Wednesday, January 18, 2017

To Hasten An End To History

Facing the future. Right now it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s there in front of us, refusing to get out of the way and it’s very possible we’re fucked. I try to remember that at some point in the future the age we’re living in right now will itself be the past, which is about as optimistic as I can get at the moment. As for the present, HAIL, CAESAR! may not be the best film of 2016 (although I’m not ruling out that maybe it is) but it’s certainly one of my favorites if not my absolute ‘favorite’ whatever that’s supposed to mean anyway. At the very least, no other film in the entire year gave me this much pleasure (a few came close—THE NICE GUYS, yes, and recently there was Jim Jarmusch’s PATERSON) and if other people don’t feel that way, well, they could always just see it again a few more times. As the eternal depression that was 2016 grinded forward something about what the film was saying, or at least said to me, began to feel more and more potent so once the Blu came out it became one of my default choices for what to put on late at night as I refused to fall asleep, waiting for those phone calls I knew wouldn’t come. At some point we’ll hopefully be looking back at this horrible period as the past, just as the unknown future this film’s characters are facing now is the present, more or less. That might be a good thing. Or maybe not. It’s complicated.
HAIL, CAESAR! is of course another test to try to figure out just how much the Coen Brothers mean what they’re saying or if we should stop worrying about all that. Their previous film INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was also about somebody grinding away through the job that was their life and the life that was their job, not knowing that what’s about to come along will upend their entire universe. In the early 50s Hollywood of this film there are signs of what’s to come and a few implications that none of this is going to last but even though a few of the characters view such events as a given, the Coens seem to be saying that anyone who states with certainty what lies ahead, particularly when it comes from a group calling itself “The Future”, is bound to miss a few details. We always seem to miss things, as it turns out, and they always seem to disappear forever when we’re not looking. In some ways it really is that simple.
In 1951 Hollywood Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the powerful ‘Head of Physical Production’ at Capitol Pictures, is dealing with a wide variety of problems in a typical day, made more stressful by how he is trying to decide whether to accept an enticing job offer from Lockheed which would mean more money and less stress. All at once he has to deal with issues ranging from production of that year’s prestige picture HAIL, CAESAR! starring marquee name Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) to inserting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a swank romantic melodrama directed by the uppity Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to the impending pregnancy of bathing beauty Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) that has to be kept secret. But everything is immediately exacerbated by the realization that Baird Whitlock has suddenly been kidnapped from the CAESAR set. Mannix scrambles to do something about this while preventing word from getting out as he continues to handle each crisis and try to finally make the decision whether to leave his job for possibly greener horizons.
As usual, the universe created by Joel and Ethan Coen operates by its own rules. HAIL, CAESAR! is a screwy shell game involving its own versions of certain Hollywood legends displaying some affection towards the past but also tweaking it just enough. Mostly set within a single day showing us the workings of Capitol—a massive factory of soundstages which oddly doesn’t appear to include any sort of backlot—although just as something like THE HUDSUCKER PROXY seemed to combine elements of different decades into its late 50s setting the rules of this Hollywood seem to be a little fluid as well such as how Laurence Larentz’s MERRILY WE DANCE looks more like a 30s movie or how I sort of doubt the B-western LAZY OL’MOON starring Hobie Doyle would have received such a gala premiere. But what do I know, right? This is Hollywood, after all. Eddie Mannix was of course the real name of a legendary MGM fixer just as his unseen boss Nicholas Schenck is a reference to the Lowes Inc. president who presumably served in the same capacity as he does here. The story of the real Mannix involves an awful lot of cobwebs and nastiness (the episode of the podcast You Must Remember This focusing on Mannix goes into details on some of the worst of it) so I’m not convinced that the character of the same name being played by Brolin hasn’t been involved in a few such things as well but as presented here even if he’s slapping someone around it’s all in the context of the greater good of the studio, all the better for it to provide that enlightenment and entertainment for the masses.
HAIL, CAESAR! travels from soundstage to soundstage venerating those films I’m constantly watching on TCM but tweaking the people who made them just enough since, after all, they weren’t gods brought down to this world courtesy of MGM. Through this prism of Eddie’s conflict it’s also about figuring out your own place in the world and how the god you pray to relates to that whether it’s real or false or just real to you if it helps you understand deep down how you fit into things. There’s a nimble breeziness to it all as the movie follows Eddie Mannix around, countered by the weighty nature to the conflict, absurd as it all is. After all, he’s a ridiculous character in a ridiculous film dealing with ridiculous problems but in his head nothing about that conflict could be more serious. It’s the question of what does it mean how you spend your day, what does any of it mean. Occasionally I wonder if the film is totally accurate when it comes to period aspect ratios or low long it would actually take for something to happen in the real world but then decide I don’t really care or just remember that Capitol Pictures isn’t the real world as Mr. Cuddahy from Lockheed reminds Mannix and us as well. The film asks which one is the real world but knows the answer is whatever we decide for ourselves.
