© 2016 by James Clark
While it is indubitable that the new film by the Coens, Hail. Caesar! (2016), runs past us a tale impacting as a slice of the early 1950s, it is just as palpable that the thrust of the work is not a nostalgic homage to Hollywood productions of that era. Failing to do justice to that latter gust of skepticism known by gut if not by gab, opens a spigot parading the slight that the film is lower-drawer fluff, released in February because it could never be considered as festival- or prize-worthy. Quite a poke in the eye to greet the lads as if they’d lost it!
Maybe a sense that festivals and prizes are not in the offing does factor here. But maybe the crisis is not about not being good enough but, in an onrush, being too good for a film industry now on track as a very comprehensive juggernaut of lowest-common-denominator escape, availing itself of cutting-edge marketing intent, as a prevailing science, to wipe out the competition. Anyone having made an effort to attend to the dramatic motives and carnal assaults of the work of the Coens could never imagine that they’d settle for geriatric pap.
Hail, Caesar! has been in the works since 2004. Finally finding the optimal architecture for their concern, the auteurs, well-aware of their endangered-species status, invite us to consider the stirrings of a studio trouble-shooter, one Eddie Mannix, and the troubles getting under his skin. The film opens with him paying a very early morning visit to a large and sonically-on-the-go Church, quite desperately clutching his rosary as, in a darkened confessional, he divulges his sin of refusing to quit smoking while lying to his wife that everything is under control. Still trying to figure out how this minor aberration reaches to the depths of the universe, we tag along with him en route to a job which a radio-announcer voice-over (still in the grip of War-reports from the Front) intones to be Medal of Honor worthy. “Many others would regard the hour [4 a.m.] to be still the shank of night and so remain in warm beds; but Eddie’s work-day has begun.” Following up a morality complaint about one of the studio’s actresses (a little fix Eddie resolves in advance of the police), he’s heard to say to a cop, “Can I bum a cigarette?” The thing about the manic energy of our Mannix is that his trouble-shooting (fastidious, personable, razor-sharp resourceful) is clearly compromised by a cast of front-line associates largely mired in hopeless inertia. Early on he attends to three vehicles in the works—a Charlton Heston-like Biblical epic (titled Hail, Caesar [A Tale of the Christ]); a Gene Kelly-like song and dance shot-in-the-arm (titled No Dames); and an Esther Williams-like aquarama (titled Celestial). Each is so patently rancid that no one in his right mind could imagine them being examples of a brilliant past.
As “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Pictures, Eddie brings our way an uprising of the endless wartime at the heart of physical production. Sure, this movie has its share of charm. But, nailed by a dazzling aerial shot of the endless (beach colored) factory-like soundstage buildings of the concern, that air-brushed emission of physical integrity finds itself surrounded by a dead weight. Moreover, that riveting image of gigantism just mentioned comprises a take-off point of surprising promise. Don’t dream for a moment that this is a lightweight holiday! It is very much, however, a climb which market forces—now instilled with additives—do not smile upon.
Eddie checks in by phone with the distant owner of the dream factory and is directed to oversee what would appear to be a mission impossible, to wit, putting into the breach, left by an emergency departure in a project showing idle-rich sophisticates, a young cowboy specialist, Hobie Doyle, unused to extensive speaking parts and particularly unused to speaking other than in a Texas twang. Hobie is a very good-natured employee in the service of physical production and gives the part everything he’s got. But his elocution leaves a lot to be desired. The director’s Laurence Olivier-like sheen does not, at the outset, at least, prevent him from being gently encouraging (“Very good. Wonderful in fact.”—far more sophisticated amusement than that offered by the project’s script) on seeing that the newcomer is not an easy fit for the part. The line he must induce from the skilled horseman runs, “Would that it were so simple.” After several unsuccessful shots at it, helmsman Laurence Laurentz settles for attempting to put out a bullseye on the order of “…not so simple…” So it transpires that the broad slapstick (Hobie completely flummoxed by the director’s name), with its multiple S.O.S.-resembling calls—Laurentz’s passing muster, Hobie’s flopping—enacts a little task of physical production; and it adds a caveat reaching into deep and dark recesses. (As if this were not enough in the way of the scene’s hilarious surreal magic, bowlegged Hobie is initially tasked with beginning his entry to a Park Avenue cocktail party by emitting “a mirthless chuckle…” That he has trouble with mirthlessness may be an asset in face of the “not so simple.”
