"s&co" - a photo by Flickr user austinevan
Thoughts on media, culture, and the world-at-large bubbling up from the dusty corners of my cluttered mind
May 15, 2011
The Crew

Bridesmaids was marketed like a raunch-com centered on female friendship and the absurdities of weddings, but there's a whole lot more going on. The film's wide-ranging (and, to some, surprisingly cross-gender) appeal appeal is based on something far more universal.

Posted By Saralyn on/at 10/19/2010 03:22:00 PM

I've added a new page to the blog called "Papers".  While it doesn't have much to it at the moment, I'll be updating it periodically with pieces I've written for courses, conferences and publications.  I'm interested in making them available to a larger audience/community, so that others might make use of them, give me suggestions and additional resources, and otherwise engage in greater dialogue about media.  To kick things off, I'd like to share an analysis of the use of audio exaggeration in Raising Arizona (1987), directed by the Coen Brothers, that I wrote for my film theory course this semester.  The downloadable link to the PDF of the essay can be found on the new Papers page.


Audibly Absurd: 
Audio Exaggeration and the American Dream in Raising Arizona
A fever swept over Hollywood in the mid-1980s – baby fever. As the nation took a conservative turn, the importance of the family came to the forefront and moviegoers could choose from an array of baby-related films (Gilmore 62). Molly Ringwold was a teen mother in For Keeps (1988), staunch career-woman Diane Keaton discovered the life-enriching joys of adopted motherhood in Baby Boom (1987), Kristie Alley's non-verbal offspring narrated life from an embryo and infant's point of view in Look Who's Talking (1989), and Leonard Nimoy even directed a film about three bachelors attempting to take care of an unexpected bundle of joy in Three Men and a Baby (1987). Nearly all of Hollywood's baby-centric films of the decade “mawkishly explor[ed] the longing for a family and the promise of happiness through reproduction” (Körte and Seesslen 68). As would become one of their hallmarks, in 1987 Joel and Ethan Coen remixed, deconstructed, and re-imagined the well-worn “baby picture” genre.
The second feature film directed, written, and produced by the Coen Brothers, Raising Arizona details a cop (Ed, played by Holly Hunter) and an (ex)con (H.I. McDunnough, played by Nicolas Cage) who meet, marry, discover they are incapable of having children, and kidnap a baby (Nathan Junior) from a local celebrity (the titular Nathan Arizona) whose wife has just given birth to quintuplets – and that's all in the first eleven minutes. It is an unusual premise for a slapstick comedy but the Coen Brothers inject heavy amounts of absurdity into every aspect of the film, creating a surreal parody and critique of the American dream and ideal American family in the late twentieth century. As the couple attempt to settle into a “respectable family life” with their stolen child, the situation is complicated by escaped convicts, economic woes, a high-speed chase over a pack of stolen Huggies, and the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse (whose name is, ironically, Leonard Smalls). If the sheer speed and absurdity of the plot were not enough to ensure the film's comic nature, many critics and scholars point to the ways in which the Coen Brothers manipulate mise-en-scene in exaggerated ways. As in many of their films, the Coen Brothers play with the color palette to match the mood of the film, here creating sharp, striking colors and contrasts. Many critics and scholars have noted how the distorting effects of the wide-angle camera lens used in Raising Arizona are “germane to the farcical and cartoonish nature of the film” (Bergan 103-4). However, few have really explored the ways in which the exaggerated audio track of the film illuminates and deepens the exaggerated emotions and behaviors of the characters. This is strange, as the audio track is every bit as striking as the visuals and contributes greatly to the film's parody of the American dream.
