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Antonello da Messina, Virgin of the Annunciation (detail)
Article Film

What Noble Gossamers We Weave: Art, Religion, and The Coen Brothers

Mark Thomas

Hail, Caesar!, 2016. Directed by The Coen Brothers

A Serious Man, 2009. Directed by The Coen Brothers

O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000. Directed by The Coen Brothers

When the Coen Brothers released O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they explained their mysterious road movie to the masses as “a love letter to bluegrass.” This was not untrue. Bluegrass music did achieve a cinematic apotheosis in O Brother—with song after song providing the occasion for introducing the viewer to the strange and glorious world from which this music has arisen, a world where the natural and supernatural are old familiar neighbors, where angel choirs sing at the banks of the Mississippi and the Devil waits at the crossroads, a world where heaven and hell, to coin Thomas Howard’s phrase, are “lurking under every bush.” Which means that it would be more accurate to say that O Brother, Where Art Thou is a love letter to this gloriously mysterious world—an epic free-verse ode to Dixie—a love letter to the Old South.

The South? Who writes a love letter to the South? Isn’t that where racists come from? Well, yes, and the Coens do acknowledge, nay, lampoon that fact with their unforgettable setting of “O Death” at a Klan rally, with Klansmen marching and chanting under the light of a burning cross like Winkies from The Wizard of Oz, as the moaning voice of Ralph Stanley pleading with Death to “spare me over ‘till another year” issues from the mouth of the Grand Dragon. Yet for all the contempt the Coens heap upon this hateful circus (and for all the punishment they end up doling out to its two most prominent participants), even these shameful sons of the South are not, in the last analysis, entirely unsympathetic. For while the reactionary spewings of the Grand Dragon are portrayed as intolerable, those with ears that hear will also note the film’s parting shot at the proposal that the South would be better off if it were to cast off its old ways and embrace enlightenment, that is to say, if the South were to stop being the South. And the rebuff of this modernist proposal comes in the form of the (apparent) fulfillment of a prophecy uttered by a blind Pentecostal soothsayer.

It’s not for nothing that the Coens have been called “crypto-conservative”: While their post-modernism, fantastical realism and comedic hyperbole make them impossible to philosophically pin down, it really does seem (from films like Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, and No Country For Old Men) that in the Coens’ cinematic universe, up is not down, black is not white, the wages of sin are death and chaos; there’s guys and there’s gals, the little guy is the one to root for. The words and longings of the simple souls are the ones to pay closest attention to, because it’s from them that we learn most clearly what life is about—family, friendship, loyalty, love. And sometimes, the way things work out, it seems like there just might be somebody up there after all.

Now the Coens have offered to us for our consideration Hail, Caesar!, a story from the golden age of Hollywood which not only transports us to a time and place where the traditional sensibilities listed above are unquestioned social norms, but in which religion receives an even more sympathetic, even explicitly positive treatment. Consider the film’s main character, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin): a good man, loving husband and father, and an intensely faithful Catholic. He frequents the confessional so often, agonizes so profoundly over transgressions like smoking a cigarette (or two, maybe three) when his wife has asked him to quit, that his pastor actually tells him, “It’s too much, my son.” And he’s an exemplary employee to boot: As the president of physical production at Capital Pictures, he works ‘round the clock, not only to keep everybody happy (in particular the studio’s chief financier and its temperamental actors and directors), but also to keep everybody out of trouble (because these same actors and directors are often not very well-behaved).

Why does Eddie, on top of all the other business he has to take care of, play shepherd to these temperamental sheep? Because when directors dally with starlets, or when starlets get pregnant out of wedlock, it endangers the studio’s public image. But it’s not his contractually obligatory concern for the studio’s image that stokes the fire in Eddie’s belly. He advocates for decency because he’s a decent guy. He also has a soft spot for these poor souls, especially for the starlets in his charge, for whom he is the forgiving but firm father they never had. But most importantly, he believes that what the studio does, he believes that motion pictures, have worth. And at the moment he is deeply engaged in shepherding a work of not only artistic but spiritual merit, a work that might arguably be the pinnacle and vindication of his entire career: a film entitled “Hail Caesar! A Tale of The Christ,” starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman centurion who goes from indifference and skepticism to seeing Jesus the Nazorean with the eyes of faith.

