This section contains 3,398 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by David Edelstein
SOURCE: "Invasion of the Baby Snatchers," in American Film, Vol. 12, April, 1987, pp. 26-30, 56.
In the following essay, Edelstein describes a visit to the set of Raising Arizona.
If you've ever left something on the roof of a car and then realized the goof several miles down the road, you'll get a kick out of a bit in Raising Arizona, Joel and Ethan Coen's farce about a babynapping and its aftermath. What's left on the car roof is an infant, and when the awful truth is discovered, the occupants—a pair of escaped convicts—make a squealing 180-degree turn and go barreling back to where the babe has presumably landed. Cut to the infant in his carseat in the center of the blacktop, staring offscreen with gurgling, Gerber-baby glee, while, behind him, the vehicle rushes in at ninety miles an hour, screeching to a halt about an inch from his little head. And the kid is still smiling.
This is how the guys behind the ghoulish Blood Simple invade the American mainstream: The kid is so cuuute and the gag so felicitous that you hardly register the perversity. In Raising Arizona, a young hayseed couple—ex-con H.I. "Hi" (Nicolas Cage) and police booking officer Edwina "Ed" (Holly Hunter)—learn they cannot have a child. (As narrator Hi puts it, "Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.") In desperate need of a baby to complete their blissful, suburban existence, they shanghai one of the newborn Arizona quintuplets, sons of Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), an unpainted-furniture baron.
In a world where moviemakers often inflate themselves and their motives, Joel and Ethan Coen—thirty-two and twenty-nine, respectively, both childless but presumably fertile—take the opposite approach: They talk coolly about craftsmanship and storytelling, and little else. With Raising Arizona, the Coens say, they wanted to make a film as different from Blood Simple as possible—galloping instead of languorous, sunny instead of lurid, genial and upbeat instead of murderous and cynical.
"It's not an emotional thing at all," says Barry Sonnenfeld, their cinematographer. "Given any topic, they could write an excellent script. Topics are incredibly unimportant to them—it's structure and style and words. If you ask them for their priorities, they'll tell you script, editing, coverage, and lighting."
When pressed for their attraction to the subject—babies, child-rearing, images of the family—the Coens squirm and smoke and do their best in the face of so irrelevant a question. We're in a small Greek coffee shop near Joel's Manhattan apartment, where, in less than half an hour, they have smoked three cigarettes apiece; the air in the room has grown so foggy that we seem to have drifted out to sea.
Finally, out of the cloud, Joel speaks: "You have a scene in a movie when someone gets shot, right? Bang! And the squib goes off and the blood runs down and you get a reaction, right? It's movie fodder, you know what I mean? And in a really different way, a baby's face is movie fodder. You just wanna take elements that are good fodder and do something different with them." He laughs—a reassuring laugh, like old bedsprings—and turns to his brother. "Wouldn't you say that's basically it?"
"Yeah," says Ethan, deadpan, "it's like a real cheap and shameless bid at making a commercial movie. We decided to sell out and that was the first decision."
If the Coens are tight-lipped and ironic with interviewers, perhaps it's because they themselves can't account for the warmth and integrity of their movie. "That's your job," suggests Ethan, helpfully.
They don't make it easy. Few journalists are allowed on the Raising Arizona set, and when I arrive, there isn't a lot to see. It's the end of a thirteen-week shoot, and all I get to watch is part of a chase scene in a supermarket: There's no dialogue, the shots have been meticulously storyboarded, and the only real challenges are those facing the special-effects people. (I spend a lot of time watching them blow popcorn and cereal out of an air cannon.)
But I'm lucky to be there at all, and it's hard to blame the Coens for their wariness of the press. No one paid any attention to them when they made Blood Simple on $1.5 million—money they raised themselves from private investors, most in the vicinity of their hometown, Minneapolis. Sometimes their crew consisted of one person, Barry Sonnenfeld. Raising Arizona, while no biblical epic, cost four times as much, sports a full roster of production assistants, and is being released by a major studio, Twentieth Century-Fox.
"The attitude on Blood Simple," says Sonnenfeld, "was 'Just go for it, 'cause if we screw it up, no one will know about it, it'll be just one more unreleased movie.' I still take chances, but there's no question we're more scared."
