Postmodern Conservative

That Old-Time Hollywood Religion, Part Two

More Faith-Related Aspects of HAIL, CAESAR!

The latest film by the Coen Brothers, Hail, Caesar!, nostalgically and satirically portrays the Hollywood of the studio-centered 40s-50s era.  I think it’s quite entertaining, working both for those who want pure diversion and for those who want intellectually rich thematic material, but it hasn’t been a hit, and in most locales it’s now too late to see it on the big screen.

As underlined in part one of this essay, its most prominent theme concerns faith, whether religious or not.  There are five (or six) kinds of faith it deals with:  1) Christian faith and/or the “Bible-Blockbuster faith” that represents it on screen, 2) communist faith, 3) Eddie Mannix’s personal religious faith, 4) faith in Hollywood itself, and 5) Jewish faith.  The first part of “That Old-Time Hollywood Religion” dealt with the first two of these, and this part deals with the rest. 

The Work of the Fixer

Hail, Caesar! takes us through a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, whose job it is to keep the various films being produced at Capitol Pictures on schedule.  He is a bit like the hands-on producer Stahr that F. Scott Fitzgerald presented in his Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon, in that he is the on-the-scene authority at the studio, but unlike him in having only marginal say about artistic content, and in being essentially a servant-manager, implementing the wishes of the New York City-based, and apparently Jewish, studio head.

Mannix’s most prominent duty is keeping the studio’s actors and directors out of scandal, often by means of cover-ups.  We see him warn a director not to be seen in public with a particular woman, squelch a starlet’s foray into posing for soft-porn “French postcards,” arrange an odd adoption-scheme to hide a much bigger star’s, DeeAnn Moran’s, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, pay ransom money when the star of the studio’s Bible-blockbuster, Baird Whitlock, is kidnapped, and keep a sordid sex story about him out of the papers.  We see him working to maintain the studio’s various marketing fictions:  that Whitlock is a “family man,” that Moran’s innocent image is true, and that two younger stars are romantically involved.  Mannix knows all about Whitlock’s usual bender-spots and mistresses, and gathers similar inside information on most others in the studio’s employ.  He is on familiar, and small-bribe passing, terms with the LA police, and in two scenes we see him strike and physically intimidate actors.  In all these ways he is like the real historical figure of the studio era named Eddie Mannix, a mobbish fixer for MGM whose activities and characteristics are summed-up by John Podhoretz here:

According to E.J. Fleming’s book The Fixers, Mannix arranged abortions, set up beard marriages, bribed cops and journalists, suborned perjury, rearranged crime scenes, got people to confess falsely to crimes committed by stars, and gathered blackmail evidence against others to use as bargaining chips. …He had numerous affairs, beat his wife…

Etc.  But what is different about the Coens’ Mannix is that he sincerely is a family man and a Roman Catholic.  We see that he loves his kids, and we cannot imagine him beating or cheating upon his wife.  We see him do, or get hints that he does, most of the real Mannix’s fixing maneuvers just listed (with the exception of the blackmailing and abortion-arranging), but always in a way that diminishes the hoody aspect.

Podhoretz interprets the use of Mannix’s name and the twist of characterization as an in-joke:  the Coens are themselves rewriting, that is, covering-up, the corruption of Hollywood’s top corruption-cover-upper.  And for most of the audience who would not be in on the joke, they are lightening the truth about classic Hollywood. 

This is right as far as it goes, but what it misses is that through the half-decency of their Mannix, the Coens are exploring whether such a man could exist, and, through that, what would be the best case that could be made for 50s-era Hollywood hypocrisy.  Such a case would rest on there having been enough real Hollywood leaders and artists who were at least like the Coens’ Mannix in being willing to compromise with indecency and employ official hypocrisy, for the sake of the money, sure, but also for the sake of not foisting something shamelessly indecent upon their society. 

