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The Little Guy, or: On the pleasures of watching Jason Schwartzman in Fargo

by Jude Ellison Sady Doyle


Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 02 2020

16 min read


(This week, my newsletter has undergone a BODY SWAP with Sady Doyle’s wonderful newsletter, which is one of my favorites. Keep reading to see what they had to say about Jason Schwartzman in Fargo. Go over to their place to read my thoughts on Sidney Prescott of Scream, trans feminine ICON.)

There was a particular way I used to watch men. It was a feeling of uncommon intimacy, a fascination so intense that I could sometimes confuse it for romantic, though the key thing about these men was that they were never, ever sexy. Crispin Glover, for instance, gave me this feeling a lot. Jake Gyllenhaal did, but only after he got creepy. I felt it for Thom Yorke when I first listened to OK Computer, even though I didn’t know what Thom Yorke looked like. I felt it for the narrator of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, even though the narrator of The Moviegoer is a fictional character who lacks all physical form.

It was only months after my transition that I could recognize this feeling as identification. I’m non-binary, not a man, and I suppose it makes sense that the men I responded to were vulnerable in ways men aren’t supposed to be: Glover’s trembling delicacy, Gyllenhaal’s open hysteria, the fact that Thom Yorke has spent three decades being bummed about the general concept of Modernity with the same keening intensity you’d feel if a car ran over your dog. These were guys who seemed overwhelmed by the demands of masculinity, flummoxed by it, piloting Manhood like a first-week flight student whose instructor has keeled over mid-lesson, leaving him to attempt the emergency landing on his own.

I felt this whenever Jason Schwartzman showed up in a movie, and I feel it now, watching him in Fargo, but I’ve started to wonder whether that’s a good thing.

There’s something innately funny about Jason Schwartzman. He’s not tall — five foot six, around my size — and unlike most actors, he frequently allows himself to be filmed in ways that make him look smaller than he is. His shoulders just barely clear the edge of a shrine in The Darjeeling Limited; he reliably looks like a third-grader next to Bill Murray. Surely, even an otherwise game actor would balk at being made to look shorter than Natalie Portman, but Schwartzman doesn’t. Portman is the most famously tiny, delicate woman in Hollywood, and when he kisses her, he looks up.

The gag with Schwartzman is not just that he’s small, but that he’s unaware of how small he is. He has a deep voice and a forcefulness that would read as intimidating from a different person. In Rushmore’s famous “Making Time” montage, we learn most of what we need to know about Max Fischer from body language alone: The mathematically correct posture, the unwaveringly serious expression, the vehement precision with which he arranges lacrosse equipment on a field, punching each piece down into the grass as if it has personally wronged him. Here is a boy who sees himself as a man, Rushmore told us, and a man not to be fucked with, at that. It’s not a coincidence that The Umbrella Academy’s Five — an embittered, angry, 60-year-old contract killer stuck in the body of a 13-year-old boy — is blatantly modeled on Max Fischer.

Schwartzman has carried some element of Max into every character he’s played since: The over-the-top intensity, the quickly flaring temper, the unearned confidence. He’s forty this year, yet he still comes off as an obnoxious teen. It’s his seething petulance in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, where, despite not disguising his adult voice at all, Schwartzman plays a child more convincingly than most children; it’s his blunt, unselfconscious awkwardness in Marie Antoinette, where, without any exposition on the failings of the French monarchy, we understand them to be failing because Jason Schwartzman is the monarch and he thinks things are going well.

I sound like I’m dunking on the guy. I’m not. I find him to be a remarkably subtle and generous performer. The men I identified with usually made a point of being unmanly; they were wounded and frightened and emotional and soft and lost. Schwartzman’s characters are fully committed to the bit that is Manhood; they’re all trying to be strong and hard and decisive and aggressive and in control.

Yet “trying” is all they can do. Schwartzman keeps tipping his hand to the audience, making sure we know he’s bluffing. He never seems more lost than when he insists he knows where he stands. Schwartzman can easily do it, the macho thing; he’s legitimately hot in some roles, and he can be unironically tough if the moment calls for it. Watch him in a waiter’s outfit, exiting a service elevator after filling Bill Murray’s hotel room with bees, and you see that this really is not the guy with whom one would elect to fuck. Yet he keeps giving it away, letting himself seem smaller or sillier than he has to. Some guys undermine traditional masculinity by treating it as a burden. Schwartzman treats it as a joke. He allows the punchline to land on him every time.

Jason Schwartzman is bringing enormous little guy energy. (Credit: FX)

“Jason Schwartzman, but he’s a Mafia kingpin” is a joke you probably think you get. It’s both a meta-textual riff — Schwartzman is a Coppola, an heir to The Godfather — and yet another chance for Schwartzman to punch above his weight and get the crap knocked out of him. You expect a little guy in a big suit, a non-threatening actor in a threatening role. Then, suddenly, you realize that Jason Schwartzman is very threatening, and not in the ways you’d expect. “Jason Schwartzman, but he’s racist” was not in the promotional copy for the show.

