Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Waiting for Guffman (1997)

Dir. Christopher Guest
Starring: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey 

This is Spinal Tap is one of my all-time favourite films. It really created the ‘mockumentary’ genre: documentary-style camerawork following actors purporting to be real members of the public. One of the stars of that film, Christopher Guest, has now developed a career as a director so I was keen to include one of his works. Waiting for Guffman was his first work and it shares lots of characteristics with his later movies Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. It is a mockumentary, following a crowd of oblivious and deluded idiots who are working towards what they believe to be a crack at fame. Best in Show was set at a Crufts-style dog show, A Mighty Wind among forgotten folk musicians, For Your Consideration on an Oscar-tipped movie. Waiting for Guffman centres on a small-town drama group preparing a musical tribute to the 150-year history of their hometown of Blaine, Missouri.

Blaine may not have much going for it, but it is proud of its past and is determined to celebrate its upcoming sesquicentennial with all the resources at its disposal. A key part of the festivities will be the dramatic review Red, White and Blaine. Despite the sterling service Lloyd the school music teacher (Bob Balaban) has performed over the years there is really only one choice for director: Corky St Clair (Christopher Guest). Corky is a flamboyantly camp man with a background in “off-off-off-off Broadway” productions in New York. One might even suppose that he was gay, if it weren’t for the fact that he is married. Admittedly, no one can recall meeting his wife, but Corky buy women’s clothing for her so she must be around somewhere. Backed by Lloyd he fills out the cast of his show. First up are Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), local travel agents (who have never travelled further than Jefferson City) and mainstays of the local drama scene. Their audition-piece of a Noel Coward-esque Midnight at the Oasis is a delight. They do have a habit of over-sharing after a glass or two of wine however. Dr Pearl (Eugene Levy, best known as ‘Jim’s Dad’ from the American Pie series) is the Jewish dentist who believes that comedy is in his blood (his grandfather premiered the song Bubbe Made a Kishke on the Yiddish stage back in New York). “People say ‘You must have been the class clown’. And I say ‘No I wasn’t’ – but I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him.” Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) is the gum-chewing girl who works at the Dairy Queen. Rounding out the cast is Johnny Savage (Matt Keeslar), a muscular James Dean type who has no interest in acting, but whom Corky is determined to cast in the show. He later drops out on opening night, forcing Corky to squeeze into his shorts and play a succession of rugged young men on stage. 

So far, so haphazard, except that Corky has invited a producer from New York, Mort Guffman, to come see the show. Everyone becomes convinced (without much evidence) that this is it: the show will transfer to Broadway and they will become stars. Hard to see how. Lloyd complains that Corky hasn’t set aside time for music rehearsal, the town council refuse Corky’s request for a $100,000 increase to the budget, prompting him to temporarily quit, Johnny Savage does quit, and the show is full of in-jokes about Blaine’s own local history. Scenes focus on the first settlement of the town when guide Blaine Fabin mistakenly thinks that they have reached California, Blaine’s heyday as “the stool capital of the world” and a 1946 visit by a flying saucer. Not particularly guarantees of cross-over appeal. 

From Uranus to the stool capital of the world

The actual production itself is rather good – surprisingly so when one considers the rehearsal period. Lloyd’s orchestra provide a lovely sound, the singing is in tune and in time, and songs (written by Guest and his Spinal Tap collaborators Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) such as Stool Boom, Penny for your Thoughts and Nothing Ever Happens on Mars are charming. And the performers all succeed in broadening their horizons somewhat. 

The film was largely improvised. Guest and Levy collaborated on the backgrounds of the characters and the aim of each scene, but after that the actors could make it up as they went along. This is how he works. There are some wonderful throway lines. There is a note perfect UFO 'expert' ("Once you go into that circle the weather never changes. It is always 67 degrees with a 40% chance of rain") and a pharmacist called Steve who must be the only other gay in the village. The actor who plays Steve, Michael Hitchcock, along with many other cast members – including Guest, Levy, Willard, O’Hara, Posey, Balaban, and Larry Miller (the Mayor) - reappears in Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. It might not be quite as laugh-out-loud funny as Spinal Tap, but then again, few things are. It is whimsical and gigglesome rather than uproarious (Remains of the Day lunchboxes anyone?), but for anyone with a background in amateur dramatics – such as yours truly – it should be compulsory viewing. If only to see how many characters and situations you recognise from your real life experiences. I’m certainly going to follow the sage advice of Ron Albertson from now on: “If there’s an empty space, just fill it with a line, that’s what I like to do. Even if it’s from another show…” 

What have I learnt about Missouri?
Missouri is “the heart of America” – and Blaine is “the heart of Missouri”. So presumably what is said here about Blaine could hold true for a number of mid-western towns. Blaine was founded in the 1840s as the covered wagons rolled west. To this day there is still some cachet attached to those who share the name of those first settlers. There is a strong local pride in the town and its history. It developed a particular expertise in something enabling it to call itself ‘the X capital of America’. It has its own local urban myths, and is small enough for in-jokes among the townspeople. The town is run by a local council. Anyone with a background outside the town – such as Corky hailing from New York – is seen as just a little bit special. 

I think the weather in Missouri is meant to be notoriously changeable. Apparently “there’s a saying in Missouri: ‘If you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes’. In Blaine, with hard work, I think we can get that down to three or four minutes.” 

Can we go there?
Sadly Blaine does not insist. Nor was the film even shot in Missouri. Filming took place in Austin and Lockhart, Texas – the same area that provided the locations for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, set in Missouri’s northern neighbour Iowa. Lockhart’s Caldwell County Courthouse can be seen prominently in both movies.  

Overall Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Dir. Vincente Minelli
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer 

Clang-clang-clang goes the trolley, ding-ding-ding goes the bell, and we are off and transported to 1903 St. Louis. The city is full of excitement and hubbub, for the very next year the eyes of the universe will be on it as it hosts the 1904 World’s Fair. (It will also host the Olympic Games, but no one makes any reference to that at all. No exhaustive media coverage, no torch relays, no Sebastian Bloody Coe – it’s all quite reassuringly refreshing!). 

One family certainly revelling in the excitement are the Smiths of 5135 Kensington Avenue. A big, bustling family comprising eight people of three different generations (and their maid) they live in upper-middle-class comfort. Eldest daughters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland) are busy falling in and out of love, younger daughters Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) are engaged in the mischief that young girls habitually engage in, and mother Anna (Mary Astor) and the maid Katie (Marjorie Main) try to keep the household running whilst keeping Mr Smith (Leon Ames) oblivious. Basically, he brings home the money, and his family obligingly spend it. 

