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March 02, 1987 - Image 24

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Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1987-03-02
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EXTIRESW' LOW WIDE; SHOT
Locked down to the speeding bike,
shown rushing toward the rear of Na-
than Jr's car seat. With a clank of
chains, Lenny's hand drops down into
frame, palm forward, tensing to scoop
up the car seat, which we are almost
upon.
A tattoo on Lenny's wrist reads: "No
Prisoners."
THUS BEGINS A KEY scene in
Raising Arizona, a warp-
speed, redneck comedy that
may very well become the
sleeper hit of the spring. In the film,
among other oddities, a childless couple
kidnaps quintuplet Nathan, one of the
heirs to a chain of unfinished-furniture
stores, only to lose him to a pair of es-
caped cons, who, following a robbery,
forget that they've left him on top of
their car and drive off. Stuck in the mid-
dle of the road, the kid is literally picked
up by a mangy and mystical "biker
from the Apocalypse," who is on the
trail of the original kidnappers and who
may or may not be real. Things get
crazier before they get saner, but one
thing is perfectly clear: Nathan Jr.'s
brief life in the fast lane is a charmed
one, indeed.
As are those of his creators, the film-
making Coen brothers: 31-year-old
writer-director Joel and 28-year-old
writer-producer Ethan. They grew up
in Minneapolis making Super-8 mov-
ies and continued working in film in
New York after college, eventually
scraping up $1.5 million from 64 inves-
tors to make their debut movie, the
stunning film noir, Blood Simple.
They wrote it together, took eight
weeks to shoot it and a year to edit.
After the picture gained some momen-
tum on the film festival circuit, it was
turned down by every major studio for
being too arty and too gory but was
eventually picked up by a small Wash-
ington, D.C., distributor.
Described as a "baroque blend of
murder and misunderstanding," Blood
Simple spins a James Cain-like tale
about a cuckolded bar owner who hires
a sleazy private detective to track his
young wife, who is having an affair
with his bartender. But the detective
does something unexpected: He kills
the husband and steals his money.
The body is discovered by the bar-
tender, who naturally assumes that his
girlfriend has done the deed. He cleans
up the evidence and tries to dispose of
the body, discovering in the process that
the husband isn't quite dead. In a grim-
ly slapstick sequence, the bartender
tries to bury the still-mobile husband,
who keeps crawling away until he is
clobbered over the head with a shovel.
12 Ampersand's Entertainment Guide

The film succeeds by pla .sg it straight
and playing havoc with the audience's
expectations, while at the same time
letting them in on the joke.
Within weeks of Blood Simple's re-
lease in 1985, the Coens were compared
to Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and
Steven Spielberg, among other master
film stylists. "One of the most brazenly
self-assured directorial debuts in
American film history," said New York
Magazine. "An irresistible blend of me-
ticulous construction and mordant hu-
mor, [it's] the funniest comedy and the
thrillingest thriller in what seems like
an age," gushed the Washington Post.
Added Vanity Fair: "They're making
Hollywood movies better than Holly-
wood makes them."
Ironically, after Blood Simple the
Coen brothers were wooed by the very
studios that had rejected them the year
before. Courted by virtually every ma-
jor independent producer and produc-
tion executive in town, "they had many
opportunities to direct other scripts,"
according to Jim Berkus, their agent.
Broke, they seriously considered sever-
al offers that would have paid them as
much as $500,000.
"Money is secondary to them," says
Ben Barenholtz, vice president of Cir-
cle Films, the small company that re-
leased Blood Simple. "They will never
be Hollywood filmmakers. If it was the
only way to make films, they'd come to
L.A. and work within the system. They
have a single-minded commitment to
making films. The only [other] director
I've met who is that consumed is David
Lynch (Blue Velvet). They're artists-
though they'd laugh at me for saying
that."
20th-Century Fox production presi-
dent Scott Rudin was among the ranks
of the Coens' early admirers. "We of-
fered them a bunch of things," he says.
"They always wanted to do their own
stuff. If they had pitched, I'd have
bought."
But the brothers wanted what all
filmmakers want: control, the freedom
to make movies the way they want to
make them. And so they turned their
backs on Hollywood, heading back east
to Washington, D.C., and Circle Films,
where they signed a four-picture deal.
Although there had been some criti-
cism of Circle's handling of Blood Sim-
ple's release, the Coens were pleased
with the company. "They were real
honest," says Joel. "Given that there
was someone we knew and trusted and
liked, we didn't feel we had to look any
further. So we figured, as long as they
want to finance movies we want to
make, and they're real happy with us,
why not?"
For their next project, the Coens had
been planning to shoot The Hudsucker
Proxy, a '50s period, big-business com-

