A note: This is the second in the Cinépathétic series, a interview-style back and forth between me and the interesting people in my life, jabbering about movies and why we love them so damned much. This week I’m interviewing Nathan Lyle Black, a semi-co-worker at the co-operative roastery hosted by Gaslight Coffee Roasters and Halfwit Coffee here in Chicago.
DR: Thanks again for agreeing to do this.
Nathan: Of course.
DR: Let’s get started. What film would like to begin with?
Nathan: Blood Simple. I watched it again last night and I’m eager to hear your questions for it.
DR: The Coen Brothers’ very first feature-length. Tight little piece of film noir in the lurid vein of The Postman Always Rings Twice (or at least I always like to think so). What brought you to this film for your list?
Nathan: When you asked me to consider my top five, I paid close attention to the movies that came to mind first. The very first thing that came to mind was the bathroom scene towards the very end.
DR: Where the private detective gets his.
Nathan: When gunshots made holes in the drywall and light started pouring through. There’s something so simple, so effective about that approach. I really appreciate that.
DR: Barry Sonnenfeld was the director of photography on that film. I think it might have been his first. When I think about film noir, either in the glory days of Cagney and Bogart or the neo-noirs that started popping up in the 80s, the imagery always lingers longest in my mind. The shadows that almost swallow the light. Was Sonnenfeld making his stamp on the Coen’s noir, or do you think this was more of a deliberate storytelling device?
Nathan: Maybe a bit of both? Though I think it’s more deliberate than anything. I’m struggling to remember specific examples. I guess I’m not too familiar with Barry’s work, but it wasn’t over the top in it’s approach. I see that a lot in movies nowadays, where they go for something big or crazy or unheard of. This was all very stark, but real, if that makes sense.
DR: There was that scene where Ray is disposing of Dan Hedaya’s body and there’s no dialogue, just car radio jargon. It’s pretty chilling.
Nathan: The dragging of the shovel across the concrete comes to mind too. He could’ve picked it up. But he dragged it for ten feet or so.
DR: (laughs) He could have. But he had things on his mind. Y’know. He thought he was cleaning up after his girlfriend. When I think of Blood Simple., I think of that scene more than anything. It definitely was a harbinger of the Coen’s work to come. Considering the body of work the directors have put out, how much of it – do you think – has to do with the seemier side of life? What parts of Blood Simple. do you feel linger in their work?
Nathan: Ooh. Good question. I feel like their more recent works deal with similar issues, but they’re not so reliant on desperate characters in awful circumstances. (Fargo’s) Jerry Lundegaard’s character comes to mind. I feel like I see a lot of that in Blood Simple. Raising Arizona comes to mind too. Similar feel. I’m into it. I just…
Nathan: Well. Their older stuff reminds me of the way a good novel feels. Interesting characters, lots going on, raises important questions, etc. But the whole time I’m aware that I’m involved in a sort of fiction. Whereas No Country for Old Men, or A Serious Man feel like they could actually happen.
DR: No Country is definitely a film that springs to mind when I’m lumping together Coen Brother films to Blood Simple. Except there’s that lack of a romance, that sensuality that sells a movie. I agree with you: No Country For Old Men feels like it’s THERE. That this threat is real, and that’s no small feat, considering Anton Chigurh feels like Death Incarnate, and is presented as such. The hopelessness. It’s pretty bleak. The Private Investigator in Blood Simple. is a similar character, wouldn’t you say?
Nathan: Oh, absolutely. I feel more intimidated by Anton though. He’s less predictable.
DR: And there’s the hair.
Nathan: (laughs) I’m trying to imagine him with “normal” hair and it’s just not as good.
DR: Anything else you want to add on Blood Simple.?
Nathan: Not really.
DR: I got one other thing: did you know that Blood Simple. has a period at the end of its title, and no one ever thinks to put it in print? I almost feel I should be putting it in. What do you think?
Nathan: I hadn’t noticed that. You should put it in.
Nathan: Hrm. Let’s lighten it up a notch and go to Jiro.
DR: Maaaan… I’m so glad you put this on your list. It’s a DoomRocket first, featuring a documentary. I’m pretty ashamed.
Nathan: (laughs) Yeah. I almost asked you about that.
