What a comedy about kidnapping taught Taylor Garcia about being a family man.
In 1987, my mom took me to the new United Artists multiplex theaters at the south end of Santa Fe’s Villa Linda Mallo see a new release —”Raising Arizona”, Joel and Ethan Cohen’s 1987 comedy. She didn’t go to the movies often, and how and why she decided to take me to this particular one remains a mystery. I was ten years old — the gateway age: when the mind is firing on all cylinders and open to anything that’s put inside of it. It’s the age when you really start to remember things in vivid detail, when memories truly begin.
What I remember most about H.I. McDonnough (Nicolas Cage), “Raising Arizona’s” absurd father figure, was his inherent goofiness. Even what shouldn’t have been funny became so through his bumbling drawl. He was in and out of jail, couldn’t hold a job, and enjoyed having a good time over family time. He was a big laugh when you’re ten years old, and so was the movie. It became one of those films I’d watch over and again, mostly for laughs, but with each viewing, it got inside me — the whole baby kidnapping plot, the irony of an ex-policewoman and a recidivist making a family in the middle of the desert, and the bittersweet ending. I grew fond of its beautiful landscapes (I grew up in the Southwest myself), the countrified language, and the endless one-liners. I was growing up with “Raising Arizona”, the film perhaps raising me.
When I watch it as an adult, however — married, and with a little one on the way — I see it through new eyes. It’s the classic struggle of a man always trying to be on his best behavior in a world full of stacked odds and setbacks. In H.I. McDonnough’s case, he can never do right, but he tries so earnestly, it’s respectable. Even when he attempts to leave his wife Ed (Holly Hunter) he vows to continue to care for her and their kidnapped son in probably the most eloquent letter ever written by a convenience store robber.
Throughout the film, he plainly understands that his role as husband and father must take precedence over everything, but he’s haunted by ghosts from his past and terrified by nightmares of the present. H.I’s anxieties are any man’s worries: will I be enough for my wife and children? Will I be able to sustain the life that I’ve created? Just one stupid mistake could wreck all this beauty.
Raising Arizona doesn’t end happily. H.I. and Ed don’t keep little Nathan Arizona Jr.. They return him to his parents, the Arizona family, a move that coincides with Ed and H.I.’s breakup. They think damaged goods like them shouldn’t be together in the first place. But Nathan Arizona, Sr. offers some sound advice. “Sleep on it.”
And so they do, and H.I. dreams of a different time. A future where their home is filled with children and joy. He dreams the dream every man hides behind the daily fears of responsibility. It’s always there—that vision of perfection—but somehow always clouded by those persistent phantoms.
In several scenes, Ed asks H.I. what kind of man does these things, especially one with a family. His reply, as they speed through neighborhoods trying to pick up a package of Huggies he dropped in the road: “A man for a husband.” H.I.’s only defense for himself, is that he is a man, and will continue going on being a man. His response implies that he is no less a man fit to be a husband because he makes mistakes, nor is he less a man for making them. He’s trying, and that is the most important thing.
What the Cohen brothers’ tale taught, and continues to teach me about being a man, is that no man is perfect. No man will ever achieve that goal, but damn it, he can try. And by trying, he can get a little bit closer to righteousness, and being close to it—having the prospect and the promise of it—is soothing in and of itself.
Photo: “Raising Arizona”, Circle Films, 1987
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