O Brother, Where Art Thou?

USA/France/UK 2000, 107 mins
Director: Joel Coen

One of the earliest gags thrown out (and apparently away) by the Brothers Coen is their po-faced title-credit claim that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on the Odyssey. Aha, you think, typical smart-alecky college-boy spoofery… and then darn it if the Homeric parallels don’t start coming thick and fast. A hero called Ulysses heading back home to see off the suitors for his wife Penny/Penelope; a one-eyed and hence suitably Cyclopean bad guy in the corpulent form of John Goodman, crooked Bible salesman and KKK goon Big Dan Teague; a trio of exquisitely sexy sirens, who coax our crew, three escapees from a chain gang on the trail of a cache of buried money, to the river and oblivion with sweet song and spiked hooch, and even manage to turn one of them – or so his superstitious pals believe – into a frog; blind men prophesying signs and wonders and a guy called Homer.

None of which would appear to have very much point, other than in adding a certain quality of bookish gamesomeness to the proceedings for those in the know, just as a movie buff’s knowledge of the film’s undeclared source, Preston Sturges’ 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels (in which the idealistic director played by Joel McCrea yearns to make a socially conscious epic entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou?), will give a little extra relish to the scene in which a chain gang is marched into the local cinema for their weekly dose of motion entertainment. Disparate as they otherwise are, though, the two classic sources of Sturges’ Travels and Homer’s Odyssey do have at least one thing in common: they share the basic structure of the episodic adventure journey – a form which can have the virtue of mating a reasonably strong narrative drive with a pleasingly wide and promiscuous range of subject matter.

The better part of a century ago, both James Joyce and Ezra Pound twigged to the usefulness of the Odyssey as a clothes line for hanging your obsessions on; though the Coens are neither as universally compendious as Joyce nor as nastily deranged as Pound, their film is also a bit of an encyclopaedic rag-bag or cabinet of curiosities, stuffed to bursting point with the minutiae of American popular culture and folk memory. At one point or another, their film invokes more or less directly all of the following and more: the satanic legend of blues guitarist Robert Johnson, the career of Louisiana governor Huey Long, The Wizard of Oz, the modernising and devastating activities of the Tennessee Valley Authority, bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, The Grapes of Wrath, Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor’s religious zealots and hucksters, writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans’ account of the Depression years Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Lord alone knows what else.

Above all, it’s a compendium of American musical styles of the period, from blues and gospel to bluegrass and back again, comparable in spirit and sheer enjoyment value to Harry Smith’s celebrated anthology of American folk music of the ‘20s and ‘30s, re-issued on CDs a couple of years ago to ecstatic reviews and brisk sales. Simply, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has one of the richest and most satisfying soundtracks I’ve heard in years: hats off to T-Bone Burnett, who arranged and produced it, as well as recruiting a lot of the performers.

So much for the encyclopaedic rag-bag. As for the narrative clothes line: well, O Brother certainly isn’t as funny as one of the top-flight Preston Sturges movies – no shame there, since almost nothing is – but it’s more than funny enough, and sometimes unexpectedly charming into the bargain. George Clooney, who’s been made into a strikingly good ringer for Clark Gable, is agreeably relaxed and understated in the slightly image-tarnishing role of Everett Ulysses McGill, a bit of a blue-collar fop who is almost pathologically concerned with the state of his hair (there is much play with nocturnal hairnets and cans of a gentlemen’s pomade by the name of ‘Dapper Dan’), a bit of a pompous and sesquipedalian word spinner, a bit of a coward and a bit of a cad. Clooney also does a terrific job of lip-synching to ‘I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow’, the song that unknowingly catapults him and his fellow escapees, in the guise of a hillbilly outfit called the Soggy Bottom Boys, to the top of the redneck hit parade.

