Postmodern Conservative

That Old-Time Hollywood Religion, Part One

Communist Conspirators and Biblical Blockbusters in HAIL, CAESAR!

Whatever else it is, the latest Coen brothers movie Hail, Caesar! is a fun look at the classic Hollywood of the late 40s and early 50s.  I’ve heartily recommended it, and not just for the artier types.  But it is also a film about faith, religious and otherwise.  It begins with a shot of a crucifix and ends with one of the word “Behold.”

The film’s plot is so light that it hardly seems a spoiler to be revealing anything about it, but since the Coens have a rare knack for delivering surprise in general, i.e., of the never-seen-a-film-like-this kind, those who haven’t seen it will lose some of that delight if they read further. 

Hollywood and Faith

We are called to pay special attention to the topic of faith by the culminating scene of the main film-within-the film, “Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.” George Clooney’s character is Baird Whitlock, a top star of the Capitol Pictures studio, who is playing the Roman tribune Antonius Autolochus.  The main plot-element of Hail, Caesar is Whitlock’s kidnapping by communists, but by this point he has been rescued, and in time to perform the key scene of this Bible-linked epic.  We see Whitlock’s Antonius giving a speech to his fellow Roman officer at the feet of Jesus on the cross, although in imitation of the method used in a real 1950s movie The Robe, the camera never films Jesus frontally.  There are already details in this scene that might lead the audience to smirk, and it is pretty corny dialogue that leads up to his big speech about his inspiring encounter with Jesus earlier on, but nonetheless as the speech unfolds, it is not so bad, and we are shown that it is actually moving a number of the set hands.  The speech itself involves a meditation on why it might make a kind of sense for God to come to earth in such an unexpected way, and is meant to climax with the line “…a truth we could see if we had but faith!” 

But hilariously, this is the one word of the speech that Whitlock fails to remember.  Faith is precisely what Hollywood’s big religious epic doesn’t have.  (We are shown by a similar failure to deliver a line in another film we see in production, “Merrily We Dance,” that just as classic Hollywood can’t really portray faith, it can’t portray complexity.)

Upon reflection we notice that there are five types of faith, or attempts at faith, that Hail, Caesar!  directs our attention to: 1) the (mainly) Christian faith the Bible-blockbusters of the era are trying to pander to and inspire, 2) the faith of the Hollywood communists in their cause, 3) the personal religious faith of the main character, the studio-fixer Eddie Mannix, 4) the faith Mannix comes to more firmly have in the value of what his studio does, and 5), Jewish faith.  The last of these five is only fleetingly referred to, and the first two of these five are mocked.

Communist Faith

Now I am all for mockery of American communists and their belief in the laws and promises of Marxist “science.”  The scenes of Baird Whitlock being won over by his captors, a hapless collection of disgruntled screenwriters and intellectuals, deliver an abundance of this.  A high point comes when they row out in a boat from their posh beach-house to make a secret rendezvous with a Soviet submarine, by which an agent is to be smuggled back to Moscow, and the ransom money they’ve secured from Whitlock’s abduction is to be sent as a gift to Stalin and co.  On a moonlight night, with somber Russian choral music playing in the background, up out of the waters ascends the submarine’s battlement, festooned with the Red Star, and the Hollywood commies, ridiculously outfitted in matching rain-gear, ooh and aah in this moment wherein they are come near to touching the far-flung fingers of what to them is sacred.

One critic interpreted this as representing the Coens ironically mocking the anti-communist hysteria of the era, which involved many false fears, such as ones about Soviet subs off the coast.  But it doesn’t matter a whit if there never were such subs, as it is what the symbolic optics tell us about the religious instinct of these communists that is important here—and besides, there were real-enough subterranean Hollywood connections to the Soviet espionage and propaganda machine. 

