The Immersive Narrative of Birdman (2014)

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) promotes identification by placing us fully inside the protagonist’s mind. Birdman follows a washed-up actor, Riggan Thomson (portrayed by Michael Keaton), as he attempts to revive his career by directing and starring in a Broadway play. Throughout the film, Riggan suffers from unspecified delusions which blur the cognitive lines between reality and fantasy, allowing an echo of his former self to literally haunt him. The film reflects these themes of suspended realism and the inescapable nature of the past through the rhetorical qualities of its music, cinematography, and acting. These combined elements act to immerse the audience in the narrative and align Riggan’s perspective with their own. Evidence of Birdman’s absorption will be accomplished by citing filmic sequences, relevant journalistic articles, and their relation to the film’s ability to pull the audience into Riggan’s mind.


In terms of music, the film’s soundtrack is influenced heavily by jazz, a genre of music that relies on subverting expectations through its improvisation, syncopation, and inherent restlessness. Birdman mirrors this subversion and improvisation as it unfolds in unexpected ways, making it difficult to guess where the narrative is headed. According to Mark Harris’ and Sara Vilkomerson’s Entertainment Weekly article, “If Michael Keaton Were A Bird He Would Be A Cat,” Iñárritu wanted “a sonic backdrop that matched his movie’s frenetic spirit,” and with the help of Grammy-winning jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez, they crafted a soundtrack that was “heavy on drums” but “light on melody” (34). In fact, to capture exactly what the director desired, Sanchez had to record the film’s tracks on a drum kit that was purposefully hampered and thrown together. Harris and Vilkomerson describe how Sanchez “taped the heads to deaden them,” weighed the cymbals down “to make them sound broken,” and how, on certain tracks, he would dub more drum sounds over ones already recorded in order to “amp up the cacophony” (34). The deadened, broken, and cacophonous nature of Sanchez’s drumset all mirror Riggan’s fractured state of mind.


The film also implements the extensive use of unaccompanied drum solos to build its lively rhythm. The use of a single instrument operating mainly on its own promotes the singularity of Riggan’s character, as he feels a widening distance between himself and those with whom he interacts. Additionally, the seemingly restless drums help to create an edge of suspense. At one point Riggan and his co-star Mike (Edward Norton) walk down a New York City street at night, baring their teeth and shouting over each other as they get caught up in an argument about the play they are performing in together. As they fight and their aggression towards each other increases the soundtrack escalates in intensity and volume, and in a moment of self-reflexivity a drummer shows up in the frame, drumming the same beat that began non-diegetically at the start of the scene. Here the music accompanying the scene works to reflect Riggan’s boiling emotions, but the added presence of the drummer himself shows a clear break between reality and the constructs of the film world, reflecting Riggan’s own mental break between agreed narrative and the fantasies his mind is constantly creating.


Interestingly, the jazz works well alongside classical music, another musical genre utilized in the soundtrack that would initially appear to be its lyrical opposite. Classical music is so disparate from jazz that it could be said to be its antithesis, a stylistic contradiction that reflects the warring nature of Riggan’s world as he fights to understand reality through his own increasingly fantastical and warped lens. The jazz heightens moments of tension and promotes anxiety, and the classical music acts to add dramatic beauty to certain scenes while allowing moments of peace in others.


In one notable scene, Riggan stands at the edge of a rooftop, taking in the skyline of the city. When a man comes up behind him, fearful of his intentions, Riggan dismisses him with a quick, “Sorry, can’t talk – music!” and a symphonic melody begins. The music is cut off as the man grabs his arm and starts to drag him away from the edge in an attempt to wake him up from his delusion, but Riggan breaks away and leaps off of the building, flying with outstretched arms as the music starts up once more. In Declan McGrath’s “Birdman” review in Cineaste, he describes how in this scene Riggan is able to break free “from the claustrophobic interiority of the St. James Theatre and its environs”  and gain the ability to fly like Birdman “through Manhattan in a spectacular CGI sequence,” realizing that he is “actually happy” for once (68). Here the classical music heightens the fantasy Riggan believes he is experiencing, guiding it with a euphoric theme that plays into the joy he feels when he allows his imagination to overwhelm him.


Iñárritu says that in a film that “moves more like a jazz piece than something in 4/4 time” it was crucial that Michael Keaton played the lead character because he is “a master at shifting tones and emotions” (Harris and Vilkomerson 32). From a viewer’s perspective, it is significant that Keaton fully embodies the character of Riggan, or else it would be more difficult for the audience to identify with him and follow his journey into madness. While Keaton’s career parallels Riggan’s in that they both portrayed superheroes in the 1990s – Keaton as Batman and Riggan as the fictional Birdman – Keaton is by no means a washed-up wreck like his on-screen counterpart. In fact, Keaton is quoted as saying that he had a “tougher time trying to immerse himself in the neediness and insecurity of the bitter, jittery character he was playing” because while he feels confident and at ease with himself, Riggan is “an actor whose desire to be taken seriously threatens to turn him into his own worst enemy” (Harris and Vilkomerson 35). Despite these natural differences between actor and character, Keaton skillfully steps into Riggan’s shoes, appearing frustrated, downtrodden, and hungry for success, while also expressing a quiet insanity.


