Free online reading
Table of Contents
III. Setting And Scene
III.3 Genre issues -FARGOas post-western
IV. Fact and Fiction - Concepts of Narration
V. Different Concepts of Life
V.1 Marge Gunderson’s world
V.2 Jerry Lundegaard’s world
V.3 The outsiders
From the quick-draw antics of Hi and Ed in “Raising Arizona” (1987) to the hypnotic imagery of “Barton Fink” (1991), Joel and Ethan Coen make movies that are different compared to the regular Hollywood scheme. Starting with 1984’s “Blood Simple,” over the years the Coens have developed a sharp sense for playing with the expectations of their viewers and for rather odd and unusual stories. In contrast to the Hollywood film industry, and only equipped with a minor budget, the Coens manage to create independently produced movies that are still successful and entertaining. One of the most evident proofs of their art is the award-winning FARGO(1996), which not only won two Oscars1, but also turned out to be a commercial success.2
Moving between the semi-Arctic wastes of North Dakota and the relative civilization of Minneapolis,FARGOportrays the attempt of debt-ridden car salesman Jerry Lundegaard to have his own wife kidnapped in order to extract a million dollar ransom from his overbearing father-in-law. In his seemingly hopeless situation, Jerry hires the two criminal affiliates Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud to take on the delicate “mission.” On their return from Minneapolis with Jerry’s wife, a highway patrolman and two coincidental spectators notice something amiss and subsequently end up dead on the roadside. It is left to heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson to unravel the mystery while Jerry Lundegaard desperately tries to ensure the safe return of his wife and the delivery of the ransom.
Having watchedFARGOseveral times, it appears to me as if there is one particular scheme that can be followed throughout the whole film. Every move of the violent kidnappers, every misdeed committed by Jerry, and every scene describing the broken family of the Lundegaards is contrasted by a rather peaceful, simple world of trust and truth represented by Marge Gunderson and her husband, Norm. At first glance, the rash viewer could come to the conclusion thatFARGOdraws two different pictures of life in modern America. Life in the big cities is the more negative connotated image, where family values are lost to decay and where lies and greed for money rule the heart. On the other side, the rural area of northern Minnesota with its simple, but true and reliable residents acts as the positive counterpart to this pessimistic scenario.
However, the Coen Brothers would not have been true to themselves as serious, intelligent film makers if any solution of the movie was that easy to discover. Quite the contrary; thoughFARGOseems to carry a relatively simple message, it is as multilayered and complex as any of their earlier and later films, of whom many have already become classics - and it is certainly worth a closer look.
III. Setting And Scene
Every storyteller needs to create the appropriate environment in order to see his fiction fully functional, and of course the same applies to the plot and the characters ofFARGO. Everything that supports the storyline as “background” of a movie, including title, location, and necessarily genre are equally important to look at.
Film evolved from photography, and therefore it seems clear that visual impressions are especially significant for the perception and interpretation of movies.FARGOis packed with powerful imagery that helps to transport feelings and to express a character’s mood in specific situations.
Moreover, we have to keep in mind thatFARGOis an artificial world, a creation of fiction. This world is able to transport more than the most basic information that can be easily found on the surface level of scenes. In this context, it also becomes necessary to understand images as signifiers who reveal messages on a meta-level.
The title of a movie is the very first information uncovered to the viewer, and in most cases, one can assume that it has not been chosen by accident. This argument gains additional significance when we consider the permanent influence any title has on how viewers interpret a movie. For film makers, the heading of a film is a key device that helps to categorize their movie and to lead (or in some cases: mislead) their audience into a certain direction of anticipation.
I would not go that far and call the title a direct deceit, but after I had finished watching the movie for the first time in 1996, it occurred to me as if the title“FARGO”was at least a bit arbitrary and misleading. Only the first scene actually takes place in Fargo, North Dakota: Jerry Lundegaard hires the two criminals in a cheap looking pub. All the main parts of the story happen in Minneapolis and in and around Brainerd. The effect intended by the Coens can be best described with the term “alienation,” or better: transfer of meaning. They ignore the frequently used tool to create meaning and to characterize the type of film in the title. Therefore, any association of the information given in the title with the story in advance is almost made impossible, in the least highly speculative. Here, the title merely functions as a tool to play with the expectations of the audience and to raise the tension and curiosity in the beginning of the movie.
