Friday, July 29, 2011

TV Bites: Blood Simple

Sugar Snap Pea and Cheese Curd Salad

If it wasn't so damn hot outside, I'd still be heating up as I've been in computer hell the last few weeks now, since returning from Montreal. My computer overheated in my bag because it didn't shut down all the way when I rushed to put it away before landing as the airplane steward was tapping his foot and standing over me. Say la vee, as they'd say up there in Quebec. Then I thought it had come with an extended warranty, which it didn't, so I sent it in anyways to Sony, but they wanted more to fix it than I could buy a refurbished model with a 3-year warranty, so I had them send it back. Ah, the disposable society we live in. Meanwhile, I bought a little Acer netbook that was on sale at Target, which worked for four days - just enough time to get it working right and loaded with software - for the hard drive to get burned. And of course, because of the sale, they're all out of replacement units, so I had to wait another day for a delivery to get that replaced. So, I've been working as much as I can on an old desktop but I'm taking it all in stride, mostly because it's too damn hot to go outside anyways, so dealing with all this has at least kept me physically cool, which helps to keep me mentally cool.

But you don't care about that. It's finally time to turn my attention to the Coen Brothers catalog. Sure, it would be obvious to start with The Big Lebowski, you might say, but I say let's start from the beginning. I remember seeing Blood Simple when it was first released, and being so impressed by it. (The title is taken from an expression used by a character in the Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest, which basically describes ones state of mind after excessive exposure to excessive bloodshed - somewhat stupefied by it, but also lustful for more carnage.)

It had been a while since I've seen it, but Blood Simple holds up very nicely. It's a very simple film, but also very visually impressive for its low budget. It got everyone excited about the Coen Brothers which launched their careers. The film is also credited as being part of the first wave of new independent American cinema. (Heck, today you can even get college credit for watching their movies!)

When we look back on the films made by the filmmakers of the 1970's (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg), we can spot their movie references because today we are all so film savvy. But then, the masses weren't yet so pop culturally obsessed. The same can be said of the European filmmakers before them. But Joel & Ethan came of age watching movies on television, as well as in theaters - as did their audience. So when they start quoting movies in their movies, as Hal Hinson noted in his 1985 interview with them in Film Comment, the Coens "assume that the audience grew up on the same movies they did, and that we share their sophisticated knowledge of conventional movie mechanics.... They don't see a conflict between film art and film entertainment." Compare how the Coens reference Hitchcock to how Brian DePalma would. It's the difference of a generation. (Pedro Almodovar's use of Hitchcock - see my post on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - is somewhere in there too.) Joel said that "Blood Simple utilizes movie conventions to tell the story. In that sense it's about other movies - but no more so than any other film that uses the medium in a way that's aware that there's a history of movies behind it." Although, I would say that for the Brothers' films, knowing the film references is part of understanding (not just appreciating) what they are communicating, whereas for someone like DePalma, it's not as necessary.

Hinson's first point gave film critics at the time a real thought problem: Was Blood Simple a serious art house thriller or a dismissable low-budget shlocky one? Critics lined up on both sides of the aisle of that question. But what they missed was that the "in" jokes and references were no longer there just for the film geeks, but now for the majority of filmgoers. Quentin Tarantino would take this to even a greater level a decade later.

Joel's response to this question was: "That's a distinction I've never understood [between art and entertainment]. If somebody goes out to make a movie that isn't designed primarily to entertain people, then I don't know what the fuck they're doing. I can't understand it. It doesn't make sense to me. What's the Raymond Chandler line? 'All good art is entertainment and anyone who says differently is a stuffed shirt and juvenile in the art of living.'" (Ahem, the actual quote, just to be technical here, from the essay The Simple Art of Murder reads: "I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.")

For Chef du Cinema buffs, this is the third film I've written about released in 1984 - the first being Broadway Danny Rose, and the other (also made here in Texas) Paris, Texas. The only other year so far which has hit the three film mark is 1959 (Rio Bravo, Some Like It Hot, and North by Northwest). What does it all mean? I don't know.

Blood Simple is available on DVD/Blu-Ray @ Amazon and is home rentable from Netflix.


"The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don't care if you're the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year - something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help - watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else - that's the theory, anyways. But what I know about is Texas. And down here.... You're on your own."

