I’ve been looking forward to Hail Caesar ever since I saw a trailer with George Clooney in a Roman outfit. After the Odyssey in O Brother where art thou, I couldn’t wait to see the Coen Brothers bring the Romans on screen. But like many viewers, I came out of the cinema bemused, thinking ‘Eh, what?’, and unsure whether this is a brilliant film or a failure. Reviewers who rave about the film tend to focus on its celebration of 1950s Hollywood and all the film genres that were thriving at the time (like the grand Quo Vadis historical epics and westerns). Scathing critics instead attack the disjointedness of the narrative. Both fans and critics, however, seem to find fault with the quest for, and lack of, meaning displayed in the film. One critic went as far as to say that the Coen brothers have become the nihilists they depicted in The Big Lebowski.
I agree that the disjointed focus of the film makes it hard for the audience to engage with any of its characters. However, I’ve always found that the case for most Coen films: the audience may share with the protagonists some of their dreams and anticipations – we want Clooney-Odysseus to be reunited with his wife, Pitt to get away with his blackmail in Burn after reading, Lebowski to get his rug, the ladykillers their loot, Frances McDormand not to find out the truth in Fargo (or was that just me) – but many of their characters are too different (whether hilariously dumb and outlandish or tragic) for audience sympathy. In Hail Caesar, this Brechtian alienation of the audience from the characters is heightened by the presence of the various films within the film: with disparate plots and protagonists all coexisting without focus, the audience is swept along with the plot and exits the cinema more confused than ever. But does that mean the film is without meaning? I don’t think so.
To come to terms with the meaning of the film, I’m going to look at the Coen brothers’ engagement with Classics. I’m not trying to give an exhaustive review (I know only basic things about 1950s Hollywood which is the overt theme of the film), but instead have a look at the basic elements of the narrative.
A title is normally programmatic, giving the prospective audience an idea of its content and genre. Hail Caesar is suggestive of large epic films such as Quo Vadis and Ben Hur, and anticipates a setting in ancient Rome. Clooney’s casting as Roman centurion – who appears in the first trailer – suggests engagement with Classics similar to O brother where art thou: antiquity moulded into the Coen brothers’ peculiar universe, merged with contemporary issues, but still recognizable. But just as in O brother, audience anticipation based on the title is thwarted: while the title O brother did relate to the primary narrative of Odysseus’ wanderings, however, Hail Caesar superficially only refers to the one of the sub-narratives of the film: the grand epic based on the life of Christ in process of being shot within the film. You might think this is audience deception, but I think the anticipation of engagement with Classics as triggered by the title should not be forgotten so lightly once you’re over the first disillusion as audience member that the title and content don’t add up.
While at first, the narrative seems to be a disjointed collection of film scenes loosely connected through the character of Eddie Mannix, a strong overarching structure does in fact exist. A number of the scenes (such as the opening and closing scenes) are narrated by an omniscient male third-person narrator. Unlike in The Big Lebowski, we never get to know who this is, but it is he who narrates Mannix’s life and hence all the other sub-plots. So this is the primary (i.e. main) level of narrative.
The secondary level of narrative is focalized through Mannix’s life and where it is going. Will he continue in the film business or take a financially more stable and less time consuming position in the war industry? In his role as Hollywood fixer, he is depicted as a narrator who has doubts about his own life (he needs constant reassurance from the priest) but is in fact a strongly reliable narrator: his control over time is impeccable (we are given glimpses of his watch and clock regularly) and his secretary follows him everywhere executing his wishes and saying ‘check’ when he has sorted problems. He is an expert at multitasking, managing problems in his private life through discussions with his wife alongside problems at work. Even a ransom demand for $100,000 doesn’t throw him: he simply calls up the petty cash department and the money is lying on his desk shortly after.
Mannix also strongly controls the tertiary narratives, i.e. the films being shot in Hollywood at the same time: Hail Caesar, the Lazy Ol’ Moon western, the mermaid synchronised swimming, the sailor dance act, and the period drama directed by Laurence Laurentz. The kidnapping, pregnancy of the mermaid actress, bad acting of the western star, … even when the narrative almost chokes on its own methodology (literally, in the scene with the editor’s scarf), Mannix simply presses the ‘rewind’ button and the narrative can resume.
As a film about filming with inset films, this isn’t just a farcical comedy, but a highly self-aware piece of meta-literature. With a title which triggers a connection with antiquity, and a narrative structure which harks back to the Odyssey (which the audience knows the Coen brothers have engaged with before) and Plato (see below), it’s worth exploring to which extent there are other Classical elements in this film which may reveal meaning.
