Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5041
SOURCE: "Bloodlines," in Film Comment, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April, 1985, pp. 14-19.
[In the following essay, which includes an interview with the Coen brothers and Barry Sonnenfeld, their cinematographer, Hinson discusses the making of Blood Simple.]
In his novel Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett wrote that after a person kills somebody, he goes soft in the head—"blood simple." You can't help it. Your brains turn to mush. All of a sudden, the blond angel whose husband you just buried starts getting strange phone calls. You reach into your pocket for your cigarette lighter—the silver-plated one the Elks gave you with your name spelled out in rope on the front—and it's not there. Your lover limps in early one morning with blood on his shirt and a .38, your .38, stuffed in his jeans and announces, "I've taken care of it. All we have to do now is keep our heads." Yeah. That's all. Just keep your heads. Might as well go ahead and call the cops.
For the characters in the stylish new thriller Blood Simple, passion, guilt, and the sight of blood on their hands causes the world to warp and distort just as Hammett said it would, like the nightmare reflection in a fun-house mirror. The movie, which was put together on a shoe-string by Joel and Ethan Coen, a couple of movie-mad brothers from Minneapolis, has its own lurid, fun-house atmosphere. The camera swoops and pirouettes as if in a Vincente Minnelli musical; at times it scuttles just inches above the ground, at shoe-top level, crawls under tables, or bounces down hall-ways. Always some part of the frame is energized by an odd detail or incongruous fillip of color. Composed in phosphorescent pastels, in neon pinks and greens that stand out against the khaki-colored Texas landscapes, the movie has a kind of tawdry flamboyance that draws attention to itself, like a barfly adjusting her makeup by the light of the juke-box. Blood Simple is only the Coens' first movie—their contributions overlap, with Joel credited as writer-director and Ethan as writer-producer—but already they have an agile sense of visual storytelling and a playfully expressive camera style. They don't make movies like beginners.
If anything, the Coens' technique in Blood Simple is too brightly polished, too tightly screwed down. But their excesses come from an over-eagerness to impress, to put their talents on display. Blood Simple looks like a movie made by guys who spent most of their lives watching movies, indiscriminately, both in theaters and on TV, and for whom, almost through osmosis, the vocabulary and grammar of film has become a kind of instinctive second language. Made up of equal parts film noir and Texas Gothic, but with a hyperbolic B-movie veneer, it's a grab-bag of movie styles and references, an eclectic mixture of Hitchcock and Bertolucci, of splatter flicks and Fritz Lang and Orson Welles.
On the face of it, Blood Simple may appear to be more about other movies than anything else, and there is an element of movie-movie formalism in their work. But the Coens aren't interested in just recycling old movie formulas. In Blood Simple , the filmmakers assume that the audience grew up on the same movies they did, and that we share their sophisticated awareness of conventional movie mechanics. But the Coens don't play their quotations from old movie thrillers straight; they use our shared knowledge of movie conventions for comedy. The movie has a wicked, satirical edge—there's a devilish audacity in the way these young filmmakers use their film smarts to lure us into the movie's...
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system of thinking, and then spring their trap, knocking us off-balance in a way that's both shocking and funny.
The basic geometry of the film is a James M. Cain triangle: husband, wife, lover. The husband, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), is a brooding Greek with a militant brow and a puckered chin who owns a gaudy roadside nightspot called the Neon Boot. One look at Marty, who looks like he was born to catch lead, and it's clear why his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) thinks she'd better hightail it before she uses the pearl-handled revolver he gave her as an anniversary present on him. Ray (John Getz), a drawling bartender who works for Marty, becomes involved with Abby innocently enough when she asks him to help her move out. Almost inevitably, Abby and Ray fall into the nearest motel room where a fourth figure, a slob detective named Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), catches them in flagrante and delivers his photographic evidence to Marty ("I know where you can get these framed"), along with his own leering account of the evening's bedroom activities, setting the film's tragic spiral of events in motion.
Much of the pleasure in Blood Simple comes from watching the filmmakers run their intricately worked-out plot through its paces. The film's narrative is never merely functional in the usual murder-mystery fashion; things don't happen in this movie just to push the plot along. Everything plugs into the film's basic idea: that we are dependent in our judgments upon what our senses tell us, and that our senses lie—that in life we never really know what's going on. The Coens have created a world in which nothing is exactly as it seems. When Marty sees Visser's picture of Abby and Ray nestled together in bloody sheets, we assume, as Marty does, that the hired killer has done his job and the lovers are dead. It's not until the next scene, when Ray saunters into the bar and finds Marty's body, that we discover the photo was doctored. In this movie, a corpse is not always a corpse.
All the characters in Blood Simple are able to see only part of the whole picture. Each character has his own point of view in the film, his own version of what has happened and why. And based on the evidence before them, each one behaves appropriately. But each one is limited by his own perspective and it's what they don't know, what they can't see from where they stand, that keeps getting them into trouble. Only the audience is given the whole picture. But the Coens never let us relax. Just as we think were in synch with the film, they shove our assumptions back in our faces. Like their characters, we're making a mistake by believing what we see.
It's this layering of points of view, the interweaving of four versions of the same events, each one complicating and contradicting the other, that distinguishes Blood Simple from Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat and other film noir retreads. It's been some time since a low-budget thriller has had this kind of narrative richness. And if at times the Coens are a little too much in love with their own cleverness, occasionally bogging the movie down with self-conscious arty flourishes, they are saved by their drive to provide low-down thrills, to surprise and delight their audience. Blood Simple suggests that the Coens are an anomaly on the independent film scene. They don't see a conflict between film art and film entertainment. Nor, in Blood Simple, do they break new aesthetic ground. First and foremost, they are entertainers.
Some critics have used this aspect of their work to dismiss Blood Simple either as an independent film with a conventional Hollywood heart or as just another schlocky exploitation picture with a glossy, high-art finish. They use the film's accessibility as a club to beat it over the head with, as if to imply that the things that make the movie fun to watch, that satisfy an audience, are precisely the things that compromise its artistic purity. According to this logic, Blood Simple is little more than an audition piece, a stepping stone to the world of big-budget studio financing.
But it's the Coens' showmanship, their desire to give the audience a cracking good ride, that gives Blood Simple its freshness and originality. The film is most effective when it plays as a comedy. The Coens have a sharp eye for the oddball details of the sleazy Texas milieu they've created. Their humor is droll and understated; their characters spout a kind of terse, prairie vernacular that's dead-on authentic but with a twist, like Horton Foote with a rock in his shoe.
As the scuzzy detective slithering through the movie in a beat-up VW bug, M. Emmet Walsh is a redneck variation on all the bad cops and corrupt gumshoes in the hard-boiled genre. Dressed in a canary-yellow leisure suit, his belly sagging over his western-style belt buckle, Visser is the kind of half-witted vermin who likes to torture puppies in his spare time. Walsh gives his character a mangy amorality; one look at this guy and you know he's for sale at bargain-basement prices. His performance sets a new standard for scumbag character acting.
Dan Hedaya, who plays Marty, does something that even Walsh isn't able to pull off: He shows us what a slime the guy is and still makes us feel almost sorry for what happens to him. Marty is the perpetual outsider, the one who's always put upon and misunderstood. He doesn't even talk like the others. Instead of speaking in a lazy Texas drawl, he spits his words out quickly in a tight Northeastern accent that's clenched like a fist. With his dark, swarthy looks, gold chains, and European-cut shirts, he's on the opposite end of the sleaze scale from Walsh's Visser, but their scenes together are the best in the film.
The Coens aren't as successful with their main characters: John Getz and Frances McDormand are bland and uninteresting as Ray and Abby. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank and Cora were so hot for each other that sparks seemed to arc between them; their passion was so volatile that it almost had to erupt into violence. There are no comparable sexual fireworks between the lovers in Blood Simple; it's tepid affair, and neither character has enough vitality to engage us. It may be that the Coens have a natural talent for creating lively villains. In any case, in Blood Simple, the sympathetic lovers are upstaged by their loathsome adversaries. Their low-watt rapport leaves a dark, empty space at the center of the film.
The most remarkable thing about Blood Simple is that it's satisfying both as a comedy and a thriller. What the Coens have learned from Hitchcock, whose spirit hovers over the film as it does in Brian De Palma's movies, is that murder can be simultaneously tragic and comic. The moment in Blood Simple when the two lovers confront one another, each one convinced of the other's guilt, and from out of nowhere a rolled-up newspaper arches into the frame, hitting the screen door between them with a sickening smack, is so startlingly unexpected and yet so right, that for a moment you're not sure you actually saw it. Watching Blood Simple, you begin to feel uncertain even of the ground beneath your feet. They have that kind of skill.
This interview took place with Joel and Ethan Coen, and their cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on the afternoon of Blood Simple's commercial opening in New York. All three were casually dressed and, at the beginning of the session, excitedly talking, not about their opening night, but about their upcoming lunch at the Russian Tea Room, about superagent Sam Cohn ("Does he really eat Kleenex?") and the politics of who sits where. During the interview, the Coens chain-smoked Camels out of the same pack, passing it back and forth across the glass tabletop in front of them.
[Hal Hinson:] Let's start with the basics. You were both born and raised in Minneapolis?
[Joel Coen:] Yeah. We both grew up in Minneapolis, but have lived in New York, on and off, for about ten years. I moved here to go to school at NYU and haven't really lived in Minneapolis since then, except for about a year when we were raising money for the movie. We raised a lot of the money there, although some of it came from here and New Jersey and Texas.
[Ethan Coen:] I left Minneapolis to go to school at Princeton—I studied philosophy—and after that came to New York.
How did you become interested in film-making?
[Joel:] There were two things really. We made a lot of Super 8 movies when we were kids.
[Ethan:] They were incredibly cheesy, even by Super 8 standards.
[Joel:] We remade a lot of bad Hollywood movies that we'd seen on television. The two that were most successful were remakes of The Naked Prey and Advise and Consent—movies that never should have been made in the first place. At that time, we didn't really understand the most basic concepts of filmmaking—we didn't know that you could physically edit film—so we'd run around with the camera, editing it all in the camera. We'd actually have parallel editing for chase scenes. We'd shoot in one place, then run over to the other and shoot that, then run back and shoot at the first spot again.
Did these films have titles?
[Joel:] Yeah. The remake of The Naked Prey was called Zeimers in Zambia—the guy who played the Cornell Wilde part was nicknamed Zeimers. We had very weird special effects in that film. We actually had a parachute drop—a shot of an airplane going overhead, then a miniature, then cut to a closeup of the guy against a white sheet hitting the ground.
[Ethan:] It was hell waiting for the airplane to fly by. We were nowhere near a flight path.
This sounds amazingly sophisticated.
[Joel:] It wasn't, really. They were just hacked together. Advise and Consent was interesting, though, because at the time we made it we hadn't seen the original film or read the book. We just heard the story from a friend of ours and it sounded good, so we remade it without going back to any of the source material.
When you finally saw the original, which did you like better, your version or theirs?
[Ethan:] Well, we're big Don Murray fans, so I like the original.
[Joel:] Yeah, guys like Don Murray and the early Disney stars, you know, Dean Jones and Jim Hutton, are big favorites. Kurt Russell, too.
Sounds like you watched a lot of movies on TV.
[Ethan:] Yeah, we saw a lot of Tarzan movies and Steve Reeves muscle movies. What was that Tarzan rip-off with Johnny Sheffield?
[Joel:] Bomba the Jungle Boy. What's-his-name used to introduce those.
[Ethan:] Andy Devine.
[Joel:] Yeah, he had a thing called "Andy's Gang" …
[Ethan:] But that wasn't Bomba, that was a serial set in India called Ramar. Did you ever see Tarzan's New York Adventure? That's one of the greatest. And the Sixties Tarzans were kind of weird.
[Joel:] A movie like Boeing Boeing was big with us. And we were into movies like That Touch of Mink, A Global Affair, Bob Hope movies, Jerry Lewis movies, anything with Tony Curtis, Pillow Talk. We tried to see everything with Doris Day. Those were important movies for us. I saw Pillow Talk again recently. It's incredibly surreal.
[Ethan:] It's a very weird, wooden aesthetic that nobody's interested in anymore. The Chapman Report is great that way too.
[Joel:] What's happened is that those movies have now become TV fodder.
Did the look of those movies have anything to do with your decision to shoot Blood Simple in color? It's kind of film noir, which is usually done in black-and-white.
[Joel:] There was a big practical consideration. Since we were doing the movie independently, and without a distributor, we were a little leery of making a black-and-white movie. But we never really considered that a sacrifice. We wanted to keep the movie dark, and we didn't want it to be colorful in the …
[Ethan:] … the That Touch of Mink sort of way.
[Joel:] Right. What we talked about early on was having the elements of color in frame be sources of light, at least as much as possible, like with the neon and the Bud lights, so that the rest of the frame would be dark. That way it would be colorful, but not garish.
[Barry Sonnenfeld:] I think we were afraid that to shoot the film in black-and-white would make it look too "independent," too low-budget.
[Ethan:] Yeah. We wanted to trick people into thinking we'd made a real movie.
The film has been criticized for that reason.
[Joel:] Yeah, one critic said it had "the heart of a Bloomingdale's window and the soul of a résumé." I loved that review.
[Ethan:] The movie is a no-bones-about-it entertainment. If you want something other than that, then you probably have a legitimate complaint.
[Joel:] But you can't get any more independent than Blood Simple. We did it entirely outside of Hollywood. To take it a step further, we did it outside of any established movie company anywhere. It can't be accused of not being an independent film. It was done by people who have had no experience with feature films, Hollywood or otherwise.
[Barry:] What this writer means by independent, though, is arty or artistic. It wasn't our intention to make an art film, but to make an entertaining B movie.
Do you consider yourself linked in any way with other independent filmmakers and what they're doing?
[Ethan:] The independent movies that we see aren't really avant-garde. John Sayles is an independent filmmaker who I like. Although I haven't seen his new film, I like what Alan Rudolph does. He'll make a movie for a studio, like Roadie or Endangered Species, and then go off on his own to make a movie just for himself for $800,000.
[Joel:] Also, I like low-budget horror movies that are made independently. They're mass-audience pictures, but they're done independently. I've worked with a lot of people who've done that stuff, like Sam Raimi. Those are the kind of independent filmmakers that we feel closer to than, say, the more avant-garde artists. I liked Stranger than Paradise, though, which I suppose is closer to being avant-garde than we are.
[Ethan:] I think there's room for all kinds of independent movies. And whenever anyone makes a successful one, no matter what kind it is, it's good for everybody.
I think the distinction that's being made is between art and entertainment.
[Joel:] That's a distinction that I've never understood. If somebody goes out to make a movie that isn't designed primarily to entertain people, then I don't know what the fuck they're doing. I can't understand it. It doesn't make sense to me. What's the Raymond Chandler line? "All good art is entertainment and anyone who says differently is a stuffed shirt and juvenile at the art of living."
Some people see Blood Simple as a shrewd maneuver to establish yourselves on the scene in order to launch your careers as mainstream filmmakers.
[Ethan:] They're wrong. We made the movie because we wanted to make it, not as a stepping stone to anything else. And we prefer to keep on making this kind of movie, independently.
[Joel:] Someone in Film Comment said Blood Simple was "aggressively New Hollywood." We wanted to make this movie, and the way we did it was the only way we could have done it. The main consideration from the start was that we wanted to be left alone, without anyone telling us what to do. The way we financed the movie gave us that right.
When you were both still in school, you wrote a few feature scripts together. What were they like?
[Joel:] The first one was called Coast to Coast. We never really did anything with it. It was sort of a screwball comedy.
[Ethan:] It had 28 Einsteins in it. The Red Chinese were cloning Albert Einstein.
[Joel:] After that we were hired by a producer to write a script from a treatment he had. That was never produced. Then Sam Raimi, whom I worked with on The Evil Dead, hired us to write something with him called The XYZ Murders. It's just been finished. And we're writing something with him now that Ethan and I are going to do.
What movies had you worked on before Blood Simple?
[Joel:] I was assistant editor on a few low-budget horror films, like Fear No Evil. There was another one that I actually got fired from called Nightmare, which had a small release here in New York. And The Evil Dead. Those are the only three features I've worked on. Evil Dead was the most fun. A lot of the stuff in our film, like the camera running up on the front lawn, is attributable to Raimi, who does a lot of shaky-cam stuff.
How do you two collaborate when you're writing?
[Joel:] He does all the typing. We just sit down together and work it out from beginning to end. We don't break it up and each do scenes. We talk the whole thing through together.
[Barry:] They pace a lot. And there's a lot of cigarette smoking.
How was it determined that Joel would direct and Ethan produce?
[Ethan:] We had a thoin coss…. I mean a coin toss.
[Joel:] The standard answer is that I'm bigger than he is—that I can beat him up so I get to direct.
[Ethan:] It's those critical three inches in reach that make the difference.
[Joel:] To tell you the truth, the credits on the movie don't reflect the extent of the collaboration. I did a lot of things on the production side, and Ethan did a lot of directorial stuff. The line wasn't clearly drawn. In fact, the way we worked was incredibly fluid. I think we're both just about equally responsible for everything in the movie.
[Ethan:] Although, on the set, Joel is definitely the director. He's the one in charge.
[Joel:] Yeah, I did work with the actors and all that. But as far as the script and the realization, down to the tiniest details and including all the major aesthetic decisions, that's a mutual thing.
Who sets up the shots?
[Joel:] This is where it gets really fuzzy. When we're writing a script, we're already starting to interpret the script directorially. As to how we want the movie to look, even down to specific shots and the kind of coverage we want, that's worked into the writing of the script. Also, before production, Ethan, Barry, and I story-boarded the movie together.
[Ethan:] Also, at the beginning of every day, the three of us and the assistant director would have breakfast at Denny's—the Grand Slam special—and go through the day's shots and talk about the lighting.
[Joel:] On the set, we'd put it all together and look through the viewfinder. Barry might have an idea, or Ethan would come up with something different, and we'd try it. We had the freedom to do that, because we'd done so much advance work.
[Barry:] Also, on the set, we'd try to torture each other. For example, I didn't allow smoking …
[Ethan:] "It degrades the image."
[Barry:] … which meant that only one of them would be on the set at any time, because the other one was off having a cigarette.
The atmosphere of the film shows the influence of hardboiled detective fiction. Have you read a lot of that stuff?
[Joel:] We read all of Cain six or seven years ago when they reissued his books in paperback. Chandler and Hammett, too. We've also pored through a lot of Cain arcana.
[Ethan:] Cain is more to the point for this story than Chandler or Hammett. They wrote mysteries, whodunits.
[Joel:] We've always thought that up at Low Library at Columbia University, where the names are chiseled up there above the columns in stone—Aristotle, Herodotus, Virgil—that the fourth one should be Cain.
[Ethan:] Cain usually dealt in his work with three great themes: opera, the Greek diner business, and the insurance business.
[Joel:] Which we felt were the three great themes of 20th-century literature.
Marty, the cuckold, seems to be lifted directly out of Cain.
[Ethan:] He is, but a little less cheerful and fun-loving.
[Joel:] They're usually greasy, guitar strumming yahoos, which of course Marty isn't. But yeah, that's where he comes from.
Why did you set the film in Texas?
[Joel:] The weather's good. And it just seemed like the right setting for a passion murder story. And people have strong feelings about Texas, which we thought we could play off of.
[Ethan:] And again, your classic film noir has a real urban feel, and we wanted something different.
Did you set out to create a film noir atmosphere?
[Joel:] Not really. We didn't want to make a Venetian-blind movie.
[Ethan:] When people call Blood Simple a film noir, they're correct to the extent that we like the same kind of stories that the people who made those movies liked. We tried to emulate the source that those movies came from rather than the movies themselves.
[Joel:] Blood Simple utilizes movie conventions to tell the story. In that sense it's about other movies—but no more so than any other film that uses the medium in a way that's aware that there's history of movies behind it.
How were you able to maintain such a delicate balance between the comic and the thriller elements in the story?
[Joel:] I think that gets back to Chandler and Hammett and Cain. The subject matter was grim but the tone was upbeat. They move along at a very fast pace. They're funny …
[Ethan:] … they're insanely eupeptic …
[Joel:] … and that keeps the stories from being grim. We didn't want this to be a grim movie. There's a lot of graphic violence and a lot of blood, but I don't think the movie's grim.
[Ethan:] We didn't have an equation for how to balance the blood and the gags. But there is a counterpoint between the story itself and the narrator's attitude toward the story.
[Joel:] To us it was amusing to frame the whole movie with this redneck detective's views on life. We thought it was funny, but it also relates directly to the story. It's not a one-liner kind of funny.
[Ethan:] It's easy to think that we set out to parody the film noir form because, on one hand, it is a thriller, and, on the other, it is funny. But certainly the film is supposed to work as a thriller and I don't think it would work as both at once.
[Joel:] Humorless thrillers—Gorky Park, or Against All Odds—are dull, flat. They take themselves too seriously in a way that undercuts the fun of the movie. We didn't really think about making the situations in the film funny. Our thinking was more like, "Well, this will be scary," and "Wouldn't it be fun if the character were like this?"
In preparing Blood Simple, did you look at other movies and use them as models?
[Joel:] The Conformist is one of the movies we went with Barry to see before we started shooting in terms of deciding what we wanted the visual style of the movie to be, the lighting and all that. Also, we went to see The Third Man.
[Barry:] Which is funny because I read that Richard Kline [the cinematographer] and Larry Kasdan went to see the same two films before they shot Body Heat.
[Joel:] And came up with a completely different look. We wanted a real non-diffuse image which is the kind of image that Vittorio Storaro got in The Conformist. But in Body Heat they got this over-exposed, halating image with light running through the windows. Maybe they saw a really bad print.
[Ethan:] We're also big fans of Robby Müller, particularly The American Friend, which we've all seen a number of times. So there are a lot of points of reference. Actually, we just wanted the movie to be in focus.
Do you intend to continue your arrangement as it is at present, with Joel directing and Ethan producing, or do you want to switch it around next time?
[Ethan:] We're going to continue the same way. [To Joel] We've got to do Boeing Boeing credits next time [in which, to calm top-billing egos, Jerry Lewis' and Tony Curtis' names revolved on an axis].
[Joel:] We're thinking that next time we'll have it say, "Ethan and Joel Coen's Whatever."
[Ethan:] No, I like "Ethan Coen presents a film by his brother Joel."
And you would like to continue working together?
[Joel:] Oh yeah. In fact the three of us do. There are certain collaborations which are really fruitful. One of them is with Sam Raimi, which we hope continues on other movies in the future. Another is with Barry.
As a result of the success you've had so far with Blood Simple, are the studios beating a path to your door with offers?
[Joel:] We're getting a lot of talk, but we don't know what it means. You spend one week in Hollywood …! [Laughs.] People have been calling. But we'd like to continue to work as independently as possible. Not independent necessarily of the Hollywood distribution apparatus, which is really the best if you want your movie to reach a mass market. But as far as production is concerned, there's a real trade-off involved. It's true that certain movies require more money to produce right than Blood Simple did. But the difference with us is, while we may need more money for the next one than we did for Blood Simple, we're still not talking about the kind of budgets that the studios are used to working with. We did this film for a million and a half, and, for me, $3-4 million is an incredible amount of money to make a movie. And that's attainable without going to the studios.
[Ethan:] The bottom line is, even if Blood Simple does well, we're comfortable with the idea of making another low-budget movie.
[Joel:] Right. We're not afraid of making movies for cheap.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1815
SOURCE: "Shadows and Shivers for Blood Simple," in American Cinematographer, Vol. 66, No. 7, July, 1985, pp. 70-72, 74.
[In the review below, Sonnenfeld, the cinematographer for Blood Simple, provides a behind-the-scenes look at low-budget production.]
There is almost no problem in the making of a feature film that cannot be solved by throwing money at it. More lights, more time, more crew, a bigger crane, a re-shoot, can all be bought with a big time budget.
One of the challenges of shooting Blood Simple, a Texas murder mystery shot in Austin, Texas, was to make a $1.5 million movie look like ten times that. The money was raised over a period of almost a year in the form of a limited partnership. The director, Joel Coen, had never directed before; his younger brother, Ethan, had never produced a film (and worked as a statistical typist at Macy's to pay their rent while they raised the money). I had never looked through a 35mm camera.
The money was raised by shooting a three minute trailer of the movie, as if it was finished and about to appear in your neighborhood theater. The trailer was our selling tool. It showed prospective investors that we could make something that looked like a real film, and it was something to invest in that had a recognizable form, unlike a treatment or script, for which none of the investors had any expertise. We were so low budget that we waited until "President's Weekend," to shoot the trailer, when we could rent the 35mm camera over Washington and Lincoln's birthdays, using the camera and lights from Thursday until Tuesday and paying a one day rental charge (thank you, FERCO). I taught my cousin Kenny, a neuro-pharmacologist, how to pull focus.
Eight months after we shot the trailer, we had our money and were on our way to Austin to make our movie. Blood Simple is a tightly plotted murder mystery in the film noir tradition. The plot involves the owner of a bar who discovers that his wife is having an affair with one of his bartenders. He hires a sleazy 'good ol' boy' detective to kill his wife and bartender. The detective has a better idea. He takes a photograph of the lovers in bed, and doctors the snapshot to look like they have been shot to death. The detective presents this photo as proof of a job well done, gets paid by the husband, and then shoots him. In effect, the detective has committed the safer murder. He leaves the wife's gun, which he has stolen from her pocketbook as evidence for the police, when, he assumes, the body is discovered.
