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Once there were two brothers….

How many tales have begun that way?

Today’s first reading does not begin with that exact phrase, but it could, for it’s the story of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac, and the theft of his brother Esau’s birthright.

Once there were two brothers….

A few weeks ago, the third season of the FX series Fargo concluded. Fargo is a different kind of television series. It is “inspired by” the Coen brothers movie of that name, but takes from the film, not the exact plot, but rather setting, tone and general theme: The Fargosetting of the upper Midwest, the tone of black humor, and the general themes of randomness and of human beings using their free will for evil, but also in very stupid ways that always end in someone’s death.

Accident, serendipity and just the craziness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time play a huge role in this universe – as they do in life, in my opinion, which is why I am so strongly drawn to the series, I think.

That said, although I enjoyed the first season of the series, I never got around to watching the second – I think it coincided with a busy time of life, and then I never could catch up – but I did watch this recently concluded third season, and, in contrast to some viewers, who saw it as a definite downturn, I liked it a lot – and in ways thought it was stronger than the first season.

I’ll hasten to say that the seasons of this program are not intricately connected – the first and second were, but the third (I think) is a completely different story with different characters doing similar, but different things.

There’s too much going on for review in a single blog post – and you can certainly get that in other places. I suppose what I’ll do then, is just focus on what pulled me into this third season of Fargo. I won’t say, “And why you should watch it,” because people’s tastes vary so widely, I never assume that others will agree with my reading, listening or viewing preferences. And come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t watch it. There. Does that cover my bases?

Fargo was wild and arresting, but as with all wild and arresting creations out there these days, you have to be careful and ask: Is there a point to this, or is it just random visual flailing to get my attention and make me think there’s Something Serious going on here? That happens a lot – in my opinion, it happened in Twin Peaks (the original – didn’t watch the recent reboot or whatever) – and is pretty much the norm These Days, since the norm for quite a bit of artistic energy in the modern era is just about the startling superficial image, and not really about anything – since there’s no substantive Anything for anything to be about.

So with Fargo, I held my judgment until the end. I suspected it was about something real, but I couldn’t be sure if I was being taken for a ride or not until the end. And then the end came, and while it was the most deeply satisfying ending I could have envisioned, like the ending of The Sopranos – it fit. Fargo seemed to me about something real, after all.

And what was it?

It was about all those things I spoke of at the beginning, those matters which fascinate me so much – how we are in the place where we’re in at any given moment, not so much because of our deliberate choices (no matter how much we like to think that’s the reason), but because of chance, accidents and the good and evil that’s happened in the past.

But Fargo was also about the nature of truth – and how much of what surrounds us, and what we construct our lives around is just fable, myth and self-serving lies – but – BUT – truth does exist. There is a true story, and there are, indeed, still small voices in our midst, doggedly witnessing to that truth, usually at a great price.

Fargo begins and ends with interrogations of accused men by government officials.

(My discussion will be as spoiler-free as possible. So if I’m vague…that’s why.)

The first scene of the series us to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A man has been hauled in for questioning. He protests his innocence and indeed maintains, with increasing panic, that he is not the man accused and there is no rational reason to suppose him to be.

Fargo

The government official, cool and calm in his assertions, constructs a narrative, and the narrative is that the man in front of him is guilty. He is imposing a new identity on this man, and this narrative that he is a criminal is now the “truth.” It is now a true story.

The series ends in another small room, decades and half a world away from the first scene. Another government official sits behind a desk facing another accused man. Truth again is the issue, but this time, the dynamic is different. The official and the accused face each other, each maintaining the truth of their stories. Identity is again at the core, but now the roles are reversed. The accused has assumed identities in order to avoid detection of his criminal activities, and the official is maintaining, calmly and coolly, that she knows the truth of who he really is. She knows the true story.

There is only the faintest direct connection between the two scenes – one figure common to both narrative strands – who is, by the way, not physically present in either one. But this character’s existence serves to reinforce that other important Fargo theme of the role of random human connection in the course of life.

In between the two scenes are ten episodes in which characters are seduced by greed, deluded, killed, in which they face the truth and construct more lies, and most of the time face the consequences of their actions as the universe – bizarre and mysterious, but ultimately just, it seems – doles them out.

For the reason the events in that last scene came to the point that they did are this, in part:

Decades ago, someone traveled to Los Angeles with literary and filmmaking stars in their eyes, was exploited and mistreated, and bearing the physical consequences of this mistreatment, decided to leave it all behind, including his identity, and change his name to one he saw on a toilet bowl.

