Of babynappings and bodily fluids, Coens and Kubricks
In Raising Arizona (1987), a blatantly obscure graffiti can be seen in the lavatory wall behind escaped convicts, Hale and Evelle (John Goodman and William Forsythe):
It could have been written by a fan of the “great Edgar” (Humbert Humbert) but more likely it was the handiwork of the film’s makers, Joel and Ethan Coen. It might be apropos to contemplate its significance, if only because the Coen Brothers’ films have some of the qualities of graffiti. Graffiti is a product of ersatz profundity. Some people see great significance and poetry on the walls of public conveniences, while others see only the phony abstruse. Likewise, critics have found the Coen Brothers’ films innovative and deep or shallow and derivative. It seems as if every film they make refers to or borrows images and themes. O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Wizard of Oz (1939). The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), the films of Capra and Sturges. The Man Who Wasn’t There(2001), Hitchcock. Miller’s Crossing (1991), a near remake of The Glass Key (1942). Blood Simple (1983) and Fargo (1996), film noir.
The most overriding and pervasive referencing in the Coen Brothers’ films however, is to the work of Stanley Kubrick, to the extent that many of their themes are developed from Kubrick’s, hence the feeling that their films are derivative to a fault. The hair on the floor of the barbershop in The Man Who Wasn’t There recalls the opening of Full Metal Jacket. The hired kidnappers in Fargo watch the Johnny Carson Show in their motel, suggesting The Shining‘s (1980) and Jack Nicholson’s most infamous line. All of the characters in Blood Simpleand Fargo seem caught in a cycle of confusion and misunderstanding when plans go awry that broadly suggest the actions of Johnny Clay and friends in The Killing (1956). Finally, in the letters “P.O.E.,” there’s an oblique reference to Dr. Strangelove (1964). Although little connects it and Raising Arizona in content, they share farcical and thematic concerns. Even more, P.O.E. could be characterized as the key to understanding the moral codes of both films, as well as that of another later Kubrick-inspired work.
In Dr. Strangelove, mad General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) launches an attack on the Soviet Union. The planes from his bomber wing can be recalled by a three-letter code, which he refuses to give up to Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers). Mandrake eventually figures out the code when he absentmindedly reads the now dead General’s doodling on a pad. Repeatedly, Sellers sees the phrases “Purity of Essence” and “Peace on Earth.” The code is one of the acronyms for these phrases, as it turns out, O.P.E.
“Purity of Essence” and “Peace on Earth” refract Ripper’s agitated psyche. America’s “purity of essence” has been polluted by the Communist menace, primarily through the fluoridation of water. He has sensed the danger after the physical act of love; a sense of fatigue overwhelms him. “I do not avoid women,” he tells Mandrake, “but I do deny them my essence.” What he seems to be “denying” women is the sense of completion to the act of copulation: having a child or loving them. A version of Hayden’s lovemaking is revealed in the scene with General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and his secretary, Miss Scott (Tracy Reed). With his “essence” statement, Ripper utters what we witness when Turgidson tells Miss Scott that she’s going to be Mrs. Buck Turgidson. How many secretaries has he told this to? All he actually cares about is the sexual blast off.
Ripper’s essence denial and sense of fatigue are directly connected to his decision to launch a first strike at the Soviets. The love for machines of death takes on sexual overtones, such that the film imagines the strike against the Roosskies as another form of copulation with the resulting nuclear explosions representing orgasmic responses, which bear not fruit but a doomsday shroud. In Ripper’s mind, and by implication in the minds of the members of the War Room, the destruction of Communism will restore his and America’s vitality and will. Personal and social goals meld. Ending Communism constitutes bringing “peace on Earth”; the deeper premise is that ridding ourselves of enemies promises unlimited happiness.
The other promise for unlimited happiness comes when you are a married couple who cannot have children but have found a way to have them. Newlyweds Edwina and Hi McDunnough (Holly Hunter and Nicholas Cage) in Raising Arizona are sterile. Edwina puts considerable pressure on Hi to get her a child one way or another. When quintuplets are born to the Arizonas, who have used fertility drugs, the sterile couple decides it’s morally equitable to steal one. Soon, Cage’s odious boss blackmails him for custody of the abducted baby, while the aforesaid convicts, Cage’s buddies in the joint, swipe the baby and head out of state. Enter bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall Tex Cobb), who seeks Junior for a black market adoption enterprise. For all the want-to-be parents, possessing the baby amounts to an emotional or monetary windfall. As if getting a child, by any means available, will bring them joy or profit. Here starts everyone’s downfall.
Strangelove and Raising Arizona satirize, at different levels respectively, an American propensity to pursue, obtain, buy, and possess happiness. A man who understood better, Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), the rancher in Psycho (1960), who in buying his daughter a house does not buy happiness but buys off unhappiness. On another level, the films question the ends of idealists who desire “peace on earth,” a cure for cancer, a baby for a childless couple, etc., and, even more, these films question the rationale spurring us to those ends. There’s nothing wrong with wanting children, ending Communism, or getting rid of poverty, only the reasons we have for desiring these things.
