Hailing God and Mammon

The Coens grope after faith in Hail, Caesar!, and Eisenstein’s legacy triumphs over Hollywood.

The Coens are back! That doesn’t mean their Hollywood spoof Hail, Caesar! is great fun; but at least they seem to be over the hipsterism that curdled Inside Llewyn Davis, and have returned to genuine cultural satire.

Set in 1951, Hail, Caesar! is a Boomer reflection on the period when movies expanded to CinemaScope with musicals and Biblical epics to fight off the encroachment of mundane television. (But why do the Coens play with square, rather than rectangular, screen formats?) The Coens want to parody industry habits as well as individual piety, and they do both in the figure of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), production boss at Capitol Pictures. Like the Hollywood hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Mannix is caught in a moral struggle: Fidelity to his Catholic faith and his wife are tested by the ego satisfaction of running an amusement business that pretends to be holding together a country of “kooks, misfits, and oddballs” who are increasingly unmanageable and gradually coming apart.

Although the Coens are not political artists, they sense the zeitgeist and dabble in politics. Moral tenets haunt their characters’ capitalist practices, which gives a political dimension to idiosyncratic behavior. When leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped and held for ransom, it threatens the production schedule of Mannix’s latest epic, Hail, Caesar! A Story of the Christ. That quasi-Ben-Hur title juxtaposes God and Mammon. It’s the Coens’ joke on Hollywood ambivalence, the moral divide within cultural manipulation. It inspires the cabal of disgruntled screenwriters behind the movie star’s abduction.

Here the film’s satire takes a fascinating turn. As Jewish filmmakers, the Coens frequently enjoy the license of making Philip Roth–like parody (especially in their 2009 A Serious Man – the word “serious” meaning “ethnic, religious”). In Hail, Caesar!, they evoke the hallowed subject of the Hollywood Blacklist. A voice-over narrator actually comes out and admits that “Whitlock found himself in the hands of Communists,” which goes against the self-righteous fantasies of Blacklist zealots who pretend there was no Communist conspiracy among Hollywood writers. This fallacy was the subject of last year’s Trumbo, a bio-pic so inept and falsely pious it deserves exactly the reprimand the Coens deliver.

The screenwriter scenes feature a coup: The high-living scribes are visited and encouraged by one Herbert Marcuse, spoofing the famous philosopher of the Frankfurt School, who comes down from his tenured perch at Stanford to foment the studio revolt. (“History — economics. Same thing, don’t you agree?” the sage pontificates.) The Marcuse joke corresponds with the Frankfurt School condemnation of Michael Walsh’s essential book The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. Credit the Coens’ superior snarkiness for their being the first American filmmakers to bring up cultural hegemony in a mainstream motion picture. They had previously invoked the SDS’s Port Huron Statement and art-world nihilists in The Big Lebowski, but with no political resonance. Hail, Caesar! exposes the sanctimoniousness of Ben-Hur kitsch as well as the self-conscious moralism of Frankfurt philosophers such as Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, author (with Max Horkheimer) of the oft-quoted but rarely heeded indictment The Culture Industry. Between deriding both the Port Huron Statement and The Culture Industry, the Coens stake out bold territory. They define the precarious position that overwhelms the American Eccentrics Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, and Darren Aronofsky, along with other uncommitted, aged Baby Boomer hipsters who have lost touch with cinema history.

#share#Hail, Caesar! challenges our current era of mass-media mania (such as speciously praising “the golden age of television” for winning that battle against CinemaScope, thus usurping cinema’s cultural prominence). It is now fashionable to accept the idea that mass culture is a benign industry demanding participation and worship. The conspiratorial screenwriters air their complaints and reveal their greed (“It’s not ransom, it’s payback,” they maintain), which is tantamount to a satire on present-day privilege and lust for power. The complement to this Blacklist-blaspheming subplot is a scene of Mannix appealing to the Legion of Decency, where Jewish, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant leaders bicker over Christ’s divinity. (They get caught up in a clash of self-interests.)

Hail, Caesar! shows the smart-ass Coens groping after faith — as if to convince themselves that Hollywood movies are still something to behold.

There’s nothing so sharp or honest as these scenes in any other American movie of the new millennium (except maybe the Bob Jones University joke in The Ladykillers, a Coen-brothers peak). For this alone, it’s easy to forgive Hail, Caesar!’s many off-key notes, most of them in the form of inexact period details. An aquatic musical number with Scarlett Johansson confuses garishness with extravagance, and a sailor’s-dance routine by Channing Tatum confuses kitsch with sexual innuendo. The style is neither MGM-splendid nor Fox-gaudy — more Columbia-cheap. Cinematographer Roger Deakins finds a vivid 1950s color register for these genre parodies, yet his decision to treat the non-genre scenes as film-noir stylization is questionable. He might, instead, have returned to the B&W moral clarity of the Coens’ masterpiece, The Man Who Wasn’t There. Overall, the Coens are working through some complex cultural delusions; so what if they stumble over the light stuff?

#related#The strange fact is, Hail, Caesar! attempts to show affection toward genres that today’s moviegoers care little about — particularly the moral basis of Biblical epics, which has been replaced by juvenile sci-fi and indie nihilism. Even the flaws in Hail, Caesar! express this ambivalence. Tilda Swinton’s comic stunt as competitive twin gossip columnists embodies this venal split. But look at Clooney’s vain clown: He has the air of an out-of-his-district politician. (Didn’t he sentimentalize the Blacklist in the egregious Good Night and Good Luck? And can’t he see what the Coens are up to?) In the Christ confrontation, where Whitlock has to fake reverence (“Squint before the Grandeur!” he’s coached), a telling line is fumbled: “If we but have . . . faith.”

Hail, Caesar! shows the smart-ass Coens groping after faith — as if to convince themselves that Hollywood movies are still something to behold. Just because the Coens can write the line “Capitol Pictures Studios makes pictures to service the system” doesn’t mean they’re critiquing the system effectively. Attempting to analyze the contradictions of capitalism and art, exploitation and pop culture, the Coens condescend to the past but never achieve an allegory for Hollywood’s horrible present. Robert Altman certainly achieved all that in The Player and, best of all, in his phantasmagorical The Long Goodbye, which not only groped after morality but grasped the grail and restored faith.

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Hail, Caesar! is comical but not exactly funny. Eisenstein in Guanajuato — about the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein escaping Stalin in 1931, being unable to find work in Hollywood, and retreating to Mexico, where he began his magnificent unfinished ¡Que Viva Mexico! (unfinished because of tension with his American Socialist benefactor, Upton Sinclair) — is continuously heady and festive. British director Peter Greenaway will have nothing to do with the Coens’ strained significance. They indulge self-involvement, while Greenaway refuses to submit the genius Eisenstein to the alienation of exile. Sympathy for Eisenstein’s work and life as a combined art project suits Greenaway’s own formal methods. This is his most dynamic, enjoyable film. Treating an artist’s political and sexual complications, Greenaway goes deeper than the Coens (helped by Elmer Bäck’s rousing, voluble, frizzy-haired incarnation of the Russian filmmaker). This caprice is also a tribute.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.


Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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