Joel & Ethan Coen grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, made Super-8mm films as kids, and headed east with Joel studying film at New York University, and Ethan philosophy at Princeton. After college Joel found a job as an assistant editor in New York and convinced Ethan to come to New York and try to write scripts together they could sell to the some of the low budget producers Joel was getting to know.

Now this is 1980, and another young filmmaker-wannabe was driving to New York from his home in Detroit to edit his first feature film. "I'd never driven to New York before and I knew there'd be all sorts of hoodlums and bad characters about. When I pulled up to the building where the cutting room was, this guy came up to the car with long scraggly hair down his chest, looking undernourished. I thought he was trying to rip us off. That was my first meeting with Joel," the young man recalled. And this is how the Coens met Sam Raimi.

Joel worked as the assistant editor on The Evil Dead, and they hit it off. Sam and the Brothers began spending a great deal of time together. Over the next few months, the trio tried coming up with movie ideas, but the big thing for the Brothers was that Raimi basically slit open his wrist and let them suck out all the knowledge Raimi had gained making his first film. Everything from how to raise money, how to shoot cheaply, and about distribution.

"[S]ome people aren't very forthcoming with that sort of information and want to treat it as a sort of trade secret, but Sam was really generous in terms of giving us all the benefit of his experience," said Ethan.

"Yeah, he was an early mentor of ours in terms of showing us how to get something off the ground," added Joel.

Raimi once described the Coens thusly: “It's the yin and yang of one being.”

An idea started to form in the Brothers' collective head. "[We'd been] watching people [especially Sam] raise the money for their own movies," recalled Ethan, "starting with very limited, or no experience, as we had, in production... we figured, if they can do it, why not us?"

We had absolutely nothing to lose and nothing better to do. And we never looked at it as a career," Joel said.

They decided they would attack the situation logically. They would be making a low budget movie, so that meant coming up with something with only a few characters, a few locations, but it also meant they had to come up with a strong enough dramatic story to capture an audiences' attention within those limitations.

"We knew we were going to be raising the money ourselves and that there wouldn't be much money," noted Ethan. "The sort of claustrophobic, heavily plotted murder melodrama seemed tailor-made for something you might be able to do successfully on a small budget, in real practical terms."

"For a long time we've been fans of this kind of story, which is in the tradition of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler," Ethan elaborated elsewhere. "It's certainly a genre that is entertaining. And we also picked it for very practical reasons.... We could build something on the genre and the appeal it has."

"We read all of Cain... when they reissued his books in paperback. Chandler and Hammett, too. We've also poured through a lot of Cain arcana," said Joel. "We've always through that up at Low Library at Columbia University, where the names are chiseled up there above the columns in stone – Aristotle, Herodotus, Virgil – that the fourth one should be Cain." (oh, to be technical again - sorry, Joel - there are four statues, and they are Euripides, Demosthenes, Sophocles, and Augustus Caesar.)

"Cain usually dealt in his work with three great themes: opera, the Greek diner business, and the insurance business," Ethan quipped, with Joel adding, "Which we felt were the three great themes of 20th century literature."

"In Blood Simple the genre was, in a basic way, guiding the movie we were making," recalled Joel. "[W]e started with a situation, a general plot. The characters went from there."

"The original premise was a sort of central double-cross," explained Ethan, "and beyond that it was a question of figuring out how to make things progressively worse for the survivors."

The attraction of a genre," said Joel, "is that the audience comes to it with a set of rules and expectations. The fun comes from circumventing the rules and putting a new spin on the genre.”

"We just start writing at the beginning, without an idea really, about how it's going to go," Ethan said. "We don't, for instance, outline the script before we start writing it, we just sort of start in with the first scene and see where that leads – which is actually, oddly enough, maybe the reason things get sort of complicated. You end up painting yourself into corners, if you don't know where you're going, and you perform weird contortions to get yourself out, which land you in odd places that, well, you certainly, and then hopefully the audience, never expected to find you in."

So, they began with a plot, started developing a story, next came character and location. Typically, the Coens have said, they often have a particular actor in mind for some of the parts. In this case, "[W]ith Emmet Walsh's part, we wrote that for him. We knew his work," noted Joel, even though they didn't know him personally, nor knew if they could hire him for the part.

As for location, "We wanted a very specific milieu," Joel recalled, "and Texas carries a lot of baggage with it, at least for American audiences. It's sort of an overblown, mythical Texas." Further, he continued in another interview, "By not taking Texas as it is, but as something preserved in legend, a collection of histories and myths... The subject is 'deadly passion.' If you associate that with a region of the USA, Texas is the most logical place. There are so many identical cases that have occurred in Texas that it's grown in the public imagination. So it was the logical place to construct our story. That situation was important for your dramatic bearings, because the film was supposed to be a slice of life, but still a fiction contrived to fit into an exotic place."

