Monday, January 11, 2016

Gimme your hands, 'cause you're wonderful

I was up late last night, about to go to bed, when the news of David Bowie's passing broke. I stayed up a while longer, trying to track down a confirmation, as there were claims flying around that his official twitter and Facebook accounts had been hacked. Confirmation came from a tweet by his son, film director Duncan Jones.

It is a testament to Bowie's creativity, prolificacy, good humor, and sense of collaboration, that there are so many different tributes and memories pouring out for him today. A recurring theme is how many outsiders took comfort from his work. It seems like no matter what kind of nerd you are, there's Bowie output for you: music nerds, movie nerds (including subsets like Scorsese or David Lynch nerds), gender nerds, sexuality nerds, science fiction nerds, visual art nerds, theater nerds, fashion nerds, Muppet nerds... Comedy nerds can post clips from The Venture Bros. or Flight of the Conchords or Extras or Zoolander. Advocates for racial justice are sharing Bowie's pressuring of MTV in its first year to play more music by black artists. Wonks for late-20th-Century Germany are posting about the Berlin Trilogy...

He recorded "Under Pressure," a major hit, with Queen.
He cowrote "Fame" with John Lennon, and you can hear Lennon singing backup, including the descending "fame fame fame fame" figure.
He offered "Golden Years" to Elvis Presley before recording it himself.
He saved the band Mott The Hoople by giving them the song "All The Young Dudes."
He produced Lou Reed's "Transformer," and you can hear him singing the "a-ooooos" at the end of "Satellite of Love."
Same with Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life."
He collaborated musically with Mick Jagger, Nile Rodgers, Pete Townshend, Brian Eno, Tina Turner, Bing Crosby, Luther Vandross, Pat Metheny, Trent Reznor, TV On The Radio, Alicia Keys, Scarlett Johansson, and The Arcade Fire.

He also made 25 studio albums including some of the all-time great rock records.

I describe myself as having not really "gotten into Bowie" until late -- when I was already out of grad school. It was Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," and its soundtrack full of Bowie songs (both the originals and lovely Portuguese covers by Brazilian actor/musician Seu Jorge) that encouraged me to finally dive into Bowie's albums. I did, and coincidentally in the same month I met my future wife. Learning more and more about his music suggested a world of wonderful possibilities, a sense that mirrored my personal life in that moment. Singing along to his songs together in the car is a not uncommon occurrence in Melissa's and my relationship, even today. For a while, Max was obsessed with the song "Changes," and it remains in his mix on my iPod.

But despite taking so long to really learn his albums, I already knew and loved many of his songs and performances. David Bowie's work was so good, and so diverse, that no matter what corner of the popular culture you call home, he touched it. Losing him is a blow, but we are lucky to have the music he left us, and it is wonderful that he left us on his own terms, with a valedictory album released on his 69th birthday, two days prior.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Fargo Season 2 as a Pan-Coen Fever Dream

Season two of FX's "Fargo" series premiered this week, and so far, I'm really enjoying its mix of dark, dry humor and affection for its setting and characters, musical excellence, and a new cinematographical boldness featuring lots of split-screen. And, as a fan of the Coen Brothers' filmography as a whole, I love seeing the little references and thematic echoes from their films with which show runner/writer Noah Hawley has seasoned his show.

I'm going to use this post to collect the references I've noticed. If you see that I've overlooked one, please let me know in the comments (but please wait until after I've added a given week's episode, as I watch with a day or two of delay, and would like to see it fresh. By the same token, spoiler alert!).

