Jackie Hedeman ranks Old Hollywood homage
IT'S A FAMILIAR sight by now. I walk into a movie theater and am instantly greeted by the backs of grey heads. Most of them sit two by two, or in other even numbered groups. Occasionally, once I am seated and the previews have begun, a fellow solo moviegoer will slide down my row and, perhaps having identified me as some kind of kindred spirit, sit uncomfortably close. They will proceed to open three boxes of Chinese takeout and go to town.
This is my experience of matinees.
Three-course-meal neighbor aside, these are ideal moviegoing conditions. Older audiences are, by and large, not texters. If they talk to each other, they talk in helpful annotations (“That’s the same woman from before.”) or clarifications (“The butler has a drinking problem!”). This phenomenon has been widely observed. After a Tumblr post went viral this winter, one such exchange during the film Carol achieved meme status: “Harold, they’re lesbians.”
When I caught a matinee showing of the Coen Brothers’ latest, Hail, Caesar!, the audience was a mixed bag age-wise, but I was not to be disappointed. As I left the theater, a husband turned to his wife. He was, I believe, the same man who not-quite-whispered during Channing Tatum’s dance number, “He looks modern!” Now, putting on his coat, he asked, “What did you think?”
“It was fun.” She shrugged. “It’s not Singin’ in the Rain.”
I had just been thinking the same thing.
Hail, Caesar! is a perplexing homage to old Hollywood. It is a love letter written to an object of affection suspected to be hopelessly flawed, if not actually insane. This is a strange, mimetic position for a film to take, especially if we presume the film industry to have changed minimally over the intervening years. Stranger still is the Hollywood of Hail, Caesar!, a place where the Red and Lavender Scares are bizarrely justified: actual self-fulfilled prophesies rather than imaginary furors over designated bogeymen.
I question the politics of this particular move, especially in a film so concerned with the power screenwriters wield to advance their own agendas. Hail, Caesar! takes its name from a film within a film, a Ben Hur-esque Christian parable masquerading as a sword-and-sandals epic. Elsewhere in the Coen Brothers’ film, a group of writers convene and discuss how best to lace screenplays with Communist narratives, while a homoerotic tap-dance routine sells a different product. Hail, Caesar! is self-aware satire, to be sure. The film’s circular slapstick humor mocks even as it celebrates, but its rhetoric of subversion seems to want to go deeper. I couldn’t help but feel that if I peeled back the layers of amusement, I would find some broad message at the core. Weeks later, having mulled and mulled with no success, I wonder whether the joke’s on me.
Writing for The A.V. Club, Asher Gelzer-Govatos proposes that Hail, Caesar! confronts the same questions as their previous film, Inside Llewyn Davis, namely, “What value does art have in the world, and what place might the artist occupy in it?” I think of my movie-going companions’ preference for Singin’ in the Rain, a film that revels in its art even as it lambasts the movie industry’s superficiality. Singin’ in the Rain succeeds where Hail, Caesar! fails: it is both surface and substance, pure art and pure Hollywood, straightforward homage and barbed parody.
Watching Singin’ in the Rain is a multilayered experience. This quality it shares with Hail, Caesar!, which is undeniably a lot of fun. But discovery of depth of meaning in Singin’ in the Rain’s is all the more satisfying for being uninvited. The filmmakers aren’t winking at us; they are playing it straight. Even Singin’ in the Rain’s wandering is full of gusto: take for example the extended Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse dance number in The Dancing Cavalier, Singin’ in the Rain’s movie within a movie. This sequence serves no purpose save reveling in its own artfulness (ditto an extended musical number devoted, apparently, to the costume department). It is a number that is conceived and enacted as a last-minute edit in a longer, more plotful movie, but oh how we linger. We linger over Cyd Charisse’s sinuous dancing and Gene Kelly’s hopeful smile. We linger over odd character parallels and brash set design. Pulling out of this sequence is like waking from a dream, sitting up, and saying, “…what?”
Singin’ in the Rain is delighted with itself, and rightly so. One moment Donald O’Connor is literally running up walls. In the next, a vilified female character is rattling on about contract law in her signature high-pitched voice. Singin’ in the Rain is committed to portraying a particular community and time—the blindsiding arrival of talking pictures—and the result of all this period detail is a story that is oddly timeless. The Jazz Singer could just as easily be a new Apple product, the main characters harried Microsoft developers struggling to keep up. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is locked in a PR fauxmance, a concept unbounded by time. Grandiose origin stories mask humble origins. And on and on and on.
It makes sense that I would agree with the nameless white-haired woman in the Dublin, Ohio AMC that Singin’ in the Rain is the uncontested Hollywood story. I learned how to watch movies at the feet of people like her. I was weaned off Disney with post-Hays Code black and white movies (the theory was that these films would check the boxes of both semi-acceptable content and not make my parents want to jump out the window). In Arizona, I watched a series of Westerns and Jimmy Stewart movies with my grandfather and my grandmother, respectively, always to a chorus of clarifications (“Who’s that?” “You’ve watched this movie a hundred times, Bob”).
So when I say that I wonder how long it will last—the hold old Hollywood has on us—I know that I’m being presumptuous. “Us” may do more to set me apart from reality than draw me together with my Dublin, Ohio missed connection. “Us” is middle class, maybe, and white, probably, and a bunch of other rightly questioned attributes. But in this case we’re right, I think, she and I. Hail, Caesar! was fun, but it’s not Singin’ in the Rain.
JACKIE HEDEMAN, contributing editor to Partisan, is a former grant writer and current grad student. Her work has appeared online in Watershed Review and The Manifest-Station, and on stage with Available Light Theatre. Jackie is the Reviews & Interviews Editor for The Journal, the literary journal of The Ohio State University.