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Language Aesthetics in three films by Joel and Ethan Coen

by Paul Coughlin

Paul Coughlin is a Melbourne-based writer with articles appearing in Senses of Cinema, Metro and Literature/Film Quarterly, recently graduated from the School of the Literary, Visual and Performance Studies at Monash University, with a doctorate in VIsual Culture.

"My name is H.I. McDunnough…Call me Hi."
- H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), Raising Arizona.

The ten-minute prologue to Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona (1987) is a masterpiece of compressed exposition. Every detail of small-time crook and hillbilly philosopher H.I. McDunnough’s (Nicolas Cage) errant existence—his penchant for devising ill-conceived armed robberies, his courting of “desert-flower” policewoman Ed (Holly Hunter), their ensuing marriage, and subsequent failure to produce a much desired child—is crammed into a one-reel act. The brevity of this opening is achieved largely due to the explication of H.I.’s voice-over narration, delivered with the literacy and lucidity of a gifted Southern raconteur. Here, the use of dialogue has both a structural function and an aesthetic effect. The dialogue maintains the breathlessness of the opening sequence but also sets up the language games that operate throughout to inform the characters, themes and concerns explored in Raising Arizona. Dialogue and language structures are essential to the conception and design of a Coen brothers’ film, a detail particularly evident in Raising Arizona, Fargo (1996), and The Big Lebowski (1998). With these three films the Coens interrogate the methods by which the formal character of dialogue can be used to expose the power, authority and significance of language in both the cinema, and in the wider society.

Dialogue has been a central element of the cinema since the introduction of sound to film in the late 1920s. Yet, dialogue in film theory remains largely ignored, and those studies that consider the significance of sound in film generally persuade dialogue to the fringe of scrutiny. Mary Devereaux decries this situation as essentially deficient arguing that “[i]f the sound film is a marriage of word and image, then no adequate film criticism can ignore one half of that symbiosis.” (1) Devereaux’s argument implies that the ignorance of dialogue in film theory stems not from any fundamental irrelevance to film analysis nor any suggestion that it only offers trivial interest, but rather from a stubborn belief that cinema is primarily a visual art form. The reality, however, is that cinema is a conjunction of image with sound. Within this sound component dwells a fertile and crucial thematic and stylistic device: dialogue. Focusing on dialogue in film does not undermine traditional cinema theory; rather it simply provides a means by which a neglected element of the film apparatus can be incorporated into that theory. Sarah Kozloff’s recent monograph, Overhearing Film Dialogue , has sought to acknowledge this relevance by providing an elementary taxonomy of dialogue in film.

Kozloff splits her taxonomy of dialogue analysis into two broad divisions. The first category deals with the way words are used to communicate narrative detail through anchorage, causality, characterization, the adherence to normal conversational strategies, and as a means by which emotional meaning can be transferred to the spectator. The second division deals with the way dialogue is used in film. Examining the elements of language that work beyond the mere relation of narrative enumeration this component focuses instead on the aesthetic significance, ideological persuasion, and commercial conditions that influence (and are influenced by) film dialogue. (2) It is the first of these latter components—aesthetic significance—that is vital to understanding how the Coens deploy language in Raising Arizona, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. The formal characteristics of the dialogue in these films—stylization, realism, rhythms and dialects—reveal a depth of meaning and attention to detail which expands the nominal interpretation of each of these texts.

Mannered dialogue directly confronts the illusion inherent in cinematic representation and marshals the ironic possibilities of characters whose language is at odds with their situation. Jack Shadoian argues that we expect characters to speak in particular ways, we take into account certain cues of “dress, age, [and] the situation they find themselves in” and we expect to hear particular language: “Hence dialogue is generally keyed to propriety, and this ‘law’ makes it possible to exploit incongruity.” (3) The dialogue of Raising Arizona is, in many ways, similar to that which Joel and Ethan Coen composed for Miller’s Crossing (1990): it is uncommonly slick, affected, without pause, hesitation or mistake. It is, in fact, so clean and controlled that it is purely artificial. It is a stylized dialogue to match a synthetic collection of characters.