To bring home more money Mr Smith accepts a promotion. The promotion means that he has to go to New York. His family shrug and state that they expect they will survive without him. But they misunderstand – he has to go to New York for keeps. And he intends to take his family with him. This prompts uproar. It means that they will miss out on the World’s Fair, that Agnes and Tootie will be taken away from their friends, and Rose and Esther will be torn away from their beaus. This is particularly upsetting for Esther who has fallen in love with “The Boy Next Door” John Truett (Tom Drake). Even Katie joins in, muttering that they won’t have space for the large kitchen that forms the focal point of the house in a pokey New York tenement. And all this, just for money. “Money!” Rose scoffs: “I hate, loathe, despise and abominate money!” “You also spend it”, Mr Smith points out. 

And so, over the course of a year, the domestic life of the Smiths play out – the games, the romance, the squabbles, the humour and the threat of being uprooted from a place they love. Esther tries to win the heart of John, Tootie gets into scrapes, Grandpa (Harry Davenport) twinkles appealingly. There is a party and a trolley-car ride and Halloween and a ball and Christmas and the opening of the World’s Fair itself and it is a Technicolor treat full of warmth and humour and music. It is not in any way hard-hitting or fantastical or revelatory. It is a nice big hug of a film that one can imagine the entire Smith family sitting down on the sofa to appreciate. 

Public transport: if it isn't someone with their iPod on full blast
it's only Judy Flaming Garland singing at top volume!

The film was released only two years after another film about a prosperous Midwestern family: Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. But the two films could not be more different. The Ambersons were haughty and decadent and slipped into obscurity in a film of heavily shadowed black and white. The Smiths are loving and muddled and look to engage with people outside their front door and their life is rich in colour and texture. Director Vincente Minelli (who married star Judy Garland the following year: Liza Minelli is their progeny) lets warm wood-hues and pastels light up the screen, an orchestral score swelling behind the action, its principals bursting into song. The period tune Meet Me in St.Louis that provides the name and the refrain from the film; it showcases the sense of excitement and expectation that suffused the city. Judy Garland does what she does best: she puts on a show. Whether it is her lovelorn rendition of ‘The Boy Next Door’, the cheeky excitement of ‘The Trolley Song’, or the haunting rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ she is there to take centre stage. In particular the latter song stands out. Listen to the lyrics again: “One fine day we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow…” This is no joyful festive tune. This is a sad song, a song of parting and loss (until Garland insisted they were changes the original words were ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last…’). She stares agonised out of the window, the words that were meant to provide comfort to little Tootie bringing tears to her eyes. Very powerful. 

Ah yes. Tootie. Tootie is the youngest daughter of the Smith household, based upon the real-life Sally Benson, whose series of short stories about her childhood inspired the film. Margaret O’Brien who played her got second billing in the film, heaps of critical praise and even a special Junior Academy Award. And she is almost unbearable. Gap-toothed, smudge-cheeked, cheeky and precocious, she is everything I hate about child actors. But she was a big draw in the 1940s and hence she is given full reign to indulge her ragamuffin charms with her Halloween escapades, her cakewalks and her family of dolls (none of whom have long to live: “I suspect she won’t live through the night. She has four fatal diseases!”).  

What really comes out is the manipulation young women can employ. The entire family endeavours to make dinner an hour earlier so that Rose can have some private time to receive a long-distance telephone call from her beau in New York. If she is not in private “she may be loath to say the things a girl is compelled to say to her man to get a proposal out of a man.” In the end it takes until Christmas of her ignoring him for him to burst into her house to declare his love (“Rose Smith, we can’t go on like this any longer! I’ve positively decided that we’re going to get married at the earliest opportunity and I don’t want to hear any arguments! That’s final. I love you. Merry Christmas.”) Esther tries again and again to engineer an introduction to John Truett, and then pretends that she needs help turning off the gas lights to get him alone with her (“If we’re going to get married I may as well start it.”). When it emerges that Warren Sheffield is going to the ball with someone else Rose and Esther engineer to fill the girl’s dance card with losers and no-hopers (a plot that backfires when she swaps partners with Rose, who had attended with her brother; Esther then has to martyr herself to the god of unsuitable dance partners. But poor old John and Warren never stood a chance. 

What have I learnt about Missouri?
Firstly, I’ve discovered that the city is pronounced St. Lewis rather than St. Louie. So that’s important. It hosted the 1904 World’s Fair on what used to be a swamp. Inhabitants were proud of their city, so proud that even relocating to New York sounded like a terrible thing. 

Can we go there?
If you want to see where the film was set you really will have to meet me in St. Louis. The Smiths lived at 5135 Kensington Avenue which today is sadly just a vacant lot), and John Truett was the boy next door at 5133. They then caught the trolley out to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in what today is Forest Park. Several buildings from the Fair still survive in St. Louis. The St. Louis Art Museum was the Fair’s Palace of Fine Arts, the Administration Building is now Brookings Hall at Washington University, and an aviary survives at Saint Louis Zoo. 

The Kensington Avenue seen in the film was specially constructed on MGM’s vast Backlot #3 at Jefferson and Overland Boulevards in Culver City. This set, known as ‘St. Louis Street’, remained in use and existence until 1970, when it was demolished to make way for condos. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Winter's Bone (2010)

Dir. Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt

There are unwritten codes that govern life in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. Blood and kinship is important. One should never ask for help; it should be offered. Never step foot inside a man’s house without the man (and it is always the man) granting permission. And keep your mouth shut – don’t gossip, don’t blacken someone’s name, and never, ever, talk to the police. 

It is this web of codes that 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must navigate. She is responsible for looking after two younger siblings and a mother suffering from mental illness in the absence of her crank-cooking father Jessup. When he skips bail – having left all the family’s property as security – she has to find him and persuade him to return for trial to stop their home being seized. Once that trial date has passed, however, her mission changes; the only way to protect her family is to present proof that her father is dead. 