Hobie, though not transcending the simple, proves to be a star notwithstanding. Eddie lines him up with a cute young actress, Carlotta Valdez, to accompany him to the premiere of his latest (singing) cowboy feel-good fiesta. (Carlotta describes and demonstrates to him how she—Carmen Miranda-style—dances with ease even when encumbered with accessories like a spread of bananas serving as a hat.) While waiting at the limo outside of Carlotta’s palatial digs, he whiles away the wait by retrieving his lariat, beginning to twirl it modestly—a match to Carmen Miranda’s kooky whimsy—and then, kicking up the difficulty quotient—dancing within the figures (not so simple being embraced)—he reveals an athletic superstar, making moves that make it to NBA highlight reels. The movie they eventually see (neither of them showing any self-conscious stardom or being at the heart of where it’s at) is a slice of understated energy, called Lazy Ol’ Moon. We see a moment of Hobie serenading the moon and a grumpy old guy resenting its leading him to confusion and being so incensed that he plunges into a horse trough to smash its reflection. Another kind of topspin in that scene is Hobie’s voice resembling that of short-lived rockabilly, Buddy Holly. Later that night, at a restaurant to celebrate the occasion, he knots a spaghetti noodle and resumes doing his rope tricks with it at the table, rounding off the blithe affection (for life in general, perhaps extending to Carlotta) by lassoing one of her fingers, this interplay of body language on the part of both of them being exponentially more alive than the various slogging in front of the studio’s cameras. He notices at another table the Gene Kelly shortfall with a leather case he had seen earlier in the day at Eddie’s office (where the difficulties of being a “thespian” were reviewed and bye the bye Mannix venting his anxieties with someone he felt to be trustworthy and responsive, regarding a $100,000 ransom for the release of the star of A Tale of the Christ); and he proceeds from there to tail the sinister sailor, Carlotta good-naturedly taking in stride the abbreviated fun. Her namesake, Carlotta Valdes, a mansion dweller and pretender in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), offers a glimpse of something less than mirthful coming to bear.
A (third!) Valdez, being OK getting short shrift from a quirky sweetheart/sleuth? Sounds a bit like good old Velda, from a film with astonishing range! As we see Hobie tail the money bags (who drives an ostentatious black power wagon, in the mold of one Soberin from that omnipresent noir) to an imposing beach house overlooking the Pacific, we know damn well that that was a shot of good old Velda and that Hobie becomes a sort of momentary good old Mike Hammer broaching the contentious precipice known as Kiss Me Deadly (1955). From the early moments of Hail Caesar, the doping and removal of Capitol’s superstar, Baird Whitlock, before completion of a big, solemn climax, loomed large on Eddie’s physical production plate that day. Dovetailing with the calculated crowd-pleasing (and overweening) religiosity of the hot movie-property, the new venue for Whitlock is a tony retreat where Hobie’s lightheartedness (in the range of Mike’s lightheartedness) is nowhere to be found amongst a cadre of sombre and resentful Screenwriter-Communists (Kiss Me Deadly’s Dr. Soberin, the resident wordsmith/sentimentalist/worry-wart, having been diligent in contributing to the cause in the form of a nuclear bomb. Here the bomb comes at us as a yappy and squirmy little dog, named Engels. The packet of money which spurs Hobie into another mode of dynamics ends up on a rowboat paddled by the priggish scribblers making a rendezvous with a Russian submarine. There the lead foot Kelly—like Soberin headed for egalitarian perfection—self dramatizingly leaps on to the sub and Engels, in boldly following his master, bumps the dough and its leather container—picked up by the actor at the soundstage for No Dames to be presented to the kidnappers, only to have them direct it to the cause—into the deep, not as spectacular a disaster as the frying of LA but a setback to extinguish those enervated, myopic, would-be spoilers.)
