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O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)


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For the past couple years I've been working on a movie book: started planning it summer of 2002, started writing summer 2003, but it got side-tracked a year ago when events at my theatre company suddenly demanded all my attention. Well, today I'm jubilant: after almost exactly a year lying fallow, seasons have changed and I'm back at it again! My board of directors has given me a month of sabbatical time now and another three next year to compensate for the time lost this past season, and after a week or so labouring to get re-engaged with the darn thing, I finally got back to the writing today and have cranked out my next piece. Colour me exhilarated!

Anyhoo, here's the first draft of the first of this next round of pieces. Any other O BROTHER fans out there?

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (USA, 2000)
Well that's it boys, I been redeemed! The preacher done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight-and-narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting's my reward!
Delmar, what are you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry...


The jokiness of the Coen brothers' southern-fried Odyssey means it's unlikely to touch the deep places of the human heart, but hey � so what? It's a lot of fun. The unexpected thing is that this shaggy dog yarn unravels in a cartoony world that's also surprisingly moral, taking seriously things like salvation and prayer.

Not that "serious" is a word we really should apply to anything here: Joel and Ethan are in their most playful mood this time out, gleefully juggling Deep South and Depression era mythologies with twinkle-in-the-eye movie references (like a Ku Klux Klan ceremony choreographed like the *** in THE WIZARD OF OZ!), glorious old time music and campy riffs on Greek mythology. The Coens admit no more than a Classics Illustrated acquaintance with Homer, but the tie-ins are daffy and delicious: we've got one-eyed Bible salesmen, beguiling sirens, fellow travelers turned into animals and a gospel-singing blind Teiresias. Ulysses' Greek name, Odysseus, translates to "man of pain and sorrow," and when George Clooney's stooge-like trio of chain gang escapees cut a record under the alias Jordan Rivers & The Soggy Bottom Boys, it's the traditional "Man Of Constant Sorrow" that becomes their theme song.

On first viewing, this film felt slight to me: the glorious soundtrack, featuring roots-gospel luminaries like The Fairfield Four, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, promised a spiritual potency that the silliness of the rest of the film didn't come close to fulfilling. Sure Delmar and Pete got baptized and saved, but the absurd suddenness of those conversions and their "dumber'n a bag of hammers" characterizations seemed to shrink the significance of those events, rendering them nothing more than the occasion for plenty of good-ol'-boys-get-religion gags.

Seeing the film a second time, that whole perception turned on its head. Sure this is a looney-tunes world, but if Pete and Delmar are hilariously naive and mostly just plain dumb, they're also just plain right more often than not, particularly when they put their trust in God or give credence to the words of the flatcar prophet. The most truly foolish of this gathering of likeable fools is Ulysses Everett himself, whose deliciously overblown rhetoric glibly explains away the Inexplicable and denies events that are, within the world of the story, undeniably miraculous � answered prayer, deliverance from death and prophecies fulfilled, even unto a cow on the roof of a cottonhouse "and oh so many startlements!" And inevitably, Everett's rational evasions just lead ever more impossible tasks on the road to his promised salvation.

If Everett is the kind of fool whose false wisdom is mocked in the biblical Book of Proverbs, his redeemed side-kicks point the way to another kind of foolery that's praised in Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians;
"Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Were is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, but God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things, so that no one may boast."

Like a piece of rock candy or some horehound twist tucked away under your tongue, this childishly sweet and mischievous story yields up its greatest pleasure gradually, over time. Where I once found its comedy superficial and its performances over-the-top, I now glory in the film's wise foolishness and serious fun, returning to favourite scenes over and over again. And when, out here in the less-wacky "real world," I listen to the pundits and professors of Nothingbutness summon up all manner of verbose and fancy justifications for their proposed world without wonder, I can't help but think of the obtuse and self-serving obfuscations of George Clooney's brilliantly-rendered Ulysses Everett McGill, and I find myself grinning.

Check out SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Well done, Ron. That just about sums up my feeling for the film as well.

I'm not surprised that you liked O BROTHER; in my mind, I have it in a category with your very own TENT MEETING.

And congrats on the book project - what a gift to have time to work on it. Hope it goes well.

Edited by Tim Willson

"Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?"

« Nous connaîtrions-nous seulement un peu nous-mêmes, sans les arts? »

Quoted on Canada's $20 bill; from Gabrielle Roy's novel La montagne secrète. The English translation, The Hidden Mountain, is by Harry L. Binsse.

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I'm not surprised that you liked O BROTHER; in my mind, I have it in a category with your very own TENT MEETING.