Unfortunately for everybody concerned, the lover comes to the bar that night, finds the body and the gun, and assumes that the wife committed the murder. He cleans up the mess and goes to bury the body in a field. However, he discovers that the body isn't quite dead and is forced to finish the job himself. He then goes back to the wife and says, "Don't worry, I took care of everything." She doesn't know what he's talking about, and their misunderstanding leads to mistrust, and several more murders.
Every scene in Blood Simple was storyboarded. The only effective way to bring a low budget film in on budget is to preplan everything. Pre-production is cheap compared to standing around the set with a crew, scratching your head, saying things like, "What would it look like if we put the camera over here?" The other reason, besides economics, that the film was storyboarded was the intricate nature of the plot. Certain visual elements repeat themselves in ironic visual ways, and these were all planned. Visual devices such as match cuts, sound overlaps, and camera-locked-down dissolves are all cheap and easy to do if they are thought about ahead of time, and tend to give a film a production value far beyond the cost of achieving these effects. There is a stretch of 20 minutes in the film with no dialogue which works totally on a visual/filmic level.
We were very lucky to have Tom Prophet as our key grip. Tom's wife felt that Los Angeles was no longer geologically sound, and convinced Tom to get out of L.A. while they could still drive out. They relocated in Austin, luckily for us. Tom taught us a lot of Hollywood high technology with his pipe dolly and other rigging devices, and we taught him some low technology as well. Joel and I decided early on that we wanted to move the camera a lot, and when the camera wasn't moving, we sometimes would dolly or raise or lower lights during the shot, so there was always some kind of apparent movement.
One of the cheap but efficient ways we moved the camera on Blood Simple was by dragging me around the floor hand holding an Arri BL3 while lying down on a sound blanket. This was quite effective since not only could we virtually be on the floor with the camera, the grips could actually pick up the blanket during our moving shots and turn the sound blanket into a crane. Another device we used to move the camera I believe was first used by Caleb Deschanel on More American Graffiti and was shown to us by Sam Raimi, who directed Evil Dead. This device is the 'shakicam,' and cannot be beat at any price. The 'shakicam' is a two inch by 12 foot piece of lumber with a handle at either end of its twelve foot length. The camera is then centered on the board. An Arri-2C with a Kinoptik 9.8mm lens was used. With a grip at either end, the camera was raced along the ground at full speed, approaching the fighting wife and husband. Due to the extreme wide angle lens, in a matter of a couple of seconds, the camera races from an extreme wide shot into a super close-up of the wife as she bends back and breaks her husband's finger. In effect, all the shaking of two grips, racing at top speed along rough terrain, are smoothed out by the time the shakes reach the middle of the twelve foot shakicam, and the camera seems to float. It was a very enjoyable shot to watch being made, since it looks like such a stupid idea. I would run behind the camera, not looking through the viewfinder, but still getting a sense of level and angle. I also got to yell "duck!" at the actors, since as the shakicam raced towards them, it was also rising from several inches off the ground to eye level, and the device has the stopping ability of a Boeing 747.
Another unusual and effective device we used was to lock the actress and camera to each other. For this, we used Tom's speed rail. The actress was strapped down into what looked like a torture device. The camera and I were then strapped in four feet in front of her, and the whole device was rigged with a block and tackle to a beam in our studio. We then had two backdrops built. The backdrop directly behind her, at the head of the shot, was of the back room of the bar. On the floor, we built a bed. As the contraption pivots 90 degrees on itself, the actress, in effect, leaves one scene and falls through space past a series of side lit inkies, and eventually lands on her bed, and a different location in the film. Not only is this an effective transition visually, but psychologically as well, since, at this point in the film, she's quite confused. Since the actress and camera are stationary to each other, there is almost a feeling of the two scenes floating towards her.
Originally, my thought for the lighting on Blood Simple was that the high contrast, film noir look should come from a high ratio of main light to fill light, but that the quality of the light should be softer, bounce light. However, once we started shooting, I decided a more controllable way to go was with direct fresnels. Almost every shot in the movie was lit with either an Ianiro Miser, which is similar to an inkie, but tends to have a more even field, or a 4K HMI. It was a strange combination of extremes, but it worked for us. In fact, the extremes of lighting is what I like about the technical end of the film the most. In the end, there were no soft lights, bay lights, silks, and only a rare bounce light for scenes in the bathroom.
I am proud to say that the lighting in Blood Simple is almost totally unmotivated. There is a lot of discussion in the industry about motivated light (seeing the light sources in the frame), as if it is more truthful, honest, or more beautiful. For Blood Simple the lighting was used as a psychological tool. For the film to be effective, the film had to be dark and contrasty. In fact, at the end of the film, the lighting itself becomes a character. The evil detective, in a bright bathroom, starts shooting bullets through a wall into a dark, adjoining apartment where our heroine is hiding. As each bullet slams through the common wall, light streaks through the darkened apartment at all kinds of crazy angles. By the time the detective runs out of bullets, the darkened room is sliced up into thirty tubes of light bleeding out of the six bullet holes, slicing at all kinds of angles, racing out in four or five different directions from each bullet hole. The only motivation for these crazy streams of light are twenty open face 1Ks on the other side of the wall. However the audience is affected by the scene; it is funny and terrorizing, and it works.
Joel, Ethan and I felt strongly that we wanted our blacks to be rich, with no milky quality. The entire film was shot on 5293 rated at 200, which overexposed the stock between one half and a full stop. Our printing lights were always in the very high 40's. This produced a very thick negative, and although the raw stock is overexposed, the film is printed quite dark and contrasty, and the blacks are black. The development and answer printing was done at Du Art Labs in New York. My camera reports to the lab were always the same: "Print it too dark!" Du Art did a great job.
Jane Musky was the production designer. She created sets that were terrific and laughably inexpensive. That the film came in on time and on budget was due in no small way to Deborah Reinisch, the first assistant director and a film director in her own right, and Mark Silverman, the PM/associate producer.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501
SOURCE: A review of Blood Simple, in The Humanist, Vol. 45, No. 4, July/August, 1985, p. 43.
[In the following review, Geduld criticizes Blood Simple as lacking in creativity and unable to provide engaging characters.]
This nasty little thriller (stylistically distinguished only by some clever uses of extreme closeups) provoked me into recalling the masterpieces of the genre, in particular Billy Wilder's 1944 adaptation of James M. Cain's Double Indemnity. Notwithstanding the work of Hitchcock, Wilder's film remains for me the outstanding movie example of what E. F. Bleiler has called "the inverted detective story," that narrative form in which the focus is on the criminal and on the motives and methods of his or her crime rather than on the detective. The most notable literary examples I know are Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying and C. S. Forester's Payment Deferred, both of which received less than satisfactory film treatment.
Blood Simple consists of unmistakable variations on the plot of Double Indemnity. Taken together, the two films explore most of the possible changes on the "eternal triangle" of husband, wife, and lover. In Double Indemnity, it is the ruthless wife (Barbara Stanwyck) and her lover (Fred MacMurray) who plot the murder of the husband; in Blood Simple, the plotter is the husband, but a fourth character, a relentless investigator (a variation on Edward G. Robinson's claims manager in Double Indemnity), throws a monkey wrench into the machinery. Borrowings from other notable movie thrillers show up throughout. Thus, this fourth character is clearly modeled on Hank Quinlan, the corrupt cop in Touch of Evil (1958), and he carelessly drops his cigarette lighter at the scene of the crime—a gratuitous "quote" from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951).
Without revealing more of the plot, suffice it to say that most of Blood Simple's ingenuities are predictable and that, where Double Indemnity provided suspense, Blood Simple gives us merely shock and gore. The mounting tension and anxiety created in Double Indemnity depended upon our identifying with the two killers. To ensure this, Wilder first established them as fascinating characters who are suddenly, irresistibly caught up in a passionate affair. When they turned from adultery to murder, our inextricable involvement with them made us want desperately to see them succeed—so that when, for example, their getaway car failed to start, their panic inevitably became ours, By contrast, a parallel situation in Blood Simple evoked nothing from me but scorn for the stupidity of a murderer who would drive into the middle of a ploughed field to bury his victim, leaving half a mile of tire tracks for the police to trace. Apart from that, this character—like everyone else in Blood Simple—appears too "crummy" (to use a favorite word of my eight-year-old) to arouse empathy. It's impossible to get worked up over a couple of lackluster lovers, a jealous husband with a permanent scowl on his face, and a tired imitation of Orson Welles. Blood Simple has nothing to offer that hasn't been done superlatively well before.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3638
SOURCE: "Warped in America," in New York, Vol. 20, No. 12, March 23, 1987, pp. 44, 46-48.
[In the following review, Pooley discusses the Coens' film production methods.]
It's the last week of February, and 400 people have turned up at the Gotham theater for a screening of a comedy called Raising Arizona. The film has excellent word of mouth, and a host of industry types, including director Jonathan Demme, are on hand to see it—but Joel Coen, 32, who directed and co-wrote the film, is not among them. Neither is his brother, Ethan, 29, who produced and co-wrote it. Instead of seeing what people think of their second movie (their first was the stylish, godless cult hit Blood Simple), the brothers are on their way across town, to a small screening of a film called Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.
When the Coens slouch into the lobby before the horror film begins, a man spots them. "Hey," he says. "I thought you guys'd be at the other movie."
"Nah," says Joel, flicking some hair out of his face. "We've seen that one."
Actually, they've seen this one too. But the Coens hate to be the center of attention; and they hate watching their own movies—they waited in the lobby during a 1984 New York Film Festival screening of Blood Simple. And besides, Evil Dead 2, directed by their friend Sam Raimi, is a hoot—a series of inventive chain-sawings, shotgunnings, and battles with the demons from Beyond.
"Heh, heh, heh," laughs Joel as a man is attacked by his own severed hand.
"Heh, heh, heh," laughs Ethan.
At one point, a character looks at someone who's been beaten senseless and says, "Crazy buck's gone blood simple." A few people laugh. Joel and Ethan don't—they just sit in the dark, smiling.
When Blood Simple was released in 1985, the lives of Joel and Ethan Coen changed in a way that many would-be filmmakers dream about while sitting over someone else's moviola. Joel, an NYU film-school graduate from suburban Minneapolis, had spent years working on the fringes of the industry—editing mad-slasher flicks like The Evil Dead, working on rock-video crews. Ethan, who has a philosophy degree from Princeton, had moved to New York in 1979 and got a job as a typist at Macy's. They wrote Blood Simple in 1980, raised $750,000 for it in 1981, shot it in 1982, edited it in 1983, searched for a distributor in 1984, and finally released it in 1985—to almost universal acclaim and a place on several ten-best lists. A taut, redemptionless tale of death and double cross at a Texas roadhouse, Blood Simple is funny, disturbing, and outrageously self-conscious; New York's film critic, David Denby, called it "one of the most brazenly self-assured directorial debuts in American film history." Steven Spielberg asked the Coens to come for a visit. Hugh Hefner invited them to his mansion.
In another way, though, the lives of the Coen brothers didn't change at all when Blood Simple came out. Joel didn't cut his hair, become polite to people he didn't like, or start hanging around with Hollywood directors. Ethan still avoided parties—not because he was shy, but because he wasn't interested. The Coens remained aloof from both the big studios and the arty independent-film scene, preferring the company of directors like Raimi. "The boys"—as their friends call them—didn't want to make pictures for Spielberg, and Hefner and his mansion were a joke to them. They signed a four picture deal with an independent production company, not a studio, because the deal gave them complete creative control, and controlling the process of moviemaking was all that mattered.
"The boys live to make movies," says their friend and cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld. "Money isn't important to them, except to make movies. They never want to be in a position where anyone has any power to tell them what to do. They could make more by going with a studio, but I don't believe they ever will. And that's intimidating to a lot of people in the business. It's frightening that two people can be that self-contained."
In fact, it is sometimes hard to tell where one Coen ends and the other begins. "They're like identical twins," says Sonnenfeld. "Alike, but very different."
"It's the yin and yang of one being," says Raimi. Joel, with dark, deep-set eyes and an air of rude mischief, is brilliant in a quiet, absentminded, artistic way. Ethan, with finer features and an even quieter air, is brilliant in a more analytical way. Ethan reads all the time; Joel is more visual. They pace the floor in step with each other, chain-smoke the same brand (Camel Lights), and share a telepathic sense of humor—they'll laugh at a joke without bothering to say it aloud. They are, together, an autonomous filmmaking unit. "Joel is theoretically the director and Ethan is theoretically the producer," says Sonnenfeld, "but they both do everything." Sonnenfeld was talking about the Coens to actress-director Penny Marshall not long ago. "They're so easy to work with," he said. "It's like working with one person."
"Sure," said Marshall. "One of them's mute."
Now, with their second film getting great notices, the brothers seem even more intimidating: They appear capable of making any kind of movie they want. Where Blood Simple is dark, deliberate, and frightening, Raising Arizona is bright, lively, and hilarious. It's also sweet—the story of a sleepy convenience-store robber named H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and his ex-cop wife Ed (Holly Hunter) who steal a baby because, as H.I. says in his oddly formal, TV-preacher way, "Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase." The movie is all over the place: It's full of broad physical comedy (fights that become pro-wrestling parodies, shoot-outs in supermarkets). There are scores of sight gags, comic set pieces, and memorable bit parts; there's a Mad Biker of the Apocalypse who rides his Harley from H.I.'s nightmare into reality, tries to recover the stolen child, and gets blown to pieces at the end. As writers, directors, producers, and editors, the Coens—even in humorous excess—are in complete control.
"We wanted to make something different than Blood Simple," says Joel.
"After that one," says Ethan, "we were labeled film noir."
"So this time," says Joel, "we wanted to make one that was—"
"Sui generis," says Ethan.
In Blood Simple, there's a fifteen-minute stretch without a word of dialogue in which the dumb, woman-crazy bartender played by John Getz finds his boss dead and decides that his lover (the boss's wife) did it. He drives the body to a wide-open field, discovers that it is still crawling, tries to kill it with a shovel, and finally buries it alive against a soundtrack of shoveling, hard breathing, and the wretched, inhuman moans of the victim disappearing beneath the Texas dirt. Denby called it "a sequence of which Hitchcock could be proud."
"After the body was covered with dirt," says Ethan, "that was me squirming under there. I'm proud of that."
In Raising Arizona, there's a five-minute stretch without dialogue in which a wide-open, rain-soaked field gives birth—a head pops out of the ground, a man spits mud and scum from his mouth, starts bellowing, and hauls himself out of the slime. A tall, big-bellied guy, he dives back in and pulls out his little brother, another heavy load, feet first. The two dumb jailbirds Gale and Evelle Snopes are free, having tunneled out of prison through a sewer line, and they arch their backs and howl at the clouds.
The two scenes capture the difference between the two movies: Blood Simple is full of dumb, mean folks heading into the ground, and Raising Arizona is full of dumb, well-meaning folks trying to get off the ground—through their dreams, through their marriages, by having (or stealing) kids. But in other ways, the movies are alike. Both are full of exhilarating camera work—giddy tracking shots that hop over drunks and climb ladders, the kind of work that has always been found, not coincidentally, in the exploitation horror flicks that the Coens love. And both are populated by those dumb folks—what the Coens call hay-seeds—rubes who blunder around without a clue as to what they're doing. Only the Coens, in fact, ever really know what's going on in the worlds they create.
"There was a lot of talk about hayseeds on the set," says John Goodman, who plays Gale Snopes, the older brother. "We had some laughs at their expense."
"The boys move their characters around to create effects," says Sonnenfeld. "Put them where things can happen to them to scare the audience, or amuse it." As a result, they have been accused of cold, detached filmmaking—the Coens' favorite Blood Simple review says the film has "the heart of a Bloomingdale's window and the soul of a resumé." But the brothers do have their feeling side, and at the end of Raising Arizona, when H.I. has a sweet dream of the future, they produce their first truly emotional film moment—and promptly undercut it with a joke.
Sonnenfeld says, "I asked Ethan, 'Hey, did you guys really mean that stuff about love at the end?' He just gave me a look. I felt stupid for asking. And I never got the answer. They are emotionally hidden."
The Coens don't really know much about murdering people in Texas, or stealing babies in Arizona. They don't write from experience—"a movie about Minnesota people running around in snowsuits killing each other wouldn't be any fun," says Joel—and they don't research their pictures. Neither has children (Ethan is married; Joel lives with actress Frances McDormand, who is in both movies), but in Raising Arizona, they capture the baby-boomer's love for children and anxiety about having them: diptet shots, toddlers wrecking the mobile home, Dr. Spock's "instructions"—details that give the film richness. And in Blood Simple, they capture the soullessness of the best pulp fiction.
"A man crawls a mile with his brains blown out," the novelist Jim Thompson once wrote. "A man is hanged and poisoned and shot and he goes right on living." That's what Blood Simple is like—but the Coens hadn't read Thompson when they made the film. Somehow, growing up quietly in a placid, upper-middle-class suburb of Minneapolis, they had soaked up enough late-night dramas, James M. Cain thrillers, and tabloid headlines to fashion their very own vision. Like many suburban kids, their imaginations were fired by empty American landscapes, and by death.
"What I know about is Texas," they wrote in Blood Simple, even though they didn't. "And down here, you're on your own."
The Coens work out of a West 23rd Street industrial building full of printing and graphics shops. Taking the stairs to their sixth-floor room feels like a climb to the office of a private detective—dim light filters through the dust, voices are muffled behind steel doors. A body in the stairwell would not seem out of place. Their one-room office, with its dirty windows, framed portraits, and frosted-glass door, fits the picture, too, but the Coens themselves don't seem to. They are mild, inward: Joel sits, legs crossed, smokes, and talks quietly. Ethan sits, legs crossed, smokes, and talks hardly at all.
"We're not trying to educate the masses," says Joel.
"Does that make us bad people?" asks Ethan. They laugh. They hate talking film theory, like talking film technique, and love talking murder.
"Did you hear about the guy in Connecticut who put his wife in the wood chipper?" asks Joel.
"Heh, heh, heh," laughs Ethan.
"The cops said that one good rainfall would have washed her away," says Joel with satisfaction. "And they never would have found her." They pause a while and smoke in silence, pondering the cinematic possibilities.
"That was a good one," says Ethan.
"That was a good one," says Joel.
In the spring of 1980, Sam Raimi drove a station wagon from Detroit to New York, with the raw footage of Evil Dead in the backseat. He'd produced the film independently, raising money with a half-hour version he used to show (and sicken) investors. Now he was coming to edit the movie. "I'd never driven into New York before," says Raimi, "and I knew there'd be all sorts of hoodlums and bad characters about. When I pulled up to the building where the cutting room was, this guy came up to the car with long scraggly hair down his chest, looking undernourished. I thought he was trying to rip us off. That was my first meeting with Joel."
Coen had moved from Minneapolis—where his father is a University of Minnesota economics professor, his mother an art historian—to NYU in 1974. An average student in high school, he went to NYU "because it had a late application deadline—I missed all the others." After four desultory years there—"I made some movies, then some more"—he graduated and "chased a woman" to the University of Texas graduate film school in Austin. He quit after a semester, returned to New York, and took jobs as a production assistant and assistant editor.
"He was the world's worst P.A.," says Sonnenfeld, who hired him for some industrial jobs he was working on in those days. "He got three parking tickets, came late, set fire to the smoke machine." He was better in the cutting room, and spent four months there with Raimi, editing Evil Dead. Soon the two of them, with Ethan, were writing scripts in the Riverside Drive apartment the Coens shared.
"Writing with them was like watching a badminton game," says Raimi. "Joel would mention a line of dialogue, and Ethan would finish the sentence. Then Joel would say the punch line, and Ethan would type it up." When things weren't clicking, they would pace, following each other in designated tracks. "I could subtly torture them," says Raimi, "by altering the speed of my pace."
At about that time, the brothers were working on a script of their own, one that took place in the barren roads and road houses Joel had seen around Austin. To raise money, they made a slick two-minute "coming attraction" trailer for a movie that didn't exist. They shot it during a long weekend—it was their first time shooting 35 mm. film. When they watched the footage the next day, Sonnenfeld thought it looked great. "But Joel only said, 'Okay, bye.' I was crushed. Later, I found out he was really excited, too. But because they don't need compliments, they don't realize other people do. That's another thing that gets people mad at them. They never notice."
Joel took the clip—a gun being loaded, a man being buried alive, gunshots being fired through a wall and light streaming through the bullet holes—to Minneapolis, where he met a fund-raiser for Hadassah, the Jewish philanthropic organization. Armed, as Sonnenfeld says, "with a list of the hundred richest Jews in town," he raised $750,000 in nine months.
When the Coens wrote their script, they had in mind the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh for the sweaty, snickering divorce detective Visser, who cracks jokes, kills, and sticks in the memory like gum to the heel of a boot. "When I read the script," says Walsh, "I said, 'This character is so much fun, I'll flesh him out and use him in an important movie six or seven years down the road.' Because no one was ever going to hear about this movie. At best, it would be the third bill at an Alabama drive-in."
Walsh met the Coens in Austin before shooting began. "These two scrawny kids. I said, 'You boys got rich parents who're puttin' up the money?' They showed me this two-minute film; I thought, What the hell is this? Then I saw the storyboards and the shooting schedule, and I realized they knew exactly what they were doing."
In a trailer on the set of Raising Arizona, Joel was about to say something to Nicolas Cage.
"Hey, Joe," said Ethan.
Joel turned to his brother. "Yeah, Eth, I know. I was gonna tell him." Ethan nodded. "And you just knew," says Sonnenfeld, who was there, "that each knew what the other was thinking. It happened literally every day."
"It's hard to figure just what Ethan's role is on the set," says Walsh, who has a fine cameo in Raising Arizona.
"He just smokes and whispers in Joel's ear," says John Goodman.
It's what they whisper about that counts. They talk in a filmbuff's code—"Let's have a Mean Streets look" or "a Love Boat look." A spotlight that lighting designers call a "magenta kicker," the Coens refer to as "hell light."
They don't have money to spare—Raising Arizona was made for just $5 million—so they can't waste film on shots that won't make the final cut. The key is a long and meticulous preproduction process that begins with the script. When Joel and Ethan began to write Raising Arizona, in May 1985, they worked in a disciplined, visual way, and when they were through, the result was a lean shooting script—a blueprint with no excess. Reading the script is like watching the movie—the thing emerged so fully formed from their imaginations that little changed between typewriter and camera.
In August, they began the period of casting and technical preparation, which takes them almost twice as long as it takes other filmmakers. "If I were a producer," says Sonnenfeld, "I'd have my director take as much preproduction time as they do. It's the cheapest way to make movies."
In December, Joel, Ethan, and Sonnenfeld sat down with a storyboard artist to draw what the camera would see in each shot of the movie. (Another film-maker who storyboarded that obsessively was named Hitchcock.) The Coens knew 90 percent of the shots going into the session; "we wouldn't have written the scenes," says Joel, "if we didn't know how we were going to shoot them." The storyboard session defines the look of the movie, and also its pacing; it is the time when each scene is constructed shot by shot, setup by setup, and it is arguably the most creative moment in a Coen film. "By the time you get on their set," says Walsh, "they've got it worked out like a commercial shoot—preplanned to the nth degree. They never went to work without knowing what they were up to. To the point where if you made a suggestion, it almost got in the way."
"If we didn't preplan it," says Joel, "I don't think we'd be able to handle the pressure. I couldn't walk out there without knowing just what I was after. I'd flounder, and the movie would get away from me, and I'd face the horror of watching it veer off into the ditch. There's no way to stop it at that point—it's impossible to wrestle back on course. It's got its own … horrible momentum." They both break into eerie laughter, the kind they spilled out during Evil Dead 2.
When the Coens start filming, they love to come up with cheap, jury-rigged solutions to filmmaking problems. ("A USC film graduate has to solve a problem, he calls his uncle at Universal," says Walsh. "The Coens do it themselves.") A studio would rent a huge crane to film a complicated tracking shot, but the Coens use a "shaky cam"—a camera mounted on a twelve-foot beam, Joel on one end, Ethan on the other, running the thing while the camera rolls. Or a "blankey cam"—Sonnenfeld on his belly on a blanket, dragged along while he films. The idea is to do things in the simplest, least expensive way—to get as many camera setups as possible, to allow the brothers as many editing options as possible. Judging by the result, it works. And as long as it keeps working, they'll be happy—two brothers, playing together.
"We're not really habitués of Nathan's," says Joel, eating with his brother in the Times Square hot-dog joint. "We like Flamers on 42nd Street—but that burned down—or Harvey's, the lunch counter at Woolworth's." They enjoy their dogs, though, and admire the security force. "I like a restaurant," says Joel, "where six-foot-four guards swing clubs." Then Ethan gets an idea.
"Hey," he says. "Let's go ride the elevators at the Portman."
The Mariott Marquis, the futurist-suburban atrium hotel designed by John Portman, was the object of considerable scorn when it touched down in Times Square in 1985; the Coens love the place. When the hotel opened, they would invade it to ride the glass elevators that glide up the outside of the grooved-cement shaft scaling the center of the 37-story atrium. And tonight, after Nathan's, the Coens do it again.
"Doesn't it look like a Ridley Scott set?" says Joel, referring to the Blade Runner director, "before decay has set in?" They're leaning against a balcony in the lobby, gazing up at the soundless elevators slipping out of sight. "Imagine what this will look like in twenty years, with a layer of grime, this obsolete vision of the future. People will say, 'What could they have been thinking of?'"
"Wouldn't this be a great place to shoot a low-budget thriller?" says Ethan.
"Let's ride," says Joel.
Inside the elevator, they smile and stare down as the thing slides up 37 stories. At the top, they get out, lean over a balcony rail, and peer down at the lobby floor. "Tempted to spit?" asks Joel.
