There is a lovely scene in Hail, Caesar – the new Coen Bros. romp – where George Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, rattles off recently acquired marxist insights to studio fixer Eddie Mannix. After spending less than 24hours with his erudite grumpy resentful writerly captors, Whitlock relates his epiphany: the movie industry is propping up capitalism.
Hail, Caesar is as unusual as it is funny. It’s a sophisticated, acerbic, and reflexive exposé of the contradictions that shore up our collective memory. Moreover, it’s written, directed and performed by the same grade of insiders and heavy weights as the golden-age archetypes depicted in the film.
Hail, Caesar trumpets consciousness-raising for the masses and shrugs its shoulders at solutions. Like a Rabbi who’s been asked to determine the G_dliness of Christ only the relations of production could care less. Why? Because Hail, Caesar does one better. This goofball movie draws an absurd little road map, a connect-the-dots DIY for Millenials to start deconstructing screen-time habits. Like Neil Postman once did, the film asks “How are we being led down the garden path?”
So let’s apply this idea and see what shakes out when we rattle the base and its overdetermined superstructure. I’ll choose Tattoos as my example. Not the inky variety, rather the military version: the crisp, flashy, regimented display of rhythms and musics that engage and entertain Western audiences. While wiki-wonks tell us that 17thC Tattoos (trumpet or drum blasts) were the military’s way of closing local pubs and calling personnel back to barracks, they have evolved.
Modern tattoos often are international. They pit armed forces against one another. No bullets are fired, nor casualties counted. Rather their purpose is to win hearts and minds (yours/mine) with music, choreography [a tip of the hat to Burt Gurney], juggling, and tympanic excess. All of this driven by legions of protocol and dressed up in military uniformity. Alexander Dubček might have called Tattoos war-mongering with a human face.
How odd then to recently receive an invitation to watch a Tattoo from a decidedly anti-militaristic friend. Going on a Martial Law subject line and a youtube link I invested more than six minutes watching a fantastically physical and coordinated confluence of well-dressed hubris. Impressively, the participants raise and seemingly resolve the contradictions of waving a flag of Swiss neutrality and waging hand-to-hand combat. Motherfucker!
Their form-fitting garb expresses all or nothing. They’re white and black with charcoal and silver accents. Snazzy? Yes. Orwellian? Absolutely. Are they asking who is ‘Us’ and who ‘Them’ or simply provoking us to accept that sometimes black is white and white black? Then there’s this ‘top secret’ thing. It’s laminated on the sonic scoop at the base of each drum.
“Top,” such an innocent description of secrecy in a world of collusive security level systems. Honestly what isn’t secret anymore? Daily we ramble redacted regions, saunter sequestered slopes, enter embargoed exegesis, and tread trade-deal terroir. But here, in the Tattoo, it’s all spelled out for us. The power to withhold information is proudly displayed. Could an important part of the military’s role be to protect special interests? Secrets are accumulated/parsed/withheld and the unbidden consequence of this secret society? More secrecy.
You don’t have to be an internet parkourista to surmount the irony that standing armies frequently exercise a freedom to move. The Danny Kaye-ish steps in the Tattoo soon give way to swipes and thrusts, advances and retreats. Here, human kinetics are an interpellative mechanism for embedding the ideological preferences of hegemonic power in us. While I loath structuralists, Althusser’s notion that police/military and corporate state apparatuses “always/already” constitute subjectivity seems real enough. Each drumbeat and footfall rehearses a dance that conflict can’t live without.
The military is the ultimate modernist institution. It clings to notions of marshalling law where it must needs be. Like a Hollywood starlet in a pool full of synchronized swimmers, the Tattoo does its best to demonstrate the beauty of order, coordination, and discipline. And like Eddie Mannix’s face-slapping brutality they do their best to conceal the weapons and the pain they invest in others. That the Tattoo – like Hail, Caesar – occasionally subverts its own historical materialism and brings smiles to our faces reminds us just how ready and willing we are to amuse ourselves to death.