Hail, Caesar! – Allegory Not Satire


Wardrobe Theatre
Wardrobe Theatre

The question is, “why do I feel that I need to write something about the movies and plays that we go and see in my blog?”  I suppose it calls into question the whole enterprise of the blog and what it is for and who is it for.  At the very least it will form some sort of record of our time in Bath; of the things that we did and saw and thought about.  We recently went to see a play written by the daughter of our Oxford chums.  It was staged at the Wardrobe Theatre in the Old Market Assembly, Bristol as part of a short season by a writers’ cooperative.  I didn’t want to write too much about a new young playwright’s work but really it asked much the same questions about striving to create art, about self-belief and about how we judge our own work and abilities and how others judge it and especially those who have the power to decide what happens to our work.

I have hedged before when writing about plays and movies that it is not my intention to write a review – there are more than enough of those for anyone interested – rather I am interested in what thinking it provokes and whether any analysis occurs to me.  In that process I certainly do read reviews, although as a rule I do not read reviews before attending a performance or showing only using promotional synopses and trailers to help guide my choices.   It is helpful to read them afterwards if for no other reason than a reality check.  In the case to the Coen brother new movie “Hail, Caesar!” I was particularly interested because it seemed to me that the general tenor of commentary was that the movie was an affectionate and lovingly recreation of early ’50s Hollywood that didn’t quite succeed: it was not really funny enough, it was too kind to the lead character of Eddie Mannix (based on a real-life Hollywood fixer, Capitol’s “Head of Physical Production”), it didn’t really seem to know what it wanted to say and so on.  But did I see a different film or do I just want things to mean more than they can really bear?  Here is Todd McCarthy of Hollywood Reporter summing up:

“When all is said and done, Mannix does the right thing in every circumstance, orchestrating what in Hollywood terms was always considered a happy ending. Sometimes it just requires persuasiveness and common sense, at other times some strong-arming. But in religious terms, Mannix is a wise man among fools, opportunists and the misguided — a man who makes a difference in the world while making his daily appointed rounds. What would the real Eddie Mannix have thought of such a depiction of himself?” 

The Guardian’s verdict:

“The Coen brothers have done an Eddie Mannix on Eddie Mannix, covering up all the darkest, dirtiest parts of his story to create a sparkling comedy. Everything you see on screen is completely historically inaccurate – but that’s the point. Hail, Caesar! can wear its fail grade with pride.”

Adding that: “the film is a love letter to the movies – or rather, to a dream of the movies.”

But is it all really about the central character? and the movies?  I think not.  Let me just briefly adumbrate the four major “films” that are being shot in the film: most obviously there is the Roman era bio-pic of Jesus of Nazareth from which the movie’s title is taken with George Clooney as Caesar; the aquatic spectacular with Scarlett Johansson as the female swimming star who is pregnant by some other actor though she is not sure which one; the sophisticated comedy of manners titled “Merrily We Dance” being directed by an upper class Englishman whose name here, Laurence Laurentz, conjures that of Lawrence Olivier and finally a decidedly homoerotic sailor musical.

Hail, Caesar!
Hail, Caesar!

Synchronized Swimmer DeeAnna Moran
Synchronized Swimmer DeeAnna Moran

"Merrily We Dance"
“Merrily We Dance”

“No Dames.”
“No Dames.”

A few more pieces of information are needed before I can discuss.  Mannix is frequently going to confession to absolve his guilt over his failure to give up smoking and he is being courted by Lockheed Martin to join them as a senior executive and their involvement in the development of the nuclear bomb is being used, among other things, to tempt him and the central plot point in the movie is that Baird Whitlock, the Clooney character, is kidnapped by a group of communist writers and held for ransom.  This whole episode seems to me so central to film’s point and yet it is scarcely mentioned in many reviews.

To get you in the mood and to give a flavour of the movies style and tone here is the official trailer for your amusement:

So this is my exegesis or analysis, if you prefer.  The Coen brothers have made a movie that is on the surface a satire on the movie industry but really the satire on the movie industry is itself an allegoric statement about the US and its culture.  Each of the four fictitious “movies” represent an opportunity to highlight a major issue in the contemporary culture of the US even though each has some basis in real events during the period of the wider movie.

The swim star is pregnant by another actor but the studio cannot allow her to have a child out of wedlock: abortion, control over their own bodies, everything to do with women’s reproductive rights is the actual issue.

The “sailor” movie and its star raises the whole issue of Gay rights (or even LGBT rights) especially as we later learn that the star has had a relationship with the Director Laurentz and that the “media”  – represented by the Tilda Swinton twin journalist characters – threatens to out him.  She is dissuaded from doing so on being told that Mannix will reveal that the star is also a communist thus tainting her by association.  The media are useful as long as they are under control and producing the required propaganda and celebrity gossip to ensure the masses are kept suitably ignorant and docile.

The arty drama of manners has a superb sequence in the Pygmalion tradition as Laurentz attempts to coach the speech of Hobie Doyle the young cowboy star drafted in against his wishes.  This introduces us to the idea of control of labour by impersonal forces, that is, the mysterious personage at the other end of the periodic phone calls received by Mannix in which various instructions are delivered that are non-negotiable such as insisting on this piece of inappropriate casting.  Profits come before any artistic vision.  What is more, these clearly come from New York – read Wall Street – where the ultimate financial strings are being pulled.

The eponymous Hail, Caesar! movie provides an opportunity to have all the religious groups consulted over whether it might cause any offence to any of them and to have the star kidnapped by the deliciously self-styled “study group” of assorted lefties, commies and intellectuals, including Marcuse, calling themselves “The Future” who are clearly the liberal left intelligentsia who need to be broken up by the union and commie busting Mannix.  More importantly, though, is that Baird Whitlock is then portrayed as having been easily duped by their arguments into wondering whether the studio is really just producing “corporate product” without any artistic or spiritual merit.  As he is musing away oblivious to Mannix’ growing anger he is forcefully interrupted and slapped around before being assailed by this speech:

You’re going to go out there, and you’re going to finish Hail, Caesar! You’re going to give that speech at the feet of the penitent thief and you’re going to believe every word you say. You’re going to do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do, just like the director does what he does, and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate. You’re going to do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture, and you’re never going to forget that again.”

Here is the full sequence:

Did you get that crashing irony? “because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture“.  All those people are there to serve the “picture” but remember that it is Mr Skank who is calling the shots here and if you know your place in the hierarchy then you’ll be just fine but if you step out of line then it will be no better for you than under a commie dictatorship because you know the old refrain: “I’ll make sure you never work in … ” insert desired industry or town or whatever.  When the “big man” speaks the “rubbish man” obeys and that is the “system” in the US.  And Mannix doesn’t take the job with Lockheed because he would rather work for a “big man”, where he is able to make and break the rules as long as he delivers, than for an actual, faceless bureaucracy.

The Right in the US has systematically concentrated on “values” politics to win over the masses by playing on their fears whilst assuring them that if they work “hard” then they too can succeed.

Yes, “be a star“; be the cog in the machine that we tell you to be and everything will be just fine.  Hail, Caesar! indeed.

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