The acting in Birdman is of a particular importance to the narrative because it is a film about acting and what it means to perform. Primarily, acting is seen as an instrumental component in achieving fame and celebrity status. Riggan’s main goal is to create a play (adapted from Raymond Carver’s short story, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) that will wow audiences and make him relevant again, to be as “respected and validated” as he was when he played a superhero in the fictional “Birdman” franchise. He is driven by an insatiable need for validation from his peers and from society, a need personified and encouraged by the Birdman apparition that growls dark thoughts in his head and often follows him around like a shadow. Acting is also seen outside of the play itself, as characters mask their true emotions, hiding the internal conflicts through confident veneers, lies, and self-denials. Riggan aims to regain his reality by acting normal in the face of his delusions and pretending that they don’t exist. Likewise, his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) acts tougher than she truly is, masking her vulnerabilities to prevent herself from getting hurt.


More importantly, acting is explored as an art form. Throughout the film characters struggle to create authenticity in a craft built inherently on the fabrication of facades and fictional portrayals, reflecting the blur of fantasy and reality that Riggan labors against in his own mind. In one scene a theater critic challenges Riggan to create a play that has emotional and psychological depth and continually in the narrative Riggan and his problematic co-star Mike disagree on acting methods, with Mike believing that acting must be real in order to convey truth to the audience. He pushes this theory to questionable limits, getting drunk on stage during a live performance to play an inebriated character and even attempting to have sex with his ex-girlfriend and current co-star during a love scene.


While Riggan initially resists these dangerous and foolish methods of maintaining realism in theatrical depictions, he eventually succumbs to them under the pressures of his fragile mental state while also taking them farther than Mike ever did. On the opening night of his play, Riggan replaces a fake gun with a real one and proceeds to shoot himself on stage in front of a live audience. Waking up in the hospital with a missing nose, he is pleased to learn that the play received critical acclaim and a rave review from the derisive critic who first challenged his ability to perform with authenticity. Ironically, it was only after Riggan was fully consumed by his delusions that he was able to create something that was closest to reality as possible.


Birdman is largely filmed and edited to appear as though it is unfolding in one seamless take, which adds to the realism while also forcing the actors to perform longer scenes and give theatre-like performances free of the luxury of cuts and multiple takes. Even critic Violet Lucca, who pans the movie in her review for Sight & Sound, admits that there’s “something undeniably graceful and impressive about the camera’s movements,” as it floats freely and captures unblinkingly honest performances from the film’s cast (69). This directorial style causes the performances to feel more authentic, a feeling enhanced by the smooth, handheld shots which create a sense of genuine intimacy between the camera and its subjects. Because it is free of the typical Hollywood style of shot-reverse-shots and traditional framing it also makes the film feel reminiscent of a documentary, further clouding the audience’s perception of what it means for something to be real or fabricated.


The minimalistic cuts and invisible editing style also allow Riggan’s hallucinations to come and go seamlessly, presenting them in a real-world context. Because they feel real to Riggan, they must feel real to the audience as well. Harris and Vilkomerson describe the Birdman phantom that haunts Riggan as “an ebony-feathered crusader with a deep Gotham growl and mask that covers the top half of his face” who alternatively utters “words of egomaniacal encouragement or ego-shattering contempt” (28). Sometimes the Birdman character’s distinctive, gravelly voice enters Riggan’s mind when he’s feeling vulnerable, and other times he appears on screen fully, striding confidently behind Riggan as they walk down a New York City street as the camera tracks ahead of them, pressuring him to do another “Birdman” movie and proclaiming that, “Sixty is the new thirty!” As long as he exists in Riggan’s mind and on screen, Riggan will never be able to move on from his past.


Other than constant mental confrontations by the Birdman hallucination, Riggan also exhibits an ability to “channel the superhero’s telekinetic powers” by “levitating while meditating in his dressing room” or making a lighting fixture “fall on an actor he doesn’t want in his production” (Lucca 69). Because viewers are seeing Riggan from his perspective these powers are shown as actually being real, but eventually, there is evidence that shows Riggan’s abilities as just being figments of his imagination. After his flight through Manhattan, Riggan lands delicately on the ground and steps back into the theater as a cab driver calls after him, demanding that he get paid. Though the film has just shown him flying through the air, the audience understands that they have been deceived; the flying sequence did not actually take place.


Iñárritu says he wanted the film to appear as if it were filmed in one continuous shot in order to reflect how Riggan “subjectively experiences the world” (McGrath 68). He does this by “restricting the viewer’s perspective within a single frame” as a way of portraying “a claustrophobia” that parallels Riggan’s “neurotic self-obsession” (McGrath 68). By the film’s end, after struggling to understand the truth of his art and the reality of the world as he experiences, Riggan is lauded by a theater critic for “creating a new form” of acting that she coins as “super-realism,” in which “reality and drama intersect” (McGrath 68). Similarly, Iñárritu accomplishes a similar “super-realism” in Birdman by submerging viewers into the story world through Riggan’s perspective and seamlessly mixing supernatural elements with real-world components. He continually reinforces his point of view through the music, acting, and cinematography until the audience feels as disoriented as the main character: unsure whether they can trust their own eyes, or more importantly, believe them.  