However, once the film has ended, the title allows to establish a few interesting connections. In the first place,FARGOpoints to the geographical region the film takes place: the cold, wide open spaces of the Northern United States, where nature is as slow as the people who inhabit the remote plains. It also provides a clue to the distinctive mood of the movie, which becomes especially clear in the opening sequence, where the title slowly fades into an infinite white space. It is not until a few moments later, when finally a little black dot comes into view and enlarges into Jerry’s car.FARGOcontains about half a dozen takes of an endless sky above an endless white desert - and lost somewhere in between is a car or a person.3This picture of solitude and loneliness is paradigmic for the situation of the protagonists and their inability to escape their fate.
In the sense of a quite new genre, the post-western, the titleFARGOcould also be associated withWells Fargo. The famous stagecoach company played a role in more than just a few Western movies, and it has become one of the icons of the Western myth. A discussion of possible implications will become necessary when we have a closer look at the genre issues FARGOprovokes.
Last but not least, the title in all its simplicity indicates a familiar pattern that can be found in most of the Coen movies. The title as well as the characters and the starting point of the plot seem simple enough, and yet the Coens manage to create and develop a complex and diverse story based on these prerequisites.
InFARGO, the Coens portray the area of their childhood, Minnesota, its natural surroundings, its residents and their characteristics. The story takes place sometime during the winter, but not only because Minnesota is a place that“is covered in snow for much of the year.”It is a rural world out there, inhabited by people with a slow tongue and only few expressions for sensations. Nonetheless,“a lot can happen in the middle of nowhere,”in this weird white-out world of endless snow. The seemingly infinite white scenery also represents the nature of the “natives:” simple, plain characters that live in a world of ritualized relationships without the need for many words or explanations. The first scene with Marge Gunderson and her husband Norm as well as the interview between Brainerd police officer Gary Olsen and Mr. Mohra4are perfect illustrations of this concept. Things are the way they always were, and usually they don’t change unexpectedly. One of the few things expected to change and worth talking about seems to be the weather.
The part of the northern United States presented inFARGOwas primarily settled by Scandinavian immigrants, with the result that the local dialect is heavily influenced by the language the settlers brought with them. The appearance of names such as Gunderson, Lundegaard, and Gustafson place a direct link to the historical past. Filming “at home” allowed the Coens to erect a cinematic monument to the dialect of their childhood.5Phrases such as “yahh,” “oh jeez,” “you betcha,” or “fer Pete’s sake” create an odd atmosphere, especially in contexts where the cinema audience is used to outbursts of excited emotion. This cool, grouchy colloquial language is ironically called “Minnesota nice.” Minnesotans enjoy a questionable nationwide reputation as “strange folks,” and chances are low that they are among the least invited to talk and game shows just by coincidence.6
III.3 Genre issues – FARGO as post-western
Most movies allow some sort of classification, or at least they tend to belong to a specific genre. As much as the Coens love to play with film quotes and hidden allusions in their movies, they also seem to have enjoyed the play with different genres, which superimpose each other inFARGO. Significantly different readings are possible.FARGOcontains elements of the detective story, (black) comedy, thriller, moral play, family melodram, as well as slapstick scenes.
However, one of the most intriguing perspectives on the movie is to understandFARGOas a post-western, as a film that partly follows, and on the other hand twists the legacy of the classic Western and various pioneer myths.
I already mentioned the title as a reference to the old Western days. The stagecoaches ofWells Fargoare present in a number of classic Westerns, and it is their obligation to provide a physical connection to civilization. Cowboys and outlaws don’t ride in stagecoaches, but every time a stagecoach is opened, a part of the civilized world of the East emerges, mostly in the form of dressed up women. Obviously these horse-drawn passenger carriages are a strong symbol for civilization and the struggle to introduce culture to the wilderness of the frontier. In FARGO, the wilderness of the frontier still exists, yet the object of quarrel and conflict is another matter.
