In my mind, there are three general types of Coen Bros. films:
...or some combination of these.
I think Hail, Caesar is some mix of the last two categories. On the surface, it is all comedy with a love-letter/critique of golden age Hollywood. The five mini-films included are perfect renditions of the classic genres, all with a comic twist. And there is a perfect comedy routine between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich, which although given in a trailer is still a joy.
In the end, however, the meaning is existential. The bookends are of Eddie Mannix, the historic "fixer" of MGM studios, (not a good man, in any way) in confession, attempting to reconcile himself with his sins. The struggle is whether small bad acts can add to a good end.
And anyone looking at the history of Hollywood could easily question whether movies are worth it. Lately I have been pouring over thepodcast You Must Remember This where Karina Longworth goes through the"hidden or lost history of Hollywood of the Twentieth Century", in aset of audio essays, brilliantly told. But the stories she tells are dark, at times disturbing. Like the story of Eddie Mannix. All these broken marriages, all this money spent for lighthearted fluff, all these twisted lives-- are the movies we enjoy worth it?
I suppose the Coens ask themselves the same question. All the money they spend for their films, all the hurt, all the hardship... is it worth it? To a certain degree, I think they are giving themselves a cop-out-- sure, guys, compared to participating with the atomic bomb, making movies is a much better occupation.
But is it better than spending the same money on the homeless, on AIDS victims, on immunizing the world's children, on providing clean drinking water? Can the billions we spend on movies be better spent?
For the Coens, I'd say the answer is a clear "yes." In the end, there are a lot of bad things that go into making films, including the amount of money spent, but there is a "spiritual message" a heroism, an opening of the conscience that we might not be able to get any other way. There is a cost, sometimes a horrible cost, but in the end, it's all worth it for that message.
I am still torn. Admittedly, I spend a moderate amount of personal dollars on movies and personal time. I do that so that I can get a break from my other work, to "forget about life for a while." I think about the end message of Sullivan's Travels, that movies provide joy for the joyless. But are they just an opium for the masses? An evil, although small, that could do more, that harms some, but we accept because of the small good they produce? It is entertainment we receive worth the megalomania of Lars Von Trier and Errol Flynn? Is it worth the destruction of the Madonna/Sean Penn marriage, the downfall of Judy Garland?
What about the children, the grown-ups who take movies as a blueprint for their misguided lives? Me included?
But aren't movies, and the celebrities they inevitably create simply a microscope of the lives and thoughts we struggle with as society? An opportunity to see the result of our thoughts on a big stage? The outgrowth of philosophies we actually hold to? In movies we can see the result of the redemptive violence philosophy, both good and bad. In movies we can see the romance myth encouraged and debunked. In movies are laid out bare the cowardice and hopes of all humankind.
I'm not the one to say whether movies are moral or not, I guess. For now, they are here to stay and they are essential to my life and many others. I guess, in the end, I have to say that they are important to me. After all, were it not for a movie, I would have never had this reflection.