The Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!

The “Passion” of a film studio troubleshooter

By Joanne Laurier 

9 February 2016

Hail Caesar!, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a comedy about the film industry set in the early 1950s. The film is essentially a series of vignettes involving the efforts of fictional Capitol Pictures “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to put out various fires at the studio.

Production on “Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” (a film within a film), one of Capitol’s “prestige” pictures, is underway when the movie opens. It is a foolish Ben-Hur– or Quo Vadis– like epic starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as Roman tribune Autolycus, who will ultimately have a sudden, epiphanous conversion to Christianity. (Narrator’s portentous voice: “A new wind is blowing from the dusty streets of Bethlehem!”) Whitlock is unceremoniously drugged and carried off by kidnappers.

Mannix also has to deal with the pregnant, unwed DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), star of aquatic pictures (i.e., a nod to Esther Williams); acrobatic cowboy singing star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who has landed unhappily in a brittle drawing-room melodrama; and aggressive gossip-columnist twin sisters, Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton), eternally in search of dirt.

Scarlett Johansson in Hail Caesar!

(The historical Eddie Mannix was the general manager and vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who reported daily to studio head Louis B. Mayer and is famed for covering up the many misdeeds of film stars and other industry personalities. He was reputed to have spied on Mayer for MGM owner Nicholas Schenck in New York, whom the film turns into “Mr. Skank.”)

A devout Catholic, Mannix, who rather too frequently rushes off to confession where he admits to trivial offenses, receives a ransom note demanding $100,000 for the return of Whitlock, in the name of “The Future.” It turns out the star is being held at a Malibu beach-house by a group of Communist Party screenwriters who try to win him to their cause. A “Professor Marcuse,” the venerable sage of the group, also makes an appearance.

Meanwhile, Mannix faces a major life-decision of his own: whether to leave the headaches of the film industry behind for a relative sinecure in the defense industry at aircraft manufacturer Lockheed.

Several confessions and a considerable amount of silliness later, things sort themselves out…

If truth be told, the Coen brothers are best at satire, especially at sending up certain middle class professions, relationships and settings. They are keen observers of social detail, even minutiae. Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading, along with the lighter moments inFargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man make up their most memorable work.

However, the Coens bear the unmistakable marks of decades of artistic-intellectual stagnation and reaction. Whenever they give vent to their social views, the result is confused and misanthropic (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink,Fargo in part, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), or simply overwhelmed.

In Hail Caesar! both elements are present: the comic-satirical and the seriously confused.

The film enjoyably mocks Hollywood’s sanctimonious attitude toward its own products, including religious extravaganzas and their empty-headed stars (one is presumably meant to think of either Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis or Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, or both)—although Clooney is a bit strained in the Whitlock role.

George Clooney

In one amusing scene, Mannix brings in Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Catholic clergy to vet the screenplay, and a theological debate breaks out over Christ’s “parentage” and other related matters. (Rabbi: “God is a bachelor and very angry.”) In another sequence, while Mannix is watching the daily rushes, the raw footage includes a title card that reads: “Divine presence to be shot.” To their credit, the Coens also manage to ridicule Clooney’s final penitent speech before Christ on the cross.

Along the way, they make a point as well (by casting a single black actor as an extra) about the insignificant presence of African Africans in mainstream Hollywood at the time.

The co-directors’ special gifts are on display in their amiable quasi-recreation of the various film types or styles. Johansson, Ralph Fiennes as the effete Laurence Laurentz, Heather Goldenhersh as Mannix’s super-efficient and earnest secretary Natalie, and Frances McDormand as the legendary but accident-prone editor C.C. Calhoun (based on a real figure at MGM), all hit exact notes in relatively small parts. Ehrenreich is rather sweet as the singing cowboy.

Mannix is the pivotal figure here, and Brolin, as usual, offers a remarkable, precise characterization. The semi-comic parallels between the studio “fixer” and the Son of God are fairly obvious. Like Christ, Mannix takes the sins of Capitol Pictures and its personnel on his shoulders. He is also “tempted by the devil,” the Lockheed merchant of death, who proudly shows him a photo of the recently detonated H-bomb as an inducement—and offers him cigarettes (Eddie is desperately trying to quit!). And, in the end, Mannix too proves to be a “savior.”

Where Hail Caesar! weakens considerably, or even falls down, is in its treatment—comic or otherwise—of the more substantive issues. The film is set in 1951 at the height of the Cold War and the anti-communist witch-hunts. (Baird makes an oblique reference to “naming names” at one point.) The Coens seem to be registering, in their own excessively mild and diffuse manner, a protest at the purges.

