Q.V. Hough

A Serious Investigation: A Fargoan on the Coen Brothers’ ‘Fargo’ (1996)

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Leading up to the release of Hail, Caesar!, Vague Visages explores the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.

In the downtown neighborhood of Fargo, North Dakota or the Red River Valley that crosses over into Minnesota, it’s not uncommon to find someone entirely unfamiliar with the basic plot of Fargo, the Coen brothers’ celebrated 1996 production. Nearly 20 years after its release, the film continues to influence the international perception of the Upper Midwest, by way of the suburban Minneapolis filmmakers’ legacy and certainly through the hit FX series about Fargo (but shot in Canada) and the surrounding Minnesota landscape. But while many Fargo-Moorhead locals have taken exception to the exaggerated accents and dumbfounded characters of Fargo over the years, there’s a truth to the surrealistic nature of the Coen’s film.

A few days ago, I visited a new establishment down the block from my 42nd Street Fargo apartment, and I found myself seated at the bar listening to a classic “Fargo” conversation between two old friends: a 20s-something bartender and a patron of approximately the same age. The two caught up with the usual weather and family talk, as the guy next to me answered each question with different inflections of “YEPPP” (imagine the “yahhh” girls of Fargo with more volume). Sure, the exchange didn’t quite top the Coen’s amplified dialogue, but it was a real “Fargo” moment, and the conversation led me to think of how the average moviegoer first experienced the film. “Are these people stupid? Do they really talk like that? Is Fargo that bizarre?”

Only a handful of scenes were actually filmed in Fargo, and to be honest, I don’t think the Coens have made a public appearance in the last 20 years. Yet, while I’d like to say the acclaimed filmmakers don’t actually know Fargo (they’re from the city, Minneapolis-St. Louis Park), the brothers captured the surrealistic bewilderment of various Fargo-Moorhead locals (don’t forget about the twin border city) and the passive-aggressive, “Minnesota Nice” disposition of others. (Moorhead Trivia: Bunny Lebowski from the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski calls the city home, and the annual Fargo Film Festival actually hosts a Bunny Lebowski Invitational bowling tournament in Moorhead. Also, Jeff Bridges — “The Dude”  — married a woman from Fargo-Moorhead.)

Published in the last week, the February 2016 issue of Fargo Monthly celebrates the local “celebrities” of Fargo-Moorhead, and I’ve always found the concept highly entertaining. My brother (a fur trapper) once married a local “celebrity” (a radio DJ), and after their divorce several years ago, she ultimately hitched up with another local “celebrity,” the head coach of the North Dakota State University football squad that has now won five consecutive FCS National Championships (the celebrity in question won the first three). I’ll say this: we do need area celebrities in real-life Fargo, because they strengthen a community far removed from more chaotic ways of life. Still, the concept of a Fargo “celebrity” feels bizarre, yet the idea falls in line with the Coen’s narrative from two decades ago, as the characters search for meaning in their contained environments. We don’t need attention in Fargo, but geez, it sure is nice.

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In 2004, I graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota and later moved to Hollywood, California in the late Spring of 2006. My Los Angeles co-workers often made passing references to the Coen’s version of Fargo (plus northern Minnesota), and to be honest, I didn’t have much to say. In fact, many conversations took a patronizing turn to my disadvantage, simply because some of the more hipster types had already formed a concrete opinion of my city based solely on one viewing of the movie. Then again, Fargo isn’t my actually ‘my city” — I’m from across the border in Minnesota (oh geez), but as the years passed, and I realized that coastal folk didn’t necessarily care about the internal complexities of Fargo-Moorhead, I came to represent Fargo as my home… because that’s the truth (especially now). In Hollywood, I often enhanced certain Fargo phrases during conversation (for my own enjoyment) while relaying legitimately bizarre tales in the style of the Coen’s film (for the enjoyment of others).