General Silliness
While much of the audio exaggeration in Raising Arizona relates directly to the film's parody of the American dream, some of it functions more basically to help create the absurd tone of the film that is essential to its humor. Many of the absurdly exaggerated sound effects fall into this category – everything seems to be three times as loud as it would be in reality. Carter Burwell's score is full of twangy, bluegrass influenced music, including Pete Seeger's “Goofing Off Suite” - “a fascinating medley of American folk music, motifs from high European classical models (Bach and Beethoven), Russian folk music, and even yodeling” (Gilmore 7-8). The music underscores “the unsophisticated nature of the characters and the folkloric, backwoods quality of the story,” providing aural accompaniment to the cartoon-like action on-screen (Levine 57).
This “backwoods quality” carries over into the accents of H.I., the Arizonas, the Snopes brothers (H.I.'s escaped convict friends), and many of the characters in the film. As in their Academy Award-winning film Fargo, the Coen Brothers make use of highly exaggerated Southern accents for the characters in Raising Arizona. The inspiration for the accents seems to have come less from the titular state in which the film was both set and filmed than from Holly Hunter's natural Deep South, Georgian drawl. The effect is to draw in common American stereotypes that a Southern accent indicates laziness, illiteracy, and lower socioecomic status (Hamilton 6-7). Much of the humor in Raising Arizona arises when the characters say or do things that betray their ignorance or are incongruous with their lower socioeconomic status and accents - such as when H.I. takes Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care as the “instructions” for their stolen child or when the Snopes brothers co-opt the prison psychiatrist's terminology to explain that they left prison because they believed it “no longer had anything to offer [them].” The exaggerated accents compliment the twangy, backwoods music that accompany the film, creating an environment that may at first seem to be reality but reveals itself as a tad off-kilter.
Extreme Emotionality
As noted above, in American society (and films), having a child is often seen as the most important and necessary part of one's life. It is taken to be the most fulfilling, emotional experience of one's life and the only way to truly live the American Dream. Raising Arizona directly attacks this notion, taking the themes of emotionality and emotional connections to children to an extreme. In the film's cartoon-like emotional landscape, every emotion the characters have seems to be amplified. Sequences with high emotional (and comedic) stakes seem to be populated with some of the most exaggerated sound effects in the film. Ed begins to berate H.I. about his responsibilities as a father during their first night at home, and H.I.'s budding anxiety is mirrored by ever louder whine of the camera flash warming up for the “family portrait” they are about to take. When the Snopes brothers learn that there is a reward out for Nathan Junior, H.I. and the larger brother (Gale, played by John Goodman) engage in a highly exaggerated battle within the McDunnough's small trailer. H.I. is fighting to keep his family together and every action and assault takes on great significance – and volume. “Gale uses H.I. as a wrecking ball, destroying the manufactured home by throwing H.I. through walls, doors, and fixtures,” (Doom 18) and every knuckle scrape, popped joint, shattered vase or window, and broken beam is rendered audible. The audience is even treated to a wind sound effect as Gale swings H.I. around in circles. 
In a similar highly charged and comedic sequence, H.I. becomes part of an extended chase sequence after attempting to steal diapers from a convenience store. As the sequence progresses, H.I. is chased through houses, suburban streets, and a grocery store by the police, a pack of dogs, shotgun wielding store clerks, and his own wife. Police and the clerks fire their weapons without caution and every shot sounds like it has been fired from anti-aircraft artillery. The tires of Ed's car screech as she careens through the neighborhood trying to keep up with the chase and cereal boxes explode from gunfire in supermarket aisles. The sound effects mirror the overboard visuals, as well as H.I. and Ed's ramped up emotions.
At times, the emotions bubbling up inside the characters are simply too much for their verbal skills to handle and they erupt into screams, sobs, or angry yells, “as if regressing into an infantile, primal language state” (Evans 49). In a brilliant and bizarre moment, Ed suddenly begins sobbing after H.I. gives her Nathan Junior for the first time because she just “loves him so much!” Her body shakes with the force of her tears and emotion in a clear parody of the sudden and overwhelming maternal love mothers supposedly feel for their children after giving birth, especially movies of the period. It doesn't matter that she and H.I. have just kidnapped the child. After months of trying naturally to have a child, discovering she was infertile, attempting to adopt, and being turned away, receiving the stolen baby is Ed's “birthing” moment and she reacts accordingly. Similarly, when the child's mother discovers him missing, her grief is so extreme that she lets out a scream that echoes out over the desert landscape.
