[Less Than] < Divine Comedy

Fuelled by the star power of an A-list ensemble cast, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ was marketed as a comedy of the ‘laugh out loud’ variety, but the truth is somewhat different. Watching it in Sheffield with a multiplex audience, I only heard a handful of laughs, some murmurs of amusement, but mostly silence. No walk outs mind you, Coen Brothers films are never actually badly made, certainly not enough to provoke demands for a refund. There’s a level of craft and artistry at work that will keep their usual audiences in their seats for the duration. It’s just that Coens’ comedy is a peculiar and particular beast. Personally, I’ve found that with the exception of ‘The Big Lebowski’, I’ve gained more laughs from some of their dramas than their avowed comedies.

‘Hail Caesar’ was designed by the Coens as a relaxed ‘fun’ project – they claimed – in the manner of Bergman’s ‘Fanny and Alexander’. Set in the same fictional film studio world as ‘Barton Fink’ (1991) it’s an amiable amble through the backlots and sound stages, taking in the artificial worlds of each production, and the foibles of the residents. The film stages set pieces in celebration of golden age Hollywood e.g. a water spectacular with Scarlett Johannson’s knocked up star, a rollicking tap number featuring a closeted gay dancer (Channing Tatum), and a sub-Roy Rogers Western. These sequences succeed on their own terms as spectacle, but they are barely satirised, little of their comedic potential exploited. Of the two funniest sequences, one features studio head of production Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) courting approval from a panel of religious leaders for the studio’s Biblical epic ‘Hail, Caesar!’ but instead receiving what sounds suspiciously like internet reviewer snark. The other, which earns pride of place in the the film’s trailers, has debonair director Lawrence Laurenz (Ralph Feinnes) struggling to modulate the rodeo drawl of singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into the mirthless muttering of his melodrama ‘Merrily We Dance’. These sequences work on their own, but don’t drive the comedy or the film to a climax. Comic potential is leeched away by both the uneven pacing and a refusal to work the audience for laughs. On the EPK for ‘Hail, Caesar!’, the actors talk about their ultimate goal being to make the Coens guffaw. But not enough effort seems to have gone into transmitting the results to the audience. The Coens themselves seem oddly reluctant to get their hands stuck into the dirty business of mining for yuks.

Laying aside possible self-indulgence and a studio willing to let the well-organised and under-budget Coen productions basically make themselves, a gradual change in the brothers’ filmmaking may also be partly to blame. Since ‘Fargo’, the Coens have developed an aesthetic based on space, stillness and eloquent silence, bracketed by moments of fierce action. This approach flowered most noticeably on ‘No Country For Old Men’. Contrast this with the first visit to Capitol Pictures in ‘Barton Fink’. The omni-present, oppressively detailed sound design and intense performance style works the audience over like a couple of sweaty G Men.  The characters in ‘Barton Fink’ are intense and explosive, like Michael Learner’s ‘bigger, louder, meaner’ studio head Jack Lipnick. Tony Shaloub’s irate producer is burning a hole in his intestine with stomach acid, practically climbing over his desk in agitation at Fink. The characters fill the story like Warner Brothers cartoons bouncing off the walls and hurtling into canyons. Lacking the nervous intensity of ‘Barton Fink’, ‘Hail Caesar!’ doesn’t exploit script, music, editing, sound, or physical performance to that extent. There are no zingers, no lines that explode a laugh. Mannix is the person who would be on the receiving end of Jack Lipnick’s rants (‘Let’s put a stop to that rumour – RIGHT NOW!’), but we don’t even hear a comedy screech emerging from the phone handset to make Mannix flinch, let alone a cartoon hand reaching out to strangle him.

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Whilst ‘Hail, Caesar!’ lacks the correct pace for comedy, the other thing which hobbles it is that Mannix  just isn’t funny. He’s really a dramatic character in a comedy story world. Charged with overseeing the Biblical epic that lends the film its title, Eddie is a pretty Old Testament sort of guy, slapping a starlet in the face for having to extract her from a ‘French postcard situtation’ at the start of the film, then boxing the ears of leading man Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney, giving the Coens the third iteration of his Idiot Trilogy) to knock sense back into his communism-addled skull. Stern and hard-boiled for most of the time, urbane and pleasant only when he needs to be, Mannix is the hub around which the wheel of Capitol Pictures rotates. He’s pragmatic, unknowable and never really makes any mistakes, making it hard for an audience to laugh at or even with him.  A comic lead is usually the most flawed and un-self aware person in the whole film. A walking catastrophe who struggles uncomprehendingly against the forces of nature that trip him up time and time again.  At the very start, Eddie sits in confession and tells a priest that quitting smoking is ‘so hard’ and almost seems on the point of tears. He is clearly talking about something else, presumably the burden of running the studio, but it’s never made manifest in the rest of the story, or Mannix’ behaviour.  He is considering an offer from Lockheed, worrying that his job keeps him away from his family and having a proverbial day from hell. Still, Mannix is often more an observer of events, visiting the separate dramas in different parts of the studio complex, but never really risking anything of his own to solve them. He remains at the end of a phone to the ransom demands of deluded Communist scriptwriter cabal ‘The Future’, despatching Hobie Doyle as his avatar to drag Baird Whitlock back to his wits and his work.

