We may not make things anymore in America — but there is one group that still does – artists. Artists are the ones still making things.
And, what is it that makes [something] art? Mix irony with a reflection of the times, reference the past while pushing a progression of form and ….hold the mirror …..steadily. Cervantes accomplishes with his Don Quixote, our Jon Stewart with social satire, and the Coen Brothers with their latest film “Hail, Caesar!”
[And, leave it to the Coen Bros. to give us a film with a mirroring tale of a search for human redemption by posing it in the light of Corporate Production Image-Making Hollywood and extolling [its] sincerest virtues while admitting its ultimate power over us.]
The film has irony play lead – it’s all over the place, and, so too, is the very fabric of our American culture. The film’s subtitle (A Tale of the Christ) alludes to every other Hollywood production regarding the story of Christ and the lasting power of its image-making. To depict Christ through a Hollywood lens is the ironic task which is, in itself, impossible, unless we allow the Coen Bros. to give it a try. From George Clooney’s Caesar-like Roman centurion to Scarlett Johansson’s Mary Magdalene to Channing Tatum’s Judas Iscariot, the Coen Bros. end up presenting us a full cast of redemptive characters. Alluding to the power and production of Hollywood filmmaking and flipping everything on its head, the film ends up portraying not only the perfect Christ figure in the lead role played by Josh Brolin, but the glorious high craft to be found in a Hollywood production itself, [capitalist money-making machine and all] – in the most wonderful (so-grateful-for) movie-making light.
As for the film’s topical stance, free-market capitalism has been second-guessed lately in our politics, and, religion, as always, is in constant battle to maintain a palatable image in spite of itself. We have a more socialist agenda offered our political conversation, an ongoing iconoclasm with religious ideology and an ever-growing understanding of differing faiths due to such media depictions, and, the current economic crisis of inequality and whisperings of a re-distribution of wealth. Socio-economics, politics of religion, and the power of Hollywood image-making (our American culture) all end up as grist for the film’s mirror-holding mill.
“Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
As history admits, there are no things of Caesar apart from God –; it is always economics that determines the path taken, and, this film unfolds as giant parable with Clooney (as film star Baird Whitlock) giving us both a Roman officer with heartfelt compassion for the dying Christ and an unlikely prospect for preaching Marxist theory.
Allusions and irony continue with Josh Brolin as our Christ figure, taking the lead role not by faith alone, but by deed. Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, in his search for his own redemption – ends up revealing that he is our true redeemer, all in the sacrifice of self [missing hours of sleep, spending time with his wife, watching his son play ball], and the saving (actor’s job, star’s reputation) of others. It is the action taken (the deed so often left out in the practicing Christian; we love to quote the New Testament but we rarely follow in deed) and not simply the words “in the script” given us that matters. (Only when Clooney acts on the lines given him do we become moved, awed, and rendered [as with all great art] speechless.)
And the Coen Brothers don’t miss anything with their N. T. allusions: Mannix’s 40 days in the wilderness temptation played out in a Chinese restaurant with the devil as Lockheed representative waving an employment contract; (a Scriptural three times) – ( the choice to create or destroy mankind – yet another layer of irony with the Hollywood film industry always taking a hit for “destroying culture” by its making); his agony in Gethsemane unfolding in the confessional – unveiling doubts and seeking help from the Father. And, Mannix , (again, our Christ) calling in a board of experts from all religious angles to see if his depiction will stand up to the pillars of all the faiths. And what do the Coen Bros. give us when asked if there is any problem with the film’s portrayal of Christ? Orthodox Christianity ends up questioning the technical magic of the editing in the film’s chariot scene in asking “how can he jump from one to the other so quickly?” — [and, this, from one who believes that Jesus walked on water?] and, our Hebrew scholar, after countering with his own belief structure ends up with the apt and comically delivered “I’ve no opinion”.
“Hail, Caesar!” is a brilliant work of art – for it does what all art is capable of doing – allowing us to see ourselves in it, in the sharpest light, with irony as one of its strongest tools.
As with all of the Coen Brothers’s films, the angles used to approach are always comic-tragic. In “H., C.!” the dark passage in our history of the blacklisting of Hollywood writers is, too, twisted sharply : – an injustice shown not with due sympathy, but rather, in double-edged irony with a roomful of bickering self-interested writers [standing in for the pillars of Marxist –Socialist ideal] extolling communism’s virtues of brotherhood and looking out for the little guy while seemingly not even able to tolerate each other in the same room. At the same time, such socialist virtues of camaraderie and loyalty are shown to us in the character of the Hollywood Industry instead. “I’ll do whatever it takes to say that line right, Mr. Lau-rentz” – says Hobey Doyle. “I want to do it for the picture.” The picture is what matters. We’re all in this together.
Our human flaws, failed theories, all our faults lie not in the stars, but in our inability to see them in ourselves.
Nothing is ever clear-cut, black and white –no theory good on paper (just the lines written on a page (script or Scripture) can do much until it is put into practice — until acted upon – in deed. Then we can see if the picture works, the words come alive, the economic theory applies, the illusion succeeds.
And, as for artists being the only ones making things these days while our economic portrait gets painted elsewhere, “Hail, Caesar!” pays homage not only to our Hollywood Pictures, but ensures us that any other country taking on the once-Made-in-the-USA manufacturing of goods will not be able to make for us our creative culture. We’re stuck with it –our Hollywood, and according to the lens the Coen Bros. give us, it’s not a bad deal: the art that we get in return is more than worth it.
Feb. 8, 2016