“Groups of unmarried women at quilting bees used to shake up a cat in the newly completed quilt and then stand around in a big circle as the animal was suddenly released. The theory was that the girl toward whom the cat jumped would be the first of the company to catch a husband. At other times the quilters would wrap an engaged girl up in the new quilt and roll her under the bed, but the exact significance of this procedure has never been explained to me.”
–Vance Randolph, Ozark Magic and Folklore
Sorry, Ron. After you recently thanked me for choosing obscure old films for this column because that meant you never had to pay new rental prices for them, here I am reviewing a brand new video that’ll cost you the big bucks. Ah shucks. I feel really bad. If you like, Ron, you can just put this review aside for a few months till the movie hits the all-you-can-watch-for-seven-bucks shelves.
Then again, maybe not. The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? is my choice for the most entertaining video of the year to date. Not the most profound. Not the most affecting. Not the most groundbreaking. But definitely the most entertaining in all the best senses of that term. If you’re not smiling long after you’ve finished watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? you’ve probably been taken over by one of those alien pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You’ll have to be hunted down and dispatched.
O Brother’s George Clooney, playing the role of escaped convict Ulysses Everett McGill, is the most endearing rogue on screen since Harrison Ford’s Star Wars days and John Astin’s turn as Evil Roy Slade. With his personal mania for Dapper Dan hair pomade, his pencil-thin moustache, his incongruously inflated language, and his recurring nightmares about mussed hair, Clooney is sublimely ridiculous. As are his two cronies-in-crime, John Turturro (“Pete Hogwallop”) and Tim Blake Nelson (“Delmar O’Donnell”). Delmar and Pete are the kinds of characters one might have gotten had Spike Milligan written The Grapes of Wrath instead of John Steinbeck. “Hayseed” is too dignified a term. Ulysses makes a couple of cracks about “dumber than a sack of hammers” and “barely sentient life forms” that are scarcely exaggerations. Delmar’s sorrow when he thinks Pete has been turned into a toad by “Si-reenes” is worthy of Oedipus.
The longest train I ever saw
Was eighteen coaches long
The only girl I ever loved
Is on that train and gone.
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
And you shiver when the cold winds blow….
–the Louvin Brothers
That “sublimely” I attached to “ridiculous” is a critical qualifier here. Were the acting in O Brother, Where Art Thou?not as superb as it is, the soundtrack not as glorious, and the Coens’ writing less audacious, they might have been burning copies of this film in the Deep South. The Coens take caricature and stereotype off the deep end. Satanic sheriffs. Manic-depressive gangsters. Belligerent Bible salesmen. Intransigent wives. Pork-barrel politicians. KKK rallies that look like they were choreographed by demented kindergarten teachers. Imagine an extended Newfie joke very loosely based on a plot stolen from Moby Dick. Either you’re going to get Newfoundlanders laughing with you, or they’re going to be reaching for their gaffs.
The Coens have the chutzpah to blithely confound Homer (who began the Odyssey with “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story/of that man skilled in all ways of contending,/the wanderer, harried for years on end….”) with Homer and Jethro (who, on the back of one of their dozens of albums, wrote “Today we feel we have a great future behind us, and we have never let failure go to our heads”). O Brother, Where Art Thou? works for the same reason that Homer (real name Henry D. Haynes) and Jethro (Kenneth C. Burns) worked. Sheer talent triumphs over shtick. For all their stage hillbilly act, the fact was that “Jethro” was one of the best mandolin players in the world and he and his partner could do full justice to any of the music they so aggressively parodied.
Likewise with Joel and Ethan Coen. I don’t know if they’re musicians or not, but for O Brother they were smart enough to get T-Bone Burnett and Carter Burwell to help them assemble a stellar musical cast to match the talent of their actors. I’ll tell you who that musical talent is in a moment, but allow me to digress.
Blue jays are supposed to be very rare on weekends, and children are told that these birds go to hell every Friday to help the Devil gather kindling.
–Ozark Magic and Folklore
It might have taken me a whole lot longer to get around to watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? if I hadn’t heard that D.A. Pennabaker (who’d done the Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back in the 1960s) had just finished another musical documentary, Down From the Mountain, assembling all the musicians who worked on the Coens’ film. The reviewer, A.O. Scott from the New York Times, used words like “rich” and “haunting” and “ethereal”. He spoke of “a miscellany of blues, gospel, field hollers and bluegrass breakdowns…presented in their unadorned and timeless glory.” I’ve loved this “miscellany” since the days back in high school that I discovered Manley Wade Wellman’s “Silver John” stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. John was a wandering musician with some potent magic powers, who adventured through the Appalachians collecting centuries-old fragments of hill tunes and battling Behinders and Shonokins and Gardinels with folk wisdom from the Bible, hermetic texts, and that granddaddy of old-time medicine books, The Long Lost Friend.
