Saturday, July 22, 2023

4th Reel Adventures Talk - Part 1

Part 1 of my two part talk:

Fargo is an independent film made in 1996 by Joel and Ethan Coen or the Coen Brothers as they’re commonly known.  You’ve all heard the term independent film but do you know what it means?  Independent from what?

Independent in its most basic form simply means independent from the financing of the five major Hollywood studios, which today are Warner Brothers, Universal, Paramount, Columbia, and Disney.  But independent also usually suggests a more alternative spirit and lower budgets.  Some of the most famous American independent films are Pulp Fiction, Lost in Translation, The Blair Witch Project, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Really, since the beginning of American film (1895), there have been those that work in Hollywood and those that work outside the system.  Or in other words the independents. 

There are some filmmakers who spend their entire careers as independents.  Then there are other filmmakers who make one film within the system and then their next film outside of Hollywood.  And then spend their career going back and forth between the two.

While filmmakers working outside the system have always been around, there was a period in American cinema in the 1980s and 1990s that was the high point for American independent film.  This is the period when the Coen Brothers first emerged and I just want to quickly paint a picture of what the landscape looked like that helped create this moment. 

By the eighties, due to the unprecedented success of films such as Jaws and Star Wars, a new blockbuster mentality emerged in Hollywood.  Plus, politically there was a return to a more conservative America, and consequently more conservative films. 

Due to these factors, and a number of others, Hollywood budgets grew in the eighties making it more difficult to produce commercially risky, artistic cinema in Hollywood.  Studios were simply unwilling to give emerging filmmakers who were more artistically-minded their big break. 

Therefore, the young, more artistically-minded filmmakers were frustrated with the opportunities that were available to them in Hollywood and began to make films outside the system.  Meanwhile, film festivals, such as Sundance in Utah, began sprouting up across America to help get the word out about these emerging voices.  And soon by the end of the eighties, a whole new sector of American cinema had emerged, that of independent film. 

Hollywood of course is a business so any trend you see at any given time can be traced back to the economics of the situation.  Home video was booming in the early eighties and was of great assistance to this high point of independent film.  Video stores were opening all over the world and desperately needed product to fill their shelves.  And so if you made a film, you were assured of a decent amount of revenue just in video sales. 

This was the landscape of American cinema when the Coen Brothers emerged on the scene in 1984 with their first film, Blood Simple.  The Coen Brothers financed Blood Simple by making a trailer of the film they hoped to direct and then set up meetings with potential investors where they would show them the trailer with a 16mm projector.  Fortunately for The Coen Brothers, Blood Simple was enough of a success to launch their career which continues nearly 40 years later.  The formula for continuing to have a career as an independent is your films must make money.  I would argue that the most commercially successful Coen brother films have always been the ones that best merged commercial and artistic aspects into something that could cross over to multiple audiences.  To date, the Coen Brothers have made 18 films and the focus of today’s discussion Fargo was their sixth.   

So back to how I started.  Is Fargo an independent film?  Polygram and Working Title Films produced it and Gramercy distributed it, all three of which had ties to Universal.  So on one hand, Fargo was not an independent.  However, in terms of the other definition, that independent film usually runs counter to Hollywood, has an alternative spirit and approach, I would argue that Fargo is an independent through and through.

Sydney Pollack, who directed movies such as Three Days of the Condor, Jeremiah Johnson and Tootsie, once said the following in trying to define independents:

“Independent usually meant anything that was an alternative to recipe films or mainstream films made by studios.  They were anything Hollywood was not.  If Hollywood made ‘movies’, indies made ‘films’.  If Hollywood sold fantasy and escapism, indies thrived on realism and engagement.  If Hollywood avoided controversial subjects, indies embraced them.  If Hollywood movies were expensive, indie films were cheap.  If Hollywood used stars, indies preferred unknowns, even nonactors.  If Hollywood retained final cut, indies demanded it for themselves.  If Hollywood strip-mined genres and dropped movies out of cookie cutters, indie films expressed personal visions and were therefore unique and sequel-proof.  If Hollywood made movies by committee, indies were made by individual sensibilities who wrote as well as directed, and sometimes shot and edited as well.  While Hollywood employed directors, hired to do a job, indies were filmmakers who worshipped at the altar of art.  While directors accumulated BMWs and homes in Malibu, filmmakers made unimaginable sacrifices and lived in New York, preferably on the Lower East Side.  They scammed and hustled, lied and cheated, even sold drugs or their own blood, to finance their films…Hollywood favored spectacle, action, and special effects, while indies worked on a more intimate scale, privileging script and emphasizing character and mise-en-scene.”

I think after the above definition it’s pretty obvious how Fargo feels like an independent film.  But just to mention a few things that set it apart from most Hollywood films of the nineties, I would list:

  •  The fact that it’s shot outside of Hollywood and mostly in actual locations, rather than inside a studio with constructed sets
  •     The fact that we don’t meet the lead female actor until after more than thirty minutes into the movie
  •     The sheer excess of profanity, violence, and nudity
  •     The random scene with Mike Yanagita that services the plot little to not at all
  •     And the lack of known actors or glamorous faces

After the next round of trivia, I will come back and talk about the role of repetition in design and show how it is an essential artistic strategy in Fargo that helps the film achieve its cinematic rhythm and coherence. 

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