So, I was going to drop “Fargo” from the list of films that I’m analyzing in my thesis, but I decided against it. Part of this has to do with how good of a movie it is just on pure aesthetic merit, but another part of it is that it’s arguably the Coen Brothers’ most location-specific film.
Now, this isn’t another column in which I laud the brothers as the best working American directors. I’ve already done that this year, and I’ve got my whole thesis to do that (and I am). But I do want to highlight the importance of the hyper-specific setting work that they do. I think a lot of movies lose that.
Since I’ve been a wee tot, every literature class has included large sections on how important setting is to the text of a story. In film, it’s even more important. When a movie is too vague about where it takes place, it loses its realism and attention to detail and becomes even more fake than non-specific literature.
Movies, too, have the ability to become uniquely part of the culture of a city. My favorite movie, “Heat,” has a scene in which Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have coffee at a diner. It’s an amazing scene (and movie), but the diner has since become famous among fans of the movie for hosting that bit of movie history. The conversation between De Niro and Pacino is so incredibly expository on the nature of Hollywood, the Horatio Alger myth, Manifest Destiny and the compulsion to dominate that it becomes a visual reminder of the ideas that the film explores.
Mann’s film “Collateral” does Los Angeles equally well, and the digital camera and cinematography lets the viewer know that the city is on trial in the movie as much as the characters — we’re not only exploring the characters’ psyches, in other words, but the culture and environment that produced those characters as well. Depending on where you fall on the nature vs. nurture argument, that’s a very important thing to explore in a movie.
Would “Dirty Harry” be as effective if it wasn’t set in San Francisco and reminiscent of the Zodiac serial killer case that plagued the city? Would “Ghostbusters” be the same if it wasn’t in New York? Ditto for “Taxi Driver” in the same city and “The Departed” in Boston, both directed by Scorsese.
“The Godfather” is probably the best example of culture and characters becoming part of the backdrop as much as the raw physical location does. Unless James Cameron or P.T. Anderson or some other director blessed with final cut privileges wanted to do it, I doubt someone could make that movie today. Large portions of the first half of the movie do nothing but explain the world of the Corleones and the Mafia to the viewers. There’s not much in the way of plot development; what little does occur happens slowly and mainly to the furthering of world-building.
That’s not a bad thing. I wish more movies had this attention to detail. I encourage you to look for it in your favorite films. There are several factors that make a movie good, but the setting often illuminates the themes, motifs and symbols that make movies really stick with you.
Sometimes, it becomes important all on its own — how many of us remember “Fargo” for the Minnesotan accents, bleak landscape and hardscrabble characters struggling to cope with the harshness of their environment? Well, isn’t that what the movie is about?