“Look at the parking lot.” “Maybe when the snow clears.”

Published on August 6th, 2013

Alex takes a look at Fargo, the way the Coen Brothers are perceived, why we must all be in love with Jennifer Lawrence, murderous drummers, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Willow Rosenberg.

I often find myself assuming that Joel and Ethan Coen, collectively and popularly known as the Coen Brothers, release a new film seemingly every year. This is patently false. Every time I see a tweet excitedly anticipating Inside Llewyn Davis, I think to myself, “Calm down guy, the Coen’s just put out a movie.” Again, false. Steven Soderbergh they are not. Looking over the Coen’s IMDb pages, you will find a much shorter list than I would apparently expect. As a team, they have together co-written and directed fifteen full-length features in the span of almost thirty years, which is a fairly standard amount of work for successful filmmakers to release in that period of time. Wes Anderson won’t have made fifteen films by the time his career hits that point; CoeBro superfan Michael Bay will likely have released a handful more. But for some reason, the Coen Brothers have remained ever-present in my mind, even though they’re actually far less present in reality than I thought.

Despite this lack of knowledge on the timeline of their career, I am definitely a Coen Brothers fan. They made Barton Fink, a film that is better than pretty much any other director’s most focused work, and it is somehow only the third best film they’ve made. Even the Coens’ worst films have some form of weird merit that makes them memorable; The Ladykillers remains the only film that has ever caused somebody to threaten my life for simply mentioning its existence. I doubt I go a week without thinking about Joel and/or Ethan in some capacity, despite the fact that I (until very recently) hadn’t realized they’re probably even better at their profession than I already thought. Which was all a part of their plan, apparently. They got me with the long con. I have been bamboozled in the most pleasant of ways.

Joel And Ethan Coen Pose In New York

It’s difficult to pin down which movie the Coens are most well known for, although it’s definitely not The Hudsucker Proxy. To you, perhaps, it’s The Big Lebowski. To a current teenager, it might be No Country for Old Men. To your grandparents, it’s likely ‘nothing.’ To your parents, it’s unquestionably Fargo. This is the film that rocketed the Coens into culture’s collective consciousness, and I seem to recall late 1996 being filled with as many unintentionally poor attempts at intentionally poor Minnesota accents as 2007 would be filled with jokes about Anton Chigurh’s hairstyle. When I finally got around to watching Fargo for myself in 2004, I knew the film in question contained a wood chipper, gratuitous mentions of pancakes, and a totally solid Frances McDormand performance. I assumed William H. Macy was playing an impish gentleman, because that’s how a pre-Shameless Macy operated. All of these suspicions were correct. Fargo was and remains a solid, funny, engaging, well-crafted movie. I saw the same movie everybody else saw, and I saw it again today. This time, though, something about it stuck out at me.

Fargo is about the planned kidnapping of Jerry Lundegaard’s (Macy) wife, and the subsequent investigation done by Marge Gunderson (McDormand), but the themes of the movie are all about what lead Lundegaard to hire Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi to do said kidnapping in the first place. Jerry is a car salesman, and he is unhappy in his life, partially because neither his child nor his rich father-in-law seem to respect him. The status quo of having a normal, loving wife, and a job selling cars to other normal people does not appeal to Jerry. He needs more, and for whatever reason he decides ‘more’ involves kidnapping his wife.

Of course, this is not what the movie is about, really, because no great movie is ever literally about what it is figuratively about; Fargo is more about the perceived threats to one’s disappearing youth that comes with reaching middle age. The gorgeous, prolonged opening shot of the film, showing a car trudging through a North Dakota snowstorm, sets all of this up; the film is about the impossible sameness of reaching middle age, and realizing all that’s around you is an unflinching snowstorm of repetitive white noise. All of our central characters, specifically Jerry, are forty or nearing it, and Jerry’s kidnapping plot is his way to get into a business deal of his own, to finally accomplish something for himself outside of the job he has tied himself to. He’s lost in the snow of middle age, and he wants out so badly that he’s willing to put his wife in danger to escape.

