In her cameo in the Coen brothers’ newest film, Hail, Caesar!, Frances McDormand gets her scarf stuck in her editing machine. It nearly chokes her (or, I should write, her character, film editor C.C. Calhoun) before Josh Brolin’s studio head/fixer Eddie Mannix hits “Reverse,” saving her life.
Like so many of the scenes in Hail, Caesar!, the editing scene is funny, well-acted, impeccably filmed, and ultimately superfluous. It’s a throwaway, a wonderful scrap, one of many scraps that the Coens seem to toss to their audience, goading, Hey, you put all of this together.
The McDormand scene is ultimately just another way for the Coens to highlight the artificiality of their medium. Hail, Caesar! is of course a film about film, a film that aims to satirize how the metaphorical sausage is made. As such, Hail, Caesar! is self-satirizing, meta-metaphorical. It’s the Coens pointing out the flawed seams or imperfect varnish before the product is even finished. McDormand’s editor getting caught in the machine is some kind of clumsy synecdoche then.
These metatextual gestures only helped to heighten my own awareness of Hail, Caesar’s! flawed seams. This is a film brimming with wonderful, energetic set pieces—synchronized swimming with Scarlett Johannsson! — Channing Tatum tap-dancing on a bar! — Alden Ehrenreich (not so famous, yet) stunting on horses!—that add up to almost nothing. The end result would almost be fascinating were it not so dull.
Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie Doyle is not dull, and every time he’s on the screen Hail, Caesar! threatens to become interesting. “Called up” to be in more, eh, prestigious fare than the cowboy pictures he’s been doing so well in, young Hobie’s plot has the slightest (just the slightest) tinge of Mulholland Drive — “This is the girl.” (Or, eh, “This is the boy. The cowboy”).
Hail, Caesar! can’t commit fully to Hobie for its hero, alas. Instead the film, after an initial bout of goodwill-building (including an especially funny early scene in which religious leaders are invited to critique Hail, Caesar!, the film-within-a-film here)—instead the film (the Coens’ Hail, Casear!, that is) plods along a few not-quite-intersecting tracks, introducing the occasional grotesque for a cameo that serves no real plot point.
Look, I get it. Having a character’s fate expositioned away via clumsy dialogue at the end of the film is like, meta, right? It’s the Coens way of grinning at the corny clumsy past of their chosen medium, hey? It’s like, purposefully, self-reflexively bad, a piss-take on an audience’s willed suspension of disbelief, hm?
Suspension of disbelief—faith. Does Hail, Caser! aim to take on faith? It certainly dabbles, exploring (“exploring” is not the right verb—but I already used “dabbles”) political faith, economic faith, religious faith. Faith in the aesthetic power of film, which again and again Hail, Caesar! attempts to embody via kinetic spectacle before puncturing said aesthetic transcendence with ironc winking (or technical failure).
The signal moment in the film’s ironic treatment of faith is delivered in its penultimate scene. George Clooney’s character Baird Whitlock’s character (a Roman soldier whose name I can’t recall, but, hey, note the layering, man) deilvers a monologue. The speech is meant to be this kinda sorta Road-to-Damascus epiphanic transcendence deaile, and the aesthetic power of Clooney’s Whitlock’s delivery is confirmed internally on set by the various film people (grips and script folk, etc.) offering up admiring Brady nods—only Whitlock stumbles over the last word of the speech—which last word, of course, was faith. Charlie Kaufman did the same thing much better in the funeral monologue near the end of his film Synecdoche, New York. In Hail, Caesar!, the moment feels like a glib trick played on the audience
It’s entirely likely that there’s a much finer design to Hail, Caesar! than I’ve credited the Coens here. Maybe on a second viewing, I won’t be bogged down so hard looking for a thread to follow. (Shagginess is hardly a sin though, yes Lebowski?). And I’ve failed to point out some of the fine performances here—Josh Brolin anchors the film admirably (although half the time he was on the screen, I kept hoping the film would turn into Inherent Vice). Hail, Caesar! has plenty of great moments, and those moments, like I said, might cohere into something sharper upon a second screening. But right now there’s nothing that compels me toward a second screening any time soon.
Great interview with John Turturro at the AV Club today—it’s part of their Random Roles feature, where an actor (usually a character actor) discusses his or her films. Here’s Turturro talking about some of the films he’s made with the Coen brothers—
JT: I’ve known [the Coens] a long time. I’ve known them from the mid-’80s, because I’m friends with Fran [McDormand]. That’s how I know them. I’ve worked with them on four movies, and they were my executive producers for and really helped me edit Romance And Cigarettes. They’re really good friends—and so is someone like Spike [Lee]. It’s a pleasure in this business when you work with someone more than once. It’s nice, because everybody knows each other.
