On Being from Fargo

(Today I dusted off this essay–it’s about four years old now–and decided it would make a good addition to the ‘hometown’ section of this site.)

On Being From Fargo

Where are you from?

When this question arose at a party recently, it marked a familiar turn in conversation, the moment when I shift from new acquaintance to momentary novelty. “North Dakota,” I answered, and when her eyes widened, I added, “Fargo.” “Oh my God,” she responded, looking up and turning away slightly to the left. Facing me again, she slowly said, “Oh . . . my God. No, really? You are from Fargo.” A little taken aback by her enthusiasm, all I could muster was, “Yep, Fargo.”

When she motioned to a friend and exclaimed, “He’s from Fargo,” I realized something I probably had known unconsciously for quite some time. Most of my life I had been from Fargo, North Dakota. Now, however, this new acquaintance made it clear that I was from Fargo–the Coen brothers’ film–and I would just have to get used to it.

Fargo, North Dakota

Since leaving home to attend college in Chicago, I have been having conversations about where I am from. For a long time, they usually took a similar form: “Where are you from?”– “Fargo, North Dakota.” – “Really? I think you’re the first person I’ve met who’s from North Dakota.” Before the 1996 Coen brothers’ film, saying “North Dakota” meant I could look in my interlocutor’s eyes and find a blank space on their mental maps just above South Dakota and below Canada, a tabula rasa of ignorance as pure white as the winter fields I encountered anew last time home.

As I drove on county highways north of Fargo, blowing snow blended the horizon into the clouds, erasing any sign of boundary to the white expanse of fields. In front of me snow flowed across the road, at one moment a stream of smoky white and the next moment a flock of wisps that tore and regrouped in flight, as if someone left their smoke machine in Montana and a momentous wind was blowing it low across the plains. I passed a massive pile of decaying sugar beets with steam rolling off it in thick billows that faded just as they reached the road. This pervasive whiteness became the canvas for a late afternoon sundog, a winter rainbow made by airborne ice crystals that formed a nearly complete circle, except where its bottom edge dipped just below the horizon.

A white blankness of the mind appeared each time someone ventured to me, “North Dakota, isn’t that where Mount Rushmore is?” It was a friendly form of ignorance that I usually found empowering. By the time I gently let them know, “No, that’s South Dakota,” they had already commissioned me their myth-maker, letting me shatter their misconceptions if they had them or, if they did not, create a fresh portrait of Fargo they could call their own. Show me someone from Malibu or Manhattan, and I will show you a clean canvas prepared for the brush.

It was always difficult for my new myths not to start off sounding flat. Difficult because Fargo lies in one of the flattest spots in North America, in what was 9,000 years ago the bottom of a glacial lake. To grow up in Fargo is to see the world lying down, a horizontal life with no overlooks and all sky, with no vistas but the Twelfth Street overpass or the bird’s-eye view when flying into Hector International Airport. Our only mountains were the thunderheads rolling in over the plains that I watched when working out in the fields, the dark gray Rockies that we could watch until the gust-front winds blew the first drops ahead and sent us running for the pickup.

Living in Fargo is to learn to walk backwards. Someone once said that in the Chinese view of time we back into the future, facing our past as we move into the unknown of what is to come. I often backed my way through the winters of my childhood, trudging with my front side shielded from the certainty of the North wind. In places where winters are rainy and wet, the cold will seep into your bones as you stand waiting for the train. But in Fargo, when it is 15 below with a brisk wind, the cold crashes in around you within seconds of walking out doors and drenches you within a minute. As you crunch and creak across the partially shoveled sidewalks, bodily fluids begin changing state–hair and eyelashes getting crispy, snot beginning to congeal. But this only true of some days, and of only one season, and if you learn to walk backwards, keeping warm means you forget less quickly where you have been.

So Fargo is flat and cold. The unspoken question that I often face is “Why does anyone live there?” Believe it or not, I will often answer, Fargo was once rated the most desirable city in the nation, based on factors like cost of living, pollution, education, unemployment, crime rate. Somehow the poll politely evaded the issue of the weather, but there is no doubt for me that Fargo was a fine place to grow up for all the reasons the ratings noticed. It is safe and clean, the schools are good, and the people are friendly. It is a college town with twenty-five thousand students and a lively economy, and the weather is nothing you cannot get used to.

And if these prosaic virtues fail to impress, I might add that if N.D. became its own state, it would be the third most powerful country in the world because of all the nuclear missiles housed there. I have never actually bothered to substantiate this, but as a kid I saw enough fenced-in missile silos driving out to summer camp every August to be convinced. Being from the biggest city of the third most powerful country in the world should probably give me more cause for reflection, but until secession happens, I suppose I’ll attend to my less hypothetical questions of identity.

Have you seen the movie?

There was a time when talking about where I was from gave me opportunity to act as advocate for my hometown, to save it from the East Coast cultured despisers or the West Coast cosmopolitans. However, after 1996 that blank gaze of ignorance I once relished became a look glazed over by a thick film called Fargo. For more than three years after the movie hit the box office, I never could give a convincing answer for why I had failed to see the movie. I usually muttered something about not liking violent movies. In reality, however, I was stubbornly unwilling to admit that I had a rival in representing where I’m from. I had become comfortable having license to create people’s myth of Fargo, and now there was a movie out that usurped that role, that caricatured the natives of Minnesota and North Dakota, and did so under the title of my hometown. I have never been much of a movie critic, but since the movie Fargo came out, talking about where I am from has become a movie review.

So what did you think?

