Does FX's 'Fargo' Keep the Original's Darkness While Losing the Comedy?

Many words have been written this week about Tuesday’s premiere of the FX eponymous miniseries adaptation of Fargo, particularly in regards to its faithfulness to the classic and nearly universally adored Coen Brothers original. Critics seem to agree that the show, with the Coen Brothers blessing represented in the form of an Executive Producer credit, is faithful in setting and in certain character similarities to the film, but it is mostly not attempting to be an adaptation at all. Rather, it is its own set of stories that take place in the same snow-covered, “you betcha” oeuvre and the various criminals — hapless to exacting — that inhabit and pass through. I should say from the jump that I quite enjoyed the pilot episode, which flashed tremendous story and character potential to be fleshed out as the world builds and expands over its ten hour run. However, judging from the pilot, it seems the show will fall more into the realm of dark male violence that has defined prestige television for the last decade rather than the misanthropic dark comedy typical of my favorite Coen films. In other words, Fargo the series may have kept the dark and lost the comedy.

Just looking at the opening shots of the two projects, there are strong indicators of the mood the creators are trying to set. Both shots begin with titles on screen, the frame covered in the white Minnesota winter. In the distance, a beat up car drives towards the frame, and that is where the similarities end. In the film, as the car gets closer we see it drive through the frame towing another car behind it, an actively unusual scene. We later learn that the driver of that car is William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless sleaze whose choice to have his wife kidnapped in an effort to collect the ransom sets the films plot in motion. In the show, the car belongs to Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo who drives through the night, hits a deer, swerves off the road, and lets loose a man in his underwear who was held captive in his trunk. In leading with Malvo, who through the pilot is the shows most ruthless and capable character, a darker, more precise tone is set. Malvo is a confident killer in the vein of the No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh.

The difference in these two opening shots is important in an overall stylistic choice by the creators of the TV project that shifts the tone further away from comedy. Perhaps symptomatic of a large TV budget or even just advances in technology, FX’s Fargo simply looks much better, cleaner, and crisper than its source material. The deeper blacks and more shadowy lighting set ups, variations in depth of field, work to give the show a heavier, more serious look. It is a look we can associate with murder stories. What works so well in the film is that the darkness in the characters and plot is juxtaposed against all the homey midwestern effect of the production design. Macy’s tacky office, his suit that is practically eating him alive, the cars he sells, the way the whole thing is very flatly lit, all have a light, somewhat dirty, drab quality to them that gives the film and very particular quirk. READ MORE


The Duplass Brothers and Bringing the Lo-Fi Mumblecore Aesthetic to Mainstream Hollywood

With the recent mainstream indie success of Mumblecore pioneers Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies and Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, it seems the poorly named but important movement has officially come of age. In the mid-2000s, the films and filmmakers broadly lumped into the sometimes pejorative term “Mumblecore”, were often low-budget, low-production value films with non-professional actors navigating the conflicts and relationships of middle-class white male Americans in their late 20s.

Mark and Jay Duplass’ first film, The Puffy Chair, is a quintessential Mumblecore entry. Low-concept, relationship drama-driven, and heavy on the zoom button, the film mixes the unpredictability and reality of a documentary with the character malleability of a narrative in a way that makes the characters, relationships, and locations feel lived in and real. The drab production and costume design creates an authenticity that helps Duplass and co-star Katie Aselton play a devastatingly emotionally accurate break up in what feels like real time. The loose construction of a road trip allows us to feel a real sense of the necessity of their physical progress in contrast to their emotional decline. The Duplass Brothers allow the viewer to feel close to the characters by keeping them in tense, cramped spaces and situations without cuts and allowing the pauses and nuances in normal conversation to breathe without feeling the impulse to edit them out, as traditional film language would dictate.

