Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

O Brother, Where Art Thou

“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

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy | Musical | History | Fantasy
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Actors: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning
Year: 2000
Country:
Original Review: August 2001

Cyberspace:

Thrills, Tears, and the Real Gone Girls of Cinema

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/movies/first-women-filmmakers-film-series.html?em_pos=medium&emc=edit_fm_20180720&nl=movies-update&nl_art=3&nlid=7605539emc%3Dedit_fm_20180720&ref=headline&te=1

Women Film Pioneers Project

https://wfpp.columbia.edu/

This article by The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis is a response to a then-recently released collection of women filmmakers in early Hollywood.  Long ignored or forgotten in standard film histories, the work of directors such as Alice Guy Blaché, Ida May Park, Mabel Normand, Lois Weber, Marion E. Wong, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Dorothy Arzner, Dorothy Davenport, Ida Lupino, and many others.    The “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” series was sponsored by Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress and offered “a thrilling look at the variety of films made by women, most before they won the right to vote. These are women who — as directors, producers, writers and stars and sometimes all at the same time — helped create cinema but whose contributions remain undervalued or ignored….”

The second link takes you to a site whose purpose is to act as “a scholarly resource exploring women’s global involvement at all levels of film production during the silent film era.”  The site contains profiles of over 300 women, critical essays, film clips, and excellent links to further resources.

One of these days men are going to get over the fool idea that women have no brains…and quit getting insulted at the thought that a skirt-wearer can do their work quite as well as they can. And I don’t believe that day is very far distant, either.”– Cleo Madison, Photoplay (January 1916)

Still a long way to go.  At the 2018 Venice Film Festival, for example, of the 21 films shown only one was directed by a woman (Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale).  That was the average female representation over a period of six years.

 

Die Hard Turns Thirty:  The Enduring Appeal of an ‘80s Classic

https://brightlightsfilm.com/die-hard-turns-thirty-80s-classic-bruce-willis/?utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=BLFJ&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–pH0imOXBILa9VOwvPvQuTMlVbFn3PN8p9TajnQtMSTghM62HZJVEeFpXsMaonRu4ut431ugBF2ZcP1nYLHH82j9hpwg&_hsmi=64892485&utm_content=64892485

A long-form essay from Graham Daseler for The Bright Lights Film Journal.  Daseler prefers action heroes to superheroes, and ordinary joes to Ramboesque demigods.  He describes how Bruce Willis, just about the studio’s last pick for the role, and with a rather anemic resume, negotiated a $5 million dollar salary.  Daseler also describes in detail how the film’s plot evolved from Roderick Thorpe’s brutal thriller Nothing Lasts Forever into an exhilarating cinematic rollercoaster ride.  A couple of excerpts:

“If I had to guess, I’d say I’ve seen Die Hard (1988) fifty times in my life. Maybe sixty. I haven’t kept track. The first time was when I was four. The most recent was last week. I don’t fully understand the attraction myself. The movie is filled with clichéd characters, improbable stunts, and overly broad jokes. The plot is patently absurd…. But my affection for the film has never wavered. I love it unreservedly, despite its faults, the way a parent loves a child….”

“Die Hard has the effervescence of a Shakespearean comedy. It has rather too many asses, but, on the other hand, it has a charming prince and a villain who is as delectably devious as Iago and Richard lll. For all the blood that gets spilled, Die Hard is essentially a joyous film, beginning with a lovers’ quarrel and concluding with their kiss. Sure it’s daft and silly, full of gunfights, explosions, and ’80s pop references. But the pleasure of it is timeless.”

 

Jeena: A Meeting | Bollywood hip Hop Choreography by Shereen Ladha | Atif Aslam | Badalapur

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vbk2rtzs54I

Baarish Dance | Bollywood Contemporary Choreography by Shereen Ladha | Half Girlfriend

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcJj8rQ4GVg

Bang Bang Dance – Choreography by Shereen Ladha

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH6S8sef_Gw

Luv Letter | Bollywood Dance Choreography feat. Dance Masala

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xg8dQSwpSnk

 

Because one can never have too much Bollywood dancing. 

A selection of short dances from Shereen Ladha, a dancer and choreographer based in Toronto.  Go, Canadian content!

Films Worth Talking About:

