Entry from August 5, 2009

This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series of films under the rubric of "Crime and Punishment" at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details). The eighth and last film in the series, Fargo, by Joel and Ethan Coen, was screened Tuesday evening, August 4th, 2009. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes as follows:

As usual, I want to take a quick look back at last week’s film, Body Heat before saying a few words about Fargo by Joel and Ethan Coen, the movie we’re going to see tonight. I feel I should apologize again for the sex scenes in that film, which were the more remarkable because its one act of violence was treated so comparatively demurely. In shooting the murder of Richard Crenna’s Edmund, Lawrence Kasdan cut away from the actual bludgeoning just as Tay Garnett did in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Body Heat may have edged, like so many of the films of the 1970s, towards pornography, but at least it declined to follow the trail blazed by Bonnie and Clyde towards the vampire-like violence-porn that feeds on blood. Tonight’s film is a little more reticent about the sex but a lot more graphic about the violence and is thus more representative of the movies of today, which tend to do things that way around — probably because of the influence of Quentin Tarantino, who says that "violence is the funnest thing you can do at the movies."

The comment is a revealing one. Mr Tarantino has another movie coming out this summer in which the fun is at the expense of the Nazis — which further suggests that the violence is no more real to him than the Nazis are. Both are movie artifacts. Real violence is only fun if you are a psychopath, but the real is what is always carefully excluded from a Tarantino movie, just as it is from many other movies these days — a result of the legacy of shamelessness that I mentioned last week in connection with Bonnie and Clyde. Real violence, like real sex, is always hedged with a sense of shame. To take that away and put what purports to be either sex or violence on display as entertainment is really to create a new thing: a movie version of a real life phenomenon but one that is basically different from the real thing. That’s what makes violence fun to Mr Tarantino; that’s what’s wrong with more serious directors who falsely imagine that they are showing us the "truth" about violence in movies like The Passion of the Christ or The Stoning of Soraya M.

Truth is a little more elusive than that, and movie violence, like movie sex, is always a distraction from rather than a revelation of it. We, the audience, may feel a certain sense of excitement at being allowed to see things we wouldn’t normally be allowed to see, but this comes at the cost of seeing them as they are — which is to say, in a particular moral and social context that is all bound up with the sense of shame. One thing that Body Heat had that Bonnie and Clyde did not was a spokesman for that moral context — in effect for us, the ordinary folks trying not to be too distracted by the skin and the attractiveness of those displaying it from seeing them as we would see anybody in real life who did such things. These spokesmen for common decency were the friends of William Hurt’s Ned Racine: the assistant prosecutor Peter Lowenstein, played by Ted Danson and especially the cop, Oscar Grace — could that be a significant name? — played by J.A. Preston.

Oscar, you may remember, is the one who was described by Peter as someone whose "whole life is based on doing the right thing. He’s the only person I know like that." He’s also the guy who describes what is ostensibly the effect of the Florida summer’s heat but also happens to be that of the wider American moral and cultural climate of the 1970s and ‘80s when he says: "Pretty soon, people think the old rules are no longer in effect." In his own way, he too is alluding to the same breakdown that Lowenstein is when he mentions the scarcity of people whose lives are based, like Oscar’s, on doing the right thing. It’s a failure of the moral sense, to be sure, but insofar as it is a collective one, a society-wide belief or at least suspicion that the old rules are no longer in effect, it is primarily a breakdown in the sense of shame — and one that was promoted and encouraged by movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Body Heat itself in some of its scenes.

One consequence of this growth of shamelessness seems to me to have been, somewhat paradoxically, the final destruction of the romance of criminality that we saw in all the films in this series up until Bonnie and Clyde. Darned if it doesn’t turn out that, without the cultural context of 1930 to 1960 and the assumption that the movies of that period could make of a strong sense of right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, in their audience, the hints of glamor and pathos in a Tommy Powers or a Frank Chambers or a George Eastman — men who bravely and almost innocently defy those social standards — simply disappear. This was, in retrospect, the most salient feature of Bonnie and Clyde. Arthur Penn’s heroes were supposed to represent the full-flowering of such Hollywood-produced criminal glamor, and they just don’t, as I think we all pretty much agreed two weeks ago. They don’t come off the way they were obviously intended to come off. Ned Racine and Mattie Walker in Body Heat are even further away from such glamorousness, but to some extent (at least) deliberately so. For all its deficiencies, Body Heat doesn’t make any serious attempt to win our sympathy for either of them.