Works Cited

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Perf. Michael Keaton. Fox Searchlight, 2014.


Harris, Mark, and Sara Vilkomerson. “If Michael Keaton Were A Bird He Would Be A Cat.” Entertainment Weekly 1333 (2014): 26-37. Print.


Lucca, Violet. “Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance).” Sight & Sound 25.1 (2015): 69. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.


McGrath, Declan. “Birdman.” Cineaste 40.3 (2015): 67-69. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

Adapting Alice

Compared to most adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988) or Něco z Alenky, deviates immensely from the original material stylistically, continually forgoing fidelity in order to bring forth the darker, more surrealistic undertones of the novel. This post will aim to examine the “rabbit-hole” sequence in both the text and film, addressing the differences and similarities between each while also analyzing the dark mood Švankmajer creates and discussing how it is achieved through sound design, cinematography, and performance.


The exact moment of Alice’s entry into Wonderland is both ambiguous and arguable, due to the fluid nature in which we travel to new locations under the guise of Alice falling asleep. In a matter of minutes Alice is transported from the brook outside, to her bedroom, to a vast wasteland where only a small desk sits on the horizon. Alice is intrigued by the White Rabbit – which in this version is a taxidermied display brought to life – as it cracks its glass and flees through the desk drawer into the unknown.

After Alice crawls in after it and frightens the rabbit away, she abruptly trips into a rake, is hit on the head, and falls backwards into a metal trashcan. For the purposes of this analysis, her fall through the bottom of the trashcan into the elevator will stand as Alice’s portal into Wonderland, as her initial fall down the rabbit hole represents her point of entry in the novel. The mere fact that it is a trashcan that acts as the catalyst for the beginning of Alice’s journey foreshadows how the Wonderland to come is far from charming and fantastical. Indeed, Švankmajer seems to be deliberately placing her dreamscape in the context of something foul.


In the novel, Carroll stresses how long Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole truly is, writing how the well was either “very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next” (10). Many cinematic iterations visualize this scene by having her literally fall into a hole in the ground, but Švankmajer chooses to place her in an elevator which effectively translates the passage’s emphasis on longevity. This simple change also creates a sense of claustrophobia and prolonged anxiety that will haunt Alice throughout the rest of her journey. The sound design heightens this sense of anxiety with creaks, thuds, and distant bangs that insinuate the elevator she’s fallen into is neither safe nor secure. In fact, it sounds as if it’s barely holding together, straining and groaning it’s way down the subsequent floors towards her destination.

The elevator itself is dimly lit, with the only light entering it coming from the various shelves facing the open wall of the car. These rays of light pass quickly over Alice’s face on her journey down, but they do little to convey any illumination of Alice’s thoughts. Unlike in the novel where Alice is constantly thinking and prattling away, spouting clever things as often as unclever things, the Alice in this film – portrayed by Kristýna Kohoutová – is reserved. She says very little and any thinking she does is closed off to us, generally blocked by the blank expression she carries on her face. At most, her performance in the elevator shaft could be read as imperceptibly perturbed.


As she falls down the “well” in the book she notices that that the walls are “filled with cupboards and book-shelves” and she sees “maps and pictures hung upon pegs” (10). Here the shelves boast a multitude of objects, most of which were previously seen sprawled around her bedroom, such as a ticking metronome, a pair of puppets, paper figures, doll furniture, a herd of taxidermied animals, bones, and skulls, and a pantry of jars. Some jars are filled with different colored jellies, fruits, and worms, and one even has biscuits stuck through with nails.


In the novel, Alice takes down a jar “from one of the shelves” as she passes that’s labeled “ORANGE MARMALADE” but she finds to “her great disappointment” that it’s empty (10). The film heightens her disappointment by replacing the jar’s lack of marmalade with marmalade riddled with thumbtacks, their points protruding sharply out of the gooey confection almost mockingly. Alice rips through the plastic casing and swabs her hand through the jam and through an extreme close-up we see a lone thumbtack perched upon her finger as she holds it up to light for inspection.


The image of a child’s jam covered finger holding something so troubling echoes the story’s dichotomous theme of innocence in constant proximity to danger. Even now however, no expression of fear seems to break through her cool, placid veneer. She says nothing, her silence only amplifying the hums, squeaks, and scrapes of the elevator and adding to the viewer’s unease. Alice remains composed, simply recognizing the anomaly of the jellied thumbtack and calmly wiping her finger off on the lid of the jar. In dreams people often see and do strange things that seem acceptable in the moment and do little to provoke disturbance; here Alice portrays this illogical calmness perfectly.


