Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Future is Fixed

Warning: spoilers abound

"During the Paris Commune, in all corners of the city of Paris, there were people shooting at the clocks on the towers of the churches, palaces, and soon, thereby consciously or not consciously expressing the need that somehow time has to be arrested, that at least the prevailing, the established time continuum has to be arrested and that a new time has to begin."- Herbert Marcuse

Hail, Caesar, the latest from the Coen Brothers, is fashioned as a screwball farce.  There are a number of elaborate stagepieces that seem to have the icky drippings of an Allen/Brooks-esque paen to early 20th century cinema.  However, it’s hardly intent on reliving/reanimating/reinvigorating a good old days or “Make Hollywood Great Again” schema.  And suffice to say, its form belies an impressive philosophical weight masked under its comedic veneer.

That much of the plotline is driven by its protagonist’s secretive battle against a shadowy group with the revealing name of “The Future” is telling.  Eddie Mannix, a character with a real life surrogate, is a kind of time agent, an ontology cop.  In a film that toys with retro-fetishization, set in a post-war past, Mannix is poised at the cusp of the oncoming second half of the 20th century.  Though it’s hardly alluded to, off-screen is brutality of World War II, which would linger in the air throughout the century like an albatross.  The 1950s were a period of grave uncertainty concerning whether humanity might ever make it beyond the atrocities of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.   One could hardly position during this time without a brief whiff of this floating around, and there is one, at least as much as supposed screwball farce will allow.

Employed as a Hollywood “Fixer”, Mannix’s role was to prevent the future, to sustain the collective unconscious and fix fantasy to the prescribed levels of the status quo.  This means suppressing homosexuality and unwanted pregnancies from public view, creating arranged marriages, and, at one point, even bartering an unborn baby to an accountant in order to avoid a scandal (which knowing the Coens must be some kind of biblical allusion).  As a Catholic, Mannix is constantly conflicted, but hardly for the reasons listed above.  He seems mostly okay with the work, but little things- such as lying to his wife about quitting smoking- rattle him*. 

He also helps supply a steady stream of gossip to the press, personified in the form twins played by Tilda Swinton.  One models herself as a “serious” journalist while the other embraces her indulgence in the tawdry, but of course this is a false duality.  Both women and their respective publications are fixated on the same junk, feeding the masses pap while the future looms large.  By keeping the hungry tabloids satiated, Mannix is able to effectively depoliticize Hollywood’s larger role in shaping hearts and minds and even pulls the wool over what would likely be the studio’s biggest scandal- that one of their biggest stars is a defector and spy for the Soviet Union. 

Mannix is tempted with two possible futures.  On one side of the table is “The Future”, a group that turns out to be a bunch of mostly benevolent, chin-scratching, tweed-wearing Communists more obsessed with the dialectic than engaging in full-on class warfare (more on them in a bit).  At the other side of the table is a “cushy” job offer waiting in the wings at Lockheed Martin, whose version of “fixing” is marketed to Mannix by a recruiter in the form of a Polaroid of the Atomic Bomb detonation over Bikini Atoll.  The Bikini Atoll detonations, of course, caused unseen damage in terms of poisoning the native population and then effectively starving them out while the island was being condemned, but the larger moral implications of working on weapons of mass destruction never seems to be much of a factor to the hard-boiled Mannix. It’s simply a better-paying gig with better hours and an easier workload. 

A new utopian order, albeit one crafted by a bumbling left intelligentsia, or a continuation of the destruction and devastation WWII left in its wake?  Of course, Mannix opts to choose neither and quickly houses himself back within the fantasy realm.  Faced with uncertainty of nuclear annihilation or Communist overthrow, it’s simple for Mannix to retreat.  And it’s this, more than any of the other dilemmas of the film that seems to unsettle him the most.