The group of Communist screenwriters is not presented as some sort of monstrous cabal, but, on the other hand, whatever points are being made about the rather ineffectual group are unclear or blunted. The writers bandy about phrases such as “the system,” “the dialectic” and the “exploitation” of the masses. They claim (and this is underlined as especially ludicrous) to have worked out a scientifically accurate and certain view of the future course of events.

But what is the attitude of the filmmakers toward all this? Are they simply ridiculing the “Marxist” terminology, half-agreeing with it or covertly sympathizing? An indication they are flying blind on these questions is the presence of a Herbert Marcuse stand-in, entirely inappropriate in this setting or crowd. All one senses in the final analysis is that while the Coens are hostile to the blacklist, their overall stance is non-committal and light-minded. And by “light-minded” we do not mean satirical or humorous, but shallow.

Hail Caesar! portrays the Hollywood studio set-up itself in too genial or amiable a fashion, an industry capable of extraordinary viciousness and darkness. The real Mannix, for instance, was alleged to have had underworld connections and covered up numerous violent crimes. There have also been claims that he was mixed up in the murder of actor George Reeves, his wife’s former lover in 1959.

All in all, the Coens’ Hail Caesar! is in its element when it is spoofing the film industry, religion and American institutions generally. The film is at its flabbiest when it turns its attention to Hollywood’s blackest hour.

The global economic breakdown


9 February 2016

China’s foreign currency reserves dropped by almost $100 billion last month, following a decline of $108 billion in December, adding to fears the country is experiencing capital flight and that financial authorities are losing their battle to prevent a rapid fall in the renminbi (also known as the yuan). The announcement had global significance because, together with the ongoing rout on international share markets, it indicates that the economic breakdown that began in 2008 has entered a new and explosive stage.

The outflow of $99.5 billion, following the biggest ever monthly fall in December, takes the country’s reserves to a more than three-year low of $3.23 trillion. At first sight this figure gives the appearance that China has sufficient reserves still in hand. However, according to calculations by the International Monetary Fund, China needs reserves of around $2.75 trillion to maintain operational flexibility in managing its currency and financial system. In other words, China has a buffer of just $500 billion before it encounters difficulties, and if money keeps flooding out at the present rate, that buffer will be rapidly exhausted.

The global significance of the mounting Chinese financial problems emerges when the present situation is examined within the framework of the economic history of the past quarter century. The liquidation of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 was accompanied by a wave of bourgeois triumphalism and celebrations of the “free market” around the world, which was joined by the Chinese regime.

Having already initiated the restoration of capitalism and organised the bloody repression of the working class in the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989, the regime moved, from the beginning of 1992, to integrate China more directly into the capitalist world market and make it the cheap labour platform for global capital.

In the ensuing years, this set up a so-called “virtuous” economic circle. For global corporations, the opening up of China and its cheap labour force—pay scales were at one point one thirtieth the levels in the US—provided a significant boost to profits as well as benefits for US financial markets.

In a bid to first establish and then maintain its position as the world’s premier cheap labour platform, the Chinese regime recycled the dollars it received from exports to the US and other Western markets back into the US financial system through its purchases of US Treasury bonds. This prevented the value of the renminbi from rising.

This, in turn, enabled the US Federal Reserve to maintain interest rates at historically low levels throughout the latter part of the 1990s and into the first years of the new century, in what was referred to as the “great moderation.”

Low interest rates fuelled the speculation in financial assets, land, housing, stocks, etc. that increasingly became the dominant mode of profit accumulation in the US. The financial boom and the increase in home values also helped sustain consumption spending in the US, even as real wage levels declined, providing the markets for the manufactured goods produced in China and generating further trade surpluses, which were then recycled into US Treasury bonds, keeping interest rates low.

This house of cards collapsed when the crisis in sub-prime mortgage schemes set off the US and global financial meltdown of 2008.

The crisis spelt the end of the China export boom. In response to the loss of more than 20 million jobs in 2008–2009, the regime initiated a fiscal stimulus package worth half a trillion dollars and financial authorities engaged in a massive expansion of credit, leading to an infrastructure and property investment boom based on borrowed funds.

This, in turn, boosted the prices of oil and other industrial commodities in what became known as a “commodities supercycle.” As emerging markets benefited from the increased demand for their commodity exports, finance houses, looking for higher yields, poured in money to finance debt-based projects.