Whole Season:
  • The whole series, of course, borrows the title, Minnesota/Dakotas setting, genre (bad plans or a lack of plans blow up into desperate, bloody fiasco, while stoic cops chase down the perpetrators), and tone of the namesake 1996 movie.
  • Like that film, both seasons claim (facetiously) to be based on true stories, and include the same disclaimer regarding names having been changed.
  • Via Season One, the series has a plot element that suggests a shared narrative universe: the ice scraper and buried money suitcase from the film.
Episode 1: "Waiting For Dutch" (10/12/15)
Episode 2: "Before the Law" (10/19/15)
  • "Also, [Floyd Gerhardt], 'chinaman' is not the preferred nomenclature."
  • I swear there's a scene in a Coen movie where a dog happily eats human remains. Cannot recall.
  • The typewriter salesman's half of the conversation into the phone could have been taken word-for-word out of the mouth of Jerry Lundegaard in the movie.
  • It's early yet, but Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) seems to fit into a long tradition of powerful killer characters in the Coen's filmography. Frequently portrayed as an unstoppable evil force, they are sometimes, but not always, also quite talkative. See: Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona, Visser in Blood Simple (also: Lorne Malvo in the first season of the TV series).
  • Meat grinder : this episode :: wood chipper : the movie.
  • Across the street from the butcher shop in Luverne is a "Mike Zoss Pharmacy." A Mike Zoss Pharmacy also appears in No Country for Old Men, in the scene where Chigurh steals supplies to tend to his wounds. The Coens' production company is also named "Mike Zoss Productions," all are named after a real Twin Cities pharmacy where the brothers hung out as kids. 
  • Added 10/28 - Floyd is in good with "Carter B. and the Solkirk crew." Carter Burwell has long been the Coens' go-to composer, and he composed the score to the movie Fargo, which sometimes stylistically inspires, and is sometimes directly quoted, on this show.
  • Added 11/18 - Lou's conversation with Hank about their respective tours of duty, and the latter's belief that the Vietnam Vets "brought the war home," accounting for his perception of an increase in senseless violence, echoes Sheriff Bell's conversation with his Uncle Ellis in No Country for Old Men about the changing times and his feeling "over-matched."
  • Added 11/18 - the Japanese-language funk song "Yama Yama" in the opening credits is from a project called Yamasuki by French musician Daniel Vangarde (father of one half of Daft Punk). Another song from this project was used over the closing credits of the 2014 film "Kumiko the Treasure Hunter," a dramatization of the urban legend in which a Japanese office worker died in northern MN while she was trying to find the briefcase full of money from the movie Fargo.
  • Added 3/8/16 - Just realized today that Elizabeth Marvel, who plays Peggy's coworker (boss?) Constance, played the adult Mattie Ross in True Grit.
Episode 4: "Fear and Trembling" (11/2/15)
  • Lou tells the Blumquists that they have no idea what's coming, again echoing Sheriff Bell from No Country, trying to warn Carla Jean of the danger she's in.
  • The end credits song is a cover of one that Ed (Holly Hunter) sings as a lullaby in Raising Arizona.
  • The framing of the doctor and the Solversons in their scene together is reminiscent of Coen scenes involving a meeting with an authority behind a desk, notably the funeral home in Lebowski and Rabbi Marshak in A Serious Man. The doctor also appears to share a taste in eyewear with Jeffrey Lebowski (the pillar of community, not The Dude) in that film.
  • That same Lebowski's haranguing of The Dude, telling him "Your revolution is over! ... The bums lost!" is put a bit more gently by Mike Milligan, talking about the 70s as the hangover of the 60s.
  • The framing of the hotel hallways are pure Barton Fink
  • Joe Bulo wonders whether The Gerhardt boys will, like the Dude, "abide"? (The Dodd does not abide!)
  • When Mike Milligan and the Kitchen brothers shoot Otto's nurse, there's a burst of down from her coat, like from Walt Gustafson's in Fargo.
Episode 5: "The Gift of the Magi" (11/9/15)
  • Bruce Campbell, who appears as Ronald Reagan, has been a repeat player in small-to-near-undetectable roles for the Coens (Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers).
  • Not sure if this version of Reagan's City on a Hill speech is word-for-word, but it reminded me of the contextual use of George HW Bush's "line in the sand" comments in Lebowski
  • Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man seeks to live as the titular phrase, including family, religion, and integrity in his definition. Mike Milligan seems to define "a serious person" to Simone Gerhardt as a person who gives him useful intelligence against her family's interests.
  • Dutch admits to Lou that the film from which he's drawing inspiration was merely "a boxing picture." Barton Fink is hired to write "a wrestling picture" (could be a pip!).
  • Jeff Tweedy of Wilco covers Jose Feliciano's "Let's Find Each Other Tonight," which Feliciano sang in Fargo. (See this MPR piece on the music of Season Two for some fun insights!)
Episode 6: "Rhinoceros" (11/16/15)
  • Lou: "
    I'm just imagining you parachutin' into the Mekong Delta, telling the Black Pajamas to leave your husband alone

    Read more at:
    I'm just imagining you parachutin' into the Mekong Delta, telling the Black Pajamas to leave your husband alone

    Read more at:
    I'm just imagining you parachutin' into the Mekong Delta, telling the Black Pajamas to leave your husband alone

    Read more at:
    I'm just imagining you parachutin' into the Mekong Delta, telling the Black Pajamas to leave your husband alone