Returning to the novel once more, Alice is now “dozing off” and has begun “to dream,” but a sudden “thump!” brings her crashing down “upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves” (11). In the film, the elevator picks up speed, racing down the shaft at an alarming rate. As if knowing what comes next, Alice’s first expression of genuine concern spreads across her face and she suddenly thrusts her arms in the air high above her head. The noises come quicker and the rattling increases, and then she crashes through the bottom of the elevator and lands upon a pile of dry leaves – nearly identical to the one described in the book – amidst a rain of plaster. She looks around her, nonplussed. The walls behind her are faded, stained, and ripped, evoking a gross and derelict place. Her fall has come to an end, and she has finally reached Wonderland, for better or for worse.


Personally, this adaptation held more meaning and captured the imagination more completely than the other cinematic translations of Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland. The challenge of adapting the material lies in the surrealistic nature of the novel, which lacks causal plotlines and logical time progression. Wonderland is commonly interpreted as a dream world Alice has slipped away into, and Švankmajer commits to this fully, using dream logic and recurring elements to shape Alice’s fantastic world while setting in realistic connotations and making use of everyday objects to nightmarish effect. This effectively grounds the film while allowing us to fully delve into the mind of Alice. Instead of inventing fantasy, the film gives fantastic qualities to typically harmless things and finds the extraordinary in the everyday, satisfying Alice’s curiosity while also feeding on the darkest corners of our minds.

Continue reading “Adapting Alice”

[From Silver Screen to Small]: Adapting “Fargo”

The Adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (1996) into FX’s Fargo


In 1996, Joel and Ethan Coen released Fargo, a film bursting with black humor, grim violence, and captivating visuals that effectively captured the banalities and eccentricities of life in middle America. The film would go on to win two Academy Awards and receive nominations in five categories, including Best Picture. After failed attempts to translate the success of the film into series adaptations through the years, the Coen brothers finally approved a script written by Noah Hawley, who would later become the primary showrunner and writer for an adaptation of Fargo on the television channel FX.


In the 1996 film Fargo, a man pays two crooks to kidnap his wife in order to get the ransom money, with events spiraling on from there. In the television show, a man is seduced by the alluring charm of chaos that a murderous stranger brings into town, which leads to the death of his wife and begins a separate chain of events – but both attract the suspicion of local police and leave blood in their wake. Thematically, the film and the show share similar depictions of the prevalence of death and the eventual triumph of normalcy over chaos. While largely derivative in terms of narrative and character realization, the televised Fargo (season one specifically) pays homage to its cinematic predecessor by faithfully adapting its hyper-stylized cinematography, familiar setting, thematic values, and darkly comedic tone.


The Coen’s Fargo invites a feeling of curiosity and peaks the interest of the audience from the very beginning. In her review “The Coen Brothers’ Fargo” for The Velvet Light Trap, Kathleen Grant states that “the magnetic draw of the Coens is knowing only to expect the unexpected when the lights go down and the curtain goes up” (98). In Cambridge Film Handbooks: The Coen Brothers’ Fargo, William Luhr echoes this anticipation while describing his appreciation for the opening scene, detailing the “ominous music on the soundtrack” that serenades an “isolated car crawl[ing] across a frozen landscape” (2). Snow swirls and clouds the frame as two pinpricks of light form from the oncoming car’s headlights and grow larger and larger in the frame. The car skates along the icy road, coming from whiteness and leaving into the same oblivion. This desolate image is preceded by a black background overlaid with white text that bears a puzzling paragraph:


“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
In the past two decades it was often speculated that the story of the film was partially based on the life of a man named T. Eugene Thompson, who hired a hitman in 1963 to kill his wife and claim the insurance money. Due to the eerily similar elements that connected this crime to the events of the film and the silence on the Coen brothers part, these speculations seemed to gain solid basis over time. However, in the New York Times article “T. Eugene Thompson Dies at 88,” Joel Coen was asked about this theory in relation to the infamous opening text in light of the man’s passing, and he finally revealed that there was no connection whatsoever. Joel Coen also admitted that he had “never heard of him” and that, in spite of the mysterious opening paragraph, Fargo was “completely made up.” In actuality, the only truth in the entire disclaimer is the fact that it’s a “story.”


It doesn’t truly matter however, whether this statement is true or not. In the context of the viewing experience, these words set a “somber mood that is reinforced by the tone of the opening scenes” which establish the feeling “of a grim buildup to a ‘true crime’ from the recent past” (Luhr 2). In Karl Heitmueller’s article “Rewind: What Part Of ‘Based On’ Don’t You Understand,” Joel Cohen is quoted as saying that “if an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.” The strange and violent incidents in Fargo that envelope the small town of Brainerd, Minnesota would no doubt be harder to swallow if the audience was not coached into believing that it all really happened. Perhaps the greatest trick of all is that the Coens’ story, while full of peculiar absurdities, is grounded in a reality so ordinary that it seems possible to garner a truth in what unfolds, even if it is fabricated.


