Bright Lights Film Journal

“Film Blanc”: Shoveling Toward the Meaning of Fargo (1996)

“In Fargo, a milieu of livid pettiness and stunted lives, capitalist migraines, and psychotic rampages prevails beneath the veneer of cheesy, Norman Rockwellian Middle America.”

With an enviable clutch of awards won (57, including two Oscars) and buzz from critics and viewers, the 1996 film Fargo enjoys an elevated position in the cultural pantheon (Internet Movie Data Base n.d.). Temporally, the film now fits within the middle period of Joel and Ethan Coen’s body of work that extends back to their 1984 debut Blood Simple. Fargo is of interest in part for exhibiting many of the auteurist themes and signatures that have circulated through more than a quarter century of the Coens’ oeuvre. These signatures include Hitchcockian manipulation of the audience’s knowledge (for example, as compared with that of the characters),1 dialogue peppered with catchphrases that circulate through the film,2 and the showy use of narrative devices (most notably, the MacGuffin [Truffaut 1967: 98-100]). In Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard’s need for money in answer to a debt that is never explained functions as the MacGuffin that drives the kidnap scheme — and sets a bloodbath into motion.3 Manipulation of the audience’s knowledge and expectations in Fargo begins with the opening title card that asserts, piously and speciously, that the film’s narrative is grounded in documented events. More abstractly, another Hitchcockian motif that is conjured in the Coens’ body of work is the apparently orderly world that is not as it seems to be. In Fargo, a milieu of livid pettiness and stunted lives, capitalist migraines, and psychotic rampages prevails beneath the veneer of cheesy, Norman Rockwellian Middle America.

As for genre, James Mottram (2000: p.124) has neologized Fargo as a film blanc (“white film”). In this vein, Fargo opens with a blinding haze of white as Jerry’s car traverses the austere upper Midwest winter in one of many moments that emphasize the harsh environs. However, the film presents slipperiness that extends further than its relation to genre, as I discuss below. This article attempts to parse what Fargo says, mainly with respect to identities (particularly as they are gendered) and in its posture toward the structuring logics of capitalism.

Identity on Screen: Finding the Phallus

Gender is of interest in many (most? all?) films, although some have more interesting things to say about the topic than others, just as some films present more interesting visual aspects. For its part, Fargo presents noteworthy nuances and tensions in its gender constructions. In unpacking these, the conceptual distinction between the “penis” and the “phallus” is very useful.

Sorting through the scholarly literature, Shohini Chaudhuri explains that “the penis is not the phallus” (2006: 106). The former is the biological organ, relatively trivial except to its possessor. The latter points, by contrast, to the cultural tropes (presumed competence, wielding authority) that have conventionally accreted onto possession of a penis. In this view, “there is an imaginary equation between the penis and the phallus, which cements the male subject’s identification with power and privilege” (Chaudhuri 2006: 106). The conflation of penis and phallus is a fundamental feature of prevailing social mythology, and it infuses the “image of unity” of “the family, which forms the traditional model of all other collective identities (community, town, nation)” (2006: 106). Social mythology notwithstanding, while all men have a penis, only some possess the phallus of authority. However, traditionalists who subscribe to the prevailing social mythology imagine all men as phallically sufficient, ergo, enthroned as “master of the home” over the women and children. Decoupling the penis and phallus, in this view, presents the possibility of disassembling prevailing social mythology, critiquing it, and even recrafting it.

For present purposes, the interpretation of gender constructions in Fargo may be enveloped within the question of who does (and does not) possess the phallus. The short answer to this question is that it is not the same people who (evidently) do and do not have penises! By implicitly differentiating penis and phallus, Fargo may be read as refusing gender traditionalism. Below, I more closely examine the film’s constructions of gender via two paired heterosexual dyads: Jerry and Jeannie Lundegaard and Marge and Norm Gunderson.