At the same time, the Fed, along with other central banks, ensured the continued inflow of ultra-cheap money by setting interest rates at historic lows and increasing the supply of cash through purchases of government bonds and other financial assets under their respective “quantitative easing” programs.

These measures, however, did not return the global economy to the conditions that prevailed prior to 2008. What “recovery” did take place was at best anaemic, with investment—the crucial driver of real growth in the capitalist economy—remaining at historically low levels, as corporations piled up cash to use in speculative activities such as mergers and acquisitions and share buybacks.

The significance of the massive expansion of Chinese credit is indicated not simply by China’s rising share of the global economy, but also by the fact that the “commodities supercycle” it generated meant that China-dependent emerging markets contributed about 40 percent of global growth after 2008.

But far from overcoming the crisis, all the measures undertaken since 2008 have only created the conditions for another financial and economic meltdown.

Last week, an analysis published in the New York Times pointed to a massive stagnant pool of non-performing loans—bad debts—which is posing an increasing threat to the entire banking system. In China, it is estimated that “troubled credit” could exceed $5 trillion, equivalent to half the country’s annual economic output.

According to financial analyst Charlene Chu, cited in the article, China’s financial sector will have loans and other financial assets worth $30 trillion at the end of the year, compared to $9 trillion seven years ago. “The world has never seen credit growth of this magnitude over such a short time,” she said. “We believe it has directly or indirectly impacted nearly every asset price in the world, which is why the market is so jittery about the idea that credit problems in China could unravel.”

The phenomenon of non-performing loans is not confined to China. It is estimated that bad loans in Europe amount to about $1 trillion, and the IMF has calculated that emerging markets have over-borrowed by about $3 trillion.

If we take the last quarter century as a whole, the picture that emerges is very different from the triumph of the “free market” proclaimed with the liquidation of the Soviet Union. The first phase of growth was the result of the boost to profits provided by the exploitation of cheap labour in China and elsewhere. After this ended in financial disaster, the severely shaken world economy was propped up only by the trillions of dollars pumped into the financial system by the major central banks and the massive expansion of credit in China.

Now this process has come to an end, giving rise to deepening recessionary trends and the emergence of a new financial crisis, the consequences of which threaten to be even more far-reaching than 2008.

The deepening crisis in China and its global ramifications expose one stark fact: there is no economy or group of economies that can provide a basis for global economic expansion. The US, regarded until recently as a “bright spot,” is heading for recession—manufacturing has probably already arrived there—as indicated by the plunge in yields on 10-year Treasury bonds. Yesterday, they finished at just over 1.7 percent, as investors rush for a “safe haven.”

The European economy continues to stagnate, with predictions that unemployment will remain at double-digit levels indefinitely and concerns grow over the level of bad loans in the banking system. The Japanese central bank is undertaking further quantitative easing measures and has moved to negative interest rates because of the failure of “Abenomics” to provide any boost to the Japanese economy.

So intense are the recessionary pressures that more than one quarter of the world now operates under negative interest rates, a historically unprecedented situation.

Having no economic solution to the mounting crisis, the response of the ruling classes around the world will be three-fold:

  • An intensification of the assault on the working class, through job- and wage-cuts and attacks on social conditions.
  • The development of ever-more authoritarian forms of rule and attacks on democratic rights to crush the social and class struggles now emerging.
  • An accelerated war drive, as each of the capitalist “great powers” seeks to unload the crisis onto its rivals, if necessary by military means.

Nick Beams

Has the Banksy Approach Run its Course?


(Or how to think of images as tools for public argument)

by Christa Olson

Recently, students in my graduate class have wondered whether “image events” staged by social movements — Greenpeace, Earth First!, the Civil Rights Movement — have lost some of their oomph in the post-social media world. Now that anything can go viral and anyone can stage a spectacle, they asked, do dramatic, image-based interventions like tree-sits, lunch counter sit-ins, and confrontations with whalers even register?

I find myself reading — and nodding along with — Joel Golby’s snarky take-down of a piece of political graffiti (above) whose critique of racism in the Academy Awards falls absurdly far off the mark. Golby’s article takes that one, sad stencil to task but, in the process, ponders whether the whole idea of the Banksy-esque critique has run its course.

By way of the dedicated actions of some of the twentieth-century’s most profound social movements and by way of the lazy activism of an east London graffiti artist, I find myself wondering about the possibilities for visual politics today. Are we, ultimately, so fully saturated with images that they’ve lost the power to move us toward anything but cynicism?

I often play the cynic, but for once I’ll eschew pessimism and offer three quick takes on the enduring power of images as tools for making marginal arguments visible in public. I would also welcome a conversation on this question with other picture people.

Appropriating visuality: Political theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff suggests that the “right to look” has long belonged to the powerful. Visuality, he argues, originates with surveillance by an oppressive state and its representatives. But cell phone videos of police brutality, of teachers harassing students, and of politicians speaking frankly when they think no one is listening quickly remind us that there is a visual politics of surveillance emerging from the ground-up as well. Visuality is a powerful tool for those asserting their own right to look.

Valuing accumulation: Too often lately, justice has been denied even in the face of overwhelming visual evidence and our right to look seems impotent. So, it’s not enough to see that grassroots surveillance is happening or that more traditional forms of image-based politics continue. On their own, singly, pictures are as unlikely to change minds as are any other sort of communication. But the accumulation of images does have force over time. Who can deny, for example, that repeated images of police violence against people of color have begun to shift national conversations? And the whole idea behind #OscarsSoWhite is that the accumulation of images — absurdly white-washed or complexly diverse — matters and makes a difference for good or for bad.

Acknowledging Small Triumphs: It’s easy to look nostalgically at Charles Moore’s photographs of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign or Greenpeace’s encounter with whalers and imagine a by-gone era of powerful images that changed the world. The truth is, though, that even those famous photographic moments of resistance were, ultimately, small moves in a much longer arc. Sometimes, even those of us who know better attribute a quasi-magical power to pictures. We’re better off, I’d argue, letting pictures do their incremental work, celebrating the small victories that come fromrecalibrating how film is developed in order to better capture the diversity of skin-tone or — to contradict myself — re-making a pin-up calendar into a celebration of strong women. It’s not that pictures can’t ever spark massive change; it’s just that we shouldn’t assume that the absence of revolution indicates a failure of visual politics.

So, now I return to the Oscar-wielding starving child so aptly critiqued in Golby’s Vice post. Without discounting the critique or offering any defense of the artwork itself, it does seem fair to say that the graffiti in question, despite its hackneyed symbolism, its strange conflation of starving children and actors of color, and its terrible ‘caption’ is, in fact, evidence of an on-going visual politics.

This piece of graffiti suggests that the surveillance of the Academy extends even to a random street corner in London (whether or not the Academy notices that surveillance); the stencil gives evidence of a horizontally accumulating argument (from #OscarsSoWhite to celebrity boycotts to Banksy imitators); and it gets the message out (even if in an entirely ham-fisted manner). Heck, it was enough to get Vice and now Reading the Pictures to take notice. That’s not nothing.

Originally published at Reading The Pictures, the only site dedicated to the daily review of news and documentary photography. Sign up for the Reading The Pictures Week in Re-View email. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Detroit and Chicago teachers fight to defend public education


8 February 2016

The past month has seen the entry of thousands of teachers into open struggle against the attack on public education by the Obama administration and both the Democratic and Republican parties. After decades of relentless budget cutting, teacher layoffs and school closings—accelerated in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash—teachers in Detroit and Chicago have begun a battle that is of immense importance for the entire working class.

In fighting to defend the fundamental democratic right to a decent education, teachers have been thrust into a conflict with every section of the political establishment, from the two big business parties and the capitalist courts to the corporate-controlled media and the teachers’ unions that falsely claim to defend their interests.

Last month, thousands of Detroit teachers conducted a series of “sick-out” protests that culminated in the shutdown of virtually the entire school system on January 20, the day of President Obama’s visit to the city. The actions were initiated by rank-and-file teachers using social media and carried out independently of and in defiance of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Teachers in the city named by Obama’s former education secretary as “ground zero” for the administration’s education policies demanded adequate resources and personnel to repair unheated and unsanitary school buildings, reduce class sizes, and provide social services to address alarming rates of poverty among their students. They also demanded a return of wages and benefits ceded by the DFT.

The efforts of the media and the state-appointed emergency manager of the school system to slander the teachers as greedy and indifferent to the needs of their students backfired. Parents vocally supported the sickouts and hundreds of students walked out of their high schools to oppose a witch-hunt against their teachers for “illegal strikes.”

In Chicago, the third largest school district in the US, tens of thousands of teachers and other school employees are battling the demands of Mayor Rahm Emanuel—a former investment banker who served as Obama’s White House chief of staff—to starve the public schools, slash wages and benefits, and funnel even more money to big bondholders and for-profit education firms.