Clooney is the embodiment of Classics throughout the film: in his Roman centurion’s outfit, his sword dangling awkwardly by his side and getting in the way whenever he sits down, he juxtaposes antiquity and its filmic representation with the 1950s reality in which he is placed. His name, Baird Whitlock, can be interpreted as ‘bard with white hair’. But instead of a narrator who manipulates the narrative to get what he wants – like Clooney-Odysseus did in O Brother – Baird lacks any narratorial control and is swept along with the narrative, following everyone else’s voice: ‘wondering what’s going on’ (as the communists ask him), he is quickly converted by the communist manifesto (just as his Roman centurion’s character is converted by Christ) and derides Hollywood as ‘bread and circuses’, then follows Hobie the western actor when he comes to get him back, and is finally slapped back into his former role by Mannix who tells him to ‘go out and be a star’. He is the perfect actor, always acting out what others tell him. Baird is the anti-narrator, the opposite of the white-haired bard with poetic control, as we would imagine Homer (whose name can be interpreted as ‘blind man’, another stereotypical image of a poet) to be, the role in fact played largely by Eddie Mannix.
‘Classics’ as represented by Clooney is thus not given any narratorial control: it is swept along in the overarching narrative of Mannix’s life. We can call it Classics (even though to Classicists this is of course a gross generalisation) because as a paradigm it is clearly juxtaposed with Christianity, as in the sub-plot of Hail Caesar, the Roman centurion is converted at Christ’s cross. This big historical juxtaposition of Classical antiquity and Christianity is sustained alongside other grand dichotomies: political (capitalism v communism), religious (Christianity v other branches of Judaeo-based monotheism), and even media (film v tv, news v tabloids). Even though sub-narratives might offer messages regarding the hierarchy of these juxtapositions – the Roman epic is clearly pro-Christianity, the Hollywood setting offers a largely capitalist message versus the incapable communists who can’t even hold onto the ransom – the cacophony of so many different juxtapositions means no single message can take hold of the audience. Mannix stands at the centre of all of them, in the middle of the crossroad, constantly asked to make decisions. He does this with almost robotic accuracy and logic, but spiritually, he is in turmoil.
This lack of narratorial control is reflected in the importance of the sea throughout the narrative. Like an Odyssean hero (though with elements of tragedy and Petronius’ farcical plots thrown in), Mannix encounters many sub-plots which try to keep his attention and stop him from getting home to his wife and children. Many of the figures he meets and elements of the sub-films are Odyssean in nature.
There is Scarlett Johansson’s mermaid emerging from the sea with Poseidon’s trident and crown, at once representing Odysseus’ Olympian enemy and a siren-like figure, having lured two men into marriage already. She is then turned from Siren into Penelope, facing the issue of raising a child without a father. The classical themes are beautifully merged with the biblical story of Jonah: the theme of the whale swallowing the mermaid is repeated later in the film in the swallowing by the u-boat of the sailor-actor-communist.
Channing Tatum’s sailor temporarily takes over narrative control when he sings ‘We are heading out to sea, and whatever it will be, it ain’t gonna be the same’. The song’s theme about the lack of ‘dames’ juxtaposes ironically with the sailors’ homoerotic dance act. Tatum’s sailor turns out to be both a Eurylochus betraying Odysseus’ homecoming by taking the ransom money, and a secondary Odysseus going in search of his own home, communism. The dog leaping into his arms triggers a recollection of Odysseus’ dog Argos. (To take analysis rather far, the dog’s name triggers a comparison of the rowing boat with the Argo; and indeed the two rocks sticking out from the sea are used to pinpoint the meeting with the u-boat, circumnavigated rather than sailed in between like the Clashing Rocks, just as Odysseus avoided that challenge and instead chose to confront Scylla and Charybdis.)
The house by the sea from which Tatum sets out, inhabited by the communists, reminds me of Aeolus’ bronze castle in the Odyssey: with windows all round, like a lighthouse it lights up the dark sea around it. Like Aeolus’ children, the writer-communists sit around talking, eating neatly cut sandwiches, and drinking all day, in complete and utter inaction (even though they talk about ‘direct action’). Their one contribution to the communist cause – the ransom – is destroyed through Argos’ intrusion, very much like Aeolus’ bag of winds turns out to be a vain gift: both communists and Odysseus’ companions are back to square one, and with 21st century hindsight, we know that their name, The Future, is full of tragic irony, as it has now become history itself.
Even the western Lazy Ol’ Moon seems more classical than western in essence: the cowboy personifying and blaming the moon for his behaviour seems rather out of place. Hobie Doyle, the western actor, goes on to sing what is essentially a hymn to the moon as tertiary narrator creating a sub-narrative of pagan, irrational drunkenness.