And

Decades ago, two brothers (ah…here we are) watched their father die. One brother knew the real value of the inheritance and tricked his brother into letting him have what was most valuable, traded for what the younger brother thought he wanted and needed at the moment, but was of little value beyond that immediate moment.

And here we are in this moment – dealing with the fallout and making our own present-day choices, carrying that weight.

Given that this is a crime drama, of course the choices are heightened and expressive of the most deadly sins – primarily greed and pride – always pride – here. And you watch fargoalong, filled with dread as characters you know have a glimmer of good in them insist on making decisions that range from the stupid to the short-sighted to just evil.

Along the way, Fargo gives us gorgeous cinematography, memorable images and intriguing metaphors – bridge plays a huge role, and along the way we dip into Peter and the Wolf, and find ourselves in a mystical bowling alley – a la Big Lebowski, but different – and excellent acting. Ewen McGregor plays both brothers, and while some critiqued his accent at times, I thought he was fabulous – the greatest challenge being when McGregor must play the brother Ray pretending to be his brother Emmitt.

Fargo_-_Emmit_and_Ray_Stussy

The central character here, though, is really the villain – one mystery man V.M. Varga, played by David Thewlis, whom some of you might know from Harry Potter – he played Professor Lupin.

In Fargo, Varga is the man in charge of some sort of mysterious global entity that steps in to loan Emmit Stussy – the Parking Lot King of Minnesota – some money. The trouble begins when, seeking to repay the loan, Stussy discovers that he’s been had – that the money was not so much a loan as a buy-in to the company, and bit by bit, Varga and his people are taking control.

How sin begins: We open ourselves up to a bit of shadow, and find ourselves in its grasp.

Varga, played by Thewlis is mesmerizing and -yes – disgusting. The character is bulimic. He gorges himself with all manner of food, methodically and greedily, and then vomits it out. As a consequence, his teeth are rotting away – the work of stomach acid. Food is not nourishment here. It is something else, something to fill need both deep-seated and pressingly immediate, then to be vomited out.

FARGO -- Pictured: David Thewlis as V.M. Vargas. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Varga’s bulimia is echoed in his other actions, as he takes in more and more money, more and more property, and vomits it all out in the form of, first of all elaborate self-justifying tales of false history presented as fact, and secondly, human lives.

This character is, to me, an embodiment of the deadly sins, as he perverts what is good, ingests it, takes it all into himself, but for no purpose except for the consumption, discards it, spews out self-justifying lies, and ultimately rots away.

The villain in the first season of Fargo was named Malvo and was played by Billy Bob Thornton, who is always a pleasure to watch in anything, even when he’s playing a villain. Some critics prefer his villain to Varga, but to me, there’s no contest. Thornton was good, but there was an element of the plot and character that I found so unrealistic – even in the heightened, unrealistic world of Fargo – that I lost interest in him. (If you watched it – I’m talking about the dentist part). Varga was weird and lived on a level of exaggeration, to be sure, but there was, at times, fear in his eyes. He wasn’t invincible.

Which, lest you think this is all about the darkness, is the point. As is the case with every Fargo iteration, the beating heart of the series is a police officer – usually female – who is doggedly and patiently pursuing the truth and believes in justice. Here, she’s played by Carrie Coons (of HBO’s The Leftovers) and the character is certainly more than just a symbol of conscience. It’s her stepfather whose murder sets off another chain of events in the series, and although she is not onscreen as much as other characters, it’s clear she is subject to the same dynamics of the universe as they are: she is in the place she is in, both professionally and personally, because of weird, random things that happened in the past. What to make of it all? What’s the truth? And how do you live with it right now?

 

We like to think that life, as we’re living it, is the result of conscious choices that we and others have made.  We read history this way, don’t’ we? We know how the story ends, so we read it as a narrative with decisions and steps leading up to that ending.

But it’s not that way. The way it is, instead, is a way of missteps and accidents, and while I can know some of it, most of it I won’t know.  We do live in the midst of a narrative, but it’s not because there’s no True Narrative to be known – it’s because we’re too small, as God tells Job, to even begin to grasp it. But someday, we will. We cling to hope that we will, we try to find the True Story as we go, and try not to fabricate too many false narratives on the way.

That mystery and strangeness is at the heart of life, and it’s at the heart of the Scriptures – a messy narrative full of human weakness, a story of God working and ultimately victorious, not just through the saints and their great works, but even through the poor sinners  and their weaknesses, crimes and lies.

 “Are you really my son Esau?” 
“Certainly,” Jacob replied….

****

Note: I have a theory about the connection between the bowling alley and Nikki’s fate – but I’ll wait to discuss it in the comment section at some point. 