Jerry epitomizes a non-phallic male. While he is presumably packing a biological penis, Jerry is defined by what he lacks beginning in Fargo‘s opening scene when he expresses the need for a hefty sum of money. While Jerry possesses some of the trappings of a phallus as the presumptive patriarch of a classic suburban home, phallic sufficiency is demonstrated as lacking through the behavior of other familial males toward him. To wit, his insolent son Scotty and contemptuous father-in-law Wade Gustafson generationally bracket Jerry and readily transmit their low opinions of him. In light of repeated attempts to capture Wade’s attention and approval coupled with a hollow spousal relationship, Jerry can be said to have effectively married his father-in-law with all of its implications for his phallic sufficiency. Jerry’s rehearsals in the kitchen before calling Wade are ostensibly in response to Jeannie’s disappearance — staged and paid for by Jerry — and are redolent of nervous and unconfident boy trying to summon the courage to call idealized girl. Wade, who does generally present phallic sufficiency, answers the repeated bids for attention by brushing Jerry off in word and deed.

Throughout the film, all of Jerry’s plans flop while Fargo‘s judgment on his venal weakness is harsh. Jerry’s apprehension by the police is staged as a gang anal rape. In his underwear and on his stomach, he is held down and handcuffed on the bed by two police officers in a Bismarck, North Dakota hotel. Jerry’s crimes — and lack of the phallus — are decisively punished, as if the film yearns for real men with phallic sufficiency.4

While Jerry is a full-spectrum failure, his housewife spouse Jeannie is ensconced in a strikingly traditionalist gender trope of the female. She functions as little more than a token of exchange throughout the film; a medium of communication between male characters who, in the structuralist idiom, is spoken for, but does not speak. For Jerry, Jeannie is finally a medium of exchange with her father (his father-in-law) to be cashed in for money. Despite being trapped within this grimly traditional framework, the film’s construction of Jeannie does at least enable dignity in her visceral struggle against kidnappers Carl and Gaear. On the other hand, however “positive” or sympathetic she may be on screen, the structure of the narrative demands no more from Jeannie than to be the token circulated between men assaying to get what they want from each other.

The other notable dyad in Fargo is composed of Marge and Norm Gunderson. She’s the police chief of small-town Brainerd, Minnesota, and he is an artist devoted to painting rustic subject matter. At the end of the film, Marge has solved the gruesome case and taken Gaear into custody. For his part, Norm has realized a success when his painting has been selected for the three-cent stamp. Their triumphs contrast with the grasping overreach and hideous failure that characterize the rest of Fargo‘s ensemble.

From their initial appearance in the film, a tardy 35 minutes into the 95-minute runtime, it is evident that Marge and Norm invert traditional gender relations. Marge clearly does not possess a penis — she is famously played as heavily pregnant — but she is palpably albeit non-aggressively phallic.5 Her work has the authority that demands she rise from bed early to investigate the triple homicide, in contrast with stay-at-home Norm who offers to make her eggs. Before she leaves the house, a medium shot that is split by a door situates Norm as fixed within the domicile while Marge is outside in the forbidding winter elements preparing to enact being police chief. Norm’s attenuated phallic sufficiency is also suggested by his passive, almost blank comportment.

As noted, Marge exhibits the investigative phallus to pursue and solve the cascade of crimes unleashed by Jerry’s kidnap plot. Moreover, beneath the apparent tranquility of their marriage, it is Marge who exhibits the wandering eye. Marge makes an effort to dress up and meet at a decent establishment with a long-unseen male high school friend, Mike Yanagita, while investigating in Minneapolis. Mike is revealed to be another phallically insufficient male — a middle-aged failure who lives with his parents and a disingenuous stalker who feigns having been married then widowed. During the encounter with Mike, Marge’s phallic sufficiency is underscored by having been mass spectaclized as authority via broadcast on television while investigating the triple homicide.

Despite Marge’s endowment with an appreciable measure of phallic sufficiency from her first appearance on screen, Fargo is not indifferent to the curiosity of the phallic female. A nod toward the departure from tradition arises in an incongruously comic moment toward the dénouement. To wit, Marge points to the police badge on her winter hat in order to alert Grier of the imminent peril of arrest while he is feeding Carl’s corpse into the wood chipper.

