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The Land of 10,000 Takes

Minnesota’s long, tortured, and very, very complicated relationship with ‘Fargo’

The mayor of Brainerd didn’t like Fargo. “It’s a movie that people who don’t live here seem to enjoy, but for us it’s a little bit of an embarrassment,” Bonnie Cumberland told the Star Tribune in the blizzard-shot winter of 1997. This was in the run-up to the Academy Awards, and Hollywood was about to celebrate the Coen brothers for their comedy about the yah-ing wretches who occupy the American tundra. “I have a lot of ‘you betchas’ in my vocabulary,” Mayor Cumberland continued, “but not that much. We try not to do people in with wood chippers.”

That “try” is funny, right? If Minnesotans weren’t pathologically averse to conflict, she might have wished that Joel Coen had been run through the chipper himself. (Ethan would already have an ax in him.) Yet here she was answering questions about a movie whose title didn’t even benefit the chamber of commerce by advertising the name of her town.

And what was that about? Upon the film’s release in 1996, critics asked the Coen brothers why they’d titled it Fargo, when the story takes place in Brainerd and the Twin Cities. Joel Coen replied, “‘Fargo’ seemed like a better title than ‘Brainerd’” — the kind of nonanswer that only the White House press corps deserves.

Make no mistake, there’s an icicle dagger buried in that snow job. Fargo, Duluth, Brainerd: In the image of American film, they’re all sort of the same place. And that’s nowhere. Nowhere, with a 90 percent chance of Paul Bunyan.

The big blue ox has moseyed down the road to Bemidji in the new Fargo. We’re talking here about the 10-part FX series, adapted — if that’s the right word for it — by Noah Hawley, which concluded last night. To the extent the show is not a Gus van Sant–goes-Psycho remake, the producers presumably could have called it Bemidji.

“The name Bemidji is a very unique, one-of-a-kind name,” Rita Albrecht, the city’s citizen mayor, said a few weeks ago, when I reached her by cell phone in a hospital waiting room. “There’s no place else in the world named Bemidji.”

I’d called to ask Mayor Albrecht if Fargo felt like Bemidji, and what the portrayal got wrong.

“We don’t have a strip club in Bemidji,” she said. (Helpful information for the discriminating sex tourist.) “And we’re not as close to Duluth. The characters make it seem as if it’s quick to go back and forth. It’s three hours” — and that’s if you don’t create any fender venison on the 150-mile drive.

This teleportation-by-television is obvious to the local viewer. Blogging Fargo from a buffalo plaid perspective, Aaron J. Brown knocked the way “the Bemidji characters kept talking about ‘going up’ to Duluth.”

People look at Duluth and say, wow, that’s NORTH! That is as far NORTH as any human would want to go. Everyone in Minnesota would have to go NORTH to get to this CITY OF THE NORTH. But there is an area the size of a Baltic nation NORTH of DULUTH: A vast land of small towns and forests where people live and work and write stupid blogs about TV shows. We go SOUTH to Duluth. We go DOWN to the big city for shopping, country music and Elton John concerts. Bemidji is a part of this world.

I think what Brown ultimately means to say is that his home isn’t nowhere.

Minnesota-festival-event-sign

Until Nate Silver shows me polling that says otherwise, I would submit that Minnesotans love Fargo, even it feels a little like a hate-fuck.

Consider the Joel Coen quote that sticks to the movie, from a DVD bonus doc. Minnesota, he said, is “Siberia with family restaurants.”

That line earns a laugh, unless you eat at family restaurants.1 The other important truth about Fargo is that it’s the only restaurant in town.

You can hardly look at a screen without seeing New York. New York likes to look at itself. There’s the comic narcissism of Noah Baumbach and the narcissistic comedy of Lena Dunham (or is that the other way around?). Then there’s the self-excoriating narcissism of Louis C.K., and the winking sexual narcissism of The Mindy Project, and the I’m-not-wearing-any-panties (under my Spanx) narcissism of Amy Schumer, and the dude-where’s-my-narcissism of Broad City, and the socio-historical narcissism of Mad Men, and the narcissistic narcissism of The Real Housewives of New York.

