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Critical Essay by Jeff Evans
SOURCE: "Comic Rhetoric in Raising Arizona," in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1996, pp. 39-53.
In the essay below, Evans explores the use of language in Raising Arizona, suggesting that a major theme of the movie is the use of language for self-delusion.
Joel and Ethan Coen's film Raising Arizona is about the American dream and its more specific components—such as the American family and notions of community in America—filtered through the culture-clashed psyche of the 1980's. In their reinvestigation of our central cultural myth, the Coens use several rhetorics to disturb their audience's traditional assumptions about the subject: one is the primary focus of this paper, language play. At the same time, the variety and complicated interplay of the different rhetorics attest to the confusion of definitions and values at the base of the American dream(s). One such rhetoric, which will not be developed here, is the Coens' antic cinematography and editing. A second, which will serve as introduction, is their delighted interweaving of strands of different American film genres. Most genres serve as a kind of narrative shorthand, communicating through their generic conventions implied but significant narrative information: identifying chronological, geographical, and/or class setting; posing inherent cultural issues; and creating narrative patterns that work to resolve these issues. An audience often engages itself through these acts—conscious or not—of intellectual recognition, which in turn encourages it to consume—and thus sustain—the genre production. But the sheer wealth of generic referents in Raising Arizona is initially less pleasing than dizzying. The chase film is cinematically spanned from its early French origins and their influences on Mack Sennett and his Keystone Kops through the more recent practices of a Bullitt or French Connection. There is an insistent evocation of the road warrior movies in the character of Leonard Smalls, the "lone biker of the apocalypse." There are more specific analogues to Arthur Penn's classic of 1960's alienation, Bonnie and Clyde, from the spirited banjo music to the outlaw subject matter, to the dialect and regionalism, to the motif of infertility, and so on. Equally important and evocative are both films' tributary New Wave cinematography and editing that correlate Raising Arizona and its moral estrangement from the dominant culture with the sympathetic if dimwitted outlaw couple of Clyde and Bonnie. The Coens thus create a link between Bonnie and Clyde, which so profoundly spoke to the individualistic drop-out impulse of the 1960's, and their Raising Arizona, which has as its matrix correspondingly self-absorbed Yuppie values of the 1980's.
Most importantly, because of its subject, the American dream, and its geographical setting, the movie frequently refers visually, verbally, and structurally to the Western, with its identifying motifs of the frontier; stages of cultural development and tensions therein; and violence. Granted, some of the generic referentiality may be youthful film school exuberance in this, the Coens' second feature release. But organically the many different generic borrowings or re-renderings continually dislocate us comically as audience while placing the Coens, along with their protagonists, outside of an unquestioning or uncritical culture. Thus, our leads aspire to the vast middle-class based on such cultural premises as social progress, material success, class ascension, and growth and transformation of the individual that they are lacking in. Similarly, the audience is placed outside of the conventions and culture of the classical Hollywood film by the Coens' generic manipulations. The Coens adapt one more American film genre—the recent culture-clash comedy, like Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Something Wild (1986), or After Hours (1986)—in a way that may give us a partial hold on this film that is both generically and ethically slippery. The culture-clash films develop an incongruous humor arising from the experiences of a middle-class, or even Yuppie, type suddenly confronted with life in a wilder, more marginalized environment. The Coens' twist on this new formula is to cast the marginalized types themselves as the two leads and trace their often misguided attempts to adapt to the dominant middle-class culture, values, and attitudes. Throughout the film, the Coens' use of language dramatizes and comically evaluates these aspirations.
