In this discussion, I am firstly going to consider the ways in which the films of the Coen brothers can be considered postmodern, especially in terms of genre. Then I will consider postmodernism in Raising Arizona, especially in comparison with two other films, Goodfellas and Citizen Kane.
The Coens have been described by one critic as
Emmanuel Levy writes ‘The Coens are clever directors who know too much about movies and too little about real life’ (Levy 230, cited in Coughlin).
Essentially, because the acute awareness and influence of cinema history on the Coen oeuvre, their films are seen as being postmodern. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernism in film, which was in itself a reaction to classicism. Classical Hollywood Cinema essentially tried to submerge technique completely and to make the narrative and continuity as seamless and artless as possible. The Searchers or Shadow of a Doubt can be seen, to a certain extent, as examples of classicism. Modernist films, like The Man With the Golden Arm embraced technical and narrative innovation, and dared to dabble with alienation devices that drew the audience’s attention to the artifice they saw onscreen. Finally, postmodernism takes off from modernism, and rejects the idea of an external truth or reality. Postmodernist films employ jagged narration and narrative structure, are stylistically self-conscious, self-referential, and tend towards intertextuality, mimicking and mixing other genres.
Apart from specific references to other films – lines of dialogue, plot elements, characters - the central way in which the postmodernity of the Coens’ films manifests itself is through the use of genre. Ronald Bergan writes that
In discussing genre and the Coens’ films, it seems that they are torn between two old genres that are by and large left untouched by modern filmmakers: film noir and screwball comedy. Several of their films owe the literary tradition that provided the basis for film noir – Miller’s Crossing recalls the work of Dashiell Hammett, The Big Lebowski reworks Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Man Who Wasn’t There is an hommage to James M. Cain. However, screwball exerts a similarly powerful pull. In reviewing their latest film, Intolerable Cruelty, John Patterson writes
The reference to Howard Hawks is apt. Hawks similarly oscillated between noir and screwball, making both the film version of The Big Sleep as well as the screwball comedy par excellence, Bringing Up Baby – the title of which is deliberately suggested by the title of Raising Arizona.
Screwball comedy is the cinematic cousin of farce, and the name ‘screwball’ derives from the usually preposterous plot developments of the films. Reaching their peak during the thirties, they were fast paced comedies that depended on both physical and verbal humour. If we’re going to saddle Raising Arizona with a particular genre, it would probably be screwball comedy, with its breakneck pace, wacky dialogue and absurdist characters.
Stylistically and thematically, Raising Arizona probably most closely resembles David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as well as the Dukes of Hazzard. Another film which Raising Arizona obviously references is Bonnie and Clyde. The banjo score of Raising Arizona echoes that of Bonnie and Clyde, both films feature a couple-on-the-lam, comic violence and bank robberies. Both films are road movies in a sense, even though Hi and Ed drive around a lot they pretty much end up where they started.
However, it is perhaps more interesting to compare Raising Arizona with two other films with postmodern elements, Goodfellas and Citizen Kane.
Both Raising Arizona and Goodfellas are highly kinetic, and feature giddy, vertiginous camera , a trademark of postmodern cinema. Furthermore, both films feature the kind of penetrative, transgressive camera movement that hearkens back to shots in Citizen Kane such as the one in which the camera passes through the El Rancho sign, through the skylight and into the nightclub where Susan is sitting. In Raising Arizona, there’s a long mobile shot that progresses from the exterior of Chez Arizona, over a car and a fountain, up a ladder and through a window into the mouth of a screaming Doris Arizona. The long, snaking, unbroken steadicam shot in the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas – following Henry and Karen from outside the club until they sit down - creates a similar voyeuristic effect, and gives the sense of the ‘fourth wall’ between the audience and the characters being broken.
Furthermore, all three films use intertextual pastiche for both postmodern and comic effect. The newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane parodies the excesses of the March-of-Time newsreels while simultaneously establishing the character of Kane. On a smaller scale, the advertisements for Unpainted Arizona in Raising Arizona and Morrie’s Wigs in Goodfellas play the amateurish production values of the ads for laughs.
Finally, all three films create a sense of ambiguity about the external truth of their stories. In Citizen Kane, the narrative is refracted through the point-of-view of at least five different characters. Both Raising Arizona and Goodfellas feature formally playful subjective voice-over narration from their protagonists. Hi’s voice-over is particularly postmodern in that it is more or less untrustworthy – at the end, he asks ‘Was I just fleein’ reality, like I know I’m liable to do?’, casting doubt on the entire story. Likewise, in Goodfellas, the audience comes to believe that Henry, as the narrator, is the voice of truth – when, suddenly, Karen begins to narrate, creating a similar postmodern effect.
Although these three films differ vastly in terms of tone and subject , it is clear, then, that they intersect postmodernistically in these three key ways: transgressive cinematography, intertextual pastiche and subjective narrative.