The Means of Escape

The communists in the Coen brothers' Hail Caesar! are silly caricatures, but the film upholds basic Marxist premises.

The new Coen brothers’ film Hail Caesar! has been promoted as wacky, lighthearted entertainment about Hollywood in the 1950s, with many critics praising it in those terms; Lou Lumenek of the New York Post calls it “an enjoyable lark,” for example, while Peter Rainer of Christian Science Monitor says it’s “a doodle in the Coen canon.”

These misleading characterizations may explain why the film kicked off so badly. Though by this point it’s made enough to cover its budget, in the United States it had “the lowest opening haul of any major release in the Oscar-winning duo’s career.”

Hail Caesar! has a lot of hilarious and delightful bits — especially if you know anything about the history of Hollywood’s classic studio era — but it’s far too dense and intricate a film for general audiences who were sold on a zany slapstick comedy featuring George Clooney as a clueless 1950s movie star pitching face-forward out of his trailer like a felled tree.

The film has miserable audience ratings. I’ve seen it twice now in fairly crowded theaters; people laugh freely at the early scenes but sink into the doldrums about a quarter of the way into the film. In fact, the moment when audiences decide they hate the film is even identifiable: it’s the scene where a roomful of communists, including a character identified as Dr Herbert Marcuse, starts holding forth on “the dialectic.”

There’s a lesson in this for all of us. If there’s one thing most Americans don’t want to hear about — even in fun, even at a time of growing affection for Bernie Sanders and rising political interest in socialism — it’s “the dialectic.”

The treatment of communists in Hail Caesar! is typical of the Coens: irreverent and fraught with irony. Every individual communist character is shown to be pretty silly, but at the end of it all the truth of certain basic Marxist premises is firmly upheld.

This seeming contradiction echoes the incongruities of the Coen creations more generally; they lovingly recreate old Hollywood genre films — showing them to be surreal and funny and wonderful — while at the same time demonstrating how they’re the product of ruthlessly mercenary business practices that generate profits from people’s miserable longing for escape, comfort, and transcendence.

The film’s protagonist Eddie Mannix (played with brio by Josh Brolin) exemplifies this ambiguity: Mannix is a hard-case enforcer of the system’s operations as well as a devout old-school Catholic who both recognizes and exploits people’s longing, approving of the way it aligns movies with religion. But at the same time, he’s admirably tough and smart, and honestly loves filmmaking.

As Joel Coen put it in a recent interview, as the “fixer,” he’s also “the sane person in an insane universe. The movie business is a lunatic asylum.”

The Red Studio

The basic plot of the film creates a non-linear structure as we follow the course of Eddie Mannix, an executive and “fixer” at Capitol Pictures who’s plagued by a multitude of outlandish problems typical of the classic-era Hollywood studio system.

His Hollywood odyssey as he attempts to put out multiple fires includes bursts of exhilarating spectacle in the form of musical numbers, stunt-filled Western action sequences, and sword-and-sandal extravaganzas created on soundstages and backlots and location shoots all around the town.

The character of Eddie Mannix is based on the eponymous real-life “fixer” at MGM Studios who was far more corrupt than this version of him. And many of the problems involving stars in Hail Caesar! are based on some of the real-life movie-star scandals of the day.

Eddie’s various predicaments include dealing with the pregnant, unwed star of Esther Williams-style “water ballet” musicals, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who says of her tight mermaid costume, “I don’t think I’m gonna fit in that fish ass after this week.”

Then there’s a bullheaded directive from the studio president Joe Schenk mandating that rustic Western hero Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) undergo an impossibly drastic change of image so he can put on a tuxedo and star in the sophisticated drawing-room comedy Merrily We Dance.

And while striding between soundstages, Eddie is hounded by twin scandal-seeking gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), who are always threatening to reveal the shocking truth about how top studio star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) got cast in an early career-making film, On Wings As Eagles.

Mannix is also harassed by forces outside the studio. An executive from Lougheed Aircraft Manufacturing is pressuring him for an answer on the company’s lucrative job offer. He’s trying desperately to quit smoking in a cigarette-addicted world because he promised his wife he would. And then there’s the torment of his intense Catholicism that compels him to go to confession approximately every twenty-four hours, until even his jaded priest says, “It’s too often.”

But most challenging of all is the abduction of Baird Whitlock from the set of the studio’s most expensive prestige picture of the year, a lavish biblical epic entitled Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.

As it turns out, Baird Whitlock was kidnapped by communists who appear just as ridiculous as most of the film’s other characters. Dedicated citizens of the far left who lack a sense of humor may be seriously offended by the film’s jokes about some of the most sacred moments in the left-wing political history of the United States.

And ironically, worrying over sacred moments of this history seemed to be the main occupation of these Hail Caesar! reds before Dr Marcuse inspired them to take direct action. Until then, they confide in Baird Whitlock, “we’d largely confined ourselves to planting communist propaganda in Hollywood films.”

In real life, planting communist propaganda was one of the charges against the Hollywood Ten — mostly screenwriters — made by the House Un-American Activities Committee back in 1947. The charge was, unfortunately, pretty unfounded. But jail terms and ruined careers followed.

The always unpious Coens relentlessly mock these hapless commies, portraying them sitting around comfortably in beige and brown cardigans and slacks that match the neutral décor of the elegantly modernist beach house they’re using as a hideout. There they smoke pipes and eat finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and remember with glee the time they managed to get a movie made in which a “rotten election was overturned and Gus was made the mayor.”

