© 2014 by James Clark
Approaching a film with such a plethora of reckless screwballs as displayed in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), we could iterate the boys’ Surrealist agenda as to self-distortion and attendant (absurdist) humor (which they delight in pretending to be apple-pie folksiness). Or we could catch them up in yet another dangerous stab at satire of American regional foibles (prone to self-indulgent distemper). But there is something quite wonderfully special lurking within this hayride and it prompts me to begin with the film’s one and only instance of dramatic subtlety.
Our three protagonists (measuring, almost frighteningly, down to the Three Stooges, as escapees [by completely unconvincing luck] from a Mississippi chain gang) meet up with a jovial bank robber and accompany him, first of all, as he gleefully discharges his tommy gun toward two police vehicles on his tail and, then, toward a herd of cows. As things get noisy, one of the fugitives, Delmer (who sports a haircut made famous long ago by Moe, one of the schmos) drawls off the redundant query to the gunman, “What line of work you in, George?” The radiant shooter, grinning from ear to ear, chooses, “Killin’ coppers,” as pretty close to the mark; and then he elaborates with, “I’m George Nelson… I’m bigger than any outlaw who ever lived!” This doesn’t help us understand his turning to gun down that herd of cows and declaring, “I hate cows worse than coppers!” Some of the startled herd come to collide with the pursuers, inducing our chubby young attention-seeker to, with optimum hilarity, shout out to them, “C’mon you miserable, god-damn sons of bitches!”
After his cackling fulsomely and still shooting at the law, though far out of range, we see him veering into a town, parking near the bank and rolling in that direction with the hitch-hikers in tow (resembling a football team running on to the field—only this team has for a fight-song, “C’mon boys! We’re going for the record! Three banks in two hours!”) At the bank we discover why he hates cows with their pronounced teats. The invasion begins happily enough for him, he jumping up on a table, shooting holes in the ceiling and singing out, “OK, folks. Hold up yer paws, and drop yer drawers!” Another of his new chums, Ulysses (hair-anxious, like Larry, but Curly for sure), asks, a bit worriedly, how he plans to bring this increasingly exposed escapade to a happy ending. “Here’s my plan,” the rebuttal quickly comes; and he shows Ulysses many sticks of dynamite fastened to the inside of his coat Just at that moment, when George was vividly at peace with going out with a blast, sooner or later (enjoying his own clever little joke and insult concerning old ways—“Thank you, folks. And remember, Jesus saves, but George Nelson withdraws!”), he overhears an old lady whispering to a fellow robbery victim, “That’s Baby Face Nelson…” That epithet immediately sends the devil-may-care comedian into a tailspin (a withdrawal) of vapid, bathetic insistence that he’s nobody’s baby. “George Nelson! Not Baby Face! You remember! You tell your friends!” His glum delivery of, “I’m George Nelson, born to raise hell…” fails to catch the fire that he had commanded so well up till then. He shoots a lame little tommy gun pop into the air, plods out, slumped over; and at their open fire, far from the town he left more bewildered than infuriated, he scowls into the flames, and in reply to Delmer’s up-beat, “Well that was some fun now, wasn’t it, George?” he whispers, “Yeah.” “Jacking up banks!” the fan enthuses. “I can see how a feller would derive a whole lot of pleasure and satisfaction from it!” George, without any conviction at all, says, “It’s OK.” And he proceeds to leave behind the packets of money acquired at much emotional cost, and then he departs into the darkness. And only at the waning moments of the film do we see him again, having very pointedly regained his mojo. He’s been captured, marched along a street, the focus of a torchlight parade, and he couldn’t be more pleased. Ulysses is there, in the midst of an infuriating (and debilitating) argument with his wife about a missing wedding band and his two pals are there also, having become, along with him, pardoned and lucked into cushy jobs. From their perspective of Nouveau Riche in the midst of the Depression they register various levels of wonderment about the different windfall befalling the Grand Marshal of the parade. George (as before with the dynamite) embraces his precarious situation; and it, in turn, embraces him. “Hello, boys!” he greets them, as sanguine as if presiding over the Sugar Bowl Classic. “Well,” he continues, bringing to mind the scandals so prevalent down there, “… these little men finally caught up with the criminal of the century! Looks like the Chair for George! They gonna electrify me! I’m gonna go off like a Roman Candle!” As the procession—their torches linking to a Ku Klux Klan rally during which the boys showed some pluck—recedes, there is George’s voice in the distance, being covered over by the sounds of fiddlers and war cries, “…fire offa my head, and lightnin’ from my fingertips…”
