Sic Semper Coennis: Hail Caesar! and the Modern Auteur

Brad Pettigrew - February 24, 2016

Every so often, a film comes along so relentlessly original, well-made, and - for lack of a better word - wholesome, that it reignites my passion for film, recalling such analogously provocative films in a valent chain of phenomena that usually leads to a long night of late, vivid dreams and a steady, hard reconsideration of what the hell I’d been doing with my life. Hail Caesar! is not that film. In fact, in the brief moments I spent walking from the brisk February cool back to the serpentine depths of the Philadelphia transit system, whose inchoate construction I so worriedly fumbled through (with 15 minutes to screen time) in eager anticipation of the Coens’ latest, those remarkable few moments in the film seemed to brush off me like blowing wet scraps of last week’s newspaper in the vacant Philly tracks. Hail Caesar! is not a great film, it’s hardly even a good film - saved only by fleeting pieces of humor and an ensemble of professionally serviceable performances, or likewise an impeccable attention to technical detail from a long list of people who were doing nothing more than their fucking job; this was not a film that need be made or for that matter seen, and at best it’s a bag of chips that, while satiating in the moment, is ultimately mostly air.

The Coen Brothers are not infallible directors, but their marbled position in the pantheon of modern masters direly concerns me about the increasingly partisan divide in the contemporary film industry: between those who might hastily brand the recent chain of multi-million dollar blockbusters as products of some systemic regression to formulaic retreadings of twice-baked stories only slathered with this week’s comic coat of pop culture spice; and those box-office weekend warriors who might otherwise condescendingly be described (by those righteous and civilized Young Turks of the forgone aesthetic) as deluded sheep - a malignant, amorphous force that, “just doesn’t get it.” Hail Caesar! is part of that disconcerting trend of recent films masquerading as too hip to be art and too smart to be cool, instead locating itself in the incongruous middle ground appealing only to the self-aggrandizing few - loners, rejects, and seniors - the eminent domain of permanent hermits, people who never quite saw past those amateur screens at the PFS Roxy (yes, that Roxy, the “newly restored” thirty-seat wonder with a screen the size of a billiard table and a set of enthusiast speakers looking like they came off a Circuit City clearance shelf). To all those championing Lynch and Godard and taking another huff of their daddy’s scotch, the Coen’s most recent is the latest in a long chain of art-house darlings just as vapid and fleeting as any product of those Western economic hegemonies you so rally against.

Hail Caesar! follows Eddie Mannix, the Head of Production at Capitol Pictures - one of those monopolizing, institutional studios that mitigated innovation and pumped out major motion pictures like Model-T’s - as he performs damage control for his unruly stars, poaches young and unsuited to talent to a big budget feature for broader demographic appeal, and works with experts to ensure the adaptation of their latest work is suitably true to source material for its unusually fervent fan base (sound familiar?). What ensues next is a series of thinly veiled, “greatest hits,” from Hollywood’s schlockiest era: a western, whose elaborate parody goes as far as to dress the set with some desert rocks and a sad-looking tree, what amounts to a low-swinging laugh for anachronistically poor stunts; a glacial synchronized swimming sequence whose inclusion I can’t possible fathom save to start an unresolved, uninteresting plot thread (or to give Deakins something nice to work with – but, hey, you need some eye candy to sell the trailer); and a quick, high-brow period piece (whose subject of parody no doubt exists in pristine, unwatched condition at the bottom of some gelatinous, grown man’s archive) serving as little more than the backdrop for a clever dialogue and an otherwise complete waste of Fiennes.

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Worse still is Channing Tatum’s mock sailor musical, which exists, much like the swimming sequence, as a thinly veiling cinematic indulgence that introduces further unsatisfying plot elements (the call-back of the villain that’s set up here amounts a whopping two scenes and stands out as more a last minute reminder that any of this was ever supposed to go anywhere) or to get a quick laugh of old hollywood’s overt homoeroticism in an era committed to building resolutely traditional notions of gender roles and nuclear families. Hail Caesar! seems most critically offensive as a pointless excuse to indulge that same, economically fuelled studio excess that people today so decry, while needlessly excusing (nigh, applauding), the bygone mistakes of that broken era. When deep and personally effecting issues such as sexuality in media and the communist witch hunt are portrayed with such revisionist and self-justified terms of “nostalgia”, it’s not only a cheap laugh, it’s wholly unethical, and it conveys the type of historical gerrymandering you’d expect from the GOP, not the sons of university professors. These aren’t homages, they’re wholesale plagiarism, but yet they’re heaped with praise from a delusional critic base. Chrisopher Orr of the Atlantic applauds:

An unexpectedly sweet and utterly satisfying confection, a loving sendup of the Hollywood of yesteryear.