At one point, Mannix confronts his priest in the confessional and winces while asking him “Is it wrong to do something if it’s easy?”  At this point, he has been pontificating over the career switch, so the audience is meant to assume that this crisis of faith has to do with the offer from Lockheed Martin, but I’d take it that this is one of the film’s many clever bits of misdirection.  Mannix’s work in the culture industry is to essentially dehumanize the fantasy realm and purge it of its burgeoning nightmares, to produce escapist puff like a film where naval sailors sing and dance while they ship out to war, off to participate in one of history’s greatest collective traumas. He even defangs Jesus by making him a peripheral figure in their big budget epic (also called Hail, Caesar).  The film seems to want to ask of all these nostalgic impulses and happy-go-lucky romps scrubbed of any indecency; is it wrong to do something if it’s easy? 

It’s a harder question than it seems.  The Communists, who openly admit to sneaking propaganda and Marxist messaging into screenplays, seem to think that perhaps films should be something more, that they should advocate on behalf of a new value system.  To Mannix, movies are not art and not politics.  They’re a gig, with all the embedded institutional authority of any other job.  Swap a cowboy into a melodrama if the studio head tells you it needs to be done like swapping out papers in a filing cabinet.  But when Mannix inserts actor Hobie Doyle, known for his Western roles, into a period piece, he stumbles on a single line and spends what seems like an eternity trying to straighten it out.  That line? “would that it were so simple?”

The Communist storyline piqued the interest of Jacobin’s Eileen Jones, who determined that despite the Coens depicting the Commies as a bunch of kindly academic buffoons who pontificate on exploitation while vacationing with movie stars amidst an ever-frustrated housemaid, the film’s core is essentially Marxist.  I wouldn’t go that far.  The Coens are too hung up on presenting any ideologies or belief systems as dead weight floating betwixt the sea of existential nihilism that is consciousness to lean too far in one direction, but the film is perhaps more sympathetic than its skewering portrayals would signify.

Hail Caesar’s star Baird Whitlock is kidnapped off the set of his film, but treated well.  His ideas and thoughts are entertained with no less consideration than that of the communists.  He spends a few days with them in which he seems to be able to leave of his own accord, but does not.  In the course of events, he is either indoctrinated or converted, depending on your angle.  However, when he returns hoping to share his newfound knowledge with others, Mannix assaults him and confirms what the communists have told him about him being a particularly-pampered, nullified extension of Hollywood’s system of exploited labor.  Mannix reminds him that he has a job to do and states that he’s no different than “the director…and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate”. 

The title of the film seems to allude to the famous biblical story of a Roman soldier who comes to collect taxes from Jesus, who has been in open revolt against the tax collectors.  When confronted, Jesus says “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”, a phrase which has been interpreted in many different and often contradictory ways in both deference to and defiance of state authority throughout the years.  “Hail, Caesar” holds no illusions about the interpretation of its title.  When Baird Whitlock confronts Mannix about the fact that the studio system is essentially the modern equivalent of “bread and circuses”, Mannix cuts him down to size. “The picture has worth and you have worth if you serve the picture”, Mannix says, “and you’re never gonna forget that again!” 

Mannix the Catholic has created a false idolatry in the studio system, an authority unto which to bow, to hail. And though he has spent the entire film wondering if he’s just doing a kind of frivolous job, it’s here that Mannix seems to have his moment of clarity.  The studio system’s major merit is its reign over the imagination of men. Contrary to its escapist exterior, cinema (in the 1950s) was the reigning god-king of ideology.

A crucial figure for the second half of the 20th century is Herbert Marcuse, who makes an unlikely appearance at the Communist hideaway where The Future stows Whitlock. A German ex-pat who actually worked in intelligence services for the U.S. Government during World War II, Marcuse eventually became a massive influence on what was known broadly as The New Left, a constituency that included the free speech movement, various civil rights groups (feminists, gay rights groups, black liberation organizations, et al.), hippies, the anti-war movement, and various other factions of the counterculture.   He was also crucial in developing, via the Frankfurt School and his own research, a blueprint for the field of cultural studies, which took seriously things like film as a force which can shape and have unforeseen impacts on the sociopolitical atmosphere of a culture. 

