Mr. Pink and the Tale of Internet Certification

How a celebrity photo — shot before mobile phones and the social web — found its home on the internet


I can not believe Mr. Fucking Pink is here.

That thought anxiously flicked through my cerebrum as the shutter clicked. The image above — a movie star in remote land — was imprinted on the film in my camera. But before the camera wheel could crank to the next frame, a conclusion had been reached:

This movie will be a big deal.

It was the middle of winter, 1995, even more frostbitten than the average Grand Forks, North Dakota frigidness. Steve Buscemi, aka Mr. Pink, was in town shooting Fargo, a movie that my friends were already discussing with unusually heated intensity. Frankly, we were worried. We already expected the worst.

We had cause. A few weeks earlier, my friend Mark and I had attended a casting call for local extras. We didn’t get a role, presumably because we were punks who thought movies were stupid, but also because we didn’t swing heavy Minnesota accents. They were looking for dontchaknows and uffdas.

Once filming commenced, we would see the cast and crew around town, usually at our favorite pub, Whitey’s, in East Grand Forks. Only once did we interact with them, an occasion that led to that photograph, which I initially despised. To my eyes, Buscemi’s face was smeared with our worst fears. Those lips, so pinched in a contemptuous smirk, foretold how this story would end:

This movie will be making fun of us.

This text rolls at the beginning of Fargo. It is entirely untrue.

Hollywood Dakota

But then, we got a surprise Hollywood ending.

When the movie was released, not only was it quite good (Siskel & Ebert both named it the best movie of 1996), but it actually captured the whole Deep Midwest aesthetic with deft accuracy. Ya betcha, the accent was exaggerated, but endearingly so.

The Coen brothers got so many things right: the lasting effects of persistently extreme weather, the passive-aggressive suspicion of outsiders, the tempo of life measured in degrees Kelvin. In short, it got it.

To this day, I still get asked if Fargonians talk like this “Funny Lookin” bit. (We don’t. Except when we do.)

I left North Dakota soon thereafter. As a student of incipient web technology and culture, the internet took me to new places. But that picture of Steve Buscemi migrated with me from city to city, always reminding me of that time, that place, those people.

Yes, that is odd: A photo of a stranger who spent very little time in this place became my strongest memory of that place. Steve Buscemi, the person, resided in North Dakota for a couple of weeks, max. But Mr. Pink, the idea, somehow became my personal metonym for prairie life.

Thinking of it like this makes me squirm, but Mr. Pink’s arrival helped validate our time on the prairie. He certified us.

You Got Certification

You have likely heard, or certainly felt, this idea before. “Certification,” coined by Walker Percy in the novel The Moviegoer, is what happens when the place you reside is portrayed in a movie. In the novel, the moviegoer discovers he is sitting in the very neighborhood where the movie he’s watching takes place:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

For a time, Fargo made North Dakota feel like Somewhere, not Anywhere. Fargo certified Fargo.

You have probably had this sensation too. Perhaps you owned a record label in 1992 Seattle during Singles, or maybe you were an ad exec in 1967 Manhattan in the era of Mad Men, or perchance you were a serf in King’s Landing during the reign of Aegon Targaryen — whichever!

If you have felt this, then you have also hated some aspect of it. The default state is to distrust our representations.

And yet, we carry this ineluctable desire to be certified.

My Own Private Internet

I now often say I live on the internet, which is silly, but true in its way. Like the cold prairie, the internet was once remote, with a distinct dialect (ROFL, LMAO, STFU). But this new virtual place — a peculiar land of vanishing messages and recondite subreddits and powerful wikipedians — has never been certified, at least not to satisfaction. Hollywood has certainly tried. Do you remember The Net? It was released a year before Fargo, but it looked like 1920:

“Click on it and then press CTRL-Shift.”

Most of the time, mainstream entertainment gets the internet appallingly, laughably wrong. So when HBO announced a show called Silicon Valley, my heart sank with the same exact anxiety leading up to Fargo. It seemed impossible for a show to accurately depict the complexity of internet life while still being good. Everyone I know on the internet thought the same thing:

They will get this wrong.

But, surprise again, we were wrong! The show has, so far, nailed it, at least in the sense of capturing the sad reality of dopey, over-privileged sociopaths.

And that’s precisely the problem. Silicon Valley isn’t about the internet at all. It is a portrait of a geographic and cultural space. It is great satire, skewering the pricks and visualizing the folly, but it says nothing about the lives we lead online.

So we wait, patiently, in the cold, hoping for certification.

All Photography Is Certification

That photograph of Mr. Pink is still with me. But now it has finally found its true home, where it always wanted to be: on the internet.

Although snapped before phone cameras and photo sharing apps, the photo always had the qualities of an internet image — an uncomfortable celebrity portrait, intimate yet posed, almost accidental. Shot spontaneously, a personal moment turned public, the photo belonged online before it even knew such a place existed.

Most of all, it looks like an image that exists to be shared.

I once hated that photo. But now that is online, my perspective has changed. Mr. Pink’s face, no longer smeared with contempt, now radiates a impish playfulness. He isn’t laughing at me, but instead he is laughing at me laughing at him, which is a much different thing. He’s saying:

Haha, you have this all wrong. ☺

“Haha, you have this all wrong.”

There is no mass-produced Fargo movie poster hanging in my apartment, no ticket stub to memorialize, no plastic action figure play with. Instead, there is just the photo. It is mine — my memory to share, my story to tell.

We don’t need mass media entertainment to certify our lives. We never did, but it took the internet for us to expose our freedom. Now that it lives online, next to other internet beings, doing their internet things, the photo has found its home.

Fargo may have briefly certified the winter prairie, but that photo in turn certifies Fargo. I had it wrong all along: The internet doesn’t certify you; you certify it.

I took the picture. I was there. I lived this.

This is certifed.