In the register of identity, Mottram’s term film blanc also seems fitting for more than Fargo‘s play on Minnesota’s famously difficult winter climate. In line with the upper Midwest’s demographics, the film’s ensemble of characters stresses Euro-Americans of Northern European heritage (signified in characters’ family names such as Lundegaard, Gunderson, Gustafson, and Showalter). The two characters from non-European heritage — small-time hood Shep Proudfoot (indigenous) and Mike Yanagita (Asian) are conjured for the screen in politically incorrect terms, as underscored in Carl’s course reference to Shep’s ancestry while being assaulted by him. Although it is difficult to say that the constructions of Shep and Mike are particularly harsh given the largely degenerate ensemble of Fargo, there are at least some countervailing portraits of decency among the Euro-Americans; notably, Marge and Norm. By contrast, Shep and Mike are not only demonstrable failures (troubled ex-con, living-with-the-parents stalker), but they seem acutely aware of acting out their “outsider” status and inability to transcend ascriptive identity. In this view, within Fargo, they are self-consciously multicultural garnishing around what is visioned an enduring Northern Euro-American monoculture. Whereas the film’s posture on gender is anti-essentialist in decoupling the phallus from the penis, the film shades toward constructing race and ethnicity in more tightly binding terms.

Commodity Culture

One feature cuts across identities in Fargo: Everything is up for grabs for a price and “capitalist migraine” defines most every inhabitant of the film’s world. As noted, Jerry instrumentalizes his wife as a cash machine. Encounters with customers whom he clumsily gyps transmit much the same concept of human relations. When Jerry must comfort his distraught son, a situation that does not pivot on a transaction, he predictably has no game. Fargo also features a pair of episodes of explicit prostitution (both of which implicate Carl) that further accent commercial exchange’s permeation of the social world. Carl’s angry speech to the toll booth attendant also points to the brutalizing impact of a social order predicated on class-based lines of authority — albeit with some distortions in Carl’s rendition. He rants as follows: “I guess you think you’re … you know, like an authority figure, with that stupid fuckin’ uniform, huh buddy? King clip-on-tie there, big fuckin’ man, huh? You know these are the limits of your life, man. The rule of your little fuckin’ gate here. Here’s your four dollars, you pathetic piece of shit.”

The toll collector is actually perched on one of the lower rungs of the market’s caste hierarchy, but is misrecognized by Carl as impersonating a position at its commanding heights. In this view, his comments constitute a classist tirade against an apparently decent working person. Carl’s classist expression of livid resentment, cross-dressed as anti-classism, is later punctuated by his off-screen execution of another toll booth operator following his shootout with Wade.

Even where the impact of money and class structure is not direct, one can read its corrosive and alienating impact off other characteristics of the world within Fargo. The inhabitants of this world are often situated in front of the television while in close or even intimate proximity to other people; for example, Jerry’s work colleague, Wade at Jerry and Jeannie’s house before dinner, Carl and Gaear with the prostitutes, Marge and Norm in bed. Particularly in the bedroom, these encounters with the television are staged to suggest the anesthetizing effect of the apparatuses’ blue glow and mechanical droning that makes monads of viewers before its spectacle. Marge and Norm, the film’s coherent couple, are not only subject to the narcotic televisual triviality; their communication with each other is also presented as largely stilted and ritualized while circumscribed by a capitalist wasteland.

InConclusiveness

In dwelling on Fargo‘s phallus-bending features and its critique of the capitalist migraine, one might be tempted to regard this analysis as enthroning the film as oppositional fare. Furthermore, Chaudhuri’s survey of film theory suggests that exploding dominant fictions, such as the penis’ conflation with the phallus, comes with guarantees of a reordered social sphere. While Fargo has many merits for both causal viewing and for more extended examination, its apparent slipperiness (for example, between comedy, however mordant, and horror) may leave the spectator wondering what it means. Moreover, many of these complications in decoding are endemic to the film medium. Reading a film is distinct from literal-minded readings of a phone book or from those performed by a supermarket scanner’s decoding of UPC symbols that can only yield correct decoding if the scanning swipe is done to specifications. Films are, by contrast, fraught with meanings in different registers that are often in conflict with each other. Consider the example of The Wizard of Oz, where the visual spectacle of the film along the Yellow Brick Road annuls the script’s insistence that “there is no place like home” in dreary Kansas. Despite their endemic slipperiness, it is widely supposed that films are significant cultural events that have some symptom-like relation to the social tensions of their place and time; and that their meanings may thusly extend far beyond what filmmakers intend.

