“Raising Arizona” (1987) dir./ scr. The Coen Brothers

I first became aware of the Coen Brothers when their debut film “Blood Simple” was making the rounds and creating a buzz.  I was 15 at the time and saw it at the Circle 6 in Norfolk, VA during the (then) theatrical no-man’s land between February and May of 1985.  These were the days when if you looked vaguely 17 years old, they would sell you a ticket … or not.  To be fair, even from the age of 13, I was never refused a ticket for an R-rated film.  At the time, I thought it was because I looked super-old.  In reality, I don’t think the theaters gave a s–t.  Seriously, I was able to buy a ticket for “9 1/2 Weeks” at the same theater during the same period and no one even remotely asked me if I was of age.   But I digress …

Anyway, I didn’t think much of “Blood Simple” back then.  It was interesting and weird for sure, but I left the theater thinking “Eh …”  In subsequent years, I’ve rewatched “Bood Simple” and think it’s amazing, but as a 15-year old, it didn’t do much for me.  Neither did “9 1/2 Weeks” for that matter.  But by that point, I had already seen “Deep Throat” uncut, along with several porn classics on the Playboy Channel, which … while heavily edited … were still much more explicit than the antics in the allegedly “saucy” “9 1/2 Weeks.”  But again, I digress …

Cut to the Spring of 1987.  I’m listening to NPR (the station my Mom listened to back in the day before she discovered Rush Limbaugh … another sad digression … ARRGH!) and the NPR commentators are discussing this amazingly weird film “Raising Arizona.”  I’m intrigued, but not making the connection it’s by the same people who made “Blood Simple.”  When I visited my Dad in the Washington D.C. area for Spring Break, “Raising Arizona” was the film I chose to see.  That was a great visit, because I also discovered Tower Records near George Washington University and picked up the following albums: “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” “For Your Pleasure” by Roxy Music, “London Calling” by the Clash, and “The Best of Elvis Costello” during the same visit, which all changed my life in significant ways.

Anyway, back to “Raising Arizona.”  My thoughts at the time?  It was a fantastically weird aberration / revelation along the lines of Alex Cox’s “Repo Man,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” and Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.”  It was a film that … on the surface … seemed to follow traditional movie conventions, but went off the rails in several key areas.  On one level, it was one of many Yuppie “we’re having a baby” films that were popular at the time (“Baby Boom,” “She’s Having a Baby”). But it also injected some really dark 1940s-era film noir elements (kidnapping, escaped convicts) that the filmmakers kept just dark enough to keep it interesting, but always pulled back at crucial moments before the film became truly disturbing. It many ways, it was simultaneously the perfect and most perverse major studio debut for resoundingly indie filmmakers.

Watching it now, “Raising Arizona” seems simultaneously like the most perverse and perfect major studio debut for decidedly indie filmmakers.  It rides the line between conventional comedy and truly twisted cinema better than most allegedly “edgy” studio films.  And the fact that it does all of this within the confines of a then PG-13 rating seems even more bizarre. In many ways, you can see elements of the Coen Brothers’ future masterpieces, from “Fargo” to “No Country for Old Men” here.  And oddly, unlike most Coen Brothers films, “Raising Arizona” manages to eke out a happy ending, though not in the ways you would normally expect.  The happy ending is a dream.  And while it may be a dream, unlike the endings of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” where the happy endings may actually be the delusions of the twisted anti-heroes, the dream ending in “Raising Arizona” seems plausible.  And that’s one of the reasons this is arguably the most beloved of the Coen Brothers’ films.

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“Melvin and Howard” (1980) dir. Jonathan Demme

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Despite the fact that Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard” won two Oscars in 1981 (for Bo Goldman’s screenplay and Mary Steenburgen’s supporting acting turn), the film is one of the best forgotten films of the last 40 years. The film is based on the true story about a ne’er-do-well named Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat’s best performance) who allegedly gave a ride to a hitchhiker … billionaire Howard Hughes … and how Hughes left a $156 million fortune to Melvin upon Hughes’s demise. The film chronicles the ups … but mostly downs … of Melvin as he stumbles along, bouncing from job to job and making bad choice after bad choice in his quest for happiness and success. The Hughes inheritance seems to be the one break Melvin has been working towards his entire life … until that’s taken away from him too.