However, unlike the rest of their Mumblecore classmates, whose talent and ambition begrudgingly outgrew their DIY ethos and love for limited resources, the Duplass Brothers seemed to always have Hollywood on the mind. Directly following the success of The Puffy Chair, the duo moved to Los Angeles, abandoning the regionalism that defined much of the work of their peers. Their follow up film, Baghead, is recognizable as Mumblecore both stylistically and in the way it was produced, but since they have made much more polished indie dramedies notably different from their previous work particularly in the star power attached. Cyrus, The Do-Deca Pentathlon, and Jeff, Who Lives at Home may not be aesthetically similar to The Puffy Chair, but in many ways the characters and even the filmmaking choices are trying to accomplish very similar things. This is particularly true of Jeff, Who Lives at Home. READ MORE


Applying the Auteur Theory to Kevin Smith

In the early '90s American Indie boom, auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh emerged into the zeitgeist with personal, low-budget projects that ultimately  came to inform a larger body of work that made them the important film personalities they are today. In this same Sundance-fueled era, a 24-year-old Kevin Smith premiered his first film, Clerks. With the industry support of Harvey Weinstein and the critical support of the New York Times and Janet Maslin, Kevin Smith bullied his way into the rising star director conversation. His follow up films, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma led to the creation of a connected Kevin Smith universe, or, the "View-Askewniverse" as it came to be called. However, none of this future projects has the stylistic inventiveness or the pitch perfect rendering of the worldview Smith inhabits that made Clerks so exciting.

Auteurism in film has been discussed in the column before, but to refresh it can be defined as a visual theme in a filmmaker's body of work that makes the work distinctly of the filmmaker's oeuvre. It can certainly be said that a Kevin Smith film is immediately recognizable as such, even without a glimpse of his signature Jay and Silent Bob characters, but is there a difference between a filmmaker who creates a universe in which his films inhabit, full of inside jokes and thematic recurrences, and a filmmaker who can be considered an auteur? I would argue that Kevin Smith fulfills the latter, but there are clear indications that what worked so well in Clerks from a directing standpoint did not carry over to his larger-budget, more commercial work. Nowhere is this more apparent than in comparing Smith's debut film with its long delayed sequel, Clerks II. READ MORE


How 'The Lego Movie' Manages to Keep a Bunch of Plates Spinning All at Once

While you certainly don't need me to tell you that the number one movie in the country three weeks running is a success, The Lego Movie seems to have struck a Pixar-esque chord in even the most skeptical corners of the internet. A certain amount of goodwill was always going to be garnered by the sheer novelty of seeing many people's favorite childhood toys (and I would suspect a disproportionate amount of people writing about pop culture on the internet) animated to life, but that same goodwill seemed potentially doomed to be destroyed by those shouting that we were just being suckered into paying for a 90-minute Lego commercial. The Lego Movie is much more than both of those things. It is a film actively engaging in the most common superhero movie tropes and putting on a clinic in their use, it is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, the restraint shown by the animating team in limiting their character’s movement to that of actual Lego figures is a visual gift that keeps on giving, and most of all it is a film that takes a massive and unnecessary emotional and storytelling risk in its climax that pays off tremendously.

And why should we be surprised? Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have made a career out of turning what seem like bad ideas into good comedies. 21 Jump Street is much funnier than it has any right to be and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a solid kids movie. 21 Jump Street is as successful and attuned as it gets in regards to playing with the modern social strata of young people. Where many comedies, even smarter, more critically acclaimed titles like Easy A or Superbad tend to rely on the age-old nerds and jocks cliches, Lord and Miller understand that particularly in more wealthy, urban and suburban environments, geek culture has gone mainstream in a big way and the high school social classes are divided by privilege and social success over athletic prowess and bulk. They also reignited Channing Tatum’s career by putting his usually self-serious good looks through a gauntlet of goofy physical bits and revealed surprising comedy chops and a willingness to play on his public image. All this, plus action scenes with set-pieces and a pace that feel legitimately tense and dangerous and a fulfilling emotional buddy-cop ending at least prove that the pair are able storytellers and directors of broad Hollywood comedies. READ MORE


