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Coen Brothers

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Screenshot 2016-02-05 02.54.01Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers’ latest movie, is a cheerful comedy about a busy week in 1951 at the fictitious Hollywood studio, Capitol Pictures, where their Barton Fink took place in 1941.

That 1991 film told the story of Fink, a Clifford Odets-like Communist playwright (played by John Turturro) who becomes the toast of Manhattan’s cafe society during the New Deal for his leftist dramas about The People. But Fink then accepts a lucrative offer to write for Hollywood. There he discovers that writers have no power in the movie business (unlike the New York stage, where playwrights have the contractual right to fire directors), and gets assigned to write a Wallace Beery wrestling pic for all eternity.

Hail, Caesar! is set in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era a decade later.

We’ve seen this period portrayed a million times from the point of view of the subpoenaed screenwriters (e.g., Redford and Streisand in The Way We Were), but the Coen Brothers show us the Red Scare from the anti-Communist side’s point of view.

Ten years after Barton Fink, the screenwriters are still affluent Communists. A Malibu cell of Stalinist scribes has so far restricted itself to slipping pro-Soviet metaphors into detective stories and musicals, which have gone largely unnoticed by anybody (except by other leftist writers and the most paranoid rightists) watching the exuberantly pro-American studio output.

But now, the Malibu Marxism Study Group has moved on to direct action, kidnapping a Clark Gable-like star (George Clooney) from the set of a Bible picture (Hail, Caesar!) to hold him for ransom, while Herr Professor Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School lectures him on the dialectic. Clooney’s character is dim enough and self-absorbed enough to like what he hears about Marxism. Fortunately, two anti-Communist patriots, a young cowboy star and the studio’s conservative Catholic fixer (Josh Brolin), team up to foil the Commies, although not before the Malibu Marxists gay leader makes a theatrical escape to Moscow.

This is the Coen’s Catholic flick to go along with their Jewish movie, A Serious Man, and their various Protestant sect movies, such as O Brother, Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit.

Hail, Caesar! wasn’t rushed out in time for 2015 Oscar qualifying. Maybe it was delayed, or maybe the Coens realized it wasn’t quite up to Oscar quality. It doesn’t exhibit the extreme lucidity the Coens achieved in recent films, although it definitely doesn’t suffer either from the anhedonia of Inside Llewyn Davis.

But by the usual standards of February releases, it’s very good. It looks nice. The list of stars is impressive although borderline unwieldy in length: Clooney, Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid movie star in the mode of Esther Williams, Channing Tatum (Gene Kellyish — it’s fun to make unfair insinuations about Kelly because he was such an egomaniac), Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix (a real life MGM studio official, whose job was to persuade the heavily Irish cops and the Catholic Church to not make public fusses over the various scandals the stars got themselves into), Ralph Fiennes as a sort of director George Cukor, Jonah Hill as a notary public who makes a living out of his unquestionable legal personhood, and Tilda Swinton as identical twins who are highly competitive gossip columnists.

The one newcomer, Alden Ehrenreich, steals the show as a laconic rodeo star trying to learn how to talk to rich people rather than horses.

After Frances McDormand gets done editing the cowboy kid’s seemingly flailing attempt at drawing room drama, it’s suddenly clear he’s going to be a big star in the James Dean – Elvis Presley mode that nobody in 1951 could yet anticipate.

Throughout Hail, Caesar!, the mood is sunny and there is always something happening.

On the other hand, the jokes aren’t quite as funny as the Coen Brothers at their best, nor does the plot appear to have quite the superb fit and finish of their top half dozen movies. The period details are fun, but lots of other filmmakers have affectionately parodied old time Hollywood.

Five movies within a movie are seen in Hail, Caesar! But the overtly disparate ingredients make the overarching movie more like sketch comedy, which many people can do pretty well. At peak form, the Coens, in contrast, can extract more from a single premise (What if James M. Cain wrote true crime stories for 1940s men’s magazines read in small town barbershops? What if our dope-smoking burnout buddy tried to solve a confusing Raymond Chandler detective case?) than just about anybody.

Granted, The Big Lebowski is stuffed with elements that didn’t strike viewers as having much connection when it came out in the theaters, but famously started to all make some kind of weird sense when viewed for the third time on cable at 3am. So, I may be premature in assuming that the movies-within-the-movies are just random in Hail, Caesar! Maybe 3 years from now we’ll all be talking about how everybody thought Hail, Caesar! was just a lightweight goof when it came out and nobody at the time grasped its transcendent whateverness.

Or maybe not.

All in all, Hail, Caesar! requires less mental effort on the part of audiences than did, say, A Serious Man, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers movie for people who sort of like Coen Brothers movies.

