Thursday, 21 June 2012

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Dir. Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman

Another state, another Coen Brothers movie. They depicted 1980s Minnesota in Fargo; they depict 1930s Mississippi in O Brother, Where Art Though? The strange title comes from the 1942 film Sullivan’s Travels in which a Hollywood director dreams of making a socially relevant film about the Great Depression. O Brother is set in Depression-era America, though I’m not sure how socially relevant it is. 

This film is rooted in mythology. Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) leads a break out from a prison work gang; accompanying him are Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson). He claims to be leading them to where he hid $1.2million he stole from an armoured car. That story might not sound particularly recognisable, but it is loosely based on The Odyssey by Homer. Ulysses is the Roman name for cunning Odysseus who suffered all kinds of trials and tribulations as he struggled to return to Ithaca and his faithful wife Penelope. In the film Everett represents Odysseus; there is no buried pot of gold, he just wants to get back to his wife. Many of the strange characters they meet along the way correspond to other characters within the Odyssey. Everett’s wife Penny (Holly Hunter) is Penelope (although she has not stayed patiently weaving and waiting for him). The one-eyed club-wielding con-man Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) represents the Cyclops Polyphemus. They are seduced by three bathing women who represent the Sirens. When Delmar wakes to find Pete missing he is convinced that the women magically transformed his friend into a horny toad (much as the sorceress Circe turned Odysseus’ crew into swine). There is a blind seer (Lee Weaver) who prophesies that they will find a fortune, thought it be not the one they seek. The Governor of Mississippi is Menelaus “Pappy” O’Donaghue (Menelaus was one of the Greek leaders in The Iliad), currently engaged in a bitter gubernatorial election with the reformist Homer Stokes (Homer being the traditional creator of both Iliad and Odyssey). Even where the screenplay does not hint at classical parallels the dialogue is peppered with Latin phrases such as “bona fide” and “pater familias”. 

Yet it is not just classical mythology that influences the story. There is a more modern mythology too, the mythology of modern America. A whole host of archetypes of pre-war America (particularly the pre-war rural South) make an appearance. We have the prison work-gang from which Everett and Co escape. We have Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), the Mississippi bluesman who sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for a supernatural skill at playing the guitar; I assumed this was a reference to Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, though apparently there was also a real-life Tommy Johnson who had the same story. We have a Depression-era bank-robber in the person of George ‘Baby-Face’ Nelson (Michael Badalucco) – even though Nelson never made it out of the Midwest. There is old time religion and there are Ku Klux Klansmen with the burning cross and an urge to lynch. And there is political chicanery. Both candidates are folksy sorts who surround themselves with campaigns of radio shows, traditional music and hokey stagecraft. Pappy (Charles Durning) is the representative of cronyism and “interests” - a different Pappy O’Daniel was a flour-baron governor of Texas at around this time. Homer (Wayne Duvall) is the Reform candidate armed with a brush who stands for “the Little Man” (complete with actual little man). This is a mythologised, legendary past. Notably at the film’s end the Arkabutla Valley is flooded to provide hydro-electricity. Everett scoffs at the credulity of his two accomplices and looks forward to a modern homogenised Mississippi powered by electricity which will light up the darkness and drive out superstition. “Out with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo and the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave new world where they hook us all up to a grid. Yes, a veritable age of reason, like the one they had in France. Not a moment too soon.” And frankly the world is a poorer place without these myths and legends, superstitions and traditions. In France they brought about reason with the blade of the guillotine. The future might be bright, but we should reflect upon what has to be lost along the way. 

Folk music and blues play a constant part in the story, from the convicts beating time on the chain gang at the start to the mournful gravediggers at the end. Both campaigning politicians surround themselves with music. The escaped trio, together with Tommy, invent themselves alter egos as ‘the Soggy Bottom Boys’ to earn some money. Their harmonious recording of Man of Constant Sorrow turns out to be the treasure they walk away with. They become more popular than the politicians themselves. Likewise, the accompanying soundtrack album was even more successful than the movie. 

The Soggy Bottom Boys: the ZZ Top of the '30s

The pacing is fairly uneven. At first the script seemed to be just a series of vignettes – this is the scene in which they meet Pete’s cousin, this is the scene in which they see a baptism, this is the scene in which they meet Baby-Face Nelson and so on. Which is fair ‘nuff, as that essentially is what The Odyssey is: a series of travails and dangers that Odysseus and his crew have to overcome. Many of those different elements do get drawn together at the film’s climax however, so I’m glad I stuck with it. Visually the movie is instantly recognisable. The colour palette was digitally altered to give a sepia tone to the entire recording. It is easily identified as a Coen Brothers film. For a start it has John Goodman and Holly Hunter (both seen in Raising Arizona) in it. Secondly, there are some lines that could only have been written by them. Everett’s wordy patter (sample lines being “Pete, the personal rancour reflected in that remark I don’t intend to dignify with coment.But I would like to address you general attitude of hopeless negativism. Consider the lilies of the goddam field or…hell! Take a look at Delmar here as your paradigm of hope!”) are reminiscent of those spouted by Steve Buscemi’s Carl in Fargo. Both are men who believe themselves to be smarter than they really are. Yet Everett has a certain Odysseus-like cunning and a true love for his wife, whereas Carl is a sleaze who resorts to violence and whores. Once again, the cast have obviously gone to some lengths to perfect their regional accents. But I have to say that given the choice between re-watching Raising Arizona, Fargo or O Brother, Where Art Though? (or, indeed, their version of True Grit), I would go for O Brother, purely for entertainment value.

What have I learnt about Mississippi?
1930s Mississippi has it all – chain gangs, impoverished farmers, baptists, bluesmen, bank robbers, folk music, and feuding politicians. Oh, and the Klan. I think the three things that most struck me were the water, the music and the rope. It seems to be a state with plenty of water, be it the baptism lake, the river of the sirens, or the final flood. There is music everywhere, from fiddle-playing folk families to stentorian slave chants, to devilish guitar-playing. And there is the constant threat of summary justice; the noose looms large over Tommy and the escaped convicts. I was very interested to see the folksiness of political campaigns in the 1930s, where it was important to have a “constitchency” – but more important to have a catchy theme tune and an instantly recognisable schtick.  

Can we go there?
Well now, let me tell you that this film was shot in bona fide west Mississippi locations. The early scene where the convicts try to board a train before being given a lift by a blind seer were filmed up on the Columbus & Greenwood Railway. The Hogwallop farm was located near Hazelhurst. The baptism scene was filmed at Alligator Lake near Vicksburg. The radio station has since been torn down, but its radio mast still stands west of Valley Park. Baby-Face holds up the bank in Itta Bena; this was filmed at the old Bank of Yazoo City. The Sirens were encountered at D’Lo Water Park. Homer Stokes’s election rally was shot in the town square of Canton – as you can probably discover at the town’s movie museums. The neighbouring Woolworth’s was actually a number of miles away at Saxton’s Hardware in Yazoo City. The Governor’s mansion was located at the Cedars Plantation in Church Hill. The final banquet scene was shot in Vicksburg, at what was then the St Fancis Xavier Academy auditorium (now the Southern Cultural Heritage Complex, which seems like an appropriate place to visit). 

There are other locations named and not shown – like the real Itta Bena. Tommy wants to get to Tishomingo in the north-east of the state. And the Arkabutla Valley is now the location of Arkabutla Lake; they did indeed flood it.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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