The Year in Film

The view from here to Scotland, Hong Kong, and Fargo

Born-and-bred Scandinavian-Minnesotan that I am, I've kept my feelings about Fargo bottled up until the last possible moment. And now that moment is upon me. Uff-da. The story of a Scandinavian-Minnesotan who's so violently repressed that he'd rather have his wife kidnapped than ask her dad for money, Fargo is something I might have preferred to avoid altogether, were it not for the film's enduring ability to polarize us locals, as well as its appearance on some national Top 10 lists (e.g. Rolling Stone and SPIN) and its recent award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Those big city-type reviewers sure do love this movie about a state full of dimwits and one pregnant sheriff. But in these parts, as far as I can tell, the Coen brothers' dumb-and-dumber satire is most beloved by those Minnesotans who either didn't grow up here or who, like the filmmakers, have since split for warmer climates. Per usual with the Coens' films, appreciation of Fargo appears to hinge on the viewer's degree of hipness or distance from the material.

Speaking of famous turncoats, it seemed odd last spring when the host of Prairie Home Companion went public with his view that Fargo was "a strange movie." You'd think Garrison Keillor would sympathize with the practice of selling us idiot yokels to a national audience. On the other hand, for Keillor to deem the Coens' comedy a fraud would be a shrewd way to profess kinship with his hypersensitive hometown fans, and to imply that his own humor, by contrast, involves Minnesota in-jokes rather than jokes on Minnesotans. Choose your side, love it or leave it.

Ultimately, whether you "get" the joke of Fargo might be a question not just of where you're from, but where you're at. Was it any wonder that the Coens opted to schmooze the press at Cannes but not here? Myself, I'm aware that my intense dislike for this film--for its smug, misanthropic way of equating accent with intellect, and its monotonous litany of grotesque Midwestern caricatures--gives me a feeling of guilty brotherhood with fellow Nice guys like Fargo's own Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a Minnesotan of such pent-up rage that the mere task of ice-scraping his car is enough to send him over the edge.

Certainly, the defensive quality of in-state Fargo loathing (my own included) has seemed to fit the subject at hand. Blame it on the climate. And while our distinctly Midwestern fear of hickdom would be reason enough to make us snippy about the movie, this was also the year that the glut of "local" film product turned the pleasure of feeling Minnesota into a challenge. The truly funny thing about the year's made-in-Minnesota movies is that the joke really is on us. The flurry of studio production might have temporarily boosted our economy, but I'd guess that in the long run the local tourist trade will suffer for the representation of our hamlet as a frozen hellhole, and ourselves as northern crackers. But we'll survive. It helped that the timely Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie returned the industry's gaze by poking fun at cheesy Hollywood fiction-making. And looking on the bright side, the likes of Fargo would be a small price to pay if they eventually inspired a few truly Minneapolitan indies with national crossover potential--which seems likely, although we won't know for sure until hometown features like Acid Snow, Homo Heights, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse are unspooled later this year.

In the meantime, we can still bask in the unprecedented glory of IFC Presents IFP/North, the two-hour collection of well-made Minnesota shorts that was nationally cablecast on the Independent Film Channel last month. (The IFC plans to repeat the show January 19.) And in terms of film exhibition, the local scene has never been more vital, as U Film Society, Oak Street Cinema, Red Eye Cinema, and Walker Art Center all offered essential calendars of new and repertory material. In particular, were it not for U Film's Mpls./St. Paul and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender festivals, we would probably never have seen such gems as From the Journals of Jean Seberg, A Single Girl, and Hustler White (which had extended runs in other U.S. cities in '96, and thus are eligible for my year-end lists)--or such '95 rarities as Jean-Luc Godard's JLG/JLG, or unreleased indies like Chris Smith's American Job and Rachel Reichman's Work.

Unfortunately, U Film is still plagued by a programming sensibility that's alternately hasty, brilliant, overambitious, and inconsequential--which is largely a function of its diminished exhibitor status relative to the corporate competition. But whatever the case, any theater offering so many unique titles should be supported unconditionally, especially since most big-studio fare barely rates a blip on the artistic scale. The disparity between the arthouse and the multiplex has always been profound, but I'm struck by the fact that, for the first time in three years, I couldn't honestly come up with a single Hollywood movie for my Top 10 list--or even my Top 20. Thus, I made a separate list of films (see "Hollywood 10 Best") that seemed good or great primarily by mainstream standards. (Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, ranking sixth, is technically a Columbia picture; but as it was financed by the auteur and his associates and sold after completion, it's hardly the typical studio film.)

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