Reappraising Raising Arizona: Why We Revisit Films

FOREWORD: You might be wondering why Check the Reel‘s been so barren. Briefly: I made the transition back to college at the start of September; since then schoolwork and personal life have done their part to keep my online output limited beyond cursory Facebook posts. Now I once again have the time, means, and energy to pick up with CtR. I did not drop film writing entirely during my hiatus. For some reviews and articles I’ve written recently, check out my school newspaper The Knox Student. To those who have continued to read CtR while I’ve been absent, thank you. I hope it continues to be of some interest.

~~~

It’s been a good autumn for film.

Scratch that: it’s been a fucking awesome autumn for film. I can’t remember a better time to attend movies on a regular basis than these last few months. If summer dragged between tentpoles, the end of August opened a can of worms with ParaNorman, and now – trucking through October, still a month away from the big Thanksgiving releases – I can name a dozen films at least worth a ticket for the discussion they inspire. Several of these films have already guaranteed places in my “Best of 2012” list. Regardless if Dredd, The Master, Seven Psychopaths, End of Watch, or Hotel Transylvania are accounted for at this year’s Oscars, they deserve to be experienced and shared; each speaks with a unique voice, showing visions of worlds and characters that linger with you long after leaving the theatre.

It’s also been an instructional time for film. While summer caters to superhero mega-hits and winter gushes with speculative award winners, fall welcomes film’s “Misfit Toys”: the weird genre experiments, not-quite-indie dramas, and Halloween frights you’ll find scrunched together on the marquee. Some seasons you can process every film with the same part of your brain. Not fall. You’re always switching gears, figuring out what viewing process the film demands and what method its madness wields.

You might be wondering why I listed Hotel Transylvania, a slapstick animated comedy about monsters voiced by Adam Sandler and Selena Gomez, alongside The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s dissection of human guilt, malady and obsession, a difficult but rewarding watch with images that match its ambition in beauty. How does the merciless End of Watch stand toe-to-toe with the shameless Dredd, one a few day in the life of two LAPD cops, the other a few days in the life of the steel-armored, dystopia-wandering, sci-fi menace Judge Dredd? These films clash in subject and delivery, and they cater to very different sets of expectations. How do we reconcile these genre barriers and view each film on equal ground?

The answer comes from a film released nearly thirty years ago, not in the fall but the spring, though it also carries the spirit and difficulty of autumn films. It baffled critics upon its release like Roger Ebert, continues to baffle viewers today, and I’m not afraid to admit for the longest time it stumped me too. I’ve seen it at least seven times, spread out across five years and many stages of my mental growth. Only now do I feel comfortable talking about The Coen Brothers’ quirky American fable, Raising Arizona, a film I fought just to love.

Way Out There

Raising Arizona is the story of H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicholas Cage), a recidivist convenience-store robber and the film’s narrator. Through stumbling in and out of prison he falls in love with and marries his mugshot photographer Edwina (Holly Hunter). They intend to build a decent family life on top of Hi’s criminal background and “Ed’s'” infertility. It’s not an easy process: as Hi puts it, “biology and the prejudices of others conspired to keep us childless.” But fortune seems to smile upon them: local business mogul Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) hits the news when his wife gives birth to quintets. They won’t miss one of five babies too much, Ed reasons; surely one kidnapping won’t cause a sir.

New characters and complications pop out from the Arizona bedrock, threatening Hi and Ed’s shot at a happy family, and an already eccentric story detonates in a fantastic, David-and-Goliath climax where Hi squares off against his inner demons, literally manifested as a biker from hell (Randall “Tex” Cobb). Even earlier in the film we catch Hi running down streets, through homes and up supermarket aisles pursued by policemen, 7/11 attendants and a pack of runaway dogs, all so he can steal for their baby, Nathan Jr, a pack of Huggies.

The Coen Brothers could blow up the Rockies with the dynamite energy packed into Raising Arizona. It’s their second film after Blood Simple, a taut thriller about intense, prosaic characters barreling towards their messy fate in the fields of backwater Texas; by contrast Raising Arizona hangs loose and runs wild. Its characters recite dialogue like Juliard students reading Shakespeare (On his wife’s fertility, Hi explains: “her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase”); cinematographer Barry Sonnenfield stretches the lens and whips the camera recklessly, painting the Arizona desert in cartoon tones of orange, blue, and the fruity glow of Hi’s Hawaiian shirt. You can’t accuse the Coens of being unoriginal or boorish. The only films comparable to Raising Arizona are the works it inspired… by its own directors. The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading took similar delight in characters beyond our imagination, breaking conventions with the irreverence of children doodling on chalkboards.