The film's title immediately clues us to the importance of language play and control. Its verbal connotations suggest thematic issues that the film develops. The plot centers on two characters introduced immediately, an Arizona policewoman named Ed ("short for Edwinna") and H.I. McDonnough, a petty thief whose "raison d'être" is convenience stores: characters of limited education, background, and promise. The gender confusion or androgyny suggested nominally has potentially significant generic functions at the determination of the climax. Initially, though, it serves to introduce the ambiguities of self-identification and assumption of traditional roles in the American "great good place" of society. Ed and H.I. meet, their relationship grows, and he subsequently proposes marriage, all in the same police booking room. Vowing that H.I. will go straight, they marry and settle down to jobs and family life: until Ed discovers she is infertile and their recent, shallow roots in middle-classism, what H.I. had called "the salad days," wither. But spurred by characteristic American initiative gotten from watching broadcast news, they resolve to build a family and their American dream: by kidnaping one of the Arizona quintuplets just born to Mrs. Nathan Arizona. The plot—and their version of the American dream—has at its foundation a kidnaped child, thus preparing us for other ethical incongruities the Coens see in the American psychological landscape. The film's title, thus, also prepares us for motifs regarding birthing, babies, growth and development in America. It nominally suggests correspondence between an individual and her state or country and, by extension, suggests the tendency for individual dreams to mimic popularizations of national ones. "Raising," as in ascension, initiates the film's satiric depiction of the American cultural virtue of progress, improving the quality of life. But the rapid staccato pacing and editing, the often manic camera movement, the complex and frequently oppositional mise-en-scene, and the frenzied, eclectic musical score promote too the pun of razing, thus sounding a violence associated with our society and, more specifically, with attempts at class or cultural change in America. There is an alarming incidence of guns in this humorous film, with many of the characters—often photographed with an exaggerating camera lens—taking an observable delight in shooting at H.I. That H.I.'s gun is always unloaded during his robberies not only echoes the motif of infertility, but, more importantly, it situationally and ethically sets him apart from the dominant—and dominating—society, while adding to the film's deliberate moral ambiguity. Thus, the film also suggests that violence may be a necessary antecedent to cultural change, rebirth, or a consequence of premature social birth in the 1980's.
This theme of rebirth of the American individual, capable of self-improvement, transformation, generating new identities, goes back to the roots of our cultural emigration. Thus, our kidnaped baby goes through five name changes during the course of three baby-nappings and an intended fourth, and his futures and dreams alternate accordingly. We will see that language play often keys our revaluation of such American attitudes. For example, our pronounced cultural belief in the malleability and openendedness of life in America is voiced early on as H.I. looks forward to a future with Ed, "a future that was only eight to fourteen months away." This is a good example of how the Coens use visuals to undercut or countermand the verbal rhetoric: as H.I. speaks here, he is shown musing in his prison bunk. The series of baby snatchings, which through their repetition structurally undercut the American trust in social progress, creates the loose episodic structure of the film, which climaxes with H.I. and Ed rescuing "Junior" from the "lone biker" in a Western showdown and returning him to his rightful family, thereby displaying a growth or transformation of their own. The structure—and the thematic motif of birthing, then coming of age in America—is complicated by the ethical problems of what the nature of good life in America is, another issue that links this film to the Western genre. Here, the illicit "birth" of H.I. and Ed's family coincides with two more "birthings," both strikingly visualized: the prison escape of H.I.'s fellow inmates, the Snopes brothers, and the gestation of the "lone biker of the apocalypse … a man with all the powers of hell at his command," born from H.I.'s guilt-ridden conscience and criminal act: "That night I had a dream…." The Coens' awareness of the fates of some of America's recent social and political dreamers, verbally echoed by H.I. here, sounds one of the tones of the film that raises it above the level of farce to treat significant cultural issues.
So the Coens' employment of various generic conventions and identifications helps signal their stance of comic incongruity toward the dream, its components, and the pursuit of it. The film title's word play alerts us to the Coens' sensitivity to language and the variety of comic treatments it offers. There are several literary allusions within the film text that further underpin our growing awareness of language flexibility and use in Raising Arizona. What the film centers on is a series of episodes wherein characters' basic mis-understandings of language, misappropriations of it, or ignorance of the gap between word and deed or actuality promote the Coen's running commentary on the quality and viability of the dream. The characters use language to describe or reify the dream; and they use language to desperately or pathetically or hypocritically accelerate their pursuit and achievement of it. Language is seen by them as a controlling and directive tool; but the Coens frequently show that the actual functioning and results of language work counter to this. The American Adamic impulse to name, give utterance to, create is frequent and multiplicitous, but it is not sanctified. The Word in America does not always adhere.