Back in the elevator, they are joined by two young brothers—perhaps eight and eleven—for the voyage back. And the two sets of brothers ride down the elevator, noses pressed to glass, happy just to be riding.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3482
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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3095
SOURCE: "The Brothers from Another Planet," in Rolling Stone, May 21, 1987, pp. 59, 61, 114, 117.
[In the following essay, Handelman provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Coen brothers at work, both on the set and during the writing process.]
Pacing and smoking, pacing and smoking, in their rented house, Joel and Ethan Coen are waiting for the phone to ring. Every time Ethan finishes a cigarette, he mutters, "Butt me, butt me." Joel occasionally stops at the window to scream at Los Angeles, a visceral but controlled scream of rage. It is 1984; after writing the film-noir-like Blood Simple in 1980, raising funds for it in 1981, directing it in 1982 and editing it in 1983, the Coen brothers were broke. They flew from New York to Los Angeles with the reels of Blood Simple, fairly confident that the artful thriller would find a distributor.
"We brought the film around to all these different studios and had 'em bone us," Joel says today, "Sat there and listened to their garbage." During one meeting, a studio chief kept spitting sunflower-seed shells into a cuspidor behind his desk. He suddenly interrupted his barrage to ask, apropos of nothing, "Why is Revenge of the Nerds making so much money?" The brothers exchanged a quizzical look. On the way out, Ethan said, 'If there's anything else you want to know about the movie business feel free to call me." The executive stared at Ethan then threw his head back and screamed with laughter, slapping Ethan on the back so hard that he knocked over a chair and slammed into the wall.
This sort of encounter was typical. Hollywood was hot for the Coens—maybe they'd like to direct Psycho III?—but nobody wanted to distribute Blood Simple. The word was it was too gory to be an art film, too arty to be an exploitation film, funny but not quite a comedy.
So the brothers just hung out. They killed time concocting "thought experiments"—high-concept movies they'd have liked to see but didn't want to bother making. The most telling remnant from their stay in L.A. is a thought experiment they hatched there called Adolf "Terry" Hitler, which rewrites history thusly: Hitler's parents emigrate to America at the turn of the century and head west. Young Adolf grows up and becomes a big Hollywood agent nicknamed Terry, running the Adolf Hitler Agency (AHA); he wears baggy suits and takes lunches at Mortons, waving to everyone and reading People magazine.
Unsurprisingly, when Blood Simple finally found a distributor, it was Circle Releasing, a small company based in Washington, D.C., not in the Coens' beloved Los Angeles. The studios missed out on a prestigious project, that had the critics gushing and won a Grand Jury Prize at the United States Film Festival, the independent filmmakers' equivalent of the Oscars.
These days, the Coens and Hollywood seem to have figured each other out. As soon as the studios saw the script for the brothers' second movie, Raising Arizona, they scrambled to buy distribution rights from Circle, and Twentieth Century Fox won out. Arizona reached the screen an ingeniously executed gonzo caper, starring Nicolas Cage as the petty thief H.I. McDonnough and Holly Hunter as his policewoman sweetheart, Ed. After they marry, Ed learns that she's barren, and they kidnap a quintuplet named Nathan Arizona Jr., reasoning that his parents have "more than they can handle."
Full of the same showy camera work and slightly dim characters as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona also tosses in slambang mass-appeal elements like car chases, a biker from hell and cute babies. Most critics were bowled over, calling it "a deranged fable of the New West" (New York) and "exuberantly-original" (Time). Vanity Fair said, "The brothers seem to be having a ball, and inviting crashers."
The biggest fear shared by Fox, Circle and the Coens was that Arizona—stylized, difficult to classify and lacking big-name stars—would perform like Blood Simple, filling a few art houses and little more. But as Arizona opened gradually around the country ("platformed," in movie-business lingo), the box-office returns quashed those fears. Joel, 32, and his little brother, Ethan, 29, didn't go Hollywood: they made Hollywood come to them.
The Coen brothers could be a deadpan vaudeville act performed by a two-headed creature from some low-budget sci-fi flick. Both are pencil skinny, shave only every four or five days and wear glasses and Levi's. Joel is taller, a little more sociable; he recounts tales with exuberant sound effects. Ethan is quieter, more the word man—a Scrabble fiend who has been known to bring paperback books to parties. They don't take drugs; in bars they usually order Cokes. They don't always agree, but their disagreements are never personal. A favorite pastime is testing each other on arcane trivia, like the ingredients on a ketchup bottle. When working, they often take phone calls together, finishing each other's sentences, prompting each other's anecdotes or just wallowing in protracted, nicotine-fueled pauses.
If it's a shtick, it's a twenty-four-hour-a-day one; the Coens both border on being space cadets. When Joel drives, says their cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, "he literally stops at green lights and finally, for no apparent reason sees the light turn red and steps on the gas." They live as cheaply as they work, taking the subway and subsisting on coffee shop chow. Until recently, only Joel had a checking account, and neither one had a credit card. Joel still doesn't: "American Express rejected me."
The Coens grew up in Minneapolis which has a lot to do with their off-center, slowed-down sensibility. (Their parents, Ed and Rena, are college professors; their older sister, Debbie, is a doctor in Israel.) Forced to amuse themselves in America's Arctic, they warmed themselves by the TV, developing a shared taste for kitsch as they sat through hours of wooden epics on Mel Jass' Matinee Movie. They filmed a Super 8 make of Advise and Consent and originals like Lumberjacks of the North. "We owned a couple of plaid shirts," explains Ethan.
But Minnesota's grayness closed in. "I wanted to get as far away as possible as fast as possible," says Joel. He left for Simon's Rock College, in Massachusetts, and then studied film at New York University; Ethan went to Princeton and majored in philosophy. They hadn't hung out together much since they were kids, but around 1980 Ethan moved to an apartment in New York near his brother.
Joel had already been married and divorced ("There was no ugliness and no money," he says) and was assistant-editing slasher moves like The Evil Dead and Fear No Evil. Ethan was temping as a statistical typist at Macy's. "It was a long road that had no end," he says. So they began writing scripts nights and weekends, selling one, a black comedy called Suburbicon. Seeing other directors lose creative control of even low-budget movies, Joel decided to finance his first directorial effort, Blood Simple, himself; he returned to Minnesota, scraping up pledges of $550,000 from sixty-eight investors in bits as small as $5,000. (The final budget was $855,000 plus $187,000 in deferred costs.) To get by, the boys bummed endless loans from friends.
In Austin, Texas, on October 4th, 1982, they started shooting a feature film, an understandably surreal experience for two guys whose last joint effort was in Super 8. "Joel still had this film-school view" says Barry Sonnenfeld, "that he and Ethan would be up late at night making peanut-butter sandwiches for the crew." But they had something other directors didn't: a second head. Though Joel was nominally the director and Ethan the producer, it was more a tag-team effort. They defied the adage about being in two places at once; if one wandered off, the other could be on the set checking a camera angle.
After filming, the Coens ran out of money, and during re-shoots they were forced to stand in for the actors; then, too broke to hire anyone, they edited the movie themselves, taking pseudonymous credit in the titles as Roderick Jaynes. Joel says, "We still feel a strange, juvenile thrill when that name comes on the screen, like we pulled something off."
It's the spring of 1985, and the Coens are writing Raising Arizona, holed up in the musty ground-floor Upper West Side apartment that Joel has inhabited since college.
"You wanna doughnut?" asks Ethan, offering Joel an open box of chocolate glazed. His shirt still has its Salvation Army price tag stapled to the collar.
Singing, "Papa-oom-mow-mow," Ethan pads in his stocking feet over the dusty floor to the kitchen, where the coffee water is boiling in a tin pot. Tacked to the bulletin board are a HOW TO HELP A CHOKING VICTIM poster, an autographed picture of Wink Martindale and some Polaroids a friend took of the TV when the Coens were on the Today show promoting Blood Simple. They sat slumped, smoking, making comments like "Ooh, that was exciting" during film clips. Off camera, Jane Pauley told Ethan he ought to be spanked.
Ethan starts his pace pattern, walking brisk laps through the kitchen into the spacious living room and out again and making occasional raspberry noises.
Joel sits, his Reebok-shod feet up on the metal desk, smoking.
Ethan, continuing to pace, asks, "Cut to the car?"
Joel says, "They're taking their car, right?"
Ethan says, "Why not his?" He halts and sits at the desk, leafing through what they've written so far: twenty-seven pages. The Coens write scripts without an outline, painting themselves in and out of corners "Wildy style." According to Joel, Mack Sennett's silent-film studio employed certified lunatics called Wildies, who would come to script meetings and blurt out crazy, non sequitur plot ideas, which Sennett would often use.
Ethan turns on the Smith-Corona portable, which buzzes. He folds his arms across the top and buries his head, as if trying to feel the words emanating from the machine.
Buzz, goes the typewriter.
Slowly, Ethan begins laughing to himself. It starts as a hiccup, grows to a wheezing heehaw and explodes into snorts.
"What?" Joel asks. "What? What?"
"As soon as he realizes they're not gonna go with him, he starts screaming…."
Joel chews this over. Ethan turns off the typewriter, noodles on its plastic keys, stands up and starts pacing. Joel says, "What do you think Eeth? We barking up the wrong tree here?"
"Ah, I dunno." Ethan hiccups, cartoon style. Joel absent-mindedly opens a desk drawer. Ethan shuts it and says, "We could have him run away; he puts his head down and runs around the corner of the building, presses himself up against the wall, close-up of him like …" He breathes heavily. "He says, 'I won't ever run away again.'
"You mean make him sort of a retard?" asks Joel. "Yeah," says Ethan.
Joel starts singing, "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's faaarm no more …" Ethan starts pacing. The floor creaks. Outside on the street, cars pass.
"To me," Joel says, "that just wastes time."
Ethan returns from the kitchen, carrying a box of toothpicks. "You don't like it 'cause it's kind of senseless?"
"Yeah," says Joel. "When are we gonna shed some blood?"
Ethan grunts a small laugh. He reads the toothpick box. "You know what these toothpicks are made of?"
Joel gives it some consideration.
"Pine? Oak? Mahogany? I dunno."
"Yeah," says Ethan, picking up a small rubber ball and bouncing it. "What if the state trooper takes off after them?"
"Well, the chase scene I really want is where the baby gets thrown around in the car. I don't see that coming here."
"Let's just figure out what they're doing," says Ethan.
"Yeah," says Joel, "that's what I'm trying to figure out." He stands up, jingling his key chain, and wanders over to the stereo cabinet. He picks up something lying on it. "Hey, Eeth; you know whose glove is this?"
After handing in the Arizona script to Circle, the brothers finally got some money, which they used to upgrade their lifestyles somewhat. Ethan moved downtown to a big sublet—more pacing space—with his girlfriend, Hilary, and traded in his tilted granny glasses for round wire rims. Joel had been dating Blood Simple star Frances McDormand, and she moved in with him. She redecorated the apartment in nouveau diner, disposing of Ethan's Blood Simple "souvenir"—a huge, bloodied wall used for the excruciating hand-stab scene.
The Coens also rented a share in a Chelsea office to force themselves to get some work done. One day in December of 1985, just before filming began on Raising Arizona, Ethan asked Joel, "Is it okay if I cut out early today?" Joel said, "Sure. What for?" Ethan said, "Hilary and I were thinking of going down to City Hall and getting married. Wanna come?"
"Sure" Joel said: He served as best man. Friends found out about the wedding later, on a need-to-know basis.
Vroom! Vroom! "You wanna move that muthafucka?" growls leather-clad giant Randall "Tex" Cobb from his motorcycle, leveling two prop sawed-off shotguns at a pickup truck full of spectators. The truck pulls away fast, and Tex, a former pro boxer who is playing the biker-from-hell character, Lenny Smalls, laughs uproariously. He turns to Joel and bellows, "You're working with a professional athlete. Try and keep your instructions simple."
It's February 1986, and the Coens are filming Raising Arizona in balmy Scottsdale. A waterworks is serving as a prison exterior, and Cobb is supposed to ride the motorcycle up to the edge of the hole from which H.I.'s prison buddies Evelle and Gale Snopes (William Forsythe and John Goodman) have escaped. But the scene has been dragging on forever, because rough guy Cobb is actually lousy on a bike and often misses his mark or stalls out.
Then on the next take the bike keeps rolling, falls in the hole and throws Cobb face down in the dirt. There's an ominous pause: if Cobb is injured, he's irreplaceable. Finally, the prostrate actor yells a muffled "Cut!" Joel grins and says "Print that take. I liked it."
The Coens seem to care most about amusing each other. After watching the rehearsal for a stunt in which Cage catches a knife with a plank, Joel calmly says, "My guess is that it won't work." Ethan replies, "That's what they said about the shuttle."
Beyond the gags, they remain inscrutable on the set. They rarely say hello to anyone, and for all the ambling, mumbling, smoking and joking, the Coens are as self-confident and focused as ace poker players. "Those boys are absorbed," says Holly Hunter.
They're also tense, because even before any film was shot, they'd already spent more than the entire Blood Simple budget. The friends whose careers they'd launched—co-producer Mark Silverman, cinematographer Sonnenfeld, production designer Jane Musky and associate producer and assistant director Deborah Reinisch—returned, but at substantially higher rates. The stunts, the larger cast and the better-equipped offices will eventually push costs over $5 million.
Yet the brothers' anxiety comes out in weirdly calm, wacky ways. The most demonstrative they get is when Joel remarks, "See what an incredible pain in the ass this is?" or Ethan addresses a problem by asking, "Is that, like, un-dealable-with?" Ethan keeps quitting and restarting smoking, endlessly chewing sticks of gum; Joel gets migraines, for which he pops an occasional prescription pill, and relaxes by pulling a yellow yo-yo from his pocket and "walking the dog."
During filming they maintain their telepathic rapport. "Joel and Ethan have their own language," says Hunter. "It goes with the level of concentration. Sometimes it's hard to penetrate; if I didn't know 'em, I might find it intimidating."
But they're not ego tripping; when someone can't start a prop car, Joel helps to push it. When Joel worries that a rubber stunt knife might hurt Cage, he tests it by sending Ethan a few yards away and winging it at him. Ethan plays a willing target, much like a kid obeying his big brother.
They do have their weaknesses. Although each shot has been carefully planned, Joel's instructions to actors are often as oblique as "This is an epic-romantic scene, y'know?" Fran McDormand, who plays Ed's overbearing friend Dot, says, "I can't imagine Joel ever making a movie that was actor oriented, like a Sophie's Choice, where you set up the camera and two actors just work together. He sets up a mood and talks about rhythm." Cage will later complain that he feels stymied—the Coens aren't taking his suggestions and at first didn't let him see the daily rushes.
Yet he plays along with every Looney Tune prank. Rehearsing the climactic fight with Tex Cobb, Cage falls on gravel and gashes his hand. He stumbles to his feet, looks around and drawls, "Can I get a Band-Aid—or at least a "Curad?" Joel and Ethan double up with laughter—they've created another brother.
Although Blood Simple is generally perceived as a hit and the Coens hawked it on a grueling tour, it actually made only $5 million, less than the amount a blockbuster like Lethal Weapon makes its first weekend. So the brothers are understandably reluctant about hyping (or analyzing) Arizona. "It's always an ambition," says Joel, "no matter who you are, John Sayles or Steven Spielberg, that you want a lot of people to see your movie. I can't believe that Sayles wouldn't be happy if Lianna had grossed $400 million, right? But obviously his ambition isn't to go to Hollywood and make $25 million movies in a quest for that kind of gross. And I don't think our ambition is, either."
Big box office may not be their goal, but Arizona is making a bundle anyway and is an official entry (not in competition) at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The Coens, nonplused, are already pacing through their next script. When asked about it, Joel says, deadpan, "It's a hot, hot project."
One afternoon in April, a few weeks after the premiere of Raising Arizona, Ethan Coen is in Times Square to see a movie. Emerging into daylight, he's nearly run down by a tremendous, wailing cavalcade of Secret Service limousines, police cars and ambulances. He cocks his head and watches as sedan after sedan whizzes past. "Maybe Barry Diller is in town," he says.
Actually, it isn't the president of Fox—just the vice-president of the U.S. Ethan is happy to be outside of the limos looking in. He wanders to the subway stop and heads underground to meet up with Joel, eager to continue the private conversation that has been going on for twenty-nine years.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1174
SOURCE: "Hard on Little Things," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 56, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 218-19.
[In the review below, Milne provides a plot summary of Raising Arizona.]
Joel Coen is an original, no doubt about that. A B-movie noir with the tang of nightmare terror, Blood Simple led one to suppose that his line of descent was by James M. Cain out of the horror comics. Raising Arizona offers no grounds for changing that view, except in suggesting that somewhere back along that heritage Antonin Artaud must have bred in the bloodlines of both the Theatre of Cruelty and the Theatre of the Absurd.
More comedy than thriller, Raising Arizona at first seems far removed from characteristic Cain territory, with its tale of a latter-day outlaw who decides to settle down and become an upstanding family man. It nevertheless echoes the device which Cain once described as the mainspring of his fiction: "I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination … I think my stories have some quality of the opening of a forbidden box."
The forbidden box opened by H.I. McDonnough (Nicolas Cage) in Raising Arizona is no less than the American Dream. A marvelous pre-credits sequence, executed strip-cartoon style in a series of rapid-fire tableaux, establishes Hi, a would-be outlaw branded with a Woody Woodpecker tattoo, as a sad sack criminal who gets arrested every time he attempts to rob a convenience store, then paroled because he uses empty guns for fear of hurting anyone. "I tried to stand up and fly straight," he explains mournfully, "but it wasn't easy with that sonofabitch Reagan in the White House." Emerging a three-time loser, he takes with him a wife in the shape of a policewoman (Holly Hunter) wooed and won during the three-time process of being photographed and fingerprinted.
Marriage, a home and a job follow naturally, but alas no children, since the policewoman proves barren. So what more natural in a land of consumer plenty than to steal one? Especially when newspaper accounts of the birth of quints to unpainted furniture king Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) feature the father's wry disclaimer, "More than we can handle!" No sooner has Hi proudly introduced his hijacked son to his new home and the mod cons of bedroom, kitchen and TV ("Two hours a day maximum, so you don't ruin your appreciation for the finer things") than the heavens open up in a storm of retribution. Turned into a sea of mud, the open ground in front of the prison heaves, and two prehistoric Frankenstein monsters erupt, turning into redneck convict escapees, former jailmates of Hi's, who elect to use his home as a hideout.
Once more poor Hi finds himself an outlaw, no longer able to accept the slobbishly amoral camaraderie of the underworld, not yet ready for the sophistications of decent society. On a visit with his wife (who proves an eager source of tips on motherhood) and bevy of children (who rampage on an orgy of destruction), Hi's boss Glen (Sam McMurray), reacting angrily to a punch on the jaw when he randily suggests a bout of wife-swapping, determines to turn Hi in as a kidnapper. Only to be forestalled when the two convicts (John Goodman, William Forsythe), reacting angrily when Hi's wife kicks them out of the house, decide to kidnap the baby themselves with a view to ransom. A Laurel and Hardy duo, surprisingly delicate in their social graces despite brutish manners, the pair haven't quite the heart to go through with it. Instead, discovering all sorts of frustrated paternal and maternal yearnings, they agonize over the advisability of leaving Nathan Junior in the getaway car while they raise finance by robbing a bank: "Suppose we go in there and get ourselves killed, it could be hours before he gets discovered."
Meanwhile, the forbidden box opened by Hi is still working its magic, and retribution is on the road in the fear-some person of the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, a bearded aboriginal armed to the teeth and with features grimed by the fires of hell. First seen as a streak of fire burning up the highway as he shoots up wayside animals for the fun of it, the Lone Biker has accredited independent existence as Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb), a bounty-hunter who switches from escaped convicts to kidnaped baby; but an incredible subjective shot preceding the bike as it races at breakneck speed to a house, up a ladder and through the open window just as Hi wakes in the grip of a nightmare, establishes him as a force released by Hi's dream. Only when Hi defeats the Biker in desperate single combat, and subsequently returns the baby to its bereft parents, do the furies subside.
Raising Arizona is studded with set pieces that are wonderfully funny in their own right, like Hi's first attempt to steal the baby, only to have its siblings set up a sympathetic squall, which ends as a free-for-all of scuttling babies as, each one parked at random as another requires comfort, all five race around like demented cockroaches; or his equally frustrating attempt to steal a pack of nappies, which escalates into a balletic dance for fugitive, pursuing police, rabid dogs and vigilante gunman ("Son, you got a panty on your head," an elderly motorist interestedly remarks as the stocking-masked Hi tries to cadge an escape ride). But the reason that this reductio ad absurdum of Reagan's America works so beautifully is that while its characters do not bleed—the violence, with the biker finally blown into fragments, is pure Tom and Jerry—they have a surprisingly touching vulnerability.
The Lone Biker, so Hi's off-screen voice comments as a grenade casually demolishes a rabbit, is "especially hard on little things"; and there is a very real sense in which the characters are all children, childlike in their humors, whether these make them innocently demanding (Hi and the policewoman), irresponsible (the two convicts), naughtily spoilt (Glen and his wife), comfortably blasé (Nathan Arizona and his wife), or viciously destructive (the Lone Biker, whose secret Woody Woodpecker brand makes him Hi's long-lost brother). Mom and apple pie still rule the American dream, as one of the convicts recalls when he ticks Hi's wife off for not breast-feeding her baby ("He'll hate you for it later, that's why we wound up in prison"), and as the Lone Biker confirms through the tattoo on his arm ("Mama didn't love me"). Is the dream, on the other hand, worth standing up and flying straight for? The sting in the movie's tail is that when Hi has finally sorted himself out and joined society, his reward is a dream of future blessings in which he and his wife, now senior citizens, are surrounded by a mysterious family of children and grandchildren … the first generation of whom bear a suspiciously marked resemblance to wife-swapper Glen and his wife.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3036
SOURCE: "Small Things Considered: Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men," in Post Script, Vol. 8, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 18-27.
[In the following essay, Hill suggests links between the themes of Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men, comparing the psychological roles of their characters.]
Little things mean a lot, we often hear. But the philosophy that "the best things come in small packages" is frequently rejected in America, where bigger is always called better—and where the biggest is definitely the best. Such a contradiction seems indicative of a fundamental cultural flaw: instead of embracing truly worthwhile (although perhaps small) values and goals, we adopt the more popular, less-thought-out, superficially "big" ideas. We seem to pride ourselves, as a culture, on size rather than quality: the size of our cars, our homes, and, in an era in which moviemakers often inflate themselves and their motives, even our movies. Independent filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen, though, seem to take the opposite approach and even to find great significance in the small things that do abound in American culture. Their first feature was itself a "small" work, a cheaply-made, modern film noir, Blood Simple, that quickly attracted a cult following. Its success paved the way for their mainstream comedy Raising Arizona which, despite its far larger budget, still has much of the small about it.
Raising Arizona is about a little man in the American scheme of things, a little man with small ambitions. H.I. McDunnough (Hi) is a small-time crook whose specialty is robbing convenience stores—seldom successfully. But what gives this far from unusual figure some resonance is the way the film connects him to one of the almost archetypal depictions of the little man in American literary history. The Coens' film is a pointed retelling of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, a classic tale about downtrodden men who long to claim a piece of the American dream: the dimwitted Lennie Small and his smarter yet smaller companion George. Through their comic elaboration on the Steinbeck novel, the Coens have fashioned a contemporary response to the popular American gospel of bigness and success, a response that, in contrast, tells us how much those little things can really mean if only we will seek them out.
The most obvious link between Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men occurs in the main characters of the two works. For not only is Hi a minor character on the American scene, a small-time crook, but he also has an alter ego named Leonard Smalls, whose comment, "My friends call me Lennie," forms a firm association with Steinbeck's Lennie Small. Of course, this biker-bounty hunter is hardly a pure reincarnation of Steinbeck's sympathetic Lennie; rather, the combination of Smalls and Hi, his psychological double, form a mutated, nightmarish, and more complex version of the Steinbeck character. In the novel, we might note, Lennie is not at all malicious, although his retardation causes him to do bad things without realizing the consequences of his actions. Similarly, Hi means no real harm by his holdups, his kidnaping of one of Nathan Arizona's "extra" babies, or even his fight with his foreman. He is simply compelled by some inner force or urge to this socially unacceptable behavior. But the Coens go a step further with their central character by concretely incarnating his asocial and potentially menacing aspect in the horrible figure of the lone biker.
Smalls is essentially a distorted, negative image of all the qualities that endear Lennie Small to Steinbeck's readers. While Small adores little, cuddly animals—in illustration of what Steinbeck called "the inarticulate and powerful yearnings of all men"—Raising Arizona's Smalls, whose very name accents a multiplicity of purpose not as evident in Steinbeck's "singular" Small, is, we are told, "especially hard on little things," as we see when he kills a roadside rabbit with a hand grenade. While Steinbeck's Lennie does inadvertently injure or even kill all of his playthings, the Coens' Lennie has destruction as his raison d'être. These "little things," the animals, are thus central to the way the film elaborates on Steinbeck's tale, for through them it develops its own characters, setting up the entity of Hi-Smalls much as the novel defines Lennie's character. Lennie is intimately involved with animals, while Smalls compares himself to numerous creatures—a bloodhound, a pup, even a "warthog from Hell." In fact, the very source of the identification of Smalls as Hi's "other self" is a Woody Woodpecker tattoo that each possesses, a symbol simultaneously of animalism, childhood, and phallic sexuality that hints of each's full complexity. Hi's primitive behavior during his robberies—with the legs of the pantyhose slipped over his head resembling floppy rabbit ears—and his fight with his boss Glen may be partly attributed to the "big weight bearing down" from the pressures of his family and social life. For the Coens' world, just as Steinbeck's, seems to be one in which "innocent persons are sacrificed," like animals, "to the perversities of a decadent world that, because of financial or sexual obsessions, cannot allow such innocence to flourish". The escaped brothers, Gale and Evelle, suggest to Hi that the source of his marital friction (which disrupts the happy home centered on the toddler) could be financial worries. As a solution, they suggest that Hi accompany them on a bank robbery—a financial obsession threatening to Hi's newfound innocence as well as the absolute innocence symbolized in the baby. Gale and Evelle cannot know, however, that the source of the financial problem (Hi's loss of his job) was his revulsion over Glen's proposition that they engage in wife-swapping, a sexual obsession threatening to innocence, an obsession to which Hi is ultimately sacrificed by being fired. As Hi points out, "It is a tough world for little things" who are at the mercy of man's perverse, animalistic nature.