Raising Arizona moves like it doesn’t know the meaning of a “sophomore slump.” I’ve always admired the film’s brashness and suspected people knew the moment it came out the Coen Brothers were destined for great things.

But did I like it?

“Before you go run off and do another foolish thing…”

I couldn’t hate it. Nothing so bold, adventurous and carefree deserves my hatred. Every moment up to the title sequence is perfect; the dialogue runs laps around you but keeps its charm; it features the only chase scene set to banjos and yodeling, and it’s a chase only the Coens could pull off with their visual ingenuity and love for whimsy. If you seek unique film experiences, that’s reason enough to see Raising Arizona.

But I’ve hesitated for years to call Raising Arizona a classic. It sits awkwardly in a film career boasting the likes of Fargo, True Grit, and No Country for Old Men. Even the Coens’ lesser hits, Miller’s Crossing and A Serious Man, resonate on powerful thematic lines. There’s no doubt about these films’ intentions.

What can we take from Raising Arizona, a film of such liberty it eludes all effort to dissect it? It hides its kernel of truth beneath breakneck turns and breathless red herrings, and unlike The Big Lebowski, which laughed at us for wanting more from its baked sleuths – in fact made lack of truth the whole point – Raising Arizona ends by saying we’ve learned something from this great, cockeyed adventure. “Maybe we’d broadened his horizons a little,” Hi hopes, thinking about Nathan Jr., “even if he couldn’t remember just how they’d got broadened.” What about the audience? Does Raising Arizona broaden their horizons?

“…Sleep on it…”

The first half of the film – especially the ten-ish minutes before the titles – is all about a career crook trying to turn a new leaf. Hi can’t stop robbing convenience stores; it’s a habit. Even when he marries Ed the temptation still presents itself: Hi’s jailhouse pals (John Goodman and William Forsythe) bust out to offer him their biggest job yet; his asshole boss (Sam McMurray) fires him for bristling at the notion of a “wife swap”; the odds are stacked to Job proportions for the McDunnough family and it doesn’t take long for Hi to break. This much is clear. The Coens’ articulate the conflict and pursue its logical end, yet the local flavor and artistry prevents the movie from descending into cliche. Like their idol Preston Sturges, the Coens are interested in standard questions of character – Can a thief be a family man? Are comedy writers inferior to dramatists (Sullivan’s Travels)? – but the entertainment comes from the question’s unraveling, not its posing.

This interpretation hits a dead end when the demon biker, toting shotguns and grenades, bursts forth from Hi’s subconscious and hunts Nathan Jr. for his own gain. Goodman and Forsythe’s characters, Gale and Evelle, find out where Hi found his baby, and rather than lure Hi back to the chain gang like planned they tie him up, kidnap Nathan Jr. for reward, and guarantee Hi will ally with his wife in pursuing the good life, if not necessarily a good family life. And then to top it off Gale and Evelle fall in love with Nathan Jr. and decide to adopt him as their own! All this before a riot of a bank robbery and David vs. Goliath, Hi vs. Hell’s Angel, a bloodless beatdown no less brutal without any visible carnage.

The film ends on a sweet, cheery note, but by then the mind is spent. What just happened? So very much. It’s not clear how one event segues into the other, how each contributes to the larger theme, or what that larger theme even is. Still, I’m aware of a cloud of activity at the film’s heart, and trying to unpack it leaves me feeling unsettled and dissatisfied. Were I a professional film critic with a deadline, at this point I’d have to settle at the typewriter and admit for all its wit, pizazz, and anarchic fun, Raising Arizona comes up short. The pieces don’t fit. Maybe the Coens spent too much time building anachronistic dialogue to stuff the story with real meat. Who knows?

But I’m not a professional film critic. I’m just a movie nut with enough free time to review films again and again until I settle on an opinion I feel comfortable presenting in public. Instead of cementing my first, ambivalent view of Raising Arizona I watched it a second time. Surely now I’d figure out what the Coens were up to. I laughed at the same parts, admired the same technique – still I grumbled, “Something’s not right.” A third time I maybe settled into some scenes more. Viewing it with a group, the prison escape scene with Gale and Evelle revealed its primal genius (filmmakers can do plenty with rain, mud, and a screaming John Goodman). Still I clawed my hair at the end! Why Beelzebub on a Harley? Why is everyone falling for the baby? Why does Hi suddenly want to be an upstanding citizen!