For I recollected, right clearly, tales I’d heard about the sort of house not made with hands. You can come across it here and there in lonesome places, the thing they call a gardinel. I can’t tell you where that name comes from, what language or meaning it is. It grows up somehow to house size, they say, and it’s there to hope some man will think it’s a house sure enough and go in and not come out again.
Because gardinels eat men, so I’d heard tell.
–Manley Wade Wellman, After Dark
Wellman’s stories set me on a long road that’s led from the Carter Family to the Stanley Brothers to the Louvins to the Clinch Mountain Boys. A.O. Scott described this music perfectly: “It’s at once plain-spoken and otherworldly, grounded in a vanishing rural way of life and uncannily modern. How can songs so preoccupied with death, sin and heartache bring so much joy?” The soundtrack from O Brother features Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Chris Thomas King, Emmylou Harris, the Whites, Gillian Welch, and many others. Until the day someone finally brings Silver John to the screen, and I know that day will come, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Down From the Mountain won’t be far from my VCR.
I wish I wuz a lizard in the spring.
Yes, I wish I wuz a lizard in the spring.
If I wuz a lizard in the spring, I could hear my darlin’ sing,
I wish I wuz a lizard in the spring.
–“I Wish I Wuz a Mole in the Ground”
Credits to the contrary, the plot of O Brother owes about as much to the Odyssey as Todd Mcfarlane’s Spawn did to Dante’s Inferno. One of the depressing sides to the real Odyssey is that the hero’s shipmates have a 100% mortality rate. This is not a good basis for comedy, and the Coens wisely ignore this and most other aspects of the original story to tell their own. The Coen’s Ulysses is trying to get back home to rectify a marital misunderstanding. He drags his two chain gang confederates with him, meeting prophets on railroad push cars, bluesmen at crossroads and sundry American Gothicarchetypes. And also inadvertently recording a Southern smash hit version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” as the aptly-named Soggy Bottom Boys. Need I say more?
I’ve talked about how much I loved the music in this picture. I’d like to end by saying the same about the dialogue. Damn, but it’s clever. You can check out some highlights in the Quotes section of the Imdb entry for the film.
Way to go, Coens. You’ll have your just reward on high. Or elsewhere.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
No second thoughts. Loved it then, love it now. Nothing like it since. Hallelujah & Praise Be for the Coen Brothers!
Here are a few extra tidbits cleaned from James Mottram’s book on the Coen brothers:
- Bank robber George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson is “the first ‘real’ person that has ever been permitted entry to the world of the Coens.”
- The character of Tommy Johnson was actually based on two different blues musicians: Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson. The latter only made a dozen or so recordings, but helped define the early Delta blues sound. He was a hard-living, hard-drinking man who “repeatedly told friends and admirers that he acquired his blues talent by selling his soul to the Devil.”
- “The Coens’ Governor of Mississippi, Pappy O’Daniel is also closely based on a real person. Lee (Pappy) O’Daniel was a flour salesman and host of a radio country music show…., who ran for public office with no previous experience, on the platform of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. Touring the state of Texas, with his band The Light Crust Doughboys, (flour salesmen also), he swept into public office as Governor in 1938.
- “…the majority of the film was shot on location in Western Mississippi, in a 75-mile radius from Jackson.”
- “As so often with the Coen brothers’ movies, one or two colours dominate the film’s palate. In this case, it’s the lush greens and golden yellows of the Mississippi landscape, emphasised further by the fact that the brothers deliberately bleach colour out of the picture (partly due to the harsh sunlight that they were unable to control on the exterior shots). Said Joel, in interview: “it was our idea to desaturate the colours in talking to [cinematographer] Roger [Deakins] about it. It was Roger’s idea to try to do it with the computer. It had the effect of giving the film the look of an old tinted photograph or a postcard, or something like that. It also removed the world from reality in a way that was interesting. It was in keeping with what we were trying to do. It’s not about reality. It’s supposed to be a make believe place.
- “O Brother, Where Art Thou? Takes its title, appropriately enough for the Coens, from the film-within-a-film in Preston Sturges’ movie Sullivan’s Travels.”
- “Once again, after The Big Lebowski, the boys reunited with one-time Bob Dylan collaborator T-Bone Burnett, who acted as the music co-ordinator. ‘He’s a very knowledgeable man, and an enthusiast of this kind of music,” said Joel. ‘Half of the songs that were finally used in the movie were written in the script, and half were things that T-Bone suggested or developed from his previous experience.”
There was no shortage of talent on the Brother set. As of early 2021, Joel and Ethan Coen each have 4 Oscars, T-Bone Burnett has 1 Oscar, Roger Deakins has 2 Oscars (along with another 175 wins & 160 nominations), Production Designer Dennis Gassner has 1 Oscar (and 6 other Oscar nominations), George Clooney has 2 Oscars (and 3 other nominations, and Holly Hunter has 1 Oscar (and 3 other nominations).
Available on YouTube? No, but available for rental or purchase on YouTube & iTunes