Surely there were a significant number of such persons.  Were they to have a spokesman, he would say “America will have its movie entertainment one way or the other, and so it’s better if it will be the most decent, the most artistic, and the most nation-unifying entertainment possible within the bounds set by the existing studio system and market demand.  We grant that only so much decency and artistry is possible within those bounds, but the only other choice is open collective resignation to the notion that show business is at bottom a vice-feeding racket.  Such a resignation would fill American theaters with porny, stupid, and otherwise base films, and lead to the legislatures trying to clamp down anyhow.  The better way, however, requires organized hypocrisy.” 

Were this spokesman one who could see our 2016 situation, he would add, “You see what it becomes without a unified front for the sake of decency.  You now have a very fragmented audience, and the films striving for dramatic quality do not gain much of it, do they?  Whatever period from the 40s to the 80s you regard as the high-point for cinema, you have to admit that by your time an overall diminishment of quality has occurred, and there has been a huge increase in the amount of content that is merely adolescent and/or spectacle-centered; and of course, there is also the open pandering to vice and disordered emotions—such as apocalyptic ones– that we seldom saw in the 50s.”   

To put it in a way more specific to Hail, Caesar!, by the end of the film Mannix has come to fuller belief in the value of his job, and so he could plausibly make an argument like this:  “Were it not for my fixing, the studio’s inspiring, Western-Civ upholding, and—hey—at least somewhat artistic, Bible-Blockbuster film would have been spoiled for the public by revelations that its top star is a decadent libertine who broke into pictures by providing homosexual favors to a top director, and who also willingly joined the Communist Party after having been kidnapped by it.  What possible good would that have done for American society?”

I’m not saying this line of argument entirely works, and especially over the long run.  As I once said, in a post titled “Cary Grant Did Acid,”

…for those who want to long for the good old America portrayed by classic Hollywood, before liberals messed everything up, when men were men, women women, and everyone dressed so proper, it does not really compute that Grant became an acid-apostle. Nor do they want to admit that the free-love of the hippies was to a certain extent an attempt to democratize Grant’s movie-star experience of fooling around quite a bit.

Retrospective consideration shows us there was no way the studios were going to indefinitely keep America from perceiving and wanting in some way to try out the libertinism that had developed among the fast Hollywood set.

Still, the Coens’ Mannix character is a way to embody classic Hollywood’s hypocrisy, one that served the bottom-line, but which could sincerely and reasonably be believed to also serve the pictures’ quality and the nation’s health.  It is thus key that he is not thoroughly shady like the real Mannix, but only half-shady.  The Coens’ representative Hollywood man is one whose nature is split in two, like the disconnected lower-half and upper-half of the massive Caesar statue we see on the studio lot.  They are suggesting it is Mannix’s sort of split nature, rather than the Marxist theory of split institutions put forward by the Marcuse character, that reveals the key aspects of our culture, at least as it existed in those days. 

Mannix believes in the life of decency.  He lives it in his personal life.  And part of his job’s value for him must be the way it seeks to protect decency for the public.  But obviously, Hollywood’s dynamics that most shape the culture, namely a) its constant pushing—Behold–of dramatic and visual delight, b) its continual temptation to provide the baser sorts of such delights, and c) its off-screen example of celebrity-life set by its stars, are ones that threaten to promote a way life that dispenses with decency.  Can such dynamics be controlled?  Channeled?  For a time, perhaps; but not indefinitely.  In any case, “fixing” requires Mannix to put aside key aspects of his own decency for the work-day.  That’s likely why he goes to confession almost every day.

The Faith of the Fixer

The film begins in a Catholic church, with Mannix in the confessional stall.  His confessor believes he comes “too much.”  Sure enough, 27 hours later and near the end of the film, he is there again.  He does not confess the several lies/subterfuges we have have seen him orchestrate over the course of the day.  Rather, he confesses missing dinnertime with the kids, sneaking several cigarettes in violation of his promise to his wife to quit, and his “striking a movie star in anger.”  We have seen him strike two stars, but apparently, the first incidence of this is not regarded as a sin by Mannix, and the second would not have been, had his calculated (studio-serving) rationale for striking Whitlock not gotten mixed-up with his own anger.  But what matters most is that we see that Eddie really is in anguish, and most of all when saying that his job “is hard.” 