Raising Arizona examines the lives of a hayseed newlywed couple whose inability to conceive a child leads to a ludicrous plan to steal another couple’s baby; the scheme designed to appease their desire for normalcy and success. The Coens’ film is rich in caricature, the over-the-top characters representing the extremes of the American South-West. H.I., a recidivist stick-up artist, fills his day-to-day speech with cliché, aphorism and homespun maxims which lend his character a literacy that contrasts sharply with his modest visual image (hair akimbo, elaborately-patterned shirts, and permanent hang-dog expression). Despite spending the majority of his adult life in the harsh environs of correctional institutions, H.I. relates his story with the grace and eloquence of a poet. In describing the vision he has of a filthy, leather-clad biker haunting his dreams, H.I. notes: “He left a scorched earth in his wake, befouling even the sweet desert breeze that whipped across his brow.” (4) Carolyn R. Russell, suggesting that the language of Raising Arizona is a reflection of the film’s visual stylization, describes H.I.’s manner of speaking as “a sweetly droning, pseudo-biblical, quasi-mournful ecstasy of verbiage.” (5) The dialogue in Raising Arizona is too eloquent, poetic and articulate to be mistaken for an attempt to capture and present realistic conversational practices.

As inappropriate as this language seems to be to the characters it is also, strangely perhaps, very stereotypical. With Raising Arizona Joel and Ethan Coen take to extreme the image of the loquacious and conversationally dexterous Southerner. The blaxploitation films of the 1970s worked with similarly excessive and exaggerated characters, and their dialogue often served to privilege caricature over naturalism, in effect taking the stereotype to the limit for its curiousness and aesthetic appeal. With Raising Arizona the Coens are elevating the aesthetic qualities of the dialogue and diminishing to some extent the meaning of those words. This approach meshes with Siegfried Kracauer’s belief that dialogue in film be used to highlight the material and formal qualities of language and sound. For Kracauer what was said was less important than the formal aspects of the utterance, identifying the process by which cinema might render discernible the physical realities of those elements of nature that are taken for granted. (6) In Raising Arizona the Coens successfully establish a language world of utter unreality yet they do not do so through the invention of a new idiom, as say, in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, but rather through a tightly constructed expression of dialogue which determines to elide realism in favor of artificiality.

The presence of artificiality proffers the necessary inquiry into the nature of its alternative: realism. What is realistic dialogue? Is it dialogue that reflects the qualities and components of ordinary, everyday speech? Kozloff suggests that this is in fact an impossibility: “the defining characteristic of film dialogue is that it is never realistic; it is always designed ‘for us’.” (7) Kozloff’s argument pivots on the implication that dialogue in film is most often intelligible, accommodating, useful to the viewer, and typically free from the distractions of everyday conversation such as anterior sound, inaudibility and confusion. Yet, Kozloff’s argument seems more attuned to Classical Hollywood film, a representational form that employs dialogue to “maintain an unambiguous, efficient, purposeful, and uninterrupted flow of narrative information.” (8) Kozloff ignores the vast array of methods by which sound and dialogue is used by filmmakers seeking to break free of such traditions. Robert Altman, for instance, has consistently explored the parameters of film dialogue with experimentation in sound recording and representation. M.A.S.H. (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and California Split (1974) are three notable films in which Altman sought to represent the distinctive chaos of ordinary conversation by employing a network of microphones positioned on the set to enable the dialogue to overlap and collide in a clutter of words.

It is Todd Berliner’s contention that the conventions of traditional film dialogue cannot sustain real conversation traits such as disorder and inefficiency. Amongst the irregularities of typical conversational discourse is the breaking of syntactic construction, where one thought or statement will be ruptured mid-stream as another thought or idea takes over. (9) Berliner’s argument, though, seems flimsy in the face of Joel and Ethan Coen’s most iconoclastic creation: the Dude (Jeff Bridges). Despite being a drug-addled nobody, the Dude is the hero of The Big Lebowski. His real name is Jeffrey Lebowski, which is also the name of a wealthy entrepreneur (David Huddleston) with whom the Dude’s life becomes inextricably entangled after a preposterous case of mistaken identity. The confusion that surrounds the larger mystery in the narrative seems to be embodied in the Dude’s inability to verbalize anything remotely like a reasonable explanation for his circumstances. The Dude’s bewilderment at the plot unfolding around him is mirrored in a wonderfully inarticulate verbal account which he offers the other Jeffrey Lebowski (known throughout the film as the Big Lebowski) as he sits, under heavy interrogation, in the back of the millionaire’s limousine:

I—the royal we, you know the editorial—I dropped off the money, exactly as per… . Look, man, I’ve got certain information, all right, certain things have come to light, and, you know, has it ever occurred to you, uh, uh, instead of, uh, running around blaming me, given the nature of all this new shit, I mean it’s, not just, you know, this could be a lot more, uh, uh, uh, uh, complex, it might not be just such a simple…you know?

“What in God’s holy name are you blathering about?” is the response from the baffled Big Lebowski to the Dude’s rambling explanation. The Dude’s account of the situation takes the concept of syntactic chaos and disorder to the extreme as every utterance stops short of coherence and his “clarification” of the predicament merely serves to further obfuscate the situation. Joel and Ethan Coen are not interested in the typical eloquence of Classical Hollywood dialogue; rather their focus is on the main character’s gross inarticulacy.

