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Finding Something to Watch

May 18, 2020 (1,433 words)

After two months of trying to flatten the curve, medical personnel are probably pretty stressed out. Those not employed in an “essential” industry, or not able to work from home, are no doubt feeling the financial strain.

Given the prevalence of such hardships, it seems indelicate to point out that for some of us this pandemic has so far only registered as a mild inconvenience.

My biggest problem, it feels a little awkward to report, has been finding something decent to watch. I’ve made my way through our family library of old VHS classics and my personal stash of newer DVD releases. After recently memorizing every frame of two movies I originally saw in theaters, Hell or High Water and Hostiles, by virtue of their current availability on Netflix, the search for the next “moody drama” – or a truly funny comedy – is well under way.

There are lots of movies made every year. And there seems to be no end of “Netflix Originals,” either. But surprisingly few of these productions are worth the time. I can’t tell you how many things I have turned off after the first twenty minutes.

Which brings me to a discussion of Hail, Caesar!, a 2016 theatrical release which I only just saw recently, when it popped up on my Netflix queue. It’s an entertaining look at Hollywood’s studio system of the early 1950s, focusing on the head of physical production who keeps things together despite no end of personal drama in the off-screen lives of the actors and actresses employed by his studio.

Written and directed by the clever Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, the movie weaves several plot lines together in their trademark style, which I guess can be described as part send-up, part homage. (They did a remake of True Grit about a decade ago in this same vein, which is another movie I’ve watched several times over the years and have happily memorized every frame of.)

Their story this time centers on the fictional character of Eddie Mannix, employed at the fictional Capitol Pictures. It’s based on an actual Hollywood “fixer” by the same name. That colorful real-life career is detailed in a salacious “dual” biography published in 2004, The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickland, and the MGM Publicity Machine.

The Coens wisely keep thing light, and their movie skips over the more troubling things the real one-time mob-related New Jersey construction laborer did to cover up some of the most notorious crimes in Hollywood history.

a dim-witted star goes missing…

The thorniest problem the fictional Mannix has to contend with is the disappearance of a dim-witted actor who is starring in the now-being-filmed-biblical epic, “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.”

This dim-witted star, it turns out, has been kidnapped by a group of disgruntled (and predominantly Jewish, we are given to believe) screenwriters, who gather in a “study group” to complain about how they are not receiving their fair share of the profits their stories generate for the film studious.

These writers are holding the dim-wit for a ransom of $100,000.00 which Mannix, our hero, is able to procure from his studio’s coffers out of petty cash.

The star is released by the screenwriters upon delivery of the ransom. He shows up at Mannix’s office early the next morning in full Roman centurion regalia, relaxes in a chair and starts to chat amiably about how those wacky screenwriters do make a lot of sense when it comes to the subject of inequitable compensation.

Mannix responds to this unexpected economic discourse as follows: He gets up and steps out from behind his desk, grabs the dim-wit by the collar, stands him up and slaps him a few times, then barks at him to snap out of it and get back to work – all done to great comic effect.

The entire action of this movie takes place in the span of about a day and a half, by the way.

The film is a series of movies-within-movies. As Mannix walks the studio back lot he visits the various sound stages where a variety of stories are being shot. The production values of each genre-picture being filmed are here lovingly recreated for us.

Hail Caesar! is also a fun hodge-podge of ideas that play off conventional wisdom everybody knows. Or that we think we know.

The disgruntled screenwriters are, of course, the communist infiltrators we all heard so much about in the soon-to-be held McCarthy hearings, which led to the infamous “blacklist” period when such “sympathizers” were denied the ability to ply their trade in Hollywood, and only received credit for writing or producing by using an alias.

Karl Marx, or Leo XIII?…

I really appreciate that we get to see the “study group” of disgruntled screenwriters in action, so to speak. Watching them sit around a posh Malibu beach house kvetching over “control of the means of production” made me immediately think of how Catholic Popes have been talking about the very same issue, using the very same language, in a series of detailed encyclicals dating back to 1891.

These screenwriters naturally reference Karl Marx and his book Das Kapital (1867) as their intellectual starting point. While not up to speed on the subject myself, I have heard Marx referred to in certain Catholic circles as “having a point in his criticism of capitalism.”

This makes me mourn how Catholic social teaching on economics has lost all traction in the culture. It’s too bad the Jewish screenwriters couldn’t bring themselves to consider the Catholic perspective on how to fix capitalism, before settling on Karl Marx’s.

It’s also too bad the Catholic perspective on economics has been ignored by Catholics themselves, as they were taken in by the resurgence of “conservatism” that began after those contentious McCarthy hearings, a resurgence inaugurated in the 1950s by a young Catholic intellectual (William F. Buckley, Jr.)

And speaking of Catholicism, the Coens portray their Eddie Mannix as a devout Catholic who prays the rosary at his desk when having to make a difficult decision on whether to accept a lucrative job offer from Lockheed Martin. They also have him going to confession every few hours. This, of course, is meant to poke fun at the sacrament of confession.

But we needn’t hold this gentle ridicule against Joel and Ethan Coen since, after all, who goes to confession any more, right?

This aspect of their movie may be a bit of an amalgamation. There was a serious Catholic who played a prominent role in Hollywood during the same period when the real Eddie Mannix was operating. But the name of that Catholic was Joseph Breen.

Unlike Mannix, however, Breen was not employed by a big studio to cover up murders or studio-directed drug addictions or illicit abortions. He did not have a complex web of contacts in every arena, from reporters and doctors to corrupt police and district attorneys.

Joseph Breen enforced the Production Code from its inception in 1934 to his retirement in 1954. In that role he interacted with the heads of all the major studious, blue-penciling every script that went before the cameras.

helping us all avoid temptation…

Some now call what he did the epitome of censorship. To allow someone to decide what all other adults should and should not see is inimical to the foundational ideals of a liberal democracy, as we all know.

Yet Breen was awarded an honorary Academy Award by the Hollywood community upon his retirement, in recognition of his work to rein in the more lascivious tendencies of the film industry during what has come to be known as its Golden Age.

(An even-handed overview of Breen’s Hollywood years can be found in a 2005 piece entitled “Joe Breen’s Oscar” written by Stephen Weinberger of Dickinson College. It appears in that year’s Dickinson Scholar, a faculty and staff publication of the College.)

With Hail Caesar! the Coen brothers have given us a “scintillating, uproarious comedy,” that is “filled with fast and light touches of exquisite incongruity in scenes that have the expansiveness of relaxed precision, performed and timed with the spontaneous authority of jazz,” as The New Yorker’s reviewer so eloquently wrote upon its February 2016 release.

On the other hand, the tensions of a Catholic in the Jewish-run film industry are not “themselves among the mainsprings of the movie’s comedy as well as its drama,” which the same New Yorker review claims they are.

That, my friends, is a subject for an entirely different movie than what the Coens have delivered to us this time around.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
May 18, 2020

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