So he appears blind to certain of his specific sins on the job, but likely some dim awareness of their being wrong explains his robust sense of his overall sinfulness.  In the first session, he is let go with a certain number of Hail Mary’s to say—of course, through his work, he will also be “hailing Caesar” all day. 

But in other ways Mannix has little acquaintance with the Catholic faith.  In the scene in which he consults the clergymen about their pre-screening of “Hail Caesarl!  A Tale of the Christ” for overall appropriateness, several of them begin talking about the doctrine that Christ has two natures, and it is clear he has never heard of it before!  He is surprised and puzzled by the formulation, although he eventually recovers his wits tries to rein-in the (funny) dispute its mention generates between the Christian clergymen and the rabbi. 

We also get no sense of his being familiar with the Bible, which, sure, could be taken as a basic trait of pre-Vatican II Catholics, but with him it goes so far that he can say to the clergymen that “The Bible’s fine, but for many people, pictures will be their reference point.  People come to pictures for inspiration, information, and yes, entertainment.”  So we can tell he is a stranger to the usual church-ways of speaking about the Bible, and, when he talks proudly to them about how the tribune character will meet “this swell figure from the East,” even to the usual ways of speaking about Jesus.

If a Rod Dreher-type writer were to accuse Mannix of being essentially un-catechized, and perhaps no Christian at all, we might be inclined to agree.  We’d only hesitate because of his strong sense of guilt, his devotion to family life, and most of all, because of his coming to God for guidance about his key career decision—both through private prayer and through the intermediary of his confessor.  Still, the guilt and family-devotion could be dismissed as traits of a merely cultural Catholicism, and his search for guidance concludes in an arguably superficial way, for the instant he hears the priest give what he takes to be God’s answer, he doesn’t want to hear anything more.  The priest, having heard him say his job is “hard” but nonetheless seems “right,” simply says that “God wants us to do what is right,” and that settles it for Mannix.

So a strong case could be made that Mannix’s Christian faith only functions in a limited way, and so much so that it is barely Christian.  If one accepts that case, it would mean that just as in A Serious Man the Coens displayed several weak and watered-down deployments of Jewish faith in the persons of the first three of the four rabbis the main character of seeks advice from, in Hail, Caesar! they have displayed three pretty sorry specimens of Christian faith:  a) that conveyed by the Bible-blockbuster film, discussed in the last post, b) that of Eddie Mannix, and c) that of the three clergymen, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox.   

The scene of Mannix meeting with them is played for laughs, but I think it means to show us that the official high doctrinal version of Christianity also rings fairly hollow—its guardians and representatives come across as rather defensive, argument-prone, and too reliant on a kind of hammy-mystic delivery of theological formulas.  The rabbi runs circles around them.  When Mannix is befuddled by the quick explanations they give about the two natures of Christ, the rabbi says he’s right to be confused, because these guys are “screwballs.”  When the Eastern Orthodox priest grandly pronounces that God “Is Who He Is,” the rabbi says something like “This is supposed to be profound?  What isn’t what it is?”

The Jewish Critique

The rabbi is sharp, has a cultivated but modern look and manner, and is adamant and blunt about stating the Jewish perspective.  “The Nazarene was not God!” he insists to the face of his Christian counterparts.  To Mannix’s query about whether his co-religionists would find anything objectionable about the film, he indicates that while any visual depiction of God is strictly forbidden for faithful Jews, Jesus’s depiction doesn’t matter since they do not regard him as God.  That’s why, when asked about his attitude towards the film, his funny response is a shrugging “Meh!”

The scene delivers a Jewish critique of Christianity itself, and of the controversy-avoiding “Judeo-Christianity” cultivated by the Bible-Blockbuster movies.  I certainly appreciate the second point:  real believers in Christianity and Judaism are going to find themselves led into deep and likely pain-giving disputes whenever they truly discuss their faiths together.  But it’s important to focus on a particularly Jewish aspect of this.  By and large, it was Jewish studio owners who backed the Bible-Blockbuster movies.  These have a “Judeo-Christian” feel, and yet many, particularly Quo Vadis, The Robe, Ben-Hur, and the fictional film here, also preach the basic truth of ChristianityIn these films the Nazarene really is God.  They may not pose any frontal offense to Jewish belief, and in various ways compliment it, but they are clearly working against it on this key point.