Handing over the resolution of the arch plot to a secondary character is of course a heresy against the storytelling conventions of Hollywood product. However, This also seems to be a result of another trend that has evolved over several Coen films. Since ‘Fargo’, the Coens have enjoyed using peripheral characters as a Greek chorus to the action. In ‘Fargo’, Marge Gundersson and her husband discuss police work before bed, their humdrum domesticity throwing a strange limelight on the temporary insanity of greed (“And for what? A little bit o’ money”)  that drives the action elsewhere. In a similar way, the CIA men in ‘Burn After Reading’ are left shaking their heads in bewilderment at the lethal, farcical shit show they are tasked with clearing off their desks. The apex of this trend is Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff in ‘No Country For Old Men’. Always a few steps behind the action, unable to prevent the main actors in the drama from sinking deeper into chaos, he shakes his head and ponders retirement and with it, his own approaching mortality. While this approach has worked in the Coens’ dramas, in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ it sabotages the comedy.

Michael Gambon’s laconic  voice over narration is another tribute to classic Hollywood, but distances the audience from the action even further. His omniscient commentary illustrates the hierarchy on which the characters are arranged, depending on their level of agency. More than once this is illustrated by one set of characters observing another from above. At one point Mannix visits Frances McDormand’s editor, high up above the studio lighting gantries, to watch rushes for ‘Merrily We Dance’. He peers down at the created world of the studio bound drama, further enclosed in the tiny frame of a movieola screen. It calls to mind  the characters in ‘A Matter Of Life and Death’ watching village life from their god-like vantage point in a camera obscura. Seen in that context, perhaps Mannix resembles a middle-ranking deity, walking through his creation and keeping an eye on things, nudging evolution here and there. Meanwhile, Old Testament levels of atomic tribulation await above them all. McDormand gets her neck tie tangled in the editing machinery and almost chokes, jamming the mechanism so that the chilly monochrome of drawing room melodrama blisters into fiery dribbles of melted celluloid, a visual rhyme for how the Soviet sub awaiting defector Channing Tatum could vapourise California.

With the sliding scale of problems  in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ ranging from the macro political threat of nuclear obliteration to Eddie’s struggle not to spark up another cigarette, the choice between shepherding silly, temperamental film folk or taking the cushy gig in a company that just happens to be facilitating the road to Armageddon sits somewhere in the middle; the result is never seriously in doubt. What could have ignited the comedy in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is if the unspoken dread of atomic wrath and pea-witted Hollywood denizens had properly collided. We are denied for instance the glorious sight of Baird Whitlock mustering his best Oscar-bait acting to avert World War III. Having spent a couple of hours in the world of Capitol Pictures, the camera pulls back atop a crane, putting the audience back in a godlike point of view,  reducing the characters to ant-size on a large and lonely planet. Just like the characters, the audience are left to ponder the unknowable motives of the two creators of this world. As above, so below: Coen Brothers comedies, like life, never quite match their trailers.

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Adopter Adapter Addendum

If there’s one thing worse than a Luddite, cringing in fear of technological advance, it’s a wide-eyed digital zealot, crowing at the supposed advent of a new paradigm.

Despite being delivered by the ragged, bloody edge of technology, the debate prompted by the arrival of electronic books isn’t nearly so advanced in tone and content as its subject. It’s entirely possible that the rise of ebooks will make traditional publishing more difficult and expensive, in the same way that artists now fight to preserve the one remaining commercial film laboratory that deals in 16mm film prints. But the fallacy is that ebook technology – in fact any digital technology – is immune to redundancy. The overthrow of traditional books is neither inevitable, desirable or even necessary. Why should a new technology automatically mean the death and erasure of the previous generation? Perhaps if the new device provided answers to all the downsides of paper books and greatly improved on their existing virtues, I could see how we could happily go Fahrenheit 451 without any lingering guilt. However the ‘year zero’ approach championed by early adopters never fails to crawl up a handy orifice.

