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The independent film scene is showing new signs of life

The Coen Brothers have moseyed into town, and Hollywood had better watch out. Their first movie, ``Blood Simple,'' is mean and lean. Very mean -- full of stalking and screaming and shooting. And very lean -- made for about $1.5 million, mere pocket money in today's film world.

It's also very good, in a brooding ``film noir'' sort of way. So good that people are comparing the Coens with famous thrillmongers like Hitchcock the master and De Palma the blaster.

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People are also taking a fresh look at the independent film scene, which is showing new signs of life after years of huddling in the shadow of the big studios. If two mavericks from Minneapolis can make a chiller this chilling -- with a small cast and a mere fistful of dollars -- well, Hollywood had better watch out.

I met with Joel and Ethan Coen in Manhattan recently, just before ``Blood Simple'' had its commercial premi`ere. It had already played several major festivals in the United States and Europe, where reaction was good.

Its theatrical run here was ushered in by newspaper ads defining the term ``blood simple'' as a state of confusion suffered by a criminal after a crime. This prepared viewers for the movie's unusual title and hinted at its plot -- about a badly planned murder scheme that causes even more mishaps than mayhem.

Conversing with the Coens over breakfast, you wouldn't guess their yen for dark and grisly pictures. Ethan, the producer, is a veteran of the Princeton University philosophy department. Joel, the director, learned moviemaking at New York University before landing a film-editing job. Both are bright and outgoing.

When they sat down to collaborate on their first script, they decided it would be fun to ``resuscitate a dormant genre,'' as Joel puts it. Few genres are more dormant than the sinister-scheme format of ``Diabolique,'' so their path was clear. But they didn't leave their sense of humor behind. ``Blood Simple'' is blackly comic, with visual jokes that mock its own thriller conventions.

Irony is also part of the Coens' aesthetic arsenal, and it shows up quickly in conversation. When longhaired Joel talks about ``how the project got off the ground'' instead of ``how the movie got started,'' bespectacled Ethan is quick to poke fun at the Los Angeles lingo that has slipped into his brother's speech after just one film; Joel is quick to smile in recognition. Determined to keep their artistic independence, these two are on their guard: Hollywood will have a hard time lassoing them, though it will surely try if ``Blood Simple'' catches on as strongly with audiences as it has with critics.

The hardest chore in making the picture was raising enough money, according to the brothers. They considered a method used by director Sam Raimi, who lured investors to his ``The Evil Dead'' by showing a Super-8 version that ran about 20 minutes. Deciding to vary this idea, they scraped together $2,000 and made a coming-attractions ``trailer'' just two minutes long but with a glossy 35-mm look.

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``We made it as slick as we could,'' says Joel -- no easy trick, since their production didn't boast any actors yet.

In any case, the trailer worked. Soon the Coens had enough money to start work in earnest, and they headed for Texas to shoot. They assembled their performers through a casting expert, except for M. Emmet Walsh, whom they approached after admiring his work in ``Straight Time'' a few years ago. (Their respect for the underrated ``Straight Time'' is an example of their on-target taste in movie matters.)

``Blood Simple'' scores its points not with bravura acting or brilliant scripting, but with sheer energy and filmmaking savvy. Joel and Ethan rode careful herdon their production every step of the way, from financing through postproduction work, seizing every opportunity to boost the picture's quality. They hope to have the same freewheeling independence with their next movie, another excursion into the ``dormant genre'' department: a screwball comedy.

Even that bogeyman of young filmmakers -- too much praise from the press -- hasn't shaken the Coens' sense of perspective. Near the end of our breakfast, their press agent arrived with snippets from imminent reviews, crowing that a major newsmagazine was calling ``Blood Simple'' the most assured feature debut in decades.

To their credit, the Coens reacted modestly, more bemused than enthused. ``The greatest movie ever made,'' said Ethan with a wry grin. ``That ever will be made,'' added Joel with a bigger one. And both broke into a hearty chuckle. Critics and pretensions aside, these brothers know the heart of the matter: Hey, it's only a movie!

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