Clooney’s character holds the film together as much as such a digressive narrative can be held together, and few viewers are going to be much bothered by the implausibilities and grandstanding vignettes which threaten to pull it apart from time to time. As you’d expect from the Coens, O Brother is rich in visual jokes, from very simple slapstick stunts (chained together, the convicts try to jump on to a train one after another; Everett goes first, only to be yanked back into the dust by his less athletic peers) to less readily encapsulated effects, such as the neatly shot moment in which the siren-drugged cons wake up and see that nothing is left of their friend Pete (John Turturro) but a carefully laid-out set of clothes. The torch-lit Klan rally, which the gang eavesdrop, is a particularly strange piece of virtuoso staging, which manages to be at once camp and authentically sinister.

Time to raise and, if possible, lance the old objection levelled against the Coens by unbelievers: yes, they are clever, very clever, too clever by half, but where is the substance, the warmth, the passion? One answer, this time around, is that it is obviously possible to love some of the things you mock (to mock them partly because you love them), and that the treatment of American music in O Brother, even silly yodelling American music, is in the end far more loving than mocking, just as it was in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975).

And what is true of the music is true of the culture which produced that music: it would be hard for filmmakers with no real attachment to Americana to produce a movie so besotted with the bric-a-brac of their nation’s half-forgotten folk ways. It was always clear that the Coens were film-fed boys, but less clear how reverent they felt to their pop-cultural roots. Maybe, like Ulysses or Odysseus, they’ve finally come home to Ithaca. In any event, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a finely wrought entertainment film, one which any con might be pleased to see on his afternoon away from the chain gang.
Kevin Jackson, Sight and Sound, October 2000

Directed by: Joel Coen
Presented by: Universal Pictures, Touchstone Pictures
In association with: StudioCanal
Production Companies: Working Title Films, Blind Bard Pictures
Executive Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Produced by: Ethan Coen
Co-producer: John Cameron
Associate Producer: Robert Graf
Production Supervisor: Gilly Ruben
Production Accountant: Barbara Ann Stein
Production Co-ordinator: Karen Ruth Getchell
Unit Production Manager: John Cameron
Location Manager: Michael Riley
Post-production Provost: Neil A. Stelzner
Post-production Supervisor: David Diliberto
1st Assistant Director: Betsy Magruder
2nd Assistant Director: Jonathan McGarry
2nd 2nd Assistant Director: Donald Murphy
Script Supervisor: Thomas Johnston
Casting: Ellen Chenoweth
Local Casting: Sandy Dawes
Additional Casting: Kathleen Chopin
Voice Casting: Sondra James
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Based upon ‘The Odyssey’ by: Homer
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Camera Operator: Clint Dougherty
1st Assistant Camera: Andy Harris
2nd Assistant Camera: Adam Gilmore
Steadicam Operators: Kyle Rudolph, Mark O’Kane
Still Photographer: Melinda Sue Gordon
Special Visual Effects/Digital Animation: Digital Domain
Graphic Art Director: Ted Haigh
Editors: Roderick Jaynes [i.e., Joel Coen, Ethan Coen], Tricia Cooke
Associate Film Editor: David Diliberto
1st Assistant Editor: Ian Silverstein
2nd Assistant Editor: Karyn Anonia
Production Designer: Dennis Gassner
Art Director: Richard Johnson
Assistant Art Director: Marco Rubeo
Set Designer: Thomas Minton
Set Consultant: Jonathan Short
Set Decorator: Nancy Haigh
Storyboard Artist: J. Todd Anderson
Property Master: Ritchie Kremer
Construction Co-ordinators: Bill Bradford, Jeff Passanante
Costume Designer: Mary Zophres
Assistant Costume Designer: Danielle Valenciano
Make-up Supervisor: Jean Black
Key Make-up: Amy Schmiederer
Head Hairstylist: Paul LeBlanc
Key Hairstylists: Roy Bryson, Barbara Sanders, Karyn Huston
Mr George Clooney’s Hairstylist: Waldo Sanchez
Title Design and Other Cool Stuff: Balsmeyer & Everett Inc
Digital Intermediate: Cinesite, Inc
Music by: T-Bone Burnett
Additional Music by: Carter Burwell
Yodelling: Pat Enright
Music Co-ordinator: Lee Olsen
Music Producer: T-Bone Burnett
Music Producer: Denise Stitt
Associate Music Producer: Gillian Welch
Music Production Co-ordinator: Valerie Pack
Music Editor: Sean Garnhart
Music Recorded by: Mike Piersante
Choreographers: Jacqui Landrum, Bill Landrum
Sound Designer: Eugene Gearty
Production Sound Mixer: Peter Kurland
Boom Operator: Steve Bowerman
Re-recording Mixers: Skip Lievsay, Michael Barry, Sean Garnhart, Greg Orloff
Supervising Sound Editor: Skip Lievsay
Dialogue Editors: Fred Rosenberg, Philip Stockton
Effects Editors: Glenfield Payne, Paul Urmson
ADR Editor: Kenton Jakub
Supervisor Foley: Ben Cheah
Foley Artists: Marko Costanzo, Jay Peck
Foley Editors: Kam Chan, Frank Kern, Jennifer Ralston
Stunt Co-ordinator: Jery Hewitt
Animal Handlers: Birds & Animals
Animal Co-ordinator: Jennifer Henderson
Unit Publicist: Louise A. Spencer