In Minnesota, we take what we can get.2 When it comes to movie depictions of the northland — the popular ones, at least — there’s the Coen brothers’ tour de force and then D3: The Mighty Ducks, in which Emilio Estevez, Herb Brooks, and Beowulf high-stick Grendel’s mother, who births a toothless monster called the Minnesota Wild.

Actually, they just play hockey.

Which is about as much plot as the original Fargo offers.3 It’s a shaggy sled-dog joke about a cash-strapped car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires a nincompoop (Steve Buscemi) and a sociopath (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud) and extract money from his hostile father-in-law (Harve Presnell). It’s a frost-belt freak show, dressed in sensible footwear and parkas. No one here could get a “sane” score on a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. The exception is Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand (offscreen, Joel Coen’s spouse). She’s a wholly wonderful character: determined, competent, existentially sunny. Maybe it’s an ingrate’s question, but can such a flattering role be a gift to Minnesota when it’s first a valentine for his wife?

Trying to find a TV series in this material seems like the equivalent of looking for a snowball that’s been in the freezer for 20 years.4 Writer/showrunner Hawley has spoken about the new show as a Coen cousin: “I was hired to create something that fits a feeling you get from watching their work.” Specifically, there’s a plucky deputy (Allison Tolman, likable), an ineffectual husband (Martin Freeman, unlikable), a psychopath (Billy Bob Thornton, psychopathic), and a couple of implausibly creative murders.

The actor Colin Hanks, who plays the bumbling Duluth police officer turned mailman Gus Grimly, has described the terrain as a kind of terra incognita. “I think if you talk with the majority of people about Fargo,” Hanks told the Calgary Herald, “the things they remember is the snow, the accents and the woodchipper.”

But what about the minority of folks who never left the North Star State? Fargo makes us look stupid and talk funny. Who cares? No one would mistake Hawley’s exaggerated creation for a work of neorealism. And I don’t think I’d want every series to feel bound by the labored “authenticity” of a David Simon set.

But is it too much to ask for your home state to be something more than a blue screen — or maybe, in this case, a white one?

Fargo-Movie2-HP

Who’s the bigger rube: the bumpkin or the sophisticate who sees bumfuckery where it doesn’t exist?

As it happens, I’m not the first person to meditate on the Fargo conundrum. In May 1996, Neal Karlen described Fargo’s hostile reception among Minnesotans in a New York Times think piece called “If the Shoe (Snowshoe?) Fits, Well … ”

Karlen’s argument begins in a movie theater in a Twin Cities suburb:

The house lights went up to reveal only six customers, all looking as slack-jawed and appalled as the audience watching “Springtime for Hitler” in Mel Brooks’s film “The Producers.”

“Well, that was different,” muttered an elderly man heading for the exit, issuing the epithet Minnesotans use when they most wish to damn. Across the state the verdict was the same: the Coen brothers were quislings for portraying Minnesota as a tundra inhabited by slow-witted doofuses.

I was skeptical about those clueless, aggrieved viewers when I first read the piece, and I’m not sure I believe it now. But the article got me wondering what it’s like for some of the other audiences who dwell not in the bright center of the celluloid frame, but languish out in the dim sprockets.

Louis Michot is a fiddler and singer in the band Lost Bayou Ramblers, and he lives in southern Louisiana, on a dirt road that looks like the driveway to Carcosa in True Detective. The good old boys on the bayou are not just familiar; they’re family. His grandfather, a college dropout, served as the state’s superintendent of education. Michot and his wife speak French at home, in a house he built by hand out of salvage from a cypress shack.

Cable service doesn’t make it out to the house, but he’d caught a couple of episodes of True Detective in hotel rooms while out on tour. (Lost Bayou Ramblers recently opened a few shows for Arcade Fire.) And he declared himself “impressed at the kind of country ghetto/levee reality.”

Michot had no comment on the hoodoo voodoo. The culture of corruption, the swamp Nazis, the snuff-movie AV club? He’d seen worse. What captured his attention was the aerial driving shots, “the juxtaposition of highways and trees, all the bridges and stuff. You can feel they’re really in southern Louisiana. You can feel the mold growing on the plywood.”

