28 August 2008

Film | O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2000 | 106min | Colour | USA Crime-Adventure-Comedy

Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey", set in the deep south during the 1930's. In it, three escaped convicts search for hidden treasure while a relentless lawman pursues them.

Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen
Homer (poem The Odyssey)

George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Del Peentecost, Michael Badalucco, J. R. Horne, Brian Reddy, Wayne Duvall, Ed Gale, Ray McKinnon, Danial von Bargen

Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (sceenplay), Roger Deakins (photography)

Joel Coen nomination (Golden Palm)

A folksy, screwball, picaresque comedy. A wild romp in the deep south, like Prozac to the great depression. It's the bombastic result of crossing Three Stooges with the Greek poet Homer. The film is surprisingly light for the Coen Brothers, closer to the farcical Hudsucker Proxy rather than the heavy Miller's Crossing and Fargo.

The three men shuffle down the dusty road.

The hell it ain't square one! Ain't
no one gonna pick up three filthy
unshaved hitchhikers, and one of 'em
a know-it-all that can't keep his
trap shut!

Pete, the personal rancor reflected
in that remark I don't intend to
dignify with comment, but I would
like to address your general attitude
of hopeless negativism. Consider the
lilies a the goddamn field, or-hell!-
take a look at Delmar here as your
paradigm a hope.

Yeah, look at me.

George Clooney plays a wonderfully exaggerated, over-articulate and vain ex-convict called Ulysses Everett McGill. Being Clooney he's somehow likable and naturally enchanting, even with his toothy grin. Plus the twerps he travels with are completely lovable rather than annoying as I at first expected them to be. They're warm-hearted and thoughtful in their simplicity, especially the cretinous Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), my favourite. Even with their gaping mouths and lost eyes, they are completely essential to the film's depth.

"Sing in me O Muse...”, the line at the beginning of the film, is the first line of the Odyssey.

The Coen Brothers' interpretation of "The Odyssey" is inventive, outlandish, and risky because of the story's core jaggedness and difficulty to shape into a whole. Lots of action and fast-cuts, the movie progresses quickly as a collection of whimsical and high-stake situations. Although the plot feels slightly spasmodic, it's saved by the dialogue and hilarious characters and oddities. Quite simply, it's clever, clever writing. I've included a lot of quotes along with some shots below. I also love the constant mythological and historical parallels.

Director of photography Roger Deakins' sun-baked, dirty-ochre cinematography is impeccable. A similar sparseness was created in No Country for Old Men. I love the contrast of the dry land with the deep blue sky.

And of course the film was greatly enriched by its extraordinary bluegrass soundtrack and would be nothing without it -- entertainment and atmosphere plus plus. Overall, downright bona fide.

  • Was one of the first major features to use digital answer printing, where the entire original film print was scanned into digital format, manipulated, and then reprinted on film stock. This changed the colour design, as the directors and cinematographer Roger Deakins wanted to create a dustbowl effect to convey depression-era 1930s South, with sepia and brown tones. It's possible to compare the original footage with the outcome by looking at the trailer, produced before digital manipulation.
  • The title is taken from the title of the film the director wants to make in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941).
  • Although Homer is given a co-writing credit on the film, the Coen Brothers claim never to have read The Odyssey and are familiar with it only through cultural osmosis and film adaptations. I find this hard to believe given the depth of their adaptation.
Below I have included more information on the adaptation, sceen shots and quotes.

See more...
The names of George Clooney and Holly Hunter's characters are Ulysses and Penelope. The Latin equivalent of the Greek name Odysseus is Ulysses.

They catch a ride on a hand-pumped railway that is being operated by a blind prophet, who tells them that they will not find the treasure they seek. The prophet character in the Odyssey was Teiresias, whom Odysseus consulted in the underworld when he needed information on how to get home again.

In the Odyssey, Ulysses angers the god Poseidon with pride, and is thus sent on his journey. His travels come to an end when he shows humility. Everett similarly scoffs at the baptisms of Pete and Delmar, and soon finds many obstacles in his path homeward. His trek also ends when he humbles himself. Not ironically, water is involved at both points - the baptisms and the flooding - since Poseidon was the god of the waters. Near the end, Odysseus nearly drowned, but clings to a piece of wood. At the end, Everett's line, "Finding one little ring, in the middle of all that water, is one hell of a heroic task," is a reference to the legend of Theseus, who had to find a golden ring at the bottom of the ocean to prove he was the son of Poseidon.

Most obviously there were the three girls by the river as the Sirens. Also, one-eyed Big Dan as the Cyclops (blinded with a burning pole), and Ulysses' wife marrying someone else when he comes home. Further, the changing of one of Ulysses' companions into an animal, and killing of the cattle of Helios by the "fools" in the Odyssey is mirrored by Baby Face Nelson shooting the cows.

The movie theatre scene is like the trip through the Underworld and the Baptists are like the Lotus-eaters.

