[This article will appear as part of MovieZeal's month-long celebration of the films of the Coen brothers. Check out excellent reviews of their movies by Evan Derrick and Luke Harrington (The Zealots), in addition to guest reviews and some illuminating insights on the Coen brand from an impressive array of movie bloggers. Like me...?]
"Fargo's naht even in Minnesoda, ya know!"
So has begun many a contentious conversation with Minnesotans about the Oscar-winning film from native sons Joel and Ethan Coen. A word of advice: if you're visiting, don't bring it up. Ironically, we obsessively claim the brothers as our own, while at the same time distance ourselves as much as possible from their most famous portrayal of us. Over the course of their filmmaking careers, the relationship between the brothers and their home state has indeed been a delicate one.
Born and raised in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park by their professorial parents (dad at the University of Minnesota, mom at St. Cloud State University), the Coens were already making films on a Super 8 camera before they reached adolescence. The boys grew up at an interesting time in Minnesota, and not just the 1950's were smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boom. The state was notoriously anti-Semitic during and after World War II, and it would be hard for me to believe such sentiment was totally absent from their childhood, even in their (still) predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Bob Dylan was probably crossing paths with their father as he wandered the U of M campus in Dinkytown. Prince was picking up a guitar for the first time across town. Heck, Al Franken practically grew up with the Coens in St. Louis Park. Like their soon-to-be-famous contemporaries (and me, decades later...), Joel and Ethan headed elsewhere after high school, broadening their horizons at NYU (Ethan), Princeton (Joel), and Bard College at Simon's Rock (both). It was clear they would not be back to Minnesota anytime soon, and by 1984 they had their first film (Blood Simple) and their first addition to the Coen family (Joel's marriage to the actress Frances McDormand). We wouldn't see them again until, of course, Fargo in 1996.You need to know that Minnesota, like many of the tragically named "flyover states," is a place that swells with pride. For the rural population in the state, moving to "the cities" (Minneapolis and St. Paul) is akin to disowning your family, your roots. To a lesser but still noticeable extent, this thinking also translates to those who move out of the state altogether. Who did the Coens think they were, leaving and never coming back? They're too good for Minnesota? They're better than us? Perhaps you can see why Fargo, with its exaggerated accents and pathetically provincial characters, wasn't selling out theaters around here. On the contrary, many Minnesotans (perhaps already hurt by the Coens departure) were infuriated with the film. The initial reaction was so dramatic, in fact, that the Minneapolis Star Tribune warned filmgoers that "many Minnesotans may be offended by parts of Fargo."
The Coens, for their part, were puzzled by the reaction in their home state. Said Joel Coen after its release, "We were born and grew up in Minnesota, which is one of the reasons why we were interested in the story...We feel very much sort of a part of it, having some from that culture. That's another thing that sort of surprises us about the attitude of the outsider condescending to the yokels from Minnesota." Nevertheless, one quote I found from a Fergus Falls resident summed up the general sentiment at the time: "I left that movie feeling violated and lied about. The Coens should be ashamed." It didn't help the situation when the film would go on to win two Academy Awards and be named as the one of the 100 greatest films of all time by the American Film Institute. Then, ten years after its release, the Library of Congress add Fargo to its prestigious National Film Registry, ensuring that this source of embarrassment for Minnesotans would be "preserved for future generations."
"I think Minnesotans will eventually come to like Fargo," said prescient Minneapolis storyteller Kevin Kling upon the film's release in 1996. Indeed, as the film rose to become an American classic, the local hostility towards it faded. By the time the Coens were back on the national stage in 2007 for their next American classic, No Country for Old Men, half of Minnesota practically claimed familial relations with the brothers (Mine? One of my best friends auditioned for the role of Scotty Lundegaard in Fargo). This tendency to unabashedly jump at the chance for national attention seems to happen a lot here, but not without notice. "I guess I would say it's fun, but it always strikes me as the sort of thing that a place that wants to be someplace else does, not a place that's secure in itself," said media analyst David Brauer in an MPR interview about Minnesota's obsession last year with the Coens (and also with Diablo Cody of Juno fame). True to form, the City of Brainerd, MN, has been using Fargo as an appeal to tourists for years. Turns out the fine citizens here don't really care if people think they're attention-starved, they just care if people think they talk funny.
