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Examining the Coen Bros: ‘Raising Arizona’

Joel and Ethan Coen have been making films for over three decades and it appears that there is nothing they can’t do. They’ve created iconic original stories, subversive remakes of classic Hollywood fare, and adaptations of difficult literature. They’ve won Oscars for writing and directing, and have been nominated for just about every task a filmmaker could tackle. Their body of work defies genre, with entries spanning drama, comedy, western, and noir, but a Coen Brothers film is always distinctly a Coen Brothers film. Over these next few weeks, we’re going to look at each of their works one by one to see if we can determine just what that means.

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Raising Arizona (1987)

Principal cast: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb.

Plot: A hapless ex-con and his ex-cop wife, distraught that they cannot bear children, decide to kidnap a wealthy family’s child and raise it as their own.

There are a lot of reasons to love the Coens, but one of the earliest was the sheer testicular fortitude it took to follow up their dark debut with a full-on goofball comedy. Granted, there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to Raising Arizona, but on its surface, comedies don’t get much zanier. The choice to make Raising Arizona a comedy is distinctly that – a choice. If you boil the plot down to its bare bones, it could very easily be made into a film tonally identical to Blood Simple. Heck, it probably could have starred Nicolas Cage as well.

What makes the comedy work in Raising Arizona is the heightened universe in which it is set. Even so, the Coens cleverly play upon our preconceived notions of “trailer trash” to make the world seem real. I’ve never set foot in Tempe, but I’d be more than disappointed to find that it’s not filled to bursting with colorful dolts speaking idiosyncratic dialogue. It’s these same dolts that made the hard-boiled plot of Blood Simple so easy to believe, only here they serve to makes the comedic narrative of Raising Arizona just as palatable. A punchline is only as good as the preceding premise. Without it, the joke becomes a tragedy.

I once read an interview with Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, who gave the advice to burgeoning illustrators that before one can draw a cartoon cat they must first be able to draw a real cat. With the rock-block of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, the Coens have validated this concept and proven adept at riding that fine line between realism and caricature.

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Filmmakers and cineastes alike almost universally cite this film as an influential force. This is due in part to frequent exhibition. It’s quite television-friendly. Many a network used Raising Arizona as its afternoon block of least objectionable programming, and more than a few casual DVD-buyers found a copy in Wal-Mart’s discount bin. But availability aside, I believe its influence is mostly due to the unique cinematic energy on display. From the opening narration, Raising Arizona takes on a dream-like quality that fluctuates into mania and back in a second’s notice. This duality persists until the credits roll, but doesn’t betray the stakes of the film. Stakes which may or may not exist given that large chunks of the plot could be argued to not have occurred at all. We must call into question the validity of H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Cage) as a storyteller. As unreliable narrators go he’s no Patrick Bateman – more of a Ferris Bueller, albeit a little less image conscious.

A great villain

Case in point: The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse (Cobb). This character is first introduced during a dream sequence. As Hi imagines him, the biker represents his own criminal instincts. He’s a version of Hi who isn’t inhibited by good intentions. He’s an agent of pure chaos, interested only in disrupting order. As much as Hi tries to go legit, the Biker within him just can’t seem to resist committing petty crimes. Hi knows he needs to be a good man for the sake of his (kidnapped) child, but his felonious nature always seems to get he best of him. Diapers are an easy purchase but an easier steal. Hi can’t resist the kick. Something about what was used to pave the road to Hell. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse is initially presented as that interminable monkey on Hi’s back … until he emerges from Hi’s nightmare and begins interacting with other characters.

Did Hi somehow manifest this brute? Is it all a coincidence? Or did none of this occur at all? Any of these options could be argued but The Biker’s thematic relevance remains the same for each. A Coen narrative doesn’t stop for such particulars, and I suspect we’re just supposed to shut up and go with it.

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When The Biker and Hi eventually do meet face to face, it is revealed that they both sport identical Woody Woodpecker tattoos. Some seem to believe this suggests that they are related, or perhaps knew each other in a different life. To me, this further represents the connection between these two troubled men. Had Hi not met Edwina (Hunter), he could have easily become The Biker. It is in this crucial showdown that Hi makes the decision to truly live right; to legitimately go legit. In this same moment, the Biker gives pause to his attack. This pause is ultimately what destroys him, and ultimately what saves Hi. Could The Biker be reaching an identical conclusion about his own circumstances? It seems to be the case. It’s kind of like Sliding Doors, only better.

