Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Mike Yanagita & The Art of Digression in Fargo (The Movie)

Fargo is an apparently great tv show (I still haven't seen it like some kind of jerk) but first it was an iconic movie. Well, first it was a town in North Dakota, but that doesn't really matter. The accents in the movie are really Minnesotan and the action mostly happens in Minn...you know what? That doesn't really matter either. See it if you haven't. Trust me, it's worth your time just to hear everyone call Steve Buscemi "that funny looking fella".

Anyways, the movie is great, but there is a side story, seemingly irrelevant to the narrative, that always threw me off. Some people go so far as to say it ruins an otherwise perfect movie, but I just always thought it was a weird, funny digression. And it is. And I think that's the point. The Coen brothers always highlight the absurdity of life. They deal in quirkiness and idiosyncracies. Fargo is one of their best movies because of the great story it tells (and the great writing, acting, cinematography, etc.) but it is iconic because of the quirkiness. The accents, the personalities, the endless snow, the wood chipper.

And Mike Yanagita.

Mike Yanagita is the guy who calls up his former schoolmate out of the blue. That schoolmate, of course, is Brainerd, Minnesota's Police Chief Marge Gunderson, wife of Norm "Son of a" Gunderson, played by the Coen brothers' favorite actress, Frances McDormand.

Yanagita is a pre-social media creeper. He doesn't have the luxury of Facebook or Instagram to check up on his former crushes and send them weird direct messages. He has to call her up on the phone (a landline!) and strike up a conversation, which somehow works. When Marge travels to Minneapolis to investigate the murder, she has lunch with him.

Marge is portrayed as a smart investigator and a good leader, but she is also highly naive. To her, this lunch is simply an opportunity for two old friends to catch up. But as the entire audience knows, Mike has other plans. He almost immediately proceeds to hit on her. She patiently refutes his advances, genuinely surprised by his ulterior motive, and he breaks down in response. Crying openly, he claims that his wife recently died and that he's been very lonely.

Actual quote.

Margie is confused, but more than anything, she seems concerned for him. Later, she talks to a girlfriend who also went to school with Mike. This friend tells Margie that everything Mike said was fabricated. Margie is dumbfounded. How could he tell such a boldfaced lie to her face, and how could she have believed him so easily?

Then...she continues on with her job and Mike is never mentioned again.

As I said, I always thought this was a funny little digression from the main story. Digressions are important at times; in movies they can add to the atmosphere of the story or help build the characters. Fargo is a character study just as much as a kidnapping story, and this scene helps build the character of Margie: the pregnant, smart, but somewhat naive, small town Police Chief. Even in the middle of a murder investigation, the Mike Yanagitas of the world still insert themselves into your life. The external world, and creepers, don't stop or go away because you have important things to do. There's no way to completely block out distractions. Distractions, or digressions, are an inevitable, albeit often annoying, part of life. And a lot can be learned from these digressions.

The scene with Yanagita, far from being a meaningless side story, does in fact aid the narrative. As stated, it portrays the naivete of Margie, creating a more comprehensive understanding of her, and it causes the audience to question her judgement of people and events; it also causes her to question her own judgement, which leads her to re-examine Jerry Lundeergard. She may have never thought twice about him if she wasn't confronted with her gross misreading of Yanagita. Of course, when she does see Jerry again, he bolts and she has her first real break in the investigation.

In addition, Yanagita (and the movie in general) are a commentary on masculinity in the modern world. Margie is already turning the image of the stereotypical masculine, aggressive police investigator on its head. She is the chief of the department, well respected, and clearly superior as an investigator. Her husband stays home and cooks breakfast for her. A grown man cries in front of her after she rejects his advances. Jerry is intimidated every time he sees her. The only typical masculine figure shown is Stormare's character, who she ends up shooting and arresting. Dominating. When she drives him to jail, she questions his motives. "There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it." She may be naive to not understand that some people are just violent criminals, especially considering that she is a cop, but it's really a questioning of the concept of traditional manhood. Even Buscemi's character doesn't seem to understand his partner's ultra violence. He is stunned when he shoots the cop in the head, and even more stunned when his partner attacks him with the axe.

The stereotypical, alpha male does not make sense in this age. Traditional masculinity and femininity, traditional gender roles, are at best outdated and unnecessary, and at worst, harmful. Traditional masculinity led to greed and violence. There's more to life than that; there's the beauty of nature, there's love and companionship, there's mallard art, there's Arby's.

For Margie, figuring out who committed a murder is just another part of her life. It is part of her job. She is presented as an average person in an average small town who does her job very well. She has an average husband. They eat Arby's, the pinnacle of mediocrity, for lunch. But even these average people and this average place have meaningful, worthwhile stories, if you're willing to hear them. Norm did a portrait of a mallard that became a stamp. Jerry Lundegaard has dozens of trophies on his shelves in his office; he was clearly very good at something, despite his shortcomings in everything else. Margie is very trusting, and super nice, which don't seem like the best characteristics for an investigator, but she is clearly a superior investigator to the men in her department, and she ends up solving 5 murders mostly by herself. Normal, ordinary people often do extraordinary things.

The husband's statement at the end of the movie, "We're doing all right," is Fargo's underlying theme. They are doing all right. Margie is great at her job, Norm is great at his hobby and at being a husband. Nothing flashy or spectacular, but they are surviving and enjoying life. And Jerry, the pathetic loser who concocts a plan to kidnap his own wife, would have been all right too if he didn't get greedy. There's nothing wrong with being ordinary.

None of the characteristics or details I discussed are central to the plot of the movie, and most don't even push the narrative forward. But all of the idiosyncrasies of the individuals in the film are what make the film memorable. There are a million kidnapping stories, but only one Fargo. And that's largely because of details like Norm's mallard portrait and the story of Mike Yanagita.

See? Digressions are great. Word to Holden Caulfield.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

No comments: