Friday, February 12, 2016

No. 2: FEB. 12, 2016

By David Elliott

A movie menu, retro-rooted but served fresh each Friday.

I come to praise, not bury Hail, Caesar! In their 17th feature film the Coen Bros, Joel and Ethan, entrench their fond tribute to Old Hollywood in a 1950s studio, Capitol Pictures. The star of Capitol's ancient-world religious epic is big, buff meatloaf Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). As a dumb Roman general, Baird makes old toga titan Victor Mature seem like a Platonic form communing with Jesus. When you hear Baird feeding star gossip to bewildered Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse at a Communist cell meeting in a Frank Lloyd Wright home (the Walker house, Carmel, 1952), you realize that movie satire has achieved a new wrinkle. Fortunately, one not burdened by the morbid weirdness of the Coens's early Hollywood fantasy Barton Fink.

Baird's movie is "a tale of the Christ," which seems "a swell story" to Capitol honcho and fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). A ruthless but fairly honest workaholic, Eddie is a devout Catholic who believes mostly in the studio, even when shark-cornered by rapacious twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton). Eddie's main job is rescuing stars from incipient scandals, in the feverish twilight of the old order. We get yummy lampoons of a frothy swim-film (Scarlett Johansson is like Esther Williams voiced by Thelma Ritter), a sailor musical (hunk Channing Tatum stars as a sort of Tab-Gene Kelly), and a backlot Western (as the rope-twirlin' star, delightful Alden Ehrenreich may get the career lift that he didn't in Francis Coppola's art-bomb Tetro).

True to form, the Coens blithely shampoo the goods, their satirical nifties elevated by the lush, Exacto-blade imagery of Roger Deakins (a Roman film set at night is like a DeChirico painting). There is real affection here for the shopworn glam of a world now gone, but only hip viewers, most over 50, will notch all the nuances with a laugh. Stuff like the excellent Brolin tenderizing the real Eddie Mannix, a tough enforcer at MGM. And the postwar Red Scare being so softly cuddled. And Clooney's "I do not, friend Gracchus," a likely nod to Stephen Boyd as "friend Fane" in The Oscar (March 4 brings the 50th anniversary of that insane debauch of the Awards, sadly still not enshrined on DVD).

The Coens are merry hipsters who hustle for a broad audience, and this endearingly silly comedy may not have found precisely the right sweet spot for that mission. But their hipsterism is contagious, if you get the gags. Surely the savvy brothers know that the best, imperial spoofing was done in the '50s by Peter Ustinov's Nero in Quo Vadis and Jay Robinson's Caligula in The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, and in the '70s by John Hurt's Caligula in I, Claudius. Those are Caesars we can hail forever.

SALAD (A List)
With all due respect to Jesus, Moses and the Roman Empire, here are my picks for the Ten Best Ancient and Religious Epics: Ben-Hur (Wyler, 1959), Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960), Barrabas (Fleischer, 1961), The Messiah (Rossellini, 1976), Agora (Amenabar, 2009), The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988), The Ten Commandments (De Mille, 1956), Samson and Delilah (De Mille, 1950), The Fall of the Roman Empire (Mann, 1964) and Land of the Pharaohs (Hawks, 1955). And a toga'd curtsy to The Silver Chalice, 1954, for Jack Palance's crazy Simon the Magician and the design work by Boris Leven and Rolf Gerard.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Just a sip this week, as Citizen Orson touts one of his heroes, James Cagney, to the always receptive Peter Bogdanovich: "Cagney was one of the biggest actors in the whole history of the screen. Force, style, truth, control -- he had everything. He pulled no punches. God, how he projected! And yet nobody could call Cagney a ham. He didn't care about reducing himself to fit the scale of the camera." (From This Is Orson Welles, by Welles and Bogdanovich.)

ENTREE (Starlight Rising)
I recall my first viewing, in 1973, of what I still think is Robert Altman's best film: "The Westwood preview crowd split wide, as Altman's neo-noir turned nostalgia on a spit of farewell. What he called 'a satire in melancholy' had a fee-good start, and then a shock that routed the funny charm. Elliott Gould's previous work had not prepped us, though he felt that The Long Goodbye was 'the first movie I'd ever really made.' I left giddy with pleasure, for that night we charter fans were snagged, bagged and tagged from the first minutes of succulent audacity." (From the Gould/Long Goodbye chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, soon to be published by Luminare Press.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it's a distillation.

Elliott Gould and Nina van Pallandt in The Long Goodbye (United Artists; director Robert Altman; cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) 

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