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'Shining' up 'Raising Arizona'

'Shining' a light on the darker underbelly of the comic farce 'Raising Arizona' reveals the deeper connections between Kubrick and the Coen brothers.

There are numerous and blatant allusions to Dr. Stangelove (1964) in the early Coen brothers work Raising Arizona (1987). As two convicts, Gale and Eville Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe), wash up in a restroom after escaping from prison, we see on the restroom door a pair of acronyms: P.O.E. and O.P.E.—the recall codes for the planes attacking the U.S.S.R. in Strangelove.

This is one of a plethora of references to the films of Stanley Kubrick in the works of the Coen brothers. Perhaps they must acknowledge their Master—or better, signal that Kubrick’s influence was consequential to their worldview. I have decided to take these references as an opportunity to try to understand better what the brothers are trying to say and what their films might mean.

In an article in Bright Lights Film Journal, I saw the washroom graffiti as a meaningful connection between Strangelove and Raising Arizona. I thought had exhausted the argument, but after watching Raising Arizona again last week, I found more Kubrick references—not to Strangelove but to The Shining (1980). I had already written on the connection between The Shining and Fargo (1995), so I wasn’t taken aback by the references there, just the number of them.

For instance, drool pours from the mouth of one of the Arizona quints when he leans over his crib. Later, when H.I. (Nicolas Cage) pulls out a pin from a grenade on the chest of Leonard Smalls’ (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), Smalls notices too late and his cigarillo drops from his mouth followed by saliva.

These instances reference a scene in The Shining when Jack Torrence (Jack Nicolson) is awakened from a nightmare and falls to the floor. He looks around like a scared animal and drool pours from his mouth.

Second, when Edwina (Holly Hunter waits for H.I. to buy Huggies at a convenience store, she reads to her new found baby, Nathan Jr., the story of the three little pigs.

“Well then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in.”

These same words are used by Jack Torrence when he knocks on the door of the bathroom where his wife and son have fled from him.

“Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin? Well then I'll huff and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in.

Third, there’s the Road Runner tattoo on H.I.’s arm, which is also found on Leonard Smalls’ chest. Smalls entered the film in one of H.I.’s dreams and soon becomes part of the film’s regular action. He’s represented as H.I.'s darker nature, appearing the same night that H.I. and Ed kidnap Nathan, Jr.

The Road Runner cartoon appears in The Shining as background noise from the Torrence’s television. Jack has been characterized as being like Wile E. Coyote, someone not as clever as he might like to think himself, lucklessly pursuing his prey (in Jack’s case, chasing his son Danny in the maze), forever and ever.

Other, less tangible allusions popped into my mind: when Gale and Eville are sitting on the couch and watching television with transfixed glances, hypnotic-like, much like Jack’s look after his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) accused him of hurting their son (moments after his nightmare and drooling).

I may have imagined, also, mention or the sound of The Tonight Show. We know how Ed McMahon announced the star of the show, just as Jack announced himself while using an axe to open a panel in the bathroom door.

Then there's the moment when Nathan Arizona, Sr. (Trey Wilson) has just been fingerprinted by the F.B.I. and inadvertently handles his camel hair coat, leaving the ink impression of his hand on it—just as Jack leaves his handprint on the back of Grady’s jacket when they head to the men’s room after Grady spilled a drink (Advocat) on Jack.

Ultimately, these references beg for an explanation, and, broadly, we could say that both films represent portraits of the American nuclear family. Husband and wife and son; one living in a large hotel for the winter, the other in a trailer park. An unflattering portrait to say the least.

If the Coen brothers cite the Torrence family, especially Jack, they must be equating the actions of the fathers in the respective films. H.I. kidnaps a baby, in essence, precipitating the destruction of the Arizona family unit—the allusion regarding Nathan, Sr.’s overcoat implicates him as well (his emotional distance from his wife, Florence, for one thing).

H.I. and Nathan differ from Jack, however, in that the former two have redeemable qualities, reflected in Nathan forgiving H.I. and Edwina for stealing Nathan Jr., and in H.I. trying to make his marriage work despite not having kids.

Indeed, the most destructive elements of Raising Arizona are the desires of all the characters to have children. H.I. says that he and wife are ready to have a “critter.” H.I.’s boss’s wife loves to have children to cuddle—she has five and wants more, coercing her husband to blackmail H.I. to give Nathan Jr. to them.

The Arizonas used fertility drugs to have a child and were “blessed” with five. Even Gale and Eville decide that they just love Nathan, Jr. (whom they dub Gale, Jr. after taking). And the darkest side of American baby craziness is Leonard Smalls, who wants the child to make $50,000, either by returning him to the Arizonas or, more likely, by selling him on the illegal adoption market.

The Shining reveals the darkest underside of American family anxieties, especially a husband’s anxiety of being unable to live up to his familial responsibilities. Raising Arizona elevates these anxieties to wanting an insatiable emotion return for having children—that is, if we can’t have a child in one way, for whatever reason, nothing will stop us finding other means: fertility drugs, surrogate mothers, adoption, kidnapping, blackmail. The Coens are not necessarily equating these so much as casting a harsh light on our expecting to get anything we want.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Ned Bulmash October 11, 2012 at 10:21 PM
I found Raising Arizona a funny, interesting and strange film. A stickup for money and diapers-hilarious. A convict marries a cop. Southwestern furniture store tycoon and others-very engaging characters. Kipnapping and more kipnapping with Hi, Ed, Eville and Gale and others-very strange. I totally missed the Kubrick homages. I have to take another look.
John Reynolds October 12, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Randall "Tex" Cobb is one of the finest thespians to come out of Philadelphia. In addition to acting, he's an accomplished pugilist, philosopher, bar-room-brawler, and a member of Dirty Franks Hall of Fame, along with his buddy Pete Dexter, the former Philadelphia Daily News columnist, pub crawler, chronicler of city life, novelist, and screen writer. How many writers would walk into a bar of angry drunks who threatened bodily harm to discuss a story they wrote? When Cobb and Dexter were in the bar discussing the story with the bartender, they noticed a group of guys coming in through a side door carrying baseball bats. Cobb quipped, "I hope this is the local softball team." A week later, Cobb walked into the bar with a broken arm incurred by said angry drunks, to further discuss the story. The Coen brothers should make a movie about these guys.

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