Erstwhile in Fargo

Thinking about Gillen’s note the other day:

  • When analysing comics, assume the creators had a good reason for making the choice they did. Try and work out why they did. There’s a time you can afford arrogance, and it’s far in the future . For now, assume they know more than you do. Even the creators you hate. Especially the creators you hate.

Which I like, both as a nodal point in one’s critical continuum, and as a good piece of realpolitik advice. Which drives me crazy, as it’s Gillen, but oh well. 

Nothing with craft is an accident.

It might not be good, or successful, or pleasant, or engaging; it may not have been deliberated or considered. Or deliberated or considered well, even.  It may have been surprising or contrary to the creators’ intention, to the interpreter’s expectation, to the world’s conception of what a thing is or can be, but it is not accidental, haphazard, dashed off, or crapped out. Suggesting otherwise is a critical feint. A work may not deserve comment.  Life is short and there are beautiful things.

Nothing with craft is an accident.

I noticed something in one of my favorite films after maybe the eighth or ninth time i’d seen it; after I realized it was there and found a reason for its belonging, and now that choice was all i can see when I watch.

It’s about FARGO, and I realized it trying to make heads or tails of the Mike Yanagita scene.

If you’ve not seen the film [hey spoilers about to follow for that movie that’s twenty years old], the set-up for the Mike Yanagita scene is this: Police Chief Marge Gunderson, very pregnant and very up-to-her-ankles in blood and bodies (or about to be) as a kidnapping scheme goes kerblooie in her town of Brainerd, has lunch with an old high school pal named Mike Yanagita. He sloppily makes an advance and tries sitting beside her, Marge declines his advances and he then has a kind of emotional collapse (that she later finds out is entirely untrue).

The scene has no connection with the infamous plot of the film. You could excise it completely and not only would FARGO not suffer, but you’d have a great little short film to boot.

So why is it there? Why did the Coen Brothers choose to include the scene?

You want to know the most important thing i learned my first year at film school? Aside from “don’t overdose while watching todd phillips’ HATED in a self-rewinding and replaying TV/VCR combo”? It was this:

Even shitty movies take a fuck-ton of work to make.

I worked my ass off on my final project that year and it fucking blew goats. It was so bad I cut and cut and cut it down to the bare minimum length the projects were allowed to be and it still felt interminable. I couldn’t understand it. I worked around-the-clock on the goddamn thing. I dotted every I, I crossed every T, I was prepped and boarded and rehearsed and blocked and ready.

And it sucked. Like SUCCCCCCKED. Super-sucked.  Screening it before the school was the longest three minutes of my life. Just thinking about it now makes my toes curl up in little embarrassment-fists still.

Yet every choice was deliberate, was agonized over. Every shot, every edit, every line. Every prop and bit of set dressing. And still it looked and sounded and played like boiled garbage.

(Want to know who made a first year film that I, to this day, remember? David Gordon Green. It starred a dude we all called “Big,” and in it, Big learns a pal of his fucked a piano in church.)

I don’t dig the easy line of criticism the Coens get about being cynical and detached. I think, like Kubrick, there’s genuine love and warmth for some of these characters in the work but it’s not treacly, it’s not saccharine, it’s not scored like a flower commercial. It’s not underlined. So they get sandbagged by dumbies who need characters to stand around and say “IT’S ABOUT FAMILY

to understand that someone’s emotional catharsis was about their family (also it is always about family if you’re talking about American movies, I don’t know why. We are a nation debilitated by an emotionally absent father, I guess).

FARGO endured a backlash as awards season drew near (The brothers would win a best screenplay Oscar and Frances McDormand would win best actress — and she’s only 75 shots, give or take, and doesn’t show up until just past the half-hour mark in a 98-minute movie). The Coens are making fun of Minnesota Nice (never mind the fact that "Minnesota Nice” isn’t actually nice, that’s the whole point of the thing). The line goes, the Coens don’t really like these people, they’re mocking them, like trustafarian dropouts taking on a blue collar southern affect. It’s ironic. “The Coens are ironic. They’re arch.”

I don’t buy it. I think they love Charlie Mundt and Larry Gopnik and H.I. Mcdunnough and Norville Barnes.

