Coens jihad mode
A couple of weeks ago, former Times colleague Christian Toto sent me a DM on Twitter, asking me to do an e-mail debate on RAISING ARIZONA, which he called his all-time favorite film, for the movie’s release on Blu-ray. I had just seen the film as part of a retro at AFI Silver, where I’ve also since seen MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK — all three early films that I’d only seen once, way back when, and was willing to give another chance. And I had made clear my displeasure at ARIZONA. Christian posted the results, him first, at his site this morning under the title “A ‘Raising Arizona’ Hater Speaks.” And I post it here also.
Film critics take the “what’s your favorite movie?” question seriously.
For me, I stopped tallying the votes some time ago. RAISING ARIZONA is my choice, and I haven’t found the need to change it since.
The film’s madcap humor, delirious comic sequences and oh, so quotable dialogue gets better every time I watch it. Every. Time. I can’t say the same about any other movie. The film’s gonzo score and battle royale with former prize fighter Randall “Tex” Cobb is the icing on the sweetest cinematic cake I’ve ever sampled.
RAISING ARIZONA arrives on Blu-ray for the first time Aug. 30, as good a time as any to celebrate its greatness – and let one very passionate detractor tear it down a few notches.
I saw RAISING ARIZONA again a few weeks ago, first time in 20 years after not caring for it much during my “exhausting the canon” phase in the early-90s. But this time I liked it even less, going [from] unamusement to active dislike.
I well understand if you don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of an entire ouevre, but part of my dislike is because during those 20 years I’ve learned to distrust the Coens, particularly in their comedies and genre pastiches. My tolerance for their hayseed caricature idea of humor has essentially worn down to zero, and since everything is oh-so carefully planned and deliberate in their universe it’s nothing but smart alecks sneering at the hicks.
For example, I began counting the number of empty Budweiser cans around the trailer in a scene where Gale and “Evil” are sitting on the couch (18, for the record) because it was all I could do to think “don’t they have any Heineken?” and wonder why they’re still coherent. In other words, the beer cans, and the similar cultural coding of “Cheese Puffs,” becomes a distracting decorative element and pushes things into watermelon-and-fried-chicken territory. And it’s not one or two characters — everyone and everything is pitched at this dog-whistle level of caricature (you know you’re in trouble when Frances McDormand is the most natural performer in the film.) I mean … Christian, have you ever been at a grocery store where every single woman pushing a cart was in old-fashioned curlers and dressing gowns? I mentally said “enough” at the scene of Glen telling Polish jokes in the trailer — can he (the character) think this is funny? What I was watching was a white minstrel show.
You mentioned the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. I took an even stronger distaste to this element of the film than I did 20 years ago because I have more of a sense of (and love for) what the Coens are snarking up stylistically (the great spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone). But I also resented the character because I don’t know what this avant-la-lettre trashing will have done to my appreciation of one of their greatest creations, the avenging angel Anton Chigurh from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Not to mention the moral reversal of same.
Hmmm. When I first saw RAISING ARIZONA I wasn’t aware of the case some critics were building against the Coens’ work even back then, that the duo looked down on their characters. It’s a charge I quickly dismissed based on ARIZONA alone – although it seems even more far-fetched when one considers their post RA follow-up, MILLER’S CROSSING, the most undervalued film in the Coen’s canon.
H.I. McDonough may be many things – a lousy dresser, a failed hoodlum and a man who can’t win a single argument with his wife. But he’s got a pure heart and it beats so strongly you can almost hear it thumping in the background. On the surface, H.I. is a silly construct, but Nicolas Cage makes sure to bring layer atop layer to the performance, and the Coens allow every one to rise to the surface.
To me, a film like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE has little regard for its characters. You can feel the minds behind the movie giggling at their own cleverness, but those characters never came alive to me. They were fools, first and foremost, and little attention was paid to making them real. Looking at the bigger picture, I do agree that one of the Coens’ more recent films, A SIMPLE MAN is a far better example of the duo treating their characters shabbily. It’s also one of their least effective features.
