Hail, Caesar! is not one of the Coens’ better films, but, because of its grab-bag of Hollywood silliness, it is perhaps the best at illuminating one of the main reasons why the Coens are some of our best and most fascinating popular filmmakers without necessarily being important film artists – namely, their acute sense of camp.
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It’s high time the Coen brothers made a musical. They’ve been pussyfooting around it for long enough: consider all the choirs and yodeling in Raising Arizona, the scenes where people sing in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis, and the dream sequences in The Big Lebowski and The Hudsucker Proxy, not to mention the general theatricality of their comedies and their eclectic use of blues, gospel, and sixties rock. I wouldn’t expect such compulsive genre-benders to make a straight Hollywood musical, but it’s a wonder they don’t just cut to the chase, especially when it’s so obvious how much fun they have doing it. Maybe they’re just too set in their familiar rhythms of dialogue and editing to let the energy of a musical take over, or maybe they think they’re too cool to dance.
All the best parts of the Coens’ new film, Hail, Caesar!, are either actual musical numbers or musical in nature, and all the worst parts are when we’re dragged away from them to deal with the meaningless plot. The story is a kind of “day in the life of a Hollywood fixer”: a sly but basically decent studio executive (Josh Brolin) who works day and night to solve the never-ending string of scandals the movie industry dumps on him, such as trying to arrange an adoption scam for a pregnant, unmarried actress (Scarlett Johansson), keeping rumors of an actor’s homosexuality out of the gossip columns, meeting with high-ranking clergy to ensure that the depiction of Jesus in an upcoming film is inoffensive, and trying to locate a movie star (George Clooney) who’s been kidnapped by communists – all while trying to maintain a normal family life, of course.
It’s thin stuff, and the Coens don’t really believe in it. The plot more or less resolves itself without any of the main characters taking much initiative one way or the other. The story, such as it is, is mainly an excuse for the Coens to indulge in some genre-sampling they otherwise would probably never get a chance to do. They’re never going to have enough worthwhile material to make an entire singing cowboy movie, but, by having the characters constantly wander between different film sets and movie theaters, they can at least stick two scenes from one into this hodge-podge, along with a synchronized swimming number, a tap dancing routine in a sailor bar, a brief bit from a drawing room drama, and the climactic monologue from a Roman epic.
Hail, Caesar! is not one of the Coens’ better films, but, because of its grab-bag of Hollywood silliness, it is perhaps the best at illuminating one of the main reasons why the Coens are some of our best and most fascinating popular filmmakers without necessarily being important film artists – namely, their acute sense of camp. It has always been tempered by the equally significant influence of Jewish humor on their work, but it’s worth pointing out that nearly all the definitive aspects of camp and camp sensibility outlined in Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” fit the Coens to a T: exaggerated, excessive, esoteric, apolitical, old-fashioned, artificial, ironic rather than tragic, aesthetic rather than moral, serious about the frivolous and frivolous about the serious, vulgar, snobby, and – believe it or not – innocent. Underneath all that sarcastic cynicism there’s an earnest naïveté that they’ve resisted and indulged in more or less equal measure. In Sontag’s terms, most Coen films are not pure camp, only camping (i.e., celebrating and reproducing the effects of camp with ironic self-consciousness), but the Coens have always had impulses to be genuine art directors, and the results – whether individual scenes or entire films – are often quite campy indeed. In that regard, they are truer camp filmmakers than John Waters, who never made anything as deadly serious as No Country for Old Men, a film presented with absolute sincerity as an arthouse noir despite being as ridiculous and artificial as their screwball comedies.
Considering the tremendous overlap between camp, gay culture, and the musical genre, the musical numbers in Hail, Caesar! provide some of the most obvious examples of the Coens’ camp taste. The film’s first one is its least interesting, a facsimile of Million Dollar Mermaid with Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams analog in a Busby Berkeley swimming routine, but the Coens commit to it entirely. As with all the films-within-the-film in Hail, Caesar!, musical or not, the scene is primarily shown as if we are watching the completed film rather than a behind-the-scenes perspective. At one point, Johansson’s character, DeeAnna Moran, rises up from the water in a mermaid costume on a mechanical platform, but she remains completely dry. The illusion is obvious – they filmed her being lowered into the water and reversed the footage – but the Coens only show us the illusion, not how it was made, and the scene only makes sense if you accept this breach in logic.