Many of the events of this film seem unbearably sad, except that “Melvin and Howard” … like Melvin … always keeps its chin up. Even though Melvin’s actions oftentimes seems tragically foolish, it’s his optimism … even in the midst of a crushing reality … that makes the film eminently watchable and a true joy.

The attached scene is arguably the best scene in the film, despite the badly synced audio. Melvin’s wife Lynda, played by Steenburgen, has just won a lot of money on a TV game show … money that she hopes will lead to a normal life. Except that Melvin blows the money on a flashy new car and boat. It’s this moment where Lynda leaves him and there’s a very touching piece of dialogue between the two:

Lynda Dummar: C’est la vie.

Melvin Dummar: What’s that?

Lynda Dummar: French, Melvin. I used to dream of becoming a French interpreter.

Melvin Dummar: You don’t speak French.

Lynda Dummar: I told you it was only a dream.

One of the funniest and saddest bits of dialogue ever in an American film. A great, great movie. One of Demme’s best.

Best Moviegoing Memories of the Naro Expanded Cinema, Norfolk, VA

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During my review of the documentary “The Rep,” I mentioned that some of my favorite moviegoing memories from my youth and young adulthood took place at the Naro Expanded Cinema, a repertory theater in Norfolk, VA. I thought I would recount a few of them here:

1. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick
The very first film I saw at the Naro. After having been to the Naro several times, my Mom took my brother and me to see this revival of “2001” in a 70mm 6-track stereo print during the summer of 1981. At the time, I was weaned on “Star Wars,” so I wasn’t as impressed with “2001” as I would become in later years. But I still remember being impressed with the realism Kubrick conveyed in this vision of space travel. Fortunately, I got to see it several years later in another 70mm revival in Washington D.C. when I was more ready for it and was … finally … bowled over.

2. “North by Northwest” (1959) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Another one my Mom dragged me to because she thought it would be good for me. Initially, being 12-years old or so, I groaned over seeing an “older” unrated film that would have no profanity, nudity or graphic violence. These reservations were instantly dispelled once I realized how much fun this movie was … one that combined action, suspense, comedy, and … yes … sex in a brilliantly sophisticated package. To this day, Eva Marie Saint’s character is still one of the smartiest, sexiest, most complex action heroines of all time. And Cary Grant … as Robert Evans once said, Grant had more grace walking backwards than everyone else had walking forwards.

3. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) dir. Steven Spielberg
I had already seen this multiple times before seeing it at the Naro on a double-bill with “Poltergeist” during the summer of 1983. But … what I remember the most is the glorious stereo soundtrack that the Naro properly showcased. When Indy cracked his whip in the streets of Cairo, I heard the sound of the whip start behind my head, carry through the speakers surrounding the sides, and then exploding upfront. The single most impressive display of filmic sound design I’ve ever experienced. Thanks, Naro!

4. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) dir. Jim Sharman
The Naro was THE best place to see “Rocky Horror” because back when I first saw it around 1985 or so, the theater owners allowed the audience to go absolutely bats–t crazy. The only rule was that you couldn’t throw anything at the screen. Otherwise, anything went. I’ve since heard things have changed, but that’s OK. Seriously, you don’t want to trash such a wonderful place to see a movie … but it was really really fun.  Especially on Halloween.

5. “Stop Making Sense” (1984) dir. Jonathan Demme
This classic concert film featuring the Talking Heads was nice to see on a huge screen with a booming, bass heavy sound. What was especially cool was the fact that so many people in the audience were taken with the music that they started dancing in front of the screen … which prompted the film to stop until people sat down. This happened at least 8-9 times before the film could finally end.