Then one day Baird Whitlock goes missing from set. A typical bender? No, Baird has been kidnapped by a communist cell calling itself The Future and demanding $100,000 ransom for his release. This is bad: not just for this picture, not just for the studio, but for motion pictures everywhere. And not only does Eddie have to put out a hundred other little fires on this boat that’s headed for an iceberg, he also has only a few days left to decide whether he’s going to jump ship and take a once-in-a-lifetime offer for employment with Lockheed Airlines – an offer which, all things taken together (e.g., the future happiness of his family), it seems he’d be an irresponsible fool to turn down: even as he feels equally a heel at the thought of abandoning all his adopted crazy-artist children back at the studio.

In many ways, Hail, Caesar! is a love letter like O Brother. It’s a love letter to old Hollywood. The technical skill and aesthetic grandeur, the crass exploitation and bourgeois tastes, and the charming egocentric madness found in the studio system of the 1950’s are captured in faithful and, well, loving detail. There is also a legion of homages to actual cinematic classics like Ben-Hur, and to cinematic icons like Robert Taylor, Kirby Grant and Esther Williams. And yet smack dab in the midst of all this veracity, there’s a stunning historical liberty that’s been taken with the person of Eddie Mannix himself.

For Eddie Mannix was indeed a real person. He worked as a producer for an actual Hollywood studio (MGM), and his job really was to mitigate the effects of movie stars’ sordid private lives on the studio’s public image (he was what they called a “fixer”). But he labored not for the love of artists or movies. The real Mannix was a hired gun, a mercenary who suppressed and ruined whatever and whomever was necessary in order to keep MGM’s public image pristine. He was also no soul-searching man of conscience: he was a lifetime philanderer and religious hypocrite. He may even have been a murderer—a man who had both a cuckholder and a wife who filed for divorce killed. The roles played by George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Aiden Ehrenreich, inspired as they are by real-life actors Taylor, Williams and Grant, are not at all sanitized, that is, these characters are replete with egos, vices and other quirks. But the character of Eddie Mannix has not just been sanitized: this scumbag has been bleached an angelic white. So in the face of an anomaly like this, the question that asks itself is: Why? What are those Coens, who are always up to something, up to here?

My suspicion that the anomalous fiction of St. Eddie Mannix might be the Rosetta Stone of Hail Caesar! led me to recall a homily given on fiction by St. Eddie himself, as he attempts to deal with another of his regular headaches, gossip columnist Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton). In response to Thora’s clamoring after “the facts,” Eddie retorts: “People don’t want the facts, Thora! They want to believe! That’s our great industry – mine, and yours too. They want to believe Baird Whitlock is a great star, and a good man.” It was a line that pulled me up short. Why would a good Catholic guy like Eddie, who himself “believes” in the Church, the saints, and the rest of it, ever speak of “facts” as objects that might need to be set aside for the sake of “belief”? For example, is it not important to Eddie the Believer whether Jesus “factually” rose from the dead? Alternatively, would it really make no difference to Eddie’s “belief” if the body of Jesus were “factually” discovered in an archeological dig in Palestine?

This contradiction in Eddie’s worldview had me searching for an explanation. I found two. The first is that Eddie thinks differently about the movies than he does about religion—even though his logic about the former poses a problem for his thinking about the latter, or at least it should; frankly, the fact that it doesn’t strains disbelief somewhat (was this really how Sister Mary Magdalen at Holy Cross Academy catechized little Eddie? That facts are one thing and belief another?). Which brought me to my second explanation: The voice here is actually that of the Coens themselves; they are here snapping us out of this dream of the Golden Age of Hollywood to signal us that they believe the movies and religion have a great deal in common – and that Capital Picture’s creation of fantasy and diminution of facts for the sake of keeping the masses uplifted is very much like the “noble lie” in which religion has been engaged for millennia.

