March 26th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

ROYAL COMMISSION INTO SEXUAL ABUSE: J'accuse...! A travesty of justice

CANBERRA OBSERVED Turnbull's grand plan coming apart it seems

EDITORIAL Defence White Paper: rhetoric outpaces action


DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Is not family breakdown the real issue?

ECONOMICS Oil offers resistance to free market's operation

HISTORY OF TAIWAN Kaohsiung Incident opens road to democracy

LAW AND SOCIETY Section 18C may render all speech "inoffensive"

VICTORIAN PARLIAMENT Risk to democracy, rights in health complaints bill

RESEARCH Transgenderism: treat it as a mental illness

MUSIC In deliberate pursuit of accidental sounds: Arve Henriksen

CINEMA AND SOCIETY Hollywood writes in "hero" part for Trumbo

CINEMA Hailing the Golden Era: Hail Caesar!

BOOK REVIEW Diminished expectations

BOOK REVIEW 12 million refugees

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Hailing the Golden Era: Hail Caesar!

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, March 26, 2016

Alert: Mild Spoilers

Hail, Caesar! tells the tale of a day or so in the life of Edward “Eddie” Mannix (Josh Brolin), “Head of Physical Production” for Capitol Pictures Studios.

Josh Brolin as Edward Mannix.

It is 1951, television is on the horizon, and the Cold War is just beginning. Mannix’s job is to make sure that the show goes on, and to this end he deals not only with the creative and technical problems that come with moviemaking, but also the personal ones. Mannix is a straight shooter, a problem solver and family man; a true believer, both in his Catholic faith, and the movie business.

Capitol Pictures has a number of projects on the boil, but none bigger than Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, a big-budget sword-and-sandals Bible epic starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of the world’s biggest stars. All’s going well enough, until Baird disappears, kidnapped by a mysterious group calling itself “The Future”. But this is only one of Mannix’s problems.

He has an “innocent” aquatic star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlet Johansson), with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; the transition of singing cowboy stuntman Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a dramatic lead under the guidance of the Noel Coward-like director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes); and the twin sister columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) raking up old and new scandals.

On top of all this there’s Mr Cuddahy (Ian Blackman), a headhunter from Lockheed Corporation who is trying to tempt Mannix away from the make-believe of motion pictures to the serious world of aviation.

The directors are Joel and Ethan Coen. From their first film, the neo-noir/horror Blood Simple (1984), the Coen brothers have shown themselves to be masters of the craft of cinema and lovers of the medium. And unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino,

who gives the impression that his knowledge is limited to movies, the Coen brothers are also lovers of literature – especially the hardboiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, as well as the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. They have an interest in the inexplicable and the ambiguous, and are sceptical of intellectual certainty, while nonetheless maintaining a keen belief in right and wrong.

This approach has led to some of the most interesting films of the last few decades, films that display a distinct and creative sensibility, while still being commercially successful. They like to make movies that audiences will go and see, intelligent films that are both art and entertainment. Their inspiration comes from Raymond Chandler, who said: “All good art is entertainment and anyone who says anything differently is a stuffed shirt and juvenile at the art of living.”

And Hail, Caesar! is tremendously, uproariously entertaining. It’s a much lighter and more watchable film than, say, the brothers’ Oscar-winning and utterly chilling No Country For Old Men (2007). It bounces along with the leisurely energy of a master at play. Its conceit – a movie about movie making – allows them to make mini-movies that wouldn’t otherwise exist. There are Bible epics, and sailor musicals, aquatic ballets and cowboy pictures. It’s a fun movie, even more so if you’re a movie buff, as almost everything is an in-joke.

At many points the Coens seem to make parallels between the make believe of movie making and religious belief. The most obvious one is Mannix himself. When we first see him, he is going to confession; when making big decisions he thumbs his rosary. It is Mannix talking about people wanting to believe, Mannix talking about giving people the truth; and Mannix who brings in a Catholic priest, an Orthodox bishop, a Protestant pastor and a Jewish rabbi to make sure the theological elements of the film “cut the mustard” (and if that sounds funny, it is, especially with the rabbi channeling Groucho Marx). But they’re not making fun of Mannix. He’s the real hero of the picture, the “sane man among the lunatics”, as they put it.

Mannix compares favourably with the “serious” men of “science” who believe they’ve got it all worked out: the Lockheed man proud that they can bring about Armageddon with an H-bomb; or the self-serving communist screenwriters of “The Future” who want to bring about the Revolution – or even the Thackers, who want to tear down the beliefs of their readers.

Is the contrast clear cut? Not quite. And if you find playing with religion offensive, you’ll probably be offended. But there is something going on that is more for religion than against it, just like it is more for movies, than against them.

The movie is, at heart, a screwball comedy noir where a cowboy saves the day, where communist screenwriters are the villains and a Catholic studio executive is the hero. It’s a prestige picture, and great entertainment.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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