Hailing the 1950s, in "Hail , Caesar!"



The critic Richard Brody has written that in Hail, Caesar the Coen brothers are exploring their own 1950s origins. So that would be two men of 2016 looking back on a very patriarchal society where father knows best and where the majority of families were still raised in a conservative fashion (this wasn't a time where you were supposed to float free and discover your own calling, but still mostly follow through with what your ostensibly "did it all for you," "self-sacrificing" parents expected of you). And so we might presume there would be some criticism of this previous social order—the women we see confined to supplementary roles would show the capacity to actually lead companies if only they were in the 21st; those we see shepherded into accomplishing what others expect of them would betray something rote about their efforts that would be absent if they'd had the freedom and encouragement to discover what they themselves wanted in life. Yet we do not find this. Rather, with wifely sustaining of the work-pressured husband and employee' willing full accommodation to bosses, the thing, the brothers here come across as presenting what others now only harshly deconstruct, as an ideal. 

In the 1950s the thinking was that the basis of the entire success of the social structure would be found in the mass replication of the sort of responsible, nuclear family home that Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix possesses. Here's "Father Knows Best," with the wife the one who attends to the children and the home, and gives sustenance and support for her faithful, hard-working husband; and the husband the one who brings home the income and who is first in the household, but who has a profound respect for his wife's deeply felt needs—which are for him to stay healthy, and perhaps send more time at home—even if she is so respectful of him, of the load and stress he already has to bear, to only ever whisper them so despite their impact on her they semblance an aside. She knows he works so hard and is so good she would never want to haunt him, even as her goodness ensures that—ultimately benevolently—she can't help but do so: her request that he attend to his health and not smoke afflicts him throughout the day... he is tempted to escape it.  

But nevertheless the harpies—or rather, the harpies that succeed in encouraging our own negative judgment of a protagonist—of the Coen brothers' last two films are gone in this one. Eddie isn't hoorawed by a little girl, and diminished a bit in our eyes for it, as is Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, nor does he have to bear a torrent of ridicule by a caustic sister and a furious former lovermostly in our eyes deservinglyas does Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis. He does have to abate for a time two crowing gossip columnists who believe they have the permanent edge on him, but he deflates them soundly by the end. But then he isn't someone who "lies in filth and bemoans his station," nor someone who besmirches everyday working people as those who just "exist." Instead he's so commendably performing his company role as a problem-solving film producer, his societal role as a hard-working stiff, those who'd tempt him towards an easier, less troubling life might appear to have the moral edge over those who'd encourage him to stick to his chosen occupation and persist. In the 1950s, you were supposed to work hard and keep faith with your chosen occupation, but this wasn't going to mean not earning a significant bounty for it. 

The parenting of the 1950s has been described by the psychohistorian Lloyd DeMause as "socializing," meaning, so long as you did as your parents wished—pursed the interests they wanted you to pursue, chose the job they wanted for you, whether in order to blandly replicate or boldly enhance themselves—you would have their approval, their largesse. The film suggests this version of "good things come" as natural law. The "good children" of the film being the film stars Hobie Doyle and DeeAnna Moran, who do whatever Eddie and the studio requires of them. Hobie, the former rodeo employee, agrees to star in a production that rightly requires someone educated and whip-smart, not a yokel. But no matter how much the director's instructions for him pound down the fact of his near illiteracy—be "rueful," try a "mirthless chuckle"—and how right his fellow actors are to instantly regret his being on set, for good-naturedly doing as his superiors requested, he's protected: the director doesn't dare go as far as to fully undermine him, or it'll be his project lost, his career broken. He also agrees to date whomever the studio wishes. And apparently for this, ends up well matched, and gets to engage in playful, relaxed, totally savoury flirtations with his new partner, spared any sense that it can't all be deeply let in and enjoyed (a swath of earthly paradise for this still innocent and loyal "Adam"). With DeeAnna,  there is no questioning on her part the studio's further request for how she handle the upcoming birth of her child, whose father is a bit uncertain and whom DeeAnn adamantly can't stand as a potential husband. And seemingly for leaving the decision of what to do to the studio and to accede to their decision, she is distilled better than she could ever have expected, the (ironic) gift of free choice, actually: she gets to keep as "father" and husband someone of her choosing—another longterm, dutiful, "it comes with the job, ma'am," willingly wound-sustaining employee, who likewise is rewarded for his fidelity.