    Read more at:
    I'm just imagining you parachutin' into the Mekong Delta, telling the Black Pajamas to leave your husband alone."
    Donnie: "Who was in pajamas, Walter?"
  • Lou seems to define A Serious Man in his conversation to Karl as being a man with serious intention to use his gun.
  • End credit music: a cover by Blitzen Trapper of "Man of Constant Sorrow," made famous by O Brother Where Art Thou?
Episode 7: "Did you do this? No, you did it!" (11/23/15)
  • Floyd talks about her father-in-law's generation of organized crime with its "tommy-gun bloodbaths."
  • If Ed Blomquist is a sleeper agent for KC, Hank will cut off his own toe.
  • Mike Milligan refers to Floyd as the materfamilias.
  • He also presages The Stranger from Lebowski: "Sometimes... there's a man."
  • The scene of Bear taking Symone into the woods is almost pure Miller's Crossing, from the circumstances, to the bare tree trunks, to the victim pleading desperately for their life (fellow Fargo fan Josh Carson notes that "You don't have to do this" was a line of Carla Jean's in No Country when Anton Chigurh comes to call, under very different emotional circumstances). [There really are not a lot of great Miller's Crossing clips on the web.] 
  • The Pearl Hotel's hallway remains very Finkian.
  • The episode really wants us to think that The Undertaker is this season's equivalent of Anton Chigurh, or Raising Arizona's Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. He's... not. Hanzee fills that role more successfully.
  •  Three covers of past Coen musical selections this episode: "Danny Boy" from Miller's Crossing, "O Death" from O Brother, Where Art Thou, and "Condition" from The Big Lebowski. Will we get through this season without a cover of "Please, Mr. Kennedy"?
Episode 8: "Loplop" (11/30/15)
  • Primed as I was to watch for allusions, I saw the bowling ball in the Blomquist basement and immediately thought, Lebowski! But they're the second generation of one family occupying a house in small-town Minnesota, of course there'd be a bowling ball in their basement.
  • Dodd ends up tied up in a cabin with a pillowcase on his head, just like Jean Lundegaard in the movie. And there's even somebody banging on the TV to fix the reception.
  • Took me a while to realize what Peggy's obsession with faddish self-help reminded me of: it echoes Frances McDormand's quest for plastic surgery in Burn After Reading. Peggy seems like she ends up with quite a bit more agency, though, especially in this episode.
  • The art in Constance's Sioux Falls hotel room, like that of Maude Lebowski, can be commended as being strongly vaginal.
  • Peggy pins Dodd's foot to the floor in the same way McDormand pinned Visser's hand to the window sill in Blood Simple.
  • Would-be ransomer Ed wants "no funny business," just as Lebowski's would-be ransomer nihilists wanted "no funny stuff." 
  • Mike Milligan likes Ed's style.
  • Hanzee's encounter with the clerk in the Rushmore General Store is straight out of No Country for Old Men. This episode cements Hanzee as the unstoppable figure of malevolence, following the Visser/Lone Biker/Anton Chigurh mold.
  • Hanzee is the third character in the Fargo universe to be driving to find a car in the woods, though he is less noble in intentions than Gus in Season One and less excited about it than Marge in the movie.
 Episode 9: "The Castle" (12/7/15)
  • The framing structure of this episode feels far more Wes Anderson than Coen Brothers, but it does bring back Martin Freeman from Season 1 to narrate the History of True Crime of the Midwest.
  • "Chickenshit outfit" may very well be an allusion to Aliens as much as anything else, but the "outfit" word choice reminded me of Pete asking Ulysses who elected him in O Brother.
  • "Prowler" is similarly, a specific word choice for the cop cars that puts me in the mindset of the movie Fargo. I dunno -- maybe that's common real life nomenclature for rural upper midwest cops.
  • Bloody shootout at a motel, far more sprawling and deadly than the one in No Country.
  • And the other UFO shoe finally drops, having more impact on the plot than it did in The Man Who Wasn't There.
  • We end the episode with Spoon's Britt Daniel covering CCR's "Run Through the Jungle," previously heard on the Dude's Creedence tape in The Big Lebowski.
Episode 10: "Palindrome" (12/14/15)
  • Betsy's dream of the future borrows from H.I. Mcdonnough's dreams in Raising Arizona right down to the "that night I had a dream" opening phrase. The moment when "War Pigs" winds up and the bottom drops out of the vision's optimism, and we see Hanzee through a wall of flames, recalls H.I.'s nightmare of the Lone Biker.
  • Mike Milligan calls the dude from Buffalo (MN, not NY, I assume) "friend-o," again borrowing from Anton Chigurh.
  • "Fargo, ND," Carter Burwell's theme from the movie, makes its end-of-season appearance as Ben and Lou put Peggy in the prowler for her return to Luverne.
  • Adam Arkin, as Mike Milligan's new organized crime middle management supervisor, is another Coen veteran in the cast. He was previously a lawyer in Ron Meshbesher's office in A Serious Man.
  • His story of a mailroom worker climbing the ladder is like a criminal Hudsucker Proxy.
  • The final, domestic scene of Lou and Betsy in bed and, for now, at peace, closes out the season with the same sense of familial contentment and tranquility that Molly and Gus found at the end of Season 1, and that Marge and Norm enjoyed at the end of the movie.
 And that's it! I'm sure I've missed something, so if you notice anything, please let me know.