In FX’s Fargo, the familiar and sorrowfully melodic score from the film – tweaked slightly for the television show – swells as this text appears:
“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”


This message maintains the spirit of the film, which created a false story under a thin veil of truth, while cheekily changing the date of the event to 2006 and acknowledging that even though it will take place in the same mystically violent state of Minnesota, the Fargo series has a different tale to tell. It’s worth noting that the tiny twin pinpricks of light that appear this time come out darkness and not light. The setting is familiar – another icy road, another lonely car – but the switch from day to night, white to black, seems significant. The meaning seems to be the same, with people coming and going along a stretch of infinite emptiness as far as the frame can see, but it appears as though the creators of the television version are digging their elbows into the ribs of the audience and saying, “See? It feels the same, but it’s not the same at all.”


In Steven Carter’s article “‘Flare To White’: ‘Fargo’ And The Postmodern Turn,” he observes that Fargo “was filmed in color, and yet it’s the absence of color – the bone-chilling whiteness of a Minnesota winter – that sets the movie’s quirky tone from beginning to end” (238). Despite the switch to black in the opening sequence, the television show utilizes this “bone-chilling whiteness” frequently, using the cold, wintry isolation of Minnesota (this time Bemidji) to echo those recognizable feelings of desolation and detachment that the film captured so well.
Both the film and the series have beautiful cinematography that ironically undercuts the violent actions of its characters with sweeping shots of surrounding landscapes and a wholly unique aesthetic. There is often a feeling of too much empty space in the frame, and this framing style and overwhelming whiteness of the snow and sky work to flatten the images and characters. The minimalist nature of both texts provokes a feeling of loneliness. Theseries and the television show also deal bluntly with its violent subject matter, and the blues and whites of wintry Minnesota allow any blood spilled, which there’s a lot of, to pop out at the viewer without shame. Violence in the Fargo universe is always theatrically presented and never hidden.



Carter makes an interesting observation that no one in the film Fargo“has an iota of respect for the dead” (239). One would expect this from the characters who kill for a living, but this applies to everyone else as well. Even Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who one would suppose – as a woman and a police officer – to be a character of moral fiber, shows an indifference to the victims whose deaths she’s investigating. At one point, while inspecting a dead body, Marge is overcome by the need to puke, but it soon disappears as she says sunnily, “Well, that passed. Now I’m hungry again.”


This indifference towards death also lends itself towards the characters’ misplaced emotions. There is a moment when “callous Wade Gustafson” winces as he watches a hockey game and Minnesota lets a puck in (Carter 240). Later on he’s shot to death by Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and he barely reacts, “looking merely puzzled and emitting the mildest of ‘oooohs’ as he falls to the ground” (Carter 240). He shows more emotional investment in a televised hockey game than he expresses in his own demise. The vile characters tend to express more human emotion than the seemingly normal ones do, and even though that emotion exhibits itself in violent ways, often through fear, desperation, and rage, they still are more in touch with their feelings than the characters who stand on the right side of the law.


This idea comes across with particular clarity in the scene where Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrüd) is kidnapped. Jean sits on the couch, knitting and laughing at the television as it broadcasts a cheery morning talk show. Suddenly Showalter, wearing a ski mask and wielding a crowbar, looks inside the house through the glass door. Noticing him, Jean sits transfixed with her face blank and her body stiff with inaction. After five painfully long seconds, Showalter smashes and careens through the glass door and Jean finally reacts, but by then its too late for her to escape. While the scene is harrowing, it utilizes the same dark comedy that prevails throughout the film.


First, while trying to barge into the bathroom where Jean has locked herself in upstairs, several large thumps are heard from the other side of the door. Showalter crams his crowbar into the crack of the door over and over again ad nauseum, until the score itself – which had been rising in intensity and gaining a cryptic melody as Jean tried to escape – quells as if losing its patience. This is followed by a hushed, “Do you want to do it?” as the exhausted Showalter turns to his partner. Finally the door flies open as they find themselves in the empty room. As Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) searches the medicine cabinet and methodically applies ointment to the hand Jean bit in their struggle, Jean abruptly jumps out of the shower, tangles herself in the shower curtain, and trips down the stairs to her death. This scene is a prime example of character inaction, black humor, and the film’s oddly anticlimactic treatment of death.


Grant attests that “there is a narrative, thematic, and aesthetic strategy” within the film that is “built upon the twinning of elements at odds with each other, be they characters, moralities, or visual motifs, to the effect of both anchoring and destabilizing the film” (Grant 99). In the television show these warring elements can be seen in a single character: Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). The biggest difference between the texts is that the series explores entirely different storylines and characters, but conceptual echoes of certain characters return. Both Lester and Jerry are salesman, unsatisfied husbands, and stammering ball of nerves.
However, while William H. Macy’s character facilitates the actions that unravel in the film, and largely remains a static character throughout, Freeman’s character Lester has the benefit of expanded screen time that allows for more character development – we see him go from a weakling to a villainous plotter through the course of the series. He starts out as weak, pitiful, and sympathetic, a man who is unable to express himself much like the stoic characters in the film Fargo, who remain unperturbed lest they allow themselves to be affected by the gritty and dark realities that surround them. He feels as though he is drowning in a listless marriage, paired with a verbally abusive wife who constantly berates and belittles him into submission.