For example, I re-watched Fargo shortly before making a Christmas trip from Los Angeles to Fargo circa 2007 or 2008. First of all, my supervisor expressed serious concerns about my Internet access (!), and after my father picked me up at Hector International Airport, we decided to have a quick meal at The Village Inn, located in the heart of South Fargo (the neighborhood where I live now). Less than 30 minutes after touching ground in real-life Fargo, the Fargo surrealism emerged, as I found myself seated a few tables away from Kristin Rudrud, a native actress who played Jean Lundegaard in the Coen’s film. Classic Fargo… and bizarre.

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By 2013, I had left Hollywood and moved back to Fargo. When it came time for the 2013 Fargo Film Festival, I picked up a Fargo actor at the airport, Steven Park (Mike Yanagita), and watched him grin at the surroundings — he’d never actually been to Fargo. The city emits a specific charm thanks to the hospitable nature of the community, but even so, one can find the darkness of the Coen’s Fargo if they slip into the wrong places. That’s “wood chipper” Fargo. Imagine Walter White trying to get by in the bitter cold. True Grit. Blood Simple.

With all due respect to the influence of Fargo, a Coen Brothers production such as Inside Llewyn Davis operates on an entirely different level. And in a way, Oscar Isaac’s downtrodden character feels more in line with the realities of Fargo-Moorhead than the Coen’s off-kilter 1996 work. Consider this: Bob Dylan moved to Fargo in 1959 after Buddy Holly passed away, and he played with local musician Bobby Vee, the man who replaced his fallen artists on “the day the music died” in Moorhead, Minnesota (and with an emerging artist named Waylon Jennings). Eventually, Dylan moved to the Coen’s region of Minneapolis-St. Paul before arriving on the Greenwich Village scene of New York City. So, Llewyn Davis has roots in Fargo, and 57 years after Dylan left for good, the revitalized downtown now boast numerous real-life artists in the style of Isaac’s intrepid character. Oh geez, Fargo hipsters? YEPPP.

Fargo, North Dakota / January 31, 2015 (Photo: Q.V. Hough)

Fargo, North Dakota / January 31, 2015 (Photo: Q.V. Hough)

Despite years of annoyance when it comes to the general public’s thoughts on Fargo (the city), I do appreciate the small moments of the film that so beautifully capture the isolation and occasional feelings of desolation that come with living in our “big city.” Some of the local skepticism of Fargo comes from the prolonged pauses and repetitive phrasing of the film’s characters, but there’s real truth in the moments of silence, whether it be at Brainerd’s Blue Ox Inn (as Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud stare into the television set with their female companions) or the actual line by Steve Buscemi’s character: “total silence.”

It’s the aforementioned moments that touch on the legitimate detachment that’s often felt by Fargo residents (not all) as we live in such a bitter cold environment and extremely flat landscape. And while the heightened violence of Fargo comedically juxtaposes the simple life of the various characters, it’s the conversational style of Bain Boehlkje’s Mr. Mohra that hits the nail on the head. On any day of the week, you can find a Mr. Mohra having breakfast at a Fargo-Moorhead diner.

In many ways, the true villain of Fargo is the inherent danger of a Fargo Winter and the layout of the land. If Woody Guthrie (the inspiration for Bob Dylan) had grown up in Fargo, rather than singing “This land is your land, this land is my land,” he might’ve passive-aggressively said “This land is your land, this land is my land…. but, oh geez, I guess it’s both of ours.” We embrace all visitors, but we also want them to respect our way of life.

For a long time, the predictable Fargo jabs from outsiders kept me from truly appreciating the film itself (much like plenty of Red River Valley locals), but there’s no harm in embracing the surreal narrative constructed by the filmmakers. It’s the Coen Brothers’ vision, somewhat based on my (our) reality, but at the end of the day, Fargo is for all of us to interpret and enjoy for different reasons.

Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and founder/editor of Vague Visages. He graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) in 2004 with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History, and from 2006 to 2012, Q.V. (Quinn) lived in Hollywood, California. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.

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