The loss of the child instigates screams of anger and frustration from other characters within the film, as well. After H.I. loses his battle with the larger Snopes brother and is tied to a chair while the two fugitives make off with the child, he lets out an anguished scream. Alternately, when the Snopes brothers accidentally leave Nathan Junior behind in the middle of the road (twice), they let out with roars, cries, and screams as they race back to get it. These are some of the most humorous episodes in the film, as the brothers pound their fists into the roof and dashboard of the car and shake their heads about while screaming and careening down the road. They take every action and emotion to its ultimate exaggerated, cartoonish limit. They have only just made a connection with the child, and yet there is a sense that language simply cannot contain their emotions for it. It is a clear and biting parody of every film with a cute baby that every character immediately falls in love with and would do anything for, as well as the rhetoric with which American society discusses having children.
Sinister Sounds
When the importance of child-bearing and child-rearing are touted, a preoccupation with threats to children and family life are also present. Whether it be poisoned candy, pedophiles, single mothers, or a host of other sinister conditions, there is always something just waiting to tear about the perfect “family unit”. Raising Arizona lampoons this notion not only through its plot but through the use of overly dramatic music or exaggerated sound effects connected to threats to the McDunnough family.1 For example, the Snopes brothers's escape from prison (through a self-dug tunnel that accidentally hit a sewer line) is prefigured by ominous music and the sounds of a heavy thunderstorm. In another example of emotions exceeding language, the men who will soon kidnap Nathan Junior from H.I. emerge from the mud screaming. The aural landscape of the sequence is every bit absurd and laughable as the twangy banjo music throughout the film, but the effect is far different. The audience can laugh, but they also know that the pair will pose a threat to the new family.
The greatest threat to H.I., Ed, and Nathan Junior, however, comes in the form of a dirty, cruel, mysterious bounty hunter who may or may not have been conjured out of H.I.'s guilt-ridden dreams. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse – incongruously named Leonard Smalls after Steinbeck's character in Of Mice and Men – sets out to find kidnapped Nathan Junior. However, his desire is only for the money finding the child would bring, first attempting to extort the boy's father and then stating that there are many people who'd pay good money for a child. Whether because he manifests some rebellious aspect of H.I.'s psyche or he is just the “warthog from Hell” Ed claims, Smalls is everything that could destroy American dreams and American families. As such, he is accompanied by an appropriately epic, evil, and exaggerated soundtrack of his own.
In contrast to the folksy, inviting quality of the music that follows Ed and H.I., composer Carter Burwell created a Spanish rock opera theme for the demonic biker that combines samples from opera singers and electric guitars (Levine 57). The theme also carried bits of a lullaby Ed sings to Nathan Junior (itself actually a traditional murder ballad titled “Down in the Willow Garden”) played on a synthesizer to “give it a mechanized, ominous air” (Robson 55). In addition to this ominous music, it seems that everything Smalls wears or does emits an exaggerated sound. His leather clothing creaks and his motorcycle belches fire and smoke. When flowers burst into flame as he passes them on his motorcycle, they audibly crackle and sizzle. Smalls is walking death, and it can be heard just as easily as seen.
One of the most meaningful noisy accessories is the pair of bronzed baby booties Smalls wears on his belt – although whether as a “memento or a trophy” the audience is unsure (Körte and Seesslen 83). In either case, they combine with his “Mama didn't love me” tattoo and off-handed comment to Mr. Arizona that he himself was stolen and sold as a child to further entrench him as the embodiment of all that threatens children. The pair of booties seem to tinkle as the camera takes them in, a sound that connects him directly to Nathan Junior later in the film. As Nathan Junior sits in his car seat in the middle of the road waiting for the Snopes brothers to return for him, he kicks his feet and they tinkle. This sound effect creates a direct relationship between the baby and the mysterious biker, which adds to the sense of danger the latter poses for the former. It is as though Smalls represents not only that which can destroy the family, but the terrible thing as sweet a child as Nathan Junior can become if not raised properly. It is an exaggerated potential outcome of the concerns over how best to raise a child replete in 1980s baby movies and American culture at large.