Fargo_174PyxurzFARGO -- Pictured: Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard -- CR. Matthias Clamer/FX


Towards the end of the first episode, Lester and his wife, Pearl, are arguing in their dimly lit basement over a broken washing machine (in the larger context of their broken marriage.) Pearl keeps rattling on, telling Lester that she should never have married him, that she never loved him, that he’s not “a real man.” Finally, Lester lashes out and slams his fist down on the fried washing machine, showing his first burst of real, physical emotion since the audience was introduced to him. Pearl refuses to stop as Lester eyes a hammer sitting in a toolbox nearby. He picks it up and threatens her with it, as she laughs at him, using her final words to diminish him further. He smiles sardonically and then smashes the hammer down on her head. She falls backwards dead, and he keeps hitting her, his face contorted with disgust as he snorts, “Ah, geez… ah, geez…ah geez” with each slam of the hammer. His Minnesotan accent and anxious words of apology undercut every violent action with a strange sort of innocence, securing the claim that Lester is a man of contradictions.


His white, pristine collared shirt is now drenched in red, and in an additional twist of irony, Lester looks up from his wife’s dead body to see a poster on the wall, splattered with Pearl’s blood. Aesthetically similar to the posters seen in elementary schools, the picture depicts a group of gold fish swimming with a single red fish going in the opposite direction. It is bordered by big block letters that read: “What If You’re Right And They’re Wrong?” Here the poster leads Lester, and the audience, to question the advantages and disadvantages of living within the confines of a community where everyone behaves the same. Like the folks of Fargo from the film world, Lester began as a simple, unemotional character who accepted the boundaries set by society around him. Once he stepped beyond that moral barrier he was finally able to express himself, but now he has more in common with the Carl Showalters and Jerry Lundegaards of the expanded Fargo universe.


In the film, after Marge finally confronts Showalter’s accomplice Grimsrud and is driving him to jail in her police car, she puts the pieces of the case together in her mind: “So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there..and I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper..those three people in Brainerd.” She pauses for a long time, mulling over all the evidence of death this man has left in his wake, before saying, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, y’know? Don’t you know that?” She sniffs, “And here ya are and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”


In his essay “Praising Minnesota: The Coens’ ‘Fargo’ and the Pressures of Stoic Community,” William Chaloupka believes that Marge’s speech is about “the breakdown of social commitments” in a world where “everyone knows they are supposed to act according to a broader set of values than the simple pursuit of money that otherwise dominates American life” (20). Fargo examines what happens when people step beyond that boundary of set values and act of their own volition, and follows the consequences that those ripples create in small, isolated towns.

Marge’s perplexed innocence at the horrors that she has just witnessed is justified; she trailed a pair of murderers only to arrive too late to save the victim and watch helplessly while Grimsrud forced his ex-partner into a woodchipper, blood gushing out with nauseating volume and intensity onto the virgin snow. It is the fact that she does not understand Grimsrud’s intentions that separates her from film’s villains. In his review of the film for Film Quarterly, critic Devin McKinney refers to the ending as a particularly revealing moment, a scene which finds “Marge and phlegmatic hubby snugly abed with talk of postage stamps” (34).


Her aforementioned dialogue now gives the audience pause when, after saying “there’s more to life than a little money,” she is celebrating the achievement of her husband’s artwork on the the three cent stamp. She squeezes his arm and snuggles up against him with encouraging words as he stares blankly ahead at the flickering TV and the camera slowly tracks forward, closing in on their chaste embrace as he reaches over and pats her pregnant belly, saying, “two more months.” This scenes accepts “banality as an eternal verity, the value for which Middle Americans deserve the approbation of their cultural betters: postage stamps and a baby on the way” (34).

Frances McDormandfargo-season-3-selfie-culture

In FX’s Fargo, Marge’s television counterpart is Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), a young female deputy at the Bemidji police department. While Marge remains a fairly static character in the film – knowledgeable, strong, and chipper – Molly is given an expanded story due to the length of the series. While she is consistently intelligent and often the sharpest person in the room, Molly’s story arc revolves around her gaining respect from her coworkers and strengthening her voice until it’s impossible to ignore. Like Marge, Molly also becomes pregnant through the course of the show, but she never allows it to hinder her in her investigation of Lester. While Marge has the satisfaction of driving Grimsrud to the police station herself, Molly is unable to catch Lester directly.

She receives a phone call saying that Lester fell through the ice as he tried to escape arrest, and Molly looks resigned. Hearing the sound of the television carrying from the other room, the camera follows Molly as she walks in on her husband and stepdaughter watching a game show on TV and discussing whether they’d take the money or keep playing. This talk about the importance of money, centered on a small family gathering around a flickering TV as the camera tracks in slowly, mimics the same sentiments of the conclusion to the film. Marge and Molly are satisfied with their homely, albeit unexciting lives, finding blessings in the same situations other characters, like Jerry Lundegaard and Lester Nygaard, tried desperately to escape.