The whole thing ultimately leads to some fairly lame gags (Moran is a virginal beauty on screen but a pregnant, hard-talkin’ Hawksian in real life), but they still get a laugh because the Coens were so effective at weaving the spell of the musical sequence that serves as their setup. They’ve been pulling this trick for decades – perfectly executing the conventions of a genre only to flip it on its head for comic effect – but their devotion to that initial execution shows how much genuine affection there is behind it. There’s no fundamental difference between this mermaid sequence and the painstaking re-creation of James M. Cain novels and the films based on them in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
There’s nothing overtly homosexual about the Coens’ imitation of an Esther Williams seaside musical, but, considered alongside the rest of the film’s kitsch iconography – sailors, cowboys, Roman bacchanalia – it screams of not just camp, but gay camp. Anchoring this down is some direct homosexual content: a minor subplot involves (presumably true) rumors that movie star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) landed his first film role by “engaging in sodomy” with director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, channeling Noël Coward). Whitlock protests too much by constantly bringing up his legendary womanizing, and another movie star (Channing Tatum) is heavily hinted to be Laurentz’s new lover. The only passionate heterosexual desire is between the singing cowboy star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), and a Carmen Miranda-type actress, Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), but their scenes together are innocent and chaste, and Doyle – with his leather duds, angel face, curly hair, and pouty lips – comes across as a gay teenage fantasy of Roy Rogers.
None of this should surprise long-time Coen fans. At the risk of perpetuating our society’s current obsession with pedantic identity politics, I’d say the Coens have always had a queer sensibility, in the sense that “queer” is opposed to “straight,” a word that originally meant not merely heterosexual but heteronormative, prudish, and uncool. With a few significant exceptions, heterosexual relationships in their films are often, passionless, ridiculous, or doomed, while their depiction of same-sex desire and sexual deviance is consistently ironic but sympathetic. The homoerotic underpinnings of male bonding is one of their hallmarks: think of how many times in their films two or more men share hugs, sleeping quarters, intimate meals, or ritualistic exchanges of phallic symbols. This is usually contextualized as a comic interpretation of macho film genres, such as how the “wrestling pictures” in Barton Fink echo the erotic tension between Fink (John Turturro) and Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) in Fink’s hotel room, but they don’t always play it for laughs. Miller’s Crossing, for instance, one of their most “serious” films, succeeds not because it is such a careful imitation of a Dashiell Hammett story (in that respect, it’s as camp as No Country for Old Men), but because it turns a tough-as-nails gangster movie into an ironic tragedy about queer love triangles.
The most extravagant musical sequence in Hail, Caesar! is the most explicitly homoerotic sequence in any Coen brothers film. Modeled on two Gene Kelly musicals about sailors, Anchors Aweigh and On the Town, it’s an elaborate tap dancing number from a fictional film called No Dames, with Channing Tatum’s character Burt Gurney in the Gene Kelly role. As with the mermaid sequence, this scene is shown more or less as it would appear in the finished film, not as it would have been shot in the studio in the “real world.” The basic joke of the scene is that the sailors are ostensibly upset that they’re going out to sea where there are, as the film’s title says, no dames, but they keep smiling and performing sexually suggestive dance moves on each other. It’s more than just a simple gay joke, though. As a piece of specifically Coenesque camp comedy, it works on at least six levels:
(1) Sailors have been staples of gay camp since at least World War II, and their association with it has permeated the mainstream. Despite the Village People’s best efforts, cowboys, bikers, and most other macho archetypes appropriated by gay camp still have some straight cachet, but sailors are hopeless. The hats, in particular, are as camp as it gets: Jack Nicholson tried to make them look butch again in The Last Detail, but the hat took over and turned his tattoos, cigars, hairy chest, and mustache into unintentional homoerotica. The Coens let a lot of this seasoned iconography speak for itself. They don’t even make the obvious “seamen” pun, but they do invite us to make our own.
(2) Musicals have also been more or less absorbed into gay camp culture, but the Coens know how to walk the fine line between camping and playing it straight. Modern musical films tend to be pitched directly to gay camp audiences, such as Steven Antin’s Burlesque and Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods, and, whatever their other merits, they fail as real camp because they’re too self-conscious. They wink too much. The best camp is always rooted in failure, but it cannot simply be purposely bad or over-the-top. It has to be right kind of bad to be the right kind of good, a combination of obliviousness and technical expertise that creates a discrepancy between form and content. Even aside from its homoeroticism, the scene from No Dames is patently ridiculous, laden with corny jokes and a grade-school idea of military service, but the Coens commit to it like Stanley Donen, and the choreography proves so impressive that part of you wishes they still made movies like this just so Channing Tatum could star in them.
(3) The post-war setting is used not as a screen against which to project anachronistic gay jokes from a modern perspective, but as a spotlight for highlighting the homoeroticism already evident in films of the period. Nobody in Hollywood or Broadway in 1951 was naïve enough to not realize that a musical comedy about horny sailors would attract a gay audience. This sequence is neither a commentary on nor a mockery of those old sailor musicals, but an interpretive – and accurate – re-creation of them, making explicit what was originally implicit without adding or subtracting anything fundamental.