The more likeable character in the movie, and the character everybody is immediately drawn to upon watching the film, is Marge. Some combination of McDormand’s just-a-little-bit-too-exaggerated facial expressions, her accent, and likely the fact that she’s visibly pregnant, make her impossible to hate. Marge is funny, charming, and is the most confident person in the film. She is also the most comfortable within her surroundings, enjoying as much time with her non-kidnapped husband Norm as she can. Marge knows her job, she likes her job, and she likes where she’s at in her life. This is what makes her the movie’s hero; Marge is the one who never wavers, and the one who always knows that her comfortable existence is about as good as things can get.

frances

Perhaps the most important scene in the film comes when Marge meets up with an old friend from high school, Mike Yanagita, a man who calls Marge out of the blue upon seeing her on television conducting a murder investigation. The pair meets up when Marge goes into Minneapolis to continue her investigation, and the ensuing scene is more awkward than even Ricky Gervais’ most uncomfortable work. Many people that watch Fargo find this scene bizarre, as it is the film’s only scene in which nothing relating to the crux of the main story is discussed. I assume there was some argument from one of the film’s financiers as to whether or not it should even be in the final cut. But the scene is of paramount importance to the film, because Mike is an unlikeable disappointment of a man. We are cautiously sympathetic at first, as he explains the death of his wife through tears, but the tide turns a few minutes later, as Marge finds out the truth from a mutual acquaintance. Mike’s wife didn’t die, he simply got divorced before moving into his parents’ home – a quiet declaration that might as well end some pathetic, inverse Rocky Balboa montage.

The final moments of Fargo echo Marge’s feelings on how these confused, aging males are ignoring the good of what’s right in front of them for some money and perceived control. And – despite encapsulating this with a phrase that U2 would four years later make me despise – Marge lays out Fargo’s meaning, right before she comfortably crawls into bed with the only adult male in the movie that isn’t an idiot, an asshole, or a criminal. Just a nice, middle-aged artist whose work will soon adorn a three-cent stamp.

In the years following Fargo, the Coen Brothers made a number of good, really good, and – occasionally – fucking awful films. Their output is always worth seeing, but sometimes it’s not worth seeing twice, particularly in the rare lull when they seem to get a bit too comfortable. The full-on comedies they have produced are always less interesting than their work with fewer laughs per minute, but their humour-infused dramatic films are often great. Toward the end of the past decade, we got two more great examples of this; a film in which a Charlie Watts lookalike teaches Tommy Lee Jones about the inevitability of death, followed by a look at arithmetic-based existentialism. No Country for Old Men told us that the Coens had realized death would come for them soon enough; A Serious Man told us they were worried everything they had ever cared about never mattered in the first place. Despite similar levels of quality, No Country was popular; A Serious Man was mostly unseen, partially because it was a tricky movie to market, but mostly because nobody likes math.

charliewatts

“Can’t stop what’s drumming.”

For whatever reason, the perception of the Coen Brothers has stayed in a bizarre, unique spot in culture. Most casual film fans recognize their collective name, even if they don’t immediately know why. These same fans understand Joel and Ethan Coen are smart, because people that don’t like their films say that they didn’t “get it,” which always secretly means “I think the filmmaker might be smarter than me*.” But average people, people like Marge Gunderson perhaps, don’t like the Coens for this intelligence. When you leave the meaning of your films vague, you will endear yourself to the vocal minority of film critics while alienating the majority; when you spell out your message, you will alienate the minority that can understand what you’ve made. There are plenty of people that will love you for ending an action film with a scene of an old man talking about his dreams, but there are many more that will hate you for it. The Coens made their non-decision long ago. They recognize the crises of the common person, but they don’t know how to examine them in a way that isn’t oblique.

*Probably about 30% of the time people say this, however, the filmmaker is actually dumber than the viewer, just in a way that’s vague enough that they fool the viewer into thinking the opposite.