The television show adaptation of the film explores a new story with new characters, but nails the chilling atmosphere of its predecessor through its location, character actions and interactions, and darkly comedic treatment of death and violence. The lead characters – Jerry Lundegaard from the film and Lester Nygaard from the television series – are visited by “quotidian horrors” that enable them to believe that they deserve to live “not the lives they have been given but the lives they envision in their own master narratives” (McKinney 32). While Jerry grapples with his “grand designs” being abandoned by the “incompetence, conflicting motives, or undifferentiated hostility of those who will not play their parts,” Lester’s own delusions of grandeur stem directly from himself and his own missteps (McKinney 32).


Ultimately Fargo is a “haunting and delightful [film] that explores middle-American themes and settings from an original and unsettling perspective” while observing “the self-destructive nature of many of the characters” amidst an “overall atmosphere of doom” (Luhr 2-3). Both the show and the film create small communities shaped by moral, yet emotionally stagnant, people. While the events that shake up these seemingly idyllic communities differ – and evolve from both external and internal forces – they have the same effect.  Both the film and its  adaptation are about normal people stepping outside of their mundane lives and crossing paths with the darkest of humanity. Characters in the Fargo universe are destined to accept their ordinary and unfeeling lives, or deviate from their fated path and suffer the deadly consequences.



Works Cited
Carter, Steven. “‘Flare To White’: “Fargo” And The Postmodern Turn.” Literature Film Quarterly 27.4 (1999): 238. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.


Chaloupka, William. “Praising Minnesota: The Coens’ “Fargo” and the Pressures of Stoic Community.” Theory & Event 1.2 (1997): 18-42 Print.


Grant, Kristen. “The Coen Brothers’ “Fargo”.” The Velvet Light Trap 57 (2006): 98-100. Print.


Heitmueller, Karl. “Rewind: What Part Of ‘Based On’ Don’t You Understand?” MTV News, 11 Apr. 2005. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

McKinney, Devin. “Fargo.” Film Quarterly 50.1 (1996): 31–34. Print.

Roberts, Sam. “T. Eugene Thompson Dies at 88.” The New York Times, 5 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Ruhr, William G. Cambridge Film Handbooks: The Coen Brothers’ Fargo. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

[Patton Oswalt’s Comedy Special]: “Annihilation”

While there is no stone in the world of comedy that has gone unturned, there have always been a string of topics comics tend to shy away from, namely: depression, grief, death, and pain. The stand-up scene, in particular, is no stranger to harsh realities; Mitch Hedberg, Chris Farley, and John Belushi all died due to drug overdoses at young ages, and Robin Williams lost his battle to depression and addiction only three years ago.


Luckily, attention has gradually shifted towards these issues over time. These wounds, borne with greater transparency as the conversation on mental health has evolved, have not only become more apparent off stage but on stage as well. In her self-titled documentary Tig (2016), comedian Tig Notaro tackled deeply personal stories about her battle with breast cancer and turned them into uplifting material that had her audience rolling.


This process of delving into vulnerable subjects and placing them in a comedic context has a healing effect that is two-fold: the comic has managed to transform something painful into a kind of inside joke, and people in the audience who have experienced similar tragedies find comfort in this. It is nearly alchemy-like, this direct conversion of personal demons into tales that literally spark joy. Re-contextualizing pain does not make it vanish, or even necessarily diminish its wear on the person who bares it. But it does something admirable; it puts the pain to use.


In his new Netflix special “Annihilation,” Patton Oswalt makes his return to stand-up comedy after the loss of his wife Michelle McNamara in early 2016. Now a widower as well as the single father of a young daughter, Oswalt is certainly changed by his experience. He seems exhausted by the past year; the grief of losing a partner coupled with the general dread brought on by turbulent political times, natural disasters the world over, and the increasingly present threat of global nuclear war. If Oswalt appears burdened it is less a failing on his part and more so a human reality most people have been shouldering together, looking for a voice to sort out the confusion. Fortunately, Oswalt is that voice.


He opens his set making direct reference to the chaotic news cycle that has been endlessly looping for months like a snake eating its own tail. Sure, he pokes fun at Trump, but he also admits that Trump jokes have descended even beyond the status of low hanging fruit. The trouble with making fun of someone who does increasingly outrageous things is that the sheer act of whatever they do will also overshadow the jokes that come out of it. But even in admittance of this, Oswalt finds levity in troubling circumstances. He manages to cut through the absurdity, his wit as sharp as a cleaver as he moves through the beats of his set.


Oswalt’s strength lies in his observational humor. In many ways he is a surrogate for the audience, taking the weird moments he has witnessed and translating them into fantastic stories. Seemingly banal events like split second tiffs in a California parking lot and a child lost in a haunted maze are punched up into minutes of solid material. Jokes produce laughs without overstaying their welcome.