One category of comic rhetoric is language use that cues us, often through its banality, to popularizations or linguistic attenuations of certain cultural beliefs. Surely some of this goes back through our comic types, such as the cracker-barrel philosophers, to the proverbial type of Benjamin Franklin's vastly popular "Father Abraham" and may account in part for the Coens choosing a voice-over narrator. There is something in the American sensibility that is expeditiously addressed by quick, aphoristic, proverbial language/wisdom—rhetorically packaged and controlled. For example, the state of spiritual achievement being manifested in material success goes back through Franklin to William Bradford. And our Adams and Eves seem to be similarly guiled by the adage that more is better in America: they conceive of adding to their "family unit" while watching furniture store entrepreneur, Nathan Arizona, whose son Nathan, Jr. is the kidnaped baby, aggressively hawking his dinette, bedroom, bathroom, boudoir sets on t.v. Arizona's emotional delight in his multiple babies seems partly grounded in the virtue of material acquisitiveness that he so aggressively fosters. In a nice instance of verbal irony and confusion that sounds the falsity that the Coens often see beneath the rhetoric surrounding or describing the Dream, we learn that Nathan Arizona's original name is Nathan Huffhines, which he has changed for business reasons. But as audience, we also see and hear him proclaim his business slogan, "And if you can find lower prices anywhere my name ain't Nathan Arizona!" The complement to Nathan Arizona's confusing spiritual materialism is H.I. and Ed's equally confused belief that the material existence of a child—regardless of source or legality of origin—will beget familial happiness.
Similarly, H.I.'s language is riddled with clichés. When he confesses to the kidnaping, he says, "I crept in yon window"; penning a goodbye letter to Ed while "you and Nathan slumber … [he] cannot tarry"; when the couple first arrive home with the stolen baby, H.I.'s well-conditioned media impulse is to "Let's us preserve the moment in pictures!" These are minor examples among a myriad of potential ones to draw our attention to two more profound implications of H.I.'s sentimentalized speech. It is H.I.'s language that predominates throughout the film because the Coens employ H.I., somewhat unconventionally, as the voice-over narrator. He thus creates the verbal mindscape of much of the film. When we hear his rural, native speech layered over comically by the language of pop jargon, advertisement, cliché, we recognize the violation and ethical confusion that language can wreak on character and action. As they drive off with the kidnaped baby, Ed has a sudden maternal, sympathetic identification with Mrs. Nathan Arizona and her loss, but H.I. consoles her causistically, "Well now honey we been over this and over this. There's what's right and there's what's right and never the twain shall meet." The same Hallmark card sophistry applies to their initial impulse toward family: "Ed felt like having a critter was the next logical step…. Her point was that there was too much love and beauty for just the two of us…." Thus, it is H.I.'s often muddled language and thought that contribute to the Coens' deliberate moral myopia in the film.
One of the most revealing groupings of rhetoric in the film is that comprised of the characters' usage that encourages false pride, self-delusion, or mock success—in other words, language that mimics the cultural tenet of the pursuit of success even as it misrepresents the individual's place in relation to his world or the dream. During the brief stint when H.I. attempts to go straight, we overhear a dialogue—rather monologue—from one of his machine-shop co-workers: "So we was doin' paramedical work in affiliation with the state highway system—not actually practicin', y'understand—and me and Bill's patrollin' down Nine Mile.". When we realize that the paramedical work he was engaged in—"not actually practicin"—is cleaning up after highway accidents and road kills, we sense a gap between self-image and reality. The gap is rendered comic partly by the visual incongruity—the greasy, gum-snapping, alazon figure verbally aspiring to a white-collar medical status. But part of it is the verbal command—or temporary suspension of disbelief—created by the anecdotalist. And finally, I think, part of the humor comes at our own expense: despite an idealism for a classless, nonelitist American society, there will always be machine operators as well as medical practitioners. Gale and Evelle Snopes, two of H.I.'s compatriots at prison, likewise assert a professional pride through their delusive language use. The two concur with the prison counselor's advice about taking on adult responsibility: "GALE: … sometimes your career gotta come before family. EVELLE: Work is what's kept us happy." The film recurs visually or verbally several times to these prison counseling sessions. We are thus presented with the process and results of the institutional attempt at culturally educating and transforming the individual. Having escaped from prison, the Snopes indeed set their sights on ascension and the rise of fortune in America. They invite H.I. in on a score, a bank robbery: "Come on, Hi, you're young, you got your health—what do you want with a job?… I know you're partial to convenience stores but, H.I., the sun don't rise and set on the corner grocery. It's like Doc Schwartz says: you gotta have a little ambition…. We keep goin' 'till we can retire—or we get caught. Either way we're fixed for life." Here, the language of American aphorism and initiative combine to rhetorically legitimize the future while linguistically and ethically obfuscating the means to those ends.