It soon becomes apparent that these are missions which are not popular. No one wants Ree to be asking the questions she is asking. It becomes clear that there is a conspiracy of silence. Those that do know the truth about her father’s disappearance are prepared to fight to keep their secrets; even those that do not know the truth recognise that asking questions is a sure-fire way to get into trouble. Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) puts it plainly: if she discovers who killed his brother he does not want to know. Knowing puts him in peril. As the film ends he states that he knows the name of the killer. He says it quite sadly. There are two ways to read his reaction. Firstly, that he knows that he is now in danger because of his knowledge (which would explain why he returned to banjo to Ree). Or secondly, that he is now expected to avenge his brother’s death, perpetuating a bloodfeud. He is not keen for either result. When Ree pokes her nose in too far the fact that she is an innocent 17-year-old girl can only protect her so far. She is beaten – but only by women because the local code of honour prevents men from laying hands upon her. She is asked what she thinks should happen next. She bites back that maybe they should kill her. Melissa comments that ”That idea’s been said already”. Ree only wants to get to the truth to protect her family. She is so devoted to this that she is kinda hard-core. To get to the end of the story she has to be exposed to an awful side of life that most people are thankfully sheltered from. Her determination is inspiring.

It is a hardscrabble existence in the hills. The homes are hand-made, people have guns to hunt for the table, and wood needs chopping for the fire. And Ree and her family are the poorest of the poor, even though they are not yet quite at the bottom. Skinning a shot squirrel her younger brother asks whether they eat the intestines. Ree’s answer is “Not yet” implying that she knows there will come a time when they will have to just to survive. Before his arrest her father was engaged in crime – principally the production and sale of methamphetamines (“crank”). Ree accepts this as fact, even seems proud that he was good at it. She may not take drugs herself, but she appreciates that it was a career that provided for the table. The wooded and difficult terrain makes the Ozarks the perfect place to secrete meth labs. It is a location that encourages clannishness; the inhabitants all seem to be related to each other, even if at several removes. 

Teardrop refused to accept another three points on his licence

It is not a pleasant film to watch. There is no glamour, just a stubborn heroism. The nearest it comes to sudden action is the suspenseful scene where Teardrop faces down the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt). That is one scene that will definitely live long in the memory, along with the passage where Ree is finally taken by boat to bring back her father. There is a creeping dread pervading the entire picture, as the viewer realises that there is very little hope for people from these communities. Shipping out with the army is about the best that they can hope for. It is very affecting and very memorable. And in Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly it has provided us with an inspiring heroine for these troubled times. 

What have I learnt about Missouri?
The Ozark hills look quite bleak, and the life of its inhabitants seems even bleaker. This seems a land where the only escapes are childbirth or joining the army. Or drugs. Home-made laboratories for ‘crank’ (methamphetamines) dot the landscape. Everyone seems to be either making it or using it, and the local criminal bosses are not people to be messed with. Those who threaten their control get beaten or killed. Bodies are buried or fed to the hogs. Even for those who do get involved with this illegal subculture life is hard. People live in rundown farms or cluttered trailers. Guns are common and so is hunting – squirrel and deer helps to round out the diet. Any vehicle that is not a truck is remarked upon as being out of place. The men wear beards and baseball caps and the women seem beaten down by life. There is no social services safety net except for the kindness and generosity of neighbours.  

Legitimate business seems to revolve around cattle. Fiddle and banjo bluegrass music is the soundtrack to celebrations. Ties of kinship are important – but they cannot get one everything. Talking about things that out not to be mentioned is a bad idea. 

Can we go there?
I’m not sure I’d particularly want to travel down into the Ozarks. The forested hills are meant to be areas of great beauty. The stark winter landscapes shown in this film suggest barrenness rather than beauty to my eyes. And the local craft industry isn’t much to my taste either. 

But for die-hard fans, the film was shot entirely on location in Christian and Taney counties in southern Missouri, stretching down to the Arkansas Line. Forsyth Public School featured, as did the stock yards in Springfield. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Week 26: Missouri

"I'm goin' to Kansas City, but that's just me,
 On a Greyhound bus from Tennessee;
 No need to worry,
 I ain't in no hurry -
 Missouri loves company..."
 - 'Missouri Loves Company',
 Ringo Starr

Well folks, we made it! They said we were mad, but we've finally broken the back of this beast and we've crossed the half-way point. So symbolically we're heading back upstream and crossing the Mississippi at St Louis, Missouri, 'the Gateway to the West'.

So let's pause for a moment beneath the Gateway Arch and look around. What is Missouri? Across the wide Mississippi it is symbolically the start of the great Midwest. It has a famous city in St Louis on its eastern border, and another on its western in Kansas City, the 'city of fountains'.

Okay, so Kansas City isn't that famous. I only know of it because I used to work with a guy from Missouri who always wore his Kansas City Chiefs cap and who told me tales of his upbringing in the marvellously-named town of Knob Noster. I cannot honestly say how many of his stories of twisters and storm-shelters, santeria-practicing Mexicans and uncles in the KKK are true. But he has certainly made me think more about Missouri than I ever would have done before. Pre-Tim all I could really have told you was that President Harry S. Truman hailed from the state, and it was in Fulton, Missouri, that Winston Churchill first coined the phrase "Iron Curtain" (just think how different the history of the Cold War would have been if he had called it "the Ferrous Drape"...).

So with Ringo's atrocious pun ringing in our ears, let's settle down and turn our attentions to this week's three films. The three I have chosen are:
  • Winter's Bone (2010)
  • Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
  • Waiting for Guffman (1997)

Thursday, 21 June 2012

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Dir. Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman

Another state, another Coen Brothers movie. They depicted 1980s Minnesota in Fargo; they depict 1930s Mississippi in O Brother, Where Art Though? The strange title comes from the 1942 film Sullivan’s Travels in which a Hollywood director dreams of making a socially relevant film about the Great Depression. O Brother is set in Depression-era America, though I’m not sure how socially relevant it is. 