Like the Coens, David Mamet pays great heed to the language of the characters he constructs, his work inviting several comparisons to the Coens and their method of composing dialogue in their films. Anne Dean notes how Mamet “capitalizes upon the fact that real-life conversations seldom proceed smoothly and logically from point to point: most dialogue is repetitious and inconsequential, or both.” (10) In light of this, and the example of the Dude’s speech (a true if a little bit exaggerated guide to his overall inarticulacy throughout the film), it is stimulating to consider Walter Weintraub’s contention that the dramatic artist will always avoid a true depiction of realistic dialogue in deference to the tenets of dramatic pacing, lucidity and traditional structure. Weintraub declares that “[t]he genius of the ‘realistic’ novelist or playwright is that he or she can create the illusion of real-life conversations without reproducing the mumbling and stumbling that constitute the dialogue of most living individuals.” (11) Yet, in the case of The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen eschew such a conventional approach and, recalling Kracauer’s appeal, successfully reproduce typical conversational patterns that effectively represent the aesthetic qualities of language.

The Coen brothers are renowned for challenging Hollywood convention, typically employing irony to construct subversive representations. Their application of original and irregular dialogue forms extends and supports the seditious elements of their filmmaking agenda. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the Coens’ dialogue forms should clash with the set of principles Berliner develops to define traditional film talk. Vital to his analysis are two precepts upon which Hollywood speech functions: effective communication through dialogue, and the tendency for movie characters to speak flawlessly. (12) Clearly, the Dude’s scrambled speaking style subverts the convention that dialogue should communicate with eloquence and intelligibility. And Fargo, the film the Coens made prior to The Big Lebowski, also explores the possibilities of communication that breaks down between characters as discourses become obscured by vagueness and incoherence, a style of dialogue that holds sharply to the conception of realism. (13) Fargo details a shady car-salesman, Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), in his reckless plan to use his wife in a faux-kidnapping scheme in order to swindle her father out of one million dollars. Throughout the film the spectator remains uninformed as to why Jerry so urgently requires such vast sums of money. Jerry’s explanation to Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), the men he contracts to kidnap his wife, is clouded in mystery and vague rationalizations conveyed in a series of halting, half-finished sentences rich in indecisive qualifiers: “Well…that’s, that’s…I’m not going to get into…into…See, I just need the money… .” Carl’s response to Jerry’s unsatisfactory explanations at their inaugural rendezvous betrays a suspicion that Carl, not surprisingly, also fails to communicate effectively: “You’re tasking us to perform this mission but you won’t…[searching for a word]…you won’t….ah, fuck it, let’s take a look at that Ciera.” Carl’s incompetent language use and malapropism, evident throughout Fargo—he struggles to describe second-hand cigarette smoke as carcinogenic and instead settles on “cancerated”—mirrors his inadequacy in the real world, for which he seems singularly ill-prepared. Ethan Coen declared in an interview the purpose behind Carl and Jerry’s evident ineptitude:

One of the reasons for making them simple-minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood cliché of the bad guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does. In fact, in most cases criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies. (14)

The aspects of The Big Lebowski and Fargo that undermine and rally against film convention while adopting characteristics more attuned to reality give these films a naturalism not apparent in Raising Arizona. The prevalence in the characters’ speech of qualifiers, modifiers, uncertainties and vagueness indicate the Coens’ desire to fulfill and maintain an authenticity of language that is opposed to the stylization present in many of their other films.

T he characters of Fargo and The Big Lebowski demonstrate an inability to employ language as a means to lucid expression, often fumbling over words and sentences. Kozloff argues that conventional film dialogue has a tendency to eliminate such inarticulacy: “The actual hesitations, repetitions, digressions, grunts, interruptions, and mutterings of everyday speech have either been pruned away, or, if not, deliberately included.” (15) Kozloff is suggesting that in such cases that film dialogue incorporates actual conversational characteristics it is then employed in a self-conscious manner. But the Coens’ application of naturalistic dialogue demonstrates verisimilitude and, additionally, supports a thematic concern that runs through much of their work: alienation. The premise of the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) evolves upon the protagonists’ inability to communicate effectively, their private discourses breeding distrust and confusion: each of the characters, although co-existing in an integrated physical environment, occupy distinct psychological and emotional spaces generating repeated misinterpretations. With Fargo and The Big Lebowski the Coens have extended this philosophy of miscommunication to an ailment of society in which inarticulacy is an observable symptom.