It took until my seventh viewing last week to have that epiphany. Nothing grand; just a quiet, sinking realization of, “Ahhh. That’s what it all meant.” Then the well of niggling questions dried up inside me. I was finally able to love Raising Arizona.

“…At least one night.”

My mistake was: Raising Arizona never really worried about the question “Can Hi reform himself?” Hi is oafish but well-intentioned; he receives short jail sentences because he always uses unloaded guns, demonstrates good behavior, and upon meeting Edwina he wins her over with his genuine compassion. His “relapse” is spurred by a major moral decision: he socks his boss across the jaw because he dares suggest sleeping with Ed. When Hi decides to throw his bags in with Gale and Evelle he spends the night writing a mournful letter to Ed and Nathan Jr to soften the blow, and within a day he reasserts his filial devotion after his “friends” set their sights on the baby.

Are Hi and Ed capable of raising a family? The answer is clearly yes: given a child through legal means, they would raise it with clean conscience and loving care. The conflict has nothing to do with whether Hi is a criminal at heart or if he has it in him to set the moneybags and pantyhose (don’t ask) aside. The Coen Brothers peel back this superficial crisis to tap into a matter of morality rarely seen in the work of Hollywood’s most irreverent stylists, a spiritual concern taught to us as far back as preschool: “Don’t steal from others.” Who are we to judge our peers on the merit of their possessions? Whether it’s money or cars or food or babies, temptation leads us away from our true path, and in Raising Arizona, the characters who suffer or experience humiliation – Gale, Evelle, Hi’s boss, the demon biker – obsess over Nathan Jr. They greedily claim him as their own, or a means to riches, or anything but the child of real human beings who deserves his home. Only Hi and Ed, who learn quickly that they’re not meant to be Nathan’s parents, recover from their mistakes. Hi defeats the demon biker, the manifestation of his wayward obsession, and maintains his pacifism (the biker’s death is an accident; Hi apologizes); they return the baby to a father who they find less nasty than his public image suggested; and the film ends with a promise of boundless riches for a couple with homegrown American values Frank Capra would kill for.

Do you have to agree with these morals? Not at all. It’s not even necessary you agree with this interpretation to love the movie. But by adjusting my focus, looking at the film from a different angle, and discovering that through-line, I settled my peace with Raising Arizona. It’s a daringly optimistic masterpiece of screwball cinema with bite; its lofty diction supports its religious message while carrying enough character to be amusing on its own; and, of course, the film’s hilarious, well-shot, unique, and it’s the rare Nicholas Cage feature enjoyable for more reasons than, “It has Nick Cage.” Go see it if you haven’t; it might only take you one viewing to get it.

Master of What?

Similar questions have plagued critics with another movie: it’s been called “confounding,” “weightless, airless,” “too ambiguous;” one leaves the theatre “not entirely sure what [it’s] about.” It led Roger Ebert to sigh: “Fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.”* A friend of mine put it more simply: “If I wanted to pay to see something who’s [sic] message goes way over my head, I’d buy another ticket to see ‘The Master.'”

*Ebert has a lot of these objections to critically lauded or controversial films: Blue Velvet, Kick Ass, Clockwork Orange… The root of his reactions are worth a column in their own right, a column I’ll save for another day.

The Master snaps, writhes, crackles, quivers with the weight of Godly performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. As with Raising Arizona we sense it’s telling us something; It wants to tell us something. We wouldn’t watch the story of an angry, sexually disturbed war vet befriending a cult leader for shits and giggles. Yet for all its ambiguities, layered symbols, and self-conscious artistic touches, my epiphany during The Master came earlier than RA – halfway through my first viewing, in fact.

I’m not putting down anybody else’s opinion, whether they disliked the film for leaving them dissatisfied or admired its resistance to quick analysis. Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t text me why he made The Master (“HEY SERB: MEANING OF THE LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, AND THE MASTER. DON’T TELL, LOL”). Films, like all art, filter through the subjective lens of our experience and personality. I happened to be watching The Master when, engaging the film, reflecting on each scene and comparing it to previous films, books, events from my life, I realized: this is the Wild Boy of Aveyron.