"I'd lived in Texas for a little while," Ethan confessed. "We actually went down there [to film] because we were familiar with it, having spent time down there and knowing people there. That was part of the reason for going. I went to UT [Austin] for a semester and lived down there for about a year, so I knew people who I knew would work on the movie. I knew what the production climate was like down there. I think maybe part of the attraction of going was the fact that it was sort of... It's a very different place and somewhat exotic, having grown up in Minnesota."

"My whole association with Minnesota, where we grew up, was very dull. The movie had to be shot anywhere but in Minnesota." he stated. "And again, your classic film noir has a real urban feel, and we wanted something different."

Next came the dialogue. “Their favorite midtown [New York City] lunch spot is the counter at Woolworth's,explained their friend Michael Miller said in a 1987 interview. “They go to hear dialogue that will find its way into a script. The opening of Blood Simple - many of those lines they'd overheard."

With the script finished, they shot a trailer - as Sam Raimi had taught them - which, for trivia buffs, starred Raimi regular Bruce Campbell as the bar owner, who would be played by Dan Hedaya in the actual movie. Then, with the trailer - again with advice from Sam Raimi - the Coens put together a dog-and-pony show for potential investors. In just over a year, they managed to raise $750,000, enough to begin making their first feature film. (Although, there is a "legend" told in which the two nice Jewish boys raised the money back in Minneapolis, armed with a list of names provided by the local Hadassah of their top contributors.) "We had never made a film. We had no credentials. It was difficult to find a producer to trust us and give us the money to make a film," Ethan said. "It was probably the hardest part of making the movie," admitted Joel.

Let's go back to the trailer they shot for a moment. For it, they brought aboard an old NYU friend, a cinematographer who had shot short films, an Oscar-nominated documentary, and some hardcore porn flicks, Barry Sonnenfeld (whom we note later directed previous Chef du Cinema pick Get Shorty). Sonnenfeld signed on to work on what would be the first of several collaborations.

The Coens and Sonnenfeld headed to Austin in October 1982 where they started preproduction planning and location scouting (the bar was not a set but the now-long-gone popular Austin watering hole, the Soap Creek Saloon). And while they certainly learned about creating emotional tension and visual style from studying Alfred Hitchcock, they also followed his example of working out as many details of how the film would look beforehand, including working with three different local artists to storyboard everything from location floor plans to breaking down scenes shot by shot. "In order to make the most of the money," Joel explained, "the film had to be meticulously planned out."

"We collaborated very closely [with Barry]," he continued. "Long before shooting, he looked over the locations. We talked about the filming, about how to shoot in certain locations. He got involved at a very early stage, and this, once again, from a practical point of view, helped us work in a very cost efficient fashion. Once you start shooting, you cannot allow yourself to spend money in an unplanned fashion. Everything was talked through beforehand."

If we didn't preplan it,” Joel said, “I don't think we'd be able to handle the pressure. I couldn't walk out there without knowing what I was after. I'd flounder, and the movie would get away from me, and I'd face the horror of watching it veer off into the ditch. There's no way to stop it at that point – It's impossible to wrestle back on course. It's got its own... horrible momentum.”

While the Brothers collaborated almost equally on the writing and planning, they decided one person needed to be called "the director" on the set, Joel got that honor but denied it was done by a coin toss. "The real reason [Joel got to be director]," Ethan said, "is that he's three years older and three inches taller." Joel added, "I have a longer reach." They also edited the film together under the pseudonym "Roderick Jaynes."

Now it was time for casting and first on their list for the Detective was, of course, M. Emmett Walsh. “When I read the script,” Walsh remembered. “I said, 'This character is so much fun, I'll flesh him out and use him in an important movie six or seven years down the road.' Because no one was every going to hear about this movie. At best, it would be third bill at an Alabama drive-in.”

When Walsh met with them, what he saw were "two scrawny kids" and was clueless what to make of them. "I said, 'You boys got rich parents who're puttin' up the money? They showed me this two-minute film; I thought, What the hell is this? Then I saw the storyboards and the shooting schedule, and I realized they knew exactly what they were doing.”

