Hail, Caesar!07 Feb 2016
Hail, Caesar!, like most films by the Coen brothers can be seen in many different modes. Viewers have the choice to take it in as a paean to 1950s Hollywood, as a film about faith systems or a collection of scenes, one funnier and more charismatic than the next, featuring contemporary Hollywood’s most famous stars parodying old Hollywood’s most famous stars. Each of these viewings is valid and has its benefits. I found myself floating in and out of these themes throughout the film. Although they accomplish more in other films (A Serious Man, and No Country for Old Men among their best), Caesar is full of great scenes, interesting themes, laughs, narrative intrigue and strong performances.
Of the many explorations of faith in this film (and, again, I think A Serious Man is probably a better exploration of faith by the brothers), I found the discussion of Marxism the most interesting. Without going into too much detail, Marxian philosophy is discussed by a cabal of Hollywood writers using phrases usually reserved for the academy like “the dialectic” and “means of production.” What results is an interesting exploration of the myth making powers of Hollywood. Marx, famous for calling religion the opiate of the masses, was keenly aware of the power of historical narratives. The Coen brothers, similarly, are keenly aware that secular imagery and myth making is a powerful part of American history. They don’t shy away from Hegelian/Kantian thesis-antithesis-synthesis concepts in implicating Hollywood in its own demise, or if not demise, a thorough inspection.
The Coen’s have made films about America starting from the 1800s, into the 20th century, all the way up to contemporary times. Depicting Hollywood in 1951, at the height of studio power, of central planning, of cohesive American vs. USSR narratives, before TV came in and shook things up, before the internet came in and threw a wrench into our collective American myth making proved a worthwhile story for the film makers to create and for the audience to experience.
This is the stuff that struck me, but lest I make the film sound too heady there is also an incredible scene with a rabbi, an Eastern Orthodox priest, a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister that stuck with me just as much as the Marxian stuff. Kudos to the Coen brothers for bringing all manner of pleasure to the screen.