HAIL, CAESAR! : Moving Pictures, Polytheism, and Propaganda

Morality, Business, and the Anti-Hero

Many filmmakers have their film on filmmaking. Fellini made “8 1/2”, Altman made “The Player,” Truffaut made “Day for Night” and now the Coen Brothers have “Hail, Caesar!,” a story which revolves around Eddie Mannix, the Hollywood fixer. If one isn’t familiar with Eddie Mannix, I recommend Scott Eyman’s “Lion of Hollywood,” which follows the rise of MGM during the conception of Hollywood. In the book, Eyman paints Mannix as cruel villain, albeit useful villain.

So it’s interesting to me that the Coen brothers decided to make a film, not around the auteur (A.K.A. the filmmaker), like the aforementioned do, but around the brutish anti-hero to cinema: The muscle. The man who, arguably, lacks more artistry than the people he surrounds himself with. Tim Robbins’ character Griffin Mill in the “The Player” looks like a regular Pablo Picasso compared to Mannix. This proposes a certain challenge for the writers. How to espouse artistry through this “money man”? It also suggests the Coen brothers belief that this industry is built on this type of character, one who seemingly lacks morality and artistry all together.

But despite Mannix’s embodiment of the anti-hero, the Coens somehow find a way to suggest a moral passage for Eddie throughout the film. His decision to concede to the arms industry by working for Lockheed-Martin rather than making movies is his moral dilemma. In real life Mannix had no such offer on the table. So why did the Coen brothers choose Lockheed? They could’ve chosen any company for Mannix. Which leads me to my theory about…

Film as Propaganda

Mannix’s conflict is indicative of the depthless morality that rightfully divides art from propaganda. His arc is not just a philosophical question, but majorly an economic one. Mannix is offered a high-paying job to help produce instruments of mass destruction. During the height of World War II, the United States military industrial complex produced a good share of movies in the Hollywood system, notably “One Minute to Zero” (1952) and “From Here to Eternity” (1953). Lockheed’s offer mirrors the plethora of similar offers the military made to top Producers who had the capability of garnering political support through the movie business. Whereas Whitlock (played wonderfully by George Clooney) has his morality on trial by a room full of writers, all echoing the looks and sentiments of popular philosophers throughout history.

It’s my belief that “Hail Caesar!” provides a rare insight into the lucrative business that is governmental funding in Cinema. The film acts as scrutable critic of its own influence in the political, philosophical and religious sphere. Hence, its rather amoral and paradoxical ending. Mannix does not take the job at Lockheed, however he does successfully shake Whitlock out of his communist stupor to deliver a borderline farcical monologue about the son of God. The Coens seem cognizant that their stories are unavoidably sermonizing through Cinema, but their political agenda feels mostly out of place. Their political ethos sometimes surfaces in dangerous waters; the same kind of water which the writers find themselves paddling through to deliver the ransom money to the head of the Communist party.

Are the Coen brothers confessing to their own involvement with political propaganda? Forget not that they released another film this year, “Bridge of Spies,” which shares a similar “Red Scare” tone but in a much more earnest and Hollywoodized form. Whatever the connection might be, “Hail, Caesar” boldly repudiates its political and religious agenda. Despite Whitlock delivering his monologue, he happens to choke on the word “Faith,” a gaffe that suggests Whitlock’s own forgetfulness of the meaning behind the word. In the end, who is the actor serving? The story the writers gave him, the money Hollywood blankets him with, or the power of his own ego manifest - a certain Eddie Mannix?


Polytheism in Cinema

Capitol Pictures is making a religious epic throughout the movie, as was the trend MGM was known for in the 1930s-1950s. “Hail, Caesar!” is essentially religious propaganda for the monotheistic religious sects. Mannix even rounds up the respective ambassadors of Judaism, Greek Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism to ensure its accurate depiction. Film as direct message from God is an ongoing theme in “Hail, Caesar!”