Every time Ulysses falls asleep something bad happens, just like Everett always has to wake with a start. The song which plays throughout the movie is called "Man of Constant Sorrow", Odysseus means "man who is in constant pain and sorrow".

The Ku Klux Klan has a rank of Grand (or Exalted) Cyclops. Much like the KKK scene, Odysseus and his men hide from the Cyclops by dressing as sheep. Also, Odysseus and Everett both reveal themselves by performing an act no one else could: Odysseus strings a special bow and fires it through seven rings; Everett sings "Man of Constant Sorrow" as only the leader of the Soggy Bottom Boys can.

Say, uh, any a you boys smithies?
Or, if not smithies per se, were you
otherwise trained in the metallurgic
arts before straitened circumstances
forced you into a life of aimlesswanderin'?

You work for the railroad, grandpa?

I work for no man.

Got a name, do ya?

I have no name.

Well, that right there may be why
you've had difficulty finding gainful
employment. Ya see, in the mart of
competitive commerce, the-

You men from the bank?

Come on, boys! I'm gonna R-U-N-N-O-F-T!

You should be in bed, little fella.

Well that's it boys, I been redeemed!
The preacher warshed away all my
sins and transgressions. It's the
straight-and-narrow from here on out
and heaven everlasting's my reward!

Reference | The character of Tommy Johnson is based on famed blues guitarist of the same name who, according to folk legend, sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for his prodigious talent. Robert Johnson, another bluesman and a contemporary of Tommy's (but no relation), borrowed the legend and wrote a song about it (and so the soul-selling legend was subsequently, wrongly, attributed to Robert Johnson).
I had to be at that crossroads las'
midnight to sell mah soul to the

Well ain't it a small world,
spiritually speakin'! Pete and Delmar
just been baptized and saved! I guess
I'm the only one here who remains

What'd the devil give you for your
soul, Tommy?

He taught me to play this guitar
real good.

Delmar is horrified:

Oh, son! For that you traded your
everlastin' soul?!

Tommy shrugs.

I wudden usin' it.

I always wondered-what's the devil
look like?

Well, of course there's all manner
of lesser imps'n demons, Pete, but
the Great Satan hisself is red and
scaly with a bifurcated tail and
carries a hayfork.

What're you gonna do with your share
of the treasure, Pete?

Go out west somewhere, open a fine
restaurant. I'm gonna be the maider
dee. Greet all the swells, go to
work ever' day in a bowtie and tuxedo,
an' all the staff'll all say Yassir
and Nawsir and in a Jiffy Pete...

He gives his coffee a thoughtful swish and murmurs:

An' all my meals for free...

What about you, Delmar? What're you
wonna do with your share a that dough?

Visit those foreclosin' sonofaguns
down at the Indianola Savings and
Loan and slap that cash down on the
barrelhead and buy back the family
farm. Hell, you ain't no kind of man
if you ain't got land.

Symbolism | Sheriff Cooley, who fits Tommy Johnson's earlier description of the Devil exactly: "He's white, as white as you folks, with empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He likes to travel around with a mean old hound." Fantastic symbolism in this shot.

Shots | Camera shakes beautifully in the car scene.
Friend, some of your folding money
has come unstowed.


George Nelson, cackling wildly, fires into the air
as his car recedes.

Acting | George Clooney plays such a vain charmer - even as he enters into a bank to rob it, he carefully places his cap on his head and smiles at onlookers for a millisecond of the farce. What a

Reference | The historical Baby Face Nelson was a gangster named Lester M. Gillis (a.k.a. George Nelson, "Big George" Nelson, Lester Giles, Alex Gillis, etc.) who was known for his hot temper and itchy trigger finger. He was killed in Barrington, Illinois, in November of 1934 - three years before the setting of the film.

Casting | Look at the casting of the old lady who mumbles at George Nelson. Priceless!

Oh mercy, yes. You gotta beat that

Makes me laugh every time.

Sound | Effectively changes voice emphasis when shot focuses on different singers

Caintcha see it Everett! Them sigh-
reens did this to Pete! They loved
him up an' turned him into a horney-

Reference | When Ulysses first meets Big Dan in the restaurant there is a statue of Homer in the background.

Cutting | Often uses diagonal, circles, or very slow disolve.

We thought you was a toad!

Reference | The scene where Ulysses, Pete and Delmar come upon the KKK meeting is a reference to the scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939) when the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion sneak up on the Witch's castle. The chanting and formation marching of the Witch's guards are mimicked by the KKK members. Infiltration is achieved in both films by overpowering three guards and KKK members respectively and donning their garb.

I'm the only damn daddy you got! I'm
the damn paterfamilias!

Yeah, but you ain't bona fide!

The Anatagonist | Not a big fan of Sheriff Cooley. Sure, he provided an occasional overarching enemy that we knew the protagonist would eventually face, but he was far too ambiguous. However, this might just be a reaction to the character, rather than a criticism of the film.

Crane shot | As Everett drops to his knees to pray, the camera adopts a high-angle position above him then pulls back and upward, as if his appeal to the almighty has taken flight.