I’ve been promising for a while that I’m going to be less reductive about movies. So even though I saw Hail, Caesar! last night and have been thinking about it ever since, I won’t try to come up with some belabored explanation of what I think it all means.
After all, trying to assign a “meaning” to everything is insufferably pretentious. It’s the kind of thing that self-important writers do, sitting together flinging high-minded concepts at each other without being able to put them into practice or make them relevant. It’s not actual communication, but just a pretense of superiority to cover up a deep-seated bitterness over the fact that writing is not universally accepted to be the most important thing there is.
It’s all part of the value judgment we tend to put on the labels of “art” vs “entertainment.” As if entertainment is inherently ephemeral, vapid, and valueless. The only way to elevate it to the higher and worthwhile level of “Art” is to put it in service of some important and meaningful statement. By, for instance, inserting ideas into unrelated stories for audiences to decode and pick apart like puzzle boxes, with the goal of “changing minds.” Or having a movie end with a forceful, dramatic monologue that explains to the audience exactly what the whole thing is about.
If it were just self-important ramblings from someone who’d taken too many cinema studies courses, it’d be bad enough. But the problem is that it’s reductive. It’s dismissive of all the wonderful things that movies can do, and it undermines the efforts of the hundreds of people who work to bring those wonderful experiences to audiences.
After all, there’s a ton of artistry that goes into a movie that’s more than just the self-congratulation of screenwriters and attention-grabbing performances by movie stars. There are cinematographers, editors, composers, choreographers, set designers, artistic directors, dancers, and stunt people. And that’s not counting all the people whose work doesn’t make it directly onto the screen, but who are essential to making the entire thing possible.
It’s an attitude that assumes that the movie industry’s days of spectacle and pageantry and displays of raw talent are gone and no longer missed, because the medium “matured.” It assumes an evolution from cheap tricks and stunts into more refined and intelligent stories of beautiful and sophisticated people delivering clever dialogue. It claims that there’s no true artistry in a well-executed farce, or a perfectly choreographed musical number. It ignores the delight of an audience enjoying something together in favor of being able to say I get it.
So I’m going to resist my natural tendency to talk about the Coen brothers as populists. Or to mention their disdain for pretense and self-importance. Or to put anything in the context of their recurring theme of spirituality vs. religion, and the futility of being so focused on the meaning and the answer that we lose sight of the wonder of life and the beauty of experience itself.
Instead, I’ll just talk about what I liked most in Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ absurd, spectacular farce about the “golden age” of Hollywood.
I loved that they went all-in on reproducing genre after genre of classic movie, not just as casual reference but full-blown production. The result is the best living cinematographer and film composer working with scores of the most talented people in the industry making pitch-perfect recreations of old musical westerns, Gene Kelly-style musicals with elaborate dance numbers, Esther Williams-style “aquamusicals,” pompous sword-and-sandal epics, and high-society melodramas. And then made the references pitch-perfect as well, to Cold War spy dramas, a film noir car chase, and of course, the Singin’ in the Rain-style movie-within-a-movie.
I loved that the Coens returned to their Blood Simple-era mastery of timing, setting up the slow burn “Would that it were so simple” gag that’s shown in the trailer, waiting for a few more scenes before setting up the punchline, then stretching out the delivery of the punchline even more by inserting one of the other funniest scenes in the movie, with Frances McDormand’s film editor.
Every single performance in the movie was perfect, which is especially remarkable considering that they weren’t all in the same genre of movie. Being the straight man in a screwball comedy is a thankless job, but Josh Brolin keeps it grounded. But Alden Ehrenreich is kind of amazing, not just for completely getting the wild changes in tone from scene to scene, but also being able to do an affected accent trying to affect a different accent. And this is the first movie where I’ve liked Channing Tatum.
I loved the recurring gag about not “depicting the godhead” (check the disclaimers in the end credits) while making a movie billed “A Tale of The Christ,” and then not only did they never show the actor playing Jesus, they had an assistant director asking him whether he was principal or supporting cast.
I loved that the high-minded, presumably religious epic On Wings As Eagles was built up with such import and significance and then marvelously deflated. I loved the “No Dames!” musical number that started with a subtle nod to the Gene Kelly performances that seemed just-barely-shy of homoerotic, and then got more and more blatant as the routine got more and more sophisticated.
And I loved that Eddie Mannix’s guilt and loyalty and devotion were depicted as a crisis of faith, and contrasted against the religious leaders who didn’t have the answers; the warmongers who dismissed movies as ephemeral, valueless entertainment; and the biblical epics that depicted sudden, awe-inspiring epiphanies that turned out to be ultimately empty. Mannix didn’t really have any sudden moment of clarity; he just went on helping people who needed help and made movies that reached millions of people and brought joy to their lives.
So no real message, just an astoundingly talented bunch of filmmakers making a silly, funny farce about the “magic” of movies. But maybe I missed the point entirely.