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Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Hegelian Phenomenology of "Hail, Caesar!"

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar

I saw the Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! Friday evening. It is about the studio production of a film called Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ. Since then, I have read 6 reviews of it: the New Yorker's, the New York Times, the LA Times, and three more sundry reviews. They all seem to say nice job, well done, and spend a lot of time recounting the story. Some take a tentative stab at some heavy interpretative stuff. There was some gab about riffs on previous cinema, as if riffs were somehow profound. Maybe they are.

It seems to come down to the fact that everyone thinks that the Coen Brothers are criticizing the studio system.
Since there is no more studio system, this seems like an unlikely horse to flog with such an array of talent. Perhaps there is something else in this film.

I don't do recounting of story. If you have not seen the film, you will be totally at sea for what I am writing. Go see the film first. Or refer to:

Eddie Mannix is a fixer; when the foibles and weaknesses of mankind show up in the stars of the screen and threaten the fairytale universe the studio has spent millions creating, it is up to Eddie Mannix to straighten things out and get everything back on the right track.

Mannix is not just a fixer; he is The Fixer.
He is not The Fixer in the sense of Bernard Malamud, but in the sense of a possible character of Isaac Bashevis Singer who would have rode into the town of Goray after the upheaval caused by Sabbatai Tsevi, the phoney Messiah, and returned that world to normality.
He is a Fixer with a capital "F" and a m'shikh (messiah) with a small "m".

Is this far-fetched? I don't think so. When we meet Mannix, he is going to Confession, like any good Catholic circa-1951 (we know the year because we see some rushes from a film in production with the Roman numerals displayed). It has been 24 hours since his last confession. When we take leave of Mannix at the end of the film, he is going to Confession again, and 27 hours on his watch have passed.
He tells the priest this, who tells Mannix maybe this is too much confession.
Mannix even keeps the Holy on schedule. It's 27 hours, God; no more, no less. Take a memo.

The film looks at the extremes of Communism and Capitalism, as personified by the Communist writers' cell and Capitol Picture Studio. When George Clooney's character Baird Whitlock returns from being kidnapped by a Communist writers' club (!), he tells Mannix that the Commies have all the answers to history and economics and the future in a book they call "capital with a 'K' ", referring to Marx's Das Kapital.

The extremes are ridiculous.
Extreme capitalism is personified in the head-hunter from Lockheed, who says that Mannix's work is foolishness and Lockheed does the real work of the world, as he takes out a photo of the H-Bomb exploding at Bikini Atoll. He wants Mannix for Lockheed.
The real work of the world is death?
This is 1951, and by the time Mannix's children are grown up, the USA will be dropping the products of capitalism - bombs, Agent Orange, etc. - on Vietnamese whether Communist or not.

And the Communists are ridiculous.
As the antithesis of Capitalists, they cannot even keep their ill-gotten gains, the $100,000 dollar ransom for George Clooney's character, Baird Whitlock, whom they had abducted. They are poseurs of History and not its agents.

Organized religion?
In the scene where Mannix runs the Christian and religious issues of the film Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ by a priest, a rabbi, an Orthodox priest, and a Protestant minister is precious in its depiction of the inane discord between the four representatives of organized religion and the befuddlement of Mannix, who sits between the four men, a middleman who finds it hard to understand those whom he must deal with.
This is the strangeness of the one middleman - morally obsessive - between the clueless and religious, whose morality seems to resemble sound bites more than scripture.

Here we see that Eddie Mannix is akin to a Hegelian synthesis that comes into being in the field of the antagonism of the Thesis and the Antithesis, which in this movie are the extremes; he exists as something between and more than Capitalism and Communism, more than Art and the Workaday world, more than Holy Religion and Dismal Indifference.

In the end, Mannix's true devotion is to his job of allowing the world of the studio to continue in existence. Mannix is like one of those inherently devote souls without whose prayers and labors the world would cease to exist.
He does not have exquisite control. We see him talking to his wife on the telephone, and they are discussing a seeming problem their son is having playing baseball. Mannix says he will call the coach of the team and try to fix the situation.
Soon after, in the only scene at home, Mannix is eating a late, warmed-up dinner before returning to his office, and his wife tells him that their son played another baseball game, and that he was still at short-stop position, and everything went very well.
Mannix mentions he forgot to call the coach. Things worked out. Mannix didn't helicopter into the baseball diamond and talk to the coach. Things worked out, as they were allowed to.
(Since we only see a little over a day of Mannix's life, we really do not know his family life very well, although we may assume what we see is typical. One of the reasons brought forward to join Lockheed is time with the family; imagine that: family time and H-bombs.)

With Mannix, things will work out, no matter how wretched the human material he has to work with. Mannix will allow the flotsam and jetsam of the universe which is the world according to the Studio to be the very best it can be, for they are all a part of a communal effort to create a film which hopefully will reap benefits for everyone involved, the capitalists, the laborers, and the consumers.

And there's a point: to benefit all involved.
There are inequities, as the writers demonstrate, but Mannix inhabits a world devoid of politics. Politics is the Art of those who Compel and Persuade and Enforce for imaginary ideologies and forces of History and the true words of God... and that is not the world of the studio.
The world of the studio is the real jimmy-rigged world of souls.
A Sullivan's Travels of detail after detail.

He can cajole. After roughing up an almost-Communist Baird Whitlock, he tells him to get back to the set, and he tells him to be the greatest star he can be.
He can threaten. He explains exactly why a gossip columnist should not run a story embarassing to Whitlock and the studio, since the source was a Communist agent, and if that bit of information got back to the media - and there is no doubt Mannix would see to it that it did so - the gossip columnist would at best look like a Commie stooge.

Finally, the title itself is thought provoking.
The most common use of "Hail, Caesar!" that comes to mind is

Ave, Caesar! Morituri Te Salutant!

Hail, Caesar! They who are about to die salute you!

If you do a search, that will be the first response, as recorded by Suetonius in De Vita Caesarum, wherein Suetonius has the emperor Claudius respond

Aut non...

Or not...

They who are about to die... or not...
I think the Coen Brothers are using the studio system to portray a Practical Kingdom of the world where we may at least live and work together. They are not criticizing the old studio system; that has been done and they could add nothing to that futile exercise.
But our future, that is not yet done, and they are despairing of the idiot extremes.


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