On Twitter, Ross Douthat tells me that in Hail, Caesar! — a movie I dearly love — “The studio is the church, a corporate entity w/cosmic purpose that polices morals for everyone’s own good…. With its own necessary hierarchies, its place for everyone, its direct line to God (the invisible studio boss), etc.” and that therefore the movie is in a fundamental sense about the Catholic Church.
Sonny Bunch is forcing me to write this reply.
I think Ross’s interpretation is impossible, because the Catholic Church actually plays a role in the movie, primarily through Eddie Mannix’s frequent recourse to the confessional: If the studio equals the Church, then what does the Church itself represent? So it seems to me that Ross’s logic won’t hold up. Plus, what Ross says about the studio is generally true about the Communism that the group of writers in the movie adhere to (that they must be faithful to despite the invisibility of the Boss, etc.). That whole subplot echoes the Christian narrative in other ways as well: its group of faithful disciples in a boat, on the sea, with their leader! Who had previously “prepared a place for them”! Who then undergoes an Ascension, as they look on in awe!
If you look at the Communist subplot alongside Eddie Mannix’s struggle to reconcile the apparently conflicting demands of Church and Studio, then I think you can see that one of the movie’s major themes is the way that models of Value that rival the Christian account, those serious competitors for our attention and loyalty, must create their own structures, their own rituals and practices, that mimic those of the Church. Communism and the Studio both, in their different ways and for different purposes, strive to effect a kind of transfer of charisma (to borrow Weberian language) from the Church. The big difference is that Communism does this straightforwardly, repudiating Christianity and claiming the power and authority to overthrow it, whereas the Studio emphasizes that it is deeply respectful of biblical religion and wants to pay proper respect to it — which leads to one of the funniest scenes in recent film history.
Whether the Studio, or more broadly the Movies, and the Church are indeed so compatible is a question the movie leaves wonderfully open. On the one hand Eddie Mannix comes to believe — and several events, especially those made possible by the sleuthing of good, honest Hobie Doyle, conspire to help him believe this — that the Church and the Studio are not rival authorities, but rather that he can serve God through serving the Studio. (After all, “the story of the Christ” is “a swell story.”) On the other hand, there’s the fact that the movie that’s supposed to be about “the Christ” is called Hail, Caesar! — which seems to miss a little something about what we’re supposed to render to whom. And then there’s the sublime moment when Baird Whitlock delivers his great soliloquy about the new cosmic meaning, the transformation of our lives that, when we look upon the Christ, we could achieve had we but … had we but … Dammit, what’s the word? And as Whitlock proclaims that noble speech all the people on the set sit up a little straighter, listen a little more closely, hoping and trusting that right then and there the Studio can deliver to us Truth we can live by. Would that it were so simple.
At the risk of ruining the effect of my absolutely perfect final sentence, I have to comment on this:
To synthesize our views a little I would submit the studio functions analogically to the Church while Communism functions more parodically.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) December 28, 2016
I see we’re now enacting a drama in which Ross employs a multivalent interpretative scheme closely related to patristic/medieval Catholicism’s fourfold exegesis, while I (typecast here as the Reformer) am insisting that we stick to the historical sense as our only guide to valid interpretation. We need a script doctor stat!