Like a few others by the Coen Brothers it took more than one viewing for it to fully click for me—maybe two this time. Their films sometimes seem a little thrown together at first, even haphazard in their plotting and this one wasn’t helped by a trailer which didn’t really represent what it actually was. Now, close to a year later like, say, the all-holy BURN AFTER READING (which maybe plays better than ever right now) the film feels like it’s already being undervalued and by this point as I’ve been watching it practically weekly there barely seems to be a single false step, barely a piece that doesn’t go together as I get lost in the Coen wordplay which maybe feels sharper than ever before which a undeniable logic to the ridiculousness which takes each scene to a different level. One small thing I’ve grown to appreciate over multiple viewings is simply watching Brolin’s Mannix listening to other people make their arguments as the wheels turn in his head, trying to make each problem somehow work. And then there are the communist writers who call themselves The Future laying out their own beliefs to the movie star Baird Whitlock who only partly grasps what they’re saying. They react negatively to someone innocently suggesting they’ll ‘name names’ and these writers have presumably been blacklisted but it’s never stated outright, the film is cagey that way. Offering finger sandwiches, smugly proud at whatever meager message they’re sneaking into the films they write they may talk a good game and their credits are impressive (“I wrote ALL the ALL THE WAY pictures!”) but, communists or not, they’re still just schmucks with Underwoods almost as if the film is saying they’re so certain in their beliefs that they can’t have any real answers at all. Capitol Pictures—not to be confused with the Kapital-with-a-K that Baird Whitlock learns about—was also the name of the studio in BARTON FINK so the two films are presumably set in the same universe with a Wallace Beery conference room here to remind us of that actor’s former prominence. Barton himself is nowhere to be seen among these writers, I’m going to guess because he actually did name names when called before HUAC and they won’t have anything to do with him. A shot of waves crashing onto rocks seems like a deliberate FINK echo only with two instead of the one seen in that film—maybe at a certain point HAIL, CAESAR! will turn out to be the middle section of a Hollywood trilogy to give us three rocks that the surf in Malibu crashes up against and we can finally get the long promised OLD FINK, if the Coens are really serious about making it. I continue to hold out hope even though I’m still not sure that they might be joking.
It’s a lot of random silliness which in the end may not be that random or that silly, with narration by Michael Gambon veering back and forth between the life of Eddie Mannix and the events in ancient Rome being portrayed in the Capitol HAIL, CAESAR!, treating one dismissively and one with every ounce of portentous grandeur but seemingly accepting of the glory provided by this movie studio in the end. It’s difficult to spend too much time contemplating exactly what the film is trying to say about this parallel when it seems just as interested in having Laurence Laurentz spend several minutes trying to get Hobie Doyle to say one single sentence, trippingly, to somehow make it seem like the cowboy star belongs in a tuxedo or the sharpness of the wordplay in Mannix’s meeting with the religious figures there to consult on his biblical epic that he hopes will offend no one, a roomful of men searching for an answer to a question they can barely grasp, unable to agree on any one simple theological matter.
And there’s the beauty of Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists that the film basically makes into a throwaway joke or little things like Brolin’s trot as he desperately tries to get away from Thessaly (or is it Thora?) when a phone call comes in. There’s even a details like the Malibu pad Whitlock wakes up in which as fake houses go is about as stunning as the one near Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (all praise to DP Roger Deakins, production designer Jess Conchor and everyone involved). And in the middle of all that is simple, glorious moment of serenity as Hobie Doyle waits to pick up the movie star Carlotta Valdez (ha ha) for his premiere and he just takes the chance to twirl his rope, not a care in the world. The later scene with the two of them getting to know each other is apparently as relaxed as anyone in this world can ever get, two people thrown together by their studio for publicity purposes who just click, for once no one onscreen has any worries. The thing is, even if you’re “the guy” you still sometimes wonder how you fit into it all, if people are really paying more attention to someone else. Even Hobie Doyle gets a little insecure by how people are paying attention to something else in the movie he stars in and the characters may sometimes be unsure as to their place in this world but they fit in perfectly to this version of Hollywood, to this world. Sometimes those simple glories in life just happen in a flash and we need to sometimes be willing to let them play out.
