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Hail, The Coens!

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March 18, 2016

I finally got to watch Hail, Caesar! today, the latest from the Coen brothers.  I’m a huge fan of theirs, and they can do no wrong in my eyes.  It’s not just that I love their films (or, well, most, as this will reveal) but that I am fascinated by everything about them, including the way they work (two men with one brain, who toss titles like “producer” and “director” between them like kids playing soccer in the backyard) and the fact that they just keep making films, regardless of whether they succeed or fail by Hollywood standards.  


When they won the Oscar for No Country for Old Men, I was delighted.   And surprised, given how rarely the Oscars go to films I like, but mostly delighted because I knew this would give them enough cachet to continue making the films they want to make.  I’ve followed them somewhat closely over the years because I’ve always been intrigued by their working patterns and the fact that they aren’t a visible part of the Hollywood circuit.  But, really, mostly because I love their films.  


What I like most about the Coen brothers is that their films don’t try to convert you or deliver portentous messages.  The Coens are interested in telling a great story, and few do that better.  No Country for Old Men features a Texas sheriff coming to the end of his career, saddened by the changes he sees on the horizon, changes personified by the cold, deathly brutality of the killer he has to hunt down. But at no point are we expected to be converted to his view. We simply watch as we follow the characters down their separate pathways. It’s the suspense and cinematic narrative that matter, not whether or not we like or loathe anyone in the tale.


Fargo was my favourite Coen film for a long time — I rewatch it even in winter because I find its setting incredibly soothing.  There’s something about curling up on a couch and watching that first shot of the car slowly emerging through the snow, the drives through frigid North Dakota and Minnesota winters, the frosty breath as people talk to each other in quiet midwestern towns that I find calming. I am calmed despite the horrific things that actually happen: who can forget the wood chipper?


Then No Country for Old Men came along, and I found myself with a strong contender for favourite.  The Coens are best when their films are shot against very particular and literal landscapes: the snowy midwest in Fargo, Texas alongside the border in No Country, Los Angeles in The Big Lebowski, Arizona in Raising Arizona.  The geographies of the places where their characters live — and often die bloody deaths — frame the narrative, makes it easier to inhabit  them as a viewer.


It’s the films that try to more consciously create a cinematic world that are less satisfactory for me.  Try as I might, I could never get past the first twenty minutes or so of The Hudsucker Proxy (I’m a bad fan, I know).  It was vivid in its recreation of period interiors, and yet those were what felt distracting: there was too much attention paid to giving attention to detail.  


Hail, Caesar!, set in the midst of a Blacklist-era Hollywood, was similarly disappointing.  Manohla Dargis, one of the few critics I trust, had already warned that it wasn’t all that but I went to see it anyway, because I try to watch films with spectacles in them on the big screen.  Hail, Caesar is about...well, it’s hard to say.  Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal) makes an appearance, and so does an Esther Williams-ish actress (Scarlett Johannson) whose unborn baby must be hidden from public view. Then there’s a gay-ish screen idol who is kidnapped by possible communists (George Clooney), and a very gay communist who is first seen tap-dancing in a dance sequence (Channing Tatum).  In the middle of it all is Hollywood fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who goes about slapping stars straight and generally mending the holes that threaten to unravel the fabric of a Hollywood where studios own the lives and bodies of their stars.  


It’s a bit of a patchwork but it’s a Coen creation, so it’s a film that clearly takes pleasure in itself, uncaring about whether it all coheres or, really, whether there’s a tangible plot.  I miss the sweep and style of No Country, but I’m touched by Clooney’s comic turn and Alden Ehrenreich’s genius in playing a cowboy star Hobie Doyle, and Brolin is always a treat to watch.  I’m not likely to see it again, but it’s a Coen brothers film, so it won’t prevent me from seeing everything else they ever make.


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