Not For Every Fish in the Sea: The Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar”

“Hail Caesar” written and directed by the Coen brothers left me pleasantly gobsmacked whilst I simultaneously sensed my own smugness, feeling as if I got a joke that not necessarily everyone was meant to get. I felt like the brothers had communicated to me in code and inwardly I uttered a hurrah! As I had stumbled upon a pair of filmmakers who seemed to ‘get it’.

Is this what all of their films are like? By coincidence, subsequently I watched “Burn After Reading” and thought to myself, “this seems mighty familiar.” After a quick online stalk sesh I can see that I have seen “No Country for Old Men” as well as “Paris, je t’aime.” Definitely time to rewatch these titles and proceed to a Coen brothers binge.

A great deal of people say that “Hail Caesar” isn’t about anything. Just let my pretentious snob flag fly for a moment here when I say that those people are just so wrong. This film touches on so, so many ideas. Let me start with a quote from what I consider the most important monologue in the film, delivered by none other than George Clooney:

“Because the Studio is nothing more than an instrument of capitalism. Yeah, so we blindly follow these laws like any any other institution. Laws that these guys figured out. The Studio makes pictures to serve the System. That is it’s function! That’s really what we’re up to here. Its just confirming what they call – the status quo. I mean, we may tell ourselves that we’re creating something of artistic value or there’s some sort of spiritual dimension to the picture business.”

If you haven’t seen the movie, a group of communists are who gave this character these ideas. In the midst of the speech I was reminded of a similar speech from Charles Chaplins “A King in New York” delivered to us by the anarchist boy played by Chaplins son, Michael Chaplin. As we know, Chaplin was labelled a communist and exiled from America. “A King in New York” was his way, in my opinion, of brandishing his middle finger to the system that had him branded and banished.

Irony and humour are major tools used by the Coen brothers in this film. The irony of delivering a speech condemning Hollywood, whilst using Hollywood as the conduit to express these views is stark with a darkly amusing twist. The group of communists talk of how “they” (the enemy, the government, the man) used to slip ideas into Hollywood films as a way of brainwashing and conditioning. Is this what the Coen brothers are wryly doing with “Hail Caesar”? Is the entire film satirically propagandic?

I love the portrayal of actors as laughable buffoons who are either fish-out-of-water or complete divas. We can see that these “role models” we put on pedestals are still very much so fragile children who, sadly, customarily have not come across a trustworthy nor genuine person throughout their careers in the film industry. Take the way DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) pounced on the chance to be with Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill) after she discovers he is “reliable.”

Yet, the actors are also depicted as some of the most authentic, kind, well-meaning characters. Perhaps this could be as they are the ones furthest removed from the inner workings of the industry itself. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) can’t remember the last word, “faith,” in his big final speech. Has he lost faith in his industry? Does that matter? He still lit up and obeyed, like an abused puppy, when told, “now go out there and be a star” by his boss after being verbally and physically assaulted by him. How many other “stars” are we worshipping that have lost their faith and continue to be mastered by the puppeteers?

This movie is about corruption and the concentration of power. Think about how little that $100 000 meant for the studio to give up. Think about the opening scene and how it plainly illustrates who holds power between the police and Hollywood. Think about the scene of the religious heads sitting around a table, giving their 2 cents worth; who at that table really had their say?  Think about Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tidla Swinton) and how as representatives of the media, they are consistently treated as well as, if not better than, the movie stars. I’m sensing a trend here. Hollywood, religion, media… pillars of society? And lets not push aside the clear under-appreciation of the writers in this film; art is no pillar.

For me, “Hail Caesar” was ultimately an essay on the institutional farce that is Hollywood, and therefore all other institutions such as military, media, religion and politics. By exhibiting to us how absurd all this business is, the Coen brothers also show us how we kind of know that it is, but we choose to still follow along and put our faith in it anyway. When and if we eventually do lose our faith, much like Baird, the abused puppy dog forgetting the word “faith” at the end of his speech, we continue along with the status quo any-who. Because what else can we do? It’s all we’ve known.

 

Photo by Noom Peerapong on Unsplash

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Not For Every Fish in the Sea: The Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar”

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