Though the film shows the Communists being secretly aligned with the Soviet Union, Marcuse’s work actually represented a split with the Marxist/Leninist axis, distancing itself from the politics of labor, which argued for dignity within work.  Seeking to expand on the prior notions of exploitation and degradation of labor, Marcuse saw how in post-war society, the proletariat had actually won dignity to some degree*, but capitalism had evolved past a model of totalitarianism or authoritarianism to one of control and manipulation.  Society had become one where critical thinking was discouraged in favor of “one-dimensional” thought.  Humans, rather than individuated beings of spiritual significance, had become mere consumers, an extension of their commodities.  Labor was subsumed into the bureaucratic ends of capitalism, fighting for its right to serve rather than its right to be free.  Marcuse, having lost faith in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, saw that “the future” lay with outcasts, envisioning a mass counterculture that unionized the socially marginalized with those who, for one reason or another, rejected society.

All of this seems pretty at odds with the Marcuse that the Coens depict in Hail, Caesar.  Perhaps they just chose a figure active during the time period at random, but given the film’s central crux, about choosing between potential futures, it’s interesting that they happened to select someone who had such a massive, albeit indirect, impact on the way culture as a whole reshaped in the midst of the changes of the 1960s and 1970s.  As a figurehead from the Frankfurt school in the U.S. too, he was probably the most convenient public intellectual to use for jabs at the “bread and circuses” of what would later be called the spectacle society, but as a founder of the New Left his worldview would have massive ramifications on how the radical left would come to see culture and demand change, with varying degrees of political success, before neoliberalism began to roll them back.

Mannix, guardian of spectacles, wins in the end of Hail, Caesar.  Whitlock returns, is disavowed of any revolutionary leanings, scandals are avoided, and the studios get to make their pictures.  But in a sly wink back to the hideaway Communists who snuck propaganda into their screenplays, patting themselves on the back for their potentially wasted subversion, the Coens end their film-within-a-film with Whitlock returning to finish his role and delivering a speech that also doubles as a kind of communist tract.  As the score swell, Whitlock’s Roman Centurion bows at the feet of Christ hanging on the cross*** and discusses how he initially doubted that Christ could be the messiah, for Christ was a common man and not a noble.  As he begins to expound on why being a commoner makes more sense if God is truly in everything, the cameras for the first time pan away from the movie stars onto the faces of the laborers, grips, stagehands, and the like making the movie, lighting them in an almost maudlin fashion that reminded me of a scene out of the infamous 1954 film Salt of the Earth, made independently by blacklisted Hollywood communists.  It’s a move that, in pure Coens fashion, is both completely cynical (the real children of God are those who create the fantasy complex) and vaguely optimistic (perhaps there will be a future after all). 

The scene make present the common assertion that Christ’s message was ultimately socialistic.  While Mannix for the time being has thwarted the future, this film about the future set in the past seems to contain a warning about the fact that the past too is a minefield, that no present can remain fixed for long.****  Or, as Marcuse once said, “Remembrance of the past may give rise to dangerous insights, and the established society seems to be apprehensive of the subversive contents of memory.” 

*This may be reading too far, but I took this  at least in part as an affront against Hollywood’s soft war against tobacco, banning tobacco product placement in films in 1997 and strongly discouraging its use in films since.  While efforts to cut down on making teen smoking seem cool, there’s the wholly more troubling acts of wanton violence, unequal representation, damaging stereotypes, and use of women as sexual rewards for men that pepper most of the filmic landscape and are likely far more damaging.
**It should be noted that at the time in the U.S., labor unions were strong, unemployment and cost of living were relatively low, and the rich were taxed at 90%, amongst other advantages
***This no doubt also doubles as Whitlock bowing down to the studio and Mannix, re-avowing his faith in cinema.

**** Within a decade and a half of the film's plot, the country would explode in violence and the New Left would infiltrate Hollywood.  Thanks in no small part to the free speech movement, the studios opened themselves up to more adult-oriented content and the X-rated Midnight Cowboy would win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1970

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