A legit love story

This brings us to the relationship at the center of the film. Hi and Ed. They complete each other in the way that all couples strive to do. Two souls which, when brought together, are greater than the sum of their parts. The effect of their relationship is almost immediately seen in Ed. When the film begins, she is regarded by her peers as second class. She lives in a man’s world where her peers exist solely to passively give her orders.

“Don’t forget to get a profile, Ed!”

“Don’t forget his phone call, Ed!”

“Don’t forget his fingers, Ed!”

The repetition is played for humor, but it really shows how much respect is absent from her life before Hi enters. Only one final order is issued at their wedding – “Don’t forget the bouquet, Ed!” After that, Ed is granted the agency which she’s so innocently been denied. In return, she gives Ed a reason to at least attempt leaving a life of crime behind. Their screwy-but-consistent ethical codes cause friction, but both have a similar idea of what the white-picket-fence nuclear family should look like, methods of reaching it be damned. Relationships are about compromise, and we see these two bumbling romantics meet in the middle. Hi will stop being a criminal to become a family man for Ed, and Ed will indulge the crime of kidnapping to become the wife Hi desires.

The others

There are three other couples in the film who are fighting similar struggles to Hi and Ed. Most notable are Glen and Dot, the swinging baby-makers who seek only carnal pleasures in the guise of normalcy. There’s Nathan & Florence Arizona, the well-off entrepreneurs whose seemingly stuffy marriage is undoubtedly filled with love and affection. Finally, there’s Gale and Evelle, the confused criminal duo who seek opportunity, if only they could collectively form a coherent thought. Each relationship represents compromise. Glen and Dot have exchanged freedom and structure for the pursuit of greater pleasure; Nathan and Florence have traded greater pleasure and freedom for structure; Gale and Evelle have given up structure and pleasure for freedom … and all seem happier for it. Is this the Coen Brothers once again exploring their own ability to work together. I think so. If Blood Simple is a parable of communication, Raising Arizona is about the strength of compromise.

I think this is why Raising Arizona, an initial box office failure, has truly remained a universal favorite: the characters are easy to root for! due to their willingness to compromise; due to hard earned reason. Hi and Ed deserve happiness, even if they don’t, and they deserve a second, third, and fourth chance to obtain it. Nathan and Florence deserve to have their family restored. Justice deserves to be upheld. Heck, even Gale & Evelle deserve to be where they end up – happily in jail.

Raising Arizona presents a world in which everyone gets what they deserve, as long as their willing to work for it … and where everyone finds that what they deserve is congruent with what they want.

If only life were so simple.

Notes:

– Hi’s association with crime follows the pattern of an addict. Much like the recovering alcoholic who drives by the bars that aren’t on the way home, Hi drives by convenience stores with a loaded gun and a sense of longing.

– Nathan Arizona is such a likable blow-hard. He’s a goof, but he’s also a man of principle. His insistence that the reporter refrain from printing anything about alien abduction for the sake of his wife’s hope is silly but loving, as is his insistence that “nobody sleeps naked in this house!”

– Glen, according to his bumper sticker, drives naked. In this world, there’s a factory that prints those stickers.

– This is one of the few non-horror movies filled with characters who scream. When Gale & Evelle emerge from the mud, they scream. During the big chase scene, the truck driver eschews spends most of it screaming. When Florence Arizona discovers her baby is missing, she screams.  Big, mugging faces and wide eyes accompanied by broadly emotive screaming. It adds to the cartoon element of the film.

– Gale and Evelle bust back into jail the same way they came in: through the mud. I don’t know what this means, but damn if it’s not a great visual.

– Glen’s “way homer.” Seriously, is there anything worse than speaking with someone who can’t tell a joke but believes they can?

– Two great little touches of physical comedy are the way that Hi’s eyes cross after being punched by Ed, and the way his knuckles painfully scrape the ceiling when winding up for a clasped hand smash during a fistfight. The camera pays close attention to these details which, once again, could be played for drama if framed just a touch differently.

– During the chase, the folky yodeling song gives way to a muzak version of the same once it enters the grocery store. This is why you Carter Burwell.

– Being an early Coen release, there is still a strong visual tie to Sam Raimi. Most notable is the long “evil” zoom up to Mrs. Arizona’s screaming mouth when she finds that Nathan Jr. has gone missing.

– Is this the first cinematic instance of taking a hit to the jaw and then spitting a tooth at your attacker? God, I hope so.

Thanks for reading, and come back next time where I pick apart Miller’s Crossing, the Coens’ prohibition-era mob thriller, starring everyone’s favorite uncle, John Turturro.

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