Finally, and perhaps connected with the latter, is the doublet appearance of Tilda Swindon as sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker. The two tabloid journalists vie for narratorial control over Hollywood. I wanted to think of them as Scylla and Charybdis, expertly navigated by Mannix (with only the loss of Hobie and the actress’s reputation at risk). But that there is more going on is revealed by Mannix shouting ‘Thessaly? What kind of a name is that anyway?’ (and he does the same to Thora). By asking the internal audience (the sisters) this question, the external audience (in the cinema) is asked to ponder the same. Thessaly, of course, is a region in northern Greece (known for its witches able to draw down the moon – I’m tempted to read this into the scene where the cowboy attacks the moon in the horses’ drinking trough), while Thora is a name from Norse mythology. This juxtaposition, in addition to the mermaid reference in the film, suggests the Coen brothers raise a further dichotomy, between Classical and Norse mythology. Like the two sisters, they vie for narratorial control at the margins of the film.
Ultimately, the film feels like a chimaera: composed of parts from different existing animals, this hybrid creature has no overarching quality. Romans and cowboys sit together in a car, Greek and Norse mythology are sisters, and leaders from four religions sit around the table shrugging their shoulders about the depiction of Christ. As the rabbi responds, ‘meh’.
The reason why audiences find the film bewildering is because there is no one reliable voice – instead we have a tangle of different narratives which all vie for the audience’s attention and make us all feel like Baird: dazed and confused. But because this is a film about film (a meta-narrative), the audience’s attention is constantly drawn to the creative process and to the ultimate narrator. As Tilda Swindon says: ’20 million readers want the truth, Eddie!’.
So what is the truth? The sophists, a branch of ancient Greek philosophers, argued that man is the measure of all things, and there are as many truths as there are men. You could argue that Hail Caesar is a clear representation of this world view: the cacophony of different voices, all claiming to be the truth, yet represented as lacking any hierarchy. However, they lived at the same time as Plato, who was a staunch advocate of the existence of ‘the truth’ as laid out in his allegory of the cave (and we also find Plato in the narrative structure of the film, which harks back to the Symposium, in which the various narratives about love are juxtaposed without apparent hierarchy). Cinema, in Plato’s view, would represent the images depicted on the walls of the cave in which humankind is imprisoned; we need to leave the cave in order to see the truth.
If we consider the film from a distance, we cannot help but notice that, behind the many conflicting voices in the film all vying for narratorial control, there is an omniscient third-person narrator who begins and finishes the story. This disembodied voice is connected with Mannix’ confession to a priest. And indeed religion – even though it seems to be mocked throughout – is at the essence of the narrative. Standing in front of the cross delivering a moving final speech, Clooney-Baird stumbles on the phrase ‘if we had but… faith’. Similar to Mannix’ exclamation regarding Thessaly’s name and Laurence Lorentz’ careful focus on ‘would that it were so simple’, Clooney’s forgetting of the word ‘faith’ draws attention to it, as if it were an authorial intrusion, and asks the external audience in the cinema to consider their own faith.
At his discussion with the various religious representatives, Mannix emphasizes that this is not about the godhead. But again the god’s absence from the film draws attention to him/her. Is the omniscient narrator perhaps the godhead? Indeed, in the end credits (for those viewers willing to stay till the end), its states explicitly that there is no depiction of the godhead in the film, which seems to confirm why we never meet the primary narrator. Is this aloof narrator simply observing the goings-on on earth?
Hail Caesar is not about the Romans, yet Classical and biblical references abound, and looking at the Classical references can give us insight into the structure and meaning of the film. The film is ultimately about the various big stories of the 20th century – religion, politics, mythology/history, and media – in their various dichotomous guises. All these juxtapositions (capitalism v communism, Christianity in all its forms, Greek v Norse myth, film v tv, media v tabloids) have all been deconstructed and jumbled up, without any attempt at reconstruction. This is why Hail Caesar is such a disconcerting film. Because, while it is funny and gives a nice flavour of 1950s Hollywood, it is not structured as we as external audience will it to be as the narrative forges forth. As Hobie can’t say, ‘would that it (t)were so simple’.
Yet in spite of the chaos of sub-narratives and an aloof omniscient narrator, Mannix proves to be an expert narrator of his own story, never phased by anything apart from his own doubt about his purpose in life. It is, however, only when the priest tells him that god wants us to do what’s right that he lights up and find that he has been doing the right thing all along. And perhaps that’s the ultimate meaning of the film. Life is chaotic with big stories all wanting to persuade us of their viability and truth, and if there is a god, s/he is an absent narrator we cannot connect with; yet in the middle, here we are: the individual narrator. Perhaps we should be more pleased with our lives than we are. As the priest says when Mannix comes for confession at the end of the film ‘It’s really too often. You’re not that bad’.
Written by Evelien Bracke