The Master tells the story of a kid, Freddie (Phoenix), raised in a world antithetical to human society (war), forced to return where his impulses are shunned and condemned. An expert on humanity, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), sees potential in him. He will make this animal-man an intelligent human being with the proper teachings. Just as the Wild Boy could not shake off his wild birth, Freddie never sheds his neanderthal skin – though he admires Dodd’s self-control, while Dodd finds in Freddie a reflection of his own pent-up, carefully hidden rage.

A timely allusion that popped in my head, spurred by whatever image was on screen at the time, illuminated the dynamic of The Master‘s protagonists and gave me a through-line to follow the rest of the plot, filling holes others may have tripped over and tying the film into a satiable whole. This explanation will not work for everyone. That’s because not everyone is looking for the same reason to like The Master: Some entered the film, as my dad did, hearing about its Scientology subtext and expecting an expose on L. Ron Hubbard, or at least some insight into how such cults attract a following. Imagine their surprise when The Master’s Scientology-esque cult served as backdrop to a much more intimate story, removed from religious and social controversy.

Can one find their reason to like The Master? That reason may come after seven viewings. It may come never. Regardless whether it leaves one satisfied, yearning, or disenchanted, The Master engages different faculties than Raising Arizona. It can’t be compared with the rest of autumn’s line-up when judging the merits of either. The Master must be watched like every film: on its own, waiting for that spark to come, the moment you see that through-line… And then the ultimate test: does the through-line work?

Wrapping Up

I have no problem ranking Hotel Transylvania and The Master as  similarly excellent pieces of art. Watching both, I was struck by the thought: “Ooooh, this is what the movie’s trying to do!” and pursuing that logic, I was glad to find, yes, the films did what I expected, and they did it superbly.

The Master told a timeless tale of a man raised outside civilization and a leader’s attempt to re-educate him. The ambiguity of that relationship, and how Anderson tinkers with it, gives the film a depth I appreciate along with the gorgeous imagery and high-caliber performances. Hotel Transylvania made it clear it thinks more highly of Looney Tunes pratfalls than French history; and between gags it shares down-to-earth family morals with a pinch of social commentary about outsiders and alternative communities… all par on course for Geddy Tartakovsky, but cemented by the willingness of his cast – even Adam Sandler, no longer belligerent showman but accommodating ensemble member – to set aside ego for the sake of broader comedy.

These films – along with End of Watch, Seven Psychopaths, Dredd – settled naturally into my thought process; I was able to work out my expectations with each film and judge them appropriately. Meanwhile, Argo and Looper continue to trouble me; their images and my thoughts run out-of-sync. Perhaps I need a prolonged engagement with these two films to determine their worth. Perhaps even that will be insufficient.

It would be nice if endless revisits made turkeys palpable, if Transformers 3 reshaped itself into Citizen Kane by the twentieth viewing. Of course at some point we have to remove our thinking caps and admit, “I can get no more from this.” Sometimes we concede the through-line we followed was effort enough. Haunted house thriller Sinister draws easy comparisons to Insidious (evil associated with children), The Grudge (watch a film and you die), and Paranormal Activity (the theme of monitoring), but look deeper and Lovecraft peeks out: the intellectual obsessed with a mystery, unearthing grisly details yet pressing on, even though only madness awaits.

A fine theme, except Sinister opens itself too wide. It lets Ethan Hawke’s writer-hero tell too many people about the mystery, drawing help from all corners until the isolation disappears. Lovecraft’s heroes could share their research with nobody, not until their corpses were lost and their diaries uncovered. With so many characters working together, the lonely claustrophobia integral to creeping madness vanishes, and I fear no amount of revisits will shake this impression of Sinister.

Many people liked the film too, which is great. Regardless of which side you fall on regarding a movie, reflect back on when you thought to yourself, “This is what the film wants to accomplish,” and how you determined from there if the film succeeded. Heightened self-awareness enriches film viewing; you learn to understand why some movies endear themselves from the start while others are slow burns, taking years before they sink in. We are not brainless, bleating sheep; audiences are allowed to think at the cinema. Fight to take control of your thought process, even if it takes seven viewings of a film about babies and convenience-store robbers.

~Serbian-Filmmaker~

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About serbianfilmmaker

I am an amateur film critic and aspiring amateur filmmaker who also appreciates quality music, literature, television... I live, essentially, in an insulated art world, and the least I can do is try and share my perspective with the world-at-large.
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