The gangland story in the fourth season of Fargo is a blatant allegory for race in America. We open with the history of Kansas City’s criminal underworld, as represented by a series of ethnic gangs who have since assimilated into whiteness: The Irish gangs replaced the Jewish crime syndicates, and the Italian mafia replaced the Irish gangs, and now, as we join the story, the Italians are about to go to war with the Black gangsters, as led by a genuinely fearsome Chris Rock. (Rock, too, is playing with and against type; his character is mostly paternal and restrained, and it’s only when he’s threatening his family with a speech about the material comforts his life of crime affords them — “you like the view from your room? Your fancy blankets?” — that his cadence rises into what is, recognizably, The Chris Rock Voice.) As with all things Fargo, it’s very busy and stuffed with extra plot: a serial-killer nurse, lesbian bank robbers, Timothy Olyphant remembering that he hasn’t been on Fargo yet and deciding to drop by. Still, the core structure is race war, and the role of Whiteness in this war is played by Jason Schwartzman.

Josto Fadda is another boy trying to be a man. He’s the eldest son of the capo, struggling to take over the family after his father’s sudden death. (Josto commissioned the death himself, possibly by accident, but it’s not clear whether he understands this.) Josto’s brother, Gaetano, who is bigger and burlier and in all ways more manly, is plotting a coup, which Josto knows about but is somehow unable to decisively stop. Nor is Josto possessed of sexual mastery. His love life consists of a series of encounters in which he’s brutalized, with efficient and un-erotic fervor, by the killer nurse. We should all be so lucky as to bottom for Jessie Banks, of course, but it seems symbolic that Josto’s sex scenes are largely him getting beat by a girl, for one or the other value of “beat.”

Fargo leans hard into the essential comedy of Jason Schwartzman. There are scenes of him struggling to look his henchmen in the eye; he has blow-ups of childish Fischerian temper, as when he yells at his fellow mobsters to stop using his office for hangouts because “there’s secret stuff in here!!!” He is, we are reminded, literally too small to occupy his father’s chair.

Rock, as Josto’s nemesis Loy Cannon, is someone we admire. He’s the most loving father of his fellow crime bosses (though it’s not much of a contest). He’s the most dignified ruler, when at peace, and the most frightening when at war. He’s the smartest businessman by far; one subplot concerns Loy inventing credit cards. Patriarch, king, warrior, provider, all these classically male roles: Loy is adequate to each of them. He’s better at them than most men are.

Yet most of us are not naturally good at all of those roles, or any of them. Most of us will side with someone we like over someone we admire, and the guy we like most is one who reminds us of ourselves. Schwartzman is so good at playing his moments of frustration and overwhelm, so human in his efforts to seem in control as the situation spins out of it, that we can easily side with Josto. We can see him as the victim.

He’s counting on it. At the midpoint of the season, Josto visits the Black gangsters in jail and gives a speech that I can only describe as a very calm celebration of white supremacy: Jewish people became white, and Irish people became white, and Italians are halfway to becoming white, but “whiteness” in America is the condition of not being Black, and so, while Josto is rising, he expects his enemies to stay exactly where they are.

“Johnny Society looks at me, they see a fella that’s using crime to get ahead,” he says. “They look at you, and all they see is crime. That’s why you’re going to lose.”

Josto’s vulnerability is mediocrity, and we’ve been conditioned to side with it; racism permits him to be beleaguered and unmasterful, to be boyish or fragile or bad at his job, to be not quite up to the task of manhood, and to still succeed, whereas Loy Cannon needs to fulfill every masculine role perfectly and is still not quite seen as a man. Josto can be weak because whiteness is the ultimate strength in his society. It protects him from his failures and compensates for his inadequacies. He knows this. He is, we now see, too smart not to know this. To be masculine, Josto must master a performance, but to be white, he only needs to stand still and let the world take his side.

Schwartzman: pensive. (Credit: FX)

Early in The Moviegoer, the narrator, Binx, tells us how he learned of his only brother’s death. He was already an orphan, eight years old, walking with his aunt in the garden:

“You and I have always been good buddies, haven’t we?” “Yes ma’am.” My heart gave a big pump and the back of my neck prickled like a dog’s… “Scotty is dead. Now it’s all up to you. It’s going to be difficult for you but I know you’re going to act like a soldier.” This was true. I could easily act like a soldier. Was that all I had to do?

When we talk about the need for more masculine vulnerability, this is what we’re referring to: The way the basic human realities of grief and love and need are squashed flat by a world that tells men the only acceptable response is to be tough and take control of the situation. A little boy who clearly needs to cry, or scream, or be held by someone, is told to act like a soldier, and what happens beneath that act is not anyone’s concern.

Get vulnerable, the male feminists exhort us; we cling to the admission of helplessness as proof that men are human and have layers, that manhood need not serve the interests of power, that masculinity can be more than the weaponized forcefield of aggression and dominance and rage and callousness it’s become. I want to believe this. On some level, I need to believe this. I’m just not so sure.

Brett Kavanaugh, with his public tears at his confirmation hearing, was nothing if not vulnerable. Incels, with their ravening loneliness and boys-only message boards, are engaged in the supposedly radical act of sharing their vulnerability with other men. Donald Trump — with his childlike temper and easily hurt feelings, his physical clumsiness and beleaguered sputtering, his inability to ever really fill the big chair he’s inherited — is an immensely vulnerable man.