How 'Family Guy' Gets the Comedic Cutaway So Wrong

By now, the cutaway has become a television comedy staple, allowing programs to reveal information, flashback, build on a joke, or direct-address the camera among other options. The cutaway, an abrupt break in continuity editing, (which as mentioned previously here is editing that allows multiple shots to appear as if they are happening continuously on the same spatial and temporal plane) is useful and oft-used in the visual comedy toolkit because it can suddenly subvert the pacing of a scene or add information for a joke or punchline without losing dramatic focus. Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy has positioned itself as the immediate point of reference when discussing the use of the cutaway.

However, Family Guy displays a lack of purpose (and to me, humor) in its use of cutaways that shows a misunderstanding of their function both visually and dramatically in the structure of a sitcom. In fact, there are many modern comedies that serve as a much stronger example of how to use this visual trick as an organic element of a show and as an effective source of visual humor.

Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, a show that employs cutaways in a pace similar to Family Guy but to much greater effect, has been said to be paced and structured like a live-action cartoon because the rules of the world are contained, specific, and flexible to reality in service of the comedy. 30 Rock was edited at a lightning pace so the most affective way to add character details and exposition was through whip pans in and out of the continuity editing. READ MORE


The Evolution of 'SNL's Pretaped Sketches and Digital Shorts

Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island were not the first to produce pre-recorded material for Saturday Night Live. The show has a long tradition of commercial parodies, short films by directors like Albert Brooks and Tom Schiller, and animated work like Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse sketches. They weren’t even the first to use the “SNL Digital Short” tag. What they did do, was usher SNL into the age of digital online content in a time when it needed to tap into that relevance more than ever. And because they were able to tap into the early rising of the online video tide, as well as produce work prodigiously at a quality pace, for better or for worse the “SNL Digital Short” title remains synonymous with the Lonely Island.

However, when Andy Samberg left the show along with his Lonely Island mates (Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) after the 2012 season, SNL did not stop producing content meant to play as stand-alone sketches that could be viewed online without any loss of excitement from the live show. The following season they premiered two of my favorite sketches in recent memory, “Sad Mouse” and “Lincoln,” both of which clearly drew a line in the sand that indicated the new age of the digital short would be quite different from the more high-energy Lonely Island days (also indicated by the lack of “SNL Digital Short” title card preceding them).

Prior to the 2013 season, SNL hired Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett as featured players along with Dave McCary as a segment director. Making up 3/4 of the popular web sketch group Good Neighbor, the show clearly was looking to replicate the success of the Lonely Island videos by allowing a previously established sketch group to create pre-recorded original material for the show. So far, the Good Neighbor sketches have mostly occupied the famously weird final slot on the show, but they've been fresh, funny, and a fine spotlight for performers who haven’t otherwise seen much airtime on the show. More importantly, the Good Neighbor sketches are doing something similar to what made the Lonely Island so successful: they are creating work in a style and tone that could not be made as a live sketch.

At first glance, the two groups are incredibly different, with Lonely Island going to big-budget loud parodies of excess and Good Neighbor tending towards quiet, DIY-style production, but both are successful at pioneering what people want to see in online video in their respective times. READ MORE


How Lena Dunham's Directing Style Makes 'Girls' More Emotionally Resonant – and More Polarizing

At some point in the last two years it became a legal requirement in the United States to have an opinion about Lena Dunham. So, here is mine: Lena Dunham, the ultimate multi-hyphenate, is a tremendously skilled filmmaker. She also fits perfectly in the original mission of this column, in that while she is often more lauded, or at least more recognized, for her writing and acting work, her skills and choices as a director actually allow her to perfectly convey what she tries to do in Girls and her earlier work. Just as in her writing, her filmmaking choices are pitch-perfect in portraying perfectly timed humor, sadness, vulnerability, and confidence in both exceedingly public and private ways.

