A collaboration of multiple legends–director Joel Coen, cinematographer and DP Roger Deakins, music composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay, and not the least Ethan Coen who co-wrote the script with his brother Joel, Fargo (1996) is a classic for multiple reasons. Here I will focus more on the visuals, with cursory references to direction and sound.
Take a look at this shot sequence–a tiny scene in the snow.
The story leading to this point is here:
In the winter of 1987, Jerry Lundegaard, the sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis, is desperate for money. He floated a $320,000 GMAC loan and collateralized it with nonexistent dealership vehicles and is unable to pay back the loan. On the advice of dealership mechanic and paroled ex-convict Shep Proudfoot, Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota and hires small-time cons Gaear Grimsrud and Carl Showalter to kidnap his wife, Jean, and extort a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law and boss, Wade Gustafson, in return for a new car and half of the $80,000 ransom.
Jerry pitches Gustafson a lucrative real estate deal, and he agrees to front $750,000. Jerry considers calling off the kidnapping, but learns that Gustafson plans to make the deal himself, giving Jerry a finder’s fee.
Jerry (William H. Macy) feels pissed off and is exasperated, but he is helpless. William acts excellently here (and throughout the film) but it is not just his excellent acting that makes his helplessness and exasperation so expressive–the cinematography, the direction and the sound go in together to make this effect. The wide, very high angle shot opens on the snow yard of Wade’s office. We hear Jerry’s footsteps in the snow but he is not yet in the frame–he is absent, and this is significant. When he enters the frame from the bottom of the frame, he is just a negligible dot in the white wide screen and would have been lost but for his movement in the otherwise static scene–the high angle shot compresses his height and the width of the coverage reduces his space to a tiny black dot, accentuating his helpless condition.
Inside the car, Jerry’s back is toward the camera. Sometimes a face is too distracting to show very subtle emotions, and you express it with the back of the actor’s head with the shoulder (as the one in We Were Soldiers (2002) in which the Mel Gibson character is shot weeping from behind). We hear him heaving a sigh in the cold and see the steam from his mouth going out. Accompanied by Carter’s beautiful theme score that somehow gets to our nerves, we sense something is not quite right–the tension is in the air. This back shot is more eloquent than a face shot would have been.
Jerry’s helpless desperation and exasperation is clearly visible in how he scrapes the ice from his frozen car windshield. The speed of his hands and the sound of the scrapers on the ice and the windshield are increasingly more irritating by the millisecond. Jerry then loses self-control and throws the scraper, which he picks up after a while and begins to scrape the ice. This action is covered in a single handheld medium shot which. Then we are back to a high angle shot, not so wide as the former one. The scraping sound is still irritating but a bit less so. Watch it in the clip above–just 01:20 minutes.
Gaear Grimsrud and Carl Showalter had already arrived at Brainerd to kidnap Jerry’s wife. This arrival shot is portentous–in the foreground it has standing on a stone pedestal a big wood-chipper statue with his axe held over one shoulder on one side of he road that runs almost diagonally in the frame. Everything on the left and right of the road is snow. The car drives closer toward us. The hired kidnappers juxtaposed with the axe-wielding wood-chipper statue in the single frame lends some sinister portentous feel to the shot. Take a look–it’s just 7 seconds long.
The scene after Gaear and Carl kidnap Jerry’s wife in which they kill a state trooper and a couple who happens to see Carl (Steve Buscemi) handling the dead trooper from their passing car window is an excellently executed one. The direction, the cinematography, the editing and the sound (especially the train sound and the sound of the last metallic gunshot whose ring lingers into the black screen after the scene). This is a masterpiece, right from the beginning to the end. The scene opens with the ominous close low angle camera tilting from the wood chipper statue (with the light up from below lending it some frightening look) down to its base to cover Gaear and Carl’s car’s red tail lights on the left of the frame as they drive into the darkness in the direction they came from in the above shot. I will not write further about it here. Watch it for yourself–07:19 minutes.
This is superb!
Early evening, Sunday, 13 August 2017
I found it chocking and claustrophobic when I recently (24-26 July 2017) saw an unfinished building oddly jutting out of the main locus of the JNIMS (Porompat, Imphal) buildings, squatted across the Pong Lambi. I had not noticed it in my two other visits to the hospital earlier this year—one in mid-March and the other a bit earlier.
