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So, Should Oscar Forgo 'Fargo'? Ya?

By James Lileks
Special to the Washington Post
March 23, 1996

I should like "Fargo," the Oscar-nominated film that's been drenched with critical drool since it came out. My peers regard the film as a Stinging Rebuke to the feel-good sugary spume Hollywood turns out. Reviewers call it hip, and for a movie where no one wears sunglasses or takes heroin, that means something.

All my moviegoing experience, my preference for the offbeat and the dark, my appreciation of the Minnesota-reared Coen brothers -- this should incline me to praise "Fargo." But I sat in the theater with arms folded, scowling, grunting a brusque chuckle every 10 minutes.

Why? I was born and raised (1958-76) in Fargo, N.D. Was I so small and petty that I couldn't stand to see my own tribe get smeared? I'd laughed at the Texans in the Coens' "Blood Simple"; I'd smiled indulgently at their cretinous Southwesterners in "Raising Arizona." I wanted better reasons, ones that reflected well on me.

Here are some candidates for good reasons to dislike "Fargo."

1. Insufficient Fargo. My beloved home town is holding an Oscar-night party for the movie, even though it doesn't take place there. I don't know a single Fargoan who likes the film. My father grows dark when the subject comes up -- he's of the generation when a movie's title accurately reflected its subject matter.

"Fargo" was a cruel joke, like paying good money to see "Pearl Harbor" and finding out the film is actually about Bataan. Like a lot of people, he felt as if the chance to make a good movie about Fargo had been squandered. If they made a real Fargo movie, well, now they'd have to call it "Minot," or "Bismarck."

The Coen brothers have said they called the movie "Fargo" because no one would go to see a film called "Brainerd" (the northwoods Minnesota burg where half the film is set). To the real world, Fargo is a spatter of brick and wood on the edge of the world, a tight grim cyst of humanity where no one is tanned but everyone is freezer-burned, where Jell-O is a fruit and Heinz 57 is Tabasco.

"Brainerd" means nothing to anyone. It has the same national resonance as the word "Hudsucker."

2. The violence? I don't mind violence. I enjoy movies where there are more rounds fired than syllables spoken. My favorite is the Hong Kong variety of action film, where the hero perforates several hundred adversaries, has a quiet reflective scene while he reloads, then kills 397 more villains, usually while holding a baby in one arm.

But the violence in "Fargo" bothered me. I am unsure why people's heads need to be blown open in a comedy. At the start of the film, a state trooper gets shot at close range, and a nice thick glug of blood blurts onto the dashboard. So maybe they should have called the film "Brainerd" -- that sounds like plain-spoken heartland patois for shooting someone in the head: "Ya, well, he bugged me, so I brainer'd him dere."

Shortly after the brainerdization, a couple of innocent bystanders are shot. Then the gruff patriarch gets it in the gut. A housewife who has spent her last moments in blind shrieking terror gets fed to a wood-chipper. And so forth. Every time I felt myself relaxing into a comic mood, I figured that some sort of ballistic comeuppance was right around the corner, and it usually was.

It's not as if this were sending the wrong message to society -- since the movie came out, no one in Minnesota has been holding up banks with wood-chippers. It's not as if this had been billed as a bright, merry comic romp -- no, it's a quirky dark comedy, meaning people die in creative ways. A tragedy is a film in which Jessica Lange, as a farm wife, gets her arm caught in a grain auger. A comedy is a film in which Steve Buscemi, pretending to be a farm husband, gets his arm caught in an auger. A black comedy is a film where Buscemi feeds Lange to the auger.

Perhaps this a good thing. Perhaps the fault of other comic movies is the absence of explicit violence. Time for some remakes: "The Inspector General." In Czarist Russia, a homicidal drifter (Danny Kaye) rapes and strangles a young woman, and is then mistaken for a visiting government official. "A black, tuneful romp!" (New York Times). "A quirky, offbeat blend of rape and funny accents!" (Entertainment Weekly).

3. The accents. Nowadays, whenever I tell people where I'm from, they automatically ask, "Hey, Fargo! Ya sure you betcha. Did you like that `Fargo' movie, then? Ya?"

This must be what it is like to be Joe Pesci. "Hey, Joe! Okayokayokay. Punch something! Be Italian!"

People in Minneesohta do talk that way, ya know. Yes, it's funny to hear people plot, you know, that murder-type deal there in an accent better suited for swapping hot-dish recipes. I don't think the accent is inherently funny, but that's because it's familiar. Whereas I laugh at Apu the convenience-store owner on "The Simpsons," and I'm sure Bengalis wonder please to say what is being so funny about the manner of his speech, thank you! Come again!

Critics gush over the daring, brilliant juxtaposition between the plain drone of Fargo-speak and the unspeakable acts the words describe. If that's the case, then someone should make a film about the life of the Marquis de Sade in Esperanto. Instant Oscar.

No, it was none of this. The real problem was the audience. I saw "Fargo" in Minneapolis, a supper-hour showing at the Mall of America. Behind us was a couple in their sixties who apparently had chosen this movie based on the title. Perhaps they expected a Western. When characters started cussing, I could hear legs being crossed and uncrossed. When the policeman was brainer'd, there was a slight sigh of disappointment. Half an hour into the film, I heard the woman whisper: "Well, this is different."

"This is different." In Fargo-speak, that means this is a raw horror blown straight from Satan's colon, and any decent person would disapprove. I was embarrassed for them. And for me as well. It was a replay of those trying moments when you rent a videotape to watch with your parents, and suddenly the characters are naked and having sex.

For the duration of the movie, I adopted the couple behind me as temporary parent figures, and saw the film through their eyes. It spoiled the entire picture. Actually, the more I think about the film, the better it gets, but I don't think it will ever be more in my mind than a tidy little movie of modest aims and accomplishments. Not that I will admit my opinion in public anymore. Oscar or not, the next time somebody asks, I'll merely grin and say, " `Fargo'? Now that was different!"

And thus I will be hip again.

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