George Clooney (Everett Ulysses McGill)
John Turturro (Pete)
Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar)
Charles Durning (Pappy O’Daniel)
John Goodman (Big Dan Teague)
Michael Badalucco (George Nelson)
Holly Hunter (Penny)
Stephen Root (radio station man)
Chris Thomas King (Tommy Johnson)
Wayne Duvall (Homer Stokes)
Daniel Von Bargen (Sheriff Cooley)
J.R. Horne, Brian Reddy (Pappy’s staffs)
Frank Collison (Wash Hogwallop)
Del Pentecost (Junior O’Daniel)
Ed Gale (the little man)
Ray McKinnon (Vernon T. Waldrip)
Royce D. Applegate (man with bullhorn)
Quinn Gasaway (Bog Hogwallop)
Lee Weaver (blind seer)
Milford Fortenberry (pomade vendor)
John Locke (Mr French)
Gillian Welch (soggy bottom customer)
A. Ray Ratliff (record store clerk)
Mia Tate, Musetta Vander, Christy Taylor (sirens)
April Hardcastle (waitress)
Michael W. Finnell (interrogator)
Georgia Rae Rainer, Marianna Breland, Lindsey Miller, Natalie Shedd (Wharvey gals)
John McConnell (Woolworths manager)
Isaac Freeman, Wilson Waters Jr., Robert Hamlett (gravediggers)
Willard Cox, Evelyn Cox, Suzanne Cox, Sidney Cox (Cox family members)
Buck White, Sharon White, Sheryl White (White family members)
Ed Snodderly, David Holt (village idiots)

USA/France/UK 2000©
107 mins



Le Mépris Contempt
Thu 1 Feb 14:40; Tue 13 Feb 20:20; Mon 19 Feb 20:50; Wed 28 Feb (+ intro by film academic and curator Michael Temple)
Fri 2 Feb 20:30; Wed 7 Feb 18:15 (+ intro by culture writer Kemi Alemoru); Sun 18 Feb 18:30
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Sat 3 Feb 20:45; Sun 11 Feb 15:50; Thu 15 Feb 20:50
Rear Window
Mon 5 Feb 20:45; Fri 16 Feb 18:10; Fri 23 Feb 18:00
Babette’s Feast Babettes Gaestebud
Tue 6 Feb 20:40; Mon 12 Feb 20:50; Wed 21 Feb 18:20 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large)
The Bridges of Madison County
Thu 8 Feb 20:20; Sat 24 Feb 15:40
Don’t Look Now
Fri 9 Feb 20:35; Thu 15 Feb 18:05; Thu 29 Feb 14:30
Sat 10 Feb 12:45; Sat 17 Feb 21:00; Tue 27 Feb 14:30
High and Low Tenguko to Jijuko
Sat 10 Feb 17:45; Sun 25 Feb 18:00
A Farewell to Arms
Wed 14 Feb 18:00 (+ intro by film critic and writer Christina Newland); Sat 24 Feb 18:15; Mon 26 Feb 20:35
The Big Sleep
Thu 22 Feb 18:10; Tue 27 Feb 20:45

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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