Hail, Caesar!: Reevaluated

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016, Coens) — now 7/10

I have only seen HAIL, CAESAR! once, but I still want to adjust my grade on it because I basically haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it. My objections to the entertainment value remain, but my appraisal of its intellectual value should have been given even more weight. Basically, what I’m saying is I think it’s too smart to dismiss as the mediocrity I incorrectly labeled it as.

After watching THE WITCH yesterday (review forthcoming), I started thinking a lot about religion and its place in modern cinema, and all that did is move me back onto the track of HAIL, CAESAR! Because the points I made in my earlier review should have extended to thoughts of how the art of cinema itself is in its own way a type of religion. There’s so much to this film that analogizes the production of Hollywood movies to institutionalized religion. Eddie’s flirtation with the Lockheed job represents his crisis of faith, and his ultimate decision to stick with Capitol is a return to the “church” of Hollywood. So like a fundamentalist he abuses the now-Communist-minded movie star and berates him into serving The Lord: movies.

What Clooney’s Baird Whitlock does next is deliver a speech in the film within the film that has its crew members gasping in awe. They know it’s bullshit. They know this is a script. They know it’s fiction. But they give in to it anyway. Isn’t that what organized religion is? A large group of people being fed a series of bullshit myths, that they all know deep down are fiction, but choose to believe anyway because of their faith. We go into that darkened theater and worship at the altar of the moving image; suspending our disbelief to engage with fantastic stories and silly narratives that help us deal with the meaninglessness of the real world. Just as the ideas of God and Jesus (and whatever else the clergymen in HAIL, CAESAR! are babbling on about) are myths constructed to explain inexplicable senselessness of the human condition and a hostile, indifferent universe, so are movies a way to spend two hours coping with the absurdities our lives have become. They sweep us away, escapist or not, so we can let artists turn their individual thoughts into universal experiences for masses. [Before I get religious people too mad at me, I’m just saying what I think the Coens are saying — not trying to inject my own agnosticism or existentialism into this, though I guess it’s hard not to]. When science fails to explain the injustices of the world to us, we turn to holy books and made-up stories. And when our fellow man and daily tasks fail to satisfy our yearnings for meaning, we turn to well-told stories on screen to fit the bill.

Every set onto which Eddie walks to see a movie in production contains a grand effort by dozens of craftspeople, almost all artificial, in the service of something that looks real and convinces the audience. (Refer to my earlier review for an analysis of the film’s series of artificialities). All of this hard work to trick us. Because if humans have no religion, if they have no outlet to justify things that if inspected too closely would have us peering into an endless black hole, then life is too brutal to face. And movies, they can be a similar tonic. Even when they’re harsh and realistic, they’re man-made. Someone else, suffering what we’re suffering, is talking to us through art. Sharing with us. And when they’re fluff, they’re an enjoyable, ephemeral answer to the blunt nihilism outside the theater. Cinema: the opiate of the masses.

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