Something that I absolutely, absolutely hate when it comes to online movie discussions is when people have a legitimate complaint about something, only to have their complaints dismissed as not having understood the thing they are complaining about. According to the apologists, it’s not that there was a plot hole, a scene that didn’t make sense or some other technical issue causing the complaining; it’s that the critics were too thick to understand what the movie was trying to do. The infamous Mike Yanagita plot point from Fargo (1996) is a textbook case.
If you don’t know what subplot I’m talking about, here’s the recap–the heroine, Marge Gunderson, is lying in bed one night when a goofball named Mike Yanagita, a classmate she hasn’t seen since high school, calls her up out of the blue. They decide to have dinner to reminisce over old times. When they meet at the restaurant, Mike gives this sob story about how terrible his life has gotten in recent years. He particularly talks about his wife, who he explains died from cancer and that because of all this, he is barely hanging on emotionally. He then implies that he was always taken by Marge and wants to hook up with her. Of course, they can’t, because she is married, heavily pregnant and was never all that into him anyway.
The next morning, Marge shares with a friend what happened, and that friend informs her that Mike Yanagita never married the person he claimed he did. Not only that, but this ersatz waifu is alive and well.
Ever since the movie’s release, people have scratched their heads over this subplot. It’s baffled viewers to such an extent that when television networks take scenes out of the movie to shorten the running time, they will actually cut this entire plot point out. This is what I meant earlier when I said, “in case you don’t know what plot point I’m talking about.” Some people who have only seen Fargo on broadcast television have no idea that the Mike Yanagita subplot exists.
In any event, decades later, hardcore fans of Fargo started defending it by dumbsplaining that Marge’s meeting with Mike caused a lightbulb to go off about Jerry Lundegaard; in realizing that Mike had been lying to her, she also realized that Jerry had lied to her the day before.
As I said in the opening, this kind of argument tactic drives me and in the case of Fargo, it drives me crazy on two fronts. First of all, saying something was meant to do or be something isn’t some kind of magic bullet that exempts it from criticism. The reason why is that it may not have been executed well. For example, I could shoot a movie of dogs taking dumps all day and say to critics attacking my film, “I’m trying to make a statement about how modern-day politicians are taking a dump on our democracy.” I could say that, because I’m the filmmaker-screenwriter. But so what if I said it? Did I do a good job of conveying this idea, if at all? If not, then no amount of dumbsplaining to the critics that I had intended it to symbolize something political counters the fact that the audience didn’t get what I was trying to do. They didn’t get it, because I fucked up.
A second reason why I hate the argument tactic on the part of Mike Yanagita defenders is that it comes from the smug position of feeling that if you understood what something was meant to do and most didn’t, this means that it must have been meant for really smart people. The problem with this stance is that just because a few people figured out the movie’s subplot doesn’t necessarily mean that it was oh, so nuanced for the average person to grasp. The reason is that some people, no matter how poorly something is set up in a movie, are able to figure out what it was meant to do because they have a critic’s brain–i.e., the ability to pick the brains of the screenwriter regardless of how ineptly they executed something.
For example, there could be a completely random scene in a movie in which the protagonist is shown jerking off in his bedroom (Ken Park) or shower (American Beauty). Figuring out that the screenwriter or director put that scene in there to “humanize” the main character or shed light on how mentally sick he is doesn’t mean that it was subtle and you were smart enough to get it. It just meant that you figured out the screenwriter’s logic in having that scene in there.
It’s the same with the Mike Yanagita subplot. No one was “stupid” for not getting this subplot; it didn’t register for audiences because from a strictly storytelling standpoint, it was poorly set up, tonally inconsistent, contradicted several characters, and violated the internal logic of both the subplot and the entire movie. If you had a screenwriter’s or critic’s brain, you were able to figure out the logic of it being in there. If you were just a regular moviegoer looking to get engrossed in decent storytelling and great characters with strong direction, you were probably the least likely to understand the subplot precisely because of how much it was out of place in terms of story, character and tone.
So, with that being said, I’m going to defend critics of the Mike Yanagita subplot by explaining why they didn’t understand it and how their lack of understanding had nothing to do with their inability to grasp subtlety.
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