O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The most loutish of all Texas governors is a very competitive title, but Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel is now remembered as a prime contender. A yahoo demagogue elected in the 1930s on a platform of the Ten Commandments, he began an assault on the University of Texas that led to the purge of UT-Austin President Homer Price Rainey and other alleged subversives. But Memory is not the Muse for Ethan and Joel Coen. In their latest film, the character whom they name Pappy O’Daniel is also a cunning ignoramus, but he holds dominion over Mississippi not Texas. The UT administrator has been purged from the screenplay, and it is the Hellenic Homer who reigns over O’Daniel’s Delta terrain. Early in the proceedings, a title announces that the film, directed by Joel Coen from a screenplay that he wrote with his brother Ethan, is “based upon Homer’s Odyssey.”
If, as Andre Malraux maintained, all art begins in pastiche, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an admirable start. But a viewer is entitled to wonder: Where is the art in manic mimicry? The Coen brothers have populated O Brother with enough Homeric characters–a blind prophet, a one-eyed villain, a trio of seductive Sirens, an abandoned wife named Penny, a protagonist whose middle name is Ulysses–to gratify those viewers who see intertextual connections as confirmation of their own perspicacity. “O Muse, sing in me…,” another opening title implores, but it is not the Muse so much as another movie, Sullivan’s Travels, that provides the Coens with the ponderous title to their entire production. Preston Sturges’ 1942 comedy is the story of a successful Hollywood director who, weary of frothy diversions and intent on making a film that genuinely engages contemporary social problems, travels incognito through Depression America. What he observes and endures provides the inspiration for his next film, called O Brother, Where Art Thou?
At one point, Sturges’ John L. Sullivan (played by Joel McCrea) is conscripted onto a Southern chain gang, and that is the point at which the Coens begin O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with the escape of three shackled, zebra-clad convicts from a squad of rockbreakers. One of them, Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), promises the other two a share of the loot he has hidden after robbing an armored car. What lends urgency to the quest for buried booty in O Brother is that within four days the Tennessee Valley Authority plans to dam a river and flood the valley. In their picaresque progress toward the buried treasure and toward Everett’s impatient wife Penny (Holly Hunter), the fugitive trio are forced to live by their wits. For wits as dim as Everett’s yahoo companions, Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), it is a tough way to live.
Geography more than Calliope has been the Coens’ cinematic Muse. Texas is both the setting and the butt of Blood Simple, their droll debut feature. Raising Arizona mocks its location by assigning the name of the Grand Canyon State to a mewling kidnapped baby. Hollywood is skewered in Barton Fink, Wall Street in The Hudsucker Proxy. Fargo did not endear the Coens to those who inhabit the chilly expanse lying north of Minneapolis. With O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they venture into the bad Old South, a land of rednecks and white sheets, where cotton is king because it provides garments for the Ku Klux Klan. The film was shot in Canton, Jackson, Valley Park, Vicksburg, and Yazoo City, through chromatic lenses that burnish the ’30s in the backroads of rural Mississippi, a sump of ignorance and villainy where uncouth varmints brandish shotguns, whips, and nooses.
O Brother treats not only The Odyssey as an interest-free organ bank from which to filch characters, plots and themes. It also plunders and reappropriates history. During his odyssey from penitentiary to Penny, Everett encounters Governor O’Daniel (Charles Durning), a smarmy panderer running for reelection and charming the gullible campaign crowds by singing to them. His signature tune is “You Are My Sunshine.” O’Daniel did indeed entertain the electorate by performing with a group he called the Hillbilly Boys, but it was Jimmie Davis, the crooning governor of Louisiana, who in truth wrote “You Are My Sunshine.” Even arch-criminal George “Babyface” Nelson (Mike Badalucco), who in fact pursued his criminal career in Illinois and Wisconsin, makes an appearance in the Coens’ Mississippi, robbing a bank in Ita Bena.
It is not clear what purpose is served by confounding historical names with fictional personages except to add to the general goofiness of the proceedings. At a crossroads, Everett, Pete, and Delmar meet a black guitarist called Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who claims to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for supernatural musical talent. It is a legend ascribed to an actual blues man, except that his name was Robert Johnson. (At least he’s in the right state.)
Most of the film’s appropriations and alterations seem to accomplish nothing except to thicken the grits and evoke a knowing chuckle. Sitting around a campfire, each of the three fugitives explains his plans for his share of their treasure, in a scene reminiscent of one in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre where its three prospectors contemplate their prosperous futures after cashing in their gold. The Coens even recycle their own work in this medley of allusions. The character of Big Dan Teague, a larcenous Bible peddler, redeploys John Goodman, who played a homicidal traveling salesman in the Coens’ Barton Fink. Through these and other links, to literature, film and history, the script is winking. O Brother becomes a postmodernist potpourri, in which distinctions between original and simulacrum evaporate, and everything is leveled to play. But to what end? The Odyssey and the Depression are not so much reinterpreted as merely recycled. In Barton Fink, the Coens appropriated the myths and conventions of Hollywood and other movies about Hollywood to create a fresh meditation on the relations between art, love, loneliness and success. But their latest feature reverses Sturges’ trajectory in Sullivan’s Travels; instead of rejecting escapist entertainment in order to confront the harsh realities of contemporary society, Joel and Ethan Coen embrace escape. It is the first act we see on screen, when Everett, Pete and Delmar break away from their chain gang. The moviemaking brothers begin by mocking Sturges’ earnest, awkward title, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and end in madcap inundation, overwhelming their viewers with the zaniness of it all and their characters with the overflowing waters of a newly obstructed river.
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative ought to be prosecuted, or perhaps it is punishment enough for them to be missing the merriment. All the other texts that echo through the length and breadth of O Brother are merely pretexts for a giddy plot, in which a toad is mistaken for a man, a man risks all for the perfect pomade, and even the secret, lethal rituals of the KKK can be savored for their lunatic choreography. O Brother is most memorable for its music, which, composed in part by T-Bone Burnett, echoes with the hard times of a sorry era. Pretending to be the “Soggy Bottom Boys,” Everett, Pete and Delmar bellow out the blues and save their lives. The wonder is how well Clooney, Turturro and Nelson imitate an authentic country style. Or are they imitating the ersatz Blues Brothers, movie actors who sing with such panache that distinctions between imitation and original become moot? “You are my sunshine,” sings everyone in a final reconciliation. But, since the sun generates its own radiance, it would be more accurate to shift the metaphor to light reflected from a secondary body. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is made of splendid moonshine.
Steven G. Kellman is professor of comparative literature at The University of Texas at San Antonio and the author, most recently, of The Translingual Imagination.