Hail, Caesar!: the Coen Brothers' Confederacy of Dunces
February 16, 2016
In John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize winning Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius Reilly is an absurd hero. He's brilliant, yet undisciplined. He has cultivated a philosophy of taste and decency, but it doesn't stop him from gorging himself on hotdogs. He empathizes with the plight of those around him, but he tramples every human being that crosses his path. He also loves to watch movies, but he doesn't like them.
Almost every evening, Ignatius heads to the cinema to take in the latest Technicolor excess, and he watches these movies to confirm his suspicion about the decline of human civilization. Throughout his viewing he exclaims, "Oh, my God!" or "Oh, good heavens!" or perhaps even "What degenerate produced this abortion?" The movies continually assault his sensibilities, but he returns every night because, as we all know, he really loves the movies.
If Ignatius Reilly decided to make a movie it might resemble the Coen brothers' latest film, Hail, Caesar!
Much like Ignatius Reilly, who offers one thing with his words and something entirely different with his lifestyle, Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a bait and switch. The trailer promises a movie about movie-making in which Hollywood's biggest star, Baird Whitlock, gets kidnapped, and the studio boss enlists a bunch of film stars to track Baird down and rescue him. In the movie, however, Baird's kidnapping is merely a subplot, and the studio boss doesn't assemble a team to rescue him. Perhaps this disconnect between expectations and reality explains why audiences are enjoying the film less than critics are.
Hail, Caesar! is merely a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, the manager of production at Capitol Pictures. The Coen Brothers' Mannix is loosely based on the real-life Eddie Mannix who worked for MGM and was known as a "fixer." When a film star got into trouble, Mannix fixed the problem so as not to tarnish the star's (and the studio's) image. In the film, Baird Whitlock's disappearance poses Mannix with a problem that needs solving, but though the trailer makes it seem like this is the movie's plot, Baird isn't Mannix's only problem.
Mannix spends his entire day putting out fires at the studio. In addition to his biggest star's absence, he has to deal with the pregnancy of an unwed starlet, the complaints of a director who doesn't like the studio's casting decisions, and a couple of nosy reporters looking for the latest gossip about the studio. There's also an amusing scene in which he tries to understand a panel of argumentative religious leaders offering opinions on his latest Bible epic. In addition to all this, Mannix must consider an offer from Lockheed to abandon the movie industry and do something meaningful with his life.
The Coens' Eddie Mannix makes the perfect counterpoint for Toole's Ignatius Reilly. Reilly exerts himself very little over the course of A Confederacy of Dunces, trying his best to avoid work, yet he pretends that his life is full of grand purpose. He is an absurd character. Mannix suspects he might be an absurd character too, even though he overworks himself on behalf of the studio. Mannix doesn't lack discipline and work ethic, but he struggles with purpose. Is it really worth spending one's life helping actors play make-believe and covering up their sins? Mannix has dedicated himself to two illusions--Hollywood's movies and Hollywood's image. Wouldn't it be nice to embrace the reality that Lockheed's airplanes and atom bombs offer?
Besides this tension between work and purpose, Hail, Caesar! has many things in common with A Confederacy of Dunces. Both works are episodic with only a loose plot holding the amusing moments together. They also both feature a cast of absurd characters, the threat of communists, a fascination with Catholicism, and homosexuals in white sailor costumes. Both contain the theme that a place can be ugly and beautiful all at the same time. In A Confederacy of Dunces, that absurdly magical place is New Orleans; in Hail, Caesar! it's Hollywood.
Many critics have called Hail, Caesar! a love letter to Hollywood's golden age, but this characterization misses the mark. Yes, the Coen Brothers faithfully reproduce the production techniques of the studios of the '50s, and, yes, they recreate some of the old genres. The studio's tent-pole film is a Ben-Hur like Bible epic, and we also see scenes from films that feature singing cowboys, aquatic ballets, and a dance routine reminiscent of Gene Kelly. However, the Coen brothers don't give us a feel-good walk down memory lane. Hail, Caesar! is a dark comedy that shows the immorality and inanity of the people who made those movies, as well as the greed and deception of the studio system that produced them. We remember the classics of the golden age with fondness, but the Coen brothers remind us that most of the films produced during that era could be classified as "abortions produced by degenerates." Cinematic standards weren't particularly high before television challenged the studios' monopoly on moving pictures.
The Coen brothers have given their audience a satirical assessment of what movies are and what they can be. Movies are illusions, and the people who make them aren't very nice. One ought not think, however, that the Coen brothers hate the industry that's treated them so well. Yes, the film's subtext contains the spirit of Ignatius Reilly mocking the industry, but there's more--there's the thing that kept Ignatius coming back to the theater every evening. The Coens love movies, and they love them because in spite of the frivolity, movies can communicate something true.
Toward the end of Hail, Caesar! Baird Whitlock gives a stirring monologue in his Bible epic about how God has appeared in the midst of a bunch of mixed up people. The Coens' message? Movies are created in the midst a bunch of mixed up people, and not all the movies are really that great, but sometimes they are. Sometimes a movie can communicate something transcendent. And that potential for transcendence makes the frivolity worthwhile. In many ways this satirical film makes the same point that Tolkien made about fairy stories. Stories are important because they can provide truth as well as consolation and escape.
A movie about Jesus inside a movie about movies tells us that movies can be transcendent, but I don't think the Coen brothers mean for us to stop there. The idea that movies can give us a glimpse of the Divine pushes us to the even greater truth that human history itself isn't some meaningless frivolity filled with people who aren't very nice.
Behind everything lies the cosmic story about sin, sacrifice, redemption, and restoration. The Coen brothers have been exploring these transcendent themes in their films for years. One gets the sense that they are asking through film, "What must I do to be saved?" Though they seem to shrink back from it at times, the answer to the question lies hidden piecemeal in their own films. When their stories are most true, they are merely reflecting the eternal truth of the greatest story ever told.