What the Coens are really mocking, and really delivering a small portion of pay-back for, is the many-decades-long fervor on the part of the anti-anti-communists of Hollywood in making such a big deal about the abuses committed against left-leaning Hollywood folks during the 50s while downplaying the reality that communists had infiltrated the industry, and further, making no real repentance for their own viciousness against sincere anti-communists who sought to fight that infiltration.  I have no desire to wade into those old disputes in which wrongs were done on both sides, but if have to, I know I’m going to side much more with the likes of Ronald Reagan, Elia Kazan, and Robert Rossen, and against those Hollywood lefties who subjected us to so many self-righteous woe-filled speeches over the years as well as not a few sentimental, exaggerated, and even plain-old lying films about the blacklist.  What makes me burn even more, as a scholar of cinema that has depicted the truth about communism, is that these same people worked hand in hand with the actual communists to give us shockingly few films on the subject backed by major studios, even managing to abort very necessary films like an adaptation of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.  

(photo:  The “Hollywood Ten”)

So the foolish knaves behind all that, and films like Mission to Moscow, Reds, The Front, Julia, and Trumbo, get a small taste of their just desserts in these scenes, although the Coens are in a mirthful mood totally free of anger.  We see the simplistic Baird Whitlock being genially won over by the communists’ solve-all scientific talk, hear funny debates (i.e., funny to those who’ve read some Marxist philosophy) about whether the key to it all is economics or history, and get to witness the top German Marxist scholar in their midst, Dr. Marcuse, who has previously laid down an awesomely abstract discourse about the “split” nature of every institution, becoming dazed in turn when Whitlock recounts to him an incident that reveals the labyrinthine sexual and social-life politics of the Hollywood set. 

There of course was a real Marcuse connected to the Frankfurt school of Marxism best-known for its criticism of pop-culture, a fact which has elicited some interesting remarks about the deeper message of Hail, Caesar! from NR’s main film critic Armond White.  What I notice is that as Marcuse later became famous for developing a theoretical bridge from proletarian class struggle to sexual liberation, which as far as I can judge was the only rigorously Marxist justification possible for the Sexual Revolution of the 60s.  It thus seems the Coens are jokingly suggesting that Marcuse first needed to be schooled by a Hollywood libertine like Whitlock. 

Hail, Caesar! allows us from the safety and retrospect of 2016 to look upon the original Hollywood communists as the ridiculous men they were at heart.  Maybe it goes too far in making them figures of fun, but little else would work in a satire like this, and it doesn’t entirely let us forget their capacity for real viciousness—at the moment when Whitlock, who has been most friendly with his captors and half-converted by their ideology, suggests in the spirit of bargaining that he might “name names” if he doesn’t get a cut of the money that’s being won for his own ransom, we quickly see our apparently harmless Hollywood communists turn rather grim.  Obviously, they would crucify anyone they suspected of that.  As the real ones and their apologists all too reliably did. 

Good for the Coens.  Commies stink, and the odor that follows in their wake, an odor of amoral lying and slandering in America, intermingled with the distant reek of a hundred-million corpses and ten-thousand interrogation rooms, hasn’t yet left the unrepentant and willfully denialist portions of the Hollywood-Sundance set.

However, if the communist faith is shown by the Coens to be ridiculous and productive of evil, maybe the same applies to the other faiths displayed in Hail, Caesar! 

Bible-Blockbuster Faith

There’s two things to consider here, and only one of them is properly called Bible-Blockbuster faith.  (I.e., it turns out that the first category of faith I listed above has to be split into two faiths.) First, there is the actual typical faith of large majorities of Americans in the late 40s and early 50s, a period Ross Douthat’s excellent book Bad Religion recounts as the high-point of religion in post-WWI America.  These believers are mostly Christian, although there is a small number who are Jewish.  If the Bible-Blockbuster films (Quo Vadis, The Robe, Ben-Hur, and The Ten Commandments being the best-known) are to succeed, they must be liked by the Christian believers, but not only liked by them, as Hollywood’s most dependable ticket-buyers have always come from the ranks of the more-worldly.  So Christian religion has to be depicted, but in a way that is friendly to those only nominally committed to it or who are simply outside of it.  And since it is common knowledge that a number of studio owners are Jewish, particular care must be taken to make sure the Christian audience does not think the stories are being told from their perspective. 