This film is rooted in mythology. Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) leads a break out from a prison work gang; accompanying him are Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson). He claims to be leading them to where he hid $1.2million he stole from an armoured car. That story might not sound particularly recognisable, but it is loosely based on The Odyssey by Homer. Ulysses is the Roman name for cunning Odysseus who suffered all kinds of trials and tribulations as he struggled to return to Ithaca and his faithful wife Penelope. In the film Everett represents Odysseus; there is no buried pot of gold, he just wants to get back to his wife. Many of the strange characters they meet along the way correspond to other characters within the Odyssey. Everett’s wife Penny (Holly Hunter) is Penelope (although she has not stayed patiently weaving and waiting for him). The one-eyed club-wielding con-man Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) represents the Cyclops Polyphemus. They are seduced by three bathing women who represent the Sirens. When Delmar wakes to find Pete missing he is convinced that the women magically transformed his friend into a horny toad (much as the sorceress Circe turned Odysseus’ crew into swine). There is a blind seer (Lee Weaver) who prophesies that they will find a fortune, thought it be not the one they seek. The Governor of Mississippi is Menelaus “Pappy” O’Donaghue (Menelaus was one of the Greek leaders in The Iliad), currently engaged in a bitter gubernatorial election with the reformist Homer Stokes (Homer being the traditional creator of both Iliad and Odyssey). Even where the screenplay does not hint at classical parallels the dialogue is peppered with Latin phrases such as “bona fide” and “pater familias”. 

Yet it is not just classical mythology that influences the story. There is a more modern mythology too, the mythology of modern America. A whole host of archetypes of pre-war America (particularly the pre-war rural South) make an appearance. We have the prison work-gang from which Everett and Co escape. We have Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), the Mississippi bluesman who sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for a supernatural skill at playing the guitar; I assumed this was a reference to Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, though apparently there was also a real-life Tommy Johnson who had the same story. We have a Depression-era bank-robber in the person of George ‘Baby-Face’ Nelson (Michael Badalucco) – even though Nelson never made it out of the Midwest. There is old time religion and there are Ku Klux Klansmen with the burning cross and an urge to lynch. And there is political chicanery. Both candidates are folksy sorts who surround themselves with campaigns of radio shows, traditional music and hokey stagecraft. Pappy (Charles Durning) is the representative of cronyism and “interests” - a different Pappy O’Daniel was a flour-baron governor of Texas at around this time. Homer (Wayne Duvall) is the Reform candidate armed with a brush who stands for “the Little Man” (complete with actual little man). This is a mythologised, legendary past. Notably at the film’s end the Arkabutla Valley is flooded to provide hydro-electricity. Everett scoffs at the credulity of his two accomplices and looks forward to a modern homogenised Mississippi powered by electricity which will light up the darkness and drive out superstition. “Out with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo and the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave new world where they hook us all up to a grid. Yes, a veritable age of reason, like the one they had in France. Not a moment too soon.” And frankly the world is a poorer place without these myths and legends, superstitions and traditions. In France they brought about reason with the blade of the guillotine. The future might be bright, but we should reflect upon what has to be lost along the way. 

Folk music and blues play a constant part in the story, from the convicts beating time on the chain gang at the start to the mournful gravediggers at the end. Both campaigning politicians surround themselves with music. The escaped trio, together with Tommy, invent themselves alter egos as ‘the Soggy Bottom Boys’ to earn some money. Their harmonious recording of Man of Constant Sorrow turns out to be the treasure they walk away with. They become more popular than the politicians themselves. Likewise, the accompanying soundtrack album was even more successful than the movie. 

The Soggy Bottom Boys: the ZZ Top of the '30s

The pacing is fairly uneven. At first the script seemed to be just a series of vignettes – this is the scene in which they meet Pete’s cousin, this is the scene in which they see a baptism, this is the scene in which they meet Baby-Face Nelson and so on. Which is fair ‘nuff, as that essentially is what The Odyssey is: a series of travails and dangers that Odysseus and his crew have to overcome. Many of those different elements do get drawn together at the film’s climax however, so I’m glad I stuck with it. Visually the movie is instantly recognisable. The colour palette was digitally altered to give a sepia tone to the entire recording. It is easily identified as a Coen Brothers film. For a start it has John Goodman and Holly Hunter (both seen in Raising Arizona) in it. Secondly, there are some lines that could only have been written by them. Everett’s wordy patter (sample lines being “Pete, the personal rancour reflected in that remark I don’t intend to dignify with coment.But I would like to address you general attitude of hopeless negativism. Consider the lilies of the goddam field or…hell! Take a look at Delmar here as your paradigm of hope!”) are reminiscent of those spouted by Steve Buscemi’s Carl in Fargo. Both are men who believe themselves to be smarter than they really are. Yet Everett has a certain Odysseus-like cunning and a true love for his wife, whereas Carl is a sleaze who resorts to violence and whores. Once again, the cast have obviously gone to some lengths to perfect their regional accents. But I have to say that given the choice between re-watching Raising Arizona, Fargo or O Brother, Where Art Though? (or, indeed, their version of True Grit), I would go for O Brother, purely for entertainment value.

What have I learnt about Mississippi?
1930s Mississippi has it all – chain gangs, impoverished farmers, baptists, bluesmen, bank robbers, folk music, and feuding politicians. Oh, and the Klan. I think the three things that most struck me were the water, the music and the rope. It seems to be a state with plenty of water, be it the baptism lake, the river of the sirens, or the final flood. There is music everywhere, from fiddle-playing folk families to stentorian slave chants, to devilish guitar-playing. And there is the constant threat of summary justice; the noose looms large over Tommy and the escaped convicts. I was very interested to see the folksiness of political campaigns in the 1930s, where it was important to have a “constitchency” – but more important to have a catchy theme tune and an instantly recognisable schtick.  

Can we go there?
Well now, let me tell you that this film was shot in bona fide west Mississippi locations. The early scene where the convicts try to board a train before being given a lift by a blind seer were filmed up on the Columbus & Greenwood Railway. The Hogwallop farm was located near Hazelhurst. The baptism scene was filmed at Alligator Lake near Vicksburg. The radio station has since been torn down, but its radio mast still stands west of Valley Park. Baby-Face holds up the bank in Itta Bena; this was filmed at the old Bank of Yazoo City. The Sirens were encountered at D’Lo Water Park. Homer Stokes’s election rally was shot in the town square of Canton – as you can probably discover at the town’s movie museums. The neighbouring Woolworth’s was actually a number of miles away at Saxton’s Hardware in Yazoo City. The Governor’s mansion was located at the Cedars Plantation in Church Hill. The final banquet scene was shot in Vicksburg, at what was then the St Fancis Xavier Academy auditorium (now the Southern Cultural Heritage Complex, which seems like an appropriate place to visit). 

There are other locations named and not shown – like the real Itta Bena. Tommy wants to get to Tishomingo in the north-east of the state. And the Arkabutla Valley is now the location of Arkabutla Lake; they did indeed flood it.

