An essay in unreality

People like to ascribe meanings to Coen Brothers films. I mean, they must mean something, right? They’re so tricksy and complex, full of so many layers, that surely Joel and Ethan must be getting at something. When an interviewer asked them, in respect of The Hudsucker Proxy, whether they’d intended to address certain themes, Joel replied ‘maybe the characters do embody those grand themes you mentioned, but that question is independent of whether or not we’re interested in them – and we’re not’. In 1985, when they were in the early stages of script development for the film, they attested that it ‘takes place in the late Fifties in a skyscraper and is about Big Business. The characters talk fast and wear sharp clothes.’ This still held true in 1994 when it had its theatrical release, and it’s about as good a description of the film as you could hope for. These are the big themes that inform the composition: talking fast and wearing sharp clothes.

The film is a screwball comedy, in which a novice business-school graduate from a small town is hired as the president of a major New York-based manufacturing company, in order to serve as a patsy and drive down the stock price. He is the proxy of the title. One of several critics to traduce the film on its release as a triumph of style over substance, thought that it failed to emulate the Golden Age films that are clearly its inspiration, saying ‘it isn’t the real thing at all. It’s just a proxy.’ While it might be clever to turn the movie’s plot motif back on itself, this is a fundamental misunderstanding: the Coen Brothers were doing what they always do. They were making big symbols, and seeing what meanings they scooped up.

Critics have accused the Coens of postmodernism, by which they mean that their work is superficial, that it has no essential meaning. But the point of work like this is that no meanings are fixed or essential—or rather it’s to have fun, having let go of the limiting idea that every sign has to mean some specific singular thing. When the Coens make a huge, polyvalent symbol, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, meanings just fall into it until it begins to overflow, meanings which seem to have been waiting around for this powerful signifier to come along and point at them. The genius of these film-makers is in knowing what a good symbol looks like, one to which ideas and feelings will stick like drosophila to flypaper. The unifying symbol in The Hudsucker Proxy is a visual one, the circle.

I won’t talk about how the circle is incorporated, and all the different ways in which it crops up. It’s just edifying to note how, having deployed it consistently throughout their flick, it hoovers up any ideas that anyone would like to lob at it, playfully, superficially even, a proxy for the kind of allegorical thematic centre that it’s so tempting and so wrong to ascribe to the film. The movie is extremely clever, extremely sophisticated and knowing, but it isn’t trying to teach us anything: it is literally just trying to entertain us. The Hudsucker Proxy is a homage to the Golden Age, but it’s not a film about old movies. ’It’s the case where, having seen those movies, we say ‘They’re really fun – let’s do one’; as opposed to ‘They’re really fun- let’s comment upon them,’ as Ethan has said.

It’s set in the late 1950s, but The Hudsucker Proxy has more of the style of the 30s and 40s, especially with its rapid-fire dialogue, full of wise-cracking and wordplay. Tim Robbins plays a perfect everyman, and Paul Newman is magnificently evil as a senior executive, but the real show-stealer is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who delivers her lines and her body with so much gestural style and generic aplomb that it’s easy to forget she isn’t Katharine Hepburn. The film is absolutely brimming with charisma, not just from its stars, but also from its sets, which owe more to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than they do to the Golden Age, particularly the vast, mechanised mail-room, and the night-time skyline of fantasy New York.

The film is a tour-de-force, in its writing and acting, certainly, but also in the more overtly technical aspects of film-making. Beautiful models are integrated with life-size shots through the subtle use of early CGI, and Roger Deakins was kept as busy working out how to film elaborate set-ups as he was in delivering the beautiful photography he’s known for. It’s not complicated, as a story, however semantically sophisticated it may be, and it’s so wonderfully stylish that I find it hard to imagine why it was, once again, a commercial flop. Perhaps simply making a Golden Age film, with the benefit of 1990s technology, and a rather more modern vocabulary of shots and edits, wasn’t enough to engage the audiences of the time; perhaps the Golden Age was still too recent to look anything but old-fashioned. For me it was a dazzling bolt of pure joy, an essay in unreality so assured and so glamorous that anything it might have ‘meant’ could only have been a downer.

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