The voice-over intermittently (and apparently quixotically) stressing that Eddie is a person of interest was not, as it happens, exaggerating. Hail, Caesar! is a wall-to-wall “physical production.” As we are apprised by the eventuation of a hectic day and night in Tinseltown, physical production has a remarkable dimension of viscosity. The various foibles and pitfalls of an organization comprising volatile personnel are merely the easy part. Eddie is not only a skilful problem-solver on behalf of getting the piggies to market; but he is also about assimilating those steps within a fervent and imperfect overall task of grace. (He is prodded several times by a head-hunter for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, the point being that he has what it takes to bring about the best outcomes from a talent pool rather lacking as self-starters. Whitlock and the mermaid, Dianna Moran, exhibit close to totally dysfunctional levels of energy, and Eddie brings them to points of tranquillity by virtue of his tact, quick-wittedness and, with Whitlock, physically bashing him into some semblance of creativity.)
Though an oddball, Hobie is, like Mike, a natural self-starter; and in coercing the star of an onscreen conversion to the tale of the Christ to drop his Communist bender he spirits the easily brainwashed, witless Whitlock back to his responsibilities to an employer giving both of them much to be grateful for. While this turnaround represents another non-self-serving triumph, it also becomes entangled in a form of distemper not so readily finessed and spreading to the fixer’s agenda for the launch of the studio’s supposed gem comprising Caesar. On coming to (after being slipped a form of anaesthetic), at the modernist mansion overlooking the Pacific, Whitlock hears from his captors that, though they seem to be involved in crime, with murder waiting in the wings, they are in fact “scientists” and their conclave should be seen as “More of a study group…” Being bringers of the backbone of questionable movie products, they vent to the star their sense of not being fairly rewarded and in fact virtual slave-laborers for undeserving bosses wielding capitalist priorities. Dressed in the Roman consul costume he was wearing when he was captured, Whitlock underlines a type of dictatorial and at the same time subversive distemper (subverting the weak and careless) he is not likely to have considered. Though the kidnappers are for the most part donnishly polite, they demur when their visitor insists he has a demanding job to get back to. The spokesman maintains, “I’m afraid it’s not that simple…” We can’t help noticing, though, that from the midst of this study group some form of the simple seems welcome. “Man is a simple economic agent” [a plaything of scientific forces]. Recall that most of these smooth and fanatically ruthless manipulators are employees of Capitol Pictures, introducing to Eddie’s workload something new, and yet something old.
The mirthless militants are carriers of a facile panacea. “It [“science,” “the levers of power”] can be used to help the little guy.” Simple Whitlock is soon onboard— “Of course I’m for the little guy…” That this band of soft smarties, channelling their troubled smarts to effete bullying, refers to itself as “The Future” tells us that it does not in fact coincide with Eddie’s gut-level malaise about grace being in the process of being washed out to sea, as with Engels’ indiscretion. The fixer’s talent does in fact, though, lead him into a fix worsening as time goes by. A special exertion in the works is his convening three local Christian leaders and one Jewish shepherd to gain assurance that the depiction of Jesus in action (in Whitlock’s profit centre) would never offend anyone within their flocks. “Is our depiction fair?” [or, more importantly, impossible to lose a paying customer]. The three variant Christian spokespersons, after showing off a bit of logic chopping about their mission statements (as the Communists would do later in the day) give the studio’s wholesome market screenplay—no doubt written by some of those humanitarian atheists—a vote of confidence. (This vote of confidence was probably helped along by Eddie’s rather oily [and at the same time incisive] claim that movies are about “uplift.”) The rabbi, true to those melancholy optics prescribed by his training, clearing the way toward forgiveness, claims, “I have no opinion.” That does not deter him from referring to his colleagues as “screwballs.” Not under any pressure to deliver big numbers, he sharply deflects the other divines’ charge of his not evoking a loving God: “He loves Jews.”