Overall Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Help (2011)

Dir. Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard

In The Help reference is made to the character of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, and that no one ever asked her opinion. Well this is what The Help is. It is a film looking at the racial segregation that still existed in the South nearly a century later from the viewpoint of black house-servants. 

Except that those servants are not writing their own story. Wrongs are righted, but only because a crusading white woman persuades them to tell her their stories. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird or Fried Green Tomatoes… black characters can only get some measure of justice or respect because of an enlightened white character. Here that character is Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone), back from university and itching to become a journalist. Her big idea is to interview some of the maids around town to see how they feel about being treated the way they are. This in itself is refreshing. Aibileen (Viola Davis) says “No one had ever asked me what it feel like to be me. Once I told the truth about that, I felt free.” Skeeter has very modern attitudes for early-‘60s Jackson. She sympathises with blacks (she becomes the first white to ever set foot inside Aibileen’s house), she wants a career, she is quite unfussed about finding a husband, and can even laugh when her mother suggests she might be suffering from “unnatural urges” (i.e. lesbianism) and need “a cure”. So hurrah for her.  

But she does not endanger herself by wanting to write this book. She merely faces ostracism. Any of the black servants participating in this risk being fired, arrested, or worse. Minny (Octavia Spencer) is blacklisted once she is fired. Yule May (Aunjanue Ellis) is beaten and arrested for theft. Aibileen had a son whose workplace death went unremarked, and the real-life killing of local black leader Medgar Evers provides a backdrop to some of the action. Nor do the contributors get much benefit. All they get is Skeeter’s advance shared between them; Aibileen herself is fired. Meanwhile Skeeter herself heads off for a new career as a writer in New York. There is a scene where Aibileen and Minny tell her to go because she has burnt all her bridges in Jackson, but one cannot help but compare the way she leaves the film, buoyed up by the servants’ gratefulness and her mother’s pride, with the solitary walk back to an empty house that faces the unemployed Aibileen. “In just ten minutes the only life I knew was done.” Skeeter’s life begins with her book. Aibileen’s ends. 

As one might notice, I have some issues with the central premise of the story. Is it historically the case that blacks had to be ‘saved’ by enlightened whites, or is it just that the original novel by Kathryn Stockett and this film were designed to appeal to white audiences? I felt that the movie started slowly and confusingly – although it certainly picked up pace in the second half – and that the various subplots around Skeeter’s love-life could have been successfully excluded. I found Skeeter quite un-engaging; it is only Emma Stone’s wilful gawkiness (such as her clumpy walk and frizzy hair) that saves her from being an annoying paragon. 

What saves the film is some great characterisation. Viola Davis is good value for her Academy Award nomination as the steady, nurturing, principled Aibileen, and Octavia Spencer is even better value as the sassy Minny (“Minny don’t burn fried chicken”). Some great character actresses are wasted in their roles – I’m looking particularly at Coal Miner’s Daughter’s Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s mother, and Allison Janney (of Hairspray and Juno) as Skeeter’s mother. Jessica Chastain provides heart and comic relief as the ditzy Celia Foote, a Marilyn-like blonde similarly ostracised from Jackson’s social circles because of the perception that she is “white trash”. Stealing the show, though, is Bryce Dallas Howard. Her Hilly Holbrook has to be one of the most unpleasant film characters of recent times. She is the queen of the mean cheerleaders - a snobbish, spiteful, patronising racist. As a leading light of the White Citizens’ Council she is the driving force behind forcing the help to use outside toilets (her concern being motivated by the fact that “they carry different diseases than we do”, and would thereby put their children at risk by using the same lavatory). She can be seen watching when Yule May is arrested and beaten by the police. Thankfully she gets her comeuppance, which leaves a very bitter taste in her mouth.

Minny's Mississippi Mud Pie:
the secret ingredient isn't love
There was a bit of a media frenzy when The Help was released, and it hoovered up lots of Oscar nominations. I may be out on a very lonely limb here, but I can’t help but think that this was largely due to the concept behind the film rather than the merits of the film itself. It’s human and humane and it looks at a time of great inhumanity in America – it’s precisely the sort of thing the Academy love. I am reminded of the exchange between Ricky Gervais and Kate Winslett in Extras that she wanted to do a Holocaust movie because she was desperate to finally win an Oscar… and the fact that she did finally win an Oscar for her role in The Reader, which was about the Holocaust. The film is fine… it’s just not great. I have heard some very positive comments about the source novel, however, so maybe I will enjoy that more if I read it. 

What have I learnt about Mississippi?
What struck me about this depiction of Mississippi in the early 1960s was that white people did not so much look down on blacks as a lesser race, but more that they looked at them as a lesser species. Hilly Holbrook’s insistence that black servants use separate toilets to prevent them passing on diseases to white children is one example; another is the casual way in which Aibileen’s son was dumped outside a blacks-only hospital following his accident. And this is not just the view of isolated individuals. White Citizens Councils were widespread and the actual laws of the state not just authorise segregation, they mandated it. Even to speak against racial segregation was a crime. One cannot help but feel that the State of Mississippi felt very scared of its black population.

And yet there was a clear reluctance of that population to stick their neck above the parapet. They had been successfully cowed by legal and illegal oppression. In the film Medgar Evers is shown speaking out against the situation; he is then shot dead. The church is shown giving the population hope, but counselling against action.

There was a clear class divide in Jackson. If one was black, the best one could hope for was a low-paid job as a servant, cook, or construction worker. One would live in a completely different area of town (literally across the tracks). No matter how well one saved, sending ones children to college would be economically impossible. 

It was interesting to see that the Mississippi state flag incorporated the Confederate ‘stars and bars’ – i.e. it incorporated the flag of an institution that fought to preserve slavery. And one might say that not much has changed – one servant talked of being left to her owner’s daughter in her will. 

There were good white employers. White children obviously did develop attachments to their black nursemaids. One story about a doctor buying a patch of land just so his maid could take a short-cut to walk was particularly touching. And Celia and Johnny Foote are genuinely hospitable towards Minny, treating her as a friend. In fact, early in their relationship it is quite clear that Minny is made uncomfortable by Celia’s refusal to respect traditional master-servant boundaries. 

Can we go there?
The Help is firmly set in Jackson, Mississippi. And while the film was shot on location in Mississippi, only a few genuine places in Jackson made it to the screen – the New Capitol Building, where Skeeter goes to find the laws on segregation, the Mayflower Cafe, where Skeeter and Stuart have their date, and Brent’s Drugs.