By the time you get on their set,” Walsh continued, “they've got it worked out like a commercial shoot – preplanned to the nth degree. They never went to work without knowing what they were up to. To the point where if you made a suggestion, it almost go in their way.”

For the role of Abby, the Coens' first choice was a young, unknown actress they'd seen in New York named Holly Hunter. Hunter auditioned for the part, the Coens wanted her, but she had to turn down the role due to a scheduling conflict. So she pushed her roommate to audition for them, describing them as “two really weird guys.” Probably not most encouraging referral, but Frances McDormand decided to go anyways and landed the part (subsequently, she also landed Joel's heart).

"I knew nothing about making movies. All I could do was call on my theatre training," McDormand said. Also, she explained that her “dumb” look on the screen was the result of her feeling “paralyzed until they told me what to do.” But as filming continued, she and Joel fell in love. "We were both doing, for the first time, what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives,” she said.

McDormand once noted that Walsh was the oldest person on the set. Walsh enjoyed teasing "the kids" with cute remarks such as: “Let's cut this sophomoric stuff, it's not NYU anymore.” Once Joel asked Walsh to do a take a particular way “just to humor” him, and Walsh replied, “Joel, this whole damn movie is just to humor you.”

"When [Joel & Ethan are] in work mode, creature comforts become minimal,” said McDormand. “They love the performance part of their job, like the minute you walk on a stage or the camera starts rolling. For them, the writing part of it, the budgeting and preproduction another, but it's all building toward the shoot. And then in postproduction, that's when they get to lead the artistic life. They get to stay up late and get circles under their eyes and smoke too much and not eat enough and be focused entirely on creating something. And then it starts again.”

With principal photography finished in about 8 weeks, they began editing the picture, adding a few shots they needed back in New York. Then they headed out to Los Angeles to find a distributor.... and they returned to New York without one. The film's first screening was at the USA Film Festival in Dallas and won the Grand Jury Prize (later, it picked up the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, as well). It was then accepted in the New York Film Festival, then the Toronto Film Festival where Ben Barenholtz and his Circle Films company offered them a deal. "They're sensitive, determined, and know what they want," Barenholtz said of the Brothers. "Their objective is to have total artistic freedom. The priority was never the money. It's the work. They want to work without interference. So I created the context," which was a 3 picture deal in which they could make the films they wanted.

Money isn't important to them, except to make movies,” Sonnenfeld said in 1987. “They never want to be in a position where anyone has any power to tell them what to do. They could make more by going with a studio, but I don't believe they ever will. And that's intimidating to a lot of people in the business. It's frightening that two people can be that self-contained.”

One final note. "We were approached about doing a DVD of the movie [in 2000]," Ethan recalled. "And we thought we might as well remix the movie because when it was made, it was mixed in mono.... And there was quite a bit of room for improvement just in terms of sounds. And since we started thinking about that, we thought 'Well, since we're getting into the mix of the movie, we might as well do the picture as well' … there seemed to be room for improvement in the cut.... Before, the original version was like an old lady with a walker, and now it just has a cane." The "remixed" version also had a brief theatrical run in 2000.


"I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort." - author James M. Cain, in his preface to Double Indemnity.

In addition to his three most well known classics (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce), Cain also wrote about food.

soon to have a copy here on my cookbook shelf!


Now you can call me out and say this is a bit of a reach because this is not really Francis McDormand's recipe, BUT in this episode of PBS/Gourmet Magazine's Adventures with Ruth Reichl (start @ 9:00 to 13:23), McDormand picks the ingredients, helps makes the salad, and, happily, consumes it - which, as far as I'm concerned, counts. (And it's not like I'm not the one making the rules around here, okay?) Of course, she is an actress and this is television and maybe she was just acting. But what are you gonna do? Huh? And besides, have I mentioned it's too damn hot in Texas to cook anything right now? So, as M. Emmett Walsh might say in today's movie, "Complain all you want... I don't care." (Oh, and I'm not complaining about the heat so much as I'm just "reckoning" with it, as we'd say down here.)

I made a few changes to the recipe, because of availability and, yes, that it was too damn hot to venture to the "fancy" market. The original recipe suggested using black walnuts, but I couldn't find them, as well there was no watercress available. To add to the movie reference, I was going to use some blood orange vinegar, but it had seen better days and went to the trash, so it was regular old balsamic vinegar for my version. I also had some fresh dill laying around, so I tossed that in which goosed up the flavor nicely. You can try to recreate the original, or improvise as you please. (Do you need me to tell you that?) I also found the original inclusion of 1-2 tablespoons of salt to be a bit much. I put one in, and I would have been fine with a 1/2.