By this point in the shoot, however, Joel and Ethan seem anything but antsy. (The Coens co-wrote the script; Joel is nominally the director, Ethan the co-producer with Mark Silverman.) Although I have agreed in advance not to waylay them, they're happy to make small talk—or, in this case, baby talk.
"The babies were great," says Ethan, of the most potentially problem-ridden scene, in which Hi swipes Nathan, Jr. (T. J. Kuhn), from the nursery and accidentally liberates the other infants.
"We kept firing babies when they wouldn't behave," says Joel. "And they didn't even know they were being fired, that's what was so pathetic about it."
What gets a baby fired?
"Some of them took their first steps on the set," says Joel. "Ordinarily, you'd be pretty happy about something like that, but in this case it got them fired."
"They'd make the walk of shame," in-tones Ethan.
"The parents were horrified. One mother actually put her baby's shoes on backward so he wouldn't walk."
We're in a supermarket in Tempe, Arizona, in the middle of a long, flat stretch of shopping centers outside Phoenix. In keeping with the movie's visual motif of aggressive bad taste, the female extras shop with curlers in their hair and let out sustained shrieks; as Hi dodges their carts, a red-faced manager pulls out a shotgun and starts blasting. No babies are involved, but a pack of dogs have chased Hi into the supermarket. Early on, it's clear that if you're ever pursued by angry dogs, the absolute best move would be ducking into a supermarket—the animals don't have much traction on those shiny floors and get easily traumatized.
"This is worse than when we had babies," says Ethan. "At least with babies, you could smack them around. People are afraid to hit dogs."
The Coens remain calm, laid-back. Joel, the taller, has nearly shoulder-length hair and dangling arms; ten or fifteen years ago, the look was vintage pothead. Ethan, unshaven, lighter, and more compact, divides his gaze between the action and the floor, pacing between shots and grinding out cigarettes. Synchronicity is the key: Sonnenfeld has compared them to a two-man ecosystem; and while they do communicate through tiny signals and monosyllables, they seem to be the recipients of what Mr. Spock would term a "Vulcan mind meld."
Jim Jacks, executive producer, narrates their trademark pas de deux: "You watch Ethan walk in a circle this way and Joel walk in a circle that way; each knows exactly where the other is and when they'll meet. Then they go to Barry."
This is also how the Coens write; they don't make films so much as pace them out. (Asked where the confidence to make movies comes from, Ethan replies, "Every little step considered one at a time is not terribly daunting.") Ethan, the more silent and cryptic of the two, majored in philosophy at Princeton, and the contrast between his placid demeanor and the nicotine-fueled churnings of his brain gives pause. The computer in his head seems to try out hundreds of moves before it ever lets him do anything.
Between setups, the brothers take turns on a decent game of Ms. Pac-Man. They're going a little stircrazy by now; Scottsdale, where they've been settled for the last few months, seems (as actress Frances McDormand puts it) like a big golf course; and the nearby desert, though magnificent, is not reliably soul-quenching.
Nicolas Cage sits in silence next to the book rack, idly flipping through magazines. On his canvas chair, a Band-Aid separates "Nic" from "olas," the offending "h" obscured. Cage is touchy about misspellings of his first name, and, in a soothing (and poetic) gesture, Ethan ministered to the hurt. That's what producers are for.
Reluctant to discuss his methods, Cage is clear about his goals. He arrives on the set with a ton of ideas; even in the uncomplicated supermarket chase, he proposes a glance at his watch during a tiny lull. Joel politely shakes off the suggestion. Their relationship has been bumpy but respectful. Cage praises the brilliant script and the Coens' professionalism, but he's clearly miffed that he couldn't bring more to the party. "Joel and Ethan have a very strong vision," he says, "and I've learned how difficult it is for them to accept another artist's vision. They have an autocratic nature."
A few minutes after the interview, Cage summons me back. "Ah, what I said about Joel and Ethan … with relatively new directors, that's when you find that insecurity. The more movies they make, the more they'll lighten up. The important thing is not to discourage an actor's creative flow."
Not all the actors feel their flow was dammed, however. Holly Hunter, a friend of Joel and Ethan's (inspired by her ramrod Southern tenacity, they wrote the part of Ed for her), insists she always held the reins, but could rely on Joel as a safety net. "Joel and Ethan function without their egos," she says. Then, thinking it over, she amends, "Or maybe their egos are so big they're completely secure with anybody who disagrees with them."