Just as the Hi-Smalls pairing forms a parallel to Lennie Small, the pairing of Hi (including the Smalls aspect of his psyche) and Ed parallels the Lennie-George combo. Hi is tall (though not bulky—that trait belongs to Smalls), irresponsible, and trying to escape a checkered past of crimes against society. Ed, however, is his opposite, with her small build, great sense of responsibility and decorated efforts as a law enforcement officer. Ed constantly has to remind Hi of the proper way in which to behave in certain situations, much as George tells Lennie what to say and do. For example, she scolds Hi for allowing two escaped convicts to intrude into their "decent" home (ironically forged by the crime of kidnaping), and she chastises his violence against Glen. In this respect Ed and Hi may be seen as the conscious and subconscious—or possibly even superego and id—the former always trying to keep the latter in check. Interestingly, Ed sometimes resembles Lennie, as her need for a child echoes his desire to tend little rabbits, and in one scene Hi becomes George; he destroys Smalls, saying, "I'm sorry," displaying the same regret with which George shoots Lennie.
Typically, such switching of characters would break down the foundation of any comparison of two works. However, in this case the interchangeability of character relationships between Raising Arizona and Of Mice and Men not only serves to underscore the existence of Ed, Hi, and Smalls (as well as George and Lennie) as small segments of one whole personality, but it also contributes to one of the Coens' strongest thematic tools: confusion of identity.
If one is to make a successful metamorphosis into a better existence, then one must first come to grips with the true nature of one's current self. The inability of Raising Arizona's characters to do so, indicating the futility of their dreams, is pointed up in the numerous confusions of identity throughout the film. The hero is alternately called "H.I.," "Hi," "Daddy," "Mr. McDunnough," and "Herbert" (the name he uses to sign the letter acknowledging the confused, troubled side of his character). The validity of his mate's name is called into doubt when Hi queries, "What kind of name is 'Ed' for a pretty little thing like you?" Her reply introduces an alternate name, "Edwina," and she is later called "Mrs. McDonnough" (a title lending a false air of respect and import) and even "young Missy" (a child-like name evoking images of smallness). Ed, like Hi, is also facing a serious identity crisis: she is an officer of the law who marries an ex-con, tenders her badge, and embarks on a criminal act. Amusingly, the motif of confused identify is extended to some minor characters, such as the large, burly man in Hi's prison therapy group who, because of terrible menstrual cramps, feels trapped in a man's body.
Such ambiguous personalities are evident in Of Mice and Men as well, where they also indicate a reluctance or inability to engage in introspection. Lennie's surname, "Small," is obviously at odds with his physical size; it is, however, in accord with his inability to understand his environment and himself; and while Lennie may be physically strong ("Leonard" means "strong or brave as a lion"), he is not emotionally viable, nor is he brave. While there is no apparent contradiction in George Milton's name, a contradiction or confusion of identify is clear in his repeated avoidance of questions about his relationship to Lennie. Several ranch hands remark that it is odd to see two men traveling together as they do, but George insists that there is nothing strange about it at all. Dusenbury theorizes that Steinbeck points up the unusual friendship to emphasize the aloneness of the typical ranch hand. However, on the surface there is a subtly implied homosexuality, underlined by Lisca's reminder that "George" means "husbandman," in this case husband to one who is "strong or brave as a lion." More important than denying homosexuality, though, George is denying that Lennie is really his psychological twin; Lisca suggests that the Lennie-George dichotomy could be that of the unconscious and the conscious or the id and the ego. George fails to admit this relationship and the fact that they have no choice but to travel together.
While the main characters in the two works are all confused about where they stand in life, they are equally unsure of exactly what they seek. Steinbeck called his novel "a study of the dreams and pleasures of everyone in the world." Rabbits symbolize the fertile dreams of Lennie and George, but they are easily replaced with whatever suitable substitutes can be found: first with a mouse, then with a puppy, and finally with George's trip to a "cat house." In one version of his plans, George even mentions the possibility of eating some of the rabbits, an act which is paradoxically destructive of the very symbol of the dream itself.
In Raising Arizona, the McDunnoughs' hopes are personified in the form of a toddler who undergoes no fewer than six changes of identity, indicating the characters' lack of focus on their dreams. He is first called "Nathan, Jr., I think" by Hi. Nathan Arizona later uses the same phrase to refer to the child; and he admits that his own "name ain't Nathan Arizona," but rather Nathan Huffhines. Thus the baby becomes Nathan Huffhines, Jr., by association. Once they have him home, the McDunnoughs continue to call him "Nathan, Jr.," in private, but they subsequently label him "Hi, Jr., 'til we think of a better name," and "Ed, Jr.," in the company of others. The most brilliantly absurd confusion of identity comes when Hi tells Glen that the baby is Ed, Jr. Glen mistakes the name "Ed," normally a masculine name, to be feminine, remarking, "I thought you said it was a boy." In a line that would in most instances seem quite superfluous, Hi then has to explain that "Ed" is in this case short for "Edward," not "Edwina." As others try to horn in on the dream (just as Candy and Crooks beg to be let in on George and Lennie's dream), the child becomes Glen, Jr., and Gale, Jr. Put simply, Nathan, Jr., is all things to all people, none of whom has given serious thought to what his true goals are. The characters "suffer from tunnel vision, each gripped by an obsession he or she cannot … explain."
The fact that something has gone seriously awry with Hi and Ed's schemes for a family life is underscored by the paralleling of the lone biker with the gigantic rabbit in Lennie's nightmare. Just as the rabbit is a symbol of the utopian farm made monstrous in size and cruel in speech, Smalls, incarnated in Hi's first dream, clearly symbolizes an infant made monstrous and cruel, his booties dangling from his body armor and his tattoo reading, "Mama didn't love me." The cartoonish yet hellish lighting of the biker together with the woodpecker tattoo contributes to the "evil child" image, and, as Steele says of Lennie's nightmare rabbit, when one's most cherished dream turns upon one, it is indeed the death of hope.
If one's goals are unclear or badly founded, then the determination from within that is necessary to the actualization of one's dreams is absent. Therefore, working toward those aspirations becomes an impossibility, and, rather than reevaluate the validity of his goals, that person may seek a short-cut to achievement. However, the easy way out almost always involves settling for less than the desired result. For example, Hi's holdups (significantly of convenience stores), intended as quick ways of getting cash, result in one incarceration after another. One of Hi's fellow inmates tells how, as a child, he often settled for eating sand when he could find neither meat, nor fowl, nor crawdads. He describes a disastrous attempt to cook a crawdad in a boiler, but without any water (i.e., without following the proper, time-consuming steps); instead of a crawdad lunch, he got something more closely resembling popcorn.
Attempts to reach goals too quickly are more abundantly portrayed in Raising Arizona as premature births. Hi is repeatedly released on parole, as the cell doors "swing wide" before he has had a chance to reform at all, before the fat man with the mop has finished cleaning the dirty floors of Hi's rambunctious mind. The escape of Gale and Evelle from prison is shown as a birth from a tunnel, each man screaming like a newborn baby, and Evelle's feet-first emergence suggests a problem with the delivery. The brothers' entrance back into society is made in a stolen station wagon—significantly a family car, the ideas of family and home being modes of cultural acceptance throughout the film—which they drive off while it is still being filled with gasoline, leaving the pump hose lying on the ground like a prematurely severed umbilical cord. Hi, in his last flight from the police, undergoes a birth from the cab/womb of his getaway truck (screaming in unison with the driver/mother), through its windshield/birth canal, and (again prematurely) into the "Ozzie and Harriet" world of a split-level ranch home. This is a world for which Hi obviously is not ready, and he must run through it since it has no place for him yet. Most importantly, Hi and Ed have "born" a baby into their world, but they have done it much too easily and prematurely. Only when Nathan, Jr., is kidnaped from them by Gale and Evelle do they admit that they never really deserved him in the first place.
This realization is the slap in the face that puts the McDunnoughs on the right track to a truly hopeful future. The lone biker arrives immediately, visible for the first time to Hi's conscious and to Ed. They are now face to face with Hi's alter ego, the biggest single obstacle barring a new life from them. Just as George kills that aspect of himself that Lennie represents, Hi must confront Smalls, the true nature which he has feared and about which he has been confused; he must either overcome this side of his psyche or be destroyed along with his dreams.
In the aftermath of their triumph over the lone biker of the apocalypse, Hi and Ed, not certain that kidnaping was not the proper solution to their problems, return Nathan, Jr., to his crib, a gesture indicating their intent to start afresh. Just as George and Lennie's retreat to the spot by the river has explicit overtones of a return to the womb and rebirth, Hi and Ed momentarily "retreat" from their mad pursuit, realize where their problems lie, and are reborn to a new way of seeing their dreams. Barth points out that the Coens' stylistic alterations of reality throughout the film work to suggest the necessity of just such a new way of perceiving.
Throughout the film, Arizona is a source of confusion, especially as used as an assumed name by Nathan Huffhines; and with its absurd juxtaposition of mass-culture junkiness with parched, primal landscapes, it has been referred to by Ethan Coen as "an Arizona of the mind." Arizona is also the American state where the characters have chosen to pursue the American dream, indicating, in the context of its symbolic use, a fundamental flaw of uncertainty in the pursuit. In the final line of dialog, Hi muses, "I don't know; maybe it was Utah." Thus he doubts the very essence of his entire struggle. Has he been on the wrong track from the beginning? He is raising Arizona as one would raise a question, and he has finally achieved the necessary level of self-examination that may make his dream a possible reality.
Thus, by borrowing Steinbeck's theme of small Americans and their misguided dreams, Joel and Ethan Coen contend that, in order to achieve true personal success, one must look beyond the cultural stereotypes of what one's goals should be and pursue instead the small, truly wonderful things in life. To the jubilant cheers of the human race found in the yodels of the closing soundtrack, Hi opens his eyes to the reality of his misdirected quest, indicating an awakening that will foster new, more realistic dreams.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1618
SOURCE: "Chasing the Hat," in Film Comment, Vol. 26, No. 5, September/October, 1990, pp. 32-33.
[Below, Jameson favorably reviews Miller's Crossing.]
Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller's Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it's nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else's closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his deliberate, tangential progress, from background to middle distance and then out the side of the frame, is also a story—draining authority from the close-up Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who's come to insist, ironically enough, on the recognition of his territorial rights.
The place is a story, too, which we read as the scene unfolds. A private office; not Caspar's, but not Reagan's either—it's city boss Liam "Leo" O'Bannion (Albert Finney) who sits behind the camera and his big desk, listening. An upstairs office, we know from the muted street traffic (without stopping to think about why we know). Night outside, but sunlight would never be welcome, or relevant, here. A masculine space, green lampshades amid the dark luster of wood, leather, whiskey. A remote train whistle sounds, functional and intrinsically forlorn; the distance from which it reaches us locates the office in space and in history. This room exists in a city big enough to support a multiplicity of criminal fiefdoms and a political machine that rules by maintaining the balance among them, yet it is still a town whose municipal core lies within faint earshot of its outskirts. Urban dreams of empire have not entirely crowded out the memory of wilderness, of implacable places roads and railroads can't reach, even if one of them has been wishfully designated Miller's Crossing. Hence we are not entirely surprised (though the aesthetic shock is deeply satisfying) when the opening master-scene, with its magisterial interior setting and dialogue fragrant with cross purpose, gives way to a silent (save for mournful Irish melody) credit sequence in an empty forest. And then to a title card announcing, almost superfluously, "An Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s."
It has always been one of the special pleasures of movies that they dream worlds and map them at the same time. Miller's Crossing dreams a beaut, no less so for the fact that Joel and Ethan Coen's film is a reverent, rigorous reimagining of the world of Dashiell Hammett, especially as limned in The Glass Key and Red Harvest. (A phrase from Red Harvest supplied the title of the Coens' filmmaking debut Blood Simple.) The look is right, from first frame to last—even the aural "look" of that ice: this is a movie that knows what drinking is about in Hammett, what it has to do with rumination and gravity, coolheadedness and rash error, and every coloration of brown study. The mood is instinct with the private pain that separates reticence from caring and conceals itself, with desperation and anger, in seeming not to care. Even the narrative spaces are true to Hammett. There is a man named "Rug" Daniels who enters the film dead, whose murder is the least insistent and finally least significant of the film's mysteries, offhandedly explained amid the backwash from gaudier mayhem ("I don't know, just a mixup"); the cast has to wonder—though the audience need not—why Daniels' corpse should be missing his eponymous toupee. Floyd Thursby might envy a death surrounded by such perplexity and pixilation.
The terrain is worthy of mapping. But more importantly, the mapping itself becomes cinematic terrain in Miller's Crossing, each adjustment of distance and perspective invested with exquisite sensibility. Sometimes the effect is startling, like the delayed revelation that the precariously politic dialogue between Leo and Caspar, with Tom kibbitzing, also involves a fourth man: The Dane (J. E. Freeman), Caspar's partner in crime, who, though standing directly behind Caspar the entire time, is never seen by the audience till his fierce visage towers in sudden closeup several minutes into the scene. That silent detonation is the most effective shock cut since Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet offered to "fuck anything that moves." But one takes no less satisfaction when, a moment later, after Caspar and The Dane's angry departure, Tom Reagan leaves off lounging at the window ledge behind his friend and boss, moves to a couch along the wall, settles in, takes a deep drink, and says, "Bad play, Leo." Ninety-nine directors out of a hundred would have played that line in closeup. Joel Coen frames Tom within enough space that we feel both director and character have a judicious respect for patterns, for the ways in which moves and designs can go wrong, and for the crisis whose resolution is going to drive Tom and Leo forever apart.
When John Wayne noticed that Dean Martin, as the drunk in need of redemption, seemed to have the ripest part in Rio Bravo, he asked Howard Hawks what he ought to do to hold up his own end of the screen. Hawks replied, "You look at him like he's your friend." Tom Reagan is Leo O'Bannion's friend in Miller's Crossing, but he has the devil's own time looking out for the interests of both of them. Johnny Caspar starts out wanting only to send a red letter to "The Schmatte," Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), a bookmaker who's been screwing the play every time Caspar fixes a prize-fight. Leo refuses to lift protection on Bernie, partly to insist on his own authority, but also because Bernie is the cherished brother of Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), whose dark beauty has stirred banked fires in his heart. Tom wishes his friend could keep his mind on business. He also wishes he knew what to do about the fact that he himself is secretly Verna's lover.
Reportedly, Albert Finney came late to the role of Leo, after Trey Wilson, the 43-year-old actor who played the father of the quintuplets in the Coens' Raising Arizona, died of a stroke. Finney's extra decade introduces an imbalance into the friendship between Tom and Leo and adjusts the nature of their rivalry for Verna; besides being a hefty powerbroker ill-made for romantic conquest, his Leo takes on the pathos of age and last options. But if Finney's Leo is less than equal on the field of love, he's more than equal as a figure of estimable regard. The screenplay obliges Leo to disappear for most of the last two-thirds of the movie; excellent player that he was, it's doubtful whether the late Wilson could have loomed so large in absentia as Finney's Leo does. The sense of rueful aspiration that drives Tom Reagan during his often mystifying maneuvers to set the cockeyed world of Miller's Crossing right finds expression mainly through the Irish music that marks his passage, and our memories of Leo—apart from his beefy authority and boyish candor—reverberate as a kind of music. Not only the playing of "Danny Boy" over the most audacious of the film's tour-de-force sequences (an exhilarating first-act high that would render the remainder of any other movie anticlimactic), but also the mortally wounded sighs Leo emits after learning of Tom and Verna's affair. And the way Finney gets the history of a long day and Leo's life and his friendship with Tom into responding to the offer of a late-night drink—"I wouldn't mind."
That line reading is one of a thousand things to love about Miller's Crossing, along with a zephyr of smoke through waxed floorboards, the rubbing together of stark trees above a killing ground, the arrival of a small man to conduct the beating a giant couldn't manage, the way men and guns fill up a nocturnal street like autumn leaves drifting. And one loves a screenplay with the fortitude to lay all its cards on the table in the first sequence and then demonstrate, with each succeeding scene, that there is still story to happen, there is still life and mystery in character, there is reason to sit patient and fascinated before a movie that loves and honors the rules of a game scarcely anyone else in Hollywood remembers anymore, let alone tries to play. Johnny Caspar is a brute posing as a philosopher, but he knows the word that fits the Coen brothers' moviemaking: "et'ics." [ethics]
One of the Coens told a New York Times writer that Miller's Crossing had its genesis in the image of a black hat coming to rest in a forest clearing, then lifting to soar away down an avenue of trees. That image accompanies the main title, a talisman of the movie's respect for enigma and dedication to the irreducible integrity of style. It also crops up verbally as a dream Tom describes to Verna—the closest he gets to sharing a confidence. Yeah, says Verna, and then you chased the hat and it changed into something else. "No," Tom says immediately, "it stayed a hat. And I didn't chase it." But one way or another, this man in grim flight from his heart, who cannot, must not "look at him like he's your friend" till the last world-closing shot of the film, chases his hat all through Miller's Crossing. So do the Coens. And that it doesn't change into something else is the best news for the American cinema at the dawn of the Nineties.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 765
SOURCE: "Neo-Classic Hammett," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 64-65.
[In the following review, Pulleine praises Miller's Crossing for its unity of plot and structure.]
Blood Simple, the first feature of Joel Coen (writer-director) and his brother Ethan (writer-producer), was widely seen as updating the protocols of the school of writing most readily associated with James M. Cain. Now, after the high-pitched comic detour of Raising Arizona, the Coens have turned for inspiration to a different area of crime writing, the novels of Dashiell Hammett. This time they have adhered to the period of the originals: the milieu of Miller's Crossing is an unspecified American city during Prohibition. The makers have spoken of echoing the 'dirty town' premise of Red Harvest, though in fact the narrative bears a more particular resemblance to The Glass Key.
The plot is of a complexity that would defy any brief synopsis, but turns in outline on the attempted overthrow of the city's Irish 'boss' (Albert Finney) by his Italian arch-rival—the former's Achilles heel being his infatuation with the sister (Marcia Gay Harden) of a double-dealing petty criminal (John Turturro)—and on the thwarting of this design by Finney's chief lieutenant (Gabriel Byrne), who has also been Harden's lover and who feigns desertion to the opposition in order to repair his mentor's fortunes.
The manner in which the densely packed storyline is negotiated, moreover, is not the delirious modernism of Blood Simple, but rather that of neo-classicism. Restraint is the keynote, whether in the preponderance of frequently near-static medium and close shots, the 'invisible' editing, or the restricted palette of Barry Sonnenfeld's cinematography, with its emphasis on browns and greys. This restraint might, to begin with, risk seeming artificial. But as the movie progresses, its scale gradually opens out and violent action intermittently intrudes, most astonishingly so in the set-piece in which the strains of 'Danny Boy' from Finney's horn gramophone majestically counterpoint his bloody turning of tables on the would-be assassins who have infiltrated his mansion retreat.
Despite such interventions, however, and the pattern of repetitions (only properly discernible at a second viewing) which underpins its structure, Miller's Crossing is elucidated pre-eminently through interchange between characters. In the manner of a Howard Hawks movie—though thankfully there is no suggestion of direct reference—it erects an exact yet invisible dramatic scaffolding, around which the participants, no matter how far removed from 'real' life, can create an illusion of independent existence.
Here Gabriel Byrne's hard-bitten insouciance, admirably offset by the bluffness of Finney, easily transcends anything this actor has previously done on the screen. And although it might be invidious to single out anyone else from an exactly balanced ensemble, J.E. Freeman, as the rival's granitic enforcer, contrives a figure from the realms of nightmare: asked whether he wants to kill a potential victim, he replies, 'For starters.'
Throughout, indeed, the pungently idiomatic dialogue invites quotation, whether it be Byrne's dismissal of a third party as 'not a bad guy if looks, brains and personality don't count', or a bookie's comment on Byrne's lack of gambler's luck: 'If I were a horse, I'd be down on my fetlocks praying you don't bet on me'.
Yet for all its humor, Miller's Crossing contains a heart of darkness. The intimations of sado-masochistic emotion which insinuated themselves into Blood Simple, and were even perceptible (in a farcically distanced vein) in the no-hoper couple of Raising Arizona, here tend to hold sway. The punishment to which Byrne submits with something like complicity, in the cause of preserving Finney, becomes an expiation of his guilt at having been the older man's amorous betrayer, but also an expurgation of his feelings toward this ambiguously paternal protector. At the end, the grateful Finney's almost priest-like utterance of 'I forgive you' is met by his erstwhile protégé with, 'I didn't ask for that and I don't want it': the two men's mutual dependence is at an end. (Thematically, too, the film could be said to contain indirect echoes of Hawks.)
By this time, the explication of the intrigue behind the conspiracy, however gripping in itself, has assumed a kind of irrelevance, so that the perversity of motivation is, as it were, absorbed into the very fabric of the narrative. In consequence, Miller's Crossing assumes a precision of correspondence between content and form which is all too rare in the cinema today; and the resolute effacement of any authorial 'signature', such as would detract from the telling of the tale, renders the film all the more clearly the product of a (double-headed) auteur.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3249
SOURCE: "What's the Goopus?" in American Film, Vol. 16, August, 1991, pp. 30-32, 46.
[In the following essay, Robertson describes a day in the shooting of Barton Fink.]
Listlessly scratching his facial stubble, Ethan Coen gazes thoughtfully out through impenetrably dark sunglasses at the path Barton Fink must traverse. Ethan glances at me, then away. A second later, he looks at me again. He gestures vaguely outward. "Gloria Swanson used to live here," he says dully. He drops his hand limply at his side and stares ahead again.
Ethan has good reason to be excited. It's "Lipnik by the Pool" Day on the set of his and his brother Joel's latest movie, Barton Fink. Today's the day Barton pays a home visit to Jack Lipnik, the blustery titan of Capitol Pictures, and Lipnik apoplectically fires studio toady Lou Breeze for not kissing Barton's foot, then—what the hell—congenially gets down on his knees and kisses the damn thing himself.
We are standing in the backyard of a pricey, sun-drenched stucco mansion in Beverly Hills that, despite its current ownership by a couple of psychiatrists, still retains much of the Swansonian-period opulence so vital to the 1940s-studio-mogul-at-leisure look: a stone veranda overlooking a split-level lawn with a fish pond, palm trees, huge flowering bushes and grass so compulsively groomed that incriminating footprints are left behind wherever you walk on it. Phony Greek statuary and a gazebo have been carted in for good measure. It all veritably screams "Lipnik by the Pool."
Of course, nothing screams "Lipnik by the Pool" quite like Lipnik himself. Big, tan and silver-haired, Michael Lerner, who plays Lipnik, sits over by the twinkling cerulean pool on a yellow-padded chaise with a glass pitcher full of orange juice beside him. He wears an open, heavy, beige robe and a high-waisted, belted swimsuit of some sparkly, Decoy fabric reminiscent of the '30s futuristic fashions worn by Buster Crabbe in the old Flash Gordon serials.
Lerner's face is pensive. Moments from now, filming will commence on the critical Barton-walks-from-the-house-down-to-the-pool shot that sets up the whole Lipnik scene, and he will throw his arm into the air in a life-embracing, Old World gesture of salutation and bellow a line of dialogue across the yard.
Joel, taller than Ethan but, like his younger brother, slouchy, comes up on my other side and stares at the mansion. A second later he gives me an insensate glance through impenetrable sunglasses, then looks at Ethan. "Eeth, you tell Bill about Gloria Swans …?"
"Yeah," Ethan says.
Joel falls silent and looks back at the house.
Lipnik/Lerner throws his arm into the air with Tevye-like abandon. "Bah't!" he bellows across the yard. "So happy to see ya!"
And into this posh, glitzy setting he comes—moving down the stone steps, past the fish pond and flowering bushes, toward Lipnik/Lerner and the pool. At his side is actor Jon Polito, in character as that Charon of the Hollywood Hades, Lou Breeze. And before him is a big muscular guy with longish hair, harnessed into a elaborate-looking device called a Steadicam, who tiptoes delicately backward like a timid portable rocket launcher-equipped Rambo retreating in the presence of something greater than might—a good mind.
The mind belongs to a lanky man. He wears a brown, rumpled three-piece suit, black, round George S. Kaufman glasses and has a kinky-haired, mythic-sized, anvil-shaped coif with a protruding ledge that extends at least as far as his nose. His flesh is moist and pale, his cheeks peppered with five o'clock stubble. His body moves stiffly and awkwardly. His hands fidget at his chest, and his lips are pursed and crooked as they idly suck on nothing but the nectar of neurosis.
It is the eyes, however, that are the most striking. Well, OK, let's not kid ourselves—it's the mythic-sized, anvil-shaped coif that is most striking. But the eyes run a very close second. Wide and blinking frequently, they give off a stunned, vulnerable glint—not unlike the orbs of some burrowing nocturnal critter abruptly dragged from its hole by malicious children into the blinding starkness of daylight.