Rationale is all.
Raising Arizona equates kidnapping and blackmail to fertility drugs and surrogate mothers. Any way to get a baby. Edwina and Hi reason that the Arizonas can afford to part with one of the five babies. General Ripper believes that he can blackmail the War Room to send an all-out attack on Russia, which will destroy the Communist menace – and the U.S. in the process will only get its hair mussed – because this will solve the fluoridation problem.
What’s more disturbing: the actual kidnapping and nuclear war, or the convoluted thinking precipitating these actions?
Moral trepidation can be always smoothed over by the hope (O.P.E.) for a happier, better future. Then all kinds of actions become thinkable. Women through surrogate mothering can give birth to their own grandchildren. The Khymer Rouge can forge equality in Kampuchea by killing anyone who is educated or speaks a European language.
What’s been more mystifying to us the last sixty years: the Holocaust itself or the rationale, “purity of ethnicity,” behind the German actions?
Another film, A.I. (2001) picks up the thematic thread from Raising Arizona: having children to satisfy the need to have children. In A.I.‘s future world, the government restricts families to one child. Monica and Henry Swinton (Francis O’Connor and Sam Robards) have used up their child quota. Unfortunately for them the child rests in a frozen state with an incurable disease and no cure in sight. Monica inconsolably remains fixated on her immobile son, worrying her husband that she will sink into a permanent melancholia. As in Raising Arizona, although with a less hysterical tack, the wife emotionally blackmails the husband to find her a child. Instead of stealing one, they will be the first to use his company’s experimental prototype of the ultimate machine: a child who will become emotionally attached to you.
The creator of this child toy, Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt), opens the film with speculations about the ultimate shortcomings of Mechas, the mechanical but lifelike humans. In essence, he wants to satisfy the ultimate human craving: love. He demonstrates that machines can enumerate the qualities of love and affection without being able to love. The ultimate Mecha comes in the form of a Haley Joel Osment child named David. The ultimate boy actor will now play the child who one cannot help but find cute and love because he has been programmed to love.
His evolution within the Swinton household is interesting. He starts as an annoying pup who is everywhere you turn. He’s so affectionate, the essence of affection, that he becomes annoying. At dinner he bursts into a fit of artificial laughter, which his future parents can’t help but find funny if not slightly unnerving. Possibly David’s greatest selling point is that he will go to bed without having to be told, despite the fact that as a Mecha he does not need sleep. Finally, with this last quality, we get a hint of this child being more like HAL of 2001than a Haley Joel of, say, The Sixth Sense (1998).
This Kubrick component is not accidental. He had worked on this project for over a decade (before Steven Spielberg took over) and retained a “Producer” credit. How much of the film is his and how much is Spielberg’s we can only guess, although the common wisdom seems to be that the darker elements of A.I. belong to Kubrick, whereas all hopeful and sappy elements belong to Spielberg. But we should not forget that Kubrick couldn’t finish the project perhaps because the hopeful and cloying parts were unavoidable. Spielberg, perhaps, was only completing the arc started by Kubrick. What seems possible is that Kubrick wanted to turn his past dealings with artificial intelligence inside out. HAL in 2001 exhibits his most human characteristics (failings) by murdering the crew of the Discovery, perhaps in an instinctual quest to meet his makers on Jupiter. In A.I., David quests to meet his maker, stimulated by hearing the story of Pinocchio, with as much determination to become human as HAL strives to become all-knowing and dominant.
Finally, Monica takes the big step and follows a seven-point plan to let David bond with her. It’s a love that will never die. For anyone familiar with Kubrick’s films, any intimation for the desire for immortality brings doom from unexpected sources. For Monica, the unexpected comes in the form of her biological son, Jake, recovering from his illness. Having both boys to attend to, as well having them interact, creates complications for the Swintons. Jake rightly senses that he’s no competition for David in terms of doing things right. In some ways, he appears a monster, almost like a child-Strangelove, in a wheelchair and then walking stiffly with leg braces (“Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”). But he also proves resourceful (a Kubrick virtue) in dealing with David, maneuvering the Mecha into actions that will ultimately scare David’s parents into getting rid of the artificial kid. At one point, her husband convinces Monica that they really don’t know what David is thinking and that he might be able to kill – a conversation reminiscent of the two astronauts inside the pod when they discuss how will HAL react to being disconnected.