The Importance of Being Absurd
Everything the characters in Raising Arizona say and do is a little (or extremely) absurd and it often sounds as though they are in a live-action Looney Toons cartoon. It is a hilarious take on the heightened importance placed on babies and child-rearing in 1980s cinema. But it is not just a hollow, postmodern parody that allows the audience (and filmmakers) to look down upon its absurd characters, as critics such as Roger Ebert and Sheila Benson have suggested (Robson 56). To view Raising Arizona in this way is to ignore the role and effect of the comedy and exaggeration, of which the audio track is an essential part.
The absurdity and exaggerations functions as jokes, the purpose of which Ted Cohen describes in terms of “'relief from certain oppressions, and the attainment of a very special kind of intimacy'” between the teller and the hearer (Gilmore 15). Jokes require the hearer to fill in a bit of missing information or make a connection – the connection between Nathan Junior's twinkling shoes and Leonard Smalls's twinkling baby booties and “Mama didn't love me” tattoo, for instance – that results in the teller and hearer being “joined in feeling” (15). It gives us a moment to step back from the things like unrealistic or extreme pressures to have children or raise them in certain ways that weigh down on or oppress us and join with the joke teller to recognize and laugh at them. The joke does not obscure commonalities or truths or provide a vantage point from which the audience can judge the characters, but allows us to connect more intimately with them. As Richard Gilmore points out
[Ed and H.I.'s] marriage, ‘starter home,’ ‘salad days,’ infertility, despair, and kidnapping scheme are all a little ridiculous, and yet, even though they are presented as basically funny, there is a sort of underlying truth to all of it. America does have a fascination or love affair with the image of the outlaw, so choosing to be an outlaw is not really that crazy. And it is hard starting a family in this modern world, even if, or especially if, you are an outlaw by trade. And starter homes sometimes are little mobile homes in the desert. And sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, nature does not cooperate; infertility is a fact of life. (8)
Through laughter, we can feel a kind of tenderness towards these seemingly cartoonish characters and, Gilmore argues, even ourselves. Everything about the film is calculated to achieve this, and the very success of the film depends upon it. From the distorted effects of the wide angle lens to the delicious twang of the soundtrack and the excessive sound effects, the Coen brothers strive to poke a hole in the sacred fabric of the “baby film” and the American dream – and provide a space from which we can both laugh at and connect to the H.I. and Ed's around and within us.

Notes
1The threat the McDunnoughs pose the child and the Arizona family is never really considered in the film, as the audience knows H.I. and Ed and their motivations. They are the protagonists with whom we are to identify and know they will do the child no ill.


Works Cited
Bergan, Ronald. The Coen Brothers. London: Orion Media, 2000. Print.  
Doom, Ryan P. The Brothers Coen: Unique Characters of Violence. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2009. Print.  
Evans, Jeff. “Comic rhetoric in Raising Arizona.” Studies in American Humor ns3.3 (1996): 39-53. Retrieved from WilsonWeb. 11 Sept. 2010.  
Gilmore, Richard. “Raising Arizona as an American Comedy.” The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers. Ed. Mark T Conard. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. Print.  
Hamilton, Karen C. “Y'all Think We're Stupid.” 2009. Web. 16 Sept. 2010.  
Körte, Peter and George Seesslen. Joel & Ethan Coen. 1st ed. New York: Limelight Editions, 2001. Print.  
Levine, Josh. The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers. Toronto: ECW Press, 2000. Print.  
Raising Arizona. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC, 2009. DVD.
Robson, Eddie. Coen Brothers. London: Virgin, 2003. Print.