Cultural writer and historian Sarah Vowell once wrote that Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s librarian/Watcher Rupert Giles could never be the main character in an American television show, because Americans hate people that aren’t embarrassed by their own intelligence. For us, the lead has to be Buffy Summers, because she was the type of person who wouldn’t do her homework. If the show had been made for non-American audiences, maybe it would have been about an adult librarian teaching children life lessons about vampirism, as opposed to teenagers learning about said life lessons. Vowell comes to this suggestion by explaining that Al Gore was too smart to win the presidency in 2000; George W. Bush’s perceived average brain capacity was an advantage. A serious man could never be president, because we hate serious men. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in other facets of life, the way a consciously smart character could be likeable was to use what Vowell calls the ‘Nerd Voice,’ a device that allows you to remain smart, so long as you always add in some self-deprecating qualifier that says, “It’s okay, I’m normal like you, too. I know that being smart is silly.” Willow Rosenberg was a modern Giles, her Nerd Voice perpetually intact. Approximately 85% of the statements Joss Whedon makes in interviews follow this structure. It’s the difference between Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s versions of Spider-Man. It has been successfully co-opted by everybody from your colleagues to shampoo advertisers. Anybody younger than forty-five knows this voice, but Al Gore didn’t, and the Coens don’t either.

These public figures – fictional or otherwise – that Americans root for have to be smart enough, but they can never expect viewers to keep up on their own. Benedict Cumberbatch’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes can only be a success because it was made with British audiences in mind; Robert Downey Jr.’s (still entertaining) version was equally smart, but in a more buffoonish sort of way, as this is how things go in America. [This also explains why people think you’re an idiot if you don’t adore the consciously ignorant Jennifer Lawrence.] The Coen Brothers have a definitive voice, but the reason they’ll never have a bona fide hit movie is they don’t have the Nerd Voice. They can use their intelligence to understand themselves, but the masses will never want to understand them.

In short, Joel and Ethan are Rupert Giles, and most people secretly hate librarians.

Except maybe this one.

Except maybe this one.

This unconscious collective thought process has similarly led to a perceived lack of humanism in the Coens’ films. Critics, even those that love their work, have described their films as ‘cold,’ which is what most intentionally funny people who don’t laugh at their own jokes are always seen as. The Coens’ voice is there in every word and every shot, but for whatever reason, it seems like the two are not really there emotionally. This is not how we like our artists to be, because this is not what the common perception of human emotion is. The men who made The Man Who Wasn’t There are too far removed. Critics consider their humour and general tone ‘dark,’ and people that don’t like Coen Brothers films see this tone as a tacit statement that the filmmakers think they are better than the viewer. This has always struck me as crazy, not unlike when the term ‘gritty’ is applied to a cinematic reboot: nobody has ever been asked what they mean by it, so there hasn’t been thought put into what the words really mean. Watching Fargo again made that even more clear.

There have only been a few definable periods where I could feel I was aging, a feeling of, “Oh, this is absolutely not how things used to bounce around in my brain.” There’s never been a single moment when things change instantaneously, because that’s not how this works, but they have eventually. It was happening around the time I first watched Fargo, and it happened again about four years later around the time I watched Fargo a second time. It is something I have actively been thinking about since my most recent repeat viewing. According to the Coens’ schedule, it will happen again in approximately 11 years, or perhaps sooner if I improperly read O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Aging is a weird, wholly unclassifiable thing. It’s something you know everybody experiences, so it can’t be weird, really, but it will still never make sense. It’s so wide-reaching that it somehow seems immensely private. Getting older doesn’t frighten me, but the idea of evolving into another person entirely does for some reason. This is why Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There was one of the most underrated American movies in a year full of them; everybody judged it as a biopic about Bob Dylan, not an abstract biopic about themselves. I like the fact that aging has given me the intelligence to give Fargo the reading it deserves, I simply don’t like the fact that maybe I had to give up a little bit more than I expected to get here, most specifically conveying my thoughts on a film by employing the term ‘reading.’ 2004 Alex would probably want to break 2013 Alex’s clavicle. The Coen Brothers have remained (seemingly) removed for the majority of their career, even though their hearts are barely tucked into their sleeves. Their films are often so personal that they need to throw Steve Buscemi in a wood chipper just so we don’t realize how emotional they really are. Joel and Ethan Coen recognized the beautiful day in 1996, but by 2007 they knew it had to end someday, and in 2009 they were wondering if it ever mattered at all. This splintering in your mind will happen, it’s just a matter of when, and how you adapt to it.

We’re all failing until we figure out how to not fail anymore. Then we start failing again. And then we wake up.

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