Almost Famous, Wonder Boys, You Can Count on Me, Traffic, George Washington, The Cell, High Fidelity, Pollock, [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon], Requiem for a Dream, Before Night Falls, Best in Show, Chuck and Buck, The Contender, Dancer in the Dark, Jesus’ Son, Rosetta, Shadow of the Vampire, The Terrorist, Dark Days, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, The Filth and the Fury, Paradies Lost 2: Revelations, Endurance/South, All the Pretty Horses, An Affair of Love, The Big Kahuna, Boiler Room, Chicken Run, Chocolat, The Claim, Claire Dolan, The Color of Paradise, Frequency, Girl on the Bridge, Girlfight, Joe Gould’s Secret, L’Humanité, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Legend of Drunken Master, A Map of the World, The Perfect Storm, Place Vendome, Quills, Snow Falling on Cedars, Such a Long Journey, The Gift, Thirteen, Thirteen Days, Time Regained, Titan A.E., Two Family House, Two Women, The Virgin Suicides, What’s Cooking?, The Wind Will Carry Us, Nowhere to Hide, The Emperor’s New Groove, Love & Basketball, Bamboozled, Ratcatcher, Beau Travail, Yi Yi, Amores Perros, Falls, In the Mood for Love, Gohatto/Taboo, Erin Brockovich, Human Resources, Charlie’s Angels, Scary Movie, Rules of Engagement, The Patriot, The Beach, Gladiator, Momento, Code Unknown, The Circle, Chopper, Maelström, Snatch, Bring It On, X-Men, Gone in 60 Seconds, Malena, The Replacements, Remember the Titans, The Whole Nine Yards, Hollow Man, Final Destination, Mission Impossible II, Road Trip, What Women Want, Coyote Ugly, Bedazzled, Sexy Beast, [Me, Myself & Irene], Miss Congeniality, Battle Royale, Monarch of the Glen, Pitch Black, [Dude, Where’s My Car?], Vertical Limit, Shanghai Noon, Scream 3, Waking the Dead, 28 Days, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Aimee & Jaguar, American Psycho, Cast Away, Croupier, Dr. T & The Women, East Is East, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, Hamlet, The House of Mirth, Human Resources, Kadosh, The City (La Ciudad), Meet The Parents, Me Myself I, Mifune, My Dog Skip, Nurse Betty, Pola X, Return To Me, Small Time Crooks, Space Cowboys, State And Main, A Time For Drunken Horses, Tigerland, Time Code, The Tao of Steve, Unbreakable

The Bigger Picture

Films:  anything by the Coen brothers; Down from the Mountain (2000)

Music:  the soundtrack, naturally; Down from the Mountain Live; any anthologies of music by the Stanley Brothers and the Louvin Brothers; anything by the Carolina Chocolate Drops & Rhiannon Giddens

Books:  James Mottram, The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind; Charlie Louvin, with Benjamin Whitmer, Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers; Dr. Ralph Stanley, with Eddie Dean, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times; Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America; John A. and Alan Lomax, Folk Song U.S.A.

The Word on the Street

We lived through the depression and related to some of the conditions portrayed. We have watched it perhaps a dozen times. Each time we see it we pick up on something we had missed because we were still laughing at, or discussing, an earlier scene or line. The entire film was a collection of photographically great faces. We are still asking ourselves whether the entire cast were professionals or whether some were individuals found on location. The film was rich with subtle tie-ins like the children tied together with twine, as the prisoners were connected by chains…. We are still amazed that someone not of our generation could have captured the essence of that period of United States history.   [wilma1913]

The Coen Brothers may just be cinema’s greatest crackpot auteurs-they deliver sly, ironic stories that generally consist of several weird and wild subplots that all collide in an ending that always leaves a few loose ends for the audience to ponder. Bless them. In the midst of the blockbusters franchises and hipster road movies, seeing a Coen Brothers movie is like inhaling a breath of fresh air. This one is no exception…. John Hart, Chris Thomas King and Allison Krauss all deliver excellent tracks, but the real highlight is when Clooney and his co-horts burst into a toe-tapping version of “Man of Constant Sorrow”, not for the sake of the plot, but for pure enchantment. And that’s what ‘Brother’ is all about-not story (although it has a great one), but serving up a great slice of unadulterated folksy bliss.   [filmfan92]

O Brother, Where Art Thou is a thick slice of Americana. Much of this comes from the bluegrass soundtrack. I fell in love with the sound along with singer Gillian Welch. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is at the height of his creative powers as he brews something modern and antique at the same time. His images are a little grainy and blurry, which gives them the historical feel, but the composition and quality do not suffer for it.   [Raven-1969]

Perhaps that is what I, actually, love the most about this film. The sense of coming home after hard times away. The belief that, while family is worth everything, close friends are often the crucible through which we are refined and make us better people for our families when we do get home and join them. The journey is not the destination, but it does change us and make us into the people who will arrive there.   [truemythmedia]

There is a line in O Brother, Where Art Thou? that sums up not just the consensus view of this movie, but also that of nearly every Coen Brothers production. George Clooney says to his chained counterpart John Turturro, “It’s a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” Indeed, there may never have been a better and more meaningful statement uttered. For that sums up the total outlook Joel and Ethan have given to us ever since their stunning debut in 1984 with Blood Simple.   [bobsgrock]

Highly keen soundtrack by T Bone Burnett , in which mundane sounds are made to seem eerie or used for absurd effect . George Clooney practiced his singing for weeks, but in the end his singing voice was dubbed by country blues singer Dan Tyminski . The film’s soundtrack became an unlikely blockbuster, even surpassing the success of the film . By early 2001, it had sold five million copies , spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums.   [ma-cortes]

O Brother is, simply put, a spectacular tour-de-farce that has all the elements required for a great movie in the style of old Depression era Hollywood. Before seeing this for the second time, we rented Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. It was really cool to see the references the Coens did to Sullivan’s Travels in O Brother!   [ash-173]

The KKK scene where Everett,Delmer and Pete ambush the color guard to save Tommy was exactly like the scene in the Wizard of Oz whens the tin man, scare crow and lion ambushed the color guard to save Dorothy. Anyone else notice? I guess they were trying to depict KKK members as monkeys. This movie becomes more interesting in each viewing. I have watched it several times and pick up some new detail every time I see it. Also, I think the Tim Blake Nelson version of “In The Jailhouse Now” is the best I’ve ever heard; better than the original or any other recordings of the tune that have hit the charts such as the Webb Pierce version. Why hasn’t Tim pursued a singing career further?   [heartachoke52]