Are the Coens in fact tipping us off with their fictional St. Eddie Mannix to another sort of fiction, namely the fiction that St. Eddie himself is enthralled by, the fiction of “worth,” that is, of purpose and meaning—a fiction that religion offers us and that simple folk like Eddie rely on as their viaticum? Is our Eddie—who, to borrow a phrase from the film’s narrator (Michael Gambon), spins “weaves of gossamer” for the sake of keeping the masses uplifted—himself being uplifted and spurred on by the greatest gossamer ever weaved? Moreover, are the Coens pointing to themselves as weavers of gossamer? Is their own “moral cinematic universe” their own version of the “noble lie”? Is this why Michael Gambon narrates both the film “Hail, Caesar!” and the film Hail, Caesar!... because the Coen Brothers wish to communicate to us that they are fully aware that they are in the same business as Eddie Mannix? And are they implying that audiences like us are just as desperate as Eddie’s customers to “believe” in beautiful stories like a Golden Age such as Eddie inhabits, when men were men and women loved them and God was in His Heaven? Or that God is still up there today watching out for us little people, and everything really is going to be OK?

This may not be the place to review the Coen Brothers’ entire opus, but it did seem to me like the occasion to examine the only other film by the Coens in which religion plays a central role: A Serious Man. Ten seconds into this film I was greeted with a quote from the rabbi Rashi: “Greet with simplicity everything that happens to you.” The rest of this film went a long way to supporting my new suspicion concerning what, for the Coens, is the truth that lies beneath the noble lie. Look for answers, look for intelligibility, look for meaning, look for a word or a sign from God: and you will be disappointed. To ask questions is to ask for pain. Religion, indeed happiness, requires simplicity. As in simple-mindedness.

Those of us who are awake find ourselves entirely bereft. The life of reason—the pursuit of what St. Tomas D’Aquino wrote is the object of the intellect (God, and the unity and order of a universe created by God) – ends in nothingness and madness. As the Rabbi Marshak says to Larry’s newly bar-mitzvahed son Danny (Aaron Wolf) in the depths of his study filled with secrets: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies… then what?” The rabbi is tweaking a lyric from the song “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane (“When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies/…/You’d better find somebody to love”), which song plays throughout the film, in the soundtrack and over Danny’s transistor radio. The next thing the old rabbi does is return Danny’s transistor radio (which was confiscated by Danny’s teacher at the start of the film). So it’s ambiguous what his words signify: Is he just tweaking Danny? Is he trying to be #relatable? Is the man of God challenging Danny to press into the song’s nihilism? Or is he paraphrasing, making the lyric into the expression of his own despair? Then, as though in answer to his own question (“Then what?”), the Rabbi says: “Be a good boy.” Here, then, once again, is the emerging motif: Religion is a lie, there is no God, but don’t tell the sheep, because we need them to keep their chins up and their noses clean. (It’s worth noting that the first thing that Danny intends to do is to use the money stashed in his radio case to finally pay off his pot dealer.)

And yet the problem of desire remains. The desire for understanding. The desire to discover order, purpose, relations between things and events. The desire to find human companionship, sympathy, communio. It remains for Larry Gopnik, the Job-like, almost entirely passive protagonist/sufferer of A Serious Man; to quote Larry, “I want an answer!... Why does He make us feel the questions if He’s not going to give us any answers?” (To which anguished plea the Rabbi Nachtner replies, with a condescending smirk, “He hasn’t told me!”) But perhaps the Coen Brothers would resist calling our “need for answers” a “problem,” as any despair of fundamental intelligibility is likely concomitant with a despair over the fundamental relation of cause and effect—such that the question “Whence a desire for an object if that object does not exist?” does not necessarily obtain. After all, it’s all just random, right? I mean, if you stop to think about it. Which you shouldn’t.

But just how seriously are the Coens committed to their disavowal of intelligibility? Even in A Serious Man, despite the film’s assertion of the fundamental unintelligibility of existence, the universe of this film is one that actually appears to possess a fundamental, even moral intelligibility. Sure, Larry is a victim of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But a closer examination of how the story unfolds reveals that Larry’s most profound suffering comes from his failure of will—his failure to be a “serious man” (at one point he finds he cannot even describe himself as one). Indeed, the so-called “serious man” of this film is a man possessed of an indomitable will: the aptly-named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). And his will is to destroy Larry, steal his wife, all while gas-lighting Larry into taking it up the tokhes.

