Postmodern Conservative

Film Noir’s Flip-Side

Sunny Satire from the Coen Brothers

The latest film from America’s most commercially viable auteur directors, Ethan and Joel Coen, is Hail, Caesar!  It’s a shot of sun-filled light comedy that you’re probably needing this winter if you don’t live in the likes of Southern California.  It’s got obligatory Coen-brothers weirdness, but nothing egregious or deeply disturbing.  It could even be described as a family-friendly film, although there are a couple of awkward things that the kiddos might ask about, and there’s too much talk for them anyhow.  That is, it’s in the Coen-mode of O, Brother, Where Art Thou? or Raising Arizona, but with the comedy pitched at a subtler level.

Now if you’re a buff of classic Hollywood movies, and interested in the heyday of the studio system, there are apparently a ton of allusions to real personalities and events to be noticed and savored.   It is the perfect movie for that kind of movie fan, although that referential quality contributes to a certain feeling of oddness that more typical viewers might experience.  Still, I think it is pretty accessible entertainment.

The main character is Eddie Mannix, a studio “fixer” whose job it is to keep the filming of all the studio’s movies on schedule, and to prevent or cover-up the various scandalous behaviors that not a few of the stars tend to get drawn into.  The major reference in the film, and it will not be a spoiler but an enhancer for you to know about it in advance, is that Mannix is named after a real such fixer, and one who was a gangster-type, with fancy cars, numerous mistresses, the works.  Our Eddie Mannix, by contrast, is a family man, who regularly goes to confession and whose biggest personal struggle with vice is kicking a cigarette habit.  And yet, even our Mannix has something of the aura of a sinister tough-guy about him—he’s made it his business to know plenty about the seamier side of Hollywood, and he does slap a couple characters in a particularly intimidating way at key moments.  He is also ingenious at using various legal subterfuges to keep his actors in line and the public from knowing their dirty laundry.  

You might say the Coens make their Mannix as much like the real one as the outer-boundaries of family-man Judeo-Christian respectability permit.  But it has to be admitted that his respectability is by no means of the merely surface kind. When the Coens portray him in the Catholic confessional, or at the dinner table talking about his kids with his homely-sunny wife, we see he is no “Mad Man” living a double life.  Perhaps to our surprise, we see that he is a decent man.  And, that he can make a strong case that his work makes the studio work as well as it can be made to, and not just in the monetary sense.  Sure, questions arise about whether his job’s combining of traits from the worlds of decency and “fixing” can really be maintained or be justified, but that is a far subtler conflict than the one exhibited by the kind of hypocrisy that hides the vice it loves behind the respectability it largely doesn’t.  Mannix may make that sort of hypocrisy viable for some of his stars, but he is a believer in decency for himself, and something of a guardian of it for his society.

Showing us a day in the life of Mannix the fixer becomes a way to take a tour through the world of a Hollywood studio circa the late 40s and early 50s.  This for one thing is simply fun, like a more episodic and adult version of the joy-ride Pee-Wee Hermann once took through a mythically classic Hollywood studio lot, so that we get to stumble in and out of film-genre after film-genre, but it is also, when you begin to ruminate upon the various signals the Coens place here and there, an attempt to think about what classic Hollywood was, of what it stood for in terms of our overall cultural development.

The Coens’s approach to that big question is to assume in advance that you already know something of the seamy and corrupt side of Hollywood, the sort of thing we’ve seen displayed many times, perhaps most powerfully in works like The Last Tycoon, Sunset Boulevard, The Player, and L.A. Confidential.  Instead of taking us through all that again, they dare to make the case for Hollywood being an entertainment factory, and one that ought to cover over the less-sunny aspects of life in its art and in its publicity about its stars.  Is that case convincing?  Mannix’s apparent Christian faith is something I’ll talk about in another post, but what is more important to the plot is whether he can maintain his faith in what his job protects, i.e., whether he can buy the case that the Coen Brothers are setting forth.

That is why it is probably a mistake, one that a few critics have made, to read the film as displaying an obvious shoddiness about his studio’s work, and thus signaling the clear error of his ways in believing in it.  What the Coen Brothers’ make fun of in the films-in-production vignettes they give us are various cliched ways of classic Hollywood, but they surely know that, however one can isolate corny moments in films like Quo Vadis or On the Town, that their satirical versions, “Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” and “No Dames,” respectively, in no way approach the quality of those films–for where would the humor be if such quality was actually portrayed?–, and, that today’s filmmakers might well find it impossible to make something as respectively grand or as light-hearted even if they wanted to.  There is even a case to be made for the cranked-out cowboy movie we see, since it certainly is no worse in artistry and likely is less tawdry in moral content than its relevant comparison-pieces today, namely, the sort of stuff cranked out for our hundreds of cable channels.  I think the Coens are just too reflective to indulge in the complacently ironic mockery of pre-1960s ”corniness” so typical of many our artists from the mid-70s on.  They have a certain level of love, we could call it “selective nostalgia,” for the genres they are both recreating and making fun of. 

But interestingly, film noir is not one of these.  Not in this film.  The Coens early on were known for their enthusiastic allusion to and imitation of that genre, but here, they give us a Hollywood of the noir era in which we never see anyone involved in making a cinematic noir fiction, and in which the main action is about how the studio covers over all the non-fictional elements of Hollywood life that really are a bit noir.  In fact, even the darker aspects of the scene which are covered up, and which a noir film would have sensationalized, such as the “nest of communists” one of the actors gets caught up in, are shown to be at least as ridiculous as they are sinister.  (The palette of film, suffused with sunlight and floodlight, and given a Technicolor vividness, is blatantly anti-noir, and the Coens even direct our attention to the way the night scenes occur under a full moon. The one exception to this pattern–the adoption arrangement scene–merely underlines the rule.)

Hollywood’s job is to give us entertainment, i.e., song and dance, intertwined sex appeal and innocence signaling, escapes into cowboy simplicity or into aristocratic elegance, and historical epics that reassure us about whatever Christian beliefs we might still hold.  Maybe a handful of noir films are being made in this fictional studio, but by not portraying any of that, Hail, Caeser! indicates that such films were not central to what the Hollywood of this era was about; and certainly, no auter-controlled artistic films like those of the Coen Brothers could have been made under that system.  So, while the film-making going on here is antithetical to their kind, the Coens want to relive it, to participate in it, and to explore the strongest case that could be made for it.  

Well, that should whet your appetite.  Do see it, if nothing else to do your duty to support the box-office viability of intelligent films.  I’d like any reader help I can get in understanding certain puzzles posed within it regarding, I think, the passage of time and the presence of “splits,” but I’ll provide more soon on what I think I know the film is saying, and especially about faith. 

For now, I’ll just note that the film portrays 1) the really naïve faith of the American communists, 2) the more complicated kind of the mainstream Americans in Christianity, resulting in and being apparently shored-up by the Bible-friendly historical epics, and finally, 3) the strange faith–which becomes really strange if the Coens themselves endorse it–that Mannix comes to place in American movie-making itself.

And I’ll give the last words here to Ralph Ellison, from the visit-to-the-movies episode in Juneteenth:

They’re only shadows, Bliss, Daddy Hickman whispered.  They’re fun if you keep that in mind.  They’re only dangerous if you try to believe in them the way you believe in the sunlight or the Word.

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