The box office may resemble a confessional, but each pulls in the opposite direction. All this sweat to make a studio hum has, at its core, an evolving facilitation of mugging the discoveries of art out of the film industry. The wan and transparently cynical sign-off on those three works-in-progress requires those of us who knew Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and Charlton Heston efforts to have arresting if unstable features to see in the footage owned by Capital Pictures where that quality control and its wild surprise factors have migrated to. The Channing Tatum version of Gene Kelly lifts off his gob cap and his hair fluffs out like that of a hayseed. His dancing, and that of his mates at the dockyards bar, is cement-mixer correct. Scarlett Johansson’s mermaid had dead eyes, a waxy complexion to match her grin and cheap impatience written all over her. The compositional wherewithal of her water ballet would be a strip mall claiming to be the Taj Mahal, its Busby-Berkley-ensemble pretension being shot from such a remote distance that we are of a mind to say it’s cartoon animation. The solitude-informed presence and kinetics of Charlton Heston at his best are eclipsed by George Clooney’s pretty-boy, stunned tediousness in the service of cardboard, melodramatic piety. (All three of the actors, scaring us as they do, are to be recognized for their selfless exposure to embarrassments.)
The systematic coercion so central to world historical movements like Communism and Judaeo-Christianity finds in the subject matter and title Hail, Caesar! a way of introducing an up-to-date dictatorship of market forces ever so subtle and ever so efficient. Eddie’s Girl Friday informs, apropos of the rushes of Hail, Caesar! “They changed ‘passion’ to ‘ardor’…” But not all the passion in this lurching narrative, straddling the era of Kiss Me Deadly and The Revenant and The Martian, had been expunged back in the days of Hobie; nor is it absent today (our film in point proving that). The question is, given the dwindling care for film art (art being, in contradistinction to its common dismissal as overrated pretense, far more fertile than crude [but more or less useful] upstarts like religion and science) to transport us to regions of sensibility untouched by other forms of art, how can that métier survive?
Eddie’s day gives us an answer about Hail, Mary’s still in the playbook. But there is no denying that the evolving business of film art—which is the imperative of this Coens’ project—has embarked upon very dark days. Before bringing to light the little miracle which Eddie musters, let’s look at a very fine current film, namely, Brooklyn (2015) and how it both matters and is beside the point. Seemingly at first a sort of throwback in reverse of The Quiet Man (1952), limning the harsh charms of rural Ireland in the 1950s and its love/hate comportment toward America, there is indeed a getting down to international complication with the course of true love. But whereas the post-War real-time settles for domestic gratifications not so remarkably unlike those of earlier centuries, Brooklyn is very much—its 50s get-ups notwithstanding—a 21st century profit centre, tailor-made (like the superficial burden we’re offered by The Revenant and The Martian,) for presumptuous young contemporaries having swallowed the late 20th century delusional fantasy of getting by without balls. The cinematic upshot of that welcome attenuation as playing out in our century is a runaway dominant market of arrested adolescents (irrespective of age) overtly daring and covertly cringing. Brooklyn expertly, and then again feelingly, traces the bourgeoning self-confidence of a young Irish immigrant to America and her cultivating her assets to get ahead in the bracing context of 1950s Brooklyn. Her proto-feminist energies trail out as far as contemplating bigamy or a divorce after one day together, in face of confronting an upper-crust suitor during an emergency return to Ireland for her sister’s funeral. She reaffirms her refusal to be dragged into stifling Irish society and returns to Brooklyn to a loving go-getter husband and a career as an accountant. Suffused with tender charm, the film scores with sentimentalists of all ages; flashing a well-earned poise on the cusp of making some waves, the film also scores with domestic rebels who, in fact, are far from rebels.
