The latest from the Coen Brothers, unless they’ve made another one while I’ve been typing this sentence, is Hail Caesar!, a curious mashup of nostalgic vignettes honoring old Hollywood and some kind of muddled effort to reckon with the blacklisting of communists in the 50s. Like Barton Fink (though a lot more fun), Hail Caesar! is best enjoyed for its moments — the caricatures of the standard issue Hollywood products of the era are wonderful, Frances McDormand as a kooky version of Thelma Schoonmaker is hilarious — than for its plot per se, which is pretty incoherent.
That said, one through-line does vibrate with significance. The main protagonist, a producer/fixer who works around the clock to maintain the purity of starlets and the sobriety of stars, is being courted by a Lockheed headhunter, who promises him a much easier and more remunerative job managing one of their plants. This is a crucial historical pivot in the history of California, and a brilliant touch on the Coens’ part. Just about now (1950 something), California’s about to change from a loose and rambling collection of farms and dreams to the most advanced and efficient munitions producer in history. In the movie, the Coens have the movie man turn down Lockheed’s offer. They wish.
Missed opportunity department: The Coens should have named the communist godfather figure at the beach house Gramsci instead of Marcuse. The anachronism would have been graver, yes (Gramsci died in 1937; Marcuse didn’t move to California until the mid-1960s), but imagine how tickled fans of Gramsci’s notes on Caesarism would have been!
Exhausted people filmed in an exhausted palette in the city of exhaust. I have my reasons for not being able to look away — Schrader is a fellow expatriate from my Midwestern Dutch Calvinist tribe — but there’s not much reason for anyone else to watch this unless, like me, they have to. Bret Easton Ellis’s script tries desperately to be edgy and perverse, but since every character who passes in front of the camera is a two-dimensional cartoon of mean self-interest, it’s practically impossible to care when they do all the horrible things to each other that they do. Schrader’s glacial camera, as ever, aspires to Antonioni-like gravitas but mostly just seems aimless and slightly bored; we spend a lot of time watching people climb stairs and walk to and from their cars. I think Lindsey Lohan and James Deen do pretty well chewing the cardboard lines they’ve been given to speak, but neither are fantastic actors, and their surges from whimper to shout and back again have a high school drama club quality about them.
No need to read further if you don’t know the Calvin College fight song.
OK, so now it’s just us. The once-innocent kid’s character reaches all the way back to Kristen VanDorn from 1979’s Hardcore — they’re both good Michiganders perverted the second they step on Californian soil. But Schrader seems a little tired, or confused, or mellowed; the bracing shock with Kristen was that it turned out she’d chosen depravity. This kid, Ryan, seems to have sort of fallen into it out of a kind of indifference, or even laziness. Maybe that’s Ellis’s influence. Meanwhile, of course the depraved psychopath is named “Christian.” Of course Ryan is from Michigan. Of course the psychopath has a freakout where he mocks the kid’s naiveté and tells him to go back to Michigan. Of course the innocent lamb has her throat cut, and her murderer faces no damnation. These gestures will go unnoticed by some, but they’re almost comically obvious to us. For me, they’re also almost comforting, in a strange way.
I think often about something John Currin said in Calvin Tomkins’ fawning 2008 New Yorker profile of him: “You should never will a change in your work—you have to work an idea to death. I often find that the best things happen when you’re near the end.” This is a frightening notion to me as a writer. I have a great fear of being boring, and repetition seems like a sure path to being boring. At the same time, I think Currin is certainly correct. Every time Cezanne figured Mont Sainte-Victoire, his understanding of color and space, and ours, deepened.
I think that’s all I have to say on this subject for now.