Tiny Furniture, the film which launched Dunham into public consciousness, is notable in its commitment to long shots in carefully composed wide frames. The camera rarely moves and much of the action is comprised of Dunham’s character, Aura, either alone or with one other character in a much larger space, usually her mother’s apartment. These wide frames allow the audience to disassociate with the characters’ emotions and become viewers of their behavior. It’s the opposite of manipulative filmmaking typical of romantic comedies, but in some ways it’s actually asking more of the audience because the disassociation forces the viewer to make their own opinion about the characters’ choices. There is no hand-holding in Dunham’s direction, instead, she has the confidence to drag her audience into the deep end along with her characters. Often times this is played for humor; Dunham is adept at placing her physical presence in stark contrast with her surroundings to heighten her character’s ridiculousness. However, she also knows how to use this same tactic of passing the onus of judgment to the viewer in more serious moments, most notably in her now infamous style of portraying sex on screen, beginning with the famous “pipe scene” in Tiny Furniture. READ MORE


Mel Brooks and His Wonderful Rejection of Subtlety

Back in a time when our primary source of film-watching outside the movie theatre involved a trip to a video store, it was much harder to be a young boy curious about what might exist beyond the G-rated family comedies we would watch on Sunday nights (my family would do this “picnic style” which meant putting down a dirty blanket in our suburban finished basement, ordering chinese food, and eating on the floor while we watched). One day my parents allowed me to attend a friend’s birthday party where we would be watching Mel Brooks’ R-rated film, Blazing Saddles, perhaps just pleased that we weren’t going to watch one of the many mid-90s sex comedy offerings. A film whose vulgarity has a much more antiquated sensibility, since Brooks’ comedic style was developed on 1950s broadcast television and blue material had to be very carefully hidden or avoided, the choice of Blazing Saddles must have been a relief to them, since many friends’ parents were allowing much more salacious material to be watched (which of course, was not fair).

Today, I know these three things to be true: first, Blazing Saddles is an extremely vulgar film that went right over my 11-year-old head, particularly in regards to racial humor; second, it informed my future as a comedy nerd significantly more than Road Trip would have been able to; and third, it remains one of my favorite films ever made. The next trips to the video store were spent convincing my dad to rent History of the World, Pt. 1, Silent Movie, Young Frankenstein and eventually the rest of the Mel Brooks canon. Ultimately, I strongly believe that Brooks’ films have the elements that make it the perfect comedy film “gateway drug,” and should be essential viewing for any kid with an interest in comedy. READ MORE


Paul Feig, 'Bridesmaids', and Comedy with a "Feminine Sensibility"

Starting with the creation of his breakout sitcom, Freaks and Geeks, and the lead character of Lindsay Weir, Paul Feig has said publicly and shown in his work that he prefers a “feminine sensibility” in his comedy. His role as the auteur for the female comedic actress has been cemented in recent years with his back-to-back critical and box office successes, Bridesmaids and The Heat, and has helped to launch the careers of his stars and supporting players, particularly Melissa McCarthy. So then what is it about Feig’s storytelling and directing style that is so suitable for women performers? Primarily, the answer is that Feig is actively rebelling against the notion that comedy with women equals comedy for women and instead is pursuing the specific strengths of his performers in the goal of servicing some good old non-gendered laughs.

With Bridesmaids, Feig gave the Judd Apatow family of comedies its most needed entry in years. By 2011, after producing/directing a string of successful-but-similar comedies about immature men, what felt fresh and exciting about Apatow’s sensibilities was beginning to feel rote and tired. The most oft-lobbed criticism was the treatment of women in the world of those films, particularly in the riskier, more purely comedic roles. Bridesmaids was a stark departure from all that, and Feig was the right choice to take that project on.