Those factors seem to have lead Hollywood to the following imperatives:  1) include some group of glamorous pagans, either Romans or Egyptians, which will allow the studio to do its usual sex-appeal thing, and to really unleash its spectacle-producing powers, 2) include a sceptical yet sympathetic character or two, the model being that of Petronius in Quo Vadis, and have at least one of these be converted to the faith, and, 3) through dialogue or even narration, emphasize the objective/historical case for how the new faith, regardless of whether it was really from God, impacted the development of Western Civilization in positive way, thus tying it to values treasured by post-WWII modern men and women like compassion and freedom.  Overall, both believers and non-believers can like films made according to these guidelines; moreover, the potentiality for conflicts between different Christian denominations about the right perspective will be minimized, and so will the more dangerous-to-Hollywood potentiality for conflicts between Jewish and Christian perspectives. 

If you were to attempt to give these films a serious motto, it would have to be:  Long Live Judeo-Christianity!  

All of this means, however, that the Bible-Blockbuster religion depicted on the screen is going to be in significant ways distinct from actual Christian religion (or, in the relevant parts of Ben-Hur and the whole of the Ten Commandments, from actual Jewish religion).  Hollywood owners, executives, and directors can sincerely believe that such Bible-Blockbuster religion is a unifying and salutary thing to portray for the nation, and more importantly, they can know that it is a very profitable thing to portray.  But in the Coens’ telling, the problem is that Bible-Blockbuster religion cannot but be deceptive, hypocritical, and at the deepest level, faithless.  Many of the key actors and many of the key film-makers will not believe in the relevant actual religions, and any serious believers that are on the set may either disagree with the religion that is being depicted, or disagree with one another about its correct interpretation.  On the doctrinal level, it is only going to fully work for those who are in the vague sense believers but who have decided not to look into doctrine or the pages of scripture very much.  On the dramatic level, it is going to involve actors, writers, and image-makers imitating a faith that many of them don’t have, and which is itself perhaps impossible to depict.

So the Bible-Blockbuster is going to have to primarily make faith seem to be a matter of melodramatic emotional inspiration, which from another angle, is a matter of manipulation.   Hollywood magic, used…well, used for what?  Not simply for escapist entertainment, but for more firmly setting the religion of America? 

Even if that magic can be used to shore up a broad and vague Judeo-Christian belief, it risks generating a thirst for the magic simply, and for the pleasure of Beholding simply, as the final shot of the film suggests.  We are again shown the massive studio lot with all of its sound-stage buildings, each of which is cranking out an entertainment that focuses upon some facet of human reality and/or fantasy, and we see that rising above all this is a water-tower(from a Western-set?), labeled with the word “Behold.”  (This might be read as a flattened version of the Babel image, in which human endeavor is dedicated not to rising up to challenge the Divine, but is instead channeled into comprehensive visual/poetic reproduction of merely human variety.) 

In any case, as the camera pans still upward, to where the sun in this most sunnily-lit of films ought to be, the credits begin with “Directed and Written by Ethan and Joel Coen” superimposed over the place of the sun.  To this world, they are as God—yes, what they have portrayed was not their own ex nihilo creation, having been formed out of pre-existing stories and cultural materials, but certainly, it was their light that illumined everything.  So it has been, they are saying, with every film directed by anyone, even the Bible-blockbuster ones that could only half-heartedly try to point to the real God, and towards a religion that would, if really followed, tend to lead us away from the addiction to visual delight, to Beholding anything that moves under the sun.  That addiction really is Hollywood’s raison d’etre, and it is in fundamental opposition to the Biblical call to obey the God who is invisible, and in the Christian telling, who is the Word. 

One Christian’s Reactions

Now I am less pessimistic than the Coens about Bible-linked films.  I think the one whose success really set the trend going in the 50s, the 1951 version of Quo Vadis, is a very strong film adaptation of a very good historical novel, despite a few creaky/corny moments.  Maybe if I knew the backstory behind the making of the film—i.e., the sort of thing Hail, Caesar! provides with respect to its own Bible Blockbuster–I would be less inspired by it.  That is precisely why I don’t want to know that story.  That applies even more to the mini-series/film Jesus of Nazareth, a work of uncanny quality and power, made by the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli with an all-star and heavily British cast  in 1977, well after the initial Bible-Blockbuster trend but in time to help aide the 70s/80s evangelical boom.  That film, which benefited from aspects of the 60s revolutionary spirit still in the air, and thus able to reach the likes of John Lennon (scroll to the end of my final “Imagine” essay), does show you that the 50s-model did not lock film art’s approach to Biblical subjects into a set pattern. 