All right, I’m not sure if every beat holds and as much as it rushes through Mannix’s day with purpose I can’t help but wish if it could linger for an extra moment here or there, particularly that date with Veronica Osorio’s Carlotta Valdez or even if the film had paused near the end for an actual ‘final’ scene with Hobie. The acclaimed “No Dames” number featuring Channing Tatum doing a Gene Kelly bit which I never dislike and the sill behind it is obvious but it still has a close but no cigar feel for me, playing as even more of a spoof than Scarlett Johansson’s Esther Williams homage and, sure, everyone likes Channing Tatum but either the joke is just a little too obvious or maybe it even comes at the wrong point in the film since I often find myself pausing the film right at this point to take a quick break but if this is my biggest complaint then the film is doing ok.
HAIL, CAESAR! is the rare Coen Brothers film where the guy in a suit behind a desk is actually the lead, even if he does work for someone else behind another desk (hard to tell if he answers to anyone aside from Nick Schenck in NY—is Jack Lipnick still at Capitol in ‘51?) He’s not sure what his place is in the world, in a marriage where he and his wife never even look at each other in their one scene, racked with guilt over his betrayal of her, which is just smoking a few cigarettes, while ignoring the real problems. Hobie tips Mannix off on the uncertain behavior of extras which shows how on the ball he is but also brings up a few questions later on. Is Mannix even a principle at all or just an extra in all of these lives? How much does he, suffering for all of the sins around him, matter? In the Lockheed sales pitch their rep claims to represent the future and though Mannix doesn’t know it the studio he works for won’t be as powerful as it is forever, due to the imminent threat of television and other things, a modern day version of Ancient Rome which will most likely meet the bulldozer like MGM. It’ll all come crashing down, maybe around the point his ten year contract with Lockheed would have ended and even the real Mannix was dead by ’63. But maybe none of that matters. The Coens seem intrigued by the teachings of Professor Marcuse, but maybe feel that ‘the new man’ he talks about is not needed. It doesn’t matter who benefits, like when Danny Kaye has asked Baird Whitlock to shave his back, all that matters is to find what’s right in the world for yourself. To do your job the best you can, whether that job is taking the sins of the world upon yourself or merely the lowly occupation of Movie Star. Faith is a hard thing to come by, maybe harder than ever these days, almost as hard as it is to simply remember what that word is as we literally pray to the god of cinema. “He saw sin and gave love,” is what Baird Whitlock’s Roman centurion declares in his speech, speaking about either Christ or Eddie Mannix, in the search for what seems right.
Josh Brolin is note perfect the whole way through, spitting out his dialogue without a single false note and taking full command of every scene, bouncing off against his co-stars and saving big reactions for just the right moments. He fully commits to Mannix’s uncertainty and with just a glance we can always tell exactly what he’s thinking. Admirably wearing that ridiculous Roman costume for his entire role, George Clooney sails through his movie star role with the right cocky arrogance just as the idiot Baird Whitlock clearly sails through his own life, never thinking beyond the next thirty seconds and even when he learns he’s been kidnapped is never very concerned. He even does a Clark Gable impression at one point too. Alden Ehrenreich, the future-past Han Solo, is the one who practically walks away with the picture in how slippery and confident he makes Hobie Doyle, never the dumb guy some people think he is but always aware of how much he fits into a given situation. The other big names appear briefly, doing enough with that screentime that you wish a few of them could get an entire film, from the way one of Tilda Swinton’s twins pauses before stating the movie title ON WINGS AS EAGLES or the way Ralph Fiennes contorts his mouth utters the word ‘gamey’ or just the way Scarlett Johansson keeps that phony smile plastered on her face during the big Deanna Moran number. Frances McDormand has one scene as editor C.C. Calhoun and there’s the brief appearance by Jonah Hill—I guess a minute of screentime can get you on the poster but I can’t help but think that the big stars billed so high up on the poster recall how Christ himself is just a bit player in the HAIL, CAESAR! being made by Capitol. It almost makes sense how Hobie Doyle is the one we wind up paying attention to. With a few of the big names only in for brief periods of time it’s a few of the supporting players who really pop—Max Baker as the head communist writer, Heather Goldenhersh as Mannix’s loyal secretary, Robert Trebor as the desperately pleading HAIL, CAESAR! producer and Robert Picardo who kills in his one scene as the impatient rabbi (“Eh…I haven’t an opinion.”). Alex Karpovsky doesn’t even get a line as the photographer at the ‘study group’ which makes his glare as he takes George Clooney’s picture even funnier.
For now it feels important to ask if anything really matters anymore even as the waves continue to crash in on the neverending story of Hollywood. Last year may have been of one of the worst years any of us have ever known and now it’s the start of a year that may be even worse so it’s tough to know what to do. Does HAIL, CAESAR! offer any real answers or should I just be glad that I love this film as much as I do and just accept that for what it is? And where do we go from here? Is the ‘new man’ really on the way even if that wasn’t what ‘The Future’ had in mind? On the other hand, as the slogan of Hudsucker Industries once reminded us long ago, the future is now. And right now, at the beginning of 2017, what else do we have but that.


Roger said...

Thanks for this. That an apparently "silly" Coen comedy can support such a deep reading lets you know they still know what they're doing. For those who are willing to look harder.

Keep up the good work,


Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

And thanks to you. I'll keep trying. I'm very glad you liked it.