Smartly, Paul Feig chose not to heavily depart from the familiarity of the romantic comedy genre, and on the surface, the film checks many of the boxes that signify that genre. It is about a female friendship stunted by a romantic relationship, starring mostly women, it is about finding love, and it prominently features a wedding. What Feig is trying to do is remove those as signifiers as genre specific comedy. Why should that film only appeal to women, and even that, to a specific type of woman? Thus, by working within that genre, Feig is able to subvert expectations by having his characters play against type, and the charge towards a comedy based around playing against type begins with casting. READ MORE


How Director Peter Atencio Acts as the Unsung, Essential Third Member of 'Key and Peele'

In addition to being one of the most consistently funny sketch shows on TV, Key and Peele is also praised for its highly stylized, cinematic look. That look, which contributes greatly to the success of what Key and Peele tries to do, is the work of Peter Atencio, who directs every episode. This is a unique arrangement in sketch comedy and in comedy television in general, where the primary auteur is often considered the writer. However, having a talented director as the de facto third member of the troupe allows creators Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele flexibility in coming up with material and contributes greatly to the success of the show’s comedy.

The show is commonly said to have a “cinematic” look to it that other sketch shows lack. That look certainly comes from have a director with a talented eye for crafting an image, but it also comes with having that director specifically focused on the overall look of the show at all times. With his directing ability, Atencio also brings focused production design, costume design, cinematography, editing, and visual effects to every Key and Peele sketch. He successfully creates the world of the sketch with a sense of realism and authenticity that is uncommon for the format.

Of course, this would all be a nice but unnecessary bonus if it wasn’t also a huge reason why Key and Peele is incredibly funny. READ MORE


The Auteur Theory of Judd Apatow

More than any modern day comedy director, Judd Apatow can be considered an auteur.

Auteur Theory, first written about by Francois Truffaut in the 1950s as a way to show the value of the lesser-respected American Hollywood filmmakers in comparison to the more artistically respected French filmmakers (later popularized by American critic Andrew Sarris), states that the director is the primary artistic visionary behind a film and that a consistency in his vision over a series of projects proves greatness.

In the most basic sense, Apatow falls under this definition not only because he's created a visual style that is distinctly his own and consistent throughout his directorial efforts, but also has created a unique world of performers, subject matters, and sensibilities. Anyone familiar with his work would make no mistake in identifying a film, scene, or even shot as distinctly Apatow. READ MORE


How Louis CK's Directing Style Helps Him Translate His Standup to the Screen in 'Louie'

Louis C.K. is a filmmaker.

That is not to undermine his world-class abilities as a writer and performer, but rather to emphasize the role his direction and visual style plays in his comedy.

Historically, audiences have operated under a false perception that in comedy films and television, actors and writers are doing the heavy-lifting and directors set up a wide shot and let the magic happen. In dramas, nobody questions the role of the director in bringing out performances or employing the perfect close-up. They are, deservedly so, regarded as integral pieces of the storytelling.

When considering C.K. in this canon, it is important to look at his career arc. When he was an up-and-coming standup in the nascent years of the downtown New York alt scene, C.K. was also busy making short films. From these films, two things are immediately clear. First, C.K. is extremely aware of and inspired by major stylistic movements in filmmaking, most prominently the French New Wave films of the 1960s, the American New Hollywood films of the 1970s, and perhaps most strangely, the silent Surrealist films of the 1920s. Second, Louis C.K. has always wanted to use his cinematic style to present his comedy.

Pootie Tang took his voice and writing style but without his performance. Lucky Louie allowed him freedom in writing and performance but within the visually constraining form of the sitcom. It is no coincidence that the final piece of the puzzle for C.K., and the medium in which he would find major celebrity, was the freedom provided by FX to direct and edit his own show. In being able to combine his distinct and specific directorial style with his comedic voice and performance, C.K. has made what I and many others believe is the funniest, deepest, nuanced, and most successful work of his career as well as on television today.

One of C.K.’s goals with his visual comedy is to translate his standup humor and sensibility to the screen. What we see are his experiences and observations filtered through his interpretation. Looking at it this way allows us to engage with the more stylized visual choices he makes. READ MORE