So by portraying the rabbi, the Coens are finally letting us see the sparks fly, finally allowing an unapologetically Jewish critique of Christianity get a mainstream cinematic presentation.  It is likely also a rebuke to those Jewish studio owners for being too amenable to Christian tastes for secular reasons.

But the critique is not limited to that one scene; it is spread throughout the film, and it goes further than simply an attack on “Hollywood religion.” 

First, we have seen that at least two of the three versions of Christian faith that are portrayed, and maybe three out of the three, are unimpressive.  In the case of Bible-Blockbuster faith, the portrayal emphasizes the outright ridiculous—Baird Whitlock can’t remember the word “faith,” and a studio-hand has to ask the actor playing the-always-shot-from-behind Jesus whether he’s “a principal or an extra.”  Real Christian faith cannot be portrayed by these films, and Jesus is nearly incidental to them. 

I will speak for my fellow Christians at this point, and affirm our duty to detest watered-down versions of Christianity.  Thus, we agree with the points the Coens are making against this Hollywood representation of our faith, and cannot take much if any offense at the ridiculousness used to make them.  But it’s genuinely painful to see the other two representations of Christian faith, of Mannix’s limited and ignorant faith and of the three clergymen’s formulaic official faith, and to feel the plausibility of the shortcomings presented.

Second, slipped into the middle of the film is a scenario that alludes to the idea that the Virgin Birth was a sham, i.e., that Mary made up her story to cover-over an out-of-wedlock conception.  Capitol Studios churns out a number of aquatic musicals starring one DeeAnna Moran, and apparently one key to her audience appeal is her projection of a certain innocence.  She is anything but the innocent vision of womanhood the public sees on screen, but a vulgar-mouthed dame, and far more importantly, one who has gotten pregnant without being married.  Mannix cooks up a scheme to hide this fact.  She will adopt a child, but this adoption will be preceded by another adoption hidden from the public eye in which a studio functionary adopts her child, which she will then adopt back.  So her child will remain hers, but without any movie-threatening scandal.  

Podhoretz points out that the Hollywood actress Loretta Young really did this with an out-of-wedlock child of hers and Clark Gable, but what matters more for us is the name of the studio functionary who adopts the child in this Coen Brothers’ film:  Joseph.  No accident that.  What is more, in what seems to merely be an oddly incongruous twist when we first learn of it, DeeAnna falls in love with him, and they go off to get a 3 a.m. marriage in Palm Springs.  So, a Joseph steps in as husband to cover-over an illegitimate birth.   That is precisely the line taken by the classic calumny directed at the Virgin Birth.  That line is not, of course, tied to a uniquely Jewish critique of Christianity, even if it was first aired by Jews, but it certainly is one of the ruder and more aggressive of the arguments deployed against Christianity over the ages.  Its slightly-cloaked presence here tells us much about the film’s overall attitude towards Christian faith.

Third, and most interestingly, the Coens present the Jewish critique that Christianity violates the prohibition upon graven images, and particularly in its permitting depiction of the Godhead incarnated and use of such depictions in worship.  This critique was picked up by the Muslims and to a lesser extent by the Christian-iconoclasts.  As I’ve mentioned previously, the first shot of the film depicts a Catholic church’s crucifix depiction of Jesus, and the last shot is of a water-tower on the studio lot upon which has oddly been painted the word “Behold.”  Are the Coens suggesting that Christianity’s incarnational and eventually icon-permitting theology paved the cultural way for our 20th and 21st century substitution of obsessive image-beholding for real faith in the invisible God? 

Early on, we see that the “Hail Caesar!” scene of Saul-soon-to-become-Paul being blinded by an appearance of Christ is not yet finished—a white announcement frame saying “Depiction of the Godhead Still to be Shot” is inserted in the place where Saul (but not, interestingly, his travel companions, who only hear a voice–see Acts 9:3-8, 17) sees the Christ.  And at the end of the credits of the real Hail, Caesar!, the Coens place a jokey, “No depiction of the Godhead was presented in the course of this film,” disclaimer there.  Thus, our attention is several times called to this theme. 

