. There's not a hint of philosophizing by the characters which allows us an audience to do that for them. These are people with total tunnel vision and an annoying single mindedness in the pursuit of the simple.

Blood Simple has been called "dark" and a "dark comedy." Fine if you want to put labels on it those two will do. But it’s also a study of human nature. No, most people are not willing to take another human being's life. But most people respond to the situations in something like what the characters in Blood Simple do. There's a lot of self preservation going on. Trying to stay out of jail, stay alive and get rich.

It's interesting to me that there's not a single cop, lawyer or other authority type figure in the film. Instead there are the consciences, or the lack thereof, of the players. They police themselves and set their own rules and create their own moral structure. People will often do that in absence of a real authority and with predictable results.

Blood Simple also foretold the cinematic style of the Coen Brothers. Much of what we've seen in their films of the last 25 years is in on display here and for that alone its well worth seeing. One example is the beginning of the film which recalls the beginning of No Country For Old Men (2007). Shots of the Texas countryside with a character from the film speaking philosophically in voice over. In Blood Simple it's Walsh.

A Coens picture is always going to avoid cliches. It is always going to smart without consciously trying to be. So many films today try to impress audiences with the important point they're getting across or their interesting story telling techniques. There's practically a little man in the corner of the screen saying over and over: see how we did that, isn't that clever? While the Coens just creatively tell the story. No whistles and bells unless there's a scene calling for a whistle blower and bell ringer.

There's plenty of blood in Blood Simple but it was always felt like it was there because someone was bleeding not because we needed to be shocked or grossed out. It is a story that asks not to take it in stride. Sure we can go through life and films excepting everything at face value and challenging nothing. But we can also wonder at the complexity of it all and try to sort out how to best place ourselves within the scheme of things. How can we, as fellow travelers, best navigate through our lives enriching or at least not hurting, the journeys of others.

I opened this post by saying that life is perplexing. For me the best crossword puzzles are the ones that cause me to scratch my head. Easy can be boring. Same with movies. Of course we have to bring our own thinking and experience to films and to situations in life. That's the fun of it.

1 comment:

litrock said...

Really great post. I originally didn't really care for Blood Simple because I was so used to the Coens making clever movies that the rather understated plot of Blood Simple seemed like a whole lot of nothing fancy. Oh what a fool I was, and I eventually came around to an opinion similar to yours. It's an amazing, low-key thing.

Because I feel it needs more people to see it, I'd also recommend a 2009 Chinese remake of Blood Simple called A Woman, A Gun, And A Noodle Shop. It's directed by Zhang Yimou, most famous for Hero or House of Flying Daggers, and its really interesting to see another culture's take on the same basic plot. There's a universality to human nature, even when the particulars are shaken up, that I find just reinforces how good the original movie is.