“You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”
Noah Hawley’s acclaimed midwestern crime anthology Fargo returns to FX this week, along with my enthusiasm for saying oh yah and you betcha to anyone with the gall to speak to me when I would rather be watching Fargo. In my defence there are not one, but two, gloriously bad Ewan McGregor wigs. Truly, Hawley is doing the Lord’s work. Season three is set in the not too distant past of 2010, and follows the tried-and-true template of a ridiculously stacked ensemble of endearing (and woefully misguided) ne’er do wells gradually bungling their way into a shit show of their own design. As with each of the previous installments, least of all the Coen Brothers’ original 1996 film, the opening of this week’s episode features the following superimposed text:
This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in [year]. 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 claim is, as in all incarnations, bullshit. Fargo is, as the tiny-print disclaimer in the credits notes, a work of fiction. Full disclosure: my gullible ass didn’t think to fact check this until about halfway through season 1 of the FX series. It’s an oversight I share with a great deal of the reviewers who saw the Coen original, skirted the then-nascent internet, and propagated what Joel and Ethan probably thought no one but the very dense would fall for (see: yours truly). That being duped, or at the very least rendered unsure, was possible is a testament to the effectiveness of a film that, to quote Ethan, “pretends to be true.”
Like most fiction, swatches of the Coens’ Fargo are sourced from real events: most emphatically, the “Woodchipper Murder” of Helle Crafts and, according to Joel, a real-life case of “a guy…gumming up serial numbers for cars and defrauding the General Motors Finance Corporation.” Not to say that Fargo is some artistic-license-abusing biopic because its inspiration has some ties to real events; by that logic, every film would require some kind of pre-show disclaimer. Rather, Fargo’s actual fidelity is a lot less interesting than it’s purported fidelity; that the Coens, and Hawley, have chosen to endow Fargo’s narrative with an apparent authority of truth. Or, as Ethan explained in a recent interview with The Huffington Post: “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”
This isn’t truthfulness— it’s something that feels like the truth; that itch in the back of your skull that says wait…maybe this happened for real. It’s a frustratingly charming invitation to wilfully ascent to a cinematic reality; to give it a place in what you consider to be possible. To say “yes” to such requests can be both enchanting and dangerous. I cannot speak to every instance of fictions that, like Fargo, pretend to be true — but I would like to briefly touch on two of my favourites: found-footage horror, and its predecessor, the early modern travel novel.
While pinning down the exact origin of the “true story” framing device is somewhat murky — it certainly saw refinement during the unofficial 18th Century hell-in-a-cell match for the title of “first English novel.” Often, particularly in fictional travel literature, authors would claim to have come into possession of a stash of letters, a memoir, or an otherwise scrawled testimony they’d been entrusted to publish. Arguably, the device hit a stride with Daniel Defoe, who authored his most famous novel, Robinson Crusoe, under the name of its eponymous protagonist. This pre-Lemony Snicket shit, in conjunction with the confessional tone and the then unprecedented sense of realism, led many readers to believe the book was an actual travelogue as opposed to a piece of fiction. Seven years after Crusoe, famed would-be-baby-eater Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels, where he parodied the bejesus out of Defoe’s purported narrative veracity in an introductory note from the book’s fictional publisher. In it, Swift claims that his “ancient and intimate friend,” Mr. Gulliver bequeathed him the following papers and “there is an air of truth apparent through the whole; and indeed the author was so distinguished for his veracity, that it became a short proverb among his neighbours.” While a part of me pines for such a high level of petty subtweeting, the 1700s were a decidedly bad time to be lady writer. Though as it happens, some women, like Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, were able to fashion a comfortable distance between their work’s content and contemporary prejudice by framing their novels as historical fact. For women writers at this time, ascribing the authority of truthfulness to their fiction accomplished more than just narrative world-building , or tonal realism — it compelled their readers to consider their work as valid and worthy of attention. It’s a power less noble, shakier, more horror-inclined works, would come to exploit.
For better or for worse, found footage horror is a direct descendent of the aforementioned fancy early modern fare. A descendent you privately loathe and leave out of the will, perhaps, but the point stands: in both cases, giving credence to your fiction puts money in your pocket. Now listen, we could be civilized connoisseurs of the 21st-century found footage boom and talk about goodies like REC, baddies like The Fourth Kind, or oldies like The Blair Witch Project. Or we could talk about Cannibal Holocaust, which I’m going to heretically sit at the same table as Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast for its shared interest in procuring a “truthy-feel” out of its medium. But where the jury is out on the particularities of the havoc conjured up by Welles — Cannibal Holocaust is a different, and cautionary, tale.
The found footage trailblazer follows a team of American filmmakers into the Amazon basin to recover a documentary crew who disappeared while filming tribes of cannibals. Both the amateur documentary style of the film-within-the-film and the employment of real indigenous actors (which is a whole other can of worms) led many to suspect that Cannibal Holocaust was a bonafide snuff film, a rumour director Ruggero Deodato did little to dispel. Probably didn’t help that Sergio Leone wrote Deodato a prophetic letter that concluded: “everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.” 10 days after its premiere in Milan, Deodato was presented with every director’s dream scenario: obscenity and murder charges. Did it help that the four leads were under contract to go into hiding for a year so as to fan the promotional flames of “are the actors really dead?” No. No it did not. While the actors eventually broke contract and Deodato was cleared of the murder charges, the film does contain some very real and very graphic violence towards animals that landed Deodato, his producers, the screenwriter, and their United Artists representative an arguably lenient four-month suspension. All to say, if there’s a dark side to cinematic verisimilitude, Cannibal Holocaust is a contender.
. . .
By endowing Fargo’s narrative framework with a sense of truthfulness, Hawley and the Coens invite viewers to validate improbable events — to ascent to a world that can contain both the tenacious courage of Marge and Molly, and the chaotic violence of Malvo and the Gerhardts. In this way, to consider the plausibility of Fargo’s fiction is to entertain a peculiar and uneasy paradox: an exotic homeyness, a humorous severity. It’s a tension at home in both the broader Coen canon, and the adjacent space Hawley has carved out for himself. I have been dancing around the term truthiness, which belongs to Stephen Colbert. Admittedly, the impulse to bristle at something purporting truth with no basis in actual fact is a valid one. What ultimately distinguishes, and I think redeems Fargo’s truthiness is its playful attitude towards this framework, its ruthless commitment to the bit — its tongue-in-cheek invitation to validate an implausible comedy of errors. There’s that emboldening and terrifying paradox again: “stories that are not credible [that] occasionally turn out to be true.”
Fargo season 3 airs Wednesdays on FX.