I’m not an expert on the Coen brothers, but I think we’d get along pretty well. There’s something of the Memphisotan in them, I suspect. Although they grew up in a Minneapolis suburb bordering my own, their work has shown a fascination with parts of the country that may as well be foreign allies with Minnesota. There are the New York movies (Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy), the southwest/Texas movies (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men), and the L.A. movies (The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There). But the three Coen Brothers movies I feel most connected with are those that speak of home, both the one I came from and the one I’ve chosen as an adult.
It won a couple Oscars, so I know I can’t be the only person who liked Fargo, but sometimes it feels that way. It doesn’t fit in much with the flashier, shinier, more colorful mix of Coen films, standing off in a northern corner by itself (politely avoiding eye contact with A Serious Man). But Marge Gunderson is my idea of the perfect leading lady, and I consider Frances McDormand’s slyly understated portrayal to be an homage to The Minnesotan Woman. Sure, she’s kind of dorky and brusque, but she’s smart and strong and loyal, and strangely attractive in a Radisson Hotel lounge kind of way. Some Minnesotans were insulted by the movie, but some are insulted by Prairie Home Companion, too. I guess temperatures under 30-below can be rough on one’s sense of humor (the Swedes’, mostly).
I’d only lived in Memphis a year when O Brother, Where Are Thou? was released, so I didn’t automatically recognize the references to TVA’s damming of Lake Arkabutla or know the exact location of Robert Johnson’s crossroads negotiation, even though these occurred less than an hour’s drive from my home. But the movie still stuck with me like the sirens’ song. As in Fargo, exaggerating the comical traits of an area highlighted both the humanity and inexplicable cruelty of its residents, but the film didn’t take shortcuts with stereotypes. By using the framework of an epic tale, the Coen brothers show respect for a hero that could be dismissed as bumbling, and a deeper understanding of the complexities inherent in this or any rural Southern setting.
When I think of True Grit, I think of Westerns, so it surprised me to realize that the “west” was my neighbor, Arkansas. The story itself is enough of a draw, with Coen-friendly dialogue already seeping from the novel, but I wonder if the location held appeal to the film-makers as well. Like the Delta of O Brother, Fort Smith, Arkansas is an in-between place, a seemingly civilized town that’s only a night’s ride from the unknown of Indian territory. From what I know of Arkansas, things haven't changed all that much. A grieving child, a drunken bounty-hunting Marshall, and a cocky Texas Ranger could have easily slid into the realm of the cartoonish, especially when using language that amuses by sheer anachronism, but again the Coens avoid this peril by focusing on character rather than caricatures. That's a skill I had to learn myself when I moved to the South. People are so big down here, their surfaces so broad and apparent, that it can be hard not to assume you know all you need to.
The Coen brothers have certainly covered a lot of ground, cinematically speaking, and I wouldn’t try to contend that the areas featured in these movies reflect their deepest geographic affections and loyalties. But they do reflect mine, and in doing so, I feel some validation. I feel like someone of my own tribe has blessed my wandering from home. It’s a little like meeting up with old friends after twenty years and having them say, “Yeah, you did alright.”
Or even better, “Ya did real good. You’re bona fide. I admire your sand.”