We see that it is frequently language—jargon acquired from our own social institutions—that is used by the characters to allow for rationalization, irresponsibility, or evasion. This in itself might counter some of the perceived condescension of the Coens to their individual characters. In a frenetic chase sequence, when H.I. awakens to the realities of middle-class life with its requisite responsibilities (the baby's dip-tet shots) and attendant hypocrisies (an offer of wife-swapping, rhetorically purified as "I'amour"), he turns back to the familiar outsider life of robbing a convenience store, this time thoughtfully remembering to steal a carton of Huggie diapers for the baby. His defense to Ed, furious at losing her recent niche in middle-class life, is a retreat into the jargon of popular psychology, "You know, honey, I'm okay you're okay?" H.I. has similarly used cliché, sentiment, and jargon to explain their early, fallow state of marriage—"… This woman who looked as fertile as the Tennessee Valley could not bear children … the doctor explained that her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase"—and their subsequent failure to qualify to adopt, "It's true I've had a checkered past, but…. But biology and the prejudices of others conspired to keep us childless." When the escaped Snopes brothers arrive at HI and Ed's, they redefine and defend their prison breakout to the indignant Ed by manipulating correctional system jargon: "We released ourselves on our own recognizance…. We felt the institution no longer had anything to offer us." In a scene that visually and verbally captures some of the awkwardness brought on by sudden class change in America, the Snopes brothers rationalize their own criminal past sociologically while earnestly trying to improve the baby's future by advocating breast-feeding: "Ya don't breast feed him, he'll hate you for it later. That's why we wound up in prison. Anyway, that's what Dr. Schwartz tells us." This humorous manipulation of psychological/sociological learning becomes serious when the comic language causes us to question whether the institutions we create do serve, do nurture us.
The Coens dramatize their concerns for the abuses of language in America and entrench their themes of linguistic and cultural incongruities by several times showing elderly characters and their tenets and practices of language use as a counterpoint to the present-day babel. In one instance, the Snopes hold up an "old timer" running a country grocery store. He is instructed "… and don't you move till you've counted up to eight hundred and twenty-five and then backwards down to zero. I'll be back to check—see you ain't cheating." As the Snopes drive off, we hear the old-timer slowly enumerating "One one thousand, two one thousand…." He does faithfully count up to eight hundred and twenty-five and back down to seven hundred and ninety-one before he feels he has done justice to his linguistic order. But raising himself from the floor, he sees the Snopes barreling back down upon him: in their ineptitude, they had left the kidnaped baby at the scene of the crime. His faith in adherence of deed to language scared back into him, we hear the old-timer dutifully resuming his counting and prone position as the visuals stay with the fleeing Snopes.
When the Snopes arrive at their goal, their score, "a hayseed bank," they command the elderly customers, "All right you hayseeds, it's a stick-up! Everybody freeze! Everybody down on the ground!" (We've all heard this on t.v.) But another old-timer points out the impossibility of physically acting upon these linguistic directions—
Well which is it young fella? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? Mean to say, iffen I freeze, I can't rightly drop. And iffen I drop, I'm a gonna be in motion.
The resultant plot disorder comically locates the generational and cultural rift between the old-timers' literal adherence to and trust in denotative language to direct or describe action, a time when language held credence and permanence, to the Coens' present era of linguistic self-service and confusion. In the hilarious scene when the kidnaping of Nathan, Jr. has been discovered and the police and F.B.I. investigations begun, we hear a crescendo of language—that of hucksterism, evasion, retreat into institutional jargon, and self-aggrandizement—most often at the expense of language meeting humanistic needs. Emblematically here in Nathan Arizona, Sr.'s desperate and incongruous diction—exemplars, fortes, daisy farm, microbes, Yodas'n shit—we see all the characters' attempts to demonstrate knowledge of their world and capabilities to work with it through their language use and control.
The Coens cannot be unaware that their own feature-length language play links them to their characters, who try to create and control reality through their language utterance. This identification might well give rise to a sympathy, rather than condescension, toward these characters. A genuine concern for the baby's health incongruously links the outlaw Snopes brothers with the swinging middle-class types, Dot and Glen, by the shared trust in medical science verbalized and echoed in their insistence on "dip-tet shots." Each time the baby is kidnaped, the snatchers dutifully bring along his accompanying Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, which H.I. had given Ed when they first kidnaped Nathan, Jr.: "Here's the instructions." The characters want language, and want to trust language, to give them verbal instructions for assimilating into the American community.