Even though The Big Lebowski is an absurdist comedy with colorful and broad characterizations, the dialogue nevertheless embodies authenticity. Dean’s assessment of Mamet’s writing identifies similar properties in the playwright’s work stating he has “an ability to produce wonderfully funny dialogue that retains all of the grammatical chaos of ordinary conversation, while functioning brilliantly as a kind of free verse.” (16) A function of such “grammatical chaos” in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen is, perhaps ironically, in the elucidation of character (if not plot). Carl’s stumbling on the word carcinogenic and his faltering attempts to intimidate Jerry suitably undermine his character’s credibility. Carl is linked to the fictional characters of Mamet’s world: “When one of Mamet’s characters has something of importance to say, his or her abortive attempts at eloquence can paradoxically speak volumes.” (17) Likewise, Moliére would put his characters in situations where they intended to exhibit intelligence but instead spoke instinctively, conveying a more authentic picture of themselves.

As is the case with Mamet and Moliére, the Coens are using the words, phrases and verbal gestures of their characters, which in themselves are unremarkable, to relay considerable character information. Shortly after Carl and Gaear kidnap Jerry’s wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd ), they are pulled over by a state trooper. Carl assures the laconic and controlled, and importantly taciturn, Gaear that he will handle the situation. Carl’s inept bribery attempt followed by a noise from the back seat of the car alerts the cop to Jean’s presence. As the officer leans into the car his curiosity is met with swift and decisive action by Gaear who clutches the policeman’s head and shoots him in the skull, a fountain of blood emanating from the wound and spilling onto Carl’s lap. The only phrase that Carl can muster, despite his usual garrulous manner, is “Whoa! Daddy…Whoa! Daddy.” George Toles suggests that for “a few instants Carl surrenders any pretense that he is equal to what is going on. He has no ready-made response that is adequate for the extremity of Grimsrud’s action.” (18) Carl is undermined nearly every time he opens his mouth; the dialogue that the Coens assign him acts as an apparatus as distinctive and decisive as any traditional visual signifier.

In The Big Lebowski , the Dude’s unwavering inarticulacy, demonstrated in a frequent use of qualifiers, reveals his character to be lazy and lacking conviction (traits also illustrated in his informal costume, unkempt appearance and sluggish movements). Similarly, Walter (John Goodman), the Dude’s bowling pal, is a verbose but often inarticulate speaker whose statements and attempts to maintain an eloquence or complexity of language merely serve to undermine his credibility. In one particular discussion Walter attempts to catalogue the series of infringements committed by a gang of German nihilists responsible for attacking the Dude in his home, unleashing a marmot upon the blithely unaware Dude as he bathed. Walter contends that not only are nihilists no better than Nazis, but also, the gang was not acting in accordance with the regulations for the suitable administration of wildlife: “And, also, let’s not forget—let’s not forget, Dude—that keeping wildlife, an amphibious rodent, for…uh…domestic, within the city – that ain’t legal either.” Walter’s failed attempt at verbal assuredness paradoxically undermines any certainty he has about this statement or his authority in making it.

Walter’s distinctively angry diatribes, on the other hand, are for the most part completely lucid arguments that spew from his mouth with tremendous intensity. Walter’s berating of the coffee-shop waitress for infringing on his first amendment right to free speech and his vehement protestation that a bowling opponent stepped over the line in a league tournament demonstrate Weintraub’s contention that “[i]n the heat of extreme anger, all evidence of indecisiveness disappears” accompanied by extreme negativity, rhetorical questions and direct references to the listener indicating aggressive engagement. (19) Whereas Walter’s attempts at affected intelligence through cerebral expression ascribe a contrasting trait, his enraged outbursts expose the authentic core of his character. Walter is never more assured, never more certain of his identity, than when he is slamming his fist into the diner counter arguing for constitutional justice, or when he is training a pistol on a bowling opponent and ardently condemning those among his peers who fail to respect the rules. The aesthetic properties of the dialogue, as well as the associated visual elements, expose the emotional truth of Walter’s deeply disturbed, post-Vietnam paranoid condition.

With its eloquent dialogue and elegant and creative narration, Raising Arizona subverts any tendency toward inarticulacy. But the Coens remain interested in the way characters betray themselves with language forms and structures in this film. H.I.’s narration is a florid mismatching of proverbs; his ability to combine two sayings to describe one event emphasizes the meaninglessness of the words he is using. Christopher Beach argues, here “we find contradictory forms of language, representing the confused form of linguistic habitus associated with a mediatized postmodern culture.” (20) H.I.’s justification for Nathan Jr.’s abduction to the skeptical Ed is a notable example of the mismatch: “Well now honey, we’ve been over this and over this. There’s what’s right and there’s what’s right, and never the twain shall meet.” His rationalization of the kidnapping is nothing more than the application of a mixed aphorism without any claim to logic or validity. Rather, H.I.’s statement acts as a cool and pacifying platitude. This is the kind of easy proverbial wisdom, rhetorically conceived and managed, that is characteristic of the individuals in Raising Arizona.