As for the cheese curd, that's real simple to make. Again, they didn't have pints of 1% milk at the closest market, which is preferable as whole milk - because it's homogenized doesn't work as well as a lower fat milk, with some heavy cream tossed in - or in my case since I had some half/half. If you have no lemon juice, start with a tablespoon of white vinegar and add more as needed to get the curds to separate. As well, if using vinegar, wash the curds off well to get rid of the vinegar aftertaste. If that's too much work for you, use the suggested ricotta salata.

Now I learned how to make cheese many years ago when I worked on the weekends at the Home, Beer, Wine & Cheese-making Shop in Woodland Hills, CA. I'd often take equipment in trade for pay, so one day I took home a cheese-making kit, but I never got past a beginner stage with it. I was more into the making of alcoholic beverages at the time (it all started because I had a painful break up with a girl and needed a hobby, learning to make beer seemed the appropriate choice). And to tie this back to the movie, one of my regular customers, who had a home wine-making hobby, was none other than Sam Raimi!!! See how it's all connected....

Anyways, as always, cook, watch, eat, and enjoy! And stay close to the a/c!

Sugar Snap Pea and Cheese Curd Salad
adapted from a recipe by Sam Bell of Blackberry Farm (Walland, Tennessee), found here
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 6 as an appetizer

1/4 cup walnuts (black walnuts, if you can get 'em)
2 tablespoons canola (or grapeseed) oil
1 lb. sugar snap peas (4 cups)
3 oz. cheese curds (or 1/2-inch cubes of ricotta salata) (1/2 cup)
2 cups mix of baby arugula & baby spinach (original recipe: watercress, coarse stems discarded)
1/2 cup thinly sliced radishes
1/4 cup finely chopped mint
1/2 tablespoon fresh chopped dill (optional)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (original: white balsamic vinegar - if you have blood orange vinegar, use that!)
1/2 - 1 teaspoon kosher salt

For cheese curds:
2 cups 2% milk
1/2 cup half/half
3 tablespoons lemon juice

To make cheese curd, heat milk in pan until it starts to foam. Don't wander off. Remove from heat before it bubbles over. Add lemon juice and watch the curds separate from the whey. Let sit, covered, for 2 hours. Using cheesecloth over a colander, or a thin mesh bag, pour mixture and let whey drain away. Now squeeze the cheesecloth or bag several times as hard as you can to get as much moisture out, so that it's now like dry cottage cheese. Remove and squeeze curd to form a ball. Using a clean dish towel, neatly wrap the curd several times around, then sit something heavy on it, like a brick or cast iron pan for another hour or so. Unwrap and now wrap curd in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use. It will keep for a few days nicely. It should yield about 2 3/4 - 3 oz. of cheese.

Preheat oven (or toaster oven) to 350°F with rack in middle.

Toast walnuts in a shallow baking pan until pale golden, 5 to 8 minutes, then toss warm nuts with oil in a small bowl and cool completely.

Cook sugar snaps in a saucepan of salted boiling water until just bright green, about 1 minute. Drain sugar snaps and transfer to an ice bath to cool, then drain again and pat dry. Thinly slice diagonally and transfer to a large bowl.

Add cheese, radishes, mint, optional dill, vinegar, and nuts (with oil) and toss. Season with salt. Salad can be made 4 hours ahead and chilled.

1985 Interview with The Coen Brothers @ MultiGlom
1987 Interview with The Coen Brothers @ Positif
Blood Simple Screenplay
"Slashing Blood Simple," by Ethan Coen @ The New Yorker, July 3, 2000
"The Dark Vision of Joel & Ethan Coen," by Eric Pooley @ New York Magazine, Mar 23, 1987
"I Watched Every Coen Brothers Movie," by David Haglund @ Slate
Four Motifs the Coen Brothers Can't Resist, by David Haglund" @ Slate
"Beyond Drawing Basics: Drawing Storyboards for the Coen Brothers," by Linda S. Price @ Artist Daily
Gourmet's Adventures with Ruth Reichl

Blood Simple (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo in DVD Packaging)
The Coen Brothers: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), edited by William Rodney Allen
The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers, by Josh Levine
The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and Selected Stories (Everyman's Library Classics), by James M. Cain

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