By the time we make the transition from Florida heat to Minnesota cold with Fargo, of 1996, there is not a scrap of glamor left to the criminal element. All three of the main bad guys here are utterly loathsome creatures even though one of them, William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, seems at first sight to have been fitted up to play the part of the little guy, like Frank Chambers or George Eastman, who is just striving upwards towards his "place in the sun." That no one, watching this movie, could possibly see him in that light I attribute to the Coens’ decision considerably to beef up that element I began by noticing in Body Heat, namely the presence in it of the movie’s own spokesmen for a standard of morality and decency that could no longer be taken for granted in the society at large. In a cultural backwater like Minnesota, unlike the California of Double Indemnity, Postman, and Place in the Sun or the border town of Touch of Evil, people have deep roots and don’t change their ways so easily. "I’d be surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd," says Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson at the outset of her investigation. This is a place with an intact if rather battered set of social sanctions, and Marge and her husband Norm, played by John Carroll Lynch, give us a memorable portrait of goodness to set beside the evil.

It’s worth noticing that goodness isn’t glamorized here any more than evil is. George Eliot writes about how "the best of us go about well-wadded with stupidity," and I always think of that metaphor when I see Marge and the other police, especially, in their down-filled anoraks against the Minnesota winter’s cold. Their anodyne conversation and dull everyday domesticity — "You gotta eat a breakfast, Marge," says Norm as Marge gets up to investigate a triple homicide — are a kind of insulation too, for them and for us, against the horror they suddenly find in their midst. Hannah Arendt told us about the banality of evil, but the Coens show us the banality of good, not only in Marge and Norm’s cozy relationship in bed, a place for warmth and sleep rather than sex, and at the breakfast table but also in such cultural markers as the family restaurant with Muzak playing in the background and its vast piles of what we have since come to call "comfort food" — or the elaborate and rather comical courtesies of everyday speech sometimes known as "Minnesota nice."

The overt symbol of this everyday sort of goodness and the comforting domesticity which gives expression to it is Marge’s pregnancy. She is carrying with her everywhere she goes a pledge of faith in the future and in the basic decency of the world into which her child will be born which seconds the film’s own portrait of that decency. This incipient but visible family-formation also provides a kind of answer to the violation of the sanctity of the home of Jerry’s kidnapping plot, which rhymes with those in Body Heat, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice but, unlike them, brings with it an antidote. It seems to me that the one serious fault with the movie is that it leaves poor Scotty (Tony Denman), the son of Jerry and Jean, and his accordion as loose ends. He is presumably just another forgotten casualty of the criminal stupidity that surrounds him, through no fault of his own. But you can see why the film-makers want to keep their eye on the unborn child, rather than him, in the end. It forms a consonancy with all the rest of the good folks of Minnesota.

Some critics of this movie have supposed that its portrayal of these things amounts to condescension towards these Minnesotans, but I don’t see it that way at all. I think there is real respect, admiration and affection in all of it. They and their thick insulation of niceness are like the snow, which is the film’s most important visual metaphor. It is the first thing we see in the movie as Jerry’s truck, towing the "tan Ciera" (which he calls "burnt umber) gradually emerges out of the swirling snowstorm. In fact the movie was filmed during one of the warmest winters on record in Minnesota, and a lot of the snow had to be manufactured especially for it, but you always have a sense of its ubiquitousness here. Snow, too, is a kind of insulation, and the scene in which Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter buries the briefcase full of money in the snow, realizing even as he does so the difficulty of ever finding it again in the vast expanse of nearly empty whiteness looks forward to Marge’s perspective-establishing words in the police "prowler" to his accomplice Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). "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."