ButFARGOcontains more signs, which support the assumption of the post-western. To begin with, the fact that a Native American is a member of the cast may be understood as a small hint to Western mythology.7The character of Shep Proudfoot only plays a supportive role, but nevertheless an important one: he is the link between Jerry and the two kidnappers. He is as silent and reserved as the wide, rough landscape, and it seems as if he acts as a personification of the midwestern wilderness. InFARGO, this country reminds on the frontier and the days of exploration and conquest - except that there is nothing to conquer in this wasteland. Its residents resemble the environment, and strangely enough, the people in this movie still act as if they were on some kind of frontier. The two outlaws Carl and Gaear face their counterpart in the rigid self made man Wade Gustafson, who insists on taking care of the problem his way (that’s the way we prefer to handle it, Jerry). As typical for most Westerns, the only solution those men know is simple violence, but at the same time this only exposes their helplessness and disability towards complex problematic situations.
The heroine of the movie, Marge, is the antithesis to these patterns of force. In contrast to the male dominated society that populates the average Western, she has the duty of virtue and embodies the professional Westerner who manages to fulfill his job, and who does not need to talk much about it. With contradictory elements similar to this the Coens create ironic tension and make sure thatFARGOdoes not easily fit into one scheme of explanation or interpretation.
The essence of the Western myth becomes apparent in the statue of giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the mythical hero of the lumber camps in the United States. He is an American symbol for bigness, strength, and vitality, who once roamed the prairies together with his companions Babe the Blue Ox (which is the name of the motel in Brainerd where Carl and Gaear make their first stop after Jerry has sent them on their fatal “mission”) and Johnny Inkslinger. According to the popular folk tales, Paul Bunyan created the more than 11,000 lakes in Minnesota, Puget Sound, the Grand Canyon, and even the Black Hills. In the same way as these folk tales absorb elements of foreign cultures (in case of the Black Hills, Indian heritage), Paul Bunyan ingests legendary amounts of food. Paul’s camp stove covers an acre, and his hotcake griddle is so large that it is greased by men using sides of bacon for skates.8 Fascinatingly, this image has been partially transported to Paul’s somber human counterpart, Gaear Grimsrud, who possesses an insatiable appetite for pancakes.9Western myths and symbols are ubiquitous throughoutFARGO, but as we can observe in the character of Gaear, they are deconstructed at the same time.
IV. Fact and Fiction – Concepts of Narration
“The story that follows is about Minnesota. It evokes the abstract landscape of our childhood - a bleak, windswept tundra, resembling Siberia except for its Ford dealerships and Hardees restaurants. It aims to be both homey andexotic, and pretends to be true.”10
In many ways,FARGOstands in the tradition of earlier Coen movies such as “Barton Fink,” “Miller’s Crossing,” and “The Hudsucker Proxy.” The Coen Brothers do not create worlds that aim to be true or realistic, but worlds that could be true if the “real world” would function the same way. In this sense, their films are highly artificial products, which is even amplified by the Coen’s love to quote classic film scenes, and their love to include various genre allusions. The Coens are passionate masters of self-presentation. Not only do they lead their audience astray in their movies, but they also misguide the public with vague hints about themselves and their way of producing a film. Their use of the pseudonym “Roderick Jaynes,” the grumpy British cutter, who was even provided with a detailed and of course completely fictional biography, marks only one example of this stratagem. The outcome is an obvious impossibility to categorize them and their work into only one particular scheme.
There is, however, a clear continuity of ideas that can be traced throughout their creative work. It is the goal of this chapter to analyze and interpret the narrative and stylistic elements that can be found inFARGO.
The following text fades in over black:
This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
FLARE TO WHITE11
As a movie that works with different layers,FARGOcan be viewed and interpreted from different points of view. On the one hand, it perfectly corresponds to the self-announced aspiration of the Coens to create movies that are entertaining in the first place. But besides the entertaining story with its peculiar characters and its ingredients of the black comedy, the film is stylistic cinema to the highest degree.
From the outset ofFARGO, the Coen Brothers are already playing tricks with the audience. A caption on the very first screen announces that this is a true story with only the names changed. In terms of general understanding, words such as these are supposed to accredit the following pictures, but here the meaning has been reversed into the opposite direction: the statement of truth is a strong indicator for the artificiality of the movie. The caption is also a quote, since the lines “This is a true story.…At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.” is a standardized phrase and has been widely used by film makers to stimulate sensation and speculation. This play with fiction and reality is a proof of the creativity of the artists, and it creates an atmosphere in which something could be true.
