Hail, Caesar!’s character sympathy and nested christian charity

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One of the best things about Hail, Caesar! is the internal film of the same name. Really all the pieces of the would-be throwback Hollywood classics, from the tap dancing to the pistol twirling to the giant water tank are incredible. The film’s namesake though is a specific case. Not just because of its content, ostensibly a “story of the christ”, but because its placement as a crown jewel, a prestige picture. This picture shares the values of one Eddie Mannix, the containing film’s main character whose responsibility it is to get the picture finished on time and budget.

An interesting little joke hiding in Hail, Caesar! is that there are a bunch of concatenations that serve to “fix” the biblical story. Presumably to make the film work better as an epic that appeals to the moderately religious modern man, a man that Eddie Mannix would be proud to show his film to to explain what he gets out of his worldview. What these bits really do is complicate and change the actual, biblical historical “story of the christ.” There are all sorts of timeline problems. The film opens with the Apostle Paul being converted by DIVINE PRESENCE on the road to damascus but somehow this interaction happens before the crucifixion and chronologically at the start of the film. Paul is described in voiceover as a humble merchant which jibes with Eddie’s capitalist bent but is a bit of a whitewash on his persecutorial zealous past. A whole chunk of the passion week is excised as Baird’s character meets Jesus at a well the day before his death. This is the kind of movie the kind of man Eddie Mannix makes. By telling the most charitable truthy story about a man like Mannix they either deliberately or incidentally make a fake movie that does the good gospel of our lord justice.

Having watched the film three times now, there has been a repeated reaction to that final speech by Baird. Anecdotally this has been confirmed by a cloud of witnesses as well. In my first viewing I was moved. In my second viewing, my stoic protestant brother gave a few microexpression-like hints that he was being moved. In my third screening, my christian friends were all enraptured, stunned at the sincerity.

This sincerity is made even more sincere by the undercut afterwards. When Baird forgets his line and he and his co-star complain about their itchy costumes we realize it’s not him. It wasn’t him that moved us. It was the message, it was that external truth that for a moment, in however convoluted way it was tapped, was in fact tapped.

In the movies, the Coens rightly posit incredibly charitable versions of people whose experience and worldview they do not themselves hold. This is what they are doing with Mannix. It’s Mannix’s movie and it’s Mannix’s beliefs that have made their way into the film. Mannix clearly cares about this moment, it’s why he cuts out of a possibly ruinous PR damage control situation early to see it performed. It’s why we see sincerity here. Even if it’s not sincere to the Coens, they let their characters be sincere.

An interesting, comparable case study for this phenomena is a character like Marlon Wayans’ Gawain MacSam in The Ladykillers. He is a black gangster who dies, shot with his own gun, because of his posturing towards violence. He never finds it within himself to pull the trigger. When the chips are down and he really needs to shoot someone, the Coens don’t let him actually cross that threshold by making Gawain see the little old lady who needs to get got as his mother. The hard face ends up being just a cartoon front.

While certainly presenting a black man as cartoonish could be deemed “problematic” I will deflect with a link to Marlon Wayans’ imdb to suggest that maybe there are mediating factors to consider before attacking the Coens about that.

The biggest difference between Mannix going to confession and MacSam going to the grave is honesty. Mannix is constantly trying to evaluate where he’s actually at. When MacSam is confronted about the moral stand he accidentally takes his response is to double down and threaten to give “a lead colonic” to J.K. Simmons’ character who challenges him with a few comedic morally backward inflammations like “you gotta accept your responsibilities and shoot that old lady” and “with equal rights comes equal responsibilities” further calling him a coward, telling him to “be a man.”

With Mannix the Coens don’t so much minimize his flaws as suggest they are just the kind of flaw you’ll get with a man like this and that there is a point to being as honest as you can about your own flaws. He hits a woman and a man but only confesses hitting the man. It seems as though the Coens in their charity know that there are things that a man like Mannix is going to miss.

There is even a suggestion in this film about the ultimate role or societal function of Hollywood’s mainstream populist epics. The priest’s advice to Mannix is also a statement about what Mannix is making happen in the internal Hail, Caesar! film. Mannix has a conscience that he listens to, in the same way that final monologue by Baird, will hopefully act as a conscience for the general population that Mannix knows will see the film. It’s information and entertainment but this element of uplift is tricky. You have to know where up is to go up. Ultimately there is a hope here for good. For good in the movies. For a world increasingly unmoored from morals of any kind, popular films that tell us “with great power comes great responsibility” act as a secular guide post that there is even such a thing as good and right in the world to listen for.

This film could even be read further as a defense of people like Mannix in Hollywood. The modern iteration of Mannix, christians simply trying to work a job and do good works in the picture business are people that some christians think are way too close to “the gay agenda” and “the other side” of the culture war that is “recruiting” our children. Most people are not auteurs or studio executives but rather small bit collaborators in an economic machine.

The relationship between Baird and Mannix is revealing, particularly the part when Baird says “never without a broad next to me” pointing at Mannix like they’ve talked about it before. This suggests that Mannix had to roll Baird back from men to women in his sexual pursuits. It’s a sexuality defined by the market. Mannix is the market’s enforcer. We know from the Scarlett Johansson subplot that this is a regular part of his job. This is ugly. What do we do with this ugliness.

The film is clear eyed but hopeful. Yes, Hollywood is a place where Jesus’ billing is uncertain (does he get to eat lunch as a principal or extra?). Yes, it is a place with competing interests that middle-americans and conservatives view as divorced from the real world (the communist writers). Yes, it is full of people who are empty headed (Baird). Yes, it has corruption and sexual misconduct (the directors of the films). Yes, it has people who might be legitimately unknowably nefarious while being charismatic as all hell (Channing Tatum).

But these people can be redeemed if they serve the picture. Whatever picture it is, what that says is what matters.

There is value in plain truth. The pursuit of “what is being said” can sometimes eclipse what is actually being said. Like sad internet illuminati theorists, christians sometimes look for hidden crosses in films by their favorite supposedly christian filmmakers and ignore the literal crosses in movies like Hail, Caesar! For many films, it’s all there in the text.

Simply by loving movies and telling a true story, by honestly presenting what a devout conservative catholic managerial type could be in classic Hollywood, the Coen’s have made a christian classic and a Hollywood triumph.

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