I don’t know if it was intended or not, but the snow also makes me think of a swarm of white blood cells attacking the infection of evil so incongruously found in this cold and desolate but fundamentally benign Minnesota landscape. At any rate, the starkness of the white helps to set off the parallels and contrasts that make up so much of the movie, both visually and morally. The movie’s visual geometries are reflected in a series of parallel dependencies and symbioses: between Marge and Norm, Carl and Grimsrud, Jerry, and his father-in-law, Wade, played by the late Harve Presnell. We also notice how the brutal and ugly obscenity of Carl’s speech patterns contrasts jarringly with the "Minnesota nice" of everyone else’s, while the sinister silences of Grimsrud echo — if that’s not an oxymoron — the benign ones of ever-so-normal Norm. The jarring cut, after a blackout, from the truly horrific scene of the murders on the road to Norm’s ducks in the safe haven of the silent bedroom reinforces a recurring and essential contrast.

Perhaps the movie’s most interesting bit of parallelism comes out of the observation that, as Grimsrud is to Carl, so isWade to Jerry. If we think back, once again, to Body Heat, the ultimate murder victim was the one who first pointed to the contrast between the bungler, the man who hasn’t done his homework, who doesn’t know the bottom line, and the beau ideal of the contemporary striver, the man who is prepared to do "whatever it takes." Last Sunday, Timothy Geithner was pressed by George Stephanopoulos to say whether the Obama administration would raise the taxes of the middle class and replied: "We’re going to have to do what’s necessary." I wouldn’t like to say that it is universally true, but the chances are that when you hear someone talking about doing "what’s necessary" it’s a sure sign of weakness. So it is in these two movies, anyway. It’s true that, in Body Heat, Kathleen Turner’s character enjoyed a vulgar success by doing what was necessary for her, but this was itself the weak spot in the movie.

Fargo gives us, I think, a more realistic portrait of the "whatever-it-takes" sort of person as the examples of him on both sides, Grimsrud and Wade, are ultimately no more successful than their bungling associates, their contempt for whom is all they have to distinguish themselves. "I’ll take care of it," says Carl, and Grimsrud mocks him after he has made a hash of the crisis. "This is my deal, Wade," pleads Jerry, and Wade abruptly dismisses him: "I don’t want you mucking this up." Both Carl and Jerry are weak, but they come across as comically weak because they don’t know they are weak. The scenes in which Jerry takes out his impotent anger on inanimate things — the car’s windshield or his desk blotter, neither of which seems much the worse for the wear — are as defining of him as Carl’s periodic outbursts of equally impotent bluster against life’s little frustrations, like the parking lot attendant who charges him $4 even though he hasn’t parked there. As he has the stolen licence plate he came for, it seems a small price to pay, but he can see the $4 only as an unnecessary obstruction. In the same way, he could have got away free with nearly a million dollars if he hadn’t jibbed at Grimsrud’s demand for a paltry $10,000 or so for his half of the car. He’s as big a fool as Jerry is.

Wade and Grimsrud are not wrong, we see, to hold their associates in contempt, but of course they are scarcely less contemptible themselves. Wade’s first impulse in response to the kidnappers’ alleged demand for a million dollars to get his daughter back is to offer them half a million. It takes his accountant, Stan Grossman, to point out that they haven’t in the circumstances got the option of horse-trading. Grimsrud’s ruthlessness is hardly to be distinguished from stupidity, since killing people seems to be the only way he knows how to deal with problems and difficulties. It’s one thing to have the ability to do whatever it takes, but it too often goes with an inability to recognize when you are likely to come to grief by doing a good deal more than it takes. This is all part of the demystification of the criminal romance which had long been a part of Hollywood’s stock in trade.

I wish I could say that it represented a permanent success of the popular culture, but it hasn’t been that. The Tarantinian forces of unreality have carried the day, even with the Coen brothers themselves, none of whose movies since Fargo come anywhere near its standard. Tales of crime and punishment are now dominated by such vulgar and boring romanticization as that of Public Enemies or comic book movies about troubled superheroes (and supervillains) or that psychopathic icon of the 1990s, the serial killer in imitation of the immortal Hannibal Lecter. None of it has anything to offer us apart from cheap thrills and technical accomplishment, though we may go on hoping that, some day, the Coens or somebody else will again stumble into giving us a true portrait of the human truths behind criminal behavior. If they do, however, they will again have to bring with them an idea of the good, as well as the bad, since the movie audience, thanks largely to the movies, no longer has its inherited sense of right and wrong to rely on. I hope we all find our own sense of right and wrong strengthened tonight as we watch Fargo.

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