The subject of Judaism and the plastic arts is a complex one, and scholars are not always certain which prohibitions were adhered to in any given era.  For example, the entry in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia indicates that portrait painting was never an issue, but it also tells us this: 

And whatever the Church did during the Middle Ages toward developing art, in the eyes of Judaism the images of Jesus and the Virgin, of the apostles and the saints, presented a relapse into pagan idolatry, warning the Jew all the more strongly against the cultivation of the plastic arts, since both the making of or the trading with any such images as might be used for the Christian cult was forbidden…

But this aspect of the “Jewish critique” cuts in a number of ways that go far beyond Christianity.  If, as I think the film hints at, it was the belief that Jesus was one with the Father, eventually elucidated by the theology of the incarnation and His dual nature, that gave the gentile obsession with the visual (that only been excluded from the faith of Israel by the graven image commandment) a crack by which to enter into the new purportedly-Bible-grounded faith, an obsession that many centuries later flourished through the departure from the non-realistic iconographic tradition taken in the Renaissance, and eventually exploding upon the invention of motion pictures and the provision of every human on the planet with screen-devices which personally cater to their various visual itches, then, well, a lot more than Christianity is implicated.  The classic (and disproportionately Jewish-led) Hollywood, for one, the film industry of today, for two, and the more independent filmmakers like the Coens themselves, for three.   Oh, and all the plastic art not permitted by a very rigorist interpretation of Judaism that has ever been made, also.  

What is more, while the Coens present a Judaism-rooted critique in this film, of Christianity and of image-making more generally, they provide us no positive case for Jewish faith within it.  They stay reticent about what that faith means to them.  The rabbi character is fairly impressive, yes.  But his final word is “Meh!”  His ultimate function for the Coens is negative.  He simply provides a standpoint–a much better one than that of the ridiculous Marxists–from which to conduct a fundamental critique. 

The critique from that standpoint seems to say the following.  Christianity was flawed at the roots.  Since those flaws infected the overall culture built upon it, its dynamic turned out to be ultimately self-destructive.  This can be seen in the powerlessness of the Bible Blockbuster, of Hollywood “half-decency,” and of Judeo/Christian/sane-secularist alliance to keep a Christian-rooted culture like the American one at a sustainable place. That means we all live in a situation shot-through with tragic contradiction.  Ours is a culture simultaneously Christian-rooted and anti-God.  Either the Coens feel that situation is hopeless, or, at the very least, that the efforts in our time to shore up a sane culture against image-obsessed libertine madness and/or child-like regression to Marxist cultism will have to be of a much more serious cast than the efforts undertaken in the 50s by the likes of Mannix.     

Faith in Hollywood

Does my interpretation identify the Coens too closely with my own concerns as a religious social conservative?  Perhaps—but it is telling that most reviewers preferred to see the fun but essentially incidental sailor-musical scene, with its observations about the homoeroticism that could be seen in classic Hollywood films, as such a characteristic one.  Apparently, it’s only that elementary level of the film’s irony, the sort that lends itself to complacent observations about pre-60s hypocrisy, that they felt led to explore.  And whatever the film was saying about religion they would understand along those lines.

Part of the reason we know the interpretation of the film as irony-per-usual regarding the bad old days is a wrong one, is how it must handle the fact that the only faith that Hail, Caesar! seems to endorse is one in Hollywood movie-making itself. 

The film’s resolution occurs when Mannix decides to keep his job at the studio, despite his having been offered a less demanding and more security-promising job from Lockheed.  This was foreshadowed by his earlier bristling at the Lockheed executive’s characterization of his studio job as essentially unserious and akin to “running a circus.” Mannix is able to make the decision because he spells out for himself what his negative reaction to the Lockheed guy really meant:  something about this job seems worth all the trouble, seems “right.”  He thus arrives at a final faith in the value of his Hollywood work. 

By the irony-as-per-usual interpretation, the irony here is that in myriads of ways, the Coens are showing us that films produced by his studio are pretty bad.  His apparent personal triumph amounts to his coming to hold a belief in something manifestly unworthy of it.  