Ah, hadn't thought of that connection, but now that you mention it, of course! The delicious gospel music, the dusty thirties setting. Though we didn't have a whole lot of O BROTHER goofiness that makes the Coen project so appealing.

Did you happen to see DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN? It's a documentary about an alpine company that gathers goose feathers to make these really wonderful pillows... Oops. No. It's footage of a concert featuring many of the musicians from O BROTHER, singing mostly songs from the film. Wow, did that give me a spiritual jolt! The power of that good old gospel music, sung by real folks - a lot of the appeal of TENT MEETING, I think.

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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I'm definitely a big fan of O Brother, and definitely agree that it's a film that rewards repeat viewings. Good review Ron. Insightful and similar to my thoughts on the film. Though, I am surprised that you don't comment on the soundtrack much, as I think it's as much the star of the film as Clooney (admittedly he is very good in this role).

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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I LOVE this film, and like you say, it seems to stand up to repeated viewings in a way that not many films do. I've always felt that there's something a little deeper than the oddball events going on in it, and thinking about it, Everett's interpretation of the flood at the end is a pretty interesting reflection on things.

The thing that really makes this film for me is the script though; it's so detailed, clever and well delivered, pretty much all the way through. The bit where Everett is politely refusing the offer of a gofer on a stick, as white robed figures drift through the woods is just brilliant, something about how just one gofer would merely wake his appetite 'without bedding it back down again'.

I'm not a Fop man, I'm a Dapper Dan man...

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Add me to the list of fans of O Brother, and Ron's review. I'm always challenged by Coen Brothers movies since they are never quite what they seem, and as bizarro as their universe seems, most of their movies challenge me with spiritual and moral insights. O Brother was one that, as Ron wrote, seemed like pure goofiness on first viewing, but held a lot more under the surface.

"The most important thing is that people love in the same way. Whether they are monarchists, republicans, or communists, they feel pain in the same way, as well as hatred, jealousy, fear, and fear of death. Whether you are a deeply religious man or an atheist, if you have a toothache, it hurts just the same." - Krzysztof Kieslowski

"...it seems to me that most people I encounter aren't all that interested in the arts. Most of the people who are my age ... appear to be interested in golf, fertilizer, and early retirement schemes.... I will stop caring passionately about music, books, and films on the day that I die, and I'm hoping for Top 100 album polls in the afterlife." - Andy Whitman

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Did you happen to see DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN?

We bought both CDs and play them often (OB more than DFTM), but I wasn't aware of the documentary about the music. Sounds great.

Anders, you're right about the soundtrack being one of the stars of the film. I'd go so far as to say that this movie wouldn't be a lot different with different actors in any of the roles, but this wouldn't be NEARLY the movie it is without this music.

It's a documentary about an alpine company that gathers goose feathers to make these really wonderful pillows...

laugh.gif

"Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?"

« Nous connaîtrions-nous seulement un peu nous-mêmes, sans les arts? »

Quoted on Canada's $20 bill; from Gabrielle Roy's novel La montagne secrète. The English translation, The Hidden Mountain, is by Harry L. Binsse.

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I've only seen it once and I loved it. (FWIW it was one of the first films we had at our film night that I took a risk on by not seeing it first). The soundtrack is ma\rvellous and the KKK scene was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. John Goodman's one-eyed hood - genius. And some great one liners "oh George, not the livestock george...)

Oh and Stu, you'll be pleased to hear the DVD will be officially entering our household on Friday if you know what I mean (wink...shhh)

Matt

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I've seen the movie quite a number of times (as it is always with me and Coen brothers) - and thanks for the review, it really helps to understand some moments of the movie.

BTW, don't you find O Brother's style very similar to that of the recent Ladykillers?

Well that settles it, then - now I have to see LADYKILLERS. I was looking forward to seeing it this spring but missed it, and then the generally lukewarm response meant I didn't rush out to rent it later. But now that I've acquired this taste for O BRO, I think LADYKILLERS sounds like a logical next step. Thanks for the suggestion (and welcome, sys!).

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Oh and Stu, you'll be pleased to hear the DVD will be officially entering our household on Friday if you know what I mean (wink...shhh)

How lucky you are to have a wife who likes exactly the same films as you. If I didn't know better I'd think that you rigged it...

Anyway, I think The Ladykillers has some similar charms to O Brother - but I have to say, it's basically not as good. Maybe it's the surrealism of O Brother that I really like - shots like that dog underwater in the flood with all the floating tins of 'Dapper Dan' around it, and the aforementioned 'We thought you was a toad' scene. I think it just feels a lot more full.

