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Navel-gazing in La La Land

With the Oscars approaching, Showbiz America gears up for its annual Panathenaea — the doling out of awards for the best performances in honor of its various civic gods. Like its ancient Athenian counterpart, the Oscars pay tribute to a variety of deities, and this year the goddess par excellence seems to be none other than Lady Hollywood herself. With La La Land the clear front-runner in most major categories, the event gives America a chance to look in the mirror and ask why this particular story has stolen our hearts.

It’s not that I have no soft spot for film musicals: I grew up in the era when Newsies made its debut. Singing in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, and the Rogers & Hammerstein collection technicolored my young imagination. What is striking is that in a year of potential genocides, global terror, mass population displacements, and major political realignments in Europe and America, the Academy’s top pick has frequently been called “a love letter to Hollywood,” one which encourages us to keep on singing and dancing, keep on falling in love, and stay true to ourselves, whatever the cost.

This perhaps explains why a film like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which represents his love letter to the Catholic Church of his youth — as well as the Catholic martyrs of Japan and the Jesuit missionaries — seems to have fallen on deaf Hollywood ears. The snub of Silence may well be in part due to Andrew Garfield’s nomination as best actor for Hacksaw Ridge — but this says nothing about the outstanding performance by the film’s Japanese cast, which is one of the most stunning depictions of international Christianity since The Mission.

If we are bent on looking inward to the local prophets and soothsayers of America — our latter-day omphalos — for better predictions of hope for tomorrow, at least two other films about Hollywood offered more profound and critical visions of Los Angeles than La La Land. The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016) and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2016) are aptly timed foils. In their light, La La Land is not even the second most interesting film about Hollywood this year.

For those who liked the singing and choreography of La La Land, replete with its single shot dance numbers (which are of course stunning — props to choreographer Mandy Moore), the Coen Brother’s Hail, Caesar! has it all and more, including ScarJo, a host of synchronized swimming mermaids, and a Soviet submarine with a puppy. Initial reviews of Hail, Caesar! considered it “half-baked” and a Coen brothers’ “doodle.” But under the surface, it is riddled with hidden transcripts written against the imperial (Hollywood/Rome) regime. Beneath its entertaining and comedic surface lies a nuanced appreciation of America’s Lady La La — both historical and self-critical, while also one hell of a ride.

Like most CoBros stuff, Hail Caesar!  is philosophically conservative in the best, broadly ecumenical Judeo-Christian way. It offers a Catholic (anti-Marxist) aesthetic, in contrast to the Calvinist aesthetic of True Grit, the Helleno-Anabaptist aesthetic of O Brother, Where art Thou?, and the Jewish aesthetic of A Serious Man. Hollywood seems a reasonable vehicle for Catholicism; the church, after all, has been performing one of the longest shows in history, which not even Broadway can rival. Jesus films (including King of Kings, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Passion of the Christ) have been a major part of Hollywood history, one which the CoBros don’t want to be forgotten. In fact, One of Hail Caesar!’s funniest and most profound moments involves the collaboration of a Catholic film director with a Jewish rabbi, an Orthodox priest, a Catholic cleric, and a Protestant pastor about the proper depiction of God in film.

George Clooney’s hopelessly secular Hollywood star is a perfect foil to Josh Brolin’s Catholic director. Clooney’s farcical, stammering inability to utter the word “faith” in the film’s climactic moment — a mirror of the Academy’s treatment of Silence? — is a timely parody of what Hollywood might become without the moorings of its own religious lights. If the film is partially an autobiographical look into the CoBros relationship with Hollywood, it offers a reminder that there are multiple Hollywoods, and that the Jewish and Catholic Hollywoods still bring important resources to the shaping of a new cinematic iconography for the 21st century. Movies are, at their best, the new stained-glass windows of the religious imagination.

By far the most Delphic and important film about Hollywood from the past year is Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. Malick, something of a legend and enigma in Hollywood, is best known for films like The Thin Red Line and The New World. He has gained a reputation for producing cinematically beautiful and emotionally wrenching portraits of human life, which show extreme reserve in dialogue. (As an autobiographical aside, I owe my interest in Malick to fellow Covenant author Fr. Will Brown, who invited me to see The New Word with him in New Haven, Connecticut. This film remains a good point of entry.)