That sounds more like it. "You can convince Joel and Ethan of things," says Sonnenfeld. "I find the best thing to do is bring up your point, drop it, and wait a couple of days."
The Coens radiate confidence, and you can bet their young, nonunion crew picks up on it. The set ("remarkably sex and drug free," I'm told) behaves like a winning clubhouse—kids just up from the minors who know they'll top the standings by season's end. The tone is relaxed but superefficient. In return for artistic control, the Coens are determined to stay on schedule. "They worry more about going over budget than we do," says Ben Barenholtz, who signed both to a four-picture deal with Circle Releasing Company (producers of Blood Simple). Fox has left them alone; the day after I arrive, executive vice-president Scott Rudin flies in to see his first set of dailies.
To say the Coens come prepared to shoot is to understate the case. The script has been rubbed and buffed, the shots storyboarded. On the set they rarely improvise; Joel insists that when you make a movie for so little money, you can't afford to mess around. It's strange, then, to hear him rhapsodize about Francis Coppola, a director who can't seem to work without a crisis, hammering out scenes and shots on the spot. "I have no idea how you can go into a movie without a finished script," Joel admits.
Sitting with Joel, Ethan, and Sonnenfeld in a Scottsdale Denny's before the next evening's shoot, the mood is as comfortable as one of those all-night bull sessions in Diner. The Coens aren't limo types, and it takes very little to make them happy—a pack of cigarettes, coffee, a warm Denny's. "When they're in work mode, creature comforts become minimal," says Frances McDormand, who played the heroine of Blood Simple and has lived with Joel for the past couple of years. (She was Holly Hunter's roommate before that, and has a brazen cameo in Raising Arizona.)
"They love the performance part of their job, like the minute you walk on a stage or the camera starts rolling. For them, the writing is one part of it, the budgeting and preproduction another, but it's all building toward the shoot. And then in postproduction, that's when they get to lead the artistic life: They get to stay up late and get circles under their eyes and smoke too much and not eat enough and be focused entirely on creating something. And then it starts again."
Truly, a design for living.
Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis, the sons of two college professors—a father in economics, a mother in art history. (They have a sister, now a doctor.) Despite their ties to academia, they're almost perversely anti-intellectual about what they do; in fact, they insist that their home was short on high culture. Recalls Joel, "My mother once wrote an article, 'How to Take Children to an Art Museum,' but I don't recall her ever taking us."
Instead, the children were left to their own devices, and weaned on pop culture and television; they set James M. Cain beside Aristotle, and among their most favorite film experiences, cite fifties and sixties sex comedies like Boeing Boeing and Pillow Talk. (For the record, they also love good movies.)
From the age of eight, Joel made films—remakes of pictures like Advise and Consent—and eventually went off to study filmmaking at New York University, where he's remembered for sitting in the back of the class and making snotty remarks. He says he learned almost nothing, but welcomed his parents' subsidy to make movies. (In his thirty-minute thesis film, Soundings, a woman makes love to her deaf boyfriend while verbally fantasizing about his buddy in the next room.) At Princeton, Ethan was equally out of step. After neglecting to notify the college that he planned to return from a term off, he tried to cut through the red tape with a phony doctor's excuse (from a surgeon at "Our Lady of the Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat") that claimed he'd lost an arm in a hunting accident in his brother-in-law's living room. The school ordered him to see a shrink.
After film school, Joel worked as an editor on Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead—the Don Giovanni of hack-em-ups—and quickly struck up a friendship with Raimi, for whom he and Ethan wrote a script called The XYZ Murders. It was mangled and discarded by its studio, Embassy (and had a limited Columbia release as Crime Wave), a disaster that made the Coens more wary of dealing with major studios. "We've always let Sam make those mistakes for us," explains Joel. "'Sam', we tell him, 'you go do a movie at a studio and tell us what happens.'"
The Coens are pranksters, but colleagues also describe them as affable and generous, not to mention quick studies: They're fond of quoting entire scenes from other movies, along with lines from bad reviews. Their geniality doesn't come through in the rigid, Q & A format of interviews, though, and while promoting Blood Simple, their anarchic impulses came out. In their press conference at the 1985 New York Film Festival, for which Blood Simple had been selected, Ethan summed up their aesthetic by quoting Raimi: "The innocent must suffer, the guilty must be punished, you must drink blood to be a man."