Later, I called my friend Amy Radil, a radio reporter who grew up in Omaha, and she rhapsodized about Alexander Payne. “I love his movies,” she said, and his Nebraska trilogy, in particular: Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt. “I hope I would love them even if they were filmed in another place.”

You could say that Hollywood, America’s film capital, abuses the provinces. But a bigger problem may be self-abuse. The brilliant and rarely screened 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself,5 by Thom Andersen, compiles a century’s worth of movie clips shot in the city. Los Angeles is anonymous; Los Angeles is seedy; Los Angeles is apocalyptic; Los Angeles is empty.

Directors — directors who presumably reside in Los Angeles — portray its great architecture as disposable, even sinister. The midcentury modern homes of Richard Neutra or Frank Lloyd Wright turn into the lairs of epicene playboys and pimps. The city’s very nickname — L.A. — represents the diminution of a real place.

A great hometown film is every bit as particular as a high school yearbook: a portrait of a point in time. Even if you weren’t a member of the Table Tennis Club, you’d know, almost instinctually, if the photo of the boys in the short pants came from your class or the prep school in the next town over.

The next town over from Bemidji is Calgary. At least it was for Warren Littlefield and the producers at FX, who hunted financial incentives to shoot across the border. You’d think the geographic swap would be the equivalent of Dylan McDermott subbing for Dermot Mulroney, but ask Mayor Albrecht if the landscape onscreen looks like Bemidji. “Many of the comments that I’ve heard say it looks more like North Dakota,” she said. “There’s not enough trees and lakes.”

The wintry color scheme outside suggests a copy machine that has run out of toner. “It gives the impression we’re perpetually stuck in winter, which of course we’re not,” Mayor Albrecht said.

The Alberta — I mean Minnesota — onscreen is a realm barely fit for human habitation. Yet even then, Mayor Albrecht said, “I’m drawn to Fargo like a moth to a flame.” One thinks here of that tasteless joke in which Jesus calls down to Peter from the cross and utters a benediction. Jesus’s punch line: “I can see your house from here.”

We’re willing to suffer a lot for a view of home.

North Dakota And Minnesota Watch And Wait As Red River Crests

Of course, the Coen brothers come from Minnesota — specifically, the suburban Jewish enclave of St. Louis Park. You knew that, right? Granted, the Coen brothers departed Minnesota only a decade after the Lakers. But they left us, and not someplace else. That makes them ours for all eternity.

I probably should have mentioned this origin story earlier. But when you come from Minnesota — or any other state where kids can recognize soybeans in the field — you maintain a mental database of homegrown talent. Josh Hartnett, Winona Ryder, Rachael Leigh Cook, Vincent Kartheiser, Steve Zahn. No name is too marginal, no tie too tenuous. Kevin Sorbo, anyone? Loni Anderson? Telly Savalas? (You knew his wife, Julie, was a Duluth travel agent?)

How about Bix Skahill? My girlfriend recognized him as the parking lot attendant who asks for a ticket from the kidnapper Carl (Buscemi). The next time we see him, he’s feet-up: His ticket has been punched.

Skahill is a writer and director (Chain of Fools, 2000; Life Without Dick, 2002) and a “bon vivant.” He asked me to call him that when I dialed him up the other night, having gotten his number from a mutual friend. During the Fargo shoot, Skahill served as the office assistant: making coffee, opening mail. Skahill scored an onscreen roll after discovering the one-line role in the script and announcing his ambition to “the boys,” as they were known on set.

“I said, ‘Hey, this part, I think I could do this,’” he recalled. “They were both looking down at their desks and Ethan said, ‘You have to audition.’ And I said, ‘When are auditions?’ And he said, ‘Surprise us.’”

One thing local movies are good for: Skahill collected residual checks from his cameo. “It was a couple of hundred bucks every quarter for a long, long time,” he said. But it wasn’t the money that bought his affection. After the shoot relocated to Grand Forks, North Dakota, in search of snow, the cast and crew came together almost like family. At night, Ethan Coen and his wife taught Skahill how to play blackjack in a grim little casino room at the Holiday Inn.