H.I.’s curious phraseology and distinctive accent operate at a formal level to define both his character and his hayseed heritage. As “Regional Independents” Joel and Ethan Coen have spread their film wings right across the extensive lands of the United States. Blood Simple and Raising Arizona document the South-West, Barton Fink (1991) and The Big Lebowski are each set in Los Angeles and Fargo is perhaps the most prominent film ever to capture the specific culture of the American Mid-West. The Coens have acquired a reputation for a certain kind of ethnographic expression, exploring the specific factors that contribute to defining particular cultures. Todd McCarthy is unequivocal in his praise, stating that the Coens:

are unequaled among contemporary screenwriters in their ability to create memorable dialogue for aggressively ethnic characters, be they the Irish gangsters of Miller’s Crossing or the Hollywood Jews of Barton Fink, and the cultural specificity of Fargo provides the terrain for a field day, of which they take rich advantage. (21)

McCarthy is, of course, referring to the peculiar dialect of Minnesota that the Coens brought to a world-wide audience in Fargo. Dialect in this case moves beyond the mere recreation of an extravagant, stereotypical accent and instead focuses on the more clinical determination of dialect which covers a broader range of differences, including not only matters of pronunciation, but also distinctions in vocabulary and sentence structure. It is to the Coen brothers’ credit that the dialogue for Fargo is uncompromising and wholly realized, never once becoming a mere exercise in the cynical relation of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of an alien dialect.

With Fargo the Coen brothers present the particularized dialect of Minnesota, the characters’ phrases are replete with terms such as “yah,” “you betcha,” “you’re darn tootin’,” “heck” and “real good then.” The delivery is a Scandinavian influenced lilt characterized by economic and monosyllabic utterances, typified by protracted vowels and an absence of inflection. These expressions, idioms and peculiarities are exemplified at every turn in Fargo, most notably in the description Mr. Mohra (Bain Boehlke) offers of the suspicious events that occur while he is tending bar at Ecklund & Swedlin’s. In recounting the proceedings to the policeman, Mohra’s speech is colored by all aspects of the idiomatic dialect: “And he says, ‘Yah, that guy’s dead and I don’t mean of old age.’ And then he says, ‘Geez, I’m goin’ crazy out there at the lake.’” The aesthetic and formal characteristics of the dialogue in Fargo are a prominent feature of the film, Lizzie Francke arguing “[e]thnically it is specific: so much so that audiences used to cinema’s all-purpose Middle America may find the inhabitants of Fargo quite exotic, with their singing, Scand-inflected accents, punctuating all sentences with a ‘yah’ or two (a genuine patois, if strange to foreign ears).” (22) The effect might be akin to watching a foreign-language film. Moreover, there is an additional underlying effect (applicable to each of the Coens’ ethno-specific films but most precisely to Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona) that this kind of attention to detail reveals. This is the manner in which language relations can reflect a wider and more interesting cultural relationship between the characters in the texts.

In Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen make a broad distinction between those characters who are locals and those who are outsiders. The distinction is initially apparent in their dialogue—the language used, the accents carried—but this evolves into a wider division based upon systems of values and morality. Carl Showalter, judging by his name, is a native of the Mid-West, but his broadly American accent suggests he is a local who has lived most of his life away from Minnesota in a more varied and diverse cultural milieu. His preference for obscenities and argumentative language estranges him from the locals who favor politeness and contrition. The language and the cultural variance reflect each other at every turn. Writing about the relationship of language to society, Martin Montgomery states:

Diversity of language within the overall speech community can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, distinct variety of (or even variant within) language can be used to affirm social solidarity between those who use it. And, on the other hand, it can be used in a boundary-maintaining role to signal or impose distance between those who use it and those who don’t. (23)

It is the inappropriate vernacular (an outsider’s language) which draws attention to Carl, and Mohra regards the inherent hostility in the conversation to be worthy of mentioning to the police officer. Patterns of power, heritage, values and beliefs are often clouded by the words the characters use, but the manner in which they express themselves and the kind of language scheme they adopt, more often that not, reveal what the specific words fail to transmit.