For all intents and purposes Mannix is a very monotheistic personification of God, within the economic hierarchy that is the film industry. While Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) plays a role as the Roman general who kills Christ (the emblematic leader of most monotheistic religions) in the film within a film, his role explores a more polytheistic point of view after being kidnapped by his captors. It isn’t until he awakens in a room full of intellectuals, that he adopts the socialist, anti-hierarchal perspective of morality. Suddenly there isn’t just one God (or the divine trinity of Christ, Mannix and Money), but rather countless Gods of different origins and beliefs. And in this case, the Coen brothers perfectly depict this kind of Ancient Greek polytheism as a room full of writers. The same, of which, write Whitlock’s words and decide just what kind of “hero” he will be.

While Cinema is a very hierarchical system that delivers masterworks on the shoulders of the one true Auteur, it would be silly to deny the fact that it is one of the most collaborate artforms to have ever existed. Eddie Mannix, an alpha-type leader and Baird Whitlock, the “leading man,” both venture on a rather unconscious and conscious exploration of polytheism. In Mannix’s case, he is surrounded by the many people who make his universe work - from the lowly extras who poison Whitlock to the top actors who carry the pictures on their shoulders.

It isn’t until this Greek tragedy comes to the final battle of the two gods - a kind of Titanomachy between the Producer Mannix vs. the Actor Whitlock that the Coens contextualize just how silly these clashing of egos are. After Whitlock sermonizes about the injustices and superficiality of the industry he benefits from, Mannix, the cold-hearted capitalist slaps him and marches him back to set. As the opening of the film is a confessional, is this too the Coens confessing their guilt of making films about the importance of the immaterial despite their own financial gain from said ethos?

Whitlock’s odyssey reminds me of John L. Sullivan in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivans Travels”. In the film, John L. Sullivan is a director in Hollywood who feels the escapism of his work isn’t confronting the tragic blight that faces America. So he decides to embark on a journey into the fringes of the impoverished, invisible classes. The primary difference is that Sullivan’s odyssey into introspection is conscious, while Whitlock’s is unconscious and without consent. It isn’t until he’s drugged, kidnapped and fed tiny sandwiches that he can face such introspection. In the end, they both confront similar truths. Sullivan realizes his escapism isn’t a frivolous byproduct of his wealth, but a necessity for the enchantment of those who can’t afford the luxuries to truly escape. 

Whitlock’s catharsis is definitively less deep, but important nonetheless. Despite Whitlock’s quick dismissal of the philosophies he absorbed at his hostage retreat, he has a new understanding of the monologue he performs in the face of Christ…or rather the actor playing Christ. The words now seem flush with meaning. They have the desired weight the writer’s intended and thus they reach a kind of artificial transcendence.

Film as Love

Despite the artist’s vain attempts at capturing spirituality or political rhetoric in their works, the Coens definitely have a vested belief in cinema. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have the careers that they do. In the end, the filmis a self-celebratory reflection upon the most transformative and groundbreaking era in Hollywood. It admires not only the big players in the pictures, but the lesser seen personalities. The ones that, without them, cinema would cease to exist.

The most interesting tenet of Mannix’s odyssey, and arguably his most intimate, is the scene of him checking the dailies with the Editor (played by Frances McDormand). In it, we find the two sharing a moment above the warm glow of the moviola (a time before we edited films on bright blue LCD screens). C.C Calhoun (the name an echo of Billy Wilder’s own C.C. Baxter in “The Apartment”) nearly kills herself while prepping the machine. Here Joel Coen, husband to McDormand, is literally “killing his darling” in this film. The gag acts as both metaphor to editing and personal memoir for Joel as filmmaking was responsible for bringing the two together during their meeting on “Blood Simple.”

Cinema as magic. Cinema as Cupid.

Cinema, perhaps, has no place as a political medium or as religious testament. But it can, through its own superficiality, depict the tenderest moments between love and death with brilliant realism like in “Blood Simple” or as comedic catharsis, a staple in the Coen Bros. body of work. 

For all of the seriousness of moviemaking, the Coens successfully scrutinize the inherent silliness of people en masse scrambling to make a fantasy into a reality. No matter what. Even if their hero gets drugged, kidnapped, and held hostage. And perhaps that is the fabric of filmmaking: a true labour of love which must prevail against the forces of sabotage, economic ruin, and even a few disgruntled extras.

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