Academic journal article Bucknell Review

"I'd Rather Light a Candle Than Curse Your Darkness": Bringing Religion to Light in Raising Arizona

Academic journal article Bucknell Review

"I'd Rather Light a Candle Than Curse Your Darkness": Bringing Religion to Light in Raising Arizona

Article excerpt

IN 1987 Joel and Ethan Coen released their second feature film, Raising Arizona, to mixed reviews. Hailed by some as a technical triumph, the movie was generally disregarded for its interpretive merit, and few movie analysts--neither those who enjoyed the film nor those who did not--considered its content or structure too deeply, suggesting that it was "just" a comedy. This was particularly true of scholars of religion and film who, despite some of the film's marketing, (1) did not consider it worthy of religious analysis. Consistent with an apparent tradition of overlooking the genre of comedy in the scholarly study of religion and film, up until now Raising Arizona has not received serious consideration. (2)

But this film is more than just another screwball comedy. From the large gold chai dangling around the neck of prison counselor "Doc Schwartz," to the constant biblical references throughout the narration, the story seems worthy of attention for its religious significance. Just as importantly, as a product of its era, it is also a reflection of the role and status of religion in late twentieth-century American society. Narrated like a personal confession, this film presents a classic story of a man caught between the desire to do good and the temptation to do evil, following the model of a morality play that is centuries old. (3) "The morality play," observes David Bevington, "tells the story of a representative individual Christian." It chooses a universal central figure who is surrounded "by abstract representations of his state of mind or body: Despair, Courage, Strength, Five Wits, and so on. He is counseled by his Good Angel and tempted by his Evil Angel, or by similar figures. Accordingly," Bevington concludes, "allegory is central to the method of the morality play." (4) Raising Arizona may not employ characters as explicitly identified as Temptation or Evil, but they are clearly part of the narrative structure. As such, this film can be understood as a modern morality play. And yet, given the role of religion in contemporary America, it is no surprise that--with a viewing audience less and less familiar with the religious texts upon which this story is modeled--the religious nuances of Raising Arizona, and films like it, have, in the words of Herbert Gans, gone "in one eye and out the other." (5)

Man in Search of Salvation: The Religious Structure of Raising Arizona

"My name is H. I. McDunnough. Call me Hi." (6) With these words--reminiscent of the opening from Melville's Moby Dick--we meet Herbert I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage), the narrator and central character of Raising Arizona. McDunnough is the classic Everyman; he's human, likable (even his nickname, "Hi," is familiar and inviting), and not perfect by any means, but not necessarily entirely corrupt. He's a good-hearted yet unsuccessful petty criminal who finds himself in and out of prison and who aspires to be decent while recognizing his own true nature--refusing, for example, to use a loaded gun in his repeated robbery attempts because he "didn't want to hurt anyone." Apparently still young at heart (he sports a Woody Woodpecker tattoo), as he relates the story of his own search for salvation, our modern Ishmael reveals both an underdeveloped folk wisdom and a manner of speaking that is both charming and affected in the way that the sixteenth-century King James translation of the Bible is to the modern reader. (7) This out-of-place manner is appropriate, as he is a man who has lost his way--not just because of his own simplemindedness or moral failings but because of the environment in which he is forced to function. He notes that he had "tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House." "I dunno," he continues, "they say he's a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused." McDunnough is himself a decent man, but he, too, has been led astray by advisors--primarily his fellow men who, in a culture of ambiguity, fail to provide for him a moral compass. …

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