Saturday, July 9, 2016

Reading the Coens: "Raising Arizona"

The Coen brothers are not Christian artists, but they are masters of their craft. And, while they appear to pay close attention to every detail in their stories and use every subtlety to advance their story, like most postmodern artists, they avoid being too specific about the meaning in their films. So, even though I am bringing my own preconceptions to their work that sees things likely unintended by them, I celebrate truth wherever I find it.

Raising Arizona (1987)

“Now, y'all without sin can cast the first stone.”

The Coen’s second effort is a silly but funny comedy. It is also an interesting look at the longing within sinful humanity to make things right again.

H.I., Hi to his friends, is a man addicted to the “institutional religion” of prison. He longs for the security and familiarity of the structure within the correctional system. That seems to be the real motivation he has for constantly holding up convenience stores with unloaded guns. (He doesn’t want to hurt anyone.) The problem is that the prison system can’t help men like Hi with their sin problem. They have no answers. They also seem to have very little common sense:

-They've got a name for people like you H.I. That name is called "recidivism." Repeat offender! Not a pretty name, is it H.I.?
-No, sir. That's one bonehead name, but that ain't me anymore.
-You're not just telling us what we want to hear?
-No, sir, no way.
-Cause we just want to hear the truth.
-Well, then I guess I am telling you what you want to hear.
-Boy, didn't we just tell you not to do that?
-Yes, sir.
-Okay, then.

But Hi’s multiple stints inlock-up lead him to meet and fall in love with Ed, short for Edwina, a policewoman. He begins to think that maybe the true route to happiness is not through a system, but rather another institution—marriage. And they are happy for a while, experiencing the “salad” days. Until they discover that they can’t have kids. Relationships don’t give us what we need either. Especially when what we think we need is hope in an innocent, untarnished future. The false promise that our kids won’t be the same screw-ups and sinners that we are.

Just as things are about to all fall apart, (Hi finds himself driving past convenience stores that aren’t on the way home, and Ed quits her job) the news informs them that one of the richest couples in the state have just become the proud parents of quintuplets. “It’s more than we can handle!” declares the father. Ed and Hi decide to help out by taking one of the kids to raise as their own.

That is a recurrent theme throughout the movie. People in this story aren’t overtly evil, they just make mistakes by trying to improve their lot in life the easy way. They don’t want to hurt anyone, just take advantage of them a little bit.

Once Hi and Ed set off down the path of kidnappers, everything goes predictably and hilariously south. Ed losses his job by offending his terrible, horrible boss. Some escaped cons and friends of Hi show up on the lamb. And an evil bounty hunter starts to track them down. They manage to save the baby from all the danger, but decide to get the baby back to his rightful parents and go their separate ways.

Once they have repented of their actions, and try to do what is hard but right, rather than easy and convenient, there is a little hope for their future. The father of the baby discovers them returning him to his crib. He offers them the reward money, but they tell him that they just want what’s best for the baby. Hi tells him they have realized that they are terrible people:

Hi -I think the wife and me are splitting up. Her point is that were both kind of selfish and unrealistic, so we're not really good for each other.
Mr. Arizona -Well, ma'am, I don't know much, but I do know human beings. You brought back my boy, so you must have your good points, too. I sure hate to think of Florence leaving me. I do love her so. You can go out the way you came in. Oh, and before you do another foolish thing like busting up, I suggest you sleep on it. At least for one night.

At the end of the film, Hi has one of his prophetic dreams. It is cryptic and we have no reason based on this film to have hope for Hi and Ed, but perhaps their recognition of their problem will help them discover the real source of hope:

I saw an old couple being visited by their children, and all their grandchildren too. The old couple wasn't screwed up, and neither were their kids or their grandkids... And I don't know. You tell me. This whole dream, was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleeing reality like I know I'm liable to do? But me and Ed, we can be good, too. And it seemed real. It seemed like us, 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 don't know. Maybe it was Utah.

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