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Genre vs Iconography in No Country for Old Men and Raising Arizona

Bordwell and Thompson define iconography as “recurring symbolic images which carry meaning from film to film” (320). This is distinct from the concept of genre, which is a way of grouping films based on common elements (Bordwell 318). While in many cases the two go hand in hand, they are not inseparable. The “long, curved sword hanging from a kimono” could place a film in medieval Japan, or it could place it in the office of an eccentric Hollywood producer with a fixation on samurai, like in Thank You for Smoking (2006). The difference is in the perspective from which the iconographic details are depicted. This essay will explore how the Coen brothers use the same palette of iconographic images to polar opposite emotional affect in the films No Country for Old Men (2007) and Raising Arizona (1987).

The protagonist of each movie finds himself being pursued by gunmen in a vehicle while he is on foot. H.I. McDunnough is chased by a police cruiser with an officer hanging half out the window, firing away at him. Llewellyn Moss is chased across the desert by a group of Mexican outlaws.

Is it fair to call those two chase sequences iconographic images? I think so; the image of Moss being pursued by the outlaws is on the cover of the DVD, and the image of H.I. trying to pick up the Huggies as he is under fire is the first one I think of when I think of Raising Arizona.

So the important question, then, is how the Coens essentially rework the same visual elements to create humor in 1987, and powerful tension in 2007. The fact that the police officer tumbles out of the squad car as they come screeching to a halt in Raising Arizona is certainly a factor in generating humor, as is H.I.’s slow reaction to the situation. Another way the Coens generate humor in this sequence is via the juxtaposition of the absurd with the mundane. The scene in front of the convenience store is so normal and suburban, until H.I. comes passing through with his unloaded pistol and his pantyhose on his head. But I think the most important formal aspect that makes the chase in Raising Arizona hilarious where the one in No Country for Old Men is terrifying is the decision the Coens made to cut from character to character in Raising Arizona. When the Coens cut from H.I. to the police to Ed to Nathan Jr. to the pack of dogs, they undermine any real tension that would occur if the audience were allowed to identify with H.I. for too long.

Compare that to the way the chase sequence is presented in No Country for Old Men; instead of cutting from character to character, the camera stays with Llewellyn the whole time. There are no particularly long takes, so the Coens haven’t decided to eschew montage. What they do is keep the focus of the sequence on Llewellyn, showing the pursuing outlaws from his limited perspective. The low angle shot as he hides beneath the truck comes to mind, as does the jerky camera motion as he runs breakneck into the desert.

This technique builds tension because it causes the awareness of the audience to fully adhere to Llewellyn and his plight. The audience only sees what Llewellyn sees: the bright lights of the truck silhouetted against the last fading glimmer of sunset. Likewise the audience only hears what Llewellyn hears: gunshots, half-heard yelling in Spanish, and the roaring of the truck’s engine. The limited subjectivity of this sequence really pays off when Llewellyn is shot; I know I flinched the first time I watched the film, and I saw several people in class do the same.

Both H.I. and Llewellyn run into serious trouble with dogs. Both characters are pursued by Rottweilers, which come very close to doing each of them some serious harm. Here, as in the chase sequences, the formal decisions made by the Coens determine which of these two sequences with the same overt content is funny and which is harrowing.

The main aural accompaniment to Moss’s escape from the Rottweiler is the uneven rhythm of his one-armed dog paddling. The camera keeps to a generally low position, less than a foot above the river. Llewelyn’s splashing and the smothering low angle composition of the shot are tense enough, but the Coens up the pressure even more once Llewellyn gains the shore. In a series of quick shots we see Llewellyn’s cold wet hands field-stripping his pistol and fumblingly re-engaging the clip with a dry round of ammunition in it as the snarling dog bears down on him like a missile. After he shoots the animal, the momentum from its pounce still brings Llewellyn to the ground.

The main difference between this sequence and the one in Raising Arizona is the non-diegetic sound. Raising Arizona has a soundtrack, a very quirky yodeling/banjo composition that further accentuates the juxtaposition of the surreal and the mundane. No Country for Old Men does not have any non-diegetic sound whatsoever. Anything that can be heard by the audience can be heard by the characters. This is an important formal choice that the Coens make. This decision reveals a different perspective on the material; a guard dog is not a stock character from a cartoon from this perspective, but a serious threat to be taken seriously.

The concept of genre, slippery as it is, becomes easier to grasp in this analysis because of the fact that the Coens used substantially the same iconography in No Country for Old Men and ¬Raising Arizona. What makes No Country for Old Men a thriller and Raising Arizona a comedy is the way the Coens construct the audience’s awareness of the images, not the images themselves.
Tags: film, reviews
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