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sys(2015):

BTW, don't you find O Brother's style very similar to that of the recent Ladykillers?

I don't think there's really much similarity between the two beyond them both being distinctively Coen bros. comedies and T-Bone Burnett's music (which, I thought worked far better in O Brother...). Actually, O Brother... is my favorite of their films while The Ladykillers is my least favorite.

"It's a dangerous business going out your front door." -- J.R.R. Tolkien
"I want to believe in art-induced epiphanies." -- Josie
"I would never be dismissive of pop entertainment; it's much too serious a matter for that." -- NBooth

"If apologetics could prove God, I would lose all faith in Him." -- Josie

"What if--just what if--the very act of storytelling is itself redemptive? What if gathering up the scraps and fragments of a disordered life and binding them between the pages of a book in all of their fragmentary disorder is itself a gambit against that disorder?" -- NBooth

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Actually, O Brother... is my favorite of their films while The Ladykillers is my least favorite.

Where are you on BIG LEBOWSKI? I saw only one scene from somewhere in the middle and HATED it - it seemed so crude and pointless. But I ought to know better than to judge a book by a page torn at random from the middle: wouldn't you know I'd get caught up short by Kate Bowman's really really good Passion article, which said in part;

If God uses anyone he pleases to tell his stories, we never know when or where he is going to show up. We never know when a door might open to the numinous, and so we must be alert to all art.

In fact, we might pay attention to "secular" films even more for this reason. L'Engle continues, "If I cannot see evidence of incarnation in a painting of a bridge in the rain by Hokusai, a book by Chaim Potok or Isaac Bashevis Singer, in music by Bloch or Bernstein, then I will miss its significance in an Annunciation by Franciabigio, the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, the words of a sermon by John Donne." To translate this into modern, filmic terms: if we are unable to see hints of incarnation in Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, the Coen Brothers' Big Lebowski, P.T. Anderson's Magnolia

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Which scene was it, incidentally?

There is a lot in this film that I find a bit abrasive, but at the same time it's one of my favourites, certainly my second favourite Cohen Bros. You pretty much have to see it. It has this very confused, dreamy feel to it, so that by the end of the film you feel as stoned as the main character is, even if you're not (and I'm guessing that most on this board wouldn't be... although watching it stoned would probably be an experience all of its own). At the same time though, there are moments of reality which jut out, and are pretty effective - I'm thinking especially of the penultimate scene with the two main characters and a peanut tin (without giving too much away).

"We believe in nothing Lebowski, nothing"

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Anyway, I think The Ladykillers has some similar charms to O Brother - but I have to say, it's basically not as good. Maybe it's the surrealism of O Brother that I really like - shots like that dog underwater in the flood with all the floating tins of 'Dapper Dan' around it, and the aforementioned 'We thought you was a toad' scene. I think it just feels a lot more full.

I just saw Ladykillersthis weekend and felt the same way. I think a mediocre Coen Brothers film is better than most others that come out, but it was a bit of a letdown after being such a big fan of O Brother. Ladykillers seemed like a film they wanted to make but rushed into. It wasn't as clever or fun as some of their other works.

"Did you mention, perhaps, what line of industrial lubricants Jesus would have endorsed?"

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This might be a bit off topic, but I started a thread a few weeks ago on the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There (I'd link to it but don't know how, exactly...) I've been anxious to hear others' thoughts on this, as it was one whose themes of personal identity, spirituality and miscommunication have stayed with me. And it had lots of the Coens' trademark quirky humor. Anyone here a fan?

"The most important thing is that people love in the same way. Whether they are monarchists, republicans, or communists, they feel pain in the same way, as well as hatred, jealousy, fear, and fear of death. Whether you are a deeply religious man or an atheist, if you have a toothache, it hurts just the same." - Krzysztof Kieslowski

"...it seems to me that most people I encounter aren't all that interested in the arts. Most of the people who are my age ... appear to be interested in golf, fertilizer, and early retirement schemes.... I will stop caring passionately about music, books, and films on the day that I die, and I'm hoping for Top 100 album polls in the afterlife." - Andy Whitman

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This might be a bit off topic, but I started a thread a few weeks ago on the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There (I'd link to it but don't know how, exactly...) I've been anxious to hear others' thoughts on this, as it was one whose themes of personal identity, spirituality and miscommunication have stayed with me. And it had lots of the Coens' trademark quirky humor. Anyone here a fan?

I would have provided a link here to your TMWWT thread, but even using the search engine, I can't find it. Instead I'll describe the trick, so you can do it.