If I have various reservations about both Quo Vadis and Jesus of Nazareth, I am the sort of Christian who says you ought to see both films, and let them strengthen your existing Christian faith if you have that, or if not, to let them lead you to considering such faith more seriously.  I am not necessarily in favor of more and more Bible films being made—I passed on The Passion in 2004 and may not rouse myself to see Risen this yearI’m just saying that the some of the best of them really are of high quality, and that they have convinced me enough regarding their overall sincerity that I am willing to recommend them for use in Christian evangelism and formation. 

So for myself, Hail, Caesar! put me in the awkward position of joining the audience in tittering at the satire of classic Hollywood depiction of Biblical themes, and not being sure if that was intended to lead me to dismiss and distrust at least a couple of films that I truly love.  Indeed, I wondered if it was intended to do even more than that. 

(photo: Quo Vadis)

While it is likely a mistake to interpret the other films we see being produced at Capitol Pictures as obvious specimens of Hollywood dreck–a point I made in my previous post on the film–, there can be no question that “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” is being presented as such.  For example, near the very start of the film there’s a bit of a depiction of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, that for some reason, probably due to the smarmy-sounding narrator, got me giggling a bit, and even before the “Depiction of the Godhead to Be Shot” frame was thrown in.  (That most ingenious and suggestive device is used to show that it’s a film-within-a-film we’ve been watching so far, which in the real film is being shown in a screening room because it’s not yet finished.)  And of course, when we later return to the filming of “Hail, Caesar!” and see Antonius pushing his way ahead of line of slaves seeking water from a well, only to be idiotically stunned when he is faced by Jesus himself, a Jesus we can only see the back of but who is unmistakably marked out by a lacquered golden-blond hair-do that seems to glow, we can’t help but laugh. 

But wait, wait–we’re laughing at Jesus!  Well, as my distinction between the Bible-Blockbuster religion that is being mocked and the real one that isn’t exactly portrayed suggests, that might be okay.  That’s not Jesus, after all, nor a faithful depiction of Him.  Or as the Catholic News Service review of the film puts it:

In assessing such material, mature viewers will need to discern whether, in their judgment, faith itself is being ridiculed or merely the cheapening of sacred beliefs at the hands of crude moviemakers and misguided devotees…

Still, technically considered, it remains the case that these Coens have found a way to get a Christian viewer like myself chuckling at an image of Jesus.  As we’ll explore in my next post, that’s unlikely to be accidental.  For while we must acknowledge that the film’s mockery of Bible-Blockbuster religion is not, contrary to what our immediate impression of the film’s surface might imply, a mockery of Christianity itself, I suspect that immediate impression points below our more considered judgment to a third and yet deeper level of meaning.

As thinking about some certain odd elements in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis led me to the unexpected interpretation that it was in some fundamental manner an anti-abortion film, my thinking about Hail, Caesar! is presently heading towards the idea that it is in some similarly fundamental yet cloaked way an anti-Christianity film.  However, if I am right, the critique of Christianity is not coming from a typical breezily progressivist/atheist point of view, or even from a tougher nihilist one, but from the very specific (even if perhaps by the Coens only provisionally adopted) perspective of Jewish faith. 

I don’t feel obvious offense at this possibility, as I hope Jewish readers won’t at my suggestion that there is some serious Jewish deviousness at work here.  After all, I do mean serious, I do mean Jewish, and I do believe in the artistic and didactic necessity for certain kinds of deviousness. 

So next time, hopefully after readers have chimed in with their thoughts, we’ll be exploring whether this Jewish critique is really present, whether the personal Catholic faith of the main character provides any counter-balancing defense of Christianity, what to make of the faith he also places in Hollywood movie-making, and finally, whether and to what extent the Coen Brothers endorse any of these faiths. 

I’ve only shown here that they dismiss and mock communist faith outright, and that they humorously highlight contradictions in the strange synthesis that was 1950s Bible-Blockbuster “faith,” a message which obviously might have some application to contemporary Bible-linked films.  So, we have more interpretive work to do before we will have arrived at a place where we can see the full range of questions about religion that this apparently quite light work of cinematic art is actually inviting us to consider.

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