And Marge Gunderson.

So the Mike Yanagita scene. At first it stuck me as being there to make fun of Mike Yanagita. Believing the Dumbies would lead you to think, superficially, it’s there to mock a Japanese guy with the Minnesota Nice accent impossibly hung-up on impossibly pregnant, impossibly hungry, and impossibly married (to old Norm son-of-a-Gunderson) Marge.

That seemed, well, stupid.

Mainly, practically, because it seemed an expensive flight of fancy for anyone to take — this is a not-short sequence.

FARGO shot on a $7 million dollar budget, filmed through January, February, and March, 1995; long-enough schedule to assume, yeah, they took maybe three or four days to shoot the four-page scene (he’s Glen Yanagita in the screenplay [pp 66-69]). Filming the scene employed a lot of these people. They spent not inconsiderable resources on this piece of FARGO. The scene, by its inclusion, must be considered part of the craft and concern that went into the film’s production.

The scene occupies about four minutes of screen time.  Five if you count the stinger three scenes later where we find out Mike’s full of shit and nothing he said to Marge was true — which in spite of its apparent disconnect from the rest of the plot, stands, I believe, as the most important moment in the film, and the most declarative of what the filmmakers feel about their characters.

Especially Marge Gunderson.

If you view FARGO, if you view the Coens, as ironic and arch, I think you have to view the scene, then, as slight, tonally amiss, incongruous, inconsequential and, most of all, racist (or at least of all racial; with the exception of Steve Reevis as Shep Proudfoot, and the black guy Shep Proudfoot beats the shit out of in Carl Showalter’s apartment building, in the role of Mike Yanagita, Steve Parks plays the only character of color in the film). Viewed slightly, the scene mocks Mike and the pain he feels at losing his wife to Leukemia, and even mocks the notion that anyone could find Marge Gunderson, in her state, desirable or desirous. Viewed slightly, the scene’s fucking mean.

In film as in comics, only on a larger order of magnitude — the raw work-hours required to put a minute of screen time or a page of comics into the world removes “accidental” from the vocabulary.  If nothing with craft (or at least craft services) is an accident, then this scene from its conception to execution, inclusion, and viewing, stands as a deliberate choice.

Woman walks into a bar. Meets a man. They hug. They sit. They talk. He moves to sit next to her. She forces him, kindly but firmly, out of her space and back to his seat. They keep talking.

Why does it exist?

Later, after the film’s violent and chaotic climax, this thought occurred to me. Once Marge has Gaear Grimsrud in custody, we only ever see his face in her rear-view mirror, and as a blurred shape behind her. They never share a frame.

Then I got it.

In FARGO, los bros Coen do not allow Evil to occupy the frame with Marge.

These are all of Marge’s shots up to the Mike Yanagita scene (I didn’t include coverage – there’s cutting back and forth to some of these but this is every unique set-up with Marge). We see her with Norm, with Sheriff Lou, with her fellow police. We even see her, albeit at a remove, with the two prostitutes that spent time with Carl and Gaear.

I chose to enlarge that frame to prove the point. These aren’t evil girls, they’re not mocked or demonized. They get to share space with Marge.

Notice, too, in the penultimate row, that when Marge and Norm go out to eat, they sit side-by-side. How often do you do that, when dining with one other person?

Next up, Marge starts investigating. Check it out:

She talks to Shep Proudfoot – again, at a remove, but look. She’s safe in her box, he’s contained in his. 

And Jerry, the villain of the piece, is never allowed to share space with Marge. She fames him, she closes him off, she isolates him.

And then he gets a look at her from behind bars.

Also of note, the color red (and the almost Kubrickian geometry of it:

Anyway. Now comes the good part. Now comes Mike Yanagita.

Am I crazy to see red caps on the bottles, dotting out a little blood trail constellation at Mike’s head?

They hug in the large frame and she pushes him back visibly.

We go into back and forth coverage of their scene, once again Marge frames Mike, but never impedes her space.

Until he gets up to impede her space and Marge, politely, compassionately, but resolutely, shuns him.

He retreats back into shots 3/5/7 above and that’s that.

