We’re taking an intermission during our summer reading of Through a Screen Darkly to give folks who’ve fallen behind (or have recently joined) a week to catch up. In the spirit of celebrating movies, however, I’m pleased to present the following guest post from Jonathan Rogers. Jonathan had mentioned in passing that he is a big fan of the movie Raising Arizona. I was curious. If you knew Jonathan, you’d want to hear more as well. He was kind enough to put some thoughts down on paper for us. Enjoy.
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Raising Arizona is one of my favorite movies ever. I make no claims for its greatness, only that I love it. I love my hometown of Warner Robins, Georgia in much the same way: there was a time when I would have tried to argue that Warner Robins (or Raising Arizona) was the greatest. Now I am content to say that it shaped my sensibilities, for better or worse, at the time of life when my sensibilities were ready to be shaped. I almost can’t help but love it.
I had just graduated from high school when I saw Raising Arizona at the movie theater. It was the first time I had ever thought of a movie as a made thing. I knew, of course, that there were moviemakers, but I had never spent one minute wondering what they did. I enjoyed movies well enough, but I was about as passive a consumer of movies as a moviegoer could be. It was only earlier that same year that I had ever thought enough about a movie to dislike it. It was a Sylvester Stallone movie about arm wrestling, a truly terrible movie. I would have never gone if a movie theater employee hadn’t let me in free.*
But I digress. The first five minutes of Raising Arizona grabbed me with its down-market poetry. The language is highly stylized, polished and rhythmic. (Just the name Tempe, Arizona, with its three trochees, has more poetry in it than Ithaca or Xanadu or Elsinore). And yet the language sounds very much like native speech. It reminds you of the musicality that is possible in everyday American language. There’s a visual equivalent in an early shot in which Hi an Ed are sitting in the treeless, grass-less yard just outside their single-wide trailer watching a magnificent sunset beyond desert mountains. The glories of the Western sky are as available to these two trailer-dwellers as to anybody else. Over that very shot, Hi explains why he and Ed wanted a baby so desperately: “there was too much love and beauty for just the two of us,” he says, as the sunset gives way to darkness. I realize that the joke is probably supposed to be on the rubes in the lawn chairs. But I believe Hi. There is real beauty in this life that the jail-bird and the policewoman are putting together.
Raising Arizona is a movie with certain literary aspirations (if literary is the right word). There’s quite a bit of symbolism in Raising Arizona as in all the Coen Brothers’ movies. I have mixed feelings about symbolism, which is very easy to get wrong. Indeed, even as a seventeen-year-old, I was bothered by some of the ham-fisted symbolism in Raising Arizona (the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse mostly gets on my nerves). But on the other hand, I was delighted to realize that things like symbolism could exist in movies (as to why it hadn’t occur to me many years earlier, I can’t say). I had never thought of a movie as a vehicle for carrying literary freight of any kind. To put my moviegoing experience in perspective, I should mention that at this point in my life I was already enamored of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Nobody does transcendence like Milton. Angels. Demons. Unfallen Eden. War in Heaven. Councils in Hell. I was caught off guard by this funny little low-rent (and occasionally coarse) movie that looked and sounded like something resembling literature.
I am crazy about Hi McDonough. I love any character who is too smart to be so stupid. Hi is a smart guy and something of a poet, but his life circumstances haven’t given him the opportunity to use his gifts in constructive ways. He keeps making stupid choices, but you love him anyway because his heart apparently is in the right place. There’s a lot of Hi in Grady, the narrator and protagonist of my novel, The Charlatan’s Boy.
Finally, I love the way that legitimate, understandable desires on the part of the main characters leads them to do outrageously stupid things. What could be more natural than for two happily married people to want a baby? But, as Hi says, “biology and the prejudices of others conspired to keep us childless.” Their pursuit of their desire leads them into situations in which they are in way over their heads. It’s like Greek tragedy, except that it’s hilarious.
–Bonus reason to love Raising Arizona: When Ed says to the Lone Biker, “Gimme back that baby, you warthog from hell!” she is quoting Flannery O’Connor almost directly. In “Revelation,” the Wellesley student who assaults Ruby Turpin in the doctor’s waiting room says, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.”
* The same movie theater employee–perhaps to make up for exposing me to such a terrible movie–also gave me a trash bag full of leftover movie popcorn to take on a camping trip to the Okefenokee Swamp. It attracted the attention of a gang of especially nasty raccoons, who scattered the popcorn all over the campgrounds and beyond.
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Jonathan Rogers grew up in Georgia, where he spent many happy hours in the swamps and riverbottoms on which the wild places of The Wilderking Triology and The Charlatan’s Boy (some of our favorite books) are based. He received his undergraduate degree from Furman University in South Carolina and holds a Ph.D. in seventeenth-century English literature from Vanderbilt University. The Rogers clan lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where Jonathan makes a living as a freelance writer. His most recent book is The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.