(4) The Coens have had a lot of mischievous fun casting modern actors as stand-ins for old movie stars – Billy Bob Thornton as Fred MacMurray in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Gabriel Byrne as Humphrey Bogart in Miller’s Crossing, George Clooney as Cary Grant in Intolerable Cruelty – but their allusions to Gene Kelly with Tatum’s Burt Gurney illustrate their more vulnerable and endearing side. Burt Gurney is one of the film’s most underdeveloped characters – which is saying something for a film this packed with cameos and bit characters – but that deficit seems to stem from the fact that they have no way to make fun of him. True, the character turns out to be a Soviet spy, but that’s hardly a serious parody of Kelly’s real-life liberal politics; it facilitates the plot and produces a great piece of visual camp with a Russian submarine, but it’s a last-ditch effort to turn the character to comic purposes. His role in the film is partly a celebration of a kind of movie star we no longer have. Kelly’s erotic appeal made him popular with both men and women because, despite his stunning good looks, he was too graceful to ever seem sexually threatening, and, no matter how campy his films got, he was always somehow above it all. Transfiguring him into Channing Tatum is a smart piece of criticism: Tatum is charming and can definitely dance, but Hollywood does not allow him to be Gene Kelly. Tatum must be crass, macho, and sexy, always sexy. Kelly was sexy, too, but he didn’t seem to be aware of it. Tatum can’t even fake such innocence.
(5) The casting of Tatum also draws a direct parallel between Kelly’s sailor musicals and the Magic Mike films. On the one hand, it points out the openly secret Hollywood tradition of concealing homoeroticism within films about supposedly straight characters, as well as the paradox that, the more sexy men you put in a film to target it to heterosexual women, the more homoerotic it feels. Like the dancing sailors, the male strippers in the Magic Mike films are more interested in each other’s bodies than in the women around them, and Hail, Caesar! extends this connection to westerns, historical epics, art movies, and religious films. On the other hand, it also expresses a kind of sadness at what we’ve lost: compared to the exhausting, in-your-face sensuality of Magic Mike, the double entendres and cheeky naïveté of No Dames feels a lot dirtier, a lot edgier, a lot more subversive.
(6) Aside from the Kelly films, the scene also draws from the “Anyone Here for Love” number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, where a team of hunky Olympic athletes completely ignore Jane Russell’s sexual advances as they work out at the gym. Both songs are about how the lead singer desperately wants to get laid but can’t as long as they’re on a boat, and, in both cases, the handsome men dancing behind them imply an easy solution to the problem. The difference is that Tatum (as Burt Gurney, as the character in No Dames) can’t consciously acknowledge the solution, while Russell practically pleads with the audience to convince the men behind her to stop fooling around with each other’s biceps and take her back to her cabin. Of course, Hawks made that scene homoerotic, along with the rest of the movie, another hint that the Coens are not criticizing the past as much as they are pointing out underappreciated elements of it. Moreover, it provides yet more evidence that, despite all the time the Coens have spent aping the work of Wilder, Sturges, Capra, Polanski, and Kubrick, their true antecedent in Hollywood has always been Howard Hawks: eminently funny and impeccably stylish; sarcastic and misanthropic with a racist streak; heterosexual with a queer sensibility; borderline reactionary with a predilection for counterculture; a genre-hopper most comfortable in film noir, westerns, and screwball comedies; a coastal urbanite who overemphasized his roots as a Midwestern bumpkin; a closet existentialist and reluctant poet who preferred scenes, moments, images, jokes, and dialogue to politics, morals, or coherent narratives; a cult director who made mass entertainment; a master with no clear individual masterpiece, whose auteurist idiosyncrasies constitute more of a refined sense of taste than a personal vision of the world.
In reviews both positive and negative, many critics have been content to say that the Coens are ridiculing the kinds of films they imitate in Hail, Caesar!, but that ignores the essential warmth that motivates camp. The only film-within-the-film that they condescend to is the titular epic, Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, a mash-up of Ben-Hur and The Robe, and the target of their humor is mainly the self-righteousness of such a phony movie purporting to impart religious truth. The rest of the films – the singing cowboy movie, the two seaside musicals, the drawing room drama – are shown as honest entertainment, and they are handled with affection. As Sontag put it, “Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs of and awkward intensities of ‘character’ … Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as ‘camp,’ they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.”
The best example of this in Hail, Caesar! is its final musical number and best scene, when Hobie Doyle attends the premiere of his newest musical western, Lazy Ol’ Moon, with Carlotta Valdez, on a date arranged by the studio’s marketing department. Doyle is nervous and uncomfortable, even though Valdez keeps reassuring him that his films are good and that the crowd will love it. The film starts: on a cheesy Western sound stage with a matte painting of a night sky, an old drunken prospector-type rambles about how he’s angry that the moon is so lazy. He points at the moon’s reflection in a horse trough, curses it, then jumps in to grab it. When he bobs up from under the water, he says “Where’d she go?”, and Doyle’s character, strumming a guitar, starts to sing “Lazy Old Moon.”