t ed it was too expensive
for Circle to finance. So they turned to a
second idea, says Ethan, "about a cou-
ple with an unorthodox approach to
parenting."
It took the Coens four months in
their Manhattan offices on West 23rd
Street to write Raising Arizona, four
months of Joel pacing and chainsmok-
ing while Ethan pounded the typewriter.
"They lock themselves up," says
Barenholtz, "and it grows, assumes a
life of its own. They're instinctive film-
makers. Asking them what their movies
are about is like asking de Kooning
what a painting is about."
Although Circle loved the Raising
Arizona script and raised a $6 million
budget for it, they decided it demanded
a wider release than they could handle
effectively. So they sought a major Hol-
lywood distributor. The company
weighed four serious offers for studio
release and finally settled on-sur-
prise-20th -Century Fox. Chairman
Barry Diller, then-president Lawrence
Gordon and current president Rudin
were all enthusiastic about the project
and wanted to make the deal. Accord-
ing to a Fox source, "It could be the only
movie all three of them ever agreed on."
The distributing company, 20th-
Century Fox, granted the Coens a rare
concession in Hollywood: final cut.
"We wanted the film and that was the
way to get it," says Rudin. "We knew
the guys very well, and you could see
what they could do. There was no rea-
son not to give it to them. The script is
so precise. There's no scene in it that
isn't in the final film. That's an ex-
traordinary thing."
The Coens' style is not difficult to
figure out: They grab the audience by
the throat, make situations as tense as
possible and try to cram in as many
visual tricks as they can imagine. They
may be independents who insist on
keeping control of their movies outside
Hollywood, but, unlike some of their
more socially conscious or avant-garde
colleagues, the brothers are unabashed
entertainers. "They're from the school
of zany knuckleheads," says their old
friend, filmmaker Sam Raimi, who
made the underground horror sensa-
tion, The Evil Dead.
Not surprisingly, Raising Arizona
has a cartoonish, fairy-tale quality-
although after the cold-blooded theat-
rics of Blood Simple, the Coens made a
conscious attempt to humanize their
second picture.
For its first third, Raising Arizona is
a shameless love story. HI. "Hi"
McDonnough (Nicholas Cage), a con-
venience-store bandit, falls for his po-
lice booking officer, Edwina (Holly
Hunter), proposes marriage and vows
to go straight. All is wedded bliss until
"Ed" discovers she is unable to get

pregnanfThe unhappy couple cant
adopt because of Hi's prison record, so
.they kidnap one of Nathan and Flor-
ence Arizona's celebrated quintuplets.
That night, Hi dreams of "a huge, 300-
pound, leather-clad ... man with all
the powers of hell at his command."
"I didn't know if he was a dream or a
vision," Hi intones in a narration. "But
I feared that I myself had unleashed
him ... for he was the Fury That
Would Be ... as soon as Florence Ari-
zona found her little Nathan gone."
That same night, a pair of convicts,
Evelle and Gale Snopes, in an astonish-
ing birth-like sequence, pop out of the
mud and sewage outside their prison
and pay Hi and Ed a visit. Pursued by
Lenny, the Biker from Hell, they, in
turn, grab Nathan Jr. away from his
would-be parents.
At this juncture, the movie shifts into
high gear, the Coens packing it full of
chases and multiple pyrotechnics. The
result is a comedy that combines Frank
Capra sweetness with Steven Spielberg
action and pacing-It Happened One
Night meets Sugarland Express. Or, as
director Joel Coen summarizes his
film: "It has all the basic elements of
popular contemporary moviemaking-
babies, Harley Davidsons and high ex-
plosives."
Joel is single and has no plans to have
children; Ethan is recently married but
doesn't count children in his immediate
future either. They have no little nieces
and nephews. "We just make it up,"
says Joel.
Indeed, the characters in their films
speak with an exaggerated twang not
indigenous to any town in Arizona,
much less Tempe, where the story is set.
"That's what happens," says Ethan,
"when you don't do research." So why
Arizona? "We like the title," continues
Ethan. "It sounds better than 'Raising
Utah.' "
As can be gathered, to talk to the
Coens is to become their straight man.
The brothers are very serious about
their craft, but completely unserious
about analyzing it. Asked about direc-
tors who have influenced him, Joel re-
plies, "All our favorite directors are
named Frank. Frank Capra, Frank
Zappa, Frank Coppola."
Joel is the director, he says, because
he's taller and older. He is also more
loquacious than the more reserved
Ethan, who usually adds his comments
to his brother's. The Coens laugh easi-
ly, share the same pack of Camel Lights
and finish each other's sentences. Al-
though they look quite different (long-
er-haired Joel wears jeans and resem-
bles a handsome Joey Ramone; Ethan
wears wire-rims and looks more prep-
pie), their voices are hard to distinguish
on the phone. Raimi says, "They're
definitely two parts of the same mold."

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Spring 1987 13

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