By Geoffrey Pollick
Review of Coen: Framing Religion in Amoral Order (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016) edited by Elijah Siegler, and Hail, Caesar! (Universal Pictures, 2016) directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
In February 2016, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, noted filmmaking siblings, released their latest project, Hail, Caesar! Close on its heels, in March 2016, Baylor University Press brought out Elijah Siegler’s edited volume, Coen: Framing Religion in Amoral Order, a collection of essays that uncover religion’s role in the Coen corpus. Together, this book and film raise the question of what happens when religion “shows up” in the movies.
Introducing the essays in Coen, Siegler declares that interpreters of the Coens’ films—whether viewers, reviewers, or scholars—“want answers.” And the principal question they ask is, simply: “Are the Coen brothers religious filmmakers in the first place?” In order to gain a handle on this query, Siegler draws together elements of film theory to propose a large-scale frame that situates religion and the Coens in relation. He suggests that their films manipulate a “mythological landscape of America” in which “the moral hero” and amoral antiheroes together negotiate the good and the bad in a “morally bleak universe.” This scheme opens a sufficiently broad thematic palette to unite the fourteen essays that follow, while suggesting some limiting contours for their categories.
Coen compiles essays authored by established interpreters of film and American religion as well as new scholarly voices. One sees in the table of contents that the book itself is structured in three “acts” divided by a pair of “intermissions,” the volume performs its analysis across thematic and topical variants.
Moving from “morality,” to “theology,” “world creation,” and “community,” the opening series of essays proposes various modes in which religion can be “read” in the Coens’ earliest films, which, as Siegler informs, “the critical consensus had not yet labeled as ‘religious.’” Asking where religion might be found in these purportedly religionless films affords the essayists opportunity for reflection on the nature of religion as a category itself. Interpreting Raising Arizona (1987), Eric Michael Mazur proposes that the film constitutes “a critique of the charade of moral certitude” that suffused the cultural politics of the 1980s Christian Right. Read here as “morality,” religion in the mode of the Coens thus comes under scrutiny for harmonizing hypocrisies. The three essays that follow in this section present similar manipulations of religion’s configuration.
Richard Amesbury, in the first of two intermission–essays, suggests an alternative imagination of religion and morality in Fargo (1996). Rather than seeing an innate moral message or an expression of ironic amorality in the film, Amesbury finds Fargo to be “a work of grotesque” that points to an “ultimately…hopeful” reality beyond its specific narrative. Placing Fargo in the genre of grotesque allows Amesbury to identify distortions and displacements figured through the Coens’ characters. As a result, he perceives the film’s content as engaged in conversation with moral concepts that “stand off-stage, as it were in the projection booth.” Here, Amesbury reads religion in Fargo as larger than the film itself. Consequently, Fargo’s implications and displacements prompt its viewers to contemplate the gaps between “bleakness” and “new possibilities.”
Taken as a whole, the essays in Coen offer a lively conversation (indeed, the contributors edited one another’s essays, and several of the published texts contain helpful intertextual comments) about the ways in which filmmakers, audiences, and scholars all imagine interactions between film and religion. As a compilation of criticism on the Coen filmography, the collection organizes and reframes an expansive bibliography. As works of scholarship on religion, its essays imaginatively connect critical theory of religion with cinema studies scholarship, applied in clever and illuminating readings of the Coens’ oeuvre.
The value of their collective insight is borne out by interpretations of the newest Coen film, Hail, Caesar!, released by Universal Pictures 39 days before the publication of Coen. If these essayists reveal the Coens as filmic theorists of religion, in Hail, Caesar!, these brothers reveal themselves as theorists of filmic religion. In other words, Caesar advances the proposition that, in the modern United States, cinema is sacred.