1)

Open another window, and in it, find the thread (or whatever else) that you want to link to. Copy the address (or "url") from the Address field at the top of your browser.

2)

Back in your original window you type then paste in the address you copied from the other window

then type '>

3)

then type the words that you want hypertexted (that is, the words that people will click on to go to that other page)

4)

then follow that with

*

Make sense?

Here's an example of how I could link to the IMDb page for O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU.

(To view that with the coding, just pretend you're going to reply to this email and take a look at it in the quote window.)

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Thanks, Ron! I think it worked ....

The Man Who Wasn't There

"The most important thing is that people love in the same way. Whether they are monarchists, republicans, or communists, they feel pain in the same way, as well as hatred, jealousy, fear, and fear of death. Whether you are a deeply religious man or an atheist, if you have a toothache, it hurts just the same." - Krzysztof Kieslowski

"...it seems to me that most people I encounter aren't all that interested in the arts. Most of the people who are my age ... appear to be interested in golf, fertilizer, and early retirement schemes.... I will stop caring passionately about music, books, and films on the day that I die, and I'm hoping for Top 100 album polls in the afterlife." - Andy Whitman

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Ron:

Where are you on BIG LEBOWSKI?

It's been a long time since I've seen that one. I'll never forget John Turturro's cameo as Jesus ("What is this "day of rest" s***? What is this bulls***, man? I don't f***ing care! It don't matter to Jesus! But you're not fooling me! You might fool the f***s in the league office, but you don't fool Jesus! It's bush league psych-out stuff! Laughable, man!"). I'd place it somewhere on the low end of their work along with The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, but I really should watch it again sometime. Of course, as expressed by others, even a lesser Coen bros. film is preferable to most mainstream fare.

Note: the only Coen bros. film I have not yet seen is Raising Arizona.

"It's a dangerous business going out your front door." -- J.R.R. Tolkien
"I want to believe in art-induced epiphanies." -- Josie
"I would never be dismissive of pop entertainment; it's much too serious a matter for that." -- NBooth

"If apologetics could prove God, I would lose all faith in Him." -- Josie

"What if--just what if--the very act of storytelling is itself redemptive? What if gathering up the scraps and fragments of a disordered life and binding them between the pages of a book in all of their fragmentary disorder is itself a gambit against that disorder?" -- NBooth

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Thanks, Ron! I think it worked ....

By George, I think he's got it!

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Actually, O Brother... is my favorite of their films while The Ladykillers is my least favorite.

Where are you on BIG LEBOWSKI? I saw only one scene from somewhere in the middle and HATED it - it seemed so crude and pointless. But I ought to know better than to judge a book by a page torn at random from the middle: wouldn't you know I'd get caught up short by Kate Bowman's really really good Passion article, which said in part;

If God uses anyone he pleases to tell his stories, we never know when or where he is going to show up. We never know when a door might open to the numinous, and so we must be alert to all art.

In fact, we might pay attention to "secular" films even more for this reason. L'Engle continues, "If I cannot see evidence of incarnation in a painting of a bridge in the rain by Hokusai, a book by Chaim Potok or Isaac Bashevis Singer, in music by Bloch or Bernstein, then I will miss its significance in an Annunciation by Franciabigio, the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, the words of a sermon by John Donne." To translate this into modern, filmic terms: if we are unable to see hints of incarnation in Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, the Coen Brothers' Big Lebowski, P.T. Anderson's Magnolia

Scott -- 2nd Story -- Twitter

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  • 1 year later...

I'll have to read this thread tomorrow. I just saw O Brother, Where Art Thou? and - wow. What a movie. It plays like an excuse to sew together a whole lot of "old timey" music, but it's a GREAT EXCUSE! The themes of redemption, skepticism, and fate were powerfully done, it was funny, and it had some AMAZING music. What a wonderful film. I borrowed it from the library, but it's going on my Wish List. Phew!

In case you were wondering, my name is spelled "Denes House," but it's pronounced "Throatwobbler Mangrove."
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Great piece, Ron. I felt that the whole point of the film was that we are all dumb fools passing through a world charged with more wonder than we can conceive. We either try to explain everything away, or embrace salvation. There's no middle ground. Whose salvation is really much more comprehensible than that of Pete and Delmar? Knowing nothing, they give their all.

What a great flick.

In case you were wondering, my name is spelled "Denes House," but it's pronounced "Throatwobbler Mangrove."
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Great piece, Ron.

Thanks! :D

Whose salvation is really much more comprehensible than that of Pete and Delmar? Knowing nothing, they give their all.

Nice.

Edited by Ron

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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  • 1 month later...

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