The Coens managed to make believe the hoax both the press and the viewers for quite some time. The American press even tried to find something similar to the film’s events in their archives, but naturally, they did not succeed. Finally, the Coens admitted that the caption was “only” a stylistic device.12The construction of authenticity of narrated events inFARGO demonstrates that it is the thin line between fiction and reality that interests them most.
It is a well-known fact that the Coens have a favor for quotes, especially for those, which originate from classic genre movies. InFARGO, I managed to spot at least one remarkable scene: Jean’s kidnapping. Right after she has escaped upstairs to the bathroom, Carl breaks open the door, and a few seconds later, Gaear discovers Jean behind the shower curtain. While Jean tries to flee, she gets entangled in the curtain. This is the exact moment when the camera shows how the curtain is pulled down by her weight, animated by thrashing limbs - a clear reference to Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” But the Coens have more in common with Hitchcock. They, too, are film makers who appreciate stylistic perfection and extremely detailed storyboards. InFARGO, “every single yah was scripted,”13and any improvisation by the actors is not welcome at all.
The element of change is another major component of the narrative world ofFARGO. After the first third of the movie, the perspective suddenly changes from Jerry’s struggle to organize the kidnapping of his wife to Marge Gunderson and her quest to unravel the mystery of the criminal deed. Marge is no doubt the main character of the film, and yet the Coens “dare” to omit her introduction right in the beginning. By not complying with the unwritten rule to present the hero or heroine at a very early stage of the film, they only confirm their status as unconventional and experimental film makers. Furthermore, this structure of establishing the character of Marge is a first hint to the following “breaking of rules,” because Marge is exactly the opposite of the traditional hard-boiled detective. Such confusing and surprising elements, including the unpredictable changes of genre, are widely used inFARGO, together with the stylistic device to develop characters and storyline against the expectations of the audience.
Marge’s meeting with Mike Yamagita and the dimly lit statue of Paul Bunyan right outside of Brainerd are part of the extensive use of allusions, metaphors, and symbols, which are not explained explicitly to the viewer. On the contrary, the Coens like to leave their imagery open for interpretation.
As already seen on the use of the caption at the start of the film, to impose new, different meanings to well known signifiers is an excellent device to grab the sophisticated viewers attention. “Snow most often appears in the movies as the signifier of Christmas cheer. It may be cold outside, but it looks beautiful and everyone has a rosy glow on their faces and in their hearts.FARGOis different. From the blizzard which rages in the opening scenes through to the blood-soaked slush of the conclusion, snow hides and hinders all those enmeshed within the film’s dark story.”14The winter white plains in the beginning, who are also a symbol for pureness and innocence, seem to be that clean only to contrast the wicked, bloody murder.
V. Different Concepts of Life
The kidnapping of Jerry’s wife, Jean, is the major plot device inFARGO. Everything circles around the kidnapping, the delivery of the ransom, and Marge’s attempt to solve the case. Human nature, both the dark and the light side, is the central theme inFARGO: some nurture, while others bring destruction. The film takes a part of its tension from this development of two opposing concepts of life, which provide a sharp contrast to each other.
V.1 Marge Gunderson’s world
Marge and her rural environment up in Brainerd represents the proverbial “world of good.” Usually, this female encoded cosmos it is a peaceful world of trust and truth. We can easily imagine how life looks like in Brainerd when no disturbance from the “outer world” demands attention. Important are “the little things” such as a good, reasonable meal15(in addition to the chance to talk about food), and a good catch when you are fishing. It is also considered valuable to live in a familiar milieu where everyone and everything has its place. Ritualized communication is not perceived as something negative, but provides the ground for a reliable partnership. Marge’s introductory scene, including Norm’s numerous offers to fix her some eggs, illustrates this ideal of family life:
MARGE ... You can sleep, hon. It's early yet. MAN Gotta go? MARGE Yah. The man swings his legs out. MAN I'll fix ya some eggs. MARGE That's okay, hon. I gotta run. MAN Gotta eat a breakfast, Marge. I'll fix ya some eggs. MARGE Aw, you can sleep, hon. MAN Ya gotta eat a breakfast... He clears his throat with another deep rumble. MAN ... I'll fix ya some eggs. MARGE Aw, Norm.16
With this scene, the Coens perfectly manage to establish all-important factors of their major character: her pregnancy (obviously, she lives in a nice enough world to give birth to a child), the normality of her life, and her craving for food. The name of her husband, Norm, along with the fact that she constantly eats, also suggests the couple’s deep-rooted connection to the simple life.