DR: I’m working on it. Why is Jiro Dreams Of Sushi on your list?
Nathan: I remember feeling a bit relieved when I saw this documentary. Which is a rare thing to feel after watching something for 90 minutes. I’m constantly talking to people who are staring into their phones texting, or trying to multitask with everything they do. It’s really refreshing to know there’s a man out there whose main goal in life is to make really excellent sushi. It also applies to coffee, as well. So many people think “oh, I’ve done this, I can move on.” I see it all the time with trainings. People who have a bit of experience with something and feel that’s all there is to get out of it. It’s good to know you can commit your life to something and still learn things about it 10, 20, 50 years after you started.
DR: I had a feeling that Jiro’s unflappable nature, his steadfast work ethic might be a bullet point for you. For those reading: we work around each other. When I see you in the Roastery, there’s a methodical nature to how you’re paying attention to the details. I really admire that.
Nathan: Ahh, thank you! I wish we were actually co-workers. It’s just commitment. That’s my favorite thing about him. Even if people aren’t distracted in the moment, they often feel 2-3 years is a good amount of time to do something. It’s so rare to see someone who knows what they want to do and then goes after it. My favorite coffee people are like that.
DR: When you watch Jiro at work you notice that he’s methodical, clean, stubborn, hard working, always striving for improvement, and not necessarily for success. An indefatigable man, impossibly relentless in his perfectionism. Those Michelin Stars seem to not faze him at all. Kinda like, “oh yeah? Well, thanks.” And he just keeps working. What do you aim for in your work? What kinda end game is in your mind? Or is there one?
Nathan: I think we have similar goals. I’d like to have my own place someday. A shop with a simple but excellent menu. I’m seeing shops like that slowly pop up. As hypocritical as this sounds, my favorite thing about my job is how versatile it is. Depending on the day I’m doing anything from a bar shift to a training day to fixing broken gear. I like that. While I may not be committed to one distinct role, I like to be very focused when I’m in each place.
DR: An Umbrella Operation. Jiro too is always tasting, always testing, cleaning, noticing things his staff normally wouldn’t. What I found fascinating about the man is – as a man over eighty years old – he is still so restless… There is always something to be done in his restaurant, always things he hasn’t quite considered yet. Yet! He’s been doing this job for over fifty years, and he finds new approaches to his art.
Nathan: It’s truly admirable. It makes me wonder about what things I could notice at Wormhole, or Halfwit.
DR: It’s a beautifully shot film. Vivid, concise, brilliant. You went to school for… photography?
Nathan: I did. BA in photography from Columbia. I was obsessed with taking pictures for a good 5 years or so.
DR: So the imagery wasn’t lost on you.
Nathan: My favorite part was when they would plate things. That’s all that was on the screen. Just fish and rice. Everything was so different, unique. Like sculpture.
DR: Delicious sculpture.
Nathan: I’d love to get sushi there before he dies.
DR: One thing that really stuck with me was his eldest son, Yoshikazu. The impossible notion of surpassing his father is the only thing expected of Yoshikazu, but the reality is he may never surpass his father’s shadow, and that is a looming, daunting thought.
Nathan: How can you surpass that? His father is the authority. That’s why the Michelin stars are so comical. Who knows more about sushi than Jiro?! Even if his son maintains quality after Jiro passes, he had to stand on some fairly large shoulders to even get to that point. He’s already lost. But I don’t think anyone blames him for that.
DR: That food critic even says something to the tune of, “if he makes food that surpasses his father’s, he has still only met Jiro’s potential. Anything less, as remarkable as it would be, would only fall short.” Something like that. I’m not sure why that picks on my brain, but I really felt for Yoshikazu. And then that same critic compares the courses of Jiro’s dinners to a classical movement. What did you think about that?
Nathan: I thought that was really interesting. We don’t think about that kind of thing often as people who go to restaurants. I want this. I want that. I love how he controls the whole customer experience from beginning to end. AND! As a left-handed person, I was particularly delighted when they’re plated appropriately.
DR: He would alternate serving patterns according to whether the customer was right or left handed, that really impressed me.
Nathan: Exactly. I jokingly yell at my barista trainees when they serve me latte art aligned for the right-handed drinker. “Ahh! That was excellent, but you poured it upside-down.”