During this flare-up, the three protagonists are seen to be captured by the strange buoyancy on parade in distinctly different ways. Ulysses never smiles and instead seems mired in the factuality of a life about to end. (The Ku Klux Klan leader, in a blood red cloak and hood, sings out a bloodless bluesy statement to his resentful followers—“O Death/ Will you spare me over till another year?”) Delmer smiles, more confusedly than with having broken through to the uncanniness gracing George’s last moments. The third escapee, Pete (Curly, in having covered some of the most twisting and painful territory of the Odyssey) smiles with an aura of love for the hardness opening toward strange and sustaining joy. (This panoply of moods has been anticipated by an earlier nocturnal gathering around a fire. Back when they were motorists, they had given a lift to a black blues singer and guitarist, and as he played and sang—“…these hard times drive you from door to door…”—each of the fugitives showed us pensiveness unexpected from such stooges. Then Ulysses asked his pals what they aimed to do with their share of a hidden treasure [non-existent] he purported to be leading them to. Delmer would buy back the family farm. “You’re no kind of man if you ain’t got land.” Pete (with a heartfelt smile) would, “Go out West somewhere. Open a fine restaurant… I’m gonna be a maitre d’…meet all the swells. Go to work every day in a bow tie… tuxedo…Not gonna stand there sayin’, ‘Yes, Sir. No, Sir.’ Meeting them just as people… Know my meals are free…” Though he came up empty here [knowing in fact there was no fortune engendering the poetic anticipation], there was more to Ulysses’ chatter than cut and dried scheming. The well-honed structures of his gab implied an embrace of fastidiousness; and a persistently upbeat take on often discouraging encounters [a skill George found impossible to deploy], showed him to harbor some substantial degree of poetry, freeing up mere dullness to play into depths. In rounding out that fireplace chat, Pete complains bitterly about the posse from the pen having, though missing them, scooped up their car; but Ulysses keeps positive. “I’m not gonna dignify the rancor of your remarks with a reply, Pete. But I will address your general attitude of negativism. Consider the lilies [closer to pedestrians than motorists] of the god-damn field.”
Now that we’ve come to know (somewhat) a cadre of players capable of more than slapstick and palpably challenged to maintain a strikingly complex and daunting upbeat, it’s time to notice what all this struggling sets in relief—as the true subject of O Brother—namely, music performed with so much panache that it creates a rush of true freedom in the midst of so much imprisonment. (It is fitting that the Klan boss [also, as it happens, the front-running candidate for Governor, on a “reform” ticket] sings a fiercely reactionary song to his troops, being the antipode of dynamic freedom—“I’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk/ I’ll lock your jaw so you can’t talk…”) As things happen, the three protagonists charm over the incumbent Governor, desperate for a campaign gimmick, by reason of having cut a runaway-hit record (for a blind aficionado of and producer of country music). So money-driven (here the big payoff was all of $10 each) was this artistry (in fact, merely a fascinating bridge to the real musical labors of love), that they make a hurried 180-degree shift from claiming to be negro gospel singers (“songs of salvation to salve the soul”), when realizing the producer doesn’t want negro songs, to being, like him, devoted to “Old Timey songs” (“Heck, we’re silly with it!”). But the boys (along with their passenger, the black guitarist), being plenty conversant with hard times and stressful longing—ever-shady Ulysses having staged the escape to forestall the mother of his six daughters from marrying someone else—whack off a catchy-enough lament, “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow.” (As Ulysses hits the cliché, “…I’m bound to ramble, I have no friends to help me down…” the excitable impresario, holding on to a territory the boys merely dabble in, shakes his head vigorously and calls out, “Yes, yes, Yeaah!”) The outcome of that session becomes ballistically popular in the sweep of the South reached by the little radio-station-cum-recording studio and eventually makes all the difference for the Incumbent thus indebted to the group, known as “The Soggy Bottom Boys,” for inadvertently causing a mutiny against the Reformer at one of his biggest rallies. Like Elvis once the phony Colonel unburdened him of true spark, the boys are not the real thing—but real enough to be wildly popular. The turnaround of the rally is broadcast on the little (but big enough) radio station finally justifying that earlier moment of the Governor’s hopeful strategy, “We’re mass communicatin’.”
