Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Power of the False: On Fargo

Fargo opens with a claim that the story the film tells is based on a true story. As is well know by anyone who has looked into the story this claim is a lie. What is less remarked upon, however, is the way in which much of the film is structured around a series of lies. These lies move beyond the ordinary deceptions to become part of what Deleuze calls "the power of the false."

The power of the false has to do not just with the lie at the center of the film, or the lies that are told over the course of it, which are many, but the way that the film brings the two together, image and words to tell a lie. This can be seen in one of the film's best scenes, when Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) comes home to discover that his wife has been kidnapped. This is no surprise to Jerry since he arranged for this kidnapping to take place. The audience knows this too since the film opens with Jerry hiring the kidnappers. However, it is still shot according to the conventions of the discovery of a crime scene. The camera focuses on Jerry's reaction, his surprise and horror, then turning to survey the carnage.  The shot in some sense lies before Jerry even opens his mouth. At the end of the scene Jerry calls his father-in-law. We hear Jerry on the phone to his father and law as the camera pans across the kitchen. When he enters the frame we see that he is only rehearsing the call to his father in law. There are two lies--one is spoken, the other is in the frame. 

The deceptions here are in some sense superfluous. We know that Jerry knows what happened to his wife,  he hired the kidnappers, and we know that he did so to get money from his stepfather, yet everything is shot according to the fiction he is constructing, that of a victim rather the perpetrator of a crime. That the image and the voice both break from this knowledge, suspending what we already know, is a testament to the power of the false. It is this sequence, and not the deception of the title card, that make this film a fiction.

The camera is complicit with Jerry's crime, up to point, following his eyes as he looks on the chaos he initiated. He is playing the role of the witness, and the camera lets him up until the last seconds when the image catches up with the voice. At that moment camera and fiction part ways and he is caught in the lie. As Deleuze summarizes Pasolini: “A character acts on the screen, and is assumed to see the world in a certain way. But simultaneously the camera sees him, and sees his world, from another point of view which thinks, reflects and transforms the viewpoint of the character.” The framing of the lie is slight, subtle even, especially when compared to the scene which proceeds it in which Jerry's lies and deceptions are framed by the perspective of a cruel and indifferent god.

One of the most interesting things about Fargo is that all of its lies and deceptions are presented without a corresponding truth; we never learn why Jerry needs to run this scam, or why he needs so much money. Is the kidnapping ransom an attempt to cover for the scam involving car loans, or are both part of some larger attempt to collect as much money as possible. This is never resolved. It is the sheer emptiness of Jerry's motivation, an emptiness combined with his mild mannered appearance, and callous lack of concern for the lives of others, that makes him terrifying. There is no drive, no desire, just an attempt to keep the different lies, the different, schemes afloat that drives Jerry. (Bloom as villain). Some of these schemes, the parking lot deal, for example, are legal, even lucrative, while the others cross the lines from embezzling to kidnapping. To quote Deleuze on the powers of the false: "The power of the false exist only from the perspective of a series of powers, always referring to each other and passing into one another." Jerry Lundegaard is positioned both at the center of a series of formal conditions of the false, the title card, his lies within the narrative, and the deception of the camera, as well as a series of interlocking schemes and lies. Thus, to be Deleuzian about the film, one could say that its subtle lasting power maybe the way that it puts the fictions of financial speculation, real estate and financing, in synch with those of cinema, both its formal conditions and its overarching myth.

It is worth noting, at least parenthetically, that the odd follow up to Fargo, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, is based on a true story. Or, more to the point, it is based on the fiction constructed to make sense of a true story. It is simultaneously truer than Fargo, actually based on true events, albeit distorted, and a testament to the "power of the false," to a reality always already mediated by fictions.


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