DR: (laughs) Classic items like tuna and squid are the first movement, fresh catches, or seasonal catches are the second movement, some served raw, some cooked, likened to an improvisation, a cadenza, and the third movement is a traditional finale, comprised of eel and egg. I really hate to use the word “genius” but that’s what it really is, isn’t it?
Nathan: I’d say so.
Nathan: Let’s do Alien. I watched that last night. I must admit, I feel like a total dork for putting this one on there.
DR: I prefer “person”. Why did Alien make it here?
Nathan: I have this big thing for sci-fi films from this era. I think Alien wraps it up nicely. Nothing helps me unwind better after a day at work than a movie in this genre.
DR: I remember loving – LOVING – this movie when I was a kid. But when I went back to it in my early twenties, all that it impressed on me was “slasher flick in space”. But there is the pace, the silence that Scott envelopes the film in. And then there’s Ripley, my eternal Moon Goddess.
Nathan: If you don’t mind me asking a question: why do you dislike Ridley?
DR: Ridley Scott has always been a visual director, I think. Which is not an issue, provided that the visuals lend themselves to the story overall, and benefit them profoundly. Scott never grew into that, and it stymies me that a man with all this time and opportunity to hone moving picture and emotion into one coherent and – perish forbid – resonating story has rarely ever succeeded in doing simply that. I always preferred Aliens to Alien. And I LOATHE Prometheus. And I digress. What about this film sticks with you?
Nathan: It’s just one of those films that at heart, I feel is super cheesy, but I still really enjoy watching. It doesn’t grow into annoyance. Ripley is great. I do prefer her character in Aliens to Alien though. I also really like the end scene to this movie, when she’s got the flamethrower and the lights are flashing blue and her eyes, despite being small in the frame are an incredibly effective focal point.
DR: I always loved the ENDING. “This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.” That always made me feel snug as a bug, for some damned reason. A perfect ending. There’s a messiness to Alien that always appealed to me, that an interstellar cruiser didn’t have to look like the Starship Enterprise. And Scott, to his benefit, utilizes his sets well. There is true suspense to the proceedings, but there’s some Kubrick in there as well, don’t you think?
Nathan: Hmm. I can see that.
DR: “Mother” as a more nurturing and less murderous HAL.
Nathan: I spent the first half of 2001 bored out of my mind and the second half on the edge of my seat. The pacing is fairly similar in both movies.
Nathan: Let’s do Dial M.
DR: Full disclosure: It’s my favorite Hitchcock film. I always felt Ray Milland was relegated to the obscure when he deserved status among the likes of Cary Grant and Fred MacMurray. Grace Kelly. Vivid Technicolor. I have to admit, I’ve been waiting to talk about this one. Why did this make it to your list?
Nathan: I’ve been on a crazy Hitchcock kick lately, and this one tops my list.
DR: Not a bad kick to be on. Ever.
Nathan: (laughs) I feel like anyone that can take a cast of about four people and a set that’s contained to a living room and make it interesting deserves fame.
DR: Well, it was based on a play. The screenplay was written by the same man – Everett Knott.
Nathan: Ahh. Despite this, this screenplay is right up Hitchcock’s alley. Knowing him, I kept waiting for the twist at the end. So simple, really.
DR: But so, so complicated at the same time.
DR: Milland’s character Tony really cooks up a bloated plot, doesn’t he?
Nathan: (laughs) Yes. I love him and hate him so much. What does he say? “We won’t talk price until you’ve had at least three brandies.” Almost reminds me of how Coen films can be lighthearted as well, despite the overall serious plot.
DR: Let’s talk about the cinematography just a bit. It was shot by a man name of Robert Burks, the same fella shot films such as The Fountainhead and A Patch Of Blue. You mentioned that the film took place in a living room, yet is still arresting. I always gave a lot of that credit to Burks. And the color. That color.
Nathan: How come?
DR: Not to take away the obvious skill of the Master, but Burks also shot every film Hitch made, from Strangers On A Train to Marnie, in a span of 13 years. So there was an obvious trust that existed between the director and his cinematographer. And for good reason. But you’re right about the overall lightness of the film. Milland’s Tony, once caught, pours himself a drink and cracks wise just before the film fades to black. But a man has died in the proceedings.