On the whole the screen ‘Jackson’ was actually Greenwood, about 100 miles further north. The wonderful folks at the Visitors Bureau there have helpfully put together a map identifying which locations were used. So, for instance, the Whittington Farm was used for the exteriors of the Phelan farm and a residence on River Road for the interior, the Hollbrooks lived on Grand Boulevard and the Leefolts on Poplar Steet. The bus stop was at Little Red Park, and the church used was the Little Zion Church on County Road 518. The scenes at the Jackson Journal were filmed in what were the offices of the Clarksdale Press Register in Clarksdale until 2010. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 17 June 2012

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Dir. Norman Jewison
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant 

In a small Southern town a murder is committed. The quest to find the killer brings two very different police officers into a temporary and uneasy alliance. And it is this relationship that defines In the Heat of the Night 

Following the discovery of the murder Chief of Police Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger, who won the Academy Award for his performance as the prickly police chief) orders a search be carried out for hitch-hikers. One of his officers finds a black stranger at the railroad station and takes him in. This man is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), and it turns out that he too is a policeman from Philadelphia – a homicide expert no less. Tibbs is urbane and well-dressed, clever and educated, Northern, black, and considerably better paid than Gillespie. He also has a touch of arrogance about him. In short, he is everything that Gillespie is not. He seems almost tailor-made to antagonise the swaggering Southern police chief. One of the best examples is early on when Gillespie is still convinced that Virgil killed Mr Colbert. “Whatcha hit him with?” “Hit whom?” “WHOM?” Frankly, folks from Sparta don’t use the word ‘whom’ 

Sparta, Mississippi, is a town in which the racial divides of the ‘60s are not far away. The town authorities are all white, and the whites are distrustful of blacks. Blacks are routinely referred to as “boy”. Gillespie at first refuses to believe that a black man could come by $100 honestly. Harvey (Scott Wilson, yet another murder suspect after his turn in In Cold Blood) asks the suited Virgil how come he is wearing white man’s clothes. Endicott (Larry Gates) runs the cotton plantation; he is cultured and seemingly paternalistic, but he believes that “negros” need to be cultivated over time and mourns the fact that he could once have had Virgil shot. The town mayor also comments that Gillespie’s predecessor would have shot Virgil. The diner refuses to serve Virgil, and car loads of good ol’ boys come to give him a taste of Southern hospitality. 

But they are not the only ones holding prejudices. Virgil too clearly dislikes these sweaty rednecks; his chief in Philadelphia asks him whether he is prejudiced against the locals. When Gillespie realises that he does need Tibbs’ help he goads him cleverly, betting that he would just love to get one over on the Sparta police: “you’re just so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all. You’ve got such a big head you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don’t think you could let a chance like that pass by.” For a long time Virgil holds to the belief that Endicott is the eminence gris behind the murder, only to admit that he just wanted that to be the case. But he, a wealthy and educated Northerner, is further away from the local black population than the white townsfolk are. Quite simply, he has nothing in common with them other than his skin colour.  

The relationship between him and Gillespie is hence firmly rooted in dislike. But Gillespie is not a homicide expert, so he needs Tibbs’ expertise. Tibbs is calm and methodical; Gillespie has a hair-trigger temper and is prone to locking people up on the slightest provocation and then looking to make the facts fit the judgement (he arrests three innocent men before Virgil brings him the right one). He collects Virgil from the station. When he next tells his new partner to get out of town it is motivated by concern for the man’s safety. By the time Virgil does finally leave the culprit has confessed and a mutual respect has been forged. And in the mean time a blow has been struck for civil rights. Literally. When Endicott slaps Virgil, Virgil slaps him right back. This was unprecedented for the time: the black man raising a fist against his oppressors. There may well have been a lot of communities like Sparta that suddenly felt very nervous about that…

"One - two - three - four - I declare thumb war..."

In the Heat of the Night justifiably deserves to be called a classic. The black man is not a supporting character, the black man is the hero. The black man does not sit idly by bemoaning his fate while waiting for an enlightened white to save him, the black man is perfectly able to shape his own future and demand respect. This is not news in today’s cinema: can you imagine someone slapping Samuel L. Jackson, and him not fighting right back? But for the ‘60s, when civil rights were very much in the news, it broke new ground. 

What have I learnt about Mississippi?
Mississippi in the 1960s was no place to be black. Wages were even lower than those of whites, they might not be served in certain establishments and they were liable to be arrested on spurious charges. “There’s white time in jail and there’s coloured time in jail. The worst kind of time you can do is coloured time.” Meanwhile town authorities were racist and mobs of white locals could be trusted to put uppity blacks in their place. A Confederate bumper sticker means trouble for any passing non-white.

The state abuts the Mississippi River, across which is Arkansas. The Gulf, Mobile & Ohio railroad links the South up to Memphis. And it gets sticky, sweaty and humid… particularly during the heat of the night… 

Can we go there?
There is a Sparta in Mississippi, in Chickasaw County to the north-east of the state. This is not the Sparta of the movie. The real Sparta is a mere village, and certainly would not be a spot for transferring trains. The fictional Sparta seems to be fairly sizeable, and has a bridge across the Mississippi to Arkansas. 

In the Heat of the Night was filmed in Sparta – Sparta, Illinois. Due to its contentious subject matter Sidney Poitier was reluctant to film in Mississippi. Sparta is in the south of Illinois. Nearby can be found Chester, where a bridge that actually does cross the Mississippi was used for the police chase. Compton’s Diner was filmed in Freeburg further north and was a genuine greasy spoon before it was torn down. Endicott’s plantation house was located on Pennell Lane in Dyersburg in north-west Tennessee. The greenhouses added specifically for filming were demolished by a tornado in 1997. The cotton fields at Boals’ Brothers Farm in Tiger Tail nearby were also used in the film.

The Old G.M.O Depot in Sparta is now the Misselhorn Art Gallery; it has a permanent display on the filming of the movie.

Overall Rating: 3/5

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Week 25: Mississippi

"You don't have to live next to me,
 Just give me my equality!
 Everybody knows about Missisippi,
 Everybody knows about Alabama,
 Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam!"
 - 'Mississippi Goddam',
 Nina Simone

From Minnesota, source of the mighty Mississippi River, we are travelling down its length - possibly by one of those cool old paddle steamers - to its delta territories. Not quite to its end (that would be back in Louisiana), but the next best thing is the state of Mississippi itself.