The Coens are like a mom-and-pop operation. They write it, they edit it, they do the whole thing. They’re involved in everything. It’s very low stress, working with them. There’s almost no stress. If I could make a movie with them every couple of years I would, just because of the pleasure of it.
AVC: How did you finally come to work with them on Miller’s Crossing?
JT: They’d seen me do a lot of plays, and so they said they were going to write a part for me. Then they wrote two parts for me in a row! [Laughs.] Those are big things. When someone writes something for you, you really want to return the favor. So I put a lot of work into it, and tried to give them a little surprise back. Actually I’m going to be directing these three one-act plays on Broadway soon, and Ethan is one of the writers. Woody Allen is one and Elaine May is one and Ethan is one. So I’m working with him again. This is, I guess, the sixth time we’ve worked together.
AVC: The big “look into your heart” scene in the woods. How many takes was that?
JT: I don’t remember how many takes. I just know it was 13 degrees, that’s all. It was really cold. You know, it was a long time ago. It was a hard scene. Sometimes you think about movies, and you say, “Well, I want to try to do something that’s not exactly in a movie.” If you’ve ever been in a very dangerous situation, you know that people will do all kinds of things to keep themselves alive. It was very well-written, but you want to imagine what it’s really like to be in that kind of situation. It depends on what you’re willing to do, and in real life you would do a lot of different things. I tried to capture a little bit of that. I had a couple close encounters throughout my life before that, and you store that stuff in the back of your mind. It’s how you do it, but it’s what they choose and how they put it together too. But that was my goal when I did that, was to do something that was almost a little difficult to watch, because people aren’t trying to be heroic at those moments.
AVC: When you first came across that scene in the screenplay, was it obvious to you that it would be so central and important to the movie? They even used it for the poster.
JT: I guess maybe, but not completely. I kind of knew it was important, and they kept telling me it was. But you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself, because then it’s like going to bed with somebody the first time or something. You’re like, “Oh God, I got to be great.” [Laughs.] You just don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself. I just thought about it in the context of the story, that’s it. Because you can overthink something, too. It all felt really good when they did it, but it was hard to do.
Barton Fink (1991)—“Barton Fink” AVC: Since the Coens were writing Barton Fink while they were still struggling through Miller’s Crossing, were you guys discussing that during the shoot?
JT: No. They said at the end—the guy, [executive producer] Ben Barenholtz, said there was this other movie. The way he talked, it sounded like Bart And Fink. I thought it was Bart And Fink. I was like, Bart And Fink? I don’t know about that.” And I didn’t completely get it when I first read it. Their scripts you have to read a bunch of times. And now I guess people can read them easier—someof their scripts—because they know their sensibility. But their sensibility can be quite different, depending on the movie that they’re linked to.
AVC: Did you really go to secretarial school just to study typing for Barton Fink?
JT: Yeah, I did. It was in Brooklyn Heights. It was with electric typewriters; they didn’t have computers. But then I had to use the old manual typewriter, which I loved. They get stuck, but I really love the sound of it, and the whole visceral experience. I wrote a lot of things on that typewriter during the shoot, a lot of ideas for other things.
AVC: Didn’t you write Romance And Cigarettes on it?
JT: I wrote the title of it and some ideas. A couple of scenes. But then I kind of sat on it. I put it in this box for 10 years. So yeah, it was “A Film by Barton Fink.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Your character talks a lot about creating “a new living theater of, about, and for the common man,” which is relevant to the sort of stories you seem to tell in a lot of your own work. But in the film, it seems like that whole idea is being mocked as pretentious.
JT: [Laughs.]Yeah. Well, there’s guys who are outside of that and who talk about it, and there are guys who are inside of it. I did Mac right after that, which was really, for me, inside. And Fink is more from the outside. Plenty of writers have taken those stances—especially in the ’30s, because people came out of immigration, and there was a lot of Socialism. People were really liberal. There were anarchists. There was a Communist Party in this country. There was also a Nazi party that people don’t really talk about. So there were a lot of these things going on, and you kind of have to go back years to understand this thing. It was in the Group Theatre, and people like Arthur Miller obviously had that in his plays. Sometimes it could become a little bit pretentious, and other times not. But everything’s connected in different ways.