Oswalt then leads not some light crowd work, entering a conversational pause in his act. But there’s a slightly foreboding energy overshadowing his set as audience members and viewers alike hold a collective breath waiting for the pin to drop. And he knows it too. Oswalt takes a step away from the mic and holds the stand steady as he pauses and says, very sincerely:

“I’m just killing time. This next section is very hard for me to get into.”

He proceeds to describe his wife’s passing and the days, weeks, months, that followed as he and his daughter navigated a world without her. It’s not funny. It’s simply the truth.


There are instances that lead the crowd gently back to the observational humor that shined in the first half, but Oswalt takes his time dwelling in the harder moments. It’s important that he lay the groundwork of what his family has been through so that we feel a sort of triumph in the lighter moments he’s carefully held onto. As the special nears its end, Oswalt shares a phrase that his wife thoroughly believed in, “The world is chaos. Be kind.” At a time when these words hold a particular power, its a reminder that even when we can’t find meaning in the things that harm us, we can find solace in the acts that heal.


[Spielberg Doc]: A Man of Sentiment and Spectacle

HBO’s latest documentary Spielberg, directed by Susan Lacy (creator and executive producer of the American Masters docu-series), tracks the meteoric rise of celebrated filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Even if you are one of the rare few that has managed to escape the reach of his work, you have certainly been privy to the effects of his creations; his near six decades of filmography have inspired generations of filmmakers and entirely reshaped the landscape of Hollywood.


The documentary is concise, painting a clear narrative of his life and career, but it is also gentle, shaping the identity of a beloved artist in earnest. Though it brings up brief instances of controversy — financial failure, criticism, and early shame of religious affiliation — it does not revel in them or make them out to be darker than the natural flaws of a real, human person. His legacy may precede him, but his humanity is ever present.


To claim Spielberg is sentimental is a note of affirmation rather than a failing; it never seeks to be anything more. Spielberg himself is repeatedly called “emotional” and “vulnerable” in various talking heads with his crew members, friends, and creative partners. It is a quality he doesn’t shy away from and often incorporates into his films. Many of his movies feature child protagonists and tell stories through that lens, evoking an inherent innocence and feelings of exposure that mimic his own ideology.


Nevertheless, Spielberg is unequivocally a director of spectacle. For some artists this translates into bombast, insincerity, the money shots over the small human moments. But for Spielberg, this exhibitionistic style simply elevates his films and widens the eyes of its viewers. This delicate balance of humanity and wonder allows his movies to be as successful as they are. It is the difference of Transformers (2007) delivering pillars of explosions and a boy on a bicycle casting a shadow across the moon.


Spielberg notes that even with this height of success he has retained a sense of self-abasement: he still sees himself as the teen bullied in school, embarassed by his Russian grandfather calling for him with strains of “Shmuel! Shmuel!” He is the child screaming at his father to stop crying at the dinner table, and the young man who distanced himself from that same father for fifteen years with no rationale greater than his own pain. He has been doubted by his peers, pigeon-holed by producers, and consistently ran over-budget and over-schedule on projects to the point of being temporarily blacklisted. He has never allowed ego to swallow him whole, and he seems glad of it. For better or worse, he will always carry the weight of an awkward, nebbish child-of-divorce raised in Arizona suburbia. And if he ever forgot that feeling, the knowledge of what it feels to be small in the world, the power of his craft would evaporate.


Every time I start a new scene, I’m nervous. It’s like going to school and having to take a test. I’ve never heard the lines spoken before, I don’t know what I’m going to think of hearing the lines, I don’t know what I’m going to tell the actors, I don’t know where I’m gonna put the camera. And every single time it’s the same. But I tell you, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. I’ll tell you why it’s a good feeling. The more I’m feeling confident and secure about something, the less I’m gonna put out. I hate the feeling of being nervous, but I need to feel in this moment, I’m really not sure what I’m doing. And when that verges on panic, I get great ideas. – Steven Spielberg, Spielberg



Time and again, Spielberg has pushed the boundaries of expectation in the film industry and the documentary triumphs in these landmarks of innovation. He filmed Jaws(1975) on the open ocean, reckoning with a faulty shark, rocked by tides, and tortured by the uncooperative lighting of the natural world. He forged ahead with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a B-movie on a tiny budget with no thought of the franchise it would spawn. With Jurassic Park (1991), he stood at the helm of computer-generated imagery and steered it into a new frontier. With The Color Purple (1985) and Schindler’s List(1993) he defied the critics who said he could never transcend blockbuster entertainment and told stories that affected his audiences in new ways, that resonated in their bones.


This review may sound indulgent, a writer praising a film that praises the films of its star. But the filmmaking business is ultimately indulgent in and of itself. It feeds off of mass appeal and most of its players are more concerned with profit over art. It’s a medium that builds media buzz and navigates awards circuits with a calculation that rivals political campaigns. People often forget the formula for a great film is more than its money, its source material, or even its cast; it lies in a modest love for storytelling. So some will say what they will of Spielberg: he is too popular, too sentimental, not as dark as he could be. But by God, does he tell a damn good story.