A further formal characteristic that is common to the dialogue in Joel and Ethan Coen’s films is the manifestation of rhythmic and repetitive language. As is the case with much of the dialogue in the Coens’ films, it is the formal attributes of the language, the emphatic and persuasive rhythms, that convey much of the meaning. The measure and tone of spoken language necessarily affects our understanding of a film. Rhythms and repetitions not only fulfill an aesthetic function but also, as John Fawell insists, the most memorable lines in a film “are simple ones that are repeated, as a line of poetry might be, or a phrase in a musical score, and which through this repetition achieve a dramatic resonance that is central to the meaning of the film.” (24) In the Coen brothers’ films repetition is used productively and pointedly, substantiating the precept that film dialogue can be as poetic and valuable as any of the other more traditionally accepted cinematic devices. The dialogue in a Coen brothers’ films is crucial to their style and approach and is therefore as open to essential analysis as, for instance, a Max Ophuls dolly-shot or a Sergei Eisenstein montage sequence.

The rhythms and repetitions of the various discourses in The Big Lebowski are duly celebrated and emphasized by the Coens. The relationship between the Dude and Walter is characterized as much by their rhythmical arguments and conversational patterns as by their mutual passion for social bowling. When Walter and the Dude interrogate Little Larry Sellers (Jesse Flanagan)—a teenage boy suspected of stealing the Dude’s car, and therefore also the ransom money contained within—their technique of questioning reveals their laughable incompetence:

Is this your homework, Larry?

Is this your homework, Larry?

Look, man, did you—

Dude, please!… Is this your homework, Larry?

Just ask him about the car, man!

Is this yours, Larry? Is this your homework, Larry?

Is that your car out front?

Is this your homework, Larry?

We know it’s his fucking homework!
Where’s the fucking money, you little brat?

A similar line of conversation between Jerry and Carl (over the phone) occurs in Fargo as they too stumble their way through a ransom deal and its attendant problems :

Know who this is?

Well, yah, I got an idea. How’s that Ciera workin’ out for ya?

Circumstances have changed, Jerry.

Well, what do ya mean?

Things have changed. Circumstances, Jerry.
Beyond the, uh ... acts of God, force majeure...

What the – how’s Jean?

A beat.

….Who’s Jean?

My wife! What the—

She’s all right. But there’s three people
up in Brainerd who aren’t so okay, I'll tell ya that.

As in screwball comedy the rhythms here are often balanced and musical. The humor created by the situation of Jerry asking after his wife and Carl’s misunderstanding registers not only because of the incongruity of a kidnapper who does not know the name of his victim but also because of the “beat” of time which interrupts the rhythm of the conversation. Kozloff maintains that the dialogue in screwball comedy is often musical in nature and it functions as “a play of reiteration and controlled difference.” (25) The manner by which Walter interrogates the young suspect in The Big Lebowski, through the repetition of a single question, betrays both Walter’s simple-mindedness and his complete faith in this approach. That this technique should fail miserably, culminating in a violent confrontation between Walter and a Corvette, accurately reflects Walter’s failed command of language.

In The Big Lebowski the relationship between the Dude and Walter is confounding on many levels. They are diametrically opposed at a political and social level, and their conversations habitually degenerate into miscommunication and squabbling. It seems their only commonality is their argumentativeness, which is based not upon hatred but rather on mutual frustration. This phenomenon invites a stimulating connection to Robin Lakoff and Deborah Tannen’s discussion of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Concentrating on the constantly bickering couple of Bergman's film, Lakoff and Tannen assert that because of “the underlying and overriding similarity of intent and desire, (to agree to disagree, to have non-communication in common) this couple actually has a great deal in common. It may not make for pleasant or productive communication, but the similarity creates a need, and an indissoluble bond between them.” They go on to claim that what “is apparently conflict-ridden and anti-communicative is in effect deeply satisfying to the participants.” (26) Similarly, the rapport that exists between the Dude and Walter, their mutual antagonism, is the twine that binds their unorthodox relationship.

A further component that establishes rapport is the incorporation and usage of another person’s words or phrases. Tannen argues that repetition of this kind “bonds participants to the discourse and to each other, linking individual speakers in conversation and in relationships.” (27) The phenomenon of sharing phrases and forms of expression functions in The Big Lebowski with such conviction and emphasis that it calls attention to itself. As Brandt ( Philip Seymour Hoffman) hands the Dude the ransom money for the advancing hostage exchange, he stresses: “Her [Bunny’s] life is in your hands,” repeating “Her life is in your hands, Dude.” Later, when the exchange fails, due mostly to Walter’s stubborn faith in a simple-minded plan, the Dude repeatedly proclaims, with intensifying despair: “Her life was in our hands, man.” Although, in The Big Lebowski, characters will refuse to understand each other, they do exhibit some communion, if only in the way they cling to the words and phrases of the people with whom they come into contact. By the close of the film the phrase “where’s the money, Lebowski?” is uttered by four different people each in a different context and directed at different people. Late in the film the Dude storms in on the millionaire, finally realizing that he has been used as a stooge and that the briefcase given to him contained no money. The Dude berates the Big Lebowski asking him where the money is, repeating the very same question he himself was asked in the film’s opening sequence. The stratified city of Los Angeles may be inhabited by a wide variety of character types—from the wealthy to the deadbeats, from the perverse to the perverted, from the psychotic to the artistic—but the chain of language evinced in The Big Lebowski suggests it is indeed a true, if not quite harmonious, community.

