How come, on two separate occasions, when people in Fargo are asked to describe Carl (as played by, and apparently written for, Steve Buscemi) they describe him as a “funny-looking fella but in a general sort of way?” With all due respect (and it’s a lot) to Buscemi, he’s funny-looking in a very particular sort of way. The man has the most recognizable eyes, mouth, and teeth of nearly any celebrity on the planet.
Stepping away from that for a moment, the thing that has stuck with me the most about Fargo is the accent. When I say “stuck with me,” I mean it surprisingly literally; my wife and I have spent the majority of the last four days talking like mono-syllabic Minnesotan hillbillies. “Yah?” “Yah!” “Oh jeez…” The dialect in Fargo seems absurd and adorable, so much so that we have absorbed it as a ludicrous flourish into our already pop-culture-riddled nerd patois. It’s a phenomenon that has happened to me before, like that week a few years back when I spoke with a southern drawl after binge-watching too much True Blood. At least with the True Blood phase, the accent seemed powerful, with sex appeal. Why the hell would I want to talk like Fargo, sounding like a Swede with a learning disability?
According to Wikipedia’s entry on the film, the film’s dialect coach called the accent, dubbed Minnesota Nice, “another character” in the film. The language has a sing-songy quality, with emphasis on polite, unembellished conversation. On the surface, it seems like a cute, folksy way of communicating, as if someone along the way simply decided that complexity in discourse was just too bothersome. What we fail to realize is that that’s exactly what we’re dealing with and in treating this culture like a wool-sweater-covered novelty act, we are failing to recognize a noble, legitimate, and intentional approach to life.
Watching this movie is a struggle to reconcile the desire to ridicule its characters with an inability to truly disrespect them. Police chief Marge Gunderson, as portrayed by Frances McDormand, challenges us with a character who we simultaneously admire and, on the other hand, want to tuck away into a pocket so we can listen to her provide Minnesota-flavoured commentary on our lives. It’s precious to see her throw her head between her legs and pronounce that she’s “gyunna baerf!”
On the other hand, this adorable delivery is in the same scene where she inspects a violent crime scene without batting an eye. This is a tough, hardened woman whose voice makes us want to snuggle her into the ground. So what gives?
Minnesota Nice is not just a series of tuneful inflections, it is a “stereotypical behavior of people born and raised in Minnesota to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. The cultural characteristics of Minnesota nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.” (Wikipedia again) Fargo is not, as I originally understood, a story about violent crime in a society that is too sweet and ignorant to know how to handle it. It’s a story about violent crime in a society that is engineered to avoid it. Minnesota Nice is a hybrid social protocol, fusing Scandinavian principles (based on collective improvement and de-emphasis on the self) with notions of Polite Society from the Southern United States. The result is a subdued, humble, and hospitable culture.
As a result, Fargo‘s characters seem like quaint, unassuming figurines who are living a few decades behind the rest of us. There’s a scene where a man gets so frustrated at being grifted at a car dealership that he eventually boils over and, after struggling with it for a few moments, calls the dealer a “…..fucking liar.” He immediately, visibly regrets his outburst (despite being entitled to his outrage) as his wife reaches out to him in shock. Even the shady car dealer can no longer make eye contact and loses his greasy smile. Watching the movie, I laughed. It seemed so bizarre for everyone to get so bent out of shape about one utterance of the word “fuck.” Hell, I’ve published more “fucks” in the past two weeks than Minnesotans say in the whole of Fargo. But, with a better understanding of the culture, the moment is more accurately read as a shocking violation of social principal. In escalating the situation, our mistreated customer fails to demonstrate the aforementioned polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, and emotional restraint. He ticks off 4 of the 6 behaviours his social protocol demands in a single outburst. The most remarkable part of the scene is that his next action is not to continue his anger or even to storm out. His next step is to grab his checkbook and buy the car.
This is the world that we are living in when two visitors come to town and start shooting people in the head. It’s not that violence is a foreign concept that Minnesotans are incapable of processing. Marge Gunderson doesn’t even flinch when she sees a man putting another man through a wood chipper. What makes the world of Fargo so special is that it refuses to accept any narrative that would lead to this kind of violence. Her speech to the surviving criminal at the end of the film sums up her feelings on what she’s seen, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know? Don’t you know that? And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day. Well… I just don’t understand it.” It’s not quaintness or naiveté that puts Gunderson at odds with her murdering, kidnapping adversaries; she belongs to an enlightened culture that would rather put value in Arby’s sandwiches, polite conversation, and paintings of ducks than money earned through extortion and bloodshed. Fargo understands how messy the world can get so it endorses propriety and politeness in order to keep the wolves at bay.
Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why nobody is able to give a description of Steve Buscemi. You could spend a chunk of time pointing out the uniqueness of his features but, at the end of the day, it just wouldn’t be polite.
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Fargo is also available from Amazon.