For all his religiosity and being an apple-pie bourgeois husband, father and company man, Mannix is the only painstaking rebel in sight amidst the four widely self-evasive current films we’re considering at this point. That is to say, his energies are the only catchment, however imperfect, of true art, of engaging viewers as navigators of physical production. Confirming in the confessional that “God wants us to do what is right,” even if it’s “not so easy,” Eddie turns down a fabulous offer from Lockheed (whose official describes the film industry as a circus infested with deranged losers and in fact sure to die out soon, and then goes on to describe the aircraft industry as the new world). To press his case for where the power game is going, the Lockheed spokesman had shown a photo of a hydrogen bomb blast at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, a strangely Hollywood-like name. He had added that the company Eddie would be joining—at better pay and better hours—was a key component within such making waves. Mannix, craving cigarettes to offset cardiac arrest stemming from, in the rushes of the Biblical sure-to-be-winner, in the process of losing it as including the notice, Divine Presence to be Shot [to pieces], chooses the rough ride because, when all is said and done, staying the course of serendipity is the only way he can live with himself.
Hail, Caesar! roils with figures looking forward to hogging market share in an indistinct future. Both the Communists (the donnish, mealy-mouth kidnappers terming themselves “The Future”) and the new aeronautical Capitalists (seeing themselves as “the new world”) figure they’ve got it made. In stark contrast to these bullish fantasies, Capitol Pictures looks far from the picture of health. The voice-over having described Eddie’s Henry Fonda, plucky sweetheart rally in a Frank Capra wholesome flavor, is now the voice of Alfred Hitchcock, that inventive bringer of a world of unpleasant surprises. In addition to this general premonition of doom, we have the specific tincture of Hitch’s having been wittily adept in the role of commenting on the bills of fare constituting his popular (but still a fall-back) TV series. Then, again, this legend (but, far from the perspective of the 21st century, a star no longer compelling a critical mass) had been playfully and also self-effacingly prone to place himself very briefly in the course of the narratives, thereby becoming a version of a forgettable nobody. Whitlock, as we hear touted, is a “major star”—the divines, even the often irascible rabbi, give a little swoon at the thought that such a VIP could be honoring their métier of saving souls. He is also a juvenile nitwit having been discovered by the delicate director bringing Hobie to the keyword “not so simple” (as eventually displaced by “complicated”). That distant “star -is-born” moment for Whitlock involved the newcomer engaging in the helmsman’s predilection for sodomy, another of his protégés being the director of the homoerotic Gene Kelly sailor adventure, who subsequently embarks on that red star sub with a baritone-boffo Soviet male chorus welcoming the virtuous into the heavenly “Future.” (Mannix squelches a persistent and megalomaniac gossip columnist in her intent to make hay [more market share—her sister being the troublesome competition] from Whitlock’s debut [hopefully titled On Wings of Eagles] by threatening to expose her as a close associate of the gay Communist kingpin and master of Engels, from whom she had derived many sensational exposes.) On Whitlock’s return, Eddie finds him still spouting the doctrine of good little guys and evil capitalists like Capitol Pictures. Losing, for once, his impressive forbearance he smashes Baird (Bared) around his office, reminds him that the evil empire has treated him very well and orders him to complete the Tale of the Christ “like a star” [like, that is, one who has a purchase upon the art of film]. Whitlock, in a dialogue (with another Roman official) at the foot of the Cross, pours out his heart in the afterglow of Jesus’ being an impressive care-giver to the little guy. Technicians on the set are taken aback by this torrent of caring affection; but it all comes apart—the topspin rhetoric of the “truth beyond the truth we see” being scuttled by the star’s forgetting the word “faith.” (This surprising flash of depth being anticipated by that film’s director agonizing that a missing star is irreplaceable. “It’s [that big moment] the heart and soul of the picture.”)