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And old man reading a book, yesterday

Traditional printed media, we are told, is living on borrowed time. The advantages of the latest fondle slab – the IT evangelists have a good line in slang, I’ll admit – are portrayed as self-evident, whilst any defence of existing print media is the mark of self-deception and techno fear. But an ebook doesn’t make print immediately and self-evidently obsolete. Nor does it retrospectively degrade our experience of reading print since it was invented. The device served its purpose in its time and will continue to do so, if not, surely somebody would’ve offered an improvement before now? Walking around my home town, I can see buildings still in use dating from the late 15th Century right through to the present day. Their qualities as architecture and their efficiency of function varies, but they were not necessarily pulverised as soon as people knew how to build in new ways.

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Tolstoy reads so much better like this. 

Ebooks are sold on their compactness, their connectivity with digital media, and the efficient delivery of information. There’s little to argue with there, if data retrieval is all reading is meant to be about. But the experience of reading and of books themselves is more than that, and harder to define in either technological, or commercial terms. Here is where the e-prophets begin to cast stones at unbelievers, making insulting comparisons with quill and parchment. But haven’t we been here many times before? As Victorian buildings still populate our town centres, so earlier technology survives, because it still does the job it was designed to do. Flashback to Judith Hann on Tomorrow’s World spreading jam over the playing surface of a compact disc. No matter how innovations are marketed when they first arrive, faults that we either failed to predict or were mysteriously left out of the sales brochure will surely emerge. If a technology actually works, it can be improved later, finessed and refined. But good design never goes out of fashion. At the heart of good design is simplicity: form follows function. The mug I’m drinking coffee out of hasn’t altered its basic shape for centuries. A paper book is still at heart a very simple and elegant machine to enable reading.

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A (nearly) new format

In the arena of music reproduction, digital downloads have compensated for the fall in sales of physical singles, but at the same time the death of the compact disc has been announced quite prematurely. Meanwhile, vinyl records are actually staging a comeback from their nadir in the mid nineties. Clearly there’s still a market who appreciates media with qualities that digital can’t supply. How can this be when there are cleaner, smaller, faster more efficient methods of delivery sound to your ears? Humans are strange like that. Elsewhere on the planet, in some African countries the preferred medium for music is still the tape cassette, already doubly ‘redundant’ in the northern hemisphere. It reminds us that we bathe in the luxury of planned obsolescence, a river whose current is not so strong however that we can’t swim back upstream if necessary or if it simply makes us happier.

My Public! My Public!

I wrote this many years ago but it still rings true for me. Prompted to post it after my thoughts about encores at the PJ Harvey gig (see below)

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‘More! More! MORE!’ Actually, on second thoughts, don’t bother.

In the back room of a pub, a band have just played their last number. The small audience cheer wildly for a few seconds and then the bottom falls out of the applause as their attention turns to getting one last drink from the bar. Still a few hardy souls are yelling and beating their hands raw: the band catch their breath before they return and launch into another number. Even as they play the room is emptying of people and bar staff criss-cross in from of the stage, collecting glasses as the band work themselves up into a repeat of the frenzy they have just taken forty five carefully planned minutes to achieve. I just hope they call it quits after this one….some hope.

The worst crime a performer can commit is to outstay their welcome. Take one curtain call too many and you could be left basking in a welter of coughing and shuffling shoes, arms spread wide to embrace the retreating backs of your adoring public. Originally, the encore was a bonus that occurred when both artist and crowd excelled themselves, but in practice you will be hard-pressed to find any singer or band who would dare to finish the evening without at least one encore. Of course, it’s the audience who persuade with wild cries and stamping of feet that there is enough juice left in the corpse for a final suck. Like the animal stubbornness which rises in the hearts of drinkers as closing time draws near, audiences can be reluctant to just leave it be; adrenalin, like alcohol, is a strong and addictive drug.

Unfortunately, although both are more effective in a short, fast dose, after a couple of measures it becomes increasingly difficult to remember the law of diminishing returns. Given the choice between forty five minutes of serendipitous brilliance or two hours of reliable, rehearsed competence, many will opt for the latter, in the mistaken belief that they’re getting value for money. It’s become quite common at the end of a gig to hear boos and whistles when no more music is forthcoming, even after a mediocre performance. Never slow on the uptake, bands have absorbed the encore into their manual of reliable pop tactics so that very little encouragement is required to stick a finger down the gift horse’s throat and obtain another song, deserved or otherwise.

Pop music at its best is an intense but fleeting pleasure. That may-fly span is its main asset and the very thing wrecked by bands and audience alike who refuse to kiss the joy as it flies. Conventional wisdom says it takes a transit load of elephantine egos to command a stage and conjure up genius. Any band with an ounce of self-respect would conquer their natural wish to be liked, accept the notion of quality over quantity and so have the strength to shrug off the cries of ‘More!’, but where are these messiahs when the last number has been played and the inevitable robotic baying begins? Most will be on their knees, tearing at their own shroud and selling it off by the yard.

For those in the know, however, the agenda is clear: turn up, get down, get lost.