The "bad children" in the film are Baird Whitlock and Thora and Thessaly Thacker, who either knowingly or unknowingly forget their place. Thora and Thessaly perform an approved role in giving the studio the press it wants. They get access nobody else gets, but only through their servility, however as much—with their promiscuous estimation of their rectitude and importance—they might like to construe the nature of their relationship with the studios. But not this time: they've acquired information (Thora knows about Baird's homosexual experience; Thessaly knows about Baird's disappearance) that by no means the studio can afford to have spread, and with this hope to gain leverage, essentially dictate terms. And seemingly for forgetting their place in the natural order—other industries, other "battleships in the sea," might displace the power of the movie industry, but not once-dependent mere individual subjects—one of them, Thora, ends up on the receiving end of a humiliating reversal: the very source of her empowerment is turned into something that guarantees her compliance. The punishment isn't Old Testament. The dispensation is provided with some shoring up, not only because the studio still has need of her but because she has served the 1950s approved lesson that unbound children are wanton children, and that women... just can't help themselves (Frances McDormand's C.C.Calhoun getting her scarf caught in the moviola—women and their vanity!—had something of this feel as well, however otherwise she is meant to be seen as fluent at her job)—i.e., the fault might even mostly be with the studio for not keeping sufficient tabs.

Eddie breaches natural order by joyously recounting before his boss the explosive revelations of Communist philosophy, inadvertently thereby parading what might well be a worst form of torture before this loyal, Catholic, American subject as something he might be expected to have to suffer without complaint. He gets the tar beaten out of him for this trespass, but here too, even, there is at the finish some rescue, some genuine encouragement for him to go out and be the star he is and act his ass off: what Baird did not do was show himself someone who couldn't learn his lesson after receiving the "proper" 50s feedback for badly errant behaviour, corporeal punishment. After the shock of this kind of feedback, he'd would reset and go back to performing as expected. 

If the Coen brothers wanted to distance themselves from 50s moral codes, they had ample opportunity to do so in the subsequent scene where Eddie acts the penultimate scene of the studio's big film project, "Hail, Caesar." This scene involves Baird as a Roman tribune who desists in claiming a full serving of water before the slaves get theirs, owing to the inspiring, life-changing example of this great man before him on the cross—Jesus—whom he witnessed sacrificing his own needs for others' gain just days before. That is, it's a replay of what Baird himself just experienced, his having been buoyed and inspired by the new ways of imagining the world by the genial, mostly respectful comradeship of those he just met (in his case, the Communists—Hollywood writers, as well as the scholar Herbert Marcuse—who abducted him). It was a chance to contrast performance incontrovertibly owing to inspiration—how Baird thrilled in describing this revolution in thought to Eddie—with performance that might for an expert just be rote, and the spotlight wasn't placed on what the bullying studio system, what 1950s authoritarian society, shortchanged itself. Instead, we are directed to how affected the audience is by his performance, how powerfully moved. Baird could be beaten back into remembering his place, and in every respect, not miss a beat... a great dispensing machine that could be counted on to dispense again and again and again, and we all would never know him as other than someone who drew true inspiration from every role he took. 

Eddie refuses an offer to grab for himself the easy life as an executive in an industry outside of being humbled as fluff (the airline industry, specifically), and the feeling is, what other industry other than his own allows one to execute as akin to a mob boss who can tap other people everyone else hold as akin to gods to perform as his subjects? Even if you're a loyal Catholic subject yourself—in a sense, just one other before God—there’s a high afforded here that can't be matched if you moved to a perhaps more relevant industry. It's kind of gross, this mastery; and I think it's up to us as audience members to wonder why the Coen brothers have provided a film here that would make a kind of Trump-style societal regression seem something that might give opulent pleasures to the man who orchestrated it, but which could well be for our own good.

Do we need someone archaic to stay behind to hammer us back into a rule-enforced society that might still afford us, as Richard Brody articulates, "delight [and] unexpectedly free expression within […] strictures and hermetic confines"? Have we psychologically devolved back to the point where we feel most relaxed and free only once we’ve sacrificed enough of our future potential that an overlord could experience us as reset, as not so much a problem anymore, and therefore, grant us some guarantee of latitude? 

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