6. “Suburbia” (1983) dir. Penelope Spheeris
One of the best moviegoing memories from my youth was seeing Penelope Spheeris’s punk melodrama “Suburbia’ in a packed midnight screening at the Naro in 1985 (with an audience full of mohawks and trenchcoats) with a good friend of mine and my friend’s Dad, who attended the screening with us since me and my friend were not legally able to drive.  The audience went completely nuts at the beginning of the film, when the wild dog attacks a toddler (one of the worst mannequin substitutes I’ve ever seen in any idiom), which isn’t funny, but kind of is in the context of the film and the audience.  My friend’s Dad (who, at the time, was roughly about my age now) took the film in stride, enjoyed himself, and later compared the film to “Rebel Without a Cause” on the ride home, which he highly recommended to us.  While I later saw “Rebel” and thought it a much superior film, I have a really soft spot in my heart for “Suburbia.”

7. “Blue Velvet” (1986) dir. David Lynch

I was fortunate enough to see “Blue Velvet” on its original theatrical run when I was one of three paying customers in the audience.  I’m so grateful for this particular experience, because I was able to accept Lynch’s vision the way it was originally intended … an unironic (but not unfunny), highly disturbing nightmare.  When I saw it at the Naro a few months later, the place was packed.  Unfortunately, it was packed with hipsters already predisposed to laugh at everything.  While I remember having a great time that night when I saw it in a packed theater, in retrospect, I also remember being a little pissed that they were treating it all as a big joke.  Again, the film is not unfunny … but it’s not a smug post-modern jokefest.  That night I learned that there’s a danger in thinking you’re smarter than the material you’re watching … especially before you’ve actually seen it.

8.  “Husbands and Wives” (1992) dir. Woody Allen

I remember seeing this at the Naro in early 1993 during a particularly dark period in my life as the second half of a double-bill with another film I don’t remember.  I distinctly remember the Allen film hitting me right between the eyes.  Yes, I remember laughing a lot, but I also remember being completely shattered at the end of it.  One of the most brutally cynical views of marriage and relationships ever created.  It’s no wonder this was filmed and edited during the height of Allen’s and Mia Farrow’s relationship “issues.” I think I skipped the invitation to have a beer after the film that night.

9. “Pink Flamingoes” (1972) dir. John Waters
The very last film I saw at the Naro … and I saw this during the film’s 25th anniversary revival in 1997.  I had seen the film more than a few times on video before and while I thought it was funny, I thought other Waters films (specifically, “Female Trouble” and “Polyester”) were much better.  However, seeing “Pink Flamingoes” in a theater brought a new dimension that I had never considered before … collective embarrassment.   Seeing this film with a paying audience on a huge screen made a lot of “Flamingo’s” notorious scenes seem way dirtier … and funnier.   One of the few times I remember actually convulsing in embarrassed laughter during a theater screening … while turning several shades of red.  Seriously, that s–t hurt!  But it was a lot of fun!

“Once in a Lifetime” – Talking Heads (from the 1984 film “Stop Making Sense” dir. Jonathan Demme)

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Damn, this live version of “Once in a Lifetime” is so iconic of the first half of the 1980s. This played on MTV and USA’s “Night Flight” relentlessly for a 9-month period between 1984 and 1985. As much as I loved this, I got really, really sick of it at the time. But distance does make the heart grow fonder. And seeing it for the first time in several years makes me appreciate what a great job not only the Talking Heads did here, but what Jonathan Demme did with making the amazing concert film “Stop Making Sense” in 1984. Demme’s had some setbacks since his Oscar win for “The Silence of the Lambs,” but as “Rachel Getting Married” proved, don’t ever count Demme out. The man has made some great, great films.

I remember seeing this at least 4-5 times as a midnight movie at the Naro Theater in Norfolk, Virginia back in the 1980s. The theater was always packed and they always had to stop the movie at least 4-5 times due to multiple people dancing in front of the screen. Yes, there were THAT many people dancing in front of the screen that they literally had to stop the movie until people sat down … multiple times.