An Interview with Thomas Hibbs
April 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This Wednesday, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Thomas Hibbs in preparation for his upcoming talk at Ave Maria on “The Films of the Coen Brothers” on Thursday April 7th. Dr. Hibbs is the Dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University. A philosopher who takes great interest in film, Dr. Hibbs is author of works including Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld and Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.(Please note that the written responses contain both paraphrase and direct quotation.)
Leslie: What led you to choose to speak on the Coen brothers’ work?
Dr. Hibbs: I think the Coen brothers are an interesting set of filmmakers in contemporary film. They’ve operated in various genres of film from Westerns to neo-noir to straight comedy. They make films that bridge the gap between independent and popular film. Often, they make movies based upon novels. For True Grit, they went back to the original book. Also, they have used Cormac McCarthy novels. The Coens operate in an interesting niche in film, between literary text and the visual genre that is film. They also raise interesting philosophical questions in many of their movies. As a philosopher who works on film, I find them interesting for that reason as well.
Leslie: I know that Blood Simple was the Coen brothers’ directorial debut and they came out with True Grit recently. How do you think the Coen brothers’ work has evolved over time?
Dr. Hibbs: I don’t see a clear line of development in the Coen films. They strike me as filmmakers who really search for interesting ideas. It is interesting to compare them to other contemporary filmmakers, including Shyamalan and Nolan. A development in philosophical ideas can be seen in Nolan’s films, for example in The Dark Knight and Momento. Shyamalan strikes on one or two big ideas but hasn’t found stories to sustain interesting movies. The Coen brothers are different. They have no clear philosophical development, but rather go in search of interesting ideas, giving their own twist and take to these stories.
Leslie: What are your thoughts on Blood Simple and what is its relationship to the rest of the Coen brothers’ work?
Dr. Hibbs: The Coen films are beholden to classical film noir; Fargo has elements of this. Also, in No Country for Old Men, they play off classic noir themes. Blood Simple does this probably more than any of the others. It is a crime film depicting a culture immersed in criminality, lust, greed and violence. It’s a culture where it is difficult to tell who’s good and who’s bad. The characters are trapped in worlds that they are trying to figure out. Within the Coen films are stylistic echoes of borrowing from classic noir.
In neo-noir, which emerged in the 1970s, filmmakers do something different. One real difference is that filmmakers in the ‘70s were more consciously imitating noir. Films were not really called noir until the 1940s. By the ‘70s and ‘80s, filmmakers were consciously making noir as we know it.
In Blood Simple there is a dark, even nihilistic comic element not as present in classic noir. Blood Simple raises philosophical questions including how comedy changes when noir is incorporated. Are we laughing at or with the characters in this film? Are there innocent human beings in the world? Is there a possibility of justice in this world?
Another theme in Blood Simple has to do with its title. The premise of the film is based upon a crime-sighting theory that no matter how callous a criminal is, in the moment of committing murder, the supposed criminal will lose control, go “blood simple” and make a mistake, betraying him or herself. The film calls into question whether characters can get away with criminality. There is a tendency in modern noir, say in Chinatown or in Body Heat, to depict characters that get away with crime. The Coen brothers huddle close to this camp.
Leslie: In your book Arts of Darkness, you discuss the redemptive quality of the noir genre. In what way does Blood Simple, as a neo-noir film, have a redemptive quality?
Dr. Hibbs: Blood Simple doesn’t have that quality. True Grit might be said have this. O Brother, Where Art Thou? may also offer a clear understanding of justice. Blood Simple is more problematic because it flirts with a kind of nihilism. Although, there may be some level of justice to be found in the film. In Arts of Darkness, I argue that there is a quest for redemption in classical noir. From the ‘70s onward there was a split in noir. Some films carry on the quest for redemption while others show a preponderance of nihilistic noir. Blood Simple is of the latter category.
~Leslie Nagel is a regular contributor to AMU on Film as well as a sophomore literature major at Ave Maria University.