Chronicling the daily routines of Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), a corporate functionary of the fictional 1950s Capitol Pictures studio in Hollywood, Caesar contemplates the picture business’s position in American society. The film’s thesis develops in a series of visual parallels that structure the film’s opening and closing sequences, substantiated by intermediate scenes that query the oppositions of truth and fiction. These parallels open and close Hail, Caesar!, and suggest associations between the perspectives produced by religious systems and those set forth by cinematic productions.
The Coens establish these connections in a pair of initial sequences, the first set in a Roman Catholic sanctuary, and the second in a studio screening room. They recapitulate these associations in a concluding camera shot that establishes the Capitol Pictures studio lot in heavenly scale, aligning the filmmaking industry with the manufacture of transcendence.
Hail, Caesar!’s first three images crossfade from one to another in steady sequence. Set to layered sounds of monastic chant and rumbling thunder, a crucifix suspended over an altar gives way to a close-up shot of the bloodied Christ form, which fades to a crucifix in miniature, dangling as a pendant from Eddie Mannix’s tightly gripped rosary. After a brief glimpse of Mannix’s bowed posture inside a confessional booth, the audience sees his wristwatch in close-up, set to an ungodly hour of the late night or early morning.
In this sequence, the Coens almost imperceptibly associate Christian belief and practice with Mannix’s everyday routines of work that prompt spiritual reflection. These images draw the transcendent reference made in liturgical decoration downward to the scale of an everyday devotional object. This pocket-sized cruciform image is then associated with another object of quotidian utility—that of time-telling, strapped to the protagonist’s wrist. In his pocket and on his arm, Eddie Mannix carries a Christian—that is, religious—perspective.
Following soon after the confession-booth sequence, the audience finds Mannix busy at work, seated in a darkened screening room, reviewing dailies from work on production of a passion-play film, entitled Hail, Caesar! A Tale of The Christ. The sequence begins, however, with a full-frame image of a mosaic-tiled Roman aquila, moving quickly to depict a military legion marching home to Rome along the Appian Way. Without indication, the Coens have disrupted the film’s time scale, its imagery shifting jarringly from midcentury Los Angeles to first-century Rome. Slowly, the frame zooms out, revealing that the Roman scene is projected on a movie screen, and is viewed by Eddie Mannix. As the footage plays, the audience meets Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), star of the film, and observes the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road. Titles are slated in for an image of the deity, yet to be filmed, “DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT.”
The unannounced shift of perspective to a film within the film prompts a momentary chronological slippage. Has the setting of Hail, Caesar! shifted backwards in time? In this interruption, the Coens imply a question about filmic representation and verisimilitude. Are the alternate worlds constructed through film real? Do they convey truth?
As Mannix sits before the illuminated screen, ostensibly with that rosary–crucifix in his pocket, he witnesses the work of world-creation and contemplates a conjectural reality in which divine presences require manufacture. The intimate space of Mannix’s private screening evokes the close quarters of the confessional booth. Which space claims reality?
Returning to such quandaries at the film’s end, Hail, Caesar!’s concluding image is constituted by kinetic camera work. The frame moves in a shot that cranes upward from the roofline of Capitol Pictures’ studio lot towards the sky and, in a special-effects flash, displays the names of Joel and Ethan Coen, beginning the closing credits. The camera reveals the tops of palm trees and terra-cotta roof tiles, evoking the ancient landscape recreated on sound stages below, under Mannix’s supervision. There is something special about this site of movie-making. And if the camera movement fails to signal Hollywood’s apotheosis, the Coen brothers plaster “BEHOLD” on the studio water tower depicted at left-center, until the shot’s upward swing hits its lofty target.
These sequences bookend the film’s exposition. Cruciform transcendence narrows to fit in Mannix’s pocket, which he carries into the screening-room-cum-confessional. Inversely, in the concluding sequence, Mannix’s narrowed perspective—by the end of the film squarely aligned with Hollywood and its industry—expands to encompass the heavens. In the plot that advances between these moments of visual comment, the Coens blur boundaries between religion and cinema.