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Internet memes and catchphrases come and go. Some strike us as cute or even surprisingly and succinctly descriptive when they first pop up, but then most of them wear out their welcome within days – hours, now, it seems.

Things. Like. This. Worst. Ever.

Well, one that I encounter on Twitter now and then that I’m not tired of yet is this and variations:

#ReadaDifferentBook

 

(Variations: Read Another Book. Watch A Different Movie)

 

The inspiration?

It’s the tic, among those who observe and comment on Life and Events  – which is everyone now – to filter everything through one of a very few pop culture filters. Usually:

The Hunger Games

Game of Thrones

Harry Potter.

Maybe, once in a while Star Wars.

But seriously: every battle, political and otherwise, is made to reflect off The Hunger Games, every power struggle is Game of Thrones and every bad guy is Voldemort.

Read A Different Book.

The point is about cultural narrowness and ignorance, but it’s about more.

The larger point is about just that – scope – as well as maturity. It’s that the world is bigger than the couple of books that captured your fancy and blew your mind when you were an adolescent, and it’s time to grow up. Really. Just grow up.

I think about this all the time. In fact, I think about every morning when I look at the Scriptures for the day and glance through pray some of the daily prayers.  I realize how differently I see the world and even just my life because this is the Book I read.

And not just “the Book” in the narrow sense of the Scriptures. I mean the entire “book” of revelation, of the meaning of all that is as it’s been revealed by God and understood and lived and passed down. It’s the only book, it seems to me, that is able to make sense of absolutely everything – as much sense as can be made by us in the limits of the here and now – whether that be goodness, evil, joy, sadness, politics, suffering, injustice, heroism, creativity, power – and powerlessness.

I have a lot of different kinds of people on my social media feeds. I don’t pay a lot of attention to any of those feeds, and hardly ever engage in particular on Facebook and Twitter (they’re in my life mainly to keep up with and communicate news, and I have never felt overwhelmed by either) – but I do see the opinions flow, and, oh my, over the past few months, there has been so much agony over the political scene. I wrote about this before – here – in which I said to those dismayed at the Trump election…welcome to my world – by which I mean the world of people not thrilled with the direction of Western culture and political life.

And it really hasn’t abated – the agony and rage, that is. The frantic anxiety. It’s still there, and what I see and hear in it is just narrowness of vision and experience. And it just seems that a lot of it is the fruit of the loss of the cosmic. Oh, a lot of these folks would say that au contraire, they are super cosmic  and tuned into the universe, but no, they’re not, because their universe is not a meaningful one and their universe, in the end, holds no mystery, no grace and no depth of a common bond of love.

It’s what I’ve noticed about myself. When I don’t situate myself consciously in that book – of all that God’s revealed and what’s offered to me through the Church in this life of grace, I lose my footing and more importantly, my perspective.

So  yeah,  #readadifferentbook. No, it’s not a program for health and wellness. It’s not a formula. It’s not even a promise.

To me, it’s just common sense. When your worldview is small and cramped, self-selected and self-curated and mostly materialist, you will understand your life and Life differently than you would if your worldview is informed by a truly global, historically-rooted, cross-cultural experience – and that’s not even taking the whole revelation aspect into account, is it?

The season finale of Fargo airs tonight, and I’m quite curious to see how it works itself out. The potential is there for aggravating, superficial pretense, or brilliance casting about for truth.

(This is related to the rest of the post, yes)

The major theme of Fargo  – set in the same world as the Coen brothers’ movie, but a different story, as it is every season – is, well, story. And truth. Characters must confront the lies they’ve told themselves and others in the past, and the consequences. They have to adjust to new realities. The world they find themselves in is not what they’d believed the world to be about. And lurking, descending amid all the chaos are the storytellers who are purveying lies and constructing a story which you are invited to join – if by “invited” you mean coerced by those who’d toss you off a parking lot deck  if you say ‘no.’

A few characters are attempting to stay real – really real – though, and they are, not surprisingly, the characters most filled with hope. They’re confronting this evil, but their relationship to it is different. Why?

In the last episode, one of these characters, a beat cop named Winnie, is consoling Gloria Burgle, the former small-town police chief, recently demoted in the course of a reorganization and frustrated by her superiors’ failure to see the truth and the seemingly unbeatable power of the evil she’s been trying to track and face down.  Here’s the conversation. They’re in a bar.

"fargo season 3"

Winnie (toasting): To showing up and fighting back.

Gloria: It’s over. The good guys lost.

Winnie: For the present – but Jesus wins in the end

Gloria: I’ll drink to that.

Me, too.

 

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