Malick’s latest trilogy of films — The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups — take a quasi-autobiographical turn, exploring in separate story cycles the emotional turmoil of various stages of human existence. Tree of Life, which may be Malick’s masterpiece, explores the young life of a family in Waco, Texas, with a focus on the psychology of a boy whose brother will later commit suicide. This is a pastoral must-watch. To the Wonder takes up the trials of adult life, antiphonally plumbing the difficulties of marriage and celibacy, which ends with a montage of spiritual self-surrender set to a Spanish translation of St. Patrick’s Breastplate (this scene redeems some of the film’s earlier flaws).

Knight of Cups explores his and others’ experience with Hollywood. One gets the impression Malick is making these films because of their universal significance rather than their autobiographical resonance. He is wise enough to know his experiences of suicide, divorce, and Hollywood are not unique.

It is particularly because Malick is something of an insider to Hollywood that Lady LaLa will be particularly happy if you skip Knight of Cups. Rather than seeing it as a land of promise, where dreams are made, selves are invented, love is born, and freeway ramps are opportunities for communal solidarity, Malick paints Hollywood as a spiritual Egypt, the locus of captivity, whose only redemption is in being left behind.

The film begins, hauntingly, with two quotations explicating Malick’s Gnostic Catholic vision. The first is a quotation from Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress (apparently read by Sir John Gielgud), which sets out the plight of Pilgrim to wander through the world. The second, more audible, sounds like a summary of the Gnostic “Hymn of the Pearl” (a treatise found at Nag Hammadi which bears some relationship to the community that produced the Gospel of Thomas). It tells the story of a king’s son, sent to Egypt (Hollywood) to retrieve a valuable pearl (knowledge of who we are and what our lives are for); the son, however, drank the drink of that land (never a good thing to do in a mythological place) and forgot his mission, becoming enamored with the “fleshpots” of Egypt. Nonetheless, the summary says, his father sent him signs.

Knight of Cups follows the spiritual peregrinations of a young Hollywood mover and shaker, played by Christian Bale, in his attempts to find purpose through a series of failed romantic relationships. The style, much like that of the other two in this trilogy, has sometimes been criticized as “stream of consciousness” and difficult to follow. As I suggested above, I think Delphic is a better description: The whole film has a clearly marked structure — a series of relationships named for different Tarot Cards that young “Christian” receives early in the film. Each episode details not only a relationship with a different woman — one a call girl, one a model, one his ex-wife, one a married friend — the episodes also chart his attention to various signs from his father, in a story not unlike Augustine’s Confessions, and his trial of different religious traditions. His relationship with the dress model, for instance, charts his relationship with Buddhism.

Rather than being a random exploration of Hollywood debauchery, Knight of Cups paints a visually arresting allegory of the soul (replete with allusion to Plato’s Phaedrus and the ascent of the psychic chariot) in the grand tradition of Bunyan, Valentinus, and Augustine. The film reaches its dramatic climax in Christian’s affair with a married woman (played by Natalie Portman). She becomes pregnant, does not know who the father is, and, as a result, aborts the child. This tragedy ultimately ends the relationship, and is played out against a museum visit that the couple makes, in which they view various medieval images of the Virgin and Child. (Portman’s performance throughout the tragedy is amazing.) Malick’s depiction of the abortion as the tragic inverse of the Holy Family represents his clearest pro-life statement to date, cast in an irenic, mother-focused, post-abortion-wars cinematic rhetoric that ultimately drives Christian to rethink everything from the ground up.

“How should I begin?” he muses, time and again, echoing the interior monologue of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Knight of Cups takes its name from another Tarot Card — one whose uprightness or inversion signifies either successful romance or unreliability or recklessness, respectively. In eliding Bunyan’s Pilgrim with the mythical Son of the Great King, the Phaedran chariot soul, and the Medieval Tarot Knight, Malick has crafted a new kind of Christian figuralism — one which entails a universalist, almost Neo-platonic allegory, while simultaneously insisting that incarnational Catholicism is the crown jewel of truth. To call this “Gnostic Catholicism,” as one critic has done, seems about right. But it is not “Gnosticism.”

Malick — himself an Episcopalian — relies on a Catholic mythos and ethics to ultimately bring Christian through his time of peregrination and set him on a new beginning out of Egypt — out of La La Land — and into a quest for God that is of American or Arthurian proportions. One gets the sense that Malick’s cinematic allegory is far from ended: the last word of Knight of Cups, as Christian departs like Antony into the Joshua Tree desert, is begin.

The contrast between the Coen Brothers’ and Terence Malik’s films about Hollywood is striking: One suggests redeeming it; the other suggests it must, in some paradoxical way, ultimately be abandoned. Neither of these films, however, is navel-gazing in La La Land.


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