Reviews

The Coen Brothers' 'Blood Simple' Beginnings

Don't let the word "simple" in the title fool you: even with their debut feature, the Coen Brothers were already refining their idiosyncratic calling cards.


Blood Simple

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
US DVD Release Date: 2016-09-20
UK DVD Release Date: Import

Woman cheats on husband. Husband seeks revenge. Revenge goes wrong.

These plot points exist in any number of noir tales. Look within the spines of books by great noir novelists like Dashiell Hammett, James Ellroy, and Elmore Leonard: some version of them will crop up. The great noir directors, from Alfred Hitchcock to Jean-Pierre Melville, explore morality's gray spaces with similar ingenuity. At its base, Blood Simple is built on those noir plot features, and many other tropes of the genre: heavy shadowing, bloody violence, and existential despair. But in the hands of the then-young directors Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple evolves from what could have been a run-of-the-mill tale of betrayal and blood into an oddball mélange of crime cinema, horror, and black comedy.

The Coens would venture into stranger territory (The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy) later in their career, not to mention more refined explorations of film noir (Miller's Crossing, The Man Who Wasn't There), but in Blood Simple the brothers proved themselves to be directors in which conventions like genre are but putty to be stretched about any number of directions. Anyone looking for a noir fix will be happy with Blood Simple, but there's plenty that's not simple in this non-audacious debut. The devil, an omnipresent figure in the noir universe, is in the details.

The story of Blood Simple is just that: bloody, and simple. After becoming dissatisfied in her marriage, Abby (Frances McDormand, a frequent Coen player) begins a relationship with Ray (John Getz), a man who works at her husband Julian's (Dan Hedaya) neon-lit Texas bar. Blood Simple begins with an ominous sequence: as Abby and Ray drive down a lonesome country road, Ray's windshield is intermittently illuminated with the headlights of oncoming cars, which in their brilliance look as if they will overtake Abby and Ray -- but they never do. Speeding into the night, these soon-to-be lovers are always on the precipice of destruction.

The sequence ends with Abby and Ray beginning their affair in a motel room striped with shadows. Not far from that consummation, Julian broods. He calls the hotel room the next morning, hanging up before saying a word. As soon as he intuits the betrayal at hand, Julian summons the private investigator Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh), the cro-magnon iteration of Coen eccentricity. The camera first introduces Visser to the audience through a shot of his cowboy hat set on top of a desk, one of the many instances of Blood Simple's usage of synecdoche via mise-en-scene.

It would be proper etiquette to announce spoiler alerts ahead, but in the world of noir it's safe to assume that many if not most of the main characters will die. As much as the Coen brothers toy with many of the genre's characteristics in Blood Simple, they also know the rules of the genre's game, and the eerie conclusion to this film follows the dictums of noir: blood must be shed, and few if any can survive. Julian initially hires Visser to trail Abby and Ray, but in the end he asks the private investigator to perform a more lethal task: the execution of his wife and her lover. Julian's only mistake in this execution order is assuming that Visser has his best interests at heart: after duping Julian into believing he has performed the execution, Visser pumps him full of lead.

The normally meticulous and plain-spoken Visser leaves one loose but vital thread in his killing of Julian. To ensure Julian's alibi, Visser tells him to leave town and head to the costal city of Corpus Christi, where he should "go fishing" while the hit is performed. Julian returns with a few fish strung together on a rope -- which in the Coen's subtle scene staging, foreshadow the deaths to come in the film. As he sets the fish atop his desk, he covers up Visser's engraved lighter, which like the killer's hat is a synecdoche for the killer himself. Despite the lighter's iconic value, Visser quickly forgets it after he shoots Julian in cold blood, in his mind cauterizing any loose ends. For the remainder of the movie the mystery lingers: when will anyone lift up the fish carcasses and find the incriminating evidence underneath?

The Coens let the camera linger over the lighter's steely glint beneath the fish, the grenade pin that threatens to blow up Julian's murder. Yet when Blood Simple comes to its conclusion following 95 zippy minutes, the abandoned lighter is not the source of Visser's undoing. Abby, with the help of a pocketknife and a well-timed gunshot, brings about his death at the film's conclusion. Writing for the Atlantic, Christopher Orr notes that the lighter is a "a red herring literally hidden under fish." The Coen brothers effectively capture the spirit of film noir with Blood Simple, but more than anything else they emphasize the attention to detail, a feature necessary to one of noir's primary figures -- the detective -- that also regularly goes overlooked by the characters in the noir genre. Pay attention to the wrong thing at the wrong instant, and you're likely to end up in a grave of someone else's making. The fishy foreshadowing that lays atop the lighter is actually the more valuable piece of information for the unfolding of the narrative. The obvious clue obscures the slimy hint of what's to come.

Character and plot-wise, there isn't much going for Blood Simple, but the Coens bring this bare-bones story to life with all of the aforementioned mise-en-scene misdirection, as well as some sterling cinematphotography by Barry Sonnenfeld. The shots of Visser's bullets boring through a wall of an empty room, of Ray burying the almost undead Julian in an anonymous Texas farm field, and of signature Texas locations like Austin's Mount Bonnell are important shots in the Coens' early career. Viewers are given a unique look into the composition of these shots in the characteristically outstanding bonus features to this Blu-ray edition of Blood Simple provided by the Criterion Collection.

Augmenting a series of interviews with cast and crew is a filmed conversation between the Coens and Sonnenfeld, wherein the directors and cinemaphotographer draw over a continuous commentary of the film with Telestrator technology. (Those who have seen football commentators draw lines over a slow-mo replay of a football game will be familiar with this software.) This allows the three filmmakers to pinpoint the most distinctive elements of Blood Simple, well over 30 years after its creation. The amount of information about the movie's production that the Coens and Sonnenfeld are able to recall after that time is remarkable. Criterion's interactive form of director commentary on this special release is one of the strongest special features it has introduced, a considerable feat, given how high a bar it has already set for the home video market.

The seemingly quotidian final shot of Blood Simple -- a floor-up view of sink pipes from the perspective of the dying Visser -- is at first a strange place to conclude this film. But it's the left pipe that Visser gazes upon, which bears a striking resemblance to the barrel of a Colt .45, that delivers one of the central messages of this movie, one which links it right back into the noir pantheon. No matter who you are, you're liable to end up on the wrong end of a gun. The Coen brothers are hardly the first artists to make that point, but with Blood Simple they do so with a cinematic inventiveness that has since become their calling card. Blood Simple may not be quotable like Lebowski or Oscar-winning like No Country for Old Men, but it's an indispensable feature in the catalogue of two masterful filmmakers.

7

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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