In Fargo, one particular scene examines the repetition of single phrases and ingeniously incorporates other cinematic devices to establish an ironic interplay that undermines the viewer’s expectations. Shortly after discovering that his wife has been abducted, a feat he engineered himself, Jerry tries to contact his father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell), on the telephone:

Yah, Wade, I – it’s Jerry, I.

(Then, slightly more agitated.)

...Wade, it’s, I, I don’t know what to do…it’s Jean.
…. I don’t know what to do it’s my wife
… I don’t know what to do it’s Jean.


...Yah, Wade, it’s Jerry, Wade it’s Jerry
– we gotta talk, it’s something, aww geez, it’s terrible...

The dialogue is presented as an aural accompaniment to a slow survey of the disturbed household that initially hides Jerry’s presence until an edit eventually reveals his position near the telephone, the viewer at last realizing that Jerry is rehearsing his speech, attempting to produce just the right amount of mock-hysteria and panic to allay suspicion. The dialogue is simple and repetitive, but it is in the manner in which it is presented and undermined by the visual cues which lends it significance. Kozloff suggests that “cutting us off from the actor’s face and body…would withhold from us the information that reaffirms (or complicates and undercuts) the spoken words.” (28) John Simon, too, observes the importance of the surrounding circumstances to dialogue, arguing: “The word gains unprecedented richness from its context…on screen, the word performs, as it were, in concert with faces in closeup…with backgrounds” and with “trick photography.” (29) The Coens have achieved here what Kozloff and Simon maintain are the vast possibilities of film dialogue.

In Raising Arizona, language repetition is represented as a means by which people justify their morally ambiguous actions. H.I. and Ed’s (Holly Hunter) absurd plan to abduct the child of the local furniture magnate (recently blessed with five newborn babies) is so wildly outrageous it can only be premised upon vague rationalizations reflected in the couple’s use of language. The initial attempt to kidnap the child is fruitless. As H.I. returns to the family station-wagon empty-handed Ed becomes visibly upset with his failure. She is unmoved by H.I.’s claims that the abduction attempt “just didn’t work out.” Ed’s obstinacy leads her to lock the car’s doors, explaining that they will not leave until H.I. performs his duty: “You go right back up there and get me a toddler. I need a baby, H.I.. They’ve got more than they can handle.” Ed’s proclamation echoes a newspaper headline announcing the birth of the “Arizona Quints” – “‘More than we can handle’, laughs Dad.” The connection between Ed’s choice of words and the press headline corresponds with A.L. Becker’s contention that “much of apparently free conversation is a replay of remembered texts: from T.V. news, radio talk, the New York Times…” (30) Here, the Coen brothers demonstrate how media culture often provides language structures and expressions that are co-opted, abused and misused for selfish ends.

Ed exhibits a trait that is common to many of the characters in Raising Arizona: the use of language to suit one’s own purposes. When Ed argues that the Arizonas have an overabundance of newborn babies, she chooses to make literal what appears to be an off-the-cuff statement. Ed’s repetition of the newspaper’s headline operates to rationalize an indefensible crime. Repetition is apparent in much of the Coen brothers’ films, the mirrored narrative structure of Miller’s Crossing is a dazzling example. But it is the dialogue in a Coen film that most often reveals the richness and power of repetition. Using Bruce Kawin’s terms applied to practitioners of repetition, the Coens are “artists who repeat something now to make you remember something then and set you up for something to come later…who draw contrasts and assume you will remember how a word was used last and will draw your own conclusions from the difference of contexts.” (31) When Ed appropriates a sub-editor’s headline as a moral justification for baby-snatching, the Coens are using the “difference of contexts” for satirical effect and cultural interrogation. Not only does this language acquisition reflect a reliance on the media for guidance, it also demonstrates how language can help establish a person’s membership to a community via the shared use of words and phrases.