Let’s hold on to that word, “mass.” The Ku Klux Klan and its politically ambitious leader were about mass tastes. And the trio, in one of its finest moments, runs amok at the rally in rescuing their black sideman from being lynched. (The song we see and hear the Klan performing from the perspective of the escapees’ grandstand of a bluff is bemusingly on the order of repeating many times the term, O-HI-O! How do the Buckeyes get into this? Well, the pep rally has choreography resembling a college football half-time show. And the eye-holes with those hoods could imply a herd of four-legged critters.) The film very explicitly plays off of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and its moral that a simple old laugh is more important than harangues about the gloomy side of life. (One of the upcoming musical gems is “Keep on the Sunny Side,” performed with rural uncomplicatedness.) And yet, this effort, daring to be compared with a Three Stooges yawner, is far from easy to grasp. The fan base, of the Soggy Bottom Boys (something there about resolve and self-control [the Coens snap off phrases in this one on the order of a flamethrower], e.g., “Damn! We’re in a tight spot!” and “Wipe this State clean!”), affords a glimpse of how to mass communicate game-changing overtures. Pumped by an evocation and elevation of their own constant sorrow, the audience having been drawn to a rally concerning reform shout down and run out on a rail the man (whom until then they respected) who tried to stem the tide by insisting the singers weren’t white, which is to say, denigrating figures who had touched their heart in such a way as to trump any other considerations. This screwball-saga satisfaction, however, leaves many questions about the powers of music to open truly new doors. (Recall that the beneficiary of the magic at the rally is a cynical old reactionary.)
The title, O Brother, Where Art Thou? may, after we’ve more fully touched upon the film’s way of being moved by music, enter into a crisis of translating such joyous spiritual kinship into apposite communion. As they drive along, it is Pete who discerns a beckoning in the air, and he heads through the scrub forest as if drawn by a primal motion. There he and his friends come upon their own real-life Sirens (one of the prefatory notes of the film maintaining that it has some relation to Homer’s Odyssey). Three beautiful young women have made a seductive production-number out of doing their laundry in a stream, legs splayed, arms extended in wringing the excess moisture from their lingerie. But what first hit Pete, and what remains the big deal for us, is their a capella singing in close and easy harmony—“Go to sleep you little babe/ You and me and the devil makes three…” In the course of Ulysses’ poo-pooing a gospel performance that wowed, especially, Delmer, but also Pete, just minutes before, this comet-like, confirming moment surges toward us in the form of a Botticelli allegory of Spring, racing across a dusty landscape. As the twangy harmonics reach a crescendo level, each woman caresses a stooge, and each stooge (in descending proportion from Pete to Ulysses) becomes something more. Then the magic dissipates, first with Delmer, then with Ulysses, awakening from being spread out on a rock face by the waters. Ulysses’ first words of the day, “My hair!” signal that his amply displayed vain obsession with his coiffure is alive and well. Delmer, shocked by Pete’s clothes spread out, suspects the worst; and when an agitation first stirs under the shirt he concludes that his friend’s heart has been ripped out. On seeing the toad that put that lugubrious idea on track, Delmer shifts to the notion that the girls had transformed him into something less than his stooge proportions. The truth of the matter, as we eventually learn, is that the girls, for all the disinterested dimensions of their music at its best, had turned in the bounty to the prison pursuit team, for a nice cash reward.