This is one of the Coens’ favorite techniques, playing out a scene that has little to do with the overall plot but which resonates the most strongly with its core themes, such as the awkward lunch date in Fargo between Sheriff Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). When the old prospector in Lazy Ol’ Moon shouts at the moon’s reflection, it gets a laugh, from both the audience in the film and the real one in the theater, but why? The audience in Hail, Caesar! is presumably laughing because they think it’s actually funny, but are we supposed to be more sophisticated and laugh only because we see how funny it’s not? If we’re laughing anyway, what’s the difference?
Likewise, Doyle is initially nervous that his singing isn’t good because the director only gave him one take, but, when the singing starts, the audio quality shifts dramatically into a perfectly clear studio recording. Since Doyle is too honest to lie about singing it live during filming, we accept that he is simply that good of a singer, which makes the frivolity of the film he’s in all the sillier. This is all camp, of course, but, when Doyle looks around at the audience, he sees they’re genuinely enjoying it, so he loosens up, and we’re enjoying it, too, regardless of our motives. Camp or not, the singing is beautiful, the jokes are funny, and even the arranged date between the two actors is genuinely affecting and sweet. How anyone can watch this sequence and conclude that the Coens detest these films and the people who like them, I’m sure I don’t know.
Aside from their effects as individual sequences, taken all together, these musical numbers and the other films-within-a-film represent the most exuberant indulgence of two definitive, overlapping camp aspects of the Coens’ films: their fondness for collecting lost genres, and their obsession with the artifice of the past. Aside from historical epics – which Hollywood still occasionally belches out with generally poor results – none of the kinds of movies shown in Hail, Caesar! are made anymore. Seaside musicals and drawing room dramas are as dead as the screwball comedies the Coens have spent half their career trying to resuscitate, and singing cowboy movies have about as much of a chance of making a comeback as the kind of atomic-era novelty songs Justin Timberlake sings in Inside Llewyn Davis. This eclectic milieu is as essential to the Coens’ cinema as midnight horror B-movies, “women’s films,” rockabilly music, Southern Gothic theater, and true crime books are to John Waters’.
With one notable exception (A Serious Man, their most personal film), their depiction of the past is quintessentially campy, and it permeates all their major films. Of their seventeen features, only five have been set during the present day of when they were made, and four of those – Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, and Burn After Reading – treat the present as a grotesque reflection of previous decades (only Blood Simple, their first, most straightforward, and least interesting film is not steeped in overwrought period details). Yet, despite their fixation on the past, they don’t seem to give one whit for historical accuracy. Hail, Caesar! supposedly takes place around 1951, but its references span a good twenty-five years: CinemaScope epics weren’t made until 1953 (the year the format itself was invented), the drawing room drama depicted most resembles Noël Coward’s films of the early 1930s, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry musical westerns peaked in the late 1930s and early ’40s, and Gene Kelly’s sailor musicals were released between 1946 and 1949. It’s inconceivable that such obsessive cinephiles don’t know this stuff. They simply aren’t interested.
It’s not just movies, though. They get a fairly important bit of political history wrong, too: a Boeing executive says they’ve just tested the first hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll, but, in 1951, that actually took place on Enewetak Atoll. The Coens claim they don’t do research when they write their screenplays, and I believe them. All they’re really interested in here are the words “hydrogen bomb,” “Bikini,” and “armageddon,” all signal phrases for Cold War kitsch. The film takes place at the same fictional movie studio depicted in Barton Fink, Capitol Pictures, and the Coens use the H-bomb testing here more or less the same way they used the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Barton Fink: to frame the subject matter with decorative historical camp, like painting a still image from the Zapruder film on the side of a Volkswagen.
As with all things camp, whether you find all this exhilarating, repulsive, or both is a matter of taste, and anyone who tries to encapsulate it with thesis-driven analysis will only make an ass of themselves. For some, the Coens’ treatment of bowling alleys, dancing sailors, Minnesota accents, and barbershops as camp objects may have crossed a line; for others, it may be their identical treatment of communist screenwriters, mushroom clouds, Jesus, and the Ku Klux Klan. I can understand disliking Hail, Caesar!: for those already skeptical of the Coens’ ambivalent attitudes toward cinema, their obfuscation of film history is unacceptably smug, while long-time fans may find in its inconsequential fluffiness an unsatisfying lack of edge. However, it consistently provides something like the innocent thrills and laughs that the films-within-the-film would have in the late 1940s, even if filtered through a camp perspective, and, if memory serves, it’s also the only Coen brothers film where nobody dies. With our current cinema’s obsession with franchise-building and the apocalypse, there are far worse things the Coens could be doing than dancing around with sailors and mermaids.
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Note: All images are publicity stills from Universal Studios or screenshots from trailers freely available on YouTube.