He is Barton Fink. Dreamer. Sufferer. Champion of the Common Man. Babe in the Woods. Fathead.
"He looks like a writer," someone has chuckled to me on another occasion. "He has that defensive look."
It's a fair enough statement. With his Barton Walk and his Barton Stare and his Barton Lip-Sucking Business, the extremely talented John Turturro, who plays Barton, has managed to find the fear that lurks in the heart of every writer and wears it on his shirt like the Sweat Stain of Courage to great comic effect.
Yet, there is something more at work here.
After the take, I catch sight of Turturro in conference with Joel and Ethan. The three stand in an amiable huddle, each rocking slightly from side to side, each grinning and bobbing his head in asthmatic chortling—Ethan with his curly light brown I-just-let-it-sit-there 'do, Joel with his dark Sam Elliot-manqué, Afghan-hound-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks shag, and Barton/Turturro with his Stonehenge coif, more reminiscent of an insurance company's logo than something on a person's head. Three slender, fidgety, bespectacled men with unshaven faces and … well, somewhat interesting-looking hair.
I have seen this sight on the set many times, of course. But now, as always, I am struck by what a powerful, trenchant image it is, this prism of refracted Coen-ness, this enchanted, albeit badly warped, tailor's mirror of the artistic soul, this wacky triptych on the altar of the chuckleheaded god of cinema.
And, as always, the impression is fleeting.
As I approach the three, the sensation is not unlike walking down a hospital corridor into the emphysema ward during Clown Day. The wheezing, strangled inhalations of mirth grow louder with each step.
What's so funny this time?
The Coen brothers laugh. Oh, how they laugh.
With Barton Fink, their fourth movie, Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing-directing-producing Vladimir and Estragon of American cinema, scarfed a staggering trio of awards at this year's Cannes Film Festival: best director (Joel), best actor (Turturro) and the Palme d'Or for best picture. The lads who brought us Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing have created their most poignantly intimate film statement to date. But don't whip out your honker-wipers just yet. Barton Fink is an absurd comedy about writer's block, decapitation and the Life of the Mind.
Barton is an earnest, socially conscious playwright with a poetically turgid, Clifford Odetsian writing style whose stirring drama about fishmongers on the Lower East Side, "Bare Ruined Choir," has made him the toast of the 1941 New York theatrical season. Insecure, but headstrong about his art, Barton is now within reach of his lifelong dream to create a theater of, about and for the Common Man.
So he takes the next logical career step. He goes to Hollywood, where, under contract to Capitol Pictures, he is hired to write a Wallace Beery wrestling movie called "The Burlyman"—joining the ranks of other great literary minds of his day who, lured by the scent of moola, have been herded like cattle into Hollywood Babylon's loony, pitiless, golden corral.
Then a horrible thing happens. Barton gets creatively bollixed. Sitting at his desk, sweating in his underwear in his stiflingly hot residential-hotel room, tormented by what may be the only mosquito in hundreds of miles and watching as the wallpaper oozes sap and sloughs from the wall, Barton finds himself unable to produce a single word. Frantically dancing around the studio's madcap inquiries about his progress, desperately and vainly seeking advice from other lost-soul writers, Barton thrashes, writhes and undulates in that lonely personal hell that is the Life of the Mind.
His only refuge is a growing friendship with his next door neighbor, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a big, affable, self-effacing insurance salesman in whom Barton sees the quintessential Common Man and in whose quaintly simple view of life he finds peace.
Sort of. Because Charlie is not as common or simple as he seems. And he shows Barton a thing or two about hell and the life of the mind.
Like the Coens' previous movies, Barton Fink is an unsettling combination of the dark and the bumptious, full of wryly humorous dialogue and various trademark Coenist auteuristic obsessions. But Barton Fink is different from other Coen movies in that it does not play off an established film genre, as Blood Simple did film noir, Raising Arizona did baby comedies and Miller's Crossing did gangster melodramas (unless, of course, there's a genre of violent comedies about the creative process). No, this time out, the Coen brothers have drawn inspiration from an unlikely source: personal experience.
It was the fall of 1987 and Joel and Ethan, wearing mental loincloths, were grunting and gasping with an untitled script they were writing about gangsters in a corrupt town in 1929. Though they eventually titled the script Miller's Crossing, in those days they referred to it as The Bighead, which was their affectionate nickname for the main character, Tom, a pensive, ungarrulous Hammettian antihero trying to think his way through the chaos of a gang war.
At first, the boys were merely stymied by The Bighead—something about its plot being too complicated to figure out, they said. Before long, however, they would look wistfully back at their halcyon stymied days, as they came face to face with a huge case of writer's block. The Coens tried various techniques to break through their block. They tried different writing locations. (Come to think of it, that was their only technique.)
Which is how they came to visit me in my small, rundown Victorian apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota. They stayed a full week, and we mostly sat around drinking coffee from my matching Elvis Presley mugs, listening to old Clancy Brothers records, watching Jeopardy! every day at 4 PM and eating doughnuts. One night, however, we took a break from this grueling routine to see Baby Boom.
Soon after, I started to notice an improvement in the boys' attitude. They attacked their doughnuts with greater appetite. Ethan, I remember, seemed particularly taken with the Baby Boom theme song and began to hum it—incessantly, I thought. By the week's end, though there was no visible progress made on The Bighead, the elevation in the Coens' mood was palpable. They left beaming and thanking me profusely and saying that it had all been tremendously helpful.
Three weeks later, Joel and Ethan called me from New York to tell me they'd written Barton Fink.
When I read the script, I saw immediately that the Coens had overcome their problem in an ingenious way. They had taken their writer's block and made an effigy of it, an effigy named Barton—a neck-hanged, rag-stuffed, immolated dummy vaguely resembling themselves—to which they could then also play the angry, ululating mob that paraded it rebelliously through the streets while chanting simple but catchy slogans of humiliation. With a joyful shake of the pole, they could make the flaming effigy dance and twirl in comic mimicry of nightmarish agony. They could make him sweat in his underwear, give blood to a ravenous mosquito and stare at the walls of his room with lip-sucking, blank-minded insentience until the paper literally peeled away. They'd force him to have his brain slapped and his foot kissed by blustery studio moguls and make him open his bedside Bible to find his own writing contained in "Genesis." They'd show him hell. What connection this had to Baby Boom, I had no idea.
After that, the writing on The Bighead flowed more freely.
And the rest, of course, is history: Miller's Crossing died at the box office.
It is exactly as I had imagined it: a dreary, stale-looking, forgotten place in which not even the bright wash of kliegs can revive the color and vibrancy that have been so long dead. The wool carpet, a dull, rosy floral pattern, is threadbare from too many pacing steps. The green Deco palm-motif wallpaper, glistening in the heat with its own runny paste, shrugs and crinkles away from the wall like fungi-ravaged, water-logged flesh. The bed, thin and lumpy and springy, has a kind of Deco-jail-house look to it, with a zigzag-cornered, cheap silver-painted frame of small orbs and long bars. The only other furniture of note is a writing desk with an old-fashioned typewriter and wadded pieces of paper. Hanging on the wall above it is the only thing of real color in the room: a tinted photograph of a peach-skinned, brunette woman sitting with her back to us, staring pensively out at the inscrutable blue sea.
I am standing alongside Ethan on the top step of a raised set built on a sound stage at Culver Studios. It's my first day here. Over by a wall, the weary-faced, curly gray-haired British cinematographer Roger Deakins sits on a dolly and squints through the eyepiece of a movie camera pointed at a solitary drop of wallpaper sap drooling slowly down the faded deco palms. As Roger tracks the sluggish path of the dewy paste, Joel and other crew members stand beside him, intently watching, their gazes just discernibly edging lower and lower.
They will be filming inserts like this all week long. I wanted to come the previous week, when they were filming the climactic and extremely exciting-sounding "Burning Hallway" sequence. But Ethan seemed pretty sure the fire marshal wouldn't permit it. And besides, he said, this way I'd be sure to get to see the goopus—the Coens' name for the oleaginous wallpaper gum.
The shot ends, and everybody sits back with an audible sigh. The crew begins to reposition the camera. Joel turns languidly from the wall. "Goopus, Gilbert, please," he says.
In striking contrast to Joel's shuffling torpor, Gilbert Johnquest breezes energetically onto the set. Gilbert is the goopuser. It is upon his shoulders solely that the responsibility of applying the dribbling wall paste rests. Carrying a veritable artillery of goopus-applicators, each clearly labeled according to a specific type of goopus, Gilbert intently sets about his task. Holding up a large yellow spray tank marked "Wall Sweat Goopus" Gilbert spritzes the wall, beading it with moisture. Then he picks up a hand-soap dispenser marked "Ropeus Goopus" and, cranking it, creates long, fat dribbles of translucent pasty gunk. Gilbert works with speed and precision, for time is of the essence.
Ethan leans over confidentially. "It was really cool when we were doing the scenes between Barton and Charlie," he says, his voice low. "Just before a take, someone would come in and spritz Turturro and Goodman—getting Goodman under the armpits and all. And in the background, Gilbert would be moving around, spritzing and goopusing the walls."
Gilbert brings up a plastic catsup bottle, the nozzle of which is cut to provide a thinner, more vermicelli-like strand of Ropeus Goopus. He squeezes it, and it makes a loud, embarrassing sputter.
Joel, who has been pacing as the crew works, suddenly pipes up. "The sound of the farting goopus bottle means that Gilbert is on the set!" he says in a high-school documentary narrator voice, never once losing step in his pacing.
Gilbert ignores him and continues to squeeze the bottle with flatulent vigor, just trying to get his work done. Gilbert is an artist in his own right—a painter and sculptor. It is his burden that the task of goopus application fell to him, that there is an unlucky alliteration between his name and his task and that he is on the crew of a Coen brothers movie. He is a big, lean, strapping guy, Gilbert, with long hair pulled back in a tiny samurai ponytail. He wears Bermuda shorts, darkly discolored high-top sneakers and an open, checked shirt over one of many "Gilbertville" T-shirts he acquired from a town of that same name in Iowa when he was working on Field of Dreams.
Next to Gilbert's high-tops is a plastic bucket with a paint brush in it. It is marked, simply and eloquently, "Goopus." Gilbert picks up the broad, goopus-sodden brush, which flops downward like a heavily salivating tongue, and looks up at an area of wallpaper that has peeled away, exposing the blank wall beneath. Gilbert gives the area a healthy slather.
Sometimes, when the Coens tire of calling for "Goopus, Gilbert," they call for "Gilbus, Goopert." Crew members who also worked on the set of Miller's Crossing and who used to greet each other with the oft-repeated gangster line, "What's the rumpus?," now greet each other with "What's the goopus?"
It is Gilbert's burden to bear.
Later, I find myself the only person on the set, standing in the middle of Barton's room. I stare down at Barton's writing desk, then up at the picture of the woman at the beach staring out to sea, then around at the goopus-befouled walls. Suddenly, I understand. Though Barton Fink is set during the bizarreness and insanity of Hollywood's golden days, Hollywood is really just a colorful backdrop that provides a few easy opportunities for some bellowing and vomiting and bluster. This goopus-stained room—this is what the movie is really about. Barton Fink is not so much about Hollywood as it is about the timeless, knuckleheaded hubris of the creative process and, in general, of any effort to try to craft sense and order out of the chaos that is life. It's not that it's a bad thing to do, really. It's just that it's … well, funny. Ah, Barton. Ah, humanity.
Joel and Ethan have told me of their plans to make a sequel to Barton Fink, to be called Old Fink, picking up the story of the great writer years after his having ratted on all of his friends to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the '50s. Middle-aged, Barton will hang out with members of the '60s youth movement. He will wear long gray sideburns and turtlenecks with big medallions. What the hair will be like no one will say—but the mind reels. Barton Fink fans will have to wait, however, just as the Coens intend to wait, for that day when John Turturro has himself achieved middle age. Such is the uncompromising gamble of creating art.
Joel walks onto the set, a paper cup of coffee in his hand. After a moment, he motions for me to follow him to a wall. "See, when it dries, it turns white like this," he says, brushing his hand lightly over milky streaks. "But sometimes if you put on a lot, it dries into this long hardened piece that you can peel right off in one chunk." He pulls a long, globby strip from the wall, then shows it to me. "It's like this weird food starch stuff," he says, turning the dried goopus like Euell Gibbons with fossilized raccoon dung on a grade-school nature walk.
I stare at the dried goopus in Joel's hand, then around at the room. "I can't believe I came all the way out here and you're just going to do inserts all week."
Joel nods, looks around, sips his coffee. "Well, not all week," he says. "Friday's 'Lipnik by the Pool' Day." He drops the dried goopus to the floor and heads off the set, into the darkness of the sound stage. "When you really should've come was last week," he says, his voice echoing from the dark. "We did the burning hallway."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638
SOURCE: "Finking It," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 1, No. 5, September, 1991, p. 4.
[In the following review, Powers praises Barton Fink but accurately predicts its box office failure.]
Let me begin, as you secretly want me to, by boasting about the weather. The day is bright, the temperature a placid 27 degrees, and the smog's been carried up-country by the Santa Ana winds that Raymond Chandler made part of the local mythology. In short, it's one of those natty Los Angeles mornings that once prompted that Julian Temple (remember him?) to remark over brunch, "If we had days like this in London, we wouldn't have Mrs Thatcher. Yes, there's something about the sunshine that makes it possible to believe almost anything. For the last five years Twentieth Century Fox has believed that the Coen brothers, writer-director Joel and writer-producer Ethan, were destined to become Hollywood superstars.
When Blood Simple came out in 1984, the Coens received the kind of reviews that most young film-makers would kill for, unaware that such overpraise usually winds up killing them. But despite the critical fanfare—Joel was called the next Welles, the next Leone, the next Scorsese—the public found it slow and cold and filled with hateful characters.
Still, the industry was high on the Coens' talent and expected that their next film would prove them mainstream crowdpleasers like Back to the Future's Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale. But for all its raves and saturation advertising, Raising Arizona enjoyed only a brief, lackluster run. And Miller's Crossing did even worse. After opening the New York Film Festival to the familiar gaga reviews, it was last seen limping trembling through the grass like that hare in Keats.
This pattern will continue with their new comedy, Barton Fink, which snatched the top prizes at Cannes (including the Palm d'Or) and has been hailed by even those critics who, like me, had savaged their earlier work for its adolescent smirkiness. Barton Fink has no chance of finding a large audience and for once I think it's a pity, because it's both an amusing send-up of 40s Hollywood and a sly commentary on the role of the artist. The eponymous hero is a self-absorbed, pseudo-radical 40s playwright who's hired by Hollywood to impart "that Barton Fink feeling" to a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. Stricken by writer's block, he spends all his time looking for help; yet he's so busy blathering self-absorbedly on about the "life of the mind" and "telling the stories of the common man," that he never listens to anybody, least of all the common man.
Fink, in fact, looks like the Coens' parody of the kind of self-important message-mongering artist they absolutely refuse to be. For all their winking at the audience and taste for classic genres, they are essentially formalists, constructing hermetic worlds whose meanings are self-referential and profoundly abstract. (I've been told that Ethan's a great reader of Wittgenstein, but that might have been a joke.) The Coens' work exults in self-conscious plot twists and narrative echoes, recurrent imagery and running jokes, camera moves that pull you away from the action to make you admire instead the director's proficiency and cheek. Whatever ideas these brothers do have about love and loyalty, art and life, are invariably approached at the obliquest of angles.—the surest road to box office failure. Barton Fink makes it obvious that the Coens don't care about making popular hits.
And, for the moment anyway, Hollywood doesn't seem to mind; the Coens are still seen as hot young film-makers. Fox executives are proud to have backed a Palm d'Or winner, if only as penance for their unholy success with Home Alone. Besides, they feel sure that two young guys as talented and hip as Joel and Ethan Coen will eventually succumb to the inevitable—and produce a box office smash.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1330
SOURCE: "What's in the Box," in Film Comment, Vol. 27, No. 5, September, 1991, pp. 26, 32.
[Below, Jameson offers a mixed review of Barton Fink.]
What's terrific about Barton Fink has been terrific about Joel and Ethan Coen's work since the last sequence of Blood Simple, when Frances McDormand did everything she could to keep a wall or a door between her and M. Emmet Walsh's implacably murderous private dick as he menaced her in a dark apartment. In the new film, the principal space is the hotel room where Barton (John Turturro), social-conscious New York playwright drafted to knock out genre scripts in 1941 Hollywood, struggles to get past FADE IN. Confronted with an epic sweep of blank page and the whining mosquito of doubt that he has anything to offer as either a spokesman for "the masses" or a proficient hack, he is opportunely diverted by garbled laughter/weeping/moaning coming through the wall from next-door. Into his life steps Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), hail-fellow insurance salesman, homely personification of the Common Man, and sentimental simulacrum of the Wallace Beery for whom Barton is supposed to be writing "a wrestling picture." Charlie, as he gladhandingly remarks several times, "could tell you stories," but Barton, who can't tell a story, doesn't listen. So stories come after him.
The Coens, unlike Barton Fink, know that space is a story. They map Barton's room, and Barton in it, from every conceivable angle. They know, too, that all space is interior space, and that Hollywood movies dream of worlds from inside boxes. Nicely thrown-away visual joke in a producer's outer office: Secretary sits typing under a wall-sized blowup from a desert adventure movie—a "window" on a realm of spectacle and romance—while to her left is a porthole of opaque glass holding the California sun at bay. Piquantly harrowing visual joke punctuating the entire movie: Over Barton's writing desk hangs a framed, hotel-furnished image of a young woman in a two-piece swimsuit sitting on a beach staring out to sea. The photo is small, her back is turned, the flesh she presents to us is but a pastel wash. Yet she is California, "the pictures," Life and Art, unreality and the only reality. You cannot touch her; you cannot let go of the dream of her.
Barton Fink is mesmerizingly authoritative as long as it stays within its own imaginative projection of "the life of the mind." Outside that, the movie goes askew. Not cagyaskew—like the surreal nuttiness of its deadpan proposition that there ever was such a genre as the wrestling picture—but simply off, ill-considered, wrong. One of the things the Coens get wrong is the movies themselves—their history and lore, and the accidental/inevitable conjunction of art and zeitgeist. Michael Lerner fulminates hilariously as Capitol Pictures boss Jack Lipnick, a zany conflation of Harry Cohn's brute vulgarity with Louis B. Mayer's obscene unctuousness (Tony Shaloub and Jon Polito are equally fine at catching, respectively, the manic desperation and damp acquiescence of two second-echelon execs); but Capitol, which would make sense as a version of Cohn's Columbia in the early Thirties ("We don't make B pictures here, let's put a stop to that rumor right now!"), bears no resemblance to Columbia or MGM or any other studio that could have had Wallace Beery under contract in 1941. John Mahoney's courtly, julep-voiced novelist-screenwriter W. P. Mayhew is the spitting image of William Faulkner (who did work on a script, the 1932 Flesh, featuring a wrestler role for Wallace Beery), but Mayhew, written as artist-sellout foil to Fink, is such a careless mélange of Faulkner-bio minutiae and libelous distortion that this comparatively minor character provokes major doubts about the Coens' sense of fealty to their art and forebears.
The 1941 time-frame is also at least half a decade too late to accommodate the aesthetic, political, or professional trajectory of a Barton Fink, even if Fink weren't modeled so conspicuously on echt-Thirties figure Clifford Odets (John Turturro uncannily succeeds in looking simultaneously like Odets and Ethan Coen and Joel Coen at any given moment). Unfortunately, the Coens appear to have hit upon 41 because it positions them, on the eve of World War II, to hazard some supremely silly historical allegory, up to and including a mind-boggling dropping of the name Hitler and a figurative Holocaust. The holocaust, small-h, is superb on its intrinsic terms, the consumption of the known world by the rampant solipsism of a madman—or a writer. It's also arguably a tip of the hat to Nathanael West's "burning of Los Angeles" (West is Barton Fink's literary godfather as Hammett was Miller's Crossing's, though Fink is closer to West's The Dream Life of Balso Snell than to Day of the Locust). But it illuminates the impending historic immolation not at all, and the Coens were feckless in even momentarily implying that it should.
Barton Fink doesn't need History to lend it scale. The only scale that matters is the awful disparity between the smudge of blood from a swatted mosquito and the surge of gore that washes Barton and the movie into madness.
Unless, of course, they were there from the start. The film begins with an injoke that's really a joke on in-ness, a slow-descending crane shot backstage at a New York theater as John Turturro's voice declaims passionate (and accurately parodied) Odets-speak; the shot eventually arrives at a closeup of Turturro—as playwright Fink (the anonymous player who exits past him had ostensibly been speaking the dialogue we heard). Everything we see and hear from then on is arguably Inside Barton Fink—projections of his paranoia and his pride, his doubts and desires, his self-inflation and self-rebuke.
Not that his various "secret sharers" are to be denied their stature. Charlie Meadows, the jolly fat man and loyal neighbor who traffics in "peace of mind … human contact," is also a monster named Karl Mundt who severs heads all over the U.S.A.; one of them may be in the box he gives Barton to keep for him. John Goodman's performance is twinkling, towering. Meadows comes into existence at the moment Barton needs him—something to distract him from the script he can't write. Mundt becomes a concept just in time to galvanize Fink into performing.
Someone else also leads Barton to perform. Audrey, the keeper of Bill Mayhew's writerly legend, enters Barton's bed just in time to become a blood sacrifice to his art. Judy Davis is resplendent in the role, the epitome of that neurasthenic Southern womanhood that is its own perfect parody. We can believe that Audrey writes Mayhew's (if not Faulkner's) books; Davis visibly tastes language as it issues from lips drawn by weariness and wit in equal measure, tastes the words and savors every alternative meaning with a decorous sexual thrill. Her Audrey is the color of the girl in the picture. She comes into the movie pre-bled.
And leaves it shockingly too soon. An enigma hangs over the last reel of Barton Fink. Barton has come up against sweat-and-blood real life and been moved to write after all (a photo of Meadows/Mundt having been fitted into the corner of the beach girl's frame above his typewriter). The boorish Lipnick rejects his script and his pretensions—"You think the whole world revolves and rattles inside that little kike head of yours"—and it's the cream of at least one Coen jest that Lipnick may be right. Has Barton written "the best thing I've ever done," or merely reduced his own brief (implicitly dubious) legend to hack formula, and unsalable formula at that? The Coens rather fudge that one, but at the end of the movie Barton has the box Charlie gave him, and it may have become his. He's found the beach and the girl. "Are you in pictures?" he asks. Is he? We don't know whether he should look in the box. We don't know whether, if he does or doesn't, he could tell us stories.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1646
SOURCE: "Hollywood's Holy Grail," in Commentary, Vol. 92, No. 5, November, 1991, pp. 50-53.
[In the following excerpt, Grenier asserts that the ending of Barton Fink fails to live up to the promise of its beginning.]
Barton Fink is not the story of a Jewish Galahad. Created by Joel and Ethan Coen, scripted by the two brothers working as a team, directed by Joel, produced by Ethan, Barton Fink is the first movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival to win three top awards (best film, best director, best leading actor, John Turturro). With The Fisher King sharing the Silver Lion at Venice, it makes an impressive one-two for the new highbrow Hollywood.
Barton Fink was conceived while the Coen brothers were stricken with writer's block during the creation of Miller's Crossing, an ambitious and critically well-received evocation of the Chicago gangland of the 1920's. Like Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink is visually striking, unusually well cast, and oddly stylized. The Chicago mobsters of Miller's Crossing are mythic characters whose behavior at several points makes no sense at all, and the Hollywood denizens of Barton Fink are equally mythic, derived in several cases from historical characters who were rather larger than life to begin with.
Yet the Coen brothers deny that they set out to make a film about Hollywood, new or old. "We started," the brothers say, "with the idea of a big seedy hotel with John Turturro [much praised for his roles in films by Spike Lee] and John Goodman [best known for playing Roseanne Barr's husband on television's Roseanne]. We'd been reading a little bit about that period in Hollywood and it seemed like an amusing idea to have John Turturro as a playwright in Hollywood at that time ." In early conversations, the name of Clifford Odets kept coming up, so Turturro read books about Odets and the Group Theater, and also Michael Gold's 1930 novel about the Lower East Side, Jews Without Money, and off they went.
For a movie in which the Coen brothers say Hollywood is a "secondary issue," "almost the cheapest part," and "not really what we were interested in," Barton Fink overflows with Hollywood icons and folklore. We have baroque versions of not only Clifford Odets, but MGM's Louis B. Mayer (Michael Lerner), a quintessential period film producer (Tony Shalhoub), the novelist William Faulkner during one of his filmland stints (John Mahoney), and a lady presented as Faulkner's mistress (Australia's Judy Davis from Impromptu). We see the old Ambassador Hotel, the old MGM lot, Culver City, eyeglasses inspired by Louis B. Mayer's, a hairdo inspired by George S. Kaufman's, a colonel's uniform made by the actual tailor who made one at the outbreak of World War II for Jack Warner. Larger than life, Barton Fink is also cruder than life. But if Terry Gilliam, director of The Fisher King, says he finds Hollywood "cynical," "awful," and "intimidating," the Coen brothers do not seem intimidated at all.
Barton Fink opens with the Broadway triumph of Barton Fink's Bare Ruined Choirs, a play about Fulton Street fish-mongers (and a parody of Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing!). "Cast iron wind…. I'm awake for the first time in years!… My eyes are open now!… Let them sing their hearts out!… We'll hear from that kid, and I don't mean a postcard." The Coen brothers consider their film a comedy, and their Barton Fink tells us lugubriously that he is the playwright of the "common man," writing from "deep inner pain to ease the suffering of my fellow man," the "average working stiff," "the masses." Anguished, Barton Fink asks why the hopes and dreams of this common man should move us less than those of kings.