As she follows the trail of Showalter and Grimsrud, the very normality of Gunderson’s life is understatedly seen as the source of her stability and contentment. Gunderson’s endearing Scandinavian inflected accent is one example of the comedic elements, which are juxtaposed with the macabre events that she tries to understand. And it is not just a deductive understanding that Gunderson seeks, but an emotional explanation as to why these events could have happened at all.17
Marge’s professional success in the end of the movie does not mean that she is more
valuable than the people around her. In her last scene, Marge takes care of letting Norm know that he is equally important as she praises him for having one of his pictures printed on the tree-cent-stamp.
V.2 Jerry Lundegaard’s world
In contrast to Marge Gunderson’s life, the male encoded cosmos Jerry Lundegaard lives in has its origin in the big city. As Marge experiences in her meeting with Mike Yamagita (Marge’s Asian American schoolmate who clumsily attempts to seduce her in a bar), this is the world of mistrust and lies, of loathing and broken families.
Upon a closer look, many of the characters that play a major role in this part of the narrated world carry their personality with them in form of a telling name. “Jerry” is also slang for “chamber pot,” and his hapless behavior takes his absurdity to the extreme. He is, however, not completely unsympathetic, and so we pity him and laugh at him at the same time. He is utterly unsuited to dealings with criminals such as Showalter and Grimsrud, and his frantic attempt to regain control over the dire situation is simultaneously pathetic, comic, and tender. Jerry is entirely hindered by the patriarchal structures of his family, and yet he desperately tries to achieve commercial success in similar ways as his father-in-law. He is not able to break the chain, and because he has neither the same amount of will power nor the necessary competence, Jerry is doomed to fail.
His overbearing father-in-law, Wade Gustafson, represents the corrupt business world. The strong and independent self-made millionaire is another impersonation of the frontier hero Paul Bunyan. The name “Wade” tells us exactly what this patriarchal figure is used to: roll up one’s sleeves and succeed despite any hardships that may lie along the way. Even Wade’s right hand, Stan Grossman, has been outfitted with a telling name. The business term “gross” refers to his position in Wade’s company: he is the man who checks incoming offers and possible deals before he passes the information on to Wade himself. Unfortunately, their attitude to handle upcoming problems “their way” lastly causes Wade’s death.
Interestingly enough, the only female character in this male dominated society is Jean, Jerry’s wife, who remains the only flat major character throughout the film. The function of her role is merely limited to providing the Macguffin in order to get the story started.
V.3 The Outsiders
Carl and Gaear are the two criminal associates who bring the story to collapse, but only after Jerry has sent them on their fatal “mission.” They are the ones who bring destruction and violence. Other solutions to problematic situations are not even considered. But inFARGO, as well as in other Coen movies, these “patterns of force” are differently structured compared to genre movies such as “Pulp Fiction.” InFARGO, violence has no liberating quality and is not “cool” at all. Every time the characters use their guns as a last resort, it only causes them to plunge deeper into tragedy. Not the sudden violence itself, but its abstruseness and awkwardness result in unexpected, “black” humor.
Carl and Gaear are archetypes of American lowlife. As Showalter already transports in his surname, he is all raw nerves, outgoing, fast talking, entertainment loving, and very unstable, while Grimsrud is rather closemouthed, enigmatic, psychotic and grimly able to kill. But even this seemingly most stereotypical character of all has a multidimensional quality. When Carl returns with the money, he disturbs his accomplice who is watching a soap opera and shows emotions for the first and the last time in the whole movie. Nothing is as it seems at first glance in Coen County, but it takes time and effort to gain access to the concealed complexity.