And look at the rest of the movie:

It’s that first shot where Marge learns the story mike told her wasn’t true. He was never married, his “wife” did not die of Leukemia, and he had been harassing her for years. 

It doesn’t come immediately after the Mike Yanigata scene (there’s José Feliciano, sex, violence, a box of money, and a red ice scraper before we get there) and, like that scene, it feels weird at first blush: “Hey remember that funny scene a few minutes ago? Yeah that guy was even sadder and creepier than he appeared. Ha ha! Can’t believe you fell for that.”

It lets us know, though, that Marge pushing the guy out of her booth and back to his own wasn’t remotely selfish or unkind. Her evil detector pinged. She forced the bad guy out of the frame. 

Even when drawing a bead on Gaear as he flees – the only moment we can see both Marge’s face and an evil character in the film aside from Mike’s intrusion – it’s at an extraordinary remove. The second to last shot is as close to a two-shot as we get with Marge and Gaear. That fuzzy lump might not even be Peter Stormare, for all I know.

The pure endless white of her surroundings deservers a protector pure like her, safe and good in this movie full of horrible people, horrible thoughts, and horrible violence.

I added that first one large because it is peak Marge and must be celebrated.

Nothing with craft is an accident. 

Would that more comics had craft and consideration like this.

FARGO (1996)
Written, Directed, Edited by Joel and Ethan Coen
Shot by Roger Deakins


The Waves by Virginia Woolf

  • Amazon: 4.2/5
  • Goodreads: 4.1/5

For the unprepared reader the first fifty pages can be as baffling as an unknown code. But once the code is cracked, the whole experiment has a brilliant simplicity. 

Imagine this: a biography of you and your five best friends. From early childhood to death. Told not within the usual matrix of bald accountable facts, social landmarks of achievement and failure. But through a linguistic transposition of the ebb and flow, the forging and eroding, of the waves of our inner life. Those secret and unspoken moments known only to ourselves when we feel at our most isolated or connected, our most transfigured, lost or unknowable.

Keep reading


I almost died in here and it made me think: what if I had? You would have found me; just another victim. I would have achieved nothing. And with all the changes I’ve caused, I may never come to exist at all. Never be born, never become a soldier, a cop, a wife, a mother. And life would continue on with nobody knowing I had ever lived. All of my secrets for nothing, and I don’t want to keep those secrets anymore.


…. Well then.

You can literally just take a moment to imagine both Palkia and Dialga sitting somewhere eating popcorn at this point, until Arceus looms over them like “Did you guys fuck with space time continuum AGAIN?!” 


Here, have the start of the poketale/trainertale au cross over. Trainertale belongs to the lovely @friisans *tosses ball over into your court!*


Years later, I am still fascinated by Emma’s apartment. She’s obviously doing well for herself at this point, but she puts that money into something mostly intangible. It’s a nice apartment with a great view, but it’s also tiny and almost empty. There’s nothing on the walls, and other than her blanket and some files, what stuff we see is in cardboard boxes. Ready to move again any time.

I like to think of the work I do in Slaves of the State as a kind of “history of the present.” And by that I mean, I wanted to follow the work of people like Angela Davis, who early in her anti-prison scholarship spoke of the fact that pre-1865 slavery was itself a form of incarceration. From that starting point, I wanted to offer a critical genealogy of today’s system of legalized human warehousing, unfree labor and legal kidnapping—what is usually called “the prison system”—by way of tracing its origin points in former systems like the chain gang, the convict-lease system and peonage.

What I found is that when we speak of “the” prison industrial complex that now encages well over 2.3 million people, we must also take into account earlier complexes of racial, capitalist, misogynist imprisonment that represent the conditions of possibility for today’s PIC. In other words, the complex of private and public re-enslavement found on convict-lease camps, peon camps and prison plantations in the early 1900s was also a prison industrial complex, one that in its white supremacist structure was born of America’s original “prisons”: the slave ships, slave pens and plantations within which Africans were imprisoned before 1865. In short, the book shows how the story of what commonly is called modern “mass incarceration” has actually been centuries in the making.

—  Dennis Childs in an interview with Mark Karlin, Capitalism, Slavery, Racism and Imprisonment of People of Color Cannot Be Separated (x)