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Raising Arizona: Postmodernism, Cinephilia and the Coen Canon (2003)
Brenton Priestley


 

 

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

guys who spent most of their lives watching movies, indiscriminately, both in theatres and on television and for whom, mostly by osmosis, the vocabulary and grammar of film has become a kind of instinctive second language. (No author credited, cited in Bergan 25)

And another

the Coens make films that are highly self-conscious of their relationship to preexisting film forms. Their movies rely upon a base of knowledge, cultural and film historical, that is presumed to be shared between themselves and their viewers. (Russell 5, cited in Coughlin)

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

... they are interested in working inside the rules of a genre, and then breaking them from within... Their films evoke the atmosphere of classic genre movies, sometimes quoting from specific ones obliquely, without nudging the audience’s awareness of them. They have found a visual language (and a verbal one) that translates the past into the present. The ironic inverted commas that inevitably cling like crabs around most postmodernist movies are restricting (especially to audiences not as steeped in American movie history), while the Coens find them liberating. (27)

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

Intolerable Cruelty is... the Coen brothers' Howard Hawks movie, just as The Hudsucker Proxy was their Frank Capra rags-to-riches-and-back saga, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? was their Preston Sturges madcap romp. (Online review)

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 [1], 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 [2], it is clear, then, that they intersect postmodernistically in these three key ways: transgressive cinematography, intertextual pastiche and subjective narrative.

ENDNOTES

The cinematographer of Raising Arizona, Barry Sonnenfeld, actually went on to shoot Goodfellas during its last week of production, after the cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, left to work on another production.

Although arguably all three are a paean to American life, and all centre on a different strata of the criminal world: petty thief, gangster and robber baron.

WORKS CITED

Bergan, Ronald. The Coen Brothers. London: Phoenix, 2001.

Bergan’s readable, comprehensive book, current up until O Brother, straddles the line between biography and film analysis. The fifth chapter, ‘Hi Stakes’ (93-111) traces the production of Raising Arizona, and Bergan offers some critical insight into the film, primarily concerning its treatment of family values. He also considers the idea that the whole story is a dream of HI’s.

Bergan, a journalist and film writer, has also written a biography of Sergei Eisenstein.

Cheshire, Ellen and John Ashbrook. The Pocket Essential Brothers Coen. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2000.

Cheshire and Ashbrook’s postcard-sized book, clocking in at less than a hundred pages, essentially reads as a ‘lite’ version of Bergan’s – some brief autobiographical about the Coen’s, then a detailed analysis and summary of trivia relating to each of their films from Blood Simple to Lebowski. The chapter ‘Sometimes It’s A Hard World For The Little Things’ (20-9) is devoted to Raising Arizona, and has a few interesting points about families, dreams and names in the film.

However, occasional spelling errors and the overall sense that it was written to capitalise on the Coens’ burgeoning cult status suggest that the book was written in less time than it takes to read it.

Probably not really ‘essential’ for anyone but the Coen completist.

Coughlin, Paul. ‘Joel and Ethan Coen.’
<http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/
directors/03/coens.html>. October 2003.

Within the framework of a critical overview of the Coen oeuvre, Coughlin, an Australian academic, uses Levy’s aforementioned assertion that the Coens know more about movies than life as a springboard to consider the artistic legitimacy and critical value of their films. Ultimately, he rejects the idea that their films are merely postmodern repositories of simulacra.

If you’re as interested in their films as I am, this short article is about as lucid and detailed as conceivably possible within such a condensed format, and a first port-of-call for any further research into the Coens.

Coen, Joel and Ethan Coen. Raising Arizona: The Screenplay. New York: St Martin’s, 1988.

The next best thing to actually seeing the movie.

Cheshire and Asterbrook describe the Coens’ scripts, which are readily available on the retail market, as ‘... text-book examples of clarity and economy. Almost uniquely, it is possible to read a Coen script as if it were a novel’ (20).

Raising Arizona. Dir. Joel Coen. 20th Century Fox, 1986.

‘... Starting from a point of delirious excess, the film leaps into dark and virtually uncharted territory to soar like a comet.’

-Andrew, Geoff. ‘Raising Arizona’. Time Out Film Guide. Ed. John Pym. London: Penguin, 2001. 953.

‘[The] aggresively wacked-out sense of humor may not be for all tastes, but it’s a heady mix of irony and slapstick. Watch out for those chase scenes!’

-Maltin, Leonard. ‘Raising Arizona’. Leonard Maltin’s 2003 Movie & Video Guide. Ed. Leonard Maltin, et al. New York: Signet, 2003. 1134

Levy, Emmanuel. Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film. New York: New York UP, 1999.

Russell, Carolyn. The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Jefferson: McFarland, 2001.

Robertson, William Preston. The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film. New York: Norton, 1998.

Robertson, a personal friend of the Coens, surpasses the usual ‘making-of’ promotional tie-in with this book. Although the emphasis is on Lebowski, in his interviews with the Coens and their stock-company, Robertson touches often on Raising Arizona, and provides an interesting and amusing guide to the motifs of their films.

Goodfellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros, 1989.

Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. RKO, 1941.


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