The formal elements of the dialogue in Raising Arizona, Fargo and The Big Lebowski are critical components in the overall language design of the films. The formal elements of language—elaborated in the creative application of alien dialects, constructed rhythms and repetitions, calculated inarticulacy and adherence to realistic and stylized dialogue—demonstrate the impact dialogue has in making meaning in film, even without paying particular heed to the content of the words. The way Joel and Ethan Coen use language structures reveals a depth of purpose that commentators generally suggest is lacking in their apparently derivative films. The prominence given to the verbal discourse and the attention afforded the aesthetic aspects of the language in these texts demonstrates the Coens’ investment in dialogue both as a pleasurable cinematic device and as an instrument with which to examine ideology. Furthermore, the Coens’ consistent inquiry into language and discourse clearly suggests that to properly appreciate the cinema, it is important to listen as well as look.


1. Mary Devereaux, “Of ‘Talk and Brown Furniture’: The Aesthetics of Film Dialogue,” Post Script, 6.1, Fall, 1986, p.44.

2. Sarah Kozloff, Overhearing Film Dialogue, University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 2000, pp.33-63.

3. Jack Shadoian, “Writing for the Screen…Some thoughts on Dialogue,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 9.2, 1981, p.85.

4. All film quotations are transcribed from DVD copies.

5. Carolyn R. Russell, The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2001, p.30.

6. The attention and regard that Joel and Ethan Coen show toward the language in their films is even more significant in light of Kracauer’s petition for film dialogue to carry a necessary aesthetic capacity. Kracauer cites Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1943 & 1958), Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) as examples where the content of speech is abandoned in deference to the aural qualities of the dialogue. He insists that dialect, accents, and foreign (or made up) languages are suited to the cinema’s search for artistic revelation because they overwhelm the meaning of the utterances and instead draw attention to rhythms, cadences, inflections, techniques and styles of language. Siegfried Kracauer, “Dialogue and Sound,” Film Sound: Theory and Practice, Eds. Elisabeth Weis & John Belton, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985, pp.126-142.

7. Kozloff, Overhearing Film Dialogue, p.121 (Italics in original).

8. Todd Berliner, “Hollywood Movie Dialogue and the ‘Real Realism’ of John Cassavetes,” Film Quarterly, 52.3, Spring, 1999, p.6.

9. Ibid, pp.6-7.

10. Anne Dean, David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, London & Toronto, 1990, p.28.

11. Walter Weintraub, Verbal Behavior in Everyday Life, Springer Publishing Company, New York, 1989, p.31.

12. Berliner, “Hollywood Movie Dialogue and the ‘Real Realism’ of John Cassavetes,” pp.4-5.

13. Weintraub states that “qualifying phrases may be a verbal marker for spontaneity in speech, at least when used to distinguish extemporaneous from impromptu remarks,” Walter Weintraub, Verbal Behavior in Everyday Life, pp.23-24.

14. Michel Ciment & Hubert Niogret, “Closer to Life than the Conventions of Cinema,” Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, Ed. Paul A. Woods, Plexus, London, 2000, p.159.

15. Kozloff, Overhearing Film Dialogue, p.18.

16. Dean, David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action, p.22.

17. Dean, David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action, p.24.

18. George Toles, “Obvious Mysteries in Fargo,” Michigan Quarterly Review, 38.4, Fall, 1999, p.654.

19. Weintraub, Verbal Behavior in Everyday Life, p.98.

20. Christopher Beach, Class, Language, and American Film Comedy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, p.195.

21. Todd McCarthy, “Fargo,” Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings, Ed. Paul A. Woods, Plexus, London, 2000, p.143.

22. Lizzie Francke, “Hell Freezes Over,” Sight and Sound, May, 1996, p.24.

23. Martin Montgomery, An Introduction to Language and Society, Methuen, London & New York, 1986, p.135.

24. John Fawell, “Musicality of the Film Script,” cited in Sarah Kozloff, Overhearing Film Dialogue, p.85.

25. Kozloff, Overhearing Film Dialogue, p.188.

26. Robin Tolmach Lakoff & Deborah Tannen, “Conversational strategy and metastrategy in a pragmatic theory: The example of Scenes from a Marriage,” Semiotica, 49.3/4, 1984, p.345.

27. Deborah Tannen, Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue and Imagery in Conversational Discourse, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, p.52.

28. Kozloff, Overhearing Film Dialogue, p.98.

29. John Simon, “The Word on Film,” The Hudson Review, 30.4, 1977-78, p.515.

30. A. L. Becker, “Correspondences: An essay on iconicity and philology,” cited in Deborah Tannen, Talking Voices, p.44.

31. Bruce Kawin, Telling it Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 1989, pp.34-35 (Italics in original).

Raising Arizona

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