It’s true, the Coens have a habit of making films about nothing, and maybe that’s all this is or was every meant to be; advocates assert, at the very least resigning to a department store brand of nihilism is somehow meant to comfort in its profound pointlessness. This motif works in The Big Lebowski or Inside Lleywn Davis where it fits with the overall film aesthetic, one that resonates with a character’s philosophy or a generational sentiment, and moreover when this elements serves as backdrop to films filled with actual fleshed-out characters whose development carries meaningful consequence to the audience and whose names I didn’t have to google the day after watching – Mannix, who you could vaguely call the most multi-dimensional character in the film, has his entire course of action summed up by bookend confessionals to start and end the film, though the swath of middle content does little but to say, “he’s got a real hard job” (it doesn’t help that Mannix never strikes as especially likeable). When this theme crops up as the smoking gun in almost every one of the Coens’ films it calls to question whether this is really an artistic trend or a chronic symptom, bringing to mind whether Ethan barely squeaked through Princteon by regurgitating deliberate misreadings of Nietzche for four years or if that philosophy degree was just for show; worse, when this level of deconstructive trivializing is so often applied to the “common man”, which so many critiques cheer as a turn of down-to-earth humility, it implies a certain prestige smugness only possible among the select few with a luxury to hold such degrees, asking whether we really were intended to laugh with Ulysses Everett’s folly in O Brother, Where Art Thou? or rather at him and all his multi-syllabic, backwards-seeming action – it’s easy to mock the naïve considerations of Caesar’s Marxists when you’ve had the privilege to indulge in such philosophical tangents, or afford twelve dollar weeknight tickets from the PFS.

Further, trumpeting that “it’s a film about nothing!” isn’t an excuse to excise character or plot from the discussion for what’s nothing short of a cop-out and lazy storytelling. And this is emblematic of the type of reasoning present in the Coenites most radical cells, who even today insist on reading their films with such allegorical intent that each work is canonized in the contemporary scripture of that freak culture; a recent AV Club article insisted that Hail Caesar! was the latest in a messianic chain of cosmic alterations, that each Coen film was exquisitely balanced in perfect proportion one on the other: first a drama, then followed by its comedic foil, and so on repeating throughout their corpus – and no, Augustine doesn’t moonlight as a reviewer for The Walking Dead every Sunday at 9:00.

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It makes sense then that one of the picture’s largest marketing pushes has materialized as fervent new-wave corporate sponsorship of chalk logophilia through campus representatives to the well-endowed few – what might be read as an attempt to appeal to the juvenile intelligentsia of those college sophomores departing their first film history class, to those who likely delight (with the same childlike thrill of pattern recognition they so chastise in consumer culture) at the superficial pantomimes Hail Caesar! makes of bygone blockbusters, to the very same constituting the largest part of the works cited for those rushed final papers lamenting cinema’s modern decadence – whose cursory jabs at Lockheed and the cold, nuclear fate of the contemporary world likewise resonate with neophytes of the Facebook protest.

Perhaps Hail Caesar! was an attempt to show some humility and even jeer at their target demographic by turning this irreverent lens on themselves. The final shot of the film sees Mannix returning back to work, having chosen the ‘nobler’ profession of systemized entertainment, on a long tracking shot; the camera pans out and up, channeling Baird Whitlock’s attempted conversion in the titular Roman epic, as we glimpse the radiant sun so bright (“..blinding, it’s blinding!” the director, in an earlier clip appearing in the film cries off-screen) that we barely make out the final title card – not the film’s name, or any of those who worked on it, but of artistic divinity made corporeal: “Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen”. Perhaps such bombastic jesters so conveniently paralleled in the narrative of the work suggest an acute self-awareness that the directors share for their place in contemporary culture and for the overarching trends in their work, however there are far better ways of showing this than by releasing a 1 ½ hour monument to your colossal ineptitude. Namely, this type of behavior suggests the Coens aren’t as conscientious as they think they are, and that in harnessing the arrogance to do so, they’ve become the very thing they sought to parody. This vortex of self-irreverence manifest in their constant criticism of the communists, whose labor-value theory of screenwriting markedly deflates the Coens' own work, they equally dismiss the vast technical commitment of all those who put up with their aesthetic diddling for months on end: the cavalcade of recurring actors to their long filmography are given insultingly curt roles and the completed film plays second fiddle to the masterminds behind it – the final shot makes abundantly clear, this is a film about the auteur, not filmmaking, much as its candy colored flashbacks to massive Technicolor cameras will have you believe.

The real issue isn’t that the Coens could make this film, it’s that they could run away with it. The real issue is that people continue eat this up so long as they’re told it hasn’t touched the kitchen floor. Kenneth Turan of the LA times reconciles:

Although the brothers have at times seemed to be making films only for each other, "Hail, Caesar!," a bit like "O Brother, Where Art Thou" before it, wants everyone near and far to come in and enjoy the party. They're having the time of their lives, and we're all fortunate enough to be invited to share in the fun.

Hail Caesar! is a comedy, it’s a joke, and it’s utterly disposable, though it’s not for us – it’s for the two who spent all all of production playing dress up in the dusty sets of yesteryear and managed to walk away with millions in cash for what consists a sparse set of posters and a pastiche of well-known actors, a fistful of dollars from every idiot walking out with a confused grin and two thumbs up.

Brad Pettigrew

Currently Editor-in-Chief for The Moviegoer, Brad Pettigrew is a Senior majoring in English and Mathematics with a minor in History. When not doing schoolwork or working on the site, Brad enjoys writing short stories and other fiction; Brad is also Co-President of the Penn cycling team. His favorite directors include Kubrick, PTA, and Stan Brakhage.