I’d like to say you can feel that genial vibe onscreen. The Coen brothers larded the movie with in-jokes: characters named after local film critics (Lundegaard, “ol’ Bill Diehl”), and duck art painted by childhood friends. And Skahill pointed out that the boobs in Fargo don’t come off any worse than any of the other schlemiels in the Coen brothers canon. Llewyn Davis makes the journey from benighted to cursed; Lebowski is Lebowski. Is Jerry Lundegaard any less lovable than Barton Fink?

Skahill takes no offense at the chilly stereotypes of northerners: the flat affect and rococo Os. For one thing, “I’m not Minnesotan,” Skahill said. (He grew up on the “ass end” of Iowa.) And besides, “There aren’t that many people in Minnesota who talk like that. Just like the majority of people in Boston don’t have an exaggerated Boston accent.”

The “true story” described in the opening titles allegedly took place in 1987 — the TV series resets the clock to 2006 — and the Minnesota it depicts (or spoofs) hasn’t existed for decades. Now and then, I teach a little class at the University of Minnesota (it beats working for a living), and I asked a few of my students if they had an opinion about the film or the new show.

Abby Yang, 21, was born in Duluth — that is, Fargo country. Her family settled in Minnesota after emigrating from Laos, with a pit stop in Thailand. Had she seen the definitive movie about her home state?

“No,” Yang said. “I never got around to it. The first time I heard about it was in my Chicano history class. We were talking about niche cultures.”

Her own ethnic group, the Hmong, are no niche group in Minnesota. The last U.S. Census counted — and probably undercounted — more than 60,000 Hmong here. Yang has 10 siblings, all of whom reside in the state. How many have seen Fargo?

“Probably none,” Yang said. (Personally, she prefers Community.) “They’ve probably never heard of it. I wouldn’t have heard of it if I hadn’t taken that history course.”

For what it’s worth, I haven’t spotted any Hmong actors in the new Fargo. You might wonder what kind of person compiles a demographic score sheet while watching a comedy. And I’d say, the mayor of Bemidji, for one. When I asked Rita Albrecht how Bemidji was different from Fargo, she noted that some 20 percent of her constituents are American Indian.

You don’t have to apply at the Bemidji City Hall for artistic license (although you can reserve skate time at the Neilson-Reise Rink). Still, Mayor Albrecht — and her neighbors — expected something from the show. “I think we all are looking to media to reflect back who we are — to understand ourselves better,” she said.

I would have liked to ask the mayor of Brainerd if she’d changed her mind about Fargo the movie after it became iconic. But Bonnie Cumberland died unexpectedly in her home this February at age 67, according to an obituary in the Brainerd Dispatch and St. Paul Pioneer Press. She had retired from the high school after 34 years as a teacher, but continued to serve as president of the City Council.

The obit continues as follows:

She was active in her church and the community, serving on the Brainerd Public Utilities Commission. Cumberland was Brainerd Citizen of the Year in 2001. She was co-president of Alpha Delta Kappa, a teaching sorority. She was an honorary chair for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life.

It’s hard — impossible — to imagine such a character in a Coen brothers movie. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with Fargo.

On a note of mortality, perhaps I can return briefly to my interview with Mayor Albrecht of Bemidji. After trading emails, I learned that she’d scheduled our conversation for a hospital visit — specifically the hour she’d be waiting for her husband, Mike, to come out of knee-replacement surgery. It was no inconvenience, the mayor insisted. Was she going to spend an hour perseverating, or was she going to talk up the unsung virtues of Bemidji to a national audience? And besides, I gathered that her husband had already had the other knee done, and did the world end?

You might not know it from Fargo, but that’s how we do surgery in Bemidji and Brainerd, and all the white space in between. Old Mike Albrecht will be up and walking in no time. 

Michael Tortorello writes about buildings and plants for the New York Times.

Filed Under: TV, Movies, fargo, FX, Minnesota

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