There must be something in the water out in Missoula, Montana.
David Lynch hails from there originally, after all — and so does Theo Ellsworth, one of the most intriguing, challenging, mind-bending, and frankly skilled cartoonists around these days. The detailed intricacy of his illustrations is testament to that fact, but it’s the underlying intent running through them — the deep and abiding sense that this is stuff he desperately needs to purge from his subconscious, through his hand, onto paper — that sets Ellsworth’s work apart from that of his contemporaries. There are visions that plague this guy’s mind, and I’m sure he’s grateful to have found an outlet for expressing them.
Shit, I know I’m grateful that he has, and I’m just a humble reader. But Ellsworth’s comics take me places. Dark, haunted, amorphous, undefinable places. Vistas of beauty and bewilderment, where “steady footing” stands definitively revealed as…
To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!
I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.
(The 2018 Sundance Film Festival opens tonight! Over the years, Sundance has become the premiere festival for independent film. Not only have some of the best American films ever made premiered at Sundance, but it’s become the first stop in many a successful Oscar campaign. Manchester By The Sea, Whiplash, Brooklyn, Beasts of the Southern Wild: all of them started their journey to a best picture nomination at Sundance. For the duration of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, from today to the 28th, I’ll be reviewing films that first made a splash at Sundance.)
Blood Simple is an essential film.
If you love American movies, this is a movie that you have to see. A delirious tribute to film noir, it’s a film that takes place in the darkest corners of America. This is a film that shows that stories of love, betrayal, and murder can be just as complicated in the middle of America as in California and New York.
If you’re fascinated by the history of indie cinema, Blood Simple is a film that you have to see. Joel and Ethan Coen, at a time when they were best known for their work with director Sam Raimi, created a trailer for Blood Simple long before they shot the actual movie. They used this trailer to raise the film’s small budget. Blood Simple was not only their directorial debut (though only Joel received a directorial credit, while the screenplay was credited to Ethan) but it was also both the feature debut of Frances McDormand and cinematographer (and future director) Barry Sonnenfeld’s first major credit as well.
If, like me, you love films about Texas, Blood Simple is an essential. Long before they made No Country For Old Men, the Coens filmed Blood Simple in Texas. Texas is as much a character in Blood Simple as Minnesota and the Dakotas were in Fargo. Along with their twisty crime plots, Fargo, No Country, and Blood Simple all share a similarly cynical and fatalistic view of human nature, one that is perfectly reflected by the bleak locations where their stories take place. Watching Blood Simple, it’s easy to imagine that, once the film ended, it fell to No Country‘s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell to laconically look over the carnage and try to figure out what the Hell just happened.
Like many Coen Brothers films, Blood Simple starts out simply and then gets progressively more and more complicated. Almost all of those complications are due to a combination of human stupidity and greed. Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) are having an affair. Abby’s husband, Marty (Dan Hedaya), owns the bar where Ray works as a bartender. Marty hires a sleazy private detective named Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill Abby and Ray. Visser has other plans. By the end of the movie, almost everyone is dead but no one’s sure why.
The film largely serves as a showcase for Walsh, so much so that McDormand, Hedaya and Getz run the risk of getting lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame, because all three give excellent performances. McDormand brings strength and determination to the role of Abby. Meanwhile, both Getz and Hedaya play two very familiar types. Anyone who has spent any time in Texas will immediately recognize the characters played by Getz and Hedaya. Ray may not be the smartest guy in the world but he’ll keep your car running and your glass full. He’s probably never going to amount too much but he’s what is universally known as a good guy. On the other hand, Marty, as played by Hedaya, is perhaps one of the most pathetic characters to ever appear in an American film. Film noirs are full of betrayed husbands but it’s hard to think of a bigger loser than Marty. Marty is the guy who tries to act tough but even he secretly knows that no one will ever take him seriously. With the combination of his northern accent and his pathetic attempts to dress “western,” Marty is an outsider in Texas, one who is too stupid to realize just how far outside he actually is.
That said, the film is dominated by M. Emmett Walsh. As played by Walsh, Loren Visser is one half sleazy redneck and one half demon from Hell. Speaking in a sarcastic drawl and seemingly amused by all the chaos he has created, Walsh turns Visser into a truly fascinating villain. He may be evil but you can’t stop watching him. Walsh’s best moment is also his last in the film, a sarcastic one-liner that suggests that everything that has happened was caused more for his own amusement than anything else. Visser is clever but not even he can escape the random whims of fate.
Violent and, as is typical for the Coens, darkly humorous, Blood Simple won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival. Though it was only a modest box office success, it not only launched the careers of the Coen Brothers but continues to be on the most influential independent films ever made. The film remains impressive today. Whenever I see it, I’m always stunned to see how, even with their first film, the Coens had already developed their own very unique aesthetic.
If there’s anything that I’ve learned from television and the movies, it’s that twins always have special powers and that those powers often lead to people dying. I’ve also learned that, roughly 75% of the time, one twin will be saintly while the other will be a total jerk. I have to admit that, whenever I meet twins in real life, it’s always a bit of a let down when it turns out that they’re not planning on taking over the world or opening up some sort of soul-sucking vortex.
In this case, the twins are Judy and Chucky Poundstone (both played by Karin Konoval). Judy is in a mental hospital. Chucky is a hoarder. Both Judy and Chuck are also inhabited by Demon Judy and Demon Chucky, which could be a sign of either multiple personalities or demonic possession, depending on what you believe in. All four of them are constantly playing a telepathic game of hangman, spelling out the names of the people who have annoyed them. (Chucky, in particular, has a judgmental streak.) Early on, it’s mentioned that their parents both hanged themselves. Look at their old hangman games and you’ll see drawings of both “Mom” and “Dad.”
People are dying. The authorities say that they’re all committing suicide but almost all of them, before dying, claimed that they were being pursued by a doppelgänger. When one man manages to survive being attacked by his doppelgänger, that’s all it takes to get Mulder interested in the case. Scully, of course, is skeptical about whether or not people are actually being murdered by their doppelgängers. Not Mulder, though. He has Twin Peaks experience, after all. He knows better than to laugh off talk of doppelgängers.
This was a stand-alone episode of The X-Files, a monster of the week episode. There was no talk of conspiracies or the Cigarette Smoking Man or William or anything else. Judging from the reaction on twitter, a lot of people were happy about that. Myself, I found it a bit jarring to go from the paranoia of This to the relatively straight forward investigation featured in Plus One. I guess I’m just always surprised to discover that Mulder and Scully are not only still working for the FBI but they still take their jobs seriously. Speaking for myself, if I had been through half of what they’ve been through, I’d probably end up fleeing the country and living off the grid in Canada.
That’s not to say that Plus One wasn’t a good episode. I didn’t like it quite as much as everyone else did but, at the same time, it did have its share of creepy moments. To be honest, anything involving a doppelgänger is going to be creepy. I also enjoyed the deliberately absurd scene where the lawyer attempted to suicide-proof his house. How many guns and swords does one attorney need? For some reason, the fact that Mulder and Scully didn’t really seem to care that much about any of the “innocent” people who were killed amused me to no end. I don’t know if that was deliberate or not but there was just something very amusing about the way both of them just shrugged at the idea of the lawyer chopping off his own head. Eh, they seemed to be saying, we’ve seen worse. Karin Konoval played both Chucky and Judy. She was great as Judy but a bit less convincing as Chucky. (In all fairness, the scenes between Mulder and Chucky featured the episode’s clunkiest dialogue.)
One final question raised by tonight’s episode, what is the current status of Mulder and Scully’s relationship? Judging from tonight’s episode, I would say that they’re friends with benefits.