 
• Tags: Coen Brothers, Movies 
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With a 17th Coen Brothers movie on the way this week, I return to an old question: How have the two middle-aged men gone over 30 years without the kind of public spats that are common among showbiz brothers (e.g., in rock music: the Everlys, the Davies of the Kinks, the Fogertys of Creedence, the Gallaghers of Oasis, etc etc).

An interview in the Washington Post suggests one Coen strategy is to blur their individuality:

In conversation, as in their work, sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are known for a kind of uncanny symbiosis. Their sentences run together as effortlessly as they divide the writing, directing and producing duties they have shared over the course of 17 feature films, beginning with their 1984 thriller, “Blood Simple,” and culminating in their new satire of 1950s Hollywood, “Hail, Caesar!” So it seemed reasonable to ask, as they began a recent interview on a conference call from Los Angeles, that each brother identify himself before speaking.

“This is Joel talking,” a disembodied voice says with a sigh. “But we don’t care if you misinterpret. We really don’t. It’s not an issue. You can say whoever you want is saying it.”

“You can say you’re saying it,” chimes in Ethan, amid what sounds like cackling laughter. Back to Joel: “You can make stuff up if you want. We don’t care. It’s fine.”

My guess is that the blurriness of the Coen identities is an act. These guys are masters at insinuating images and assumptions into audience minds, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they consciously strategized a long time ago that they would get more work done if they de-emphasized in public their individuality and instead strove to give off the vague impression that they are identical twins (Joel is actually 3 years older than Ethan.) Over their 30+ years of doing interviews to promote their movies, they’ve managed to make the question of their differences seem extremely boring to the outside world. As with most things involving the Coen Brothers, that’s probably not an accident.

Since the Coens showed it could be done, there have been more brother acts who make movies together. So far, there haven’t been many sister acts writing or directing movies, although they are not unknown.

There have been over the years a number of married couple writing teams in the movies (and in songwriting). It seems like a pretty reasonable way to get started making a date movie, having both a male and female perspective. Casablanca, for example, started out as an unproduced play by a husband-wife team of writers. (It was later worked on by the Epstein identical twin brothers, who supposedly each came up with the single best line in Hollywood history — the reuse of “Round up the usual suspects!” — simultaneously. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they?)

There seem to be fewer husband-wife teams these days, although Jaffa and Silver, who wrote the fine 2011 reboot of Planet of the Apes, come to mind.

It’s hard, however, to think of brother-sister creative teams (no, the Wachowskis don’t count). There have been brother-sister performing teams in show biz, such as the Astaires, the Carpenters, and the Osmonds, but it’s hard to come up with any brother-sister creative teams in the mode of the Coens. Woody Allen has employed for the last two decades his younger sister as his chief movie producer, but that’s presumably more of a business than creative relationship.

Probably the best known sibling pair behind the cameras is Garry Marshall and his younger sister Penny Marshall. He created the TV hit Happy Days and spun off Laverne & Shirley, casting his sister Penny in it. He then moved into directing movies, including 1984′s Flamingo Kid and had his biggest hit with with 1990′s Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts. He encouraged his little sister to direct and she may have been the first in the family to make it to the $100 million box office level with Big with Tom Hanks in 1988. But as helpful as they were to each other’s highly successful individual careers, I think they did most of their work separately.

I’m not sure why there haven’t been many brother-sister creative duos. Is it because entertainment usually involves sex in some fashion, and brothers and sisters are averse to discussing it? Is it because brothers and sisters don’t hang around together all summer watching movies?

 
• Tags: Coen Brothers, Movies 
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From my movie review in Taki’s Magazine:

Almost three years ago, the Academy Awards gave the Best Picture Oscar to Ben Affleck’s Iranian hostage drama Argo to encourage making more medium-budget movies for grown-ups. Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s Cold War film about the negotiations to exchange Soviet spymaster Rudolf Abel for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, is very much in the Argo tradition.

With Spielberg’s eye for re-creating the physical environment of his childhood years, a screenplay rewritten by the Coen brothers, and Tom Hanks as master negotiator James B. Donovan, Bridge of Spies might well be better than Argo. Yet, while the liberties taken with history didn’t much hurt Argo’s impact (unless you are a Canadian annoyed by the diminishment of the heroic Canadian role), the rewriting of Bridge of Spies’ leading man to make the role more suitable for Hanks’ famous regular-guy routine has left Spielberg and the Coens seeming a little furtive.

Read the whole thing there.

 
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Steve Sailer
About Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer is a journalist, movie critic for Taki's Magazine, VDARE.com columnist, and founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.


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