Young Blood

Joel and Ethan Coen pull down the pants on their first film

Imagine being given a do-over, a free pass to correct yesterday's mistakes and missteps. Perhaps you'd choose a different job, a different lover, a different life; perhaps you'd reinvent yourself altogether, since you have the gift of hindsight. You know where you went wrong last time; tomorrow, that magical new yesterday, you will do it right. Or maybe not. Maybe you'd pass, let slide the chance to repair the past. After all, there's a fine line between fixing up and fucking up.

If you need proof, look no further than George Lucas, who, in his efforts to revamp history, managed to turn a grand, sloppy masterpiece into a garish, gluttonous mess. Lucas tinkered with 1977's Star Wars until the fragile toy fell apart in his manic hands; he turned up the special effects and toned down the violence until the so-called Special Edition, released in 1997, became an exercise in cynical revisionism, never more so than when Greedo shoots at Han Solo first. The visionary became a coward kneeling before the new technology, burying fairy tale beneath spectacle until the luster became blinding and, yes, boring. Lucas proved it was indeed possible to rewrite the past, but in doing so, he suffered the consequences. He proved it was indeed possible to ruin a glorious memory.

Perhaps that is why Joel and Ethan Coen, when given their own chance to revisit history, chose to tread lightly. The Blood Simple that opens in theaters this week bears such a remarkable similarity to its younger self, released in 1984, one can hardly tell the two apart; they are, more or less, identical twins. Time has treated the brothers' debut, long before Miller's Crossing or The Hudsucker Proxy or Fargo or The Big Lebowski, quite well, as it arrives in 2000 wearing very few wrinkles. Actually the low-budget thriller about adultery and revenge in Austin looks a little better, the result of minor plastic surgery. Five minutes of dead flesh have been snipped away, and a mono mix now plays in stereo.

The Coen brothers first feature gets a little nip and tuck -- though it hardly needed it
The Coen brothers first feature gets a little nip and tuck -- though it hardly needed it

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Opening at selected theaters

The latter, says film preservationist Mortimer Young during the movie's newly added introduction, is the result of Blood Simple being re-recorded in something called Ultra Ultra Sound -- “a Lucas process,” adds the old man behind a serious smirk. Young also goes on at great length about how the movie has been digitally swabbed, cleansed of its imperfections. Such touchups were necessary, Young says, because Blood Simple is a landmark film. It was, he insists, released to “universal critical acclaim, shattered box-office records, and ushered in the era of independent cinema.”

Listen hard enough and you can hear Joel and Ethan Coen laughing from behind the cameras, because there is no Mortimer Young (he is played by character actor George Ives), nor is there a sound process called Ultra Ultra Sound. The brothers -- whose sense of humor borders on the “juvenile,” as Joel's wife, Francis McDormand, recently told one journalist -- are simply goofing on filmmakers' obsessions with retooling their pasts, which is easily done in the age of the digital do-over. The intro is quite simply a very funny joke at the beginning of a very funny movie about the seedy doings of a bar owner (Dan Hedaya), his unhappy wife (McDormand), her dim lover (John Getz), and the private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) who gets tangled in his own double-cross.

“I've only seen one director's cut reissue, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which was actually quite interesting,” says Ethan, credited as Blood Simple's co-writer and producer, though he's as much the movie's director as Joel. “Scott took out the voice-over, which was really interesting, because it worked well with it. Now there's no happy ending, but that's a function of having taken out the voice-over, which promised a happy ending. But he did add one shot: He added a shot of a unicorn....” Ethan, on the line with brother Joel during the interview, begins to laugh and can't stop.

“Oh my God!” says Joel, aghast at Ethan's revelation. “What, he recycled it from Legend?”

“Yeah, but it was kinda good,” Ethan says, sincerely. “It was kinda demented, but in a kind of authentic way. I really liked it.”

“These guys seem to forget they didn't include these scenes in the original versions for a reason,” Joel says, and you can hear him shaking his head in disgust. (Sometimes, while talking to the Coens, you get the sense you came into the middle of a conversation they've been having for decades. The best an outsider can hope for is to get in a question and stay the hell out of the way.)

Aside from the handful of trimmed sequences and the new sound mix, there's really no reason for Blood Simple to arrive in theaters this summer. There is no anniversary, and the alterations are relatively minor; this is no Vertigo or Lawrence of Arabia, no major restoration given to a deteriorating print of a erstwhile masterpiece. Indeed the digital swabbing given to the Coens' first film was necessitated by an impending home-video release: The DVD will be released at the end of the year, and since the brothers were unhappy with the initial sound mix, they decided to go in and fix as much of the movie as they could. Theirs was a pragmatic decision, not an artistic one -- at least, not initially.

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