30 Years of Coens: Raising Arizona

Come for the infant abduction, stay for the yodeling.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple, here.

Notes on Raising Arizona (1987)

• Everyone—well, not everyone, but probably everyone who is reading this—has a movie that he or she obsessively watched and re-watched during college. Raising Arizona was mine. Friends and I recited scenes to one another as a matter of course. (This could have been filmed in my dorm room on pretty much any given day of the week.) It was my comedy comfort-food, and it got me through any number of tough times, including a night of unendurable (but happily temporary) heartbreak that I actually spent in Tempe, Arizona, where the movie is set. I’d like to say this was a coincidence, but I’m reasonably confident that the friend and co-fan with whom I was staying had decided to live in Tempe primarily because of the film. So, yes, I’m pretty biased when it comes to this movie.

• Although Raising Arizona is, like Blood Simple, a crime film, the Coens wanted to make it as different from their debut as they could. So instead of a plot driven by murderous miscomprehensions, they tell the story of a gentle, ex-con husband (Nicolas Cage) and an infertile, maternally obsessed wife (Holly Hunter) who conspire to kidnap a quintuplet on the premise that his real parents already “have more than they can handle.” The mundane, economical dialogue of Blood Simple gives way to the kind of eccentric, “high hick” diction that will become a Coens staple. (This time out, everyone is talking like M. Emmet Walsh.) And Carter Burwell delivers a score that, while not the best he would write for the Coens—that would wait for one more film—remains his most wildly inventive, a giddy mishmash of banjo, organ, whistling, and yodeling that plays like the mutant offspring of Marvin Hamlisch and Ennio Morricone.

• Still, one could easily make the case that the principal star of the film is Barry Sonnenfeld’s zany, vertiginous camerawork. Gone is the moody, light-and-dark cinematography of Blood Simple, replaced by loops and swoops beneath the bleached Arizona sun. The Raimie-esque “shaky cam” technique used in one scene in Blood Simple is all over Raising Arizona, notably in a long sequence, constructed of three cuts, in which the camera lopes over the desert hardtop, up a ladder through a household window, and into the mouth of screaming parent Florence Arizona (Lynne Dumin Kitei). The shot was filmed in reverse, pulling away from Kitei’s mouth—for obvious reasons—as was a similar shot in which a car piloted by Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle Snoats (William Forsythe) stops on a dime next to a baby in the road. Fans of Sonnenfeld’s work in Raising Arizona might want to have a look at Three O’Clock High, a high-school comedy (the title is a play on High Noon) that he shot the same year and in much the same bombastic vein. It’s hardly a classic, but it has its share of amusements, many of them visual.

• I’m not sure what there is to say about Raising Arizona’s iconic chase sequence other than that it epitomizes everything that’s great about the movie—in particular the Coens’ comic ingenuity, Sonnenfeld’s tremendous camerawork, and Burwell’s delirious score.

• It was with Raising Arizona that the Coens really began assembling the troupe of performers to whom they would return over the years. Frances McDormand, by this time married to Joel, appears again in the small but terrific role of mom-from-hell Dot. (It’s remarkable to see how much more self-assured a performer she has already become since Blood Simple.) John Goodman is immediately memorable as self-released convict Gale Snoats, on the heels of the role that first got him noticed in David Byrne’s True Stories. And Holly Hunter (who, as I mentioned yesterday, had been the Coens’ original choice for the lead in Blood Simple), burst onto the scene with this and her subsequent, Oscar-nominated performance in Broadcast News later the same year. Trey Wilson, also marvelous as unpainted-furniture magnate Nathan Arizona, was slated to star as mob boss Leo O’Bannon in the Coens’ next film, Miller’s Crossing, but he died of a brain hemorrhage shortly before filming began. The Coens parted ways, though, with Nicolas Cage, with whom they had a productive but occasionally strained relationship. (I was surprised to hear that they had initially wanted Kevin Costner for the role; it’s hard to envision how that would’ve worked.) This was also their only movie with Randall “Tex” Cobb, who played the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, and sounds as though he may have resembled his character somewhat too closely on set.

• Viewers who pay attention will notice the abbreviations “P.O.E.” and “O.P.E.” on the door of the gas station restroom where Gale and Evelle wash up after their prison break, a reference to the recall codes from Dr. Strangelove. Also, “Florence Arizona” is a play on the name of the town that houses a main branch of the state prison complex and also—though probably coincidentally—served as the setting for the 1985 romantic comedy Murphy’s Romance, starring Sally Field and James Garner.

• There’s an actual parenting magazine and web site called Raising Arizona Kids. But the best I can tell without buying a subscription, it does not advocate the kidnapping of infants.

Raising Arizona was an extremely polarizing movie when it came out. Either you were on its peculiar comic wavelength or you weren’t, and the dividing line often seemed—at least to me at the time—generational. (Many critics panned the movie, often citing its oddball invented dialect.) Watching the film today though, it seems at least somewhat less unconventional than it did in the years immediately following its release. Sure, it’s still wacky. But it no longer feels, as it did then, unique and utterly sui generis. I can’t help but wonder if this is in part because subsequent comedies (not least those directed by the Coens themselves) have incorporated elements of Raising Arizona’s humor—consciously or not—essentially rendering it more conventional after the fact. These kinds of comic evolutions happen all the time, on occasion quite quickly. In 1978, Roger Ebert famously described Animal House as an “end run around Hollywood’s traditional notions of comedy”; within a few years, it pretty much defined them. Seinfeld had a similar feel on the small screen, initially radically subversive but over time comfortable almost to the point of quaintness. I’m not certain whether the comedic environment has evolved toward Raising Arizona in a similar way, but it sure feels like it.

Et Cetera

Where I rank Raising Arizona among Coens films: #4 (out of 16)

Where I rank its score, by Carter Burwell, among Coens scores by Carter Burwell: #3 (out of however many I decide to rank)

Best line: “Would it? Think about it, H.I.” (It’s less the line itself than Goodman’s instantly classic gesture with a chicken wing.)

Best visual: The infants’-eye-view babynapping

Best sound: John R. Crowder’s yodeling

Notable locale: Tempe, Arizona

Notable influences: Preston Sturges

Drinking-game-suitable catchphrase: “Well, okay then.”

Looking ahead: The jumpsuit that Cage wears at his job bears the label “Hudsucker Industries”

Lines that ought to have inspired the names of college bands: “Yodas ‘n’ Shit,” “Whole Goddamned Raison d’Etre,” “Something Wrong with My Semen,” “Jason, Caleb or Tab,” “Crapping You Negative,” “Just Circular”

Dream sequence(s): Yes

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Conspicuous use of fans: Yes

Deranged hair: Yes (Hi)

Number of characters who vomit: Zero

Pomade of choice: Royal Crown

John Goodman going berserk: Yes

Next up: Miller’s Crossing (about which I have a lot to say)