Signed up by one of the major film studios, Fink checks into a dilapidated, ghostly Los Angeles hotel that seems to have been inspired by the Eagles' eerie rock hit, Hotel California ("Welcome to the Hotel California…. You can check out any time you like/But you can never leave"). Actual screenwriters of the Barton Fink period, including Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and Nathanael West, slaved away in little studio cubicles, but Barton Fink, assigned to a Wallace Beery wrestling movie, is allowed to stay home in his rundown hotel, and there (like the Coen brothers) he gets a grand case of writer's block. He starts out: "Scene: A tenement building on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Faint traffic noise is audible." He comes to a terrible halt. The next day he adds: "… as are the cries of fishmongers."
Down the hall is a friendly, hearty traveling insurance salesman, a common man if ever there was one, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), just dying to tell stories. Meadows says again and again, "I could tell you stories…." These are tales which our blocked screenwriter desperately needs, but Fink always interrupts Meadows to rhapsodize on the theme of the writer's mission to serve the common man. Self-absorbed, Fink cannot listen.
His encounters with the studio brass are bizarre but quite funny; the film's most remarkable performance is by Michael Lerner as a combination of Louis B. Mayer and Columbia's Harry Cohn:
Is that Barton Fink? Let me put my arms around this guy! The writer is king at Capital Pictures! We need more heart in the movies! The poetry of the streets! We want that Barton Fink feeling! The hopes and dreams of this wrestler! A romantic interest? Is Wally too old for a romantic interest? Is he an orphan maybe? Which is it, Bart? Orphan? Dame? I'm bigger, meaner, and louder than any other kike in this town! End of the week, Bart. We're all expecting great things.
Fink's encounters with the William Faulkner character are rather less entertaining. Timid, plain, no hand with the ladies, Barton Fink somehow manages to go to bed with Faulkner's mistress, and during their night together the camera does strange things. It dollies over to the hotel room's washbowl and goes down the drain—down, down, down—through the plumbing. After which Barton Fink becomes a different movie.
Is this Barton Fink Through the Washbowl Plumbing intended to be the Hollywood nether world? Is it a dream? The movie, from the time Fink arrives in Hollywood, has never been realistic. The vast and ghostly Hotel Earle has only two specter-like employees, and Fink and Charlie Meadows are its only guests. But when our blocked screenwriter wakes up in the morning post-plumbing, there is a sharp break. In a panic, Fink sees a flood of blood oozing from the lady he went to bed with, who is quite dead. Charlie Meadows disposes of the body for him. Fink has a story conference with the Louis B. Mayer-like studio mogul and finds him grotesque—although since the mogul was already rather grotesque the change here is less obvious than waking to find one's bedmate dead. Back at the Hotel Earle, two hard-bitten (and anti-Semitic) detectives tell Fink that Charlie Meadows, now missing, is no likable traveling salesman after all but a serial killer, "Mad Man Mundt."
In a burst, Fink finally writes a screenplay about a wrestling fishmonger, ending with the charged words, "We'll hear from that wrestler again, and I don't mean a postcard!" Our studio mogul rages at Fink for writing "a fruity movie about suffering" and announces he is going to keep him under contract but never produce any of his scripts (purgatory). And then Charlie Meadows, a/k/a Mad Man Mundt, returns. In the corridors of the Hotel Earle, ablaze with metaphoric hellfire, he guns down the police detectives, screaming, "I'll give you the life of the mind!" We never, in fact, emerge from the washbowl plumbing.
What does it all mean? Since, according to the Coen brothers, Hollywood was not what they were really interested in, the true subject of the movie, still according to the Coen brothers, can only be the relationship between the common man's playwright, Barton Fink, and a genuine common man, Charlie Meadows. Here the sanctimonious show-business leftism of the 1930's and 1940's is clearly being satirized. Written as it was by two blocked writers, Barton Fink seems, also, to be about the creative process. But why the blood? Why turn a gregarious, good-humored insurance salesman into a serial killer? Are these arbitrary plot devices supposed to deepen the audience's perception of "reality"?
The Coen brothers are far more guarded about their movie's meaning than was T. S. Eliot about The Waste Land, and no film critics I have read seem even to have noticed the through-the-washbowl-plumbing shot or the sharp change in register the shot marks. Some reviewers have merely labeled the film's ending "obscure." But it really does appear that everything after the plumbing—the bedmate dead, Charlie Meadows a serial killer, the hotel ablaze, the studio mogul threatening—is indeed a Barton Fink nightmare. It is admittedly an extensive and elaborate nightmare, taking as it does 45 minutes in a two-hour movie. But it hardly makes a satisfactory end for such a film, and it is not very funny. Which is unfortunate, because the early parts of Barton Fink show real talent.
When Lewis Carroll sent his Alice through the looking glass she found a droll, ironic world, still entertaining to us today. When the Coen brothers send Barton Fink through the plumbing of his seedy Los Angeles hotel, he finds flames, lurid violence. Does Barton Fink's nightmare tells us anything interesting about the creative process, Hollywood, or even Barton Fink? In The Fisher King, director Terry Gilliam, responsible for the amusing and imaginative animation sequences in British television's Monty Python series and for a number of increasingly ambitious movies (Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), similarly goes overboard when he pursues deep meaning.
But nowadays—witness the awards for both the Coen brothers and Gilliam—film-festival juries are really wowed by deep meaning.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3890
SOURCE: "Inside the Coen Heads," in Vogue, April, 1994, pp. 348, 350-51, 407-08.
[In the following interview, Friend talks with the Coen brothers on the set of The Hudsucker Proxy.]
Susan Sarandon crept up to the magnificent double doors. It was February 1993, in Wilmington, North Carolina, and she was visiting her longtime companion, Tim Robbins, who was filming The Hudsucker Proxy. The set's lavish scale clearly took her aback. Was this a Coen Brothers film? Weren't they supposed to be small-budget, art-house, seat-of-the-pants productions peopled with little-known character actors? She poked her head through the doorway to survey the scene: the gargantuan office, massive Art Deco fixtures, terrazzo-marbleized walls—and there, behind a huge desk, wearing a gray suit, smoking a fine cigar, and looking serenely iconic, Paul Newman.
Sarandon turned to the movie's director. "It's gorgeous!"
Joel Coen nodded, almost. Unshaven, pony-tailed, fingering a cigarette lighter like a rosary, he has a perpetual up-all-night-for-the-French-lit-exam look. His brother, Ethan, unshaven, curly-haired, and shorter, wandered out of Newman's office trailing a hand along the wall, like a kid counting his footsteps. Ethan is nominally the producer, but the brothers write and film their movies together, behaving as one brain. "Can we make the second hand go faster?" Ethan asked the special-effects gang boss, referring to the huge Hudsucker Industries clock outside Newman's window.
"Like, a hair?"
"Two hairs," Ethan said, with no change of expression. "Two hairs and a tidge." The scene depends on a certain mechanized exactitude: the synchronized movements of a ticker-tape machine, a Newton's Cradle ball-bearing game, and the clock hand. (Later, in postproduction, the Coens will have an animator paint in better, more foreboding clock-hand shadows.)
The Hudsucker Proxy, set in 1958, is a comedy about Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a nice cluck from Muncie, Indiana, who comes to New York and is chewed up by the relentless engines of the city—emblematized by that sweeping clock hand. He is played for a patsy both at work and in his affair with hard-bitten reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He triumphs by inventing the Hula-Hoop, is dragged down to the point of suicide, then triumphs again.
The assistant director shouts the ritual "Lock it up!" and everyone quiets for a take. (Ethan has been trying to get the AD to shout instead, "All aboard for hilarity!" with only mixed success.) In this scene, Norville, working in the Hudsucker mail-room, enters with a letter for the movie's villain, Sid Mussburger (Newman). Mussburger is looking to install a moron as president (thus, "proxy") so the company's stock will fall and the board can acquire a controlling interest. Norville's haplessness—he ends up rolling around trying to extricate his foot from a burning trash can—catches Mussburger's eye.
As Robbins comes in, Newman is telling an underling over the phone, "Either you get me a grade A dingdong or you can tender your key to the executive washroom." The quirky, precise language is a Coen trademark: Words like rumpus and nonce leap from their screenplays. Nicolas Cage's doleful metaphor for his wife's barrenness in Raising Arizona—"the doctor explained that her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase"—is classic Coens, as is the chiming consonance of Barton Fink's "You're a sick fuck, Fink."
That wised-up ear is one reason Joel and Ethan have been everyone's favorite auteurs since Blood Simple, the film noir they shot in 1982 for a mere $855,000, and released to great acclaim in 1984. Another reason is astonishing technique: They flaunted their talents early in Blood Simple, when the camera glides assuredly along a bar top, approaches a sleeping drunk—and bumps up and over his head before resuming its prowl.
The Coens have since made Raising Arizona, a hyperactive comedy about a baby-napping; the 1930s-ish gangster film Miller's Crossing; and Barton Fink, in which a Clifford Odets-like playwright goes to Hollywood, suffers from severe writer's block, and gets entangled with a serial killer. Each is funny, weird, and masterful, yet utterly individual in tone. In an industry rife with overbudgeted disasters and studio interference, the Coens are also legendary for story boarding their scenes down to the minutest sound effect, for adhering to the budget, for not having been spoiled by critical success, and for having always preserved the contractual right to make the movie's final cut—a right that many filmmakers work decades to achieve.
Between camera setups, I asked Joel how it felt to be filming here, at the corner of the Carolco lot's Kassar Boulevard and Rambo Drive—a roundabout way of inquiring whether he has any concerns about selling out. None of their previous movies cost more than $9 million; Hudsucker is a $25 million film executive-produced by the flashy actionfilm maven Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon). It's their first movie with stars, their first movie with potential for real commercial success. Coen's eyes fluttered skyward at my question. "Oh … well … in the Disney lot they have Mickey Drive…. "The next shade of apparent boredom would be a coma.
He and Ethan went off to murmur to the actors: Joel leaning over Robbins, and Ethan sleepily lying across Newman's desk. "It was never some angst-ridden, torturous process of self-examination," Robbins said later of these discussions. "Mostly it was 'Let's do it again … but funnier.'"
But though low-key and seemingly open to suggestion, the Coens know exactly what they want: actors who serve the story and say the lines as written. Nicolas Cage, the star of Raising Arizona, called them "autocratic." "It's difficult to convey to an actor that he is just supposed to be the bad guy in a melodrama, and not, as is natural, seek to go beyond it," Joel would say later about Hudsucker.
That bad guy, Paul Newman, says Joel and Ethan "are musicians with a great sense of verbal rhythm. I'd say, 'What do you want, Stravinsky or Bach?' They usually wanted The Rite of Spring." Deeper questions of theme or intent were off-limits. "They call this an 'industrial comedy,'" Newman notes with amiable perplexity. "What the fuck an industrial comedy is, I have no idea."
Joel and Ethan are known to all as "the boys." They finish mumbling each other's sentences, have similar problem hair, always wear jeans and sneakers, have quick, thievish minds, and love to exchange movie dialogue (like the "You fuckin' my wife?" scene between Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull).
They supposedly grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis with an older sister, Debbie, and two college-professor parents, and spent a lot of time with a Super 8 camera making movies like Froggy Went A' Courtin', which featured road-killed frogs and toads. Both brothers are said to have married within the past year, each for the second time (Joel to Frances McDormand, star of Blood Simple, and Ethan to Tricia Cooke, an editor who has worked on Coen films).
Yet it's hard to imagine Joel and Ethan in a domestic context; they comprise their own private biosphere. They often seem like extremely precocious kids with an Erector set, refusing to explain to the adults just what it is that they're building. They talk in a private shorthand: a "Miles" is the faint squawk of the person at the other end of the onscreen telephone; an "ambassador" is a gesture, look, or remark that introduces you to a character's motivations; and "hubcaps" are the diminishing sounds after a big aural effect—the clatter of an ashtray after someone slams a fist on a desk. While filming Miller's Crossing they called the A camera "Elvis" and the viewfinder "Little Elvis," Elvis's reputed nickname for his penis. Instead of saying "that's a wrap," they'd announce "Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building."
And the Coens are a legendarily tough interview. Bored by recounting the truth, they are by turns gnomic and absurd. They told one reporter that Jennifer Jason Leigh was actually "bald as a cue ball" and wore a wig throughout filming, and that she showed no embarrassment about taking out her false teeth and swishing them around in a glass.
I first spoke with them at length in their ground-floor office on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Joel, 39, slouched on the couch smoking Camel Lights while Ethan, 36, paced in distracted loops and circles, chewing a toothpick. He would make six or seven small loops near the dour photo of Kurosawa on the wall, then a long circle out of sight through the kitchen. Eventually he'd reappear and resume his tight loops, the orbiting electron to Joel's collapsed neutron.
Friends of theirs had said that Joel puts key objects in the left side of the frame, whereas Ethan favors the right, and that Joel worries more about camera angles while Ethan focuses more on the dialogue. Surely there were other, more interesting differences?
There was an excruciating silence. "No … nah … no, no, no … not really," Ethan finally said. "It's a terrible question, a terrible thing todo…." Joel mumbled. "It's like you're on The Dating Game," Ethan said. "Yeah," Joel said. "You're going to find a real resistance to talking about ourselves as opposed to talking about the movies."
OK: Tim Robbins said to ask about the European critics' interpretation of the buzzing mosquito in Barton Fink, and how it epitomizes people over interpreting your movies.
A longer silence. "That's another thorny thing …" Ethan finally said. "You're getting to the nub," Joel said, as Ethan started to snicker. "On the one hand, we want to talk about the movies …" "But the movies speak for themselves," Ethan concluded.
I tried asking them about an idea proposed by Sam Raimi—their co-screenwriter on Hudsucker, the man who gave Joel his first break after NYU film school as the assistant editor of Raimi's movie The Evil Dead, and their close friend. Raimi had remarked that the Coens have several thematic rules: The innocent must suffer; the guilty must be punished; you must taste blood to be a man. "Joel and Ethan are playing with an additional one," he'd added. "The dead must walk."
Joel and Ethan shrugged, separately. "That really applies more to The Evil Dead than anything else," Joel said. "I guess they applied to Blood Simple," Ethan allowed. And to Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy, I pointed out. "Yeah …" Joel said. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah," Ethan said, gnawing a fingernail. Ethan had actually quoted Raimi's formulation to explain their own work at the New York Film Festival in 1984; now they both had deflective amnesia.
Finally, after they'd evaded the last of my questions, I said, "Well, what should I be asking you? This is something of a disaster."
"I thought it was going really well," said Ethan, genuinely surprised.
"Yeah," Joel said, shaking his head as if the whole thing were out of his control. "There was a picture of us in The New York Times, taken by a friend of ours, where we were sitting there glumly looking like we'd just ax-murdered our mother, and when my wife Fran looked at it, she said, 'Jesus, what a couple of assholes.'"
"We could never figure out how to end the movie," says Sam Raimi, who wrote Hudsucker with Joel and Ethan beginning in 1984, when they all shared a house in Los Angeles. "We left it two scenes from the end, with Norville up on the ledge about to jump." Raimi had always wanted to have a definite ending in mind, but Joel and Ethan were happy working without that safety net, improvising, disagreeing, letting it all hang out. (Their closed-ranks cohesion kicks in later, when they start to film.)
"I would actually throw firecrackers or ladyfingers at the boys to get them moving, to spark an idea," Raimi said. "Sometimes when Ethan was pacing, I'd move some of the objects in the room. He'd come up to these obstacles and make a hoarse barking noise—'Hunhh!' I'd like to think I was jogging him to a higher plane. When I'd suggest something they considered absurdly wrong, they'd just laugh and laugh and say 'No, no, no—you can't, because … because you just can't.' I suggested that Mussburger might turn out to be a nice guy who'd been led astray. When they broke into laughter I realized it's a film of broad strokes, of blacks and whites, and that changing Mussburger would diminish Norville's plight. But they accused me of trying to malign the film, kill them, destroy art."
Finally with a definite ending, ten years later, The Hudsucker Proxy is a very funny movie. When Norville says "You have a very charming wife, Sid," Mussburger replies absently, "So they tell me." (Raimi says the Coens wanted Mussburger's wife to be Jack Lemmon in drag; they settled for an actual woman.) Amy Archer says of the Hula-Hoop, "Finally there would be a thing that brought everybody in America together—even if it kept them apart, spatially." A great many stock characters turn up like old friends: haughty society wives, persnickety executive secretaries, Germanic scientists, Germanic psychiatrists, even asylum attendants carrying butterfly nets. It's not parody, exactly. The Coens use these classic totems to emphasize Norville's predicament. He's surrounded by people behaving like caricatures, like subhumans. They also use them as a flat-out gag. "Part of the fun of all those stock characters," Ethan says, "is just its stupidity."
Recognizable visual or thematic influences on Hudsucker include His Girl Friday, The Front Page, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Court Jester, The Fountainhead, and The Big Clock, among many others. "We agreed that Citizen Kane had the scale and perspective we wanted," says production designer Dennis Gassner, "but we wanted to do it much better than they did it, do it the Coen way, not the Welles way." Adds Leigh, "Making the movie really brought me back to all those childhood sick days when I was home with the stomach flu. I would watch those great screwball comedies by Cukor, Sturges, and Capra and laugh and laugh until it was the next time to throw up."
The Coens pureed all these referents in their cranial Cuisinarts, then spiced in most of the recurrent Coen motifs: "howling fat men, blustery titans, violence, vomiting, and peculiar haircuts," as their friend William Preston Robertson puts it. (There is, alas, no vomiting in Hudsucker.) The movie has showy camera pans up the side of a building and, later, into a screaming woman's mouth (the Coen "Glottis Shot"). It has hyperrealistic sound effects, like the foreboding scrape-scrape of a sign painter as he scratches the former president's name from his office door.
It has a tour-de-force wordless montage of the Hula-Hoop being readied for production and then catching on across America, choreographed to characteristically unexpected music, in this case Khatchaturian's "Sabre Dance." This, Joel and Ethan's favorite part of the movie, is reminiscent of their other great wordless montages: the fifteen-minute section of Blood Simple in which the bartender buries his boss alive in an open field; the gunfight in Miller's Crossing that features a gangster being shot to pieces as his twitching finger continues firing his own Thompson submachine gun while "Danny Boy" floats lyrically into our ears.
What Hudsucker doesn't have is signposts to help the audience root for the characters. There is one appealing balcony love scene, but in their detachment the Coens seem to be laughing up their sleeves at Norville and his romance. "It's almost axiomatic that a movie's principal characters have to be sympathetic, and that the movie has to supply moral uplift," Joel said. "People like it. But it's not interesting to us. You're not supposed to sympathize with Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing, or with Barton Fink. John Turturro used to say that Fink is the guy who if you're invited to a party, everyone asks"—Joel adopted a tone of suspicion—"'Is Barton going to be there?' And you only sympathize with Norville in a certain way—he's an outsider, and with good reason. He's not just misunderstood." Coen gave an Arnold Horshack laugh. "People feel Jennifer is too tough in the movie, but I don't feel that at all—that's the way the movie works. People do find that distance chilly, or cold around the edges."
Other film staples the Coens find uninteresting: "A theme song sung by a pop singer just for the movie," Joel said. "A journey to self-awareness," Ethan suggested, "where you open the script and a character says, 'I thought you were feeling that I …'" "A tearjerker about a cancer patient," Joel said. Any story involving a triumph of the human spirit, I suggested. "Yeah, yeah," Joel said, and Ethan snorted and chuckled. The film behind their eyes dropped away, briefly.
This aloofness from the viewer's sympathy is why the Coens have remained highbrow darlings and box-office lepers. Joel Silver couldn't contain the sneer in his voice when he said of Barton Fink, which won the Palme d'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, "I don't think it made $5 million, and it cost $9 million to make. They've had a reputation for being weird, offcenter, inaccessible. They were having trouble getting the money for this $25 million script—people were stymied by the fact that Joel and Ethan's name was on it."
Silver, surprisingly, was a huge Coens fan, so he got involved to line up the money after the Coens had written the last two scenes and begun shopping the script in 1991. Even stranger, the Silver-Coen collaboration has gone well. At least until now. The problem, Silver said bluntly, is that "if they intend to continue making mainstream, higher-budget films, this film is going to have to deliver asses on seats." When the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in late January, Silver, concerned that Hudsucker would "be perceived as a festival film" (i.e., an arty head-scratcher), kept telling the Coens, Robbins, and Leigh that they had to stress at the press conference that it was an accessible, straight-ahead comedy. They did so, but only dutifully.
"The pressures are very visible and very legitimate," Ethan acknowledged. "It's all money: Making more money makes it easier to get money for your next film." Joel added, "But as far as being perceived as mainstream movie-makers—that's not particularly important to us. It's not like we're doing this so we can now go do …" he casts about, "Beethoven III."
What saves the Coens from social autism is their engaging ironic distance on their own ironic distance. The introduction to the forthcoming book version of the Hudsucker screenplay is a Q and A between Joel Silver and one "Dennis Jacobson, professor of cinema studies at the University of Iowa." In fact, it was written by Joel and Ethan, who always use the introductions to their published screenplays to mock themselves.
The pseudo-Silver reveals that the Coens whined a lot, seemed happiest playing with their storyboards, and hadn't wanted Paul Newman in the picture. "Their attitude, it was funny. Like it's a sin to use a movie star. God forbid somebody should actually be enticed into the theater to see one of their movies. 'No, he's too iconic.' And Tim Robbins, that whole thing—forget about it."
DJ: Tim Robbins was not their choice either? And yet he's very good.
JS: This—I found this unbelievable at the time, but this—Ethan wanted to play the part…. He says only he understands the character fully…. It was absurd, but I let him test.
DJ: How was it?
JS: What do you think how was it? It was goddamned embarrassing. It's—it was like the early days of talkies. Ethan is lumbering around on this pathetic little set they've mocked up, with his flat Midwestern voice, chopping the air with his hands, these stiff gestures, I mean, Richard Nixon doing a love scene. Stiffo.
And so forth. "The intros to screenplays are always some screenwriter gassing on with self-congratulation or some sort of foggy analysis of what they've just done," Joel says. "We'd rather do something that's fun to write." It's a few days later. He is sitting alone in his office with no lights on. Cigarette smoke curls up dimly through the dark afternoon.
I start to ask whether there wouldn't be some value in a clear explanation of their tenets, and then catch myself. Stupid question. "If Preston Sturges could somehow be reanimated to write a clear explanation of his working principles, his trade secrets, wouldn't you want to read that?" I ask.
Joel looks uncomfortable. "It's interesting to know that Preston Sturges had a big dog on the set that frequently barked and ruined takes. That's more interesting to me than anything Sturges could tell me about his working methods." He's aware that he sounds willfully perverse.
"What if you won an Oscar and had to make an acceptance speech? Would you riff through that emotional moment, too?"
"We'd be so mortified at the thought of having to speak in public that I doubt we'd write anything," Joel says, and laughs. "We'd probably wing it. I'm always impressed, genuinely, by graceful acceptance speeches." A long pause. "I think that sort of thing is just beyond my capabilities."
"I can't watch our old movies—I'm overcome by a fog of boredom," Ethan says. He sits alone in an armchair, willing himself to stay in one place. "I saw Blood Simple on TV a while ago, and I enjoyed it because it was different: They had commercials. I think all black-and-white movies should be colorized and chopped up with commercials. If you had hooked my brain up with electrodes, you'd have seen a big spike of interest when the Ty-D-Bol Man came on."
So where is the pleasure in doing what you do? He thinks for a while, making an effort, then begins pacing again, to get the thoughts flowing. "Well, in Raising Arizona, we blow up a car. And to be incredibly crude about it, it's just so cool to sit there and watch a car blow up. That was a peak. It gave us a deep, warm feeling of inner satisfaction."
Joel is still puzzled by the imputation of chilliness in their movies. "You can put a five-year-old up on the screen and make him cry—and that's the most cerebral, formulaic-bullshit corny manipulation, yet everyone will be crying their eyes out." He makes a "boo-hoo" sound.
"People do have a problem dealing with the fact that our movies are not straight-ahead: They would prefer that the last half of Barton Fink just be about a screenwriter's writing-block problems and how they get resolved in the real world, or that Raising Arizona just be about a couple of schmoes in a trailer park who want to have a kid—the arrival of the bounty hunter from hell interrupts the comfort level people have with their world. But we feel a strong emotional connection to those characters, we're not laughing down at them."
So the end of Raising Arizona, when Hi has a vision of him and his wife "suffused in a warm golden light" and in a land where "all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved," is totally serious?
Joel Coen snickers faintly, then gathers himself. "Absolutely."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1909
SOURCE: "The Sphinx without a Riddle," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 8, August, 1994, pp. 7-9.
[In the following negative review, Harkness suggests that the Coens tried to combine the works of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges in The Hudsucker Proxy.]
There's a fine line between homage and rip-off. The Coen Brothers' originality lies not in their stories, which are derived from any number of better-known sources, but in the sheer aplomb they bring to the film-making process, the relentless darkness of their humor and the ironic twists they give to familiar tales.
Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing are film noir plain but not simple, the latter owing so much to The Glass Key that it's a wonder the Hammett estate didn't sue for plagiarism. Raising Arizona functions simultaneously as a commentary on the baby-centric comedies of the mid-80s and a live-action realization of a Road Runner cartoon. Barton Fink belongs both in the writers' nightmare school of Hollywood stories and as a concurrent remake of The Tenant and Repulsion—its Palme D'Or at Cannes came the year Polanski was president of the jury, though when I interviewed jury member Alan Parker shortly thereafter, he assured me that the decision had been unanimous.
