Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Contextualizing FARGO

The passage of time makes it harder to see how gravitational pulls effect orbits. Supposedly Howard Hawks was one of the first directors on CASABLANCA before he made TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Do we see that the similarities between the two as studio mandated, that Hawks - unable to do his version - eventually made the film he wanted to make without those impediments, or that Hawks was aping the success that came before? As it's always hard to parse the rumors of that period, it's hard to know for certain as Hawks loved to take credits that may not have belonged to him (and denied some that may have).

This I can say for certain. In the spring of 1994, the Coen Brothers had their film THE HUDSUCKER PROXY come out and do a belly flop in theaters. I remember seeing it, and though I loved it from frame one, and though the darlings of the independent scene may have "sold out" successfully, they did not attract a mainstream audience in doing so. Two months later, a little film called PULP FICTION won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, a prize the Coens had won with their previous film three years before, and with it Quentin Tarantino achieved commercial and critical success the likes of which the brothers had never attained. Maybe it was Harvey, maybe it was the zeitgeist, it doesn't matter.

When we talk about the Coens, they're the modern - albeit stoned - iteration of the Kubrick model, in that though they are more public personas, they do little to reveal themselves or what they think about their material - to this point previous special editions of FARGO have gotten little input (or output) from the directors on the material. Joel and Ethan Coen made their breakthrough movie with paltry means with their debut BLOOD SIMPLE, which was a neo-noir through and through, casting a old testament biblical light with some impressive directorial chops onto the genre. And when we think about masters such as these, it's not always that we see them licking their finger and seeing which way the wind blows.

As such, this much is true: FARGO was the movie that reignited them, made them Oscar favorable, and cemented their place as masters. On paper, it's hard to say that anything that happens in FARGO was drawn at all from Tarantino and his previous films. But it's also not hard to see filmmakers who may have felt that they needed to do something of the moment but also that had their own spin on it. A spin that Tarantino may have taken farther in his own works to that point, but is it so hard to trace a line between RESERVOIR DOGS and BLOOD SIMPLE, even if surface details muddy the point? Can one not apply the saying "The innocent must suffer, the guilty must be punished, you must drink blood to be a man" to RESERVOIR DOGS?

FARGO is rarely compared to PULP FICTION for a number of good reasons, and yet I am left wondering if the former's existence have everything to do with the latter's. Even if the Coens were going back to basics, which to some extent they were - though some they weren't - context tells you a lot.