Mississippi (the river) borders Mississippi (the state) along its western border. The eastern border is Alabama, where we started off way back in January. And that twosome tends to stick in the mind for all the wrong reasons. These two states were the heart of racial segregation and oppression from the 19th century slave plantations, through the era of Jim Crow laws, up until the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s. And unlike Alabama it doesn't have a Lynyrd Skynyrd track to deflect attention away from this shameful past. But it has given the world the Blues, and the cross-over icon of the century Elvis Presley. And it ain't no slouch when it comes to that fancy-pants book-larnin' either, counting both Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner among its sons.

But it's no surprise that Hollywood has chosen to focus on the race angle when setting films in th Magnolia State. I don't particularly want to dwell on racial intolerance to the exclusion of everything else about Mississippi however, so I've tried to find at least one film that isn't about civil rights. So that means that Mississippi Burning has had to be given the old heave-ho to make way for something else.

My three chosen films are:
  • In the Heat of the Night (1967)
  • The Help (2011)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
So carve yourself up a big ol' slice of Mississippi Mud Pie and pull up a seat. We've got some movies to watch!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Purple Rain (1984)

Dir. Albert Magnoli
Starring: Prince, Apollonia Kotero, Morris Day, Clarence Williams III

I was dreaming when I wrote this so forgive me if it goes astray…

Actually, forgive me for using that quote. It is, of course, the opening line from Prince’s hit 1999. 1999 is one of the songs that doesn’t appear in his first feature-film, Purple Rain.  

The film focuses on musician The Kid (played by the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince and who shall, hereafter, be referred to as ‘Prince’). The Kid dresses up like the bastard offspring of Adam Ant and the Cat from Red Dwarf (much like Prince). He plays with a group called The Revolution (whose members are played by the members of Prince’s own band, The Revolution) at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis (where Prince and The Revolution got their first big break). They perform blistering live sets, full of virtuoso rock jams and The Kid’s trademark gymnastic dance routines. But their star is on the wane. They don’t pull in the crowds they once did, The Kid is difficult to work with, his music is self-indulgent, and there are tensions within the band as he dictates what they do and play.

There are others waiting to take advantage of his momentary weakness. Morris (Morris Day) is leader of the rival band The Time, who perform wildly hubristic funk-pop at the same venue. He figures that if he can put together a girl group, one that’s sexy but classy, they can supplant The Kid on the club bill.

Into this clash of egos walks beautiful singer Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero). Everyone wants her – including The Kid. But Morris sees her as the missing piece for his girl group. This group becomes Apollonia 6 (despite there being only three members); the sexy but classy element is the three girls wiggling on stage in nowt but stripperific lingerie singing about a Sex Shooter. Meanwhile The Kid starts to recognise that his gift for music and his controlling nature both come from his tyrannical wife-beating father (Clarence Williams III). “Maybe I’m just too demanding / Maybe I’m just like my father – too bold” as the words of When Doves Cry go. With one last shot to ensure he doesn’t fade away he has search through his own internal conflicts to see if he can use the good from his background without becoming a slave to the bad. This means opening himself to the influences of his father’s music and the input from other band members.

Or something. I think. Frankly the script is a mess. And the acting doesn’t help much either. Prince is by no means the first musician-turned-actor we have come across – think of Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii or Eminem in 8 Mile. But he is the worst. And the ensemble cast are stilted and flat in their delivery too. Clarence Williams manages to inject some depth into his performance as The Kid’s father in the one real scene he is given, but otherwise the only convincing and entertaining acting performances come from the preening Morris Day and his comedic foil of a valet Jerome (Jerome Benton). Now something has to be wrong when I’m enjoying the villain of the piece more than the hero. Prince / The Kid does come alive on stage, ripping through fantastic ‘live’ numbers such as Let’s Go Crazy, Darling Nikki, I Would Die 4 U and his triumphant resurrection with the title track Purple Rain (When Doves Cry  also appears on the soundtrack). It opens with Let’s Go Crazy and I immediately loved it – I thought I had stumbled upon a spectacular ‘80s cult classic. But off-stage he is a deeply unpleasant – weird even – character. His method of seducing girls is to take them out to the country on his big purple motorbike, get them to strip and jump into a lake, and then to drive away without them. He refuses to listen to a track Wendy and Lisa from his own band have been working on, staring in silence at them when they complain, and then holding a conversation with a monkey toy. Psychological trauma ahoy! 

Prince: one funky monkey

So, script bad, acting bad. The cinematography is actually pretty decent – as long as it sticks to the night. Night-time Minneapolis is a city of rain-slicked streets, dark alleyways and glowing neon, and its denizens look like New Romantic cyberpunk droogs with wildly-styled hair, face paint, skintight leather trousers and flouncy lace blouses (and that’s just the men). It looks like a wonderful companion piece to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The harsh light of day melts away the urban flash style however, making everything look shallow and flat. There is one glaring moment when his father goes on the rampage where the visual quality changes completely. I assumed this was meant to be a flashback or The Kid imagining himself in his father’s place… but actually it was just because the final print of this scene got lost so they substituted a test shot instead. How cheap! The entire thing just needs a bit more care and attention paid to it. There’s no shortage of prep for the live musical numbers, so how come the rest of the film feels so much like an afterthought? 

I’m sure Purple Rain is a cult classic. I can imagine it in its proper place – projected onto the back wall of an indie bar with the sound turned off. And it did make me want to see Prince perform live. But ultimately the movie is pretty lame.

What have I learnt about Minnesota?
Minnesota isn’t all snowfields and lakes. It has a gritty futuristic (well, futuristic for the early ‘80s anyway) city scene too, one that produces innovative and ground-breaking music. The First Avenue venue is so famous for breaking new stars that a young woman like Apollonia is willing to get the Greyhound bus all the way from New Orleans to Minneapolis for her chance to make it big.

But there are lakes too. The Kid tells her that she must purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka if she wants to make it big.

Can we go there?
The big star has to be the First Avenue & 7th Street Entry Club. The nightspot made famous by Prince (and which had itself made him famous) still exists and still hosts live music. The Hard Rock CafĂ© across the street did have a Prince exhibition upstairs, but it closed down in September last year. ‘The Taste’, where Apollonia 6 debut was actually the Union Bar. The rest of the film was shot on location in Minneapolis. Except for Apollonia’s hotel. You know, the Huntington Hotel, the one across the road from the club? Yeah, well it’s nowhere near First Avenue Minneapolis in real life: it is located at 752 S Main Street, Los Angeles.