As for the dog-whistle caricatures, it’s clear the Coens are pushing the style envelope throughout the film. Style alone bores me. It’s like 3-D for 3-D’s sake. The first few minutes are glorious, and then … what? But ARIZONA backs up its comical excesses with tightly orchestrated slapstick, flawed characters and an unlikely bond between a career criminal and a stern law enforcer. Consider H.I. trying to make nice with a co-worker (Sam McMurray) during their ill-fated lunch gathering. H.I. can’t begin to understand his colleague’s world, but he knows in his heart it’s the kind of social bonding he’s expected to master. So he holds his tongue until his sensibilities are pushed to the brink.
And, to me, the NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN character and the Lone Biker are two distinct creations. I have no problem keeping them separate in my head, especially since the tone of these two films couldn’t be more distinctly different.
No matter your distaste for the film in general, surely you loved the Huggies chase scene … right? Or the delirious final battle between H.I. and the Lone Biker?
Actually, no I didn’t, because (in the latter case) I couldn’t put out of my head the Chigurh comparisons. Of course the two films have wildly different tones but they’re still the same character — the unstoppable Exterminating Angel with no past who seems to appear from nowhere. But besides going over the top with the character (which I can see in principle in a comedy), what RAISING ARIZONA does that annoyed me (here) is that the way it plays reverse the moral point of NO COUNTRY – Cage does defeat the embodiment of his fate. The unstoppable proves … well, not so. But more about the end in a bit.
As for the Huggies robbery, I just looked at it again on YouTube …
… and there’s one detail right at the start that encapsulates my annoyance with this film and the Coens’ entire sense of humor. Why is the clerk shown reading Juggs? I have no doubt some convenience-store wage slaves look at hardcore porn during the third shift. But it’s not that funny to see someone look at porn and it does have the objective effect of turning him into a(nother) idiot schmuck. And then that banjo theme — it’s pure cornpone snark and I hesitate I admit I still preferred that to hearing “Ode to Joy” on a banjo.
I agree that H.I. has a pure heart, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t, yes, a silly construct. He is nothing but a stupid, incompetent sadsack throughout the film (until the end) and most of the jokes are at his expense somehow. While I think Cage inhabits the role well enough, I don’t think he does anything that counteracts that. Consider by (devastating) contrast the one rural/hick character in the Coens ouevre who escapes their snark — Marge in FARGO. Sure, she’s a small-town cop who loads up at “reasonably priced buffets” in hotels, but she’s also smart and effectual, and that’s what makes her lovable and Cage contemptible. She quickly figures out the opening triple murder and doggedly pursues the investigation until she solves it. Her (essentially) closing words is the “I just don’t get it” speech to Stormare in the cop car; Cage’s (actual) closing words is the line “I don’t know, maybe it was Utah.”
I mean, c’mon. There really is nothing to this film except an invitation to laugh at hick schmucks portrayed by actors going WAY over the top under the orders of two men whose direction underlines that. And that gets me to another thing I really hated about ARIZONA – the last two scenes in the film, of Nathan Sr. in the nursery with H.I. and Ed, and H.I.’s future dream. There is nothing wrong with them per se – the former scene is rather wise and the latter wistful. But they are both way off tonally and belong in another film. If Nathan Arizona had ever shown he could act like that, then his name isn’t Nathan Arizona. (Yes, the film is obviously quotable.) It strikes me as the ultimate bad faith to fill your movie with caricatures and outlandish situations, but then decide to get all serious and heart-warming and normal-behaving and even try (in a very surface-level way) to tug at your heart at the climax. It’s bet-covering, among other X-covering things. Stanley Kubrick made the greatest comedy ever in DR. STRANGELOVE using little but caricatures, but he stayed with that all the way to the very bitter end. The Coens wuss out. And even THEN, they can’t stay away from pissing on their own creation with that aforementioned last line.