Nathan: True. It was very well executed. Can you blame him? I’d certainly do the same. I love that he offered everyone in the room a drink as well.
DR: It’s a short one, this film. But so engrossing, you almost spend as much time thinking about it just after it ends. Tell me what you love about this one.
Nathan: I enjoy that no one in the film really seems to know what’s going on except the detective. And Milland’s character is so cocky, so sure of himself and his intelligence.
DR: His cockiness is his ultimate undoing.
Nathan: I was almost glad when Swann died. How would he handle it?
Nathan: I love the simplicity of the ending as well. Either he comes through the door because he knows about the spare key, or he doesn’t.
DR: It’s a clever conceit on screen, but written down it seems so simple. But that was the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock.
Nathan: I’d like to read that play.
DR: It’s available. I’ve read the stage play and the screenplay back to back in my life, and I have to say, it’s pretty tight. Again, same fellow writing, but you know.
Nathan: Good to know.
DR: I feel we’d be remiss in our duties if we didn’t discuss at some length about Grace Kelly.
Nathan: Ahh, where to start.
Nathan: First off, I love that she beat Swann in the fight. I’m also glad she didn’t go along with what Milland wanted her to do. “Maybe I will go out”, or something like that.
DR: She’s listening to her husband as he explains, or orders, the series of events leading to Swann’s death, but it’s almost as it she’s aware of the subterfuge she’s at the mercy of. She’s acting out. Kelly kills that scene.
Nathan: It’s a difficult role but she played it well.
DR: I read that she was a delight to work with, that Cary Grant, when asked who his favorite co-star was over the course of his career, he chuckled, “Well, with all due respect to dear Ingrid Bergman, I much preferred Grace.” I love Grace Kelly. Thought I’d bring it up. And, finally…
DR: Now, here is a film I have NOT seen. I’m embarrassed by it. I may have to ask you to sell me on the movie.
Nathan: In all honesty, I’ve only seen it once. But it’s in my top five because of how straightforward it is. There’s a girl, out on her own, with a dog. Things go wrong, she loses her dog, and that becomes incredibly depressing. I should mention that I first saw this movie shortly after moving to Chicago. I knew no one except the girl I was dating at the time, so it was very easy for me to relate to this character.
DR: I read that the Reader put it in its Top 10 of 2008, so maybe it was kismet. But I understand the feeling of relating to a feeling of a movie innately well. So let’s take a moment on that. What is it about Wendy and Lucy that adheres to you?
Nathan: Just the fact that the only companion in this young woman’s life was her dog. And that sometimes life comes down to that. And that, maybe, that’s okay. Or maybe it’s not. I don’t even remember how that movie ends. I just remember watching it and thinking, “Yeah, exactly” the whole time. She tries to steal dog food at one point and gets caught and held by security, and then her car breaks down, and then she borrows a phone from someone outside of a Walgreens. She’s very much at the mercy of the strangers around her.
DR: This sounds like a film I ought to see. From what you’re telling me, it reminds me of moments I’ve lived through myself.
Nathan: It’s a film that everyone can relate to, because everyone has those moments where you don’t know what to do next, or who to ask, or how you got where you are.
DR: But I have to ask: if it’s a film that you don’t recall the ending, how does Wendy and Lucy make it here? How is it justified? How does it relate to you?
Nathan: If Wendy were real, I feel like I could look her in the eye and say, ‘I get it”. And she’d know and I’d know and we’d be immediate friends. I’m not sure I’ve felt so close to a character in a movie before.
DR: I’m nodding because I completely understand what you mean, but isn’t that such a strange thing? To be so enamored with a fictional character, yet in lieu of motion pictures, we are allowed to be infatuated, at least by arms length? There are so many characters in film that I relate to, that sometimes I think to myself, “I could drink with that person.” Peculiar.
Nathan: Yeah. This one in particular stands out for me. I’d love to know your thoughts as soon as Odd Obsession gets their copy in!
DR: You’ll be the first to know, Nathan. Promise.
DR: Thank you so much for indulging my curiosity.
Nathan: Of course!