It is important to understand that the plot is based on a chain of events rather than on the development of the characters. Any evolvement, insight or even understanding seems to be impossible for them. Neither the viewer, nor the characters receive any comprehension of the ongoing events. In the end, Marge’s implicit question for the reasons of the crime remains unanswered. There is no catharsis, no inner consequences for any of the protagonists. Marge goes back to her private life with her husband Norm and their coming child. After she has caught Grimsrud, she only wonders how someone can be able to perform such a criminal act:
“There’s more to life than money, you know.…Don’t you know that?…and here ya are, andit’s a beautiful day…”18
Jerry has not changed through the events either: in the last scene, we observe how he is still trying to avoid the ruins of his acts in his futile struggle to escape. There is no happy end, only the inevitability of the fate of the protagonists.
FARGO’s plot presents both the obvious and unexpected, while the characters’ idiosyncrasies are deftly drawn out over the course of the film. The final, perfect paradox is that Marge Gunderson’s incomprehension of Showalter and Grimsrud’s actions is exactly what provides the audience with the insight into both her life and theirs.19
Being masters of understatement, the Coen Brothers themselves commented the final result with the words:“We thought FARGO was such a marginal movie that it came as a complete surprise when it got nominated, and it was really surrealistic when we won ourOscars that night.”20
- FARGO-A Film by Joel and Ethan Coen.UK Video Version, PolyGram Film Productions BV, 1997.
- FARGO- a screenplay by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen. Source: http://www.screentalk.org
- Kilzer, Annette / Rogall, Stefan:Das filmische Universum von Joel und Ethan Coen. Schüren Presseverlag, Marburg 1998.
- Korte, Peter / Seeßlen, Georg (Hg.):Joel & Ethan Coen.Bertz Verlag, Berlin 2000.
- Mauk, David and Oakland, John:American Civilization: an introduction.2nd ed. Routledge, London and New York 1997.
- Other Internet sources:
- Internet Movie Database @ http://us.imdb.com/Title?0116282
- Britannica online @ http://www.britannica.com
- Spike Magazine @ http://www.spikemagazine.com
1Among other awards, in 1997FARGOwon theAcademy AwardforBest Actress(Frances McDormand) and theAcademy AwardforBest Screenplay Writing(Ethan & Joel Coen).
2WhileFARGOwas produced with a budget of only 6 Million Dollars, it brought in profitable 26 Million Dollars.
3Körte / Seeßlen: Joel & Ethan Coen, p. 186
4First scene right after the central point (hold in black); see:FARGOscreenplay
5Kilzer / Rogall, p. 120
6Körte / Seeßlen, p. 183
7Körte / Seeßlen, p. 186
9See: screenplayFARGO INT. CAR Carl Showalter is driving. Gaear Grimsrud stares blankly out. After a long beat: GRIMSRUD Where is Pancakes House? CARL What? GRIMSRUD We stop at Pancakes House. CARL What're you, nuts? We had pancakes for breakfast. I gotta go somewhere I can get a shot and a beer - and a steak maybe. Not more fuckin' pancakes. Come on.
10Kilzer / Rogall: Das filmische Universum von Joel und Ethan Coen, p. 13; the quote originates from the preface of the screenplay ofFARGO
12“All movies are in some way fiction, so what does it matter? The Coen Brothers’FARGOclaimed to be based on a true story, and they admit it wasn’t; the “true story” bit at the beginning was just a stylistic device.” (Roger Ebert inChicago Sun-Times, October 18, 1996)
13Kilzer / Rogall, p.167 (Frances McDormand aboutFARGO)
14Knox, Henry:Love Minus Zero. In: Spike Magazine (www.spikemagazine.com)
15See: screenplayFARGO: MARGE Had dinner at a place called the King’s Table. Buffet style. It was pretty darn good. NORM Was it reasonable?
17Knox, Henry:Love Minus Zero. In: Spike Magazine (www.spikemagazine.com)
19Knox, Henry:Love Minus Zero. In: Spike Magazine (www.spikemagazine.com)
- Quote paper
- Matthias Vorhauer (Author), 2001, Fact and Fiction - The (de)construction of narration in the movie FARGO, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/106652