Maybe, however, that slip can maintain some sure footing. Optics aside, the motive driving Mannix has nothing to do with faith. Eddie, you’ll recall, carries the title “Head of Physical Production,” and his actions on behalf of cinema magic are precisely about “truth we see” [a far cry from pedestrian data-load], film being distinctively capable of the acme of sensuous phenomena, not abstruse wishes. His currying favor from the divines includes a statement—appearing at first to be blarney—which might well touch upon that matter. “People don’t want the facts. They want to believe…” [which is to say, they want to be moved by a region of phenomena they can take seriously]. On Eddie’s returning to the confessional only 24 hours later than the first-shown visit, the well-meaning priest tells him, “It’s really too often, my son!” That could be so with regard to tune-ups on the highways of automatic-pilot systems like Communism, the Lockheed Corporation, religions and Caesar’s Roman dictatorship. But Eddie’s navigation is a far more gruelling piece of work than those engines of power. The facile, academic and revered Visiting Professor to the study group by the sea is a version of non-other than Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who rails against capitalism’s condemning workers to become “objects.” He also gleefully speaks of “dialectic” as a means of intent by which capitalist society self-destructs. Eddie, in mooting to the religious leaders vetting A Tale of the Christ, “All of us have a little bit of God in us,” could be revealing that he understands dialectic at a higher level than that of puritanical stiff Marcuse, who didn’t have what it takes to pay closer attention to his Mannix-like, train-wreck mentor, Martin Heidegger.
Dialectical proceedings—another take on the polymorphic sallies of several Surrealistic films at home and abroad—saturate Hail, Caesar! What makes them special here is their factor of an onset of the preclusion of film art, quite a different thing from art films. Art films—or, perhaps better put, artful films—are not endangered. But the eclipse of art (utterly surprising, utterly reorienting and utterly problematic) by marketing (utterly familiar and utterly status quo) and its lemming runs tasks our physical production protagonist to the outer limits of his heart. All of the films we see in production in Hail, Caesar! are travesties of those keepers of the flame wherein a combination of carnal bounty and kinetic bounce would send the film lover (quite a different thing from the film prey) on his or her way toward physical production that might be short-lived but might also be on the lookout for more of that gist. Leaden, market-savvy and camouflaged bourgeoisie pull us to a cynical future where listless appetites settle in for becoming little Caesars. There is a brief and inspired scene at the editing lab which remarkably covers this minefield. Eddie is checking on Laurenze’s stressful project displaying the idle rich (more kinky than kooky) where Hobie has been thrown into the breach due to a performer going into rehab for alcoholism. Sending the editing mechanism into forward drive, the editor (good old Marge, from Fargo and now just old and workaholic and chain-smoking in her darkened lair) soon becomes strangled by the film stock’s progression where the only fun is off-camera. Eddie rushes to reverse the reel and we are back with beginning-of-the-end-doldrums as devolving to 21st century meetups having supplanted alert individualism.
The seemingly inconsequential “PR date” of Carlotta and Hobie—giving the perceptually self-sparing fandom and the perpetually vicious gossip columnists a way to while their lostness—comes to a point, just before he has to visit the surprising realm of Mike Hammer, where, doing roping tricks with a spaghetti noodle, he coins the term, “Italian origami,” and dialectic comes out of its musty closet. Their (noteworthy indeed, but never credited as such) rendezvous shows us that such blitheness along lines of physical production (truth beyond the truth most people see) is quite doable. Hobie’s little “Cattle Call” yodel/whistle-signature-piece may not be hip. But it surrealistically engages the lift provided by nature-at-large for the sake of individuals who fervently care. That would be a vital supplement to Mannix’s manic stress for the sake of the same success, eliciting as we find him, right from the get-go in the confessional, “I’m tryin’…It’s hard… I’m tryin’…”