More than three years after the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) betrayed the 2012 strike, leading to the closure of 50 schools and the layoff of more than 1,000 teachers, rank-and-file teachers rebelled against the union and its so-called left leaders, who sought to push through an agreement on behalf of Emanuel to shift pension and health care costs onto the backs of teachers and give school authorities a free hand to expand privately run charter schools.

Last Monday, the CTU’s bargaining committee unanimously rejected the deal after rank-and-file teachers began circulating on social media the details of the sellout, which the CTU had hoped to keep secret.

The day after the bargaining committee vote, the school authorities, complaining that they had a deal with the CTU, announced plans to cut $100 million from the school budget and lay off another 1,000 teachers. Defying this blackmail threat, 2,000 teachers marched in downtown Chicago Thursday evening, drawing expressions of solidarity from thousands of office workers, public employees, young people and other city residents.

The eruption of social opposition among teachers and students is a part of a broader radicalization of the working class, signaling a return of mass class struggles in the US. Last fall, in an incipient rebellion against the United Auto Workers union, autoworkers rejected a national auto contract for the first time in 33 years. The union was able to push through sellout deals with General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler only by resorting to lies, threats and outright fraud.

In Flint, the birthplace of General Motors and the site of the 1936-37 sit-down strike that established the UAW, working class residents have mobilized to protest the poisoning of the city’s water supply by state and local officials, assisted by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

These stirrings of the American working class are part of the resurgence of class struggle internationally. From Greece and Brazil to China and South Africa, the working class is coming into conflict with capitalist governments, from the pseudo-left Syriza regime in Greece to the Tory government in Britain, which have imposed savage austerity on workers while transferring vast amounts of wealth to the world’s billionaires since the financial breakdown in 2008.

The fight of the teachers directly and urgently poses basic political questions. The AFT and its local affiliates in both Detroit and Chicago, which have long collaborated with the enemies of public education, are trying to smother the movement by promoting the Democratic Party and depicting the attack on education as a purely Republican matter.

This is a fraud. The Obama administration has gone well beyond the reactionary policies of its Republican predecessor in using test-based “accountability” schemes to scapegoat teachers, close so-called failing schools, and undermine the public schools in order to make education a new source of profit for the corporations and banks. Under Obama, more than 300,000 teachers and other school employees have lost their jobs and the number of students enrolled in charter schools has grown at a faster rate, almost doubling, since George Bush left office.

The Obama White House has cut Title 1 funds earmarked for impoverished districts like Detroit and Chicago by 11 percent, while special education funding has been cut by 9 percent. The bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by Obama late last year to replace Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, authorizes a “Pay for Success” scheme that allows wealthy investors in the for-profit education business to bid for services previously under the control of public schools, including special education, and lowers standards for the education of teachers in high-poverty districts.

The teachers’ unions do not oppose the attacks on teachers and public education. They merely seek a seat at the table so they can secure new sources of dues money from low-paid charter schoolteachers. The unions, including the CTU, whose vice president is a member of the pseudo-left International Socialist Organization, defend the capitalist system and insist that teachers and students must pay for the consequences of its crisis.

The democratic and egalitarian principles embodied in public education are incompatible with a society that is divided by such colossal levels of social inequality that 28 billionaires control as much wealth as the bottom half of the population—152 million people. The American ruling class long ago repudiated the principle that all children, regardless of socioeconomic background, have the right to a quality education.

The corporate and financial elite has nothing to offer working class youth except poverty-level jobs and war. Like the slave owners of an earlier period, today’s financial oligarchs want to keep those they exploit in ignorance. They fear the spread of knowledge and culture among a generation that is increasingly dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and determined to have a future free of oppression and war.

While the Chicago teachers were gearing up for mass protests last week, top officers in the Army and Marine Corps were telling a Congressional hearing that it is time for young women to register for a future military draft. On the one hand, schools are being starved of resources and working class students relegated to dilapidated and filthy buildings with over-packed classrooms. On the other hand, the White House is touting plans for a new generation of nuclear missile submarines costing $100 million each.

The struggle to defend the right to a quality public education is a political struggle against both big business parties and the capitalist system they defend. In this fight, teachers and students must turn to their real allies—the broad mass of working people. The immense social power of the working class must be mobilized to break the grip of the corporate-financial elite over society and reorganize the economy on the basis of public ownership and democratic control of the corporations and banks. Only on this socialist foundation can the basic social rights of working people, including the right to education, be secured.

Jerry White