The Coens' latest, The Hudsucker Proxy, predates Blood Simple as a project. Written by the Coens and their mentor Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Darkman), eventually someone managed to get hack genius Joel Silver, producer of Lethal Weapons and Predators, to put up $40 million to finance the production of this monstrous confluence of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. This is the funniest thing about The Hudsucker Proxy.
Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) listens to his comptroller's financial report and then launches himself from the window of the 44th floor of the Hudsucker Building at the moment when Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) arrives to begin his career in the mailroom. A graduate of the Muncie School of Business, Barnes has dreams of making it to the top of Hudsucker Industries, a plan that will be unwittingly assisted by the machinations of the evil Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman). Barnes becomes the figurehead president of the company, and begins work on his invention, which he carries drawn on a carefully maintained, well-worn piece of paper in his shoe. The film charts Barnes' rise, fall and recovery, through the travails of bad press (Jennifer Jason Leigh as a tough-talking reporter with a heart of gold), accusations of fraud, and divine intervention.
From his infelicitous name to his physical clumsiness, Norville Barnes is a Preston Sturges hero trapped in a Frank Capra story, and never should that twain meet, especially not in a world that seems to have been created by Fritz Lang—the mechanistic monstrousness of the mailroom contrasted with the Bauhaus gigantism of the corporate offices perfectly matches the boss-labor split in Metropolis.
The difference between Capra and Sturges is that Capra has an authentic belief in the romanticism of pure individualism. His characters are genuinely heroic battlers against the grinding power of big money and big politics. It's a faith blind to its own darkest implications that untrammeled individualism is as much a piece of the capitalist monsters as it is of the heroes, the dividing line being that the capitalists' individualism is wholly self-interested.
Sturges, on the other hand, is a romantic wiseguy. He believes in love, but only in its more bizarre and tortured forms, as in Henry Fonda's obsession with Barbara Stanwyck's card-sharp in The Lady Eve, or Eddie Bracken's masochistic pursuit of Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Sturges is too in love with the baroque possibilities of the English language to honor the simple decency of a Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The world created in his films is benign and harmless. His heroes do battle with their own limitations, rather than with the malevolent forces of darkness that range themselves against Capra's heroes. A Sturges hero would be eaten alive in Capra's world, which is why Hudsucker's premise doesn't work. There isn't enough weird luck in the universe to save Norville Barnes from Sidney Mussberger, so the film's ending turns out to be more improbable than anything in either Sturges or Capra.
The Coens are quite different. People think their notorious press conferences and interviews, which consist of misdirected remarks and gnomic mumbles, are a put on, but really they work to hide the fact that the brothers don't believe in much of anything—they have enormous abilities, but are sphinxes without riddles. One suspects that Ethan's comment at the Cannes press conference for Barton Fink that their films are just frameworks on which they can hang cheap jokes was not a joke at all. There is an emptiness at the heart of their work which can be ignored when the films are entertaining, but which shows up dreadfully when they aren't.
One can easily see what the Coens are attempting here, with their extreme stylization and willingness to reduce actors to single bit players' mannerisms, but this misses the point. Directors in the 30s and 40s used the stylized performances of the great bit players as a characterological shorthand, the way Renaissance dramatists could refer to the commedia dell'arte and everyone would know what they meant. But the leading players were not reduced to a single trick, the way the Coens shrivel Jennifer Jason Leigh into a caricature of Katherine Hepburn's drawl and one imperious gesture. (I think Jennifer Jason Leigh may be the most talented actress in American movies today, but all I could think while watching The Hudsucker Proxy was that she didn't enunciate well enough to be a plausible visitor from Planet Kate, and that, to echo Addison DeWitt, she simply wasn't tall enough to make the finger to the sky salute the Coens kept asking of her.)
The Coens' fondness for extreme stylization often works. In Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing, their reduction of characters to trademark gestures and phrases is well suited to the hermetically sealed universe of film noir. Raising Arizona's characters inhabit the same malevolently indifferent world as Wile E. Coyote, whom Nicolas Cage could play without resorting to a costume. The delirious self-absorption of the characters in Barton Fink emerges in their unique and completely differentiated mass of tics—it is entirely appropriate that the two least stylized players in the film would turn out to be John Goodman's serial killer and his victim, Judy Davis. Barton Fink can easily be seen as an opera in which everyone gets an aria, but they are all loath to sing duets.
In The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coens attempt to jam together two items that simply don't mix—a 30s story and characters, and a 50s setting. The styles of American film acting changed so much between the age of Gary Cooper and the age of James Dean and Marlon Brando that it's hard to realize that they were separated by only a couple of decades. The styles of urban everyman had changed, the style of supporting acting had changed, the style of dialogue had changed. The exterior assurance of the 30s stars gave way to the tortured interior anguish of the 50s Method mumblers. The first influx of New York writers, the Hechts and Perlmans and Parkers, all urban smarts, had given way to the seriousness of Inge and Williams, all anguish. The casual patter of comedies in the late 50s is a drone, not the rat-a-tat of the old newspaper comedies. In addition, 30s cinema has an intimacy that often disappears by the time the studios start filming on outdoor locations and trying to fill the CinemaScope frame. One can see why the Coens wanted a 30s-style patter and a 50s setting, for Barnes' invention is inextricably associated with the latter period, but big empty sets are not conducive to snappy dialogue, which is why there are so few laughs in Lawrence of Arabia.
Furthermore, the stylized acting of the 30s and 40s comedies takes place around the realistic romantic leads. It humanizes the beauty of the young Gary Cooper if his best friend is a baleful cynic like Walter Brennan. Even in Sturges' films, there is often a conventional leading man who exists as a still center around whom and to whom things happen—Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels, Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. Even in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, the epic degradation of Eddie Bracken's character makes us sympathetic towards him—we never perceive him, as we do Norville Barnes, as some kind of geek savant.
Part of this comes from Tim Robbins' performance, though I don't think we can blame Robbins himself—the best performances in the Coen's films often seem to be ones that get away from the brothers' rigid conception (Goodman in Barton Fink, for example), and Robbins' broad mugging was probably asked for. We cannot blame an actor if his casting is a mistake from the outset. The hero is supposed to be a loveable little guy, and casting Tim Robbins as loveable or little is like casting Rip Torn as Gandhi. He towers over everyone else, and whatever Robbins' fine qualities as an actor, being loveable isn't one of them. Had he played this role earlier in his career, about the time when he was doing Erik the Viking and Bull Durham, he might have got away with it, but while Altman may have given him his two best roles—in The Player and Short Cuts—he also revealed that Robbins' great talent is an ability to inhabit the reptilian skins of men best described as cold-hearted bastards.
Capra was not an innocent film-maker, but he was a naive one, and there is no evidence that he ever doubted the peculiar American dream his films portrayed, or that he was anything but indifferent to the dark implications of his work: the way the 'little people' are subject to manipulation at the hands of capitalist media and prone to lapse into mob violence and hysteria at the drop of a hat; the way his shining heroes are self-absorbed individualists as immune to compromise as any of the heroes of writer Ayn Rand—exemplified by the arch-individualist architect in The Fountainhead. It seems only too appropriate that Gary Cooper, who played Capra's small-time heroes Mr. Deeds and John Doe, would later star as the overweening monumentalist in King Vidor's film adaptation of Rand's novel.
We live in an age so conscious of media manipulation and cinematic effects that it is difficult to make a film today that is not determinedly ironic about its own devices. Neo-Capra films such as Stephen Frears' Accidental Hero and Ivan Reitman's Dave cannot convince us of the reality of their worlds because the film-makers have lost that power of belief. Why else would Accidental Hero try so hard yet so futilely to evoke the Capra of the 30s—its huge dissolve montages come straight out of Meet John Doe. The Capra films still function because of their extraordinary conviction and potent performances.
Capra's great films—Meet John Doe and It's a Wonderful Life—work because their dreams cannot contain their nightmares. The Coens' strengths lie in a stylization that reduces or even eliminates the human presence from the frame, and a gallows humor they never shy away from. Their happy endings are ironic commentaries on the genres they subvert, and their world is composed only of nightmares.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2694
SOURCE: "Crass Consciousness," in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 248-53.
[In the following review, Rosenbaum criticizes inconsistencies in Barton Fink.]
I'm not one of the Coen brothers' biggest fans. I walked out of Blood Simple, their first feature. The main sentiment I took away from Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing—their second and third efforts, both of which I stayed to the end of—was that at least each new Coen brothers movie was a discernible improvement over the last. Raising Arizona may have had some of the same crass, gratuitous condescension toward its country characters as Blood Simple but it also had a sweeter edge and more visual flair. In both craft and stylishness, Miller's Crossing was another step forward, and even if I never really believed in either the period ambience or the characters—the dialogue bristled with anachronisms, and Albert Finney's crime boss seemed much too blinkered and naive for someone who was supposed to be ruling a city—the film nevertheless demanded a certain attention.
On its own terms, Miller's Crossing was the work of a pair of movie brats (both in their midthirties) eager to show their emulation of Dashiell Hammett but, in spiky postmodernist fashion, almost totally indifferent to Hammett's own period—except for what they could skim from superficial readings of Red Harvest, The Glass Key, and a few secondary sources. Historical and psychological veracity consisted basically of whatever they could get away with, based on the cynical assumption that their audience was every bit as devoid of interest in these matters as they were. Unlike their earlier efforts, Miller's Crossing was a commercial flop—an undeserved one, given its visual distinction and its strong performances. Even if the film was soulless, it showed an obsession with its Hammett-derived male-bonding theme that suggested the Coens were aspiring to something more than crass entertainment; for better or worse, it looked like art movies were their ultimate aim.
Barton Fink confirms this impression with a vengeance. Unfortunately, the movie ultimately founders on the Coens' primary impulses, which drive them to use a festival of fancy effects; whatever their ambitions, midnight movies are still the brothers' métier. The movie's arty surface fairly screams with significance, but the stylistic devices are designed for immediate consumption rather than being part of a coherent strategy. As entertainment, Barton Fink is in some ways even better than Miller's Crossing, though also just as adolescent and much less engaging when seen a second time. Last May it received the unprecedented honor of being awarded three top prizes at the Cannes film festival—for best picture, best director, and best actor (John Turturro)—which will undoubtedly help it commercially in Europe. Whether these awards will count for much in the more hidebound United States still remains to be seen.
The president of the Cannes jury was Roman Polanski, who took the job only after demanding that he be allowed to handpick his own jury members. Considering the indebtedness of Barton Fink to Polanski pictures like Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant—in its black humor, treatment of confinement and loneliness, perverse evocations of everyday "normality," creepy moods and hallucinatory disorientation, phantasmagoric handling of gore and other kinds of horror as shock effects, and even its careful use of ambiguous off-screen sounds—the group of awards should probably be viewed more as an act of self-congratulation than as an objective aesthetic judgment.
Nevertheless, Barton Fink is an unusually audacious movie for a major studio to release—not only because of its bizarre form and content, but also because the Coens had complete creative control. Whatever else they might mean, then, the Cannes prizes cannot be regarded as automatic nods to the commercial tried-and-true. In terms of overall meaning, Barton Fink qualifies as a genuine puzzler. Considering how transparent most commercial movies are, Barton Fink at least deserves credit for stimulating a healthy amount of discussion.
The title hero is a working-class Jewish playwright (Turturro) who has just scored a hit in New York with his first play, Bare Ruined Choirs; the year is 1941. Offered a lucrative Hollywood contract by Capitol Pictures that he reluctantly accepts—he doesn't want to compromise his passionate vision of a theater "by and for the common man"—he goes to the west coast, checks into a faded deco hotel called the Earle, and goes to see Capitol's hysterically effusive studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), who promptly asks him to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery.
Alone in his squalid room at the Earle, Barton finds himself painfully blocked, unable to get beyond a few scene-setting sentences. The sound of sobbing (or is it laughing?) in the next room prompts him to phone the front desk, and a few minutes later his next-door neighbor (John Goodman)—a burly, friendly fellow who identifies himself as an insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows—pays him an apologetic visit. Barton recognizes him as exactly the kind of working stiff he's interested in writing about, and they soon become friends—though Barton is too full of himself to show much interest in learning anything about Charlie (who repeatedly announces that he has stories to tell).
Barton meets with Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), the flinty producer assigned by Lipnick to the wrestling-picture project. He also meets W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), an alcoholic southern novelist turned screenwriter clearly modeled after William Faulkner, and Audrey (Judy Davis), Mayhew's abused secretary and mistress, whom Barton clearly takes a shine to.
Stylistically, the movie chiefly consists of three kinds of scenes. There is entertaining if obvious satire about Hollywood vulgarians (Shalhoub—who played the cabdriver in the underrated Quick Change—and Lerner are both very funny and effective). There are extended mood pieces involving the heat, solitude, and viscousness (peeling wallpaper with running, semenlike glue) of Barton's seedy hotel room, with frequent nods to Eraserhead as well as Polanski, and many repeated, obsessive close-ups of both Barton's portable typewriter and a tacky hand-colored photo of a bathing beauty framed over the desk. Finally, there are the scenes between Barton and Charlie, all of which occur in Barton's room (no other room in the hotel is ever seen) and suggest a sort of sweaty homoerotic rapport somewhat reminiscent of Saul Bellow's novel The Victim and the tortured male bonding in Miller's Crossing.
There's a certain temptation to follow Barton Fink simply as a midnight movie, a string of sensations that alternates among styles and moods like a kind of vaudeville. As the plot suddenly veers into outright fantasy and metaphor, incorporating other styles and moods (mainly those of arty horror films), the effect of putting one damn showstopper after another is to almost obliterate any sense of logical narrative. (Moviegoers who don't want their surprises spoiled should check out at the end of this paragraph.) We're essentially invited to take a funhouse ride through these effects rather than ponder too much what they're supposed to mean. But however much it appears to profess otherwise, Barton Fink is as heavily laden with "messages" as any Stanley Kramer film. Almost all of these messages, I should add, are cynical, reactionary, and/or banal to the point of stupidity.
As I see it, the messages are as follows:
1. Socially committed artists are frauds. Admittedly, the only one we see is Barton Fink, but the film has no interest in showing us any others. The principal model for Fink appears to be Clifford Odets (although he's given a George S. Kaufman haircut), and the film is at pains to show us that his ideas are trite, self-centered, and so limited that he ends both Bare Ruined Choirs and his wrestling-picture script with virtually the same corny line. We have no way of knowing whether he's genuinely talented or not, and the movie seems completely uninterested in exploring this question, except for suggesting briefly that the people who praise his play are lunkheads. When the United States suddenly enters World War II toward the end of the movie, it seems not only to catch him completely unawares but to leave him indifferent as well—certainly not the reaction of the socially committed artists the Coens appear to be modeling him after. (As a friend has pointed out, Barton's preoccupations are about a decade off; by 1941, proletarian leftist artists were talking about fascism and the war, not about lower-east-side fish-mongers.) He's an infantile sap throughout, and the movie forces us to share his consciousness in every scene.
2. Genuine artists like William Faulkner are frauds too—at least partially. It's true that Mayhew is meant to suggest Faulkner rather than duplicate him, but consider how the Coens have loaded their deck. Mayhew looks like Faulkner, and he has both a "disturbed" off-screen wife with the same name as Faulkner's disturbed wife (Estelle) and a secretary (Audrey) modeled in certain respects on Meta Carpenter, the script girl Faulkner was involved with. By contrast, Faulkner was a taciturn drunk whereas Mayhew is a loquacious loudmouth who's successively humming and belting out "Old Black Joe" both times we see him and spouts flowery rhetoric at every opportunity. Although the Coens claim not to have known this until after they wrote their script, Faulkner actually worked on a Wallace Beery wrestling picture when he first came to Hollywood (John Ford's Flesh, 1932), and although it's conceivable that Carpenter or other friends could have helped to write some of his scripts, the suggestion that Carpenter may have helped to write some of the novels is ridiculous and was invented for this movie only to suggest that Mayhew, like Fink, is a poseur who can't really deliver the goods. Certainly the Coens have every right to twist reality as they please, but their alterations ("Old Black Joe"?) are so crass that they tend to rebound. Considering that most audience members won't be closely acquainted with Faulkner, it's disturbing that the only point at which Mayhew and Audrey diverge incontrovertibly from their models is when both of them become victims of a mad serial killer. (Audrey "gets hers," in classic puritanical slasher style, just after she's had sex with Barton.)
3. Hollywood producers are frauds. As indicated above, Lipnick and Geisler are hilarious, but the laughs are easily come by, and they make it difficult to see how such people could have turned out any pictures at all, much less several beautiful ones. (For whatever it's worth, the first "Wallace Beery wrestling picture," The Champ, was arguably one of King Vidor's masterpieces and won Beery, who actually played a prizefighter in the film, an Oscar.) Perhaps the Coens are justified in calling attentiøn to Hollywood bigwigs as illiterate vulgarians, but judging from an early script of Barton Fink that I happen to have read, they themselves don't even know how to spell such words as "choir," "playwright," and "tragedy." In short, the rhetorical power of commercial moviemaking, available to anyone with a few million dollars to spend, allows them a free ride over a lot of people's corpses—Louis B. Mayer's as well as Faulkner's and Odets's—a ride that made me slightly nauseous.
4. The very notion of the "common man" is fraudulent. Charlie is introduced to us as the embodiment of this cliché, and Goodman's wonderful performance manages to encompass it without ever seeming hackneyed. But the way the movie undermines the common-man cliché is by dragging out a contemporary countercliché that's every bit as hackneyed. When Charlie turns out to be the serial killer, we are offered the revelation that people who chop off other people's heads are nice, ordinary people just like you and me—"common" folks, in fact. (This cliché is promulgated in the news as well as in movies—take those interviews with junior high school teachers about how "nice" the killers seemed to be. Mysteriously, each time the homily is trotted out, whoever's using it—in this case the Coens—seems to think it's brand new and profound.)
So judging from Barton Fink, what is it the Coens do believe in? Friendship, perhaps. Also, perhaps, an abstraction that the movie designates repeatedly as "the life of the mind" and that it associates with the act of creation—Barton's mind and act of creation in particular—as well as with Charlie himself. (Barton's room is clearly meant to suggest a brain, oozing fluids and all, and Charlie's climactic reappearance when the movie suddenly goes metaphorical—walking down the hotel corridor with a shotgun while the rooms on both sides of him successively burst into flames—is accompanied by his vengeful declaration, "I'll show you 'the life of the mind!'")
In order to follow the Coens' shift from one metaphor to another, the wanton abandon of midnight-movie viewing becomes necessary—it might even help if you're half asleep. Ironically, Goodman's Charlie, the most multiple of all the film's metaphors, also proves to be the only real character. (Turturro's Barton seems much too simpleminded to have ever written a successful play, and his so-called struggles with writer's block, as depicted in the film, could easily have been dreamed up in Lipnick's office.)
One way of sorting much of this out is to follow the provocative suggestion of Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy and assume that Charlie doesn't exist at all, except as an emanation of Barton's unconscious—the "common man" his blocked imagination is screaming for. This interpretation would make the overheard sobs (or laughs) in the next room, Charlie's murderous impulses, and even the mysterious package Barton receives from Charlie all really emblems of Barton's own tortured mind; significantly, Mayhew indicates that he associates the act of writing with pleasure whereas Barton replies that he associates it with pain. According to this scenario, Barton murders Audrey himself because he can't bear to face the possibility of her creative mind coming to the rescue of his own on the wrestling script.
The only problems with this scenario are that it fails to account for how Barton finally breaks through his creative block—unless we view Audrey's murder as the less-than-instantaneous catalyst—and that it fails to mesh coherently with some of the other metaphors in the movie. I've been told that Deutsch and Mastrionotti, the wise-cracking anti-Semitic detectives on the killer's trail who question Barton and are ultimately killed by Charlie (one of whom is dispatched with the epithet "Heil Hitler"), are meant by the Coens to represent the Axis powers. (I suppose that makes Lipnick—whom we last see dressed as a full-fledged Army officer—the United States.) But if this is the case, the historical and metaphorical imaginations of the Coens must be even more threadbare and confused than I imagined. In what sense, exactly, were Hitler and Mussolini trying to track down the common man—or the life of the mind—and bring him (or it) to justice? And in what sense did this common man or life of the mind that wound up killing Hitler and Mussolini sell insurance or chop off people's heads?
A final point should be made about the broad, comic-book-style Jewish caricatures in the film—Barton, Lipnick, Geisler, and Lipnick's assistant Lou Breeze (Jon Polito). Spike Lee was lambasted on the op-ed page of The New York Times and by Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice (among other places) for Jewish caricatures in Mo' Better Blues which employed one of the same actors (Turturro), occupied only a fraction as much screen time, and were if anything less malicious than the caricatures in Barton Fink. So I assume the reason Lee was singled out for abuse and the Coens won't be to the same extent is that the Coens happen to be Jewish. For whatever it's worth—speaking now as a Jew myself—I don't consider any of the caricatures in either movie to be racist in themselves, and it seems to me somewhat absurd that Lee should be criticized so widely for something that the Coens do at much greater length with impunity. Being white, having the minds of teenagers, and believing that social commitment is for jerks are all probably contributing factors to this privileged treatment.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1069
SOURCE: A review of Fargo, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 6, June, 1996, pp. 40-41.
[Below, Newman provides a plot summary and favorable review of Fargo.]
Minnesota. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, deeply in debt, goes to Fargo to meet Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, two criminals. Jerry gives them a car off his lot and arranges with them to kidnap his wife Jean. He plans to extort a million dollar ransom from his wealthy father-in-law Wade Gustafson, giving Carl and Gaear half of what he claims is only $80,000 dollars. Carl and Gaear snatch Jean but are stopped on the road near Brainerd by a policeman because the car still has dealer license plates. Gaear shoots the cop dead, then pursues and murders two passing tourists.
The heavily pregnant Brainerd police chief, Marge Gunderson, follows the trail of the killers, which takes her to Minneapolis-St Paul. Wade insists on delivering the ransom personally and is shot dead during a struggle by Carl, who, wounded and bleeding himself, discovers the size of the ransom and buries most of the money, intending to split only the original $80,000 with Gaear. Returning to their hideout, Carl finds Gaear has killed Jean out of hand. They get into an argument about the money, which winds up with Gaear taking an axe to Carl.
Jerry, having concealed Wade's body, is questioned by Marge, who thinks the killers' car might have been stolen from his lot. Jerry runs, convincing Marge of his involvement. Driving home, Marge spots the car by the hideout, and finds Gaear disposing of Jean and Carl in a wood-chipper. She shoots and then arrests the fleeing Gaear. Later, Jerry is arrested in a motel.
A quiet opening caption insists on the factual basis of Fargo, although it avoids prefacing the film with the most dispiriting rubric in the language, "based on a true story". We are told that something very like this impossible, Blood Simple-ish story did in fact happen in the Coen brothers' home state of Minnesota in 1987. The first melancholy shot of one car dragging another through a blinding white blizzard to a wonderful Carter Burwell arrangement of the hymn "The Lost Sheep' is followed by our introduction to the rubber-faced sad sack that William H. Macy makes of the protagonist Jerry Lundegaard. These images signal just how different this film will be. It's a departure, not only from the dreary parade of True Crime television movies released in the UK by Odyssey video, such as The Amy Fisher Story, but also from such comparable, aren't-folks-funny, talk show dramatizations as I Love You to Death.
We are given only telling hints of the circumstances that have brought the likeable but clearly doomed Jerry to Fargo but everything is made heart-breakingly clear by his brief telephone conversations with a bank official who needs clarification of a form Jerry has deliberately fudged to clear a loan. Later, we see his dreams die during a couple of crushing meetings with his overbearing, wealthy and subtly bullying father-in-law, to whom he has brought an investment but who is unwilling to underwrite Jerry's own involvement in the deal. "This would be a good thing for Jean and Scotty and me," Jerry claims, only to have the rich Wade snort, "Jean and Scotty never have to worry about money". Jerry is a tragic figure but also a clown (with a mouth like Joe E. Lewis').
Fargo is a further demonstration of Joel Coen's remarkable ability to mix comedy with horror. The film operates a certain double standard in its characterizations. Jean, for instance, is relegated to the status of a joke, with her squeaky voice and the slapstick inflicted on her (blindfolded by the kidnappers, she runs around like a headless chicken in the snow). She winds up casually murdered off-screen. Meanwhile, the one-scene sub-plot character of Marge Gunderson's nervy old flame, who has a disastrous reunion with the police chief in Minneapolis, segues from stooge to tragic figure when it is revealed that his story of recent widowerhood is all a fantasy.
Joel Coen has always—like his best known character Barton Fink—been open to charges of asking us to laugh at the disadvantaged provincials about whom he spins stories. He has spotlighted the redneck grunge of Texas in Blood Simple and the backwoods whininess of the locals in Raising Arizona. Here, on his home turf, he allows a great deal of regional humor, joking at the expense of 'ya ya' Scandiwegian locals who wander about with ear-flaps down through biting winds and acres of white snow. The waddling Marge, played by Joel's wife and longtime collaborator Frances McDormand, may be a maternal Columbo, whose ethnic and character quirks disguise a penetrating detective ability, but a great many other characters are amusingly dimwitted, peculiarly-accented and 'funny-looking'. These specimens range from the hooker who is cheerfully only able to remember of a client that "he wasn't circumcised" to the touchy kidnapper, Carl Showalter, who gets into a trivial and ultimately fatal argument about money just after he has squirreled away a never-to-be-reclaimed million dollars in cash.