“I fancy we changed some minds,” smirks the lead communist.

This is the inept cabal that sends the ransom note, signing it “The Future.”

There’s a rival take on “The Future” offered by the Lougheed Aircraft executive who tries to persuade Eddie Mannix to leave the “doomed” Hollywood studio system. The executive asks, “What are you gonna do when everybody buys a television set?” The executive’s illustration of “The Future” is a photo of the mushroom cloud generated by the hydrogen bomb test over Bikini Atoll, “just a coupla rocks in the Pacific.”

There are two rocks jutting up out of the Pacific in front of the communists’ beach-house hideaway, too. The Coens like these kind of neatly repeated motifs that form complex patterns of meaning. Which set of rocks will prove more potent in locking down “The Future”?

“Armageddon,” mutters Eddie Mannix as he looks at the H-bomb photo, but that doesn’t immediately make up his mind to reject the Lougheed Aircraft offer. Prepping for Armageddon is pretty lucrative, after all; the hours are better, and Mannix reckons that it’d be easier (though less interesting) than managing the ever-fluctuating crises and complexities of mass-producing films.

At this point in the film it seems like the communist vision is ruled out as a contender for “The Future.” But despite each individual communist in the film being presented as fatuous, a scene near the end of the film is devoted to showing how right their basic assessment of capitalism is.

Soon after Baird Whitlock is rescued from the inattentive communists by Hobie Doyle (who regards the kidnapping as “bad for movie stars everywhere”), he’s back at Capitol Pictures spouting off to Eddie Mannix about his newfound political ideas.

“It’s all in a book called Kapital with a ‘K,’” enthuses Baird, “These communists have even figured out what goes on here at this studio!”

Eddie Mannix listens with his usual expressionless stone face until Baird gets to the part about how the studio makes pictures just to “confirm what they call ‘the status quo.’” Baird says that studio employees might think they’re doing work that has artistic or spiritual value, but really all they’re doing is generating profits for top studio bosses like “that fat cat Joe Schenk!”

That’s when Eddie Mannix’s granite features crack in disgust and he starts slapping Baird Whitlock around. He soon reduces Baird to cringing abjection and sends him back to work on Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ with a command to shut up and do his job just like “the director, the writer, the script girl, and the guy who claps the slate.”

This violence and coercion, which always threatens to burst forth as Eddie Mannix spends his fraught days and nights “fixing” a host of threats to the studio’s mass production, confirms the basic principles articulated earlier by Baird’s new friends, the communists. They warned Baird that as a star “owned” by the studio, he was only a highly paid, unusually pampered, exploited worker.

But the film doesn’t end here; it sweeps by the communists in apparent tribute to Eddie’s sense of the value of films. Films are religion in a popular form, infinitely worthwhile because, as Eddie puts it, “People don’t want facts — they want to believe!” And it’s the forces of capitalism, aligned with organized religion, that display a consistent recognition, understanding, and ability to exploit this basic truth of human desire.

In the end, we see Eddie’s own movie-faith affirmed when, instead of going back to the giant crucifix in the cathedral to pray over his final decision to stay at the studio, he goes to the set of Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ where he can pray under the three crosses set up there for the next day’s shoot.

Finally, Baird is back on set, doing his job by giving the performance of a lifetime playing a Roman tribune who comes to worship at the feet of a crucified Christ. The music swells, the camera pans up to the heavens, and the grandiose voice-of-God narration intones:

The story begins, the story ends — so it must be. But the story of Eddie Mannix will never end. For his is a tale written in light everlasting.

If you’re interested in parsing this (as the Coens clearly are), “written in light” refers to photography, the basis for film. (Tracing the etymology, “photos” is from the Greek, meaning “light”; and “graphos” meaning writing or delineation.) It’s a phrase that gets used a lot to refer to film in an elevated way: for example, Writing in Light is a book about the Japanese “pure cinema” movement, and noted cinematographer Vittorio Storaro titled his two-volume celebration of his own craft Writing With Light.

“Light everlasting” is obviously the language of the sacred. In John 8:12 Jesus declares, “I am the Light of the world.” And “life everlasting” is part of the recitation of belief that makes up the Apostles’ Creed, which devout Eddie Mannix would know by heart: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic and apostolic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

Thus Eddie becomes a kind of eternal “Film Jesus” whose story will never end, whose works will extend past the crumbling of the studio system (which will be succeeded by a reconfigured studio system functioning as part of several global multinational corporations).

His movie productions “written in light” gives him ironic dominion over the future — that much-contested terrain in the film. And of course, in the theater we’re watching the film that is Eddie’s tale written in light everlasting.

If it’s possible to create a tribute to popular film that’s both completely loving and completely scathing at the same time, the Coens have managed it. It’s a mind-blower.

But you’d better see it fast if you want to catch it in theaters. Because the American public seems to dislike it almost as much as they dislike hearing about “the dialectic.” Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that audiences rejected a Coen film on first release and then embraced it after multiple viewings online or on DVD. (See: The Big Lebowski.)

The general public might prefer to see instead several upcoming films representing the most literal version of the desire to believe that Eddie Mannix identifies. Coming soon to a theater near you are The Young Messiah, Miracles From Heaven, and Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes as a brutal Roman tribune who undergoes a spiritual conversion after witnessing the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yes, folks, we’ve got our very own contemporary Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ currently previewing in theaters. Try that for irony, Coen-style.