So I was sitting down to watch a little television and became aware, on a Thursday evening that my usual NBC fare (including my continuing education in multiple staff supervison, "The Office"), would be pre-empted. I confess that I have only a mild interest in the Winter Olympics, which must be the result of my geographically impaired childhood; I saw snow for the first time as a teenager in south Georgia. I did not grow up snow skiing, to say nothing of curling, so it is all a bit foreign to me. I confess my regional limitations. At the same time, I am surrounded at work by people who are actually staying up late each night to watch as much of the action as possible. I don't get it.
In clicking through the TV Guide I noticed that "Fargo" was about to begin. If you have never seen the movie "Fargo", turn off your laptop, close it, go to your nearest movie rental source and get a copy.
Now that you have viewed "Fargo", we can proceed. It is, in my estimation, a masterpiece of Americana, comparable to the novels of William Faulkner, the Godfather films of Francis Ford Coppola, or the music of Bob Dylan. The Coen brothers have an eye and ear for the richness of regional diversity in our land: note O Brother Where Art Thou or No Country For Old Men. And here they capture the ethos of the Dakotas and Minnesota in a way that is quite stunning, especially to the outsider.
How is this so? As a film, "Fargo" succeeds on a number of levels. It is a succession of one remarkable scene after another: an unlikely meal with a troubled former acquaintance, who is clueless enough to make a romantic advance with a very pregnant police officer; an awkward conversation (actually all of William Macy's conversations are awkward) between a man and his father-in-law over money; a serious conversation between a couple, she in the search for a dangerous sociopath, he agonizing over a stamp competition. I could go on. The most memorable scene, for me (apart from the woodchipper) is the conclusion, when Marge Gunderson gives a moral lecture to the killer she has just captured. He is oblivious, of course, but in reality she is speaking to herself. The characters are compelling: the cowardly and inept car dealer and his greedy father-in-law; the equally incompetent criminal and his uncommunicative partner in crime; the courageous police detective, vulnerable in her pregnancy and yet fearless and even single-minded in her pursuit of justice, and, yes, her brooding and somewhat unconcerned artistic husband.
So, I was able to watch "Fargo" again, and in the context of the Winter Olympics there are obvious parallels: the aesthetic experience of watching snow and ice (a problem for this year's games in Vancouver, but apparently also an issue for the filming of "Fargo" in 1995, during an unseasonably mild winter in Minnesota); the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat; and viewing events that are just plain odd (like curling, or a Jose Feliciano concert). In the end, Marge Gunderson surely gets the gold (and she received a richly deserved oscar for best leading actress in this role); Norm gets only a bronze for his three cent stamp, even as she reassures her that it is quite the achievement.
What really appeals to me about "Fargo"? There is the sense that the universal is in the particular. I grew up imagining that human depravity was an exclusively southern reality, and, God knows, there is warrant for such a perception. To see human depravity and evil in a very different regional idiom is to have one's world expanded, not unlike playing baseball as a kid, and growing up to watch curling.