Despite the hazards, here is a lunge at identifying meaning in Fargo with respect to the right-left political spectrum (admittedly, one route among many into the text). Fargo may seem to channel many messages that flatter the left side of the political spectrum in its gaze on gender and on the corrosive impact of capitalist relations. However, tensions within the film beg further questions. To wit, how does its amalgam of cartoonish glibness and even icy contempt toward some of its creations interpolate an audience? Fargo is obviously not conservative in the traditionalist register as it resists saluting the timeless rhythms of the “old ways” via soft-focus nostalgia. Rather, the film may be taken to hurtle far beyond traditionalism as it channels the right-wing paradigm of the world as a cut-throat jungle (Altemeyer 2006). In this view, civility and civilization present a very thin veneer over a world of perpetual danger, white-knuckle threat, endless episodes of back-stabbing and double cross. True, Marge does finally crack the case — but only after seven people have been killed (the traffic cop, the two drive-bys, Wade, Jeannie, Carl, ticket booth operator), most of them innocent bystanders.

In this view, Fargo channels the right’s at once feared and viscerally desired state of nature. Marge’s closing soliloquies on it being a “beautiful day” and “we’re doing pretty good” provide vanishingly little counterweight to the previous 90 minutes of pre-Hobbesian mayhem in the social jungle that Fargo conjures. Tradition, in the form of the conjugal bed shared by soon-to-be parents Marge and Norm in the film’s closing shot, is a weak countervailing force. Moreover, Marge does not solve the crime so much as the circular firing squad convened by Jerry’s kidnap plot exhausts itself with most everyone dead. A film that opens with a title-card trick on the audience may unfold as a (blood-soaked) riddle.

Works Cited

Altemeyer, Bob (2006). The Authoritarians. Accessed 18 July 2012 from: http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/.

Chaudhuri, Shohini (2006). Feminist Film Theorists. London: Routledge.

Internet Movie Data base (n.d.): “Fargo.” Accessed 18 July 2012 from: www.imdb.com/title/tt0116282/.

Mottram, James (2000). The Coen Brothers. London: B. T. Batsford.

Trauffaut, François (1967). Hitchcock. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  1. For example, in Blood Simple, Abby shots through a door at the end of the film believing that she is wasting her nasty husband. Alas, he was already dispatched, buried alive by the roadside. The audience knows what Abby does not, that she is actually shooting the sleazy private detective Visser. Similarly, the extensive cross-cutting in Fargo enables the audience to generally know what its ensemble of characters do not; to wit, the kidnapping plot, a heinously bad idea to begin with, is going tragically haywire. []
  2. Catchphrases include “What’s the rumpus?” in Miller’s Crosssing (1990), “A line in the sand” in Big Lebowski (1998) — and “I’m not going to debate you” in Fargo. []
  3. Hitchcock states that the MacGuffin is ideally something that is objectively trivial in itself: “The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatever,” since the MacGuffin functions to put the causal plot into motion (Truffaut 1967: 98). Other MacGuffins in the Coen’s corpus include the soiled rug in Big Lebowski that inaugurates the Dude’s quixotic quest and the suitcase of money in No Country for Old Men (2007) that Moss discovers and that catapults him into a vortex of danger. []
  4. In a distinctly different register, one may also argue that Jerry’s inability to enact phallic sufficiency is evocative of the classic femme fatale of film noir. That is, his transgressions against the dominant gender fictions disturb the way things “ought to be” and trigger a donnybrook (like, for example, Sherry in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing [1956]). []
  5. Marge’s wielding of the phallus can be said to be non-aggressive as even her corrections of her colleague who misses the important license plate clue are couched in polite, unthreatening terms. []