AVC: My favorite scene—honestly, maybe my favorite scene in a movie ever—is just a simple dialogue between you and Tony Shalhoub.
JT: Which one?
AVC: “Throw it hard.”
JT: “Throw it hard, Fink!” [Laughs.] Yeah, there were some great actors in that movie, and I got to work with all of them. It was just a treat. There was just wonderful writing in it too. Even though it was a strange movie and stuff like that, when I see the movie now, I really appreciate it. I’m like, “Wow, that was really good.” When I first saw it, it’s hard, because you’re in it. But it’s a good movie, so thank you. It’s a really well-crafted film. It was a treat to make that film, and to work with every one of those actors. Judy Davis is just fabulous.
Sometimes it occurs to me that the job of a serious cultural critic mostly consists in telling the generality of people that their opinions – on films, on books, on all manner of widgets, gadgets and even the latest electronic fidgets – simply aren’t up to scratch. It’s a dirty, thankless task, but someone has to do it; someone has to point out that, no, Inception wasn’t the last word in sci-fi meta-sophistication, but rather a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent film is like. And by the same token, as the Coen brothers’ True Grit comes galloping into our multiplexes surrounded by dust clouds of Stateside approbation, someone has to take a bead on the whole sweep of their careers, squint, and then if not exactly shoot them down, at any rate cold-cock the notion that the Coens are the great American auteurs of their generation, when, sadly, they are only a moderately clever person’s idea of what great American auteurs might be like.
I’ll set aside for a moment puzzling out whether Self sees himself as a serious cultural critic or a critic of serious culture (whatever that means) — there are too many inaccuracies, unsupported judgments, and logical fallacies in his essay to waste time with this detail for the moment. Let’s start with his premise that the Coens “are only a moderately clever person’s idea of what great American auteurs might be like.” Self links this premise to Inception for some reason, perhaps, I imagine, to trot out his zinger that Nolan’s blockbuster is “a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent film is like.” This is a clever bit of sophistry that ultimately means nothing, an argument rooted in arrogance alone. Imagine a stupid person. Now, ask this imaginary stupid person what his or her idea of “great literature” is. He or she may reply “Stephen King” or he or she may just as easily reply “Shakespeare.” The perceived intelligence of the person has absolutely nothing to do with the aesthetic merit of the literary work he or she ultimately names. I might just as easily suggest that Will Self is a self-satisfied snob’s idea of a clever critic. But what would that actually say about Self’s brand of criticism? Nothing. Self’s claim about the Coens here (and Inception) is simply an ad hominem attack that relies on a perceived (yet never justified) superiority of aesthetic sensibility over the middlebrow masses.
Self tries to take on the Coens’ oeuvre, yet couldn’t even stay awake during Fargo—
Fargo, I’ve always fallen asleep in – all that snow, and Frances McDormand’s mien of winsome determination, why, it’s enough to make anyone nod-off. But now I realise that my failure to stay awake during a film many consider to be among the Coens’ finest, was probably telling me something.
So the film fails the critic, who cannot bother to account for it (Self never even mentions Miller’s Crossing, for the record). Must be all that snow. Even worse, the film doesn’t do what Self wishes for it to do–
Fargo is a film that seems to be a genre noir picture, while never quite committing itself. This capacity the Coens have had to flirt with genre rather than ever wholly embracing it is something that – until someone like me comes along to tell you otherwise – people find particularly engaging.
The arrogance of this line is stunning. Who does Self think “someone like me” might be? Does he seriously see himself as some kind of aesthetic revelator? Self ends by writing that,
the Coens’ central problem [is] their reflexivity as directors, making films of films rather than films tout court. Still, in our benighted age, when films about amusement park rides and electronic fidgets scoop the honours, perhaps Hollywood redux is the best we can hope for.
I still don’t really understand Self’s argument. He seems to think that the Coens make decent Hollywood films, but they don’t make art. He’s upset because he thinks people are falling for two guys who are merely ironizing classic Hollywood structures. And yet he utterly fails to engage those structures, to actually analyze the Coens’ films in any meaningful way. Here’s a sample of Self’s facile criticism–
With O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) you even get another overlay: this isn’t just a retro-style depression-era chain-gang jailbreak movie, but a retelling of the Odyssey to boot. It’s James Joyce with a catchy country soundtrack instead of all that brain-ache wordplay.