Twenty-one years ago in early 1996, when I, as a young boy, came first to the hospital (it was called the JN Hospital—Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital—until it was raised to the status of a medical science institute a few years ago and renamed the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS)) to attend to my maternal grandfather who was getting intensive care in a separate room at a private ward, the road had quite a busy traffic flow because of Mahindra Jeep commuters, besides others, especially between the MG Memorial Hall (Imphal West) and Sangomsang (Imphal East) long before the cheaper if irritatingly-too-noisy means of transports—the first and second generations of three-wheelers—became popular in these parts of the state, Manipur. Honestly, irrespective of their undeniable socio-economic and historical importance to the country, I hate auto-rickshaws for their inconsiderate noise and terribly ugly looks and color. When grandfather was sleeping and I had an hour or so to myself, I walked far south-east along the road to see the vacant fields and wetlands edging away far into the distance on both sides at most points of the road that tapered apparently into the faraway greenery of the Nongmaijing Hill. The air was cold and fresh, and being there instilled a liberating feeling in me.
When I saw it in my recent visit, the part of the Pong Lambi before the JNIMS was more like a seldom-swept, asphalted backyard parking lot of some affluent minister with visitors from all over the country—the road brown in the July heat looked old and to have stopped losing aggregate and ageing; the dust that had gathered in the dips in the rough surface texture had turned into dry mud and the layer of new dust seemed to have been there not disturbed enough to drift in the air to change place, and the uniformly brown asphalt surface bore almost no sign of darkening by tires visible on roads in regular use. No new signs of wear and tear. It was not difficult for any visitor driving for the hospital along this part of the road to sense that the vehicles coming from the opposite direction started not long before—the vehicles felt to have just swerved and not all vehicles in the middle of a long drive would not come at the same slow speed which characterized almost all of those vehicles I saw there. My suspicion about something possibly having happened there to the once familiar place was later confirmed by the cul-de-sac the jutting, unfinished building had made of the road.
I had no personal feelings associated with the place but seeing the building inconsiderately squatting there cutting off the road quite apparently social instinctively shocked me. What immediately flashed in my mind the moment I saw the obstruction (or objectively speaking, the erection of huge physical structure across the road) was the Berlin Wall. Later, when I had found out the name of the road was Pong Lambi, another wholly different thing struck my mind, triggered by the word Pong, a term (it is perhaps a chance sound similarity) the Manipuri’s knew the Burmese by, without actually knowing the status of the road’s historical association with the Meitei-Burmese trade relations before the Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891.
The change in the physical structure of the place due to the protrusion, something like an unnatural outgrowth of the earth right across the road, nudged my mind to have a different attitude toward the place and to physically behave differently to it than I would have twenty-one years ago or any time without that structure. Later I walked and casually surveyed the place and discovered that the addition of that building in that particular way in the physical environment of the place had nudged the people there also to behave in a certain way that would not have been the case in the absence of the building across the road. The way the built environment emerged ensuing from this odd building’s stopping the traffic rendering redundant the rest of the road south-east of the building (red-circled in the picture) is the physical proof of how people’s settling behavior has been influenced by this building on its south-east. Due to encroachment by human settlement (the legality of which is beyond the purview of the task at hand), the road on the south-east of the building has shrunk into an alley in stark contrast to the width and health of the part of the road on the opposite side of the building. Irrespective of the legal status of the JNIMS claim over the piece of land across the road (yes, the government is the owner of the land and for larger public causes such as the JNIMS, it can make adjustment reshuffling to the patterns of settlement at least of limited areas), nobody would have dared to do anything that would lead to the shrinking of a road in full use. Later on, while researching for this series, I came to know that the part of the Pong Lambi before the JNIMS has now been renamed JNIMS Road.
The movement of people east of the new JNIMS building in question has changed, the settlers closer to the hospital, in the absence of a artery, taking to the small alleys leading to the Porompat DC road while the people of further-away places such as Sangomsang having to take the Khongnang Makhong Lambi on the Iril river and then the Porompat DC road. This shift in movement is quite phenomenal.
Our concern in this series is not to judge the merits and demerits of the physical environment but to study the psychological influences of the physical environment including built structures on how humans behave.