Now that I’ve seen the film, I’m willing to admit that I like it, though I always hope conversations will last long enough for me to voice a few modest criticisms. As one Washington Post reviewer (originally from Fargo) put it, the problems with Fargo can be stated simply: too much violence, too much accent, too little Fargo. Did we really need blood to spurt from a patrolman’s head after being shot, or to have Carl Showalter put in a wood chipper? Did we really need to hear “Ya” that many times? Did they really need to call the movie Fargo if all but five minutes of the movie takes place in Brainerd and Minneapolis? The Coens grew up in this part of the country (Minneapolis) so I refuse to accept their quirky sense of artistic license as an excuse in this case, particularly since their attempt to represent their hometown impinges on my own effort to figure out what it means to be from there.

The danger for the Coen brothers, like anyone who has moved away to one power center or another, is that in representing their hometown they too often land at one of two extremes–idealization or disparagement. We usually idealize when we stand to benefit from associating ourselves with something that, in hindsight, appears superior to where we now live. We malign our hometown when we have more to gain by severing any associations with what seems to be a provincial, benighted past. Avoiding either extreme is the more difficult task.

As Wes Jackson once put it, “Any fool can appreciate California; it takes real character to appreciate Kansas.” If I fault the Coen brothers for anything in Fargo, it is not precisely for lack of character, but for a loss of nerve, not for making an unconventional movie about ordinary people in Minnesota, but for those moments when they slipped into rather conventional mode of disparagement. Violence has become standard for Coen films, and in Fargo it became disappointingly easy way to deal with might seem like an unremarkable setting. When faced with a stark white landscape populated by boring and simpleminded northerners, they could not resist the urge to splatter it with blood. Moreover, the caricatures of the Minnesota accent at moments sound like the graceless humor of someone who has been away too long, one who knows enough to do hilarious impersonations of Minnesotans at New York parties but has lost the ability to sustain nuanced humor through an entire movie. Minnesotans do not mind being made fun of–Garrison Keillor does it every Saturday night–but they have a right to expect that someone from Minnesota will avoid letting good-natured ribbing slip into body checking.

Watching Fargo, I can never shake the sense of being used. Only the first short scene takes place in what is supposed to be a dingy Fargo bar, but none of the movie was actually filmed in there, and the rest of it takes place in Brainerd and Minneapolis. The Coen brothers are the first to admit they used Fargo for the name because they knew a movie called Brainerd would have little hope of success at the box office. What they may not admit is that using Fargo for a movie set in Brainerd is a subtle form of exploitation based on the assumption that says, “It’s all the same up there anyway–cold expanses of snow populated by simple-minded Swedes who say ‘Ya, you betcha’ and talk about the weather.” Their use of Fargo reveals they have more to gain from disparaging their hometown than appreciating it, more to gain from artistic bravado than from complex and risky understatement.

I liked it

Despite my frustrations with the film, I have developed a fondness for it by learning to adopt a Marge-centric perspective. I refer, of course, to Marge Gunderson, the pregnant policewomen from Brainerd who investigates the increasingly violent consequences of Jerry Lundegaard’s inept machinations. Margie is intelligent, acutely observant, and shrewdly witty. She is tough-minded in doing her job but also deeply compassionate in a brilliantly understated Minnesota way. She deals with crime when it comes her way, but her robust affirmation of the everyday makes it clear that the “malfeasance” she investigates in no way defines her life.

I think that the film is really about Marge and that she not only is the redemptive element in an otherwise bleak story, but she also compensates for the Coen brothers’ loss of imaginative nerve in other aspects of the film. The excessive violence may have seemed an artistic risk, but it was not nearly as risky as having a heroine more brilliantly and triumphantly ordinary than most of us were prepared to appreciate.

I like to imagine that Marge occasionally appears in the Coen brothers’ dreams, the voice of their repressed consciences, making them regret for just a moment that in representing where they were from, they may have overdone a few things: “So I hear ya made a movie about a string of murders up there in Minnesota then. Even put a guy in a wood chipper. Ya, that sure was different. Well I suppose when you’ve lived out East a while ya gotta throw a guy in wood chipper once in while to make the old home country seem a little more interesting. (Pause) Well, there’s more ta making movies than being violent and ironic, ya know. (Pause) Don’t ya know that?”

In the end, I would like to believe that at some level the Coen brothers, like me, were trying to answer the question, Where are you from? If Marge was their best attempt to represent their hometown, to tread a middle path between idealization and disparagement, I would say they did a pretty good job.

I have to admit I am still a bit sore that the movie broke up a perfectly good monopoly on representation, making my job of portraying Fargo a bit more challenging than it was before. But I suppose a little competition never hurts. If the movie does not literally represent where I am from, I am now more willing to admit not that the pictures I draw of Fargo also bear the marks of my own idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. While it is true that I am from the geographical place called Fargo, a place with a particular landscape and a particular culture that has shaped me, it is also true that now I no longer live there, and I am shaped as much by the story I am writing about being from Fargo as by physically being there. If answering the question where I am from has made me a movie critic, it also has made me more conscious of the myths I have created since leaving home.

“A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere” is the advertising catchphrase on the rental box for Fargo, which tells us that the Coen brothers have made an excellent movie out of a setting where normally nothing of importance takes place. Or put more pointedly, it suggests that Minnesota is not such a characterless hinterland when you drag a string of murders through it and finally cram someone in a wood chipper in the end.

But the more I try to talk about where I am from, the more I have to believe that in fact quite a lot happened in Fargo before the movie came out, if for no other reason than because I grew up there and my family still lives there. And if it ever becomes “the middle of nowhere” in my imagination and in the stories I tell of it, if I ever become content either to malign or idealize it, then leaving there–being from there–has done me little good.

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