Well, of course a satire of classic Hollywood is going to highlight the ridiculous sides of it.  And of course the studio system produced many awful films, and is a generally target-rich field for satire.  But the Coens can’t be saying that only some of the studios were producing dreck, and that they designed their fictional Capitol Pictures studio to represent that.  Rather, they designed it to stand for the studio system generally, and they know that system produced a lot of gems amid the mediocre dreck.  The very fact that some of the films most obviously satirized here, such as Anchors Away! and Ben-Hur, are not obviously bad and maybe even pretty good, indicates plenty.  And overall, there is just too much appreciative nostalgia here amid the pointed satire to dismiss Mannix’s belief in the value of his studio’s work as an utterly misguided one. 

We are also obliged to notice what saves the day in terms of the plot, i.e., that which gets Baird Whitlock rescued.  It is Mannix trusting Hobie Doyle, the unsophisticated cowboy actor, with the inside information that Whitlock is being held for ransom.  This is a spontaneous decision, and Mannix doesn’t expect Doyle to do anything about it.  But later, Doyle notices the commie villain carrying the very suitcase with the ransom money that Mannix had showed him.  He follows him to the lair, and thus is able to extract Whitlock from the nest of commies before the cops arrive.  In all of this he acts just like the cowboy heroes he plays on screen.

All of this depended on Mannix having a faith-like belief that movie stars ought to stick by their studio, stick up for the values of their nation, and that Hobie Doyle is representative of these beliefs.  Doyle is one of those real cowboys—leftovers from the fading ranching days–who were commonly employed by classic Hollywood for stunts, horse-handling, and western features.  See any decent biography of the director John Ford for more on this fascinating aspect of early tinsel-town.  Doyle is both the real, and the artificial, representative of old-time American goodness. 

That overlap of the real, the fake, and the belief in the fakery making things more real, is also signaled by the way Doyle’s studio-concocted date with the Carmen Miranda character turns out to have a real romantic charm to it—in pretending for the public to be interested in one another, the two young actors might really come to be so.  That obviously has a wider application.

During one exchange with one of the scandal journalists, Mannix responds a declamation about readers wanting the “Truth!” by saying that “people don’t want facts, they want to believe.”   As the narrator says at one point, Capitol Pictures is giving its customers a constant stream of stories that are a “balm” for the toil of their work-a-day lives.  At one level these stories are diversion simply, but Mannix seems to think that at another level the studio is giving the public stories and characters that they can believe in, and ones that it is good for them to believe in.  Were more Americans to be influenced by the example of Hobie Doyle’s cowboy heroes, for example, they would be the better for it. 

In sum, the tragedy inherent in Mannix’s belief in his work, and thus in that of the studio’s, is not that it is inherently shoddy work.  Classic Hollywood’s mixed bag of delights compares very favorably to what we have today, and Hail, Caesar! shows why one could come to throw oneself into having a kind of faith in it.  

The tragedy is rather seen in what I discussed above, namely, the fact that Hollywood really did have an overall destructive dynamic in the way it impacted our culture.  Indecency was going to triumph, and with a substantial assist from it.  So perhaps there really was no point–beyond the short-term money-making one–in all the strenuous and ethically dicey work the Coen’s Mannix did, and all the similar work many real Hollywood-ians did, to protect the public’s partial innocence and respectability.  Even less than a decade later, you find figures like director John Ford lamenting that the deliberate provision of indecent content was taking over.  That has to mean that Mannix’s type of belief in Hollywood was largely mistaken—it could only function for a limited period of history. 

More deeply, Mannix’s Hollywood was aiding in the cultural elevation of the Image, of the Screen, that today all Christians and Jews, and anyone with even an iota of sympathy for Biblical religion, can agree is a threat to the survival of belief in the God of Moses and Paul, and to much else. That much from the way the Coens play with a rigorist Jewish critique of graven images, has be taken seriously by one and all.   

Still, it’s hard not to feel a nostalgic wish that the center held by the likes of Eddie Mannix couldn’t have been held for longer.

 

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