December 15, 2008

The Hudsucker Proxy

At one point in the Hudsucker Proxy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appears. Eisenhower, embodiment of the American fifties appears here because he has to: he is brought on to the stage to tell us something about the film in which he appears. Just as Richard Nixon stands for corruption, and Ronald Reagen for capitalism, Franklin Roosevelt for the New Deal and Harry Truman for the Cold War, so Dwight D. Eisenhower stands for the fifties- the age of American triumph. And American triumph was the triumph of the company man- the Happy Day's Man who went to his office every day, aspired to rise to the top and feared falling to the bottom. The Hudsucker Proxy is about such a man- but it is not about such a man- it is about the dreams of such a man, the dreams of rising high in corporate America or corporate anywhere and the truth that the film maker deems to lie behind those dreams.

Look at it in another way- the Hudsucker Proxy contains an important story. A fool is elevated by the board from the post room to the board room- they need the share price to fall, to maintain control of the company- he though turns out to be a genius, inventing something which noone thought would succeed but which drives profits higher and higher. He is not the only one- every employee of Hudsucker seems to have a dream- an idea that could take the business forward. This film is the ultimate testimony to the American worker- not merely are they all hard working, they are all genii. But there is something corrosive in this laudation- its that there is, to quote Lord Melbourne, 'no damn merit about it'. Merit is absent. The Hudsucker Proxy doesn't redeem the company because of his intelligence- Tim Robbins plays him as an idiot, the lift boy's idea doesn't demonstrate his brilliance- apart from that he is an irritating squirt, the board room bureacrats are fat and flabby, the workers they preside over work in scenes of dull drudgery- sitting in rows, typing out memos.

This is a film with an iconography- circles and squares dominate the amazing visual landscape that is the true star of the movie. Whether it is the boardroom table, the skyscrapers of Wall Street, the hula hoop, the cigars or the suits, circles and squares dominate. In a sense the point I have made above is more revolutionary when expressed through this visual style. The squares represent the corporate hierarchy- the circles the creativity and fatedness of our hero and heroine and yet what we finally see as the film comes to an end is that they are both the same thing. The thing that renders the board room game so hierarchical is ultimately that it depends not on merit but on fate- the circle of fate twists and pulls our hero back to the top but its verdict is always respected, no matter what the truth. The Coens are arguing through the film that the real verdict of capitalism has nothing to do with merit or conspiracy, its all blind luck.

And so their film's style takes its roots from the only period of real subversion in the history of Hollywood- the thirties, forties and fifties. They reference such iconoclastic artists as Katherine Hepburn, Orson Welles (there are obvious references both to Citizen Kane and to the Trial) and Jean Arthur. Their hero is a corporate version of Jimmy Stewart's Frank Capra characters- but whereas in Capra's films Stewart triumphs because of the merit of his case, here we are invited to see that the opposite is true. Setting the film in the fifties brings in Ike but it allows the Coens to revisit genres like the Screwball comedy and film noir, whose characters exposed the darker and more sexist nature of American capitalism. The indictment here is fuelled by the fifties but it also uses a vocabulary which in cinema was last used in the fifties. The style not merely indicates the substance but indicates the substance of the attack.

That is why I enjoyed this film so much- it has the appeal both of being intelligent- and its worth saying well acted and directed- but also of making a compelling case using a historical vocabulary. The Coens may be right or wrong about capitalism- but what they provide us with is a very American critique of the concept which relies ultimately on exposing the old lie that the corporation is a repository of virtue, where merit rises and incompetence falls, that business has a law which isn't luck and that the boss really does know best.

The thing about the Hudsucker proxy ultimately, is that he is as good a boss as anyother.


James Higham said...

Franklin Roosevelt for the Illuminati and Harry Truman for the Jesuits?

Perhaps not. :)

Gracchi said...

Perhaps not. I don't think either of them were members fo those organisations- indeed I've never bee sure that the former existed outside of books by Umberto Eco!

goodbanker said...

This film sounds like it's one in a long line that sentimentally reinforces the idea of the American Dream. Is its USP that it comes in / reflects the aftermath of a USA that has just experienced the idiocy of George W's presidency?

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker- its trying to evoke those sentimental stories but also undermine them. If you think of the Capra films the triumph of the hero is merited- here the triumph of the hero isn't merited. What the Coens get is that the triumph of the hero actually may render him an utter failure as a human being- during his one period of success that is what he is. Its a clever satirisation of that kind of film.

Also just to be clear it was made before George Bush got anywhere near the White House and national prominence- I don't think its about him so much as its about American capitalism.