In its principal action, the film unfolds a prolonged meditation on the distinction between reality and fiction, the serious and the frivolous. The juxtaposition comes in almost cloyingly obvious terms. Throughout Caesar, Mannix suffers the insults and travails of catering to starlets and fanning flimsy egos, all the while, a recruiter from Lockheed Corporation pursues him for a lucrative job. Will Eddie choose to persist in underwriting Hollywood fictions, or will he accept a position that deals in the realest realities of commercial flight and hydrogen-bomb testing? This simple contrast—cinema is frivolous, aviation is serious—underscores the dualism contemplated in Caesar. Do films deal in reality and proffer authentic means of reflection, or are they mere entertainments, lulling the masses through studio-spun false consciousness?
By suggesting the filmic medium as a site of religious thought and practice, the Coens stumble onto—or perhaps even intentionally signal—one of the main insights of early twentieth-century worldview-theorist Karl Mannheim. Reflecting on the German term for worldview, Mannheim reasoned that “[i]f…we define Weltanschauung as something a-theoretical with philosophy merely as one of its manifestations, and not the only one, we can widen our field of cultural studies in a twofold way.” Writing in his essay, “On the Interpretation of ‘Weltanschauung’” (1923), Mannheim explained further:
For one thing our search for a synthesis will then be in a position to encompass every single cultural field. The plastic arts, music, costumes, mores and customs, the tempo of living, expressive gestures and demeanor—all these no less than theoretical communications will become a decipherable language, adumbrating the underlying unitary whole of Weltanschauung.
In short, Mannheim saw “worldview” as a concept flexible enough to envelop all of human experience and expression. It provides a useful shorthand, a “synthesis” of meaning and meaning-production. If not a one-to-one comparand for “religion,” “worldview” furnishes at least a close cognate for it, designating ideas and practices that together comprise worlds for their beholders.
In Hail, Caesar! the Coens offer a similar gesture concerning filmic media. Eddie Mannix functions as both a producer and a consumer of movie magic, what the Coens—through voiceover—term a “weave of gossamer.” Mannix facilitates the manufacture of big-budget cinema, but he also enters into the worlds of suspended disbelief at play on screen. In Caesar, the spaces of church and studio remain separate. But the artifice of the altar and the conceit of the cinema overlap. Both produce plausible narrative worlds.
By advancing this claim, Hail, Caesar! exemplifies what, in the edited volume Coen, S. Brent Plate and Elijah Siegler term “filmmaking as an act of world re-creation.” Indeed, in a review published shortly before the release of Coen, Siegler posits “revelation” as the principal category explicated by Hail, Caesar! He finds that the film offers an extended metaphoric passion play, reflecting on “the hybrid natures of film and religion, and perhaps life itself.” If Siegler’s volume asks questions about how the Coens relate religion and film, then Caesar offers a key to unlock their answers.
As Hail, Caesar! draws to its conclusion, the audience sees Mannix confidently stride down the studio-lot alley, no longer overwhelmed by the limitless worlds posited on the soundstages that surround him. Whatever confusion he formerly suffered, Eddie now stands assured of the value and purpose of the movie business.
In voiceover, a narrator intones: “The stories begin, the stories end. So it has been. But the story of Eddie Mannix will never end, for his is a tale written in light everlasting!” Not the mysterious light of logos in the Gospel of John, Mannix’s tale has been told by the Coens in the literal light of filmic projection. But through Hail, Caesar!, these filmmaking brothers project a broader point: in modern American culture, religious and secular worlds slide amorphously between the serious and the frivolous, constructing meaning in confessional booths and screening rooms alike.
Geoffrey Pollick, Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow of Religious Studies at New York University, teaches and researches the history of religion in the United States. His work emphasizes religion’s entanglements with political radicalism, the role and dimensions of religious liberalism, critical theory of religion, and the cultural history and historiography of religion. In July 2016, he will join the faculty of Sweet Briar College as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion.