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Film Essays

Land of Snow and Nice: Smiling and Fargo

[This is the third entry in a series exploring themes in Jean Baudrillard’s America and how they relate to film; please read the introductory piece here and the second is here. All text in quotes or italicized is from America unless otherwise noted.]

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen introduced the country to that particular brand of friendliness people call “Minnesota Nice” with their 1996 masterpiece Fargo. The movie simultaneously follows both a crime and the policewoman attempting to solve it. Bumbling family man Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires loquacious Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and taciturn Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) and hold her for ransom. The exact reason is never given why, but Jerry needs money in order to pay off some sort of debt, and while his rich father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), who shows obvious content towards his son-in-law, would never give Jerry the money, he would pay for Jean’s release. Jerry’s rather convoluted plans go awry when Carl and Gaear unexpectedly kill three Brainerd, MN residents. The killings prompt Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to investigate the case, eventually leading her to Carl, Gaear and Jerry.

Even the poster is kitsch

The film is best known for two things: The infamous wood chipper scene and for the hyperbolic Minnesotan stereotypes. Fargo is a movie that is very aware of its setting, and everything is as Minnesotan as possible, from the obviously Scandinavian names, the over-the-top accent, the overuse of ‘oh yeah’ and ‘you betcha,’ and, of course, the ubiquitous snow. The other stereotype they Coens utilize is that of “Minnesota Nice,” the ever-present mask of friendliness that hide whatever the person is actually feeling. The Coens use this to firmly situate the film in the upper Midwest, especially when you compare the friendliness to the brusque treatment people expect to receive in a coastal city; however, this idea of “Minnesota Nice” could also be looked as an extreme variation of a uniquely American phenomenon: The smile for smiling’s sake. Baudrillard takes note of Americans’ love of smiling multiple times in America. In particular, he says of the phenomena:

An autoprophetic smile, like all signs in advertising. Smile and others will smile back. Smile to show how transparent, how candid you are. Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact that you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others.

Baudrillard is saying that Americans don’t reserve a smile for only when the situation calls for one, but rather as an automatic response to virtually any stimuli. This has spread even further with the advent of the Internet, and it is something I know that I am guilty of: “LOL” or 🙂 is my de facto response to anything that I don’t have a response for when I am having an IM conversation. Baudrillard goes further to say on the subject: “This smile only signifies the need to smile. It is a bit like the Chesire Cat’s grin: it continues to float on faces long after all emotions have disappeared.” However, I feel that the end, “after all emotions have disappeared,” is an inaccurate statement. Rather, it’s not that emotions have “disappeared,” per se, but rather the smile serves as a mask to hide the emotions the person is actually feeling.

In Fargo, this tendency to smile is pushed to the extreme, especially in the characters of Marge Gunderson and Jerry Lundegaard. Throughout the film, Marge rarely is seen without her smile, she wears it as part of her officer’s uniform, and she is never the “bad cop.” Regardless of the situation, she never lets her actual emotions show on her face. For example, when she is interviewing two prostitutes who slept with Gaear and Carl, despite being frustrated by their incompetence, she never breaks her smile with the clueless girls.

Awkward Smile

What a Smile

Likewise, she agrees to meet with a man who she attended high school with while she is in Minneapolis investigating. It becomes apparent that the man’s intentions are romantic, and he attempts to sit next to her. While she asks him to sit across from her again, she never really lets the smile leave her face and express her displeasure. Conversely from Marge, Jerry never seems to be able to keep his smile from faltering. In his interactions with the kidnappers, his customers at the car dealer, and with Marge, he always has the appearance of just barely being able to hold it together. Where Marge’s strength seems to be exemplified by smile, Jerry’s weakness is exemplified by his inability to maintain one. This speaks to both the amazing performances by McDormand and Macy, and also to the Coens’ filmmaking. In the majority of scenes (and these screenshots) where Jerry or Marge are talking with another character, the shot is of each speaker, forcing the audience to take note of the character’s expression.

Another Awkward Smile

Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Fargo works to dismantle the notion that a place is too wholesome to have a sleazy underbelly. The acts of violence and crime seem to be out of place in a setting where the characters use “darn tootin’” instead of cursing. The smile is the crux that this façade rests upon; an automatic response to make it appear as though nothing wrong even though everything is. It’s this element of the film that gives it a universality, that despite the very specific location, these are problems that everyone face.

Since pretty much all you got on this post were smiles, here is the wood chipper for excitement.

Finish up with the next post on Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

[Citations, for those who want them:
-Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. 2nd ed. New York: Verso, 2010.
-If you want specific page numbers, please e-mail us at: VideoWordMadeFleshEditor@gmail.com set the subject to ATTN: Theo – Baudrillard Quotes]

By Theo Estes 4/18/11

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these posts:

A Touch of Humanity: How WALL-E Taught Us to Be Human
From the Queue: Peeping Tom

Sadism and Indifference: Pasolini’s Salò

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