How fucking glib is that? O Brother is a musical where every single song intrinsically connects to the particular scene in which it appears. It’s not merely a retelling of the Odyssey, but also an allusive reworking of much of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. At its core, it’s a film about the rise of modernism and the changing cultural scope of the South. And, for what it’s worth, it’s full of brainy wordplay.
O Brother also reworks a 1941 Preston Sturges film called Sullivan’s Travels. This film is a film about a film-maker — this is exactly the kind of ironic self-reflexivity that bothers Self for reasons he fails to account for beyond the notion that such self-reflexivity leads to the dangers of people who think that they are smart but who are really not smart believing that they are seeing a smart film — hang on, that was a long clause, sorry; okay, Sullivan’s Travels is a film about a film-maker who wants to make a film of social commentary, a film of meaningful art, a film he will call O Brother, Where Art Thou? As the director makes his way through the mean mean world, he comes to realize that the average person — the middlebrow viewers that Self holds so much contempt for — would really rather have their pains relieved in some way than experience them again through an art film.
But I get the feeling that Self has little capacity for an emotional response to film — he’s likely far too concerned that the film is trying to like, trick him or something. (It is. That’s the job of all storytelling). And yes, I haven’t bothered to say why the Coens’ films are great, are marvelous, are fantastic films, but this rant has already grown too long, and besides, I think that all one has to do is watch them. (And if you don’t like them, that’s fine. Doesn’t make you “stupid” or “middlebrow”). Finally — and this is just pure meanness — Will Self’s novel Great Apes was so singularly gross, gnarly, and devoid of meaningful insight that it ensured I would never read another word of his literature. His essay on the Coens ensures that I’ll ignore his criticism as well.
Sure, Bill Murray didn’t make a movie this year (not a big one anyway), and sure, he’s a hero any year, but we loved his interview with GQthis summer. From the interview–
Okay. Well, how about Garfield? Can you explain that to me? Did you just do it for the dough?
No! I didn’t make that for the dough! Well, not completely. I thought it would be kind of fun, because doing a voice is challenging, and I’d never done that. Plus, I looked at the script, and it said, “So-and-so and Joel Coen.” And I thought: Christ, well, I love those Coens! They’re funny. So I sorta read a few pages of it and thought, Yeah, I’d like to do that. I had these agents at the time, and I said, “What do they give you to do one of these things?” And they said, “Oh, they give you $50,000.” So I said, “Okay, well, I don’t even leave the fuckin’ driveway for that kind of money.”
Didn’t we write about No Country for Old Mena week or two ago? Yeah, but that was for the upcoming Coen brothers movie; this post is a review of the audiobook, and I’m not creative enough to think of a different title.
So we listened to the entirety of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men over the course of two drives: from Jacksonville to St. Pete Beach and back. First off, as far as books-on-CD goes, this one was pretty good. Native Texan Tom Stechshulte manages to get all of the male characters spot on (the women in the novel sound kind of ridiculous though), and the action-filled plot, tight pacing, and simple sentences make for an easy-to-follow-while-driving listening experience (this is my number one criterion for an audiobook–you have to be able to follow the plot while navigating a road littered with truckers and asshole teenagers. F’r’instance, Faulkner’s short stories are almost impossible to follow in audiobook format).
Set in 1980, No Country for Old Men is the story of Llewellyn Moss, a Vietnam vet who stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad and a suitcase with 2.4 million dollars in it. Of course, he takes the money and runs. Assassin Chigurh is hot on his heels to collect the drug money, leaving a bloody wake of murder and chaos. Sheriff Bell, a WWII vet who first-person narrates the beginning of each section of the book, is also on the case, trying to track down Llewellyn before he gets himself killed.
The first five discs (of seven) of the book were excellent–an exercise in genre fiction–the crime-suspense novel–that transcends the limits of the genre’s tropes. McCarthy’s spare prose moves at just the right pace, with just the right amount of “literary” interjection. However, the end of the novel morphs (evolves or devolves?) into a meditation on war and the changing nature of America and the American people. McCarthy’s symbols and metaphors seem heavy-handed and downright clunky at times, and in the end, the book becomes something of a reflection on personal failures and regrets, and how these personal failures add up to national failures.
Perhaps because I was driving, and because I had been so involved with characters over the course of five compact discs who suddenly disappeared in the narrative, I was disappointed in the end. Perhaps if I had read the book instead of listening to it on compact disc while driving, I would have found the ending more profound, or even enjoyable. Who knows–reading books vs. listening to them is probably a subject for another post. I do think that the Coen brothers will make a fantastic movie out of this story–potentially on par with Fargo. We’ll see.