As with Blood Simple, the Coens prove themselves masters of orchestrating cross-purposes plots, with half-thought-out criminal schemes going awry in ways that are surprising and yet obvious, ironic and yet horrifying. Whereas the earlier film presented a quartet of corrupt characters whose doublecrosses are understood only by the audience and the dead, Fargo offers McDormand (incidentally, the sole survivor of Blood Simple's plot) as a detective who through intuition, logic and luck does penetrate the backstory.
The real heart of the film is in Marge's understated relationship with her slobbish artist husband, Norm Gunderson, whose last-reel compromised triumph is that he sells a bird painting to be reproduced on the three-cent stamp. His tepid triumph is wearying enough to maybe make her look up that old flame, but the relationship still provides a warmth that gives her a strength none of the other characters—whose homes are seen to be stifling or freezing—can manage. Snuggling with her husband, and cheering him up by pointing out that people need small change stamps whenever the mail prices go up, Marge finally admits that she can't understand why the people whose trail she has followed have acted with such desperation. Here, with chilling but touching directness, Coen cuts his amusing but distanced conic approach and shows a heart that matches his undoubted skill.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3153
SOURCE: "The Life of the Mind," in London Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 12, June 20, 1996, pp. 18-19.
[In the following review, Wood expresses that, althourhg he finds the movie flawed, Fargo is the Coens' best work since their first two films.]
The screen shows a flat, empty road from a very low angle, a torn tire lying on it like a piece of junk sculpture. Then the towers of a city in the distance, then a set of ramshackle houses, a pasture and a farmhouse, the white screen of a drive-in, a field full of oil pumps. A drawling voice, all wide vowels and unclosed consonants, starts to philosophize. "The world is full of complainers, and the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee … Something can always go wrong … What I know about is Texas, and down here you're on your own." These are the opening moments of Blood Simple. Ethan and Joel Coen's first movie, released in 1983, and they look like an agenda, an announcement of work to come. They look that way only now, though, when we have seen the later films, learned that the appearance of raw and gritty realism in that first movie was deceptive. We were never in America, only "America," a place full of stories about itself, none the less mythological because historical reality every now and then manages to catch up with it, or incorporate a piece of its gory or flamboyant action. The "down here" in the voice-over now sounds like a giveaway, since it implies an awareness of other places, even an anxiety about them, about the way Texas may look from a different region. Of course there's boasting in the claim too, in the fact that chain saw massacres, for instance, don't happen just anywhere.
Since then the Coen brothers have given us a dusty South-West (Raising Arizona, 1987) an unnamed Thirties Prohibition city that would look like Chicago if it looked like a city at all (Miller's Crossing, 1990); a Forties Hollywood that looks like Hollywood's idea of itself (Barton Fink, 1991) a toytown Fifties New York (The Hudsucker Proxy, 1993), and now a bleached-out, snow-driven Midwest, where the very names of places, for all their actual presence in the atlas, sound like a scrambled allegory. Fargo, North Dakota, Brainerd Minnesota, Bismarck, North Dakota. What happens in these far-flung settings, this dream-America, as Nabokov once called a similar country? People die a lot, often violently. They are shot in the head and in the gut, their faxes are torn away. Heads are severed. One body is tipped into an incinerator, another body is minced in a woodchipping machine. A husband arranges to have his wife and her lover killed, another husband arranges to have his wife kidnapped. Irish and Italian mobsters kill each other, and they both want to kill their Jewish competition. Even when this world turns to comedy, scheming is still an important feature: a baby is stolen, and then is stolen from those who stole it, a large manufacturing company organizes its own failure, and then fails to fail. A businessman flings himself from a window on the 44th floor (45 if you count the mezzanine, as a member of the board insists). Schemes go wrong from coast to coast, and from Texas to the Canadian border. No zone is safe. So it's not quite true that nothing comes with a guarantee. Chaos comes with a guarantee, because something can always go wrong, and always does. The dream of the cancellation of all this which ends Raising Arizona is not the exception that proves the rule, it is the fantasy which confirms the presumed disorder of fact. "It seemed like home," Nicolas Cage murmurs in voice-over, the camera showing an absurdly conventional family reunion set far in the future. "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." A pause, "I don't know. May be it was Utah."
"Things have changed," one of the hoodlums says in Fargo, when a little kidnapping has escalated into triple murder: a policeman blown away because he wouldn't be bribed, a young man and a young woman swiftly shot because they drove by and saw the dead policeman "Circumstances … Beyond the, uh, acts of God force majeure." And then later he says twice rather solemnly: "Blood has been shed." The fancy diction in the nasty situation recalls the films of Quentin Tarantino, and the actor is Steve Buscemi, who appears in a not dissimilar role in Reservoir Dogs. In Fargo, when Buscemi returns to the hideout he and his fellow hood are using, his face ripped by a gun shot, and caked with blood, he can speak only in a mangled way. He says: "You should see the other guy!"
Fargo, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, is dedicated to a ghastly comedy of violence, and to the suggestion that violence in life is mainly not malign and planned, but messy, like lasagne dropped all over the kitchen floor, or pathological, like a failure to distinguish between the uses of fly swatters and revolvers. But the Coen brothers are more programmatic about this suggestion than Tarantino is, and heavier in their use of it. With them it isn't really anything as soft as a suggestion, it is what the films are manifestly saying to us, and in Fargo particularly the expectation that things will get out of hand, that the horrific is the normal once you step into certain areas of American experience, is paired with a joky insistence on the weirdness of normality even when it's nice. The film feels a little heavy not because it's slow (although it is), but because it's edited to make us pause over its ideas: these ordinary people really are strange; these strange people really are ordinary.
The movie ends with the criminals put away and the nice dumpy couple, pregnant police chief and amiable, boring husband, watching TV in bed. She says "Heck, we're doing pretty good, Norm." He says "I love you, Margie." She says "I love you, Norm." Then they both say, one after the other. "Two more months." This is too low-key to be funny, and too tacky to be serious. The message, I think, is supposed to be that life goes on, there are good people in the world as well as psychopaths, but the whole thing feels like an unfocused spoof of ordinariness, as if dull married life was, after all, weirder than anything else. This is a subject addressed in Barton Fink, where the pretentious young writer, a sort of travesty of Clifford Odets, is always talking about the common man. But the pay-off there is that there aren't any common men, that the fellow Fink cast in the role turns out to be a serial killer who specialises in lopping heads off, and the best moments in the film are not its feeble gestures towards satire but its forays into apocalyptic lunacy, as when the killer runs through a burning hotel, flames leaping up all around him as if he were the master of hell, brandishing a shotgun and shouting: "Look upon me: I'll show you the life of the mind!" That movie portrays a Faulkner figure in the shape of J. P. Mayhew, a drinking Southern gentleman but it's closer here to Flannery O'Connor, the great American artist of the grotesque. She once said she didn't think that the texture of Southern life was "any more grotesque than that of the rest of the nation but it does seem evident that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognising the grotesque." Growing up Jewish in the Midwest might not be a bad training either. In his Introduction to the screenplay of Fargo, Ethan Coen recalls his grandmother insistently teaching the boys a Russian phrase signifying "By your tongue you will get to Kiev;" a maxim meaning "If you don't know, just ask." Coen is not sure how talking about Kiev was meant to work in America, but takes the proverb as looking forward to a certain extravagance of truth: "Surely young Grandma (itself a paradox) would not have believed anyone selling her that she would never in her life see Kiev, but would see The Jolly Troll Smorgasbord & Family Restaurant in Minneapolis."
The voice at the beginning of Blood Simple is that of a private detective played by M. Emmet Walsh. He is a greasy bulging fellow, whose sweaty face slides in and out of erratic smiles, as if it were made of warm wax. He drives a scruffy Volkswagen Beetle, and he seems to be just a buffoon. Then you realise he's a lethal buffoon. He's hired to kill a pair of lovers, but kills the husband who hires him instead, then tries to kill the lovers after all, and gets the man before the woman gets him. At one point there seemed to be a logic to his actions, but you lose track of it, and the movie is all the better for this: the man is like some materialisation of the crazy violence lurking everywhere in this imagined Texas, and his air of shabby incompetence makes him all the scarier when you realise he is grimly determined to bump off all the movie's principal characters if he can. He's a slob, but a slob with an iron will, and all the meanness in the world. The moment when he breaks down a wall with one hand in order to remove the knife that is pinning his other hand to a window-sill makes it clear that he is not to be taken lightly. He dies laughing, because the woman who shot him (through a door) still thinks he is her husband. Down here you're on your own, but you can still see the joke.
The things you remember from this film have to do with its cleverness, but the things are not only clever. The woman sits up in bed in front of a window, talking to her lover. When she lies down, we see the private detective's rusty Volkswagen parked outside. How long has it been there? The eeriness of its appearance, without cut or change of angle, suggests a form of magic. It has always been there, even when we couldn't see it. Or it has been conjured up just now, by the woman's talk. Craziness comes when you call it, or even think of it. A little earlier, there is what seems to be a conventional sequence of cuts from ceiling fan to a man (the husband) sitting thinking to ceiling fan again to a woman in bed in another house. What's conventional is the use of the item of furniture as a transition—think of all those chandeliers in movies which are only there to get us to another chandelier. But here the ceiling fans are different: the first, with pale wooden blades, is in the husband's office, the second, with blue metal blades, is in the lover's house. So strong is the sense of the gaze directing meanings in the movies that you can't believe a cut from a man looking at the ceiling to a ceiling fan doesn't represent what he actually sees. I had to rewind the film twice to convince myself that the fans are different. And of course, the effect is perfect, and prophetic. The man is in the other house in his angry mind, and the next time we see him he has infiltrated the house in fact.
The Coens' movies are full of touches like this. But they are not always, or even usually, as delicately connected to mood and movement. Elsewhere the cinematic swishes—the close-up on the whisky glass, the busy high-angle shots all over the place, the Hitchcockian figures cropped at the knees so that only their legs and feet are in the frame—are just cinematic swishes, signs that movie-making is going on. There is one interesting moment in Miller's Crossing, though, where the movie-making is not relevant but appealing for just that reason. We see a dog, and a boy, and what they are looking at: the body of a dead man slumped against a wall in an alley. There is something strange about the angle of the man's hair. Close-up of the boy, a poor-looking innocent out of a De Sica movie or a Kertesz photograph. The boy tugs at the dead man's hair, it's a wig, comes off easily. The boy and the dog scamper off. The dead man turns out to be Rug Daniels, an Irish gangster, and there are various guesses about who killed him. The mystery is finally solved, but nobody can work out why the killer would want to take the man's wig, and nobody can imagine that accident has whisked the wig away.
The woman who heroically survives the onslaught of the miasmic detective in Blood Simple is played by Frances McDormand, who is also a leading character in Fargo—Marge Gunderson, the pregnant Brainerd police chief called in when the kidnapping turns to murder. She has a wonderfully understated acting style, dominated by a level stare, which in the earlier movie means bewildered innocence, but here means crafty intelligence masquerading as northern stupidity. You can also see her in the thriller Primal Fear, where she plays a psychiatrist, and the stare there suggests a refusal to be bullied and an intelligence in excess of local needs. When she arrives at the scene of the triple crime in Fargo, she sums it up in seconds, deducing what happened exactly as we have seen it happen: "Okay, so we got a trooper pulls someone over, we got a shooting, and these folks drive by, and we got a high-speed pursuit, ends here, and this execution-type deal." All this delivered in a slow, monotonous Swedish-inflected accent; most of the people in the movie talk as if they were trying out for a Bergman film but had to do it in English, and had a vocabulary which rarely went beyond "Geez" and "Yah". When Marge has to throw up, it is not, as her colleague thinks, at the sight of the destroyed face of one of the corpses. It's morning sickness.
The screen keeps whiting out in this movie, as if the film had faded into nothing, but it's just the northern weather: pale sky, or icy mist, or a snow-storm, or a snow-covered car park. When the trooper pulls the kidnapper over, we see his prowler, lights flashing, through the iced rear window of the hoods car, it's like a ghost ship in some arctic vision. When the Buscemi character decides to bury the kidnapping money, he trudges across a field of snow, chooses a spot close to a wire fence, digs a hole, covers it over. Then he looks up: the fence stretches for miles in both directions, identical poles sticking up in unmarked snow. The effect the Coens were after, Ethan Coen says in his Introduction, was that of "the abstract landscape of our childhood—a bleak windswept tundra, resembling Siberia except for its Ford dealerships and Hardee's restaurants" What's interesting is that apart from the temperature and the coloring, the landscape also resembles that of their first two movies, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, a world where the camera is always being used to register emptiness and flatness, and where the car and the road are almost everything. A recurring image in these films is the double yellow line down the centre of a long, flat highway: as if human beings had managed to make one tidy mark on this inhuman scene, but had messed up everything else. A stage direction in Fargo reads: "The police car enters with a whoosh and hums down a straight-ruled empty highway, cutting a landscape of flat and perfect white."
The other remarkable performance in this movie, apart from McDormand's, is that of William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, a car salesman who owes a lot of money (he's borrowed $320,000 against a set of cars he hasn't got), and has hatched the hare-brained scheme of having his wife kidnapped and splitting the ransom money with the kidnappers. Who's going to pay the ransom? His rich and unsympathetic father-in-law. Why doesn't Jerry just ask for the money, from his wife or her father? Because they don't know he needs it, and wouldn't give it to him anyway. Macy looks amiable, nervous, grins as if in pain. He looks like a crook's idea of a trustworthy person, so deeply suspect that you realise he's never going to deceive anybody, and his helplessness, along with his pathetic belief in the possibilities of his no hope plans, almost makes you like him. The trick is that his scheme should seem close to insane (to us) and entirely plausible (to him). He doesn't know the criminals he's dealing with, and he doesn't know how much damage can result. He would be a sort of innocent if he were not so determined to be devious. The most subtle and discreet comment on what's wrong with his notions is not the series of murders he has indirectly unleashed, although that is comment enough, but the scene in which his son sobs for his stolen mother, and wonders what will happen to her. Jerry hasn't really thought about this—she was only an item in his scheme—and can't comfort his son, only offer him the weary, transparent lies he's telling everyone else.
There aren't quite enough such moments in the movie. It's very intelligent work, and its icy atmosphere tells a whole austere story in its own right. It's probably the Coens' best film since Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. But it still recycles American mythologies rather than exploring them or playing with them. When Marge has arrested the remaining criminal single-handed (the real psychopath, the one who was feeding the corpse of Buscemi to the woodchipper), she broods on the meaninglessness of it all. Five people dead now—the state trooper, the two witnesses, Buscemi and, almost incidentally, Jerry's unfortunate wife—and what for? "For a little bit of money," Marge says to the stonily silent killer. "There's more to life than a little money, you know." A little later: "I just don't understand it." It's right that Marge shouldn't understand it, of course, and that we shouldn't understand it either. But there is something too easy about this orchestration of our failure, just as there is something too easy about the movie's amazement at the ordinary. Violence is grotesque and readily stumbled into, just waiting for impatient or stupid or arrogant people. And happiness is grotesque too, picturable only as a remorseless absence of glamour. Nothing is glamorous except cold weather, and that is only glamorous to look at, since it shows the screen at its empty best.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2216
SOURCE: A review of Fargo, in Film Quarterly, Fall, 1996, pp. 31-34
[In the following review, McKinney praises some aspects of Fargo but asserts that the Coens condescend to the characters.]
The Coen brothers have spent 12 years and six movies walking a tightrope of their own devising, flirting with the nihilism and ex-cathedra contempt for the poor materials of reality that are marks of the gifted undergraduate. What has saved them from hipsterism is a sense of irony that is not merely ironic, a consistent faith in the power of controlled craft to open up holes of chaos in content, and a study of the quirk so monastic and intent it yields ambiguities not retrievable by looser methods.
What also saves them is an artistic personality which, in opposition to many of their vaunted peers in the film school generation, is less a commercial trademark, a promise of the familiar, than an organizing impulse in the movies themselves. They are darker-souled than Tarantino and also less obsessed with fun at any cost, and though they are temperamentally incapable of aggressively confronting an audience as Spike Lee does, they are still too involved in the oddities of their imagination to affect the Jarmusch shrug. Nor can they be accurately described as pastiche artists, as mavens of the literary swipe and the cinematic in-joke. Certainly the comic contemplation of genre tropes is a player in their game, but they have used the in-joke (or, in polite society, intertextuality) not as a self-justifying end but as a springboard to touch depths mostly unplumbed by the purveyors of either pulp fiction or Pulp Fiction. Whether Miller's Crossing takes off from Dashiell Hammett or Blood Simple from James M. Cain is ultimately less important than that the Coens have twisted the various idioms into shapes peculiar to themselves, and that despite their stylistic changeups they have, like most great film artists, been making essentially the same movie over and over again, playing variations on a theme. That their styles do not bespeak "obsessiveness" does not mean an obsession is not being worked out.
This said, the pursuit of personal themes does not ensure a straight shot to enlightenment; it may as easily as any other path yield a blind alley. Fargo sees the Coens plummeting unceremoniously from their tightrope, not taking a fall so much as a willed descent. Fundamentally, the film cannot be called a failure, since it is clearly the work it was meant to be, and it is if nothing else of a conceptual piece with everything they have ever done. But its very success on its own terms is disturbing because Fargo, in addition to being a personal work, is also a fatuous piece of nonsense, a tall cool drink of witless condescension. Coming from the Coens, it is a betrayal—of themselves, of their audience, of a human milieu.
Like each of their five previous features, Fargo is about the quotidian horrors visited upon those who would commit the grave error of living out not the lives they have been given but the lives they envision in their own master narratives. Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires two men (the rat-like Steve Buscemi and the hulking icemonster Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, his hope being to extort money from his parsimonious father-in-law. Grievous violence and a strangely homiletic, Velveeta-textured variety of chaos ensue, until order pervades in the pendulous form of the seven-months-pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Marge is sheriff of the little northern Minnesota town that hosted a pair of homicides related to the kidnaping; despite her chirruping mouth and eyes perpetually peeled in an avid gape, she is a self-effacing pro who will not only solve the case but face down evil and live to wonder at the saddening, mystifying inhumanity of man.
Though an opening title suggests a factual basis for the story, it hews so closely to the Coen line that its purported documentary truth becomes irrelevant after the first ten minutes. Jerry, the common-man hero of Fargo, is kin to the other Coen figures who did their best to hold reality hostage so that they might live a while in the cozier realm of fantasy. The master narrative is his, but—like the other characters—Jerry finds his grand designs aborted by the incompetence, conflicting motives, or undifferentiated hostility of those who will not play their parts. He and his plot hearken back to the confused scenarios of infidelity in Blood Simple, the bourgeois aspirations of the Raising Arizona hero, the machinations of an Irish mob mastermind in Miller's Crossing, and Barton Fink's misreading of a crypto-Nazi serial killer as that grand abstraction of 30s intellectuals—the common man.
But nothing worth lingering on is ever so schematic. The mickey in such a reading of the Coens' work is that the end point of a given fantasy is not predetermined. In Fargo, it goes disastrously wrong; in The Hudsucker Proxy, it executes itself with the precision of a timepiece. In Miller's Crossing, it goes both right and wrong, with the Irishman scripting things perfectly but for one detail: having written himself out of the order he has obtained, he ensures his own desolation, his own surcease as the hero of the fantasy. If the dream of self-determination (and consequent control of the immediate environment) is the theme, then these are the variations, and they signal the currents of possibility, disorder, and chance that percolate below the self-possessed surfaces of what is otherwise a tightly dammed style.
Fargo, though bound to the Coens' better work by the connective tissue of thematics and a deliberate visual aesthetic, constitutes a rupture in every other way, trading dark humor for dim slapstick, a piquantly distanced observational mode for a feckless pose of sham objectivity. The film's sole claim to narrative novelty is, of course, the insertion as crimestopper and moral orderly of a pregnant woman whose singular ungainliness stems less from her physical condition than her insistence on a fanatically hearty demeanor. She is that rarest of birds in the Coen aviary, a true innocent.
The problem is that in Fargo the Coens do not give true innocence its dramatic or psychological credit, as they do with the corruption and inner rot that sire Jerry's scheme and predestine its abysmal end. Marge's naïveté does not come off as something which in its way is as organic and inviolable, and thus as much an expression of essential character, as the pure evil which Stormare represents and which is far easier for an artist to sell to an audience. The Coens play the character in two irreconcilable ways, first tipping their hand by scoring Marge's clever crime-scene conjectures for laughs even though they are meant to suggest a shrewdness which resides in her like the meat in a bland walnut. As written and performed, Marge is so vapid that her astute ratiocinations seem more a function of plot exigencies than any definition of persona. While promoting her homespun acumen, the Coens inflate her horsy jollity—neglecting any corners of doubt or disturbance that might lie between—and the split leaves the character not just gutted of particular qualities but grandiosely unreal, an elaborately embellished kitsch artifact. When faced with the full measure of the atrocious crimes that have been committed—that point in the story which requires her, finally, to say what she is about—she has this to say: "I don't understand it." That no ambivalence soils the virgin territory of her mind seals her fate as a character, and shows the Coens resorting to the oldest, easiest kind of positivist aphorism: ignorance is not only bliss, but grace.
Marge represents too well the north-country rabble that inhabits this snowy landscape, most of them undiscerning pods whose ordinary human specificity is buried under vacuous grins, cowtown bonhomie, and about 50 too many distended Scandinavian "yahhh"s. The "yahhh" is ubiquitous, for the screenplay sings it like a mantra; Whitman's yawp is here transmuted to a somewhat less stirring assertion of self. The fact that even the most addled Minnesotans do not sound like this is of course not to the point; that this vocal leitmotif diminishes the characters instead of particularizing them is. (The faux-literate argot of Raising Arizona had the opposite effect, since it signified both the absence and the unreality of Hi McDonough's grand dreams without reducing him to foolishness; in the film's cartoon context, such language was a key to character as much as comedy.) The "yahhh," in fact, is what topples the Coens from their tightrope—that which spans the gulf between condescending to one's characters and magnifying one's ambivalence toward them for a larger and fuller effect.
The Coens have often been accused of condescending, but close viewing always deflected the charge. In the past they have had the nerve to burrow past condescension to discover a more complex, less comfortable empathy with their characters than fiction usually grants in our benighted time. Barton Fink, for all his blather and oblivion, was also allowed the grace of sitting on a beach, quietly contemplating his own disintegration as a poster-art beauty sat beyond his reach and a clumsy gull speared its quarry in the Pacific. There are few moments in movies that are more dispassionate, and fewer that effect such a galling, inarticulate connection to one's own cosmic loneliness.
That spin which the Coens give to our expectation of and need for empathy amounts to an existential reversal, given that empathy as a literary idea is commonly understood to be a unifying agent. "Who is that man?" becomes "I am that man." At their most original, the Coens have exercised the darker, more difficult impulse to unite characters and audience not in the warmth of a common affirmation, but in the chill of a common alienation. It's an empathy that says not "I recognize that man's situation and now don't feel so lonely," but "I recognize that man's situation and now I'm lonelier than before." So the Coens do, in some measure, recoil from Barton Fink, just as Frank Norris (and von Stroheim) recoiled from McTeague, or as any author recoils from a character who needs to learn something the author feels he already knows. But having recoiled, the Coens do not sidle back into the safety of superiority. Instead they are thrown back on the fact of despair, and with their roving camera suddenly paralyzed, they can do nothing but watch the waves.
Fargo does nothing more striking than to unite its characters in the torpor of a common idiocy, and this goes past the mere depiction of ordinary people as obtuse bunglers in the face of fleshly realities. This theme goes back a long way, and certainly in the Coen universe nearly everyone is blood simple under the facade of hauteur and self-control, save for those monstrous wild cards (M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple, John Goodman in Fink, Stormare in Fargo) who are just plain simple, the hot point of their humanity having been frozen by some ambiguous pathology. The film extends no empathy, easy or hard, to its belittled figures, and to the extent that it tries to elicit ours (Marge), it is repelled by gross caricature. (The kidnaped wife is a shrieking windup toy, and even the residual pity one feels for the hapless Lundegaard is due more to William H. Macy's rubber mask of jovial desperation than to any overarching fear for his fate created by the Coens.) The film's failure is that it mistakes the easy return of ethnic humor for the deeper response engendered by characters who are defined in emotionally or psychologically significant ways, and that it unproblematically offers its heroine's home-and-hearth complacency—her shallows, not her depths—as proof of human substance. This is condescension if anything is.
All auteurs content themselves on occasion with skating along the thin surface of their fixations rather than engaging deeply with them and thus risking incoherence, self-indulgence, failure. For every Persona there is an Hour of the Wolf, for every Touch of Evil a Mr. Arkadin. The Coens are not yet in this company, but they are continuing to stake a piece of cinematic ground which other film-makers will find hard to share, and what they do right in Fargo is very right—namely, dank but pungent scenes of unexcited violence which bring in a cold air of hopelessness and are the film's only exchange with anything troubling.
But otherwise Fargo is troubling only in unintended ways. The ending, which finds Marge and phlegmatic hubby snugly abed with talk of postage stamps, is another of the Coens' faintly absurdist enigmas, this time lacking the potent ingredients that allowed the others to tantalize. It is in fact an upbeat variant on the ending of Barton Fink. Both narratives tramp through thickets of essentially unmotivated destruction to find chaos bestilled for a moment. In Fink the final absurdism found itself in a wordless quiet which accompanied the detritus of human violence. Here it lies in the embrace of banality as an eternal verity, the value for which Middle Americans deserve the approbation of their cultural betters: postage stamps and a baby on the way. Barton watches the ocean; Mr. and Mrs. Marge watch TV.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4467
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."