The world sees those men’s weakness and suffering and rushes in to comfort them, because what is at stake here, to cop from philosopher Kate Manne, is not vulnerability, but entitlement. Whiteness, cisness, manhood are all constructs that supposedly entitle you to a certain ease and convenience in life. When a white man falls down and skins his knee, we line the streets with pillows. When a white man pushes someone else into the road, we say he was guided into destructive behavior patterns by toxic masculinity. We ask if there are more constructive ways he might express his feelings. We tell him to get vulnerable. But vulnerability, too, is a privilege. It’s not something white men’s victims get to have.

I was drawn to vulnerable men, fascinated by them, because — like a lot of AFAB trans people — my transition was complicated by the fact that cis men have often victimized me. I can’t know if my sexual assaults, for instance, happened because I looked like a girl, or because I wasn’t one, but after that, the last thing you want to hear is that you belong with the men who hurt you, or that you have more in common with them than you do with the women who helped piece you back together. To be at peace with myself, I needed to know that there was more to men than violence. I needed to hear the human heart beating beneath the armor.

Jason Schwartzman fascinated me, as an example of how men could be, because of the easy, egoless way he lets jokes land on him. He could so easily be insecure and cruel and insistent on being taken seriously, but instead, he lets us laugh at him out of his own good grace. That kind of confidence, the willingness to take the punch or the punchline, is its own strength. I identify with Max Fischer more than I do with most fictional people. I don’t know what that says about me, but I’m confident it’s not a good thing.

I see myself as the little guy. But most bad guys do. Being vulnerable does not mean you don’t have power. Being hurt does not mean you can’t hurt someone else. If I cry out, some part of the world will move to comfort me; if I skin my knee, people will start wondering about the safety of the street. While that happens, countless people will suffer, perhaps at my hand. We spend a lot of time encouraging white, cis men to get in touch with the pain they’ve suffered. What they really need to do is get in touch with the pain they’ve caused.

I lied, by the way, about the height thing. I’m five foot five; five foot four, if I don’t mind my posture. Jason Schwartzman is bigger than me.

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Public service announcement: It’s Emily again! If you don’t already subscribe to the newsletter that briefly took over ours above — you should do so immediately! It’s great and thought provoking with every new installment!

What I’ve been up to: And to be clear, by “I” I mean me, Emily VanDerWerff. This week, I wrote about the amazing RPG Great American Witch, what stinks about the Peanuts holiday specials going to AppleTV+, and watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown with my 5-year-old colleague, the critic-at-small:

Emily: People sure are mean to Charlie Brown. What do you think about that? They give him rocks for trick or treating!

Eliza: I don’t like it, but it’s really funny when he says, [pitch perfect Charlie Brown impression] “I got a rock. I got a rock. I got a rock.”

Emily: So what are you gonna be for Halloween this year?

Eliza: I’m gonna be a deep-sea diver, and I wish I was going to be holding a helium balloon, so I could float in the air and pretend I was swimming. But it’s a punching balloon, so it’s round. [I have since learned from Eliza’s mom, my editor, Jen, that the deep-sea diver helmet for the costume is a papier-mâché masterpiece the two built together, which was formed around a punching balloon.]

Emily: So you’re not going to be able to float off the ground. That’s too bad.

Eliza: I wouldn’t want to, because I wouldn’t want to be away from my friends for so long and maybe land in the ocean or a different state.

Read me: This story about the death of computer game company Sierra Online is, like, hyper-specific to my interests, but I also think it has a lot to say about the issues that have befallen America in the past several decades and the ways that modern capitalism sometimes seems like an endless number of confidence men trying to get one over on each other:

“I often ask myself if I could have known that Walter Forbes was a crook,” writes Ken Williams.

Williams is a forthright, burly programmer who’s had the same Tom Selleck mustache for forty years and used to be chastised by the readers of his company magazine for never smiling in photographs. As a child, his family fled rural Kentucky and the legacy of a grandfather suspected of bootlegging and murder, for the opportunity of California; Joan Didion’s dreamers of the golden dream.

Williams’ dreams were uncomplicated. He wanted to be rich. “I wanted to live a different life than the one I grew up in,” he writes. “I read books about business executives who owned yachts and jets, and who hung out with beautiful models in fancy mansions.” Roberta was a beautiful California girl who lived “in the fancy side of town, in a pool”; on a double date, Ken downed a beer to show her he could piss farther than his friend. The simplistic plots of Roberta’s early King’s Quests more or less mapped to Williams’ ambitions. Get the power. Get the girl.

Watch me: One of my favorite things to do on YouTube is watch video game documentaries, and I’ve recently really gotten into the work of NoClip, who make smart, short documentaries about topics of interest to video game fans. They’re well worth a look.

And another thing… One of the ways I deal with stress and anxiety about the national situation is to throw myself into my work, which is to say if you want to do National Novel Writing Month with me, well, I would love to do that too!

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This week’s reading music: “Prisencocolinensinainciusol” by Adriano Celentano

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.


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