Discuss the use of whiteness in the opening scene of Fargo in relation to other uses of whiteness in art and advertising.
I am interested in the use of colour, both from the perspective of working in advertising, and in relation to my art practice. In this essay I will focus on the opening sequence of the 1996 film directed by the Coen brothers Fargo to examine how it uses whiteness. I will then go on to look at an example of the use of whiteness in advertising and in contemporary art, focusing on examples of work by Guido Van de Werve and Barnaby Hosking, as well as a recent advert for Citroen cars, in order to show how whiteness can be mobilized in different ways for different effects.
Fargo opens with white text on a dark background describing how the story is based on true events, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” (Fargo 1996). Immediately whiteness is used as a signifier of ‘truth’. The black and white distinction suggests a simple opposition between fact and fiction, truth and reality, which the film later goes on to dismantle. As this fades, the shot is replaced by an empty smoky looking whiteness. White now becomes a signifier of swirling formlessness. Supported by the minimalist musical accompaniment, it creates a sense of tension as we wait for something to emerge from the subtly shifting textured nothingness. The opening credits spread, with a minimal font, across the white, leaving gaps and spaces to accentuate the emptiness of the background. Gradually as the rhythm of the movements shift, there are hints of emergence from the formlessness. Then, when a car appears and is shown driving over a hill, there is a sudden and striking shift from the surface depthlessness of the white to the contours of depth and perspective which appear in relation to the car. The music gains in intensity as the car moves forward until it fills the frame and the white shallow formlessness turns into a snowy road with depth and perspective. White here is used as a kind of illusion, a way of creating a shallowness in the image and hiding any action or events. Rather than suggesting truth, it can be read as the mask of truth. Although the white now comes to represent a snowy road, with increasing depth, its significance as a signifier of nothingness and emptiness carry across into the new image creating a powerful feeling of isolation and separation from the world. The next shot shows a building in the middle of this empty snowy landscape, it looks like a bar. The opening has powerfully created a real sense of loneliness and lawlessness, as if the bar is unreal and anything that happens there would happen separate from the rest of reality. The bar emerges from the frontiers of nothingness and as the figure walks in, whiteness as truth and purity has been inverted into a fearful and uncanny signifier.
Such analysis can be applied not only to cinema but also to the codes used in advertising. The Citroen C4 TV advert for example also uses whiteness as a signifier of an alien and hostile landscape. The abstract smokiness used in its opening is similar to that used in Fargo except here the coldness is emphasized through shots of men wrapped up Arctic Explorer style clothing standing around a car as it enters the frame. In the advert however, the car rather than driving out of shot, transforms into a robot and skates dramatically over the ice to a rousing soundtrack. In contrast with Fargo, where the white emptiness completely dominates and overpowers the characters, the advert offers an image of man and technology’s domination over Nature. The use of the robot suggests that the car can handle incredibly well, even on such hostile terrain. The CGI nature of the landscape adds to its effect as spectacular and dramatic.
While both examples differ, they do share a sense of awe and wonder at the landscape, which could be defined as sublime. Edmund Burke defined the sublime as a strange feeling of combined fascination and fear that can be felt when being made aware of the smallness of the human in the face of all powerful nature. (Burke 1998) It has been used in relation to Romantic landscape painting such as work by Casper David Friedrich, but the use of whiteness in contemporary culture could also be read in terms of signifying the sublime. In his definitions of the postmodern, Lyotard draws on Burke and Kant’s descriptions of the sublime in order to propose it as a fundamental part of modern aesthetics. He describes the sublime as the feeling provoked by “the representation of the unrepresentable” (Lyotard, 1999, p.46). This could apply to both of my examples so far. It is the unrepresentability of the empty Arctic landscape which gives it a sublime feeling of admiration and fear in Fargo. In the Citroen advert on the other hand, the landscape may be unrepresentable but the car is shown as being able to conquer even this, through its use of technology.
Artists have also explored this sense of the sublime evoked by the whiteness of the snowy landscape. Guido Van Der Werve’s Nummer Acht – Everything is going to be Alright (2007) emphasizes the sublimity of the white landscape by showing a small human figure in relation to a giant ship. The film is shown on a loop so it looks as if the ship is always almost catching the figure but never quite runs him over. The whiteness of the landscape and the size of the ship emphasise the fragility of the figure. White again becomes an important signifier of drama and fear, as well as beauty. The slowness of the film combined with its piano accompaniment uses whiteness as a vital element of its poetics, as well as allowing, as in Fargo for an optical illusion. In this case, it seems that the ship never catches the man although they are so close, while actually they are a long way apart but the whiteness collapses the perception of distance.
Guido van der Werve, Nummer acht – Everything is going to be alright, 2007
Another example of an artist using whiteness is Barnaby Hosking’s Snow Painting (process/painting/reflection) (2005). This can be seen as an ironic counterpoint to the sublime landscapes seen in my other examples. In this installation, an artist is seen traveling to a white landscape and painting a white painting, which is then exhibited along with the video of its process. This uses humour to challenge some of the pomposity in other work. The painting itself is just flat and white and could easily have been done anywhere, in a studio say. so the whole epic journey to find some white to paint becomes an ironic criticism of the artist’s attempt to find the sublime in nature. Similar to in Van Der Werve’s video piece, the artist is seen clad in black, standing out alone against the epic white landscape. While the effect of the first film is romantic – the artist figure alone and untouchable, Hosking’s figure is more humorous, poking fun at the Romantic image of the artist in the epic landscape while he stumbles and falls in attempts to represent the whiteness, which are also revealed to be absurd when the flat unengaging painting is displayed as the slightly pathetic results of his epic romantic mission. Here the unrepresentability of the landscape is emphasized in a more obvious way, as he really can’t create the sense of sublime in the painting.
Barnaby Hosking: Snow Painting (process/painting/reflection), 2005
Overall then, whiteness has been employed in interesting and multiple ways both in film, in advertising, and in examples from contemporary art. Fargo is an interesting example of using a single colour to, first of all, suggest truth, then deceit, and then just cold isolated emptiness, which adds to the emotional engagement with or distance from the characters, and is developed throughout the film. The opening sequence is vital to the film in setting up some of the associations with the landscape and the figures and locations that emerge from it. Advertisers are also attuned to the signifying power of pure colour, as my example of the Citroen advert shows. While it has some similarities with Fargo, white here is ultimately used in a more simple way, representing the wildness of nature, which is tamed by the power of the advertised product. It does however, also use its dramatic effect. Finally, contemporary artists have also employed whiteness to interesting effect. In my example, Guido Van Der Werve’s work uses it in a very romantic and conventionally sublime way. Barnaby Hosking’s on the other hand challenges some of these conventions by making an ironic and humorous parody of some of the associations of whiteness and its connections to romantic isolation purity and wonder. I hope that these multiple uses of colour, white in this case, can be useful in informing and helping me to develop my own work on colour in new and interesting ways.
Burke, E (1998). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757. . Ed. Adam Phillips. Oxford: OUP
Coens, E. and J (Dir.) Fargo (1996) Starring Buscemi, S and Macy, W. H. Polygram, USA.
‘Citroen C4 Robot Skater Transformer’, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdNrQfE9j1c
accessed 12th March 2009
Hosking, B. (2005) Snow Painting (process/painting/reflection), mixed-media installation
Lyotard, J-F (1999) ‘What is Postmodernism?’ in Postmodernism: A Reader Ed. Docherty, T. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf
Van der Werve, G. (2007) Nummer Acht – Everything is going to be Alright, Looped Digital Video