"That's the great thing about Joel and Ethan," says Sonnenfeld. "They don't wanna be on the 'Today' show. They don't wanna be in People. They don't give a shit. They wanna have a good time."
My formal interviews with the Coens are, in some respects, exercises in futility—me talking and Joel and Ethan smoking, their faces evoking Redford's response to Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: "You just keep thinkin,' Butch. That's what you're good at." Maybe the questions are dumb, or maybe (as they insist) they're just dull guys, movies being their one step out. Perhaps they learned a lesson from their Blood Simple interviews. "We wince when we read ourselves in print," says Joel.
Like their movies, the Coens seem suspended between high and low impulses. Ethan studied philosophy, of course, but only "for fun"; there's something absurd, he implies, about being an intellectual in a culture this junky. Like Preston Sturges—one of their models for Raising Arizona—the Coens debunk all notions of aesthetic responsibility. Their movies poke fun at ideas, and their characters suffer from tunnel vision, each gripped by an obsession he or she can't be bothered to explain (nor, for that matter, can the Coens).
Perhaps they'd rather just listen. "Their favorite midtown lunch spot is the counter at Woolworth's," says editor Michael Miller. "They go to hear dialogue that will find its way into a script. The opening of Blood Simple—many of those lines they'd overheard. Their attention is never more riveted than when they're in the back seat of a taxi. I've seen Joel draw out taxi drivers in a way he doesn't draw out his friends. Once, on the way home from the airport, the driver had a ball game on—the Mets were playing someone and it was in the heat of the pennant drive—and Joel said, 'What's the game?' and the cabdriver said, 'Baseball, I think.' They loved that."
Found objects constitute much of the Coens' work. "It's not meant to be condescending," says Joel. "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."
The ingredients might be "movie fodder," but they resonate like crazy when the context is altered. The Coens' principal target is the way Americans conceal their self-interest behind apple-pie slogans and icons, sometimes unconsciously. At the start of Blood Simple, homilies about American individualism have a different kind of impact when the narrator is a killer and each character is fatally locked into his or her point of view. In Raising Arizona, Hi and Ed return home with the kidnaped Nathan, Jr., and a banner in the living room reads, "WELCOME HOME SON." Ed clutches the infant to her breast and weeps, "I love him so-ho-ho-ho much," and Hi hauls out the camera and marks the occasion with a classic family portrait.
The Coens insist that the last part of what they jokingly call their "Hayseed Trilogy" will be a long time in coming, but you can see what drew them to this part of the country to make their first films—the absurdity of mass-culture junkiness set against these parched, primal landscapes. Many of their gags spring from an innocent love of this culture (which they share with their characters) combined with wicked insight into its looniness.
A charge implicit in the backlash against Blood Simple was that these film-school brats were condescending to the common folk. And, during the shoot of Raising Arizona, a Tempe paper got hold of the script and was dismayed to find the place portrayed as a hick town, the film's set and costumes in studiously bad taste. "Of course it's not accurate," says Ethan. "It's not supposed to be. It's all made up. It's an Arizona of the mind."
All their impersonal talk of structure can't conceal the pleasure Joel and Ethan get out of cracking each other up, a pleasure that transcends their devotion to craft, their immaturity as artists. "They laugh hysterically at their own stuff," says Sonnenfeld. "The only person Joel cares about pleasing is Ethan."
"We didn't have that much to do with each other as kids," says Joel. "We kind of rediscovered each other after college, really through making movies." The joy of that rediscovery—of shared assumptions, of a cultural foundation—binds their gags together in ways they're not always conscious of. And that joy pulls us in, too. In a Joel and Ethan Coen movie, we love being in on the joke.
"They're genuinely surprised when people like their films," says Ben Barenholtz. "I remember Joel walked out of a Blood Simple screening and started laughing. 'They really liked it,' he said." And Barenholtz imitates Joel shrugging broadly.
I saw the shrug recently, in that same Greek coffee shop. Ethan talks about a test screening of Raising Arizona in Fort Worth, Texas, where a woman said, "You depicted very accurately the mentality of Texas prisoners. I ought to know. I spent eight and a half years in a Texas penitentiary. I did some things I shouldn't have."
Joel laughs and shrugs: There isn't a germ of authenticity in the prison scenes. But there's one thing he's forgetting. Mass culture penetrates prisons, too. She'd probably seen all the same movies.
This section contains 3,398 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)