It occurred to this viewer more than once while watching Larry’s agony that Larry’s way out of it all might have been to finally become a “serious man” himself—not a mother-of-all-schmucks like Sy, but the best version of himself. Larry is a good man, an ethical man. A man that, had he had the spine, could have told both Sy and his faithless, ungrateful wife (as they were talking him into moving out of his own house) to go to hell. And maybe would have fought like hell for his family, knowing Heaven was on his side. In the end, it seems that it is Larry’s failure to stand by his own principles that the universe of the film passes judgment on. So what gives, guys? Are you just messing with us simple folk? Are we simply being invited by the master weavers to impose order and meaning on what for all we know may have been merely a final random coincidence signifying nothing? Are you merely giving us the opportunity to judge Larry for the sake of our own moral satisfaction, when for all we know nothing Larry could have chosen would have made any difference for his marriage? (Give the people what they want, eh, boys? And if you keep things ambiguous enough, you can keep both the credulous simpletons and the sophisticated skeptics happy!)

But if I’m understanding the Coens correctly, there’s something unsustainable—there’s an element of intellectual dishonesty—about their philosophy of art. Magic is not magic to the magician. Therefore it seems to me that if the Coens really see themselves and other members of their priestly class as weaving noble gossamers for the sake of feeding simple souls what they need to be functional in society, you have to ask: what’s the plan for feeding the feeders? After all, how could the noble liar ever be satisfied by his own lie? The only way out of this problem is for the artist to claim exemption from the rest of humanity, by claiming he does not need to be fed, that only rubes want answers to questions like “Why is it so important to keep myself or anybody else functioning?” Or “Why are life and social order preferable to chaos and death?” But if art, if religion, only makes the layman happy, what keeps the priest going? Is humanity really so inspiring that their neediness carries the artist past the universe’s meaninglessness?

Perhaps the Coens have simply been taught so well at shul that, although they might not now be able to come up with any compelling arguments against suicide, they would still never behave like the heathen and their quietus make with a bare bodkin, nor would never stop trying to help the poor goyim with their daily slog through the void. Or maybe the plain, simple truth is that, deep down, in their artists’ hearts, they’re in love with this thing that is so deeply rooted in their imaginations—this vision of a quietly undeniable, and quietly beautiful, cosmic moral order. It would explain why they do this shtick of theirs so well. And the thing about love, the thing about art, is that if it’s worth anything, it must be inspired by something outside our sorry, petty, finite little selves. Voltaire said, “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him.” But the question is: Would we? Were man to invent God, would we come up with HaShem, or something more like Zeus? Why didn’t our priests simply come up with a story about a ruling class and a slave class, one with rights and one without, in which the daughters of slaves are privileged to serve as playthings and the useless slaves are privileged to serve as foodstuffs? Why did the overlords in charge of authoring our worldview end up crafting a tale of punishment for oppressors and justice for the oppressed? What was it that that same fat friar from Aquino said? “An effect is never greater than its cause”?

St. Eddie Mannix, pray for the Coen Brothers, that someday they might see that their lovely lie about our moral universe—a vision so profoundly corresponding to the human heart that its authors would likely assent to it themselves if they could, were they but simpler men—can only be lovely because it is true. Jesus the Nazorean said: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the simple.” But then, he was a Jew, right? He could tell a good story. And you know how simple folk love to hear how they’re God’s favorite, how the little people love to hear how secretly important they really are. Hey, here’s another great bit that guy Jesus came up with: “No greater love hath a man than this: That he lay down his life for his friends.” And then, get this… he actually goes and does it! I know, right? Now that is storytelling. Simple. Effective. Gets you right here. Why? Who knows? Don’t ask so many questions. Just give me the same thing, but different. And I need those pages by the weekend so I can read them on the way to Park City.

Mark Thomas is a screenwriter, filmmaker and film critic.

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
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