Many questions about Fargo

The duck stamps, Prince, and the true story inspiration for the movie

Dear Matthew Alice: In the movie Fargo, Margie’s husband, Norm, is painting in a competition for wildlife postage stamps. Is this something artists get paid for or work worth doing because of the honor of being selected? — Ed Vogel, downtown

Hey, Matt: I saw Fargo last week, and I noticed in the credits for the “Victim in the Field” there was no name, just a symbol. It looked remarkably like the symbol used by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, except sideways. Is he now appearing in movies as a bit actor? Does he have a younger brother (perhaps the Actor Formerly Known as Prince’s Brother)? Who is this mysterious person? — Jim McGhee, SDSU

Dear Matt: In Fargo, there’s a character who runs from an overturned car into a snow field and is shot dead by another character. The credits show this character to be none other than his royal badness, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Why would he do such a small part in such a small film? Why, Matt? Why? I must know. Maybe you could ask Duncan for us, pleeeez. — Pat A., Ocean Beach

Matthew: Can you find any details about this “true” story the Coens claim is the inspiration for Fargo? — Duncan Shepherd

The Coen kids sure have the neighborhood in an uproar. I assume they’re snickering and counting their money while we try to unravel all the practical jokes. In general it seems that not much of Fargo is what it claims to be — first and foremost, the Victim in the Field, supposedly known as Prince. It’s not Prince. What little is visible of the figure on-screen suggests the actor is a porky white guy, not a svelte black guy, no matter what the credits say. (The Pillsbury Dough Boy as Victim in the Field? Pillsbury’s as much a Minnesota native as Prince or the Coens.) Assuming we can believe anything Joel and Ethan Coen say about Fargo, in an Entertainment Weekly interview they identified the victim as J. Todd Anderson, the artist who did the film’s storyboards. They offered a convoluted explanation for why the credits show an ankh-like, Prince-like symbol on its side (shot dead?) instead of Anderson’s name. Basically, it was a little Coen hometown joke. They don’t anticipate being sued.

Norm’s ducks are another blend of the real and the not-so-very. He enters his painting in a competition apparently sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service. In the real, that is, non-Coen world, the U.S. Department of the Interior sponsors an annual duck stamp competition. Duck hunters are required to buy a federal permit in the form of an illustrated stamp; the proceeds go to save game-bird habitat. Each year artists submit duck-related paintings to the interior department, and the winning entry becomes the illustration on the stamp. It’s very competitive, and it’s a prestigious award among wildlife illustrators that can mean a million dollars or so to the winner in stamp-related merchandising. As for the Coens’ connection, a big chunk of the habitat saved with duck stamp dollars is in Minnesota; 10 percent of the stamps are bought in Minnesota each year; and for the last two years, the winning duck stamp artists have been Minnesotans. For the purposes of the film, though, it was simpler (and ultimately funnier) to have Norm compete for a spot on regular postage stamps.

Is Fargo based on a true story? The jury’s still out, but the question has been pursued diligently by news sources, gleaners of regional crime statistics, and other interested parties across the country, and nobody’s identified any such crime so far. But isn’t all this realitybending exactly what Coenheads expect from the guys? It’s all just part of the fun.

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