Overall Rating: 2/5

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Fargo (1996)

Dir. Joel Cohen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell

Fargo almost got mis-filed. The city of Fargo is located in the state of North Dakota. However, other than an opening scene in Fargo and a closing scene in Bismarck none of the rest of the film is set in North Dakota. Instead, the film is quite firmly set in Minnesota, and makes great play of several of the state’s idiosyncrasies. Good job I twigged rather than leaving it another eleven weeks and getting a nasty surprise. 

The plot of Fargo centres on a crime gone wrong. Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is so deep in debt that he can only think of one way to cover his losses: he arranges for his wife to be kidnapped. Her father is very wealthy – and very condescending towards Jerry. This ridiculous scheme sees Jerry making contact with two criminals in Fargo – the weaselly and “kinda funny-lookin’” Carl (Steve Buscemi) and the taciturn Norse giant Gaear (Peter Stormare). For a car and $40,000 (half of what Jerry says will be the ransom) they agree to drive to his house, kidnap his wife, and then release her once Jerry delivers the money.

As with all great criminal plans it falters on one small mistake. Carl forgets to take the dealer plates off the car, and they are stopped by a policeman. A ham-fisted attempt to bribe the trooper doesn’t work and Gaear shoots him dead. A passing car sees Carl dragging away the corpse; Gaear pursues, runs them off the road, and then shoots the survivors. This crime brings in the heavily pregnant police detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to investigate. She traces the car back to Lundegaard’s showroom; upon returning to Brainerd she is lucky enough to spot the vehicle itself and apprehend the remaining criminal. 

By that point there is only one remaining. Seven people die, two are arrested, and the million dollars of ransom is lost in the snow. The washed-out palette makes great play of the blue-white snow-bound landscape, contrasting it with the black of the road, fences and trees, and the sudden red of violence (be that blood seeping out into the snow or the red parka of a victim). I found myself comparing certain aspects to the intentionally graphic-novel-like Sin City.  It is quite a noir film. In places. Gaear’s inventive use of a wood-chipper for instance. But Marge is in no way a cynical hard-bitten noir hero like Gittes in Chinatown or Frank McCloud in Key Largo. She is an optimistic, upbeat, pleasant woman, full of niceties. When old school-friend Mike makes a move on her she knocks him back forcefully but kindly. She uses manners as a lubricant of social interaction. When she comes to speak to Jerry she does it with a smile on her face and an open manner – but she is also quite purposeful about getting a seat and drawing him into conversation. Even in what could be very dark scenes there is lightness from her performance – witness her investigation of the crashed car. She almost throws up – but that is not a reaction to the deaths, but just morning sickness. And of course she listens to what the other officer has to say and then derails him with a “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred per cent on your police work there Lou”. Her constant eating and her satisfied home life contrast with the darkness of the crime she is investigating. Her safe, slightly dull existence is what we should be aspiring to, not the brutal, sleazy world of Carl and Gaear.

Marge always went one step too far in the
Design-Your-Own-Sledge competition

Fargo did great guns when it was released. The Coens had developed a reputation as film-makers, but this was them breaking into the mainstream. Frances McDormand won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Marge. The film is certainly watchable, but considering that it post-dates Quentin Tarantino’s arrival into the world of cinema I can’t help thinking that is doesn’t have much of an edge to it – despite sudden and shocking convulsions of violence. In Tarantino’s work the humour comes from hip wit and word-play; one can imagine quick reactions in speech and quick reactions in fights being natural bedfellows. In Fargo the humour comes from the characterisation and the personalities involved. All the best character-driven humour gets the audience to sympathise with the subject, even when the people involved are the likes of Basil Fawlty or David Brent. But we cannot really sympathise with the twitchy indebted Jerry, without knowing how he came to be in that debt in the first place, despite his “you’re darned tootin’”s and “what the heck”s. And we certainly cannot sympathise with the two criminals. So the film is beautiful to watch, entertaining to see, but still somehow lacks something to turn it, in my eyes, from a good-enough film into a classic one.

What have I learnt about Minnesota?
When the snow comes down in Minnesota it comes down very heavily. Parked cars can get covered, incautious drivers can end up off the roads, lakes are frozen over, and everyone has to swaddle up in boots, padded parkas and jackets.

To go with the snowy landscape there is a very strong Scandinavian heritage in Minnesota. One can spot this from the names of characters that appear: Marge and Norm Gunderson, Jerry Lundegaard, Wade Gustafson, Gaear Grimsrud. There is a distinctive local accent with traces of Scandinavian inflections and flat vowels. This goes together with a personality known as ‘Minnesota nice’, which places an emphasis on manners and politeness.

Brainerd, mid-way between Minneapolis and Fargo was the home of Paul Bunyan, the legendary giant lumberjack, and Babe the Blue Ox.  

Can we go there?
Fargo might be named after a town in North Dakota, but all shooting took place in Minnesota. After their psychedelic desert odyssey in Raising Arizona this was a return to home territory for the Coens, who grew up in Minneapolis. As such they knew the terrain well.

The King of Clubs in Fargo, where Jerry first meets Carl and Gaear, was not in Fargo at all – it was actually on Central Avenue in Minneapolis (though it has since been razed). Likewise Jerry’s car dealership was in the suburb of Richfield off Interstate 494; it is now somewhere under the corporate headquarters of Best Buy. The Lundegaard’s house was on Pillsbury Avenue, Minneapolis. Carl steals a licence plate from the parking lot of Minneapolis-St Paul Airport; he later meets up with Wade Gustafson in the lot of the private-members Minneapolis Club. The Jose Feliciano concert he takes an escort girl to was at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres south-west of Minneapolis. Marge stays at the Radisson in Minneapolis.

Outside of Minneapolis, the kidnapper’s cabin can be found north of Stillwater - and was sold on ebay. The police station in Edina stood in for that in Brainerd. And the giant Paul Bunyan statue is not in Brainerd either. It is the one thing that can actually be found in North Dakota, located on Pembina County Highway 1 outside of Bathgate. However, since 2003 there has been a Paul Bunyan Land amusement park in Brainerd.

Overall Rating: 3/5