Hail, Caesar! and shades of satire


I wrote another longwinded commentary on the rampant online culture of self-victimisation and being offended, but instead of posting that today, I decided to talk about something possibly more fun. I’m certain that the other topic will still be relevant next week – sadly.

Disclaimer: I’m going to chat about a film that makes fun of religion (among other things). I you don’t like that kind of thing maybe go read something else. I’m an atheist, a critic of religion and a supporter of secularism. As a result I always find it marvellously entertaining when someone pokes fun at religion in any capacity – especially in the form of cinema. Life of Brian, anyone?

Hail, Caesar! is a film about films, about the enigma of the moviemaking business in the 1950’s where a Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix has his hands full trying to keep his cavalcade of starlets in line and away from the scandal-hungry press. I love a good satire and even if your knowledge of show business myths and clichés is even less substantial than mine: mainly based on Audrey Hepburn films and Marc Maron’s podcast, you will get the the gist of this film. I spent about 90% of the time in fits of laughter and the rest catching my breath. There’s the young and handsome film star who doesn’t really know how to act apart from doing cool tricks while riding a horse in Westerns; the innocent looking blonde bombshell who is actually a chain smoker and disgracefully pregnant to one of the guys that she’s been going out with; and one of my personal favourites – the secret society of stereotypically Jewish looking communist screenwriters.

The central storyline revolves around the production of the film Hail, Caesar! which tells the story of Jesus from the point of view of a Roman military commander. Of course the studio doesn’t want to ruffle any school of believers with an offensive portrayal of their messiah so they gather together a group of clerics from the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish traditions to consult with. My favourite scene: a hilarious and poignant exchange regarding the essence of Christ, ensues. The way Eddie phrases the issue to his interlocutors is along the lines of whether they think that anything in the script of Hail, Caesar! would strike as offensive to a “reasonable American regardless of faith or creed”. Reason and faith inhabit the opposite ends of a spectrum, which obviously leads to a totally nonsensical argument between the four religious leaders about theological disagreements between each of their respective sects. The Patriarch is merely bothered about the “fakeyness” of an unrelated scene, the Catholic Priest is really, very intense, the Protestant Minister nonspecific and the rabbi clearly sees himself as superior since Judaism obviously departs from the rest of Christianity by insisting that Jesus was just a mortal man.

Here’s a transcript of part of the debate for your entertainment. If you’re bored, try to identify who’s who, and go see the film. It’s extremely funny.

“Young man, you don’t follow for a very simple reason: these men are screwballs. God has children? What, and a dog? A collie maybe? God does not have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry.”

“He used to be angry!”

What, he got over it?”

“You worship the God of another age!”

“Who has no love!”

“Not true! He likes Jews.”

“God loves everyone!”

“God is love.”

“God is who is.”

Clearly the film is here ridiculing the internal discord of Christianity, and the overall elusiveness of the basis of religious faith. For many, religion answers the big questions of why there is something rather than nothing and what is the purpose of our lives, but from a secular point of view this system is frankly, a big old mess. When there are several different religions in the world divided into several different sects and traditions whose spokesmen all seem to have different interpretations and ideas of what the essence of their god is, not to mention the billions of people who undoubtedly also harbour their own personal interpretations and ideas of these things, any truth claims made on such a premise – or lack thereof really, completely evaporate in the non-believers eyes.

In addition to teasing the concept of organised religion and its feeble and fabricated relevance to truth, the character of Eddie Mannix represents a more personal relationship to religiosity. In the opening scene Eddie is shown at a confessional, which he frequents daily, seeking divine forgiveness for his failure to stop smoking and lying to his wife about it. This sin seems rather benign in comparison with the threats, lies and other questionable methods Eddie has to employ in his job in order to cover up all the trouble that his starlets are constantly running into.
This cognitive dissonance of identifying as a devout Catholic whilst simultaneously making unethical decisions is an integral part of being any sort of a believer today without causing massive havoc. Or how else would a Young Earth Creationist (someone who believes that the Earth is 5000 years old and that Darwinian evolution is nonsense) be a doctor for example? Clearly, in order to pass medical school you must have studied a bunch of science totally inconsistent with your scripture. And this also holds true to any theist who accepts that the Earth is actually 4,5 billion years old and that evolution is a fact. Human mind is so flexible and immense in its capacity that a person can hold contradictory beliefs and be totally fine with it, but I think we have to notice that this is not a logical way of processing information. It isn’t markedly wrong or bad – just illogical. And I’m not condemning or sneering at anyone of any faith as long as they don’t harm others in its name. (Look at me getting all defensive. This blog has approximately four and a half regular readers but I’m still terrified of religious fanatics. There’s one living next door, and half of the city’s Orthodox Jew population just round the corner.)
Moreover, I read the cycle of immorality, shame, confession and retribution that dictates Eddie’s life as a critique of the notion that without religious disposition one cannot be moral. Clearly, practising religion is not the answer to the evils of the world either. Quite the contrary, as it seems that for Eddie, going through the motions required by his faith, justifies committing the same sins again and again. And why would he change his ways if the heavenly Father is going to forgive him all the same?

But honestly, it is entirely possible to watch this movie without getting all worked up about the hypocrisy of organised religion. Don’t be discouraged by my seriousness and pessimism!

“All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.”
– Edgar Allan Poe


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