While it seems too easy to relate the Coen brothers exclusively to Fargo when talking about their link to Minnesota, none of their other films (full disclosure: I haven't seen all 12 of them) so prominently feature the state and culture that influenced them, and none of their other films left such an impression here. And although it may still be considered their career-defining work, Fargo was not an anomaly or change of pace for the Coens, but an emblematic example of their unique style. But what sets them apart from other filmmakers? Or rather, what is uniquely "Minnesotan" about their films?
In order to bolster both my knowledge of film and my credibility in writing this, I spoke with Minneapolis Star Tribune film critic Colin Covert about Joel and Ethan's relationship to their home state. He identified two aspects of their films that could be considered "Minnesotan", and I agree with both. "I think they have a very down-to-earth, Midwestern and specifically Minnesotan quality to their films," notes Covert. "They're very observant of the details of everyday life," he added, citing Raising Arizona as an example. To be sure, this is an understatement. The brothers are well-known for their meticulous attention to the regional characteristics of their story settings, including accents, landscapes, music, religion, and cultural traditions. The Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski; the Deep South of O Brother, Where Art Thou?; the West Texas of No Country for Old Men. Minnesota, with its deep commitment to preserving Scandinavian traditions, served as a perfect model for the young Coens. Growing up Jewish, the Coens must have looked on with curiosity at the Lutherans around them eating lutefisk and telling Sven and Ole jokes with funny accents (those of you outside of Minnesota don't even know what I'm talking about, do you?) - exactly the kind of specific cultural details present in so many of their films. Had the Coens grown up in a more culturally diverse place, they may not have had the same fixation on the regional characteristics that help define their distinct style.
Secondly, Covert pointed out the "dry, dark, pessimistic humor that runs through their films." Those of you familiar with "Minnesota nice" might find this surprising, but Minnesotans can actually be a pretty perverse bunch of Scandinavians. I don't know how many times I've looked around half-shocked and half-disturbed by the hoots and guffaws around me in the theater during an unsettling or bloody scene, especially at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis. Covert nailed it on the head with his description, and while it might not be a style exclusive to the Coens, neither is crass humor exclusive to witty New Yorkers or above-it-all Los Angelenos. While others were laughing at the funny accents in Fargo, Minnesotans (those who went) were cackling during the wood chipper scene. This subtle humor is palpable in many of the Coens' films, from the silly (The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona) to the suspenseful (the gas station scene in No Country for Old Men). There's one other observation that I have to make here, and that is the fact that many of the characters in their films just seem like typical Minnesotans. John Goodman (originally from Missouri), for example, could easily pass for a local in the Twin Cities.
And what about Fargo's eventual celebration here in Minnesota? "At first I thought it was extremely condescending," said Covert. "Minnesotans don't talk like that," he continued, referring to Frances McDormand's turn as Marge Gunderson (which incidentally earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress). So how did we come full circle? Laughing, Covert admitted that in the years following Fargo's success, he realized, "Minnesotans really do talk like that. On the first viewing you're terrified of the condescension, and that blinded us to the more affectionate aspects of it." But after multiple viewings, Covert observed (and I agree) that while the satire cannot be ignored, the Coens balance it out with subtle tributes to the special culture and character in which so many Minnesotans take pride.
So, twelve feature films into their career, where are we in the ever-interesting relationship between the Coen brothers and their place of birth? Soon after No Country for Old Men began its road to glory last year, the pair announced that their upcoming film, A Serious Man, would start filming in Minnesota in 2008. The story ( a "dark comedy") focuses on the life of a Jewish professor in the late 60's, and it will mark the first time they've filmed locally since Fargo. Because of its non-contemporary story and non-traditional main character, I personally don't expect A Serious Man will make as much of a splash here as Fargo, but the fact that the brothers wrote the screenplay (instead of adapting it, like No Country) increases the likelihood that an "authentic" Minnesota will be a prominent presence on the screen. Perhaps the moviegoing American public will see a new side of the state, if they see the state at all. I wondered about this aloud, and Covert agreed that the rest of the country "doesn't know Minnesota from Nebraska."
Well, we can't fault the Coen brothers for trying, even if Fargo wasn't the side we wanted to show. All we can do is hope that one day, the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" will receive its due credit for shaping the careers of two legendary American filmmakers.