Interestingly, in this film that is especially verbal but has as its central metaphor babies, there is also a motif of non-verbal orality. Thus, as Ed sternly reminds H.I. after his first, botched attempt at kidnaping, "Babies cry!" And at significant plot junctures in Raising Arizona, all of the major and supporting characters scream, cry, yell, roar, or bellow, as if regressing into an infantile, primal language state. These instances also suggest that language is not equivalent to the felt emotion or needed action of the moment. The characters explode in non-verbal utterance (sequentially, Mrs. Arizona, Mr. Arizona, H.I., Ed, the Snopes brothers) when the baby is variously kidnaped or, in the lone biker's instance, when he himself—along with his bronzed baby shoes—is about to be exploded by his hand grenade. This technique serves as another comic prod to our consciousness about the responsibility of language to articulate and shape human need and act. But it also serves as a transition to a second issue that draws together two of the rhetorics mentioned in the introduction, language and genre.
The climax of the film—H.I. and Ed recapturing Nathan, Jr. from the lone biker to return him to his rightful family—takes place in a deliberately Western setting: the wooden slatted Farmer's Bank, raised wooden sidewalks, hitching posts, a hard-packed, dusty, single, deserted, main street. With H.I. temporarily stunned, Ed advances unarmed upon the lone biker to confront him—verbally: "Gimme that baby, you warthog from hell!" The direct allusion here to Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation" once again draws attention to the self-conscious use of language throughout the film. The unlikelihood of Ed having read and recalled O'Connor aside, the inappropriateness of a literary allusion to articulate the excited emotions of a character at the story's climax sounds again the Coens' sense of discordant language use in America. But, given the setting and dramatic situation, Ed's response is also not appropriate generically. Jane Tompkins has recently argued that
… because the western is in revolt against a culture, perceived as female, where the ability to manipulate symbols confers power, the western equates power with "not language." And not language it equates with being male.
In other words, H.I.'s ensuing physical confrontation with the lone biker resuscitates, albeit sentimentally and feebly, the Western's generic convention of language being associated with civilization and being a pallid substitute for (male) action. Here, at the climax, the usually loquacious H.I. is the Western protagonist standing against the landscape: taciturn, laconic, choosing to engage an objectified world physically rather than to subjectivize a world through language.
Raising Arizona, through exploration of many issues originating from the visual and verbal motifs of birth, babies, and self-articulation, is about growth, development, coming of age in America. Characters represent different stages of development, both individual and cultural, and they undergo initiations and transformations, such as of name, vocation, class. The language use in Raising Arizona often draws our attention comically to the cultural myths and values that are meant to guide us, to the institutions that are meant to serve us, and to a gauge by which we may measure our individual and cultural growth. Thus, we hear the communal tag phrase, "[Well,] okay then," throughout the film. That it serves variously as the legal judgment of H.I.'s parole board, as the minister's blessing of H.I. and Ed's marriage, and as a frightened store clerk's response to the demands of an armed robber reiterates the Coens' sense of language in America working to identify positive, meaningful goals and often resulting in comic confusion and incongruity instead.
This disparity between language and reality carries through to the film's coda. Here H.I. resumes his voice-over narration. Typically, voice-over gives the narrator a verbal and diegetic authority: he/she selects, arranges, and presents the narrative information. But it is unlikely by now that the audience accepts the presumed authority of H.I.'s voice-over, which has been visually undercut throughout the film as it is questioned again here. H.I.'s closing sentimental vision of the future is made suspicious by a subjective, slow-motion camera and a dreamily sanitized mise-en-scene. The visual surreality and self-consciousness create genuine doubt about H.I.'s narrative accuracy as we see him dream into being generations of family born to the infertile Ed and him. And the film ends with more ambiguity, this time linguistic. H.I. wistfully tries to enjoin his dream onto a reality when he locates his vision of the future somewhere in our frontier West, someplace "… that seemed real…. And it seemed like … well … our home…. If not Arizona, then a land not too far away where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved…. I dunno—maybe it was Utah."
While still on the set of Raising Arizona, director and co-writer Joel Coen discussed the language use of his characters: "It's not meant to be condescending…. If the characters talk in clichés, it's because we like clichés. You start with things that are incredibly recognizable in one form, and you play with them." And this is what we have seen taking place in Raising Arizona: the Coens presenting the familiar icons and speech of America and then investigating them through rhetorical and generic play. If one example could approach encapsulating the Coens' explosive vision of language at odds, at work, and going in all directions at once while including their tone—antic, fond, comic—it might be Nathan Arizona, Sr.'s unwitting pun to the press and legal investigators as he looks forward to the kidnaped Nathan, Jr.'s return, "when we're a nuclear family again."
This section contains 4,348 words
(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)