The Life of the Mind

Michael Wood

The screen shows a flat, empty road from a very low angle, a torn tyre lying on it like a piece of junk sculpture. Then the towers of a city in the distance; then a set of ramshackle houses; a pasture and a farmhouse; the white screen of a drive-in; a field full of oil pumps. A drawling voice, all wide vowels and unclosed consonants, starts to philosophise: ‘The world is full of complainers, and the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee ... Something can always go wrong ... What I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own.’ These are the opening moments of Blood Simple, Ethan and Joel Coen’s first movie, released in 1983, and they look like an agenda, an announcement of work to come. They look that way only now, though, when we have seen the later films; learned that the appearance of raw and gritty realism in that first movie was deceptive. We were never in America, only ‘America’, a place full of stories about itself, none the less mythological because historical reality every now and then manages to catch up with it, or incorporate a piece of its gory or flamboyant action. The ‘down here’ in the voice-over now sounds like a giveaway, since it implies an awareness of other places, even an anxiety about them, about the way Texas may look from a different region. Of course there’s boasting in the claim too, a pride in the fact that chainsaw massacres, for instance, don’t happen just anywhere.

Since then the Coen brothers have given us a dusty South-West (Raising Arizona, 1987); an unnamed Thirties Prohibition city that would look like Chicago if it looked like a city at all (Miller’s Crossing, 1990); a Forties Hollywood that looks like Hollywood’s idea of itself (Barton Fink, 1991); a toytown Fifties New York (The Hudsucker Proxy, 1993); and now a bleached-out, snow-driven Midwest, where the very names of places, for all their actual presence in the atlas, sound like a scrambled allegory: Fargo, North Dakota; Brainerd, Minnesota; Bismarck, North Dakota. What happens in these far-flung settings, this dream-America, as Nabokov once called a similar country? People die a lot, often violently. They are shot in the head and in the gut; their faces are torn away. Heads are severed. One body is tipped into an incinerator; another body is minced in a woodchipping machine. A husband arranges to have his wife and her lover killed; another husband arranges to have his wife kidnapped. Irish and Italian mobsters kill each other, and they both want to kill their Jewish competition. Even when this world turns to comedy, scheming is still an important feature: a baby is stolen, and then is stolen from those who stole it; a large manufacturing company organises its own failure, and then fails to fail. A businessman flings himself from a window on the 44th floor (45 if you count the mezzanine, as a member of the board insists). Schemes go wrong from coast to coast, and from Texas to the Canadian border. No zone is safe. So it’s not quite true that nothing comes with a guarantee. Chaos comes with a guarantee, because something can always go wrong, and always does. The dream of the cancellation of all this which ends Raising Arizona is not the exception that proves the rule, it is the fantasy which confirms the presumed disorder of fact. ‘It seemed like home,’ Nicolas Cage murmurs in voice-over, the camera showing an absurdly conventional family reunion set far in the future. ‘If not Arizona, then a land not too far away, where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved.’ A pause. ‘I don’t know. Maybe it was Utah.’

‘Things have changed,’ one of the hoodlums says in Fargo, when a little kidnapping has escalated into triple murder: a policeman blown away because he wouldn’t be bribed, a young man and a young woman swiftly shot because they drove by and saw the dead policeman. ‘Circumstances ... Beyond the, uh, acts of God, force majeure.’ And then later he says twice, rather solemnly: ‘Blood has been shed.’ The fancy diction in the nasty situation recalls the films of Quentin Tarantino, and the actor is Steve Buscemi, who appears in a not dissimilar role in Reservoir Dogs. In Fargo, when Buscemi returns to the hideout he and his fellow hood are using, his face ripped by a gun shot, and caked with blood, he can speak only in a mangled way. He says: ‘You should see the other guy!’

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