Getting rid of David is another problem. He should have been destroyed just as surely as HAL had to be disconnected. But Monica doesn’t have the stomach for it and takes him a distance from the house and abandons the toy boy in a forest. The film turns to scenes and images which recall Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1992) as it overtly connects the Mecca destruction to the Nazi Holocaust. In one poignant moment, after David meets another Mecha on the run, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), the robot parts: heads, arms, torsos, are bulldozed into pits evoking an image at the end of Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955). The humans, as best we can tell, resent the purity of human essence given to the Mechas. Professor Hobby eloquently explains his position at the start of the film. He will make a child who will love back the parent. The rationale seems incontestable. This new dimension of artificial intelligence will solve past problems. Dr. Hobby nobly espouses the most positive dreams of scientific and technical progress. Further, the society, not biological dysfunction, prevents Monica from having a child. The McDunnough’s argument for having a child seems equally unassailable. Only a mean-spirited person would deny Edwina or Monica the chance to love and be loved by a child.
Yet A.I. questions the Swintons’ intentions, as well as the means by which these intentions come to reality. Satisfying an extreme personal need – not strictly having these needs – violates an intangible social structure or boundary; just as an extreme political or military solution fractures a nation’s spirit. The use of the atomic bomb, for example, may have had excellent rationale, such as it was the only way it seemed to get Japan to surrender. However, the magnitude of suffering caused by the bomb may have been too great to warrant its use. Whereas the number of human deaths in the American Civil War was staggering, the resultant end to slavery and the tentative freedom of several million slaves mitigated some of the trauma to our society. Following a slightly different analogy, winning a lottery for $100 million obliterates all personal structures primarily because the short cut taken to fabulous riches is not deserved in the sense that the riches are unearned. Thus, the winner, despite the monetary gratification, can never have the intangible but necessary spiritual satisfaction of having earned the money.
The introduction of the Holocaust motif in A.I. effects two ramifications regarding David’s creation. Satisfying extreme personal needs parallels attempts at extreme political solutions whether those solutions come from Hitler, Stalin, or Jack Ripper. Dr. Strangelove, moreover, makes clear that extreme politics skirts the death instinct.
Secondly, one could feasibly argue that the creation of life by extreme means, such as in A.I., balances the political and social destructiveness of the worst criminal leaders. The second half of A.I. suggests this when the people attending the Flesh Fairs gleefully cheer on the violent destruction of Mechas. Spielberg’s sentimental goal seems to be embodied in David’s wish to find the blue fairy; essentially, the boy Mecha has taken the spirit of human race and is trying to make it become flesh. This would explain the strange and unsatisfying ending. David becomes a remnant of a distant humanity. But does he represent an absolute failure of that past humankind or its greatest undertaking?
One could also interpret David and Gigolo Joe as nothing more than equivalent if superior forms of artificial insemination, at least in the way that they represent extreme solutions to human needs. Further, the Holocaust imagery suggests to me another way to see this advanced technology’ s effect on the humans; namely, the harm done to mankind occurs inversely. That is, the destruction grows beyond our capacity to see or measure it – we can only feel it with varying degrees of certainty and vagueness. In fact, it may be devastation beyond our imagination. By trying to create happiness by any means possible or trying to eliminate all dissatisfaction and effectively create greater destruction, simply creates greater unhappiness. This may be, if not always been, the fate of the human animal. Kubrick, by the way, suggests in most of his films that humans are very limited in controlling or guiding their destiny. Nor might it be too far a stretch to interpret Hi McDunnough’s name: I don’ know!
Why beyond our imagination? We believe our needs are being satisfied and/or a greater good is being served. Anyone opposed to extreme forms of artificially induced fertility could never muster the same passion as the parents and technicians who would want to use it. This partly explains the lack of verisimilitude in A.I. when it depicts the Mecha Holocaust – it seems forced into the film because it has become a special cause for the director. Conversely, William Hurt’s supremely humanistic smugness as Professor Hobby correlates to the hubris exhibited in his first major film role in Altered States (1980), whence his university researcher, Eddie Jessup, expanded his consciousness a bit too far and, for a moment, was literally reduced to an infant. And there seems no way to stop our inclination to hubris. We can always convince ourselves that some element of what we want to do, no matter how extreme the course of action may be, will benefit somebody or ultimately will benefit everybody (we just can’t recognize the benefits immediately). Professor Hobby relishes the opportunity.
Already, the issues I’ve raised have become too large to handle. What’s the best that can be hoped for?
Perhaps solace and minimal optimism may be taken from Raising Arizona‘s conclusion. Edwina and Hi recognize their error in kidnapping the Arizonas’ baby and battle Leonard Smalls to return it. Later, Mr. Arizona catches them in the nursery and urges them to stick with their marriage, implying that they will love and prosper despite some of the serious snags in their circumstances. Maybe the P.O.E. seen in the beginning of the film represents a universal recall code for the dream of parenthood, specifically if this dream entails having children to fulfill one’s needs. Possibly, Edwina and Hi will only be happy as long as their dream remains within fail-safe limits.