The pulse of this strangely poetic cul-de-sac is remarkable for its cutting letdown from what momentarily appeared to be a touch of the sublime, notwithstanding a raunchy twist. Similarly, the impact of various incarnations of “Keep on the Sunny Side” carries the whiplash of the unearthly roller coaster run by the Sirens. The self-styled reform candidate has hired a trio of middle-aged musicians to impress the low-density population that his would be an administration of solid affection and sensible pleasure. Thus we first encounter this band, breaking ground to the most surreal point of its orbit, from an ungainly distance and on the open back of a truck, crawling along a dusty country road—flatland and sky abounding—and from the perspective of a lone voter, a farmer in his field. He’s not thrilled by this low-tech incursion into the back forty; but we (and even perhaps he) can feel its affinities with the primal zone of a scruffy landscape, serving to enhance the agricultural goings on, as projected by a lead singer with a no-nonsense alto voice braced by a functioning life on an unforgiving plot. “Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side/ Keep on the sunny side of life…” Ulysses, accompanied by Delmer (having unmusically hitched a truck ride to his home town in a bid to regain the confidence of a wife, Penny, who’s imbued with strong sales resistance), comes closer to the fixed stage where the “Sunnysiders” expand on their theme—“It will help us every day/ It will brighten all the way…” (Also on the bill [the point of real interest to Ulysses] are three of his daughters [“the Worvey Girls”]—trios galore in this concert take—accompanied, on guitar, by the aforementioned songster with some celestial heft. The children, lacking even their dad’s limited musical skills (more, in fact, like their prosaically-mired mother), mechanically sing out, “In the highway, in the highway/ I’ll be somewhere with my Lord.”) The pat religiosity those parenthetical kids grind out, in getting out the vote, recalls, in a way, a choir that overtakes the Soggy Bottom Boys before they got into the recording industry. Squabbling, as usual, on a road in the woods, they are interrupted by a white-robed procession of singers making their way to a nearby river for a mass baptism. The optics may be hackneyed; but the singing (by a mixed chorus) reaches unique levels. “O Brother, let’s go down/ Let’s go down, c’mon down/ C’mon Brothers, let’s go down/ Down in the river to pray/ As I went down in the river to pray/ Studying about that good old way/ And who shall wear the starry crown/ Good Lord, show me the way…” The repetitive cadence by steady, committed voices draws Delmer and Pete to the plunge “down,” into a coursing stream. Ulysses is typically cynical; but his tedious rationalism—“Well, I guess hard times flush the choke. Everybody’s lookin’ for answers…”—does reach as far as the matter of a rather pat program. The robes, too, are a little too close to those at the Klan rally. But perhaps the most telling feature of this disagreement is the wise guy’s demonstrating an acrid, hidebound—and vastly common—contempt for the kind of emotion Delmer was (however momentarily) attentive to (a fertile sensitivity the radio station man was fully committed to). Interrupting his friend’s sense of change for the better, Ulysses lets us see the full proportions of his own choke problems, by way of the remark, “Delmer, what are you talkin’ about? We got bigger fish to fry” [namely, the shambles of his own marriage].
The seduction of music, as this film sees fit to spotlight, reaches its zenith, however, in repeated performances by musicians we never see, namely, the nieces of the blind (and readily moved) recording mogul’s cousin Eldred (slurred to sound Elvis) who make it on to the playlist with no need for nepotism. “Hang on! I’m gonna slap one on ya! An Old Timey harmony thing with a guitar accompaniment,” is how the blind seer of a DJ describes their big hit (put on in the course of backstage firming up legalities and distribution of the wildfire that was the Soggy Bottom Boys—truth to tell not holding a candle to those anonymous girls.) As the stooges, so pleased to have filched an extra tenner coming out of the recording session, and divested of their car while being moved to rare reverie by their black accompanist, slog across country, the strains of “I’ll Fly Away” wend their way over that radioland. The three musical pragmatists steal a pie from a window sill; and the girls greatly enhance the boys’ subsequent unseemly scramble, with close harmony at once rustic and angelic. “Like a bird I’ll fly/ I’ll fly away, fly away.” We see the protagonists enjoying their heist by fire light, and the true and rare happiness to be alive enlivening their features makes us glad for them. As this transpires, the girls belt out some lovely rounds on the moments, “I’ll fly away, fly away, O Lord!” To further press the eerie and irresistible sublimity of this dimension, we have the visual magic of two young black boys carrying large bricks of ice for the family ice box, on a dusty country road amidst parched fields, as the Soggy Bottom Boys shuffle forward with little conviction. Then the nieces’ recording goldmine graces the unbeknown hit paraders huddled under a porch in a steady rain; it goes on, even more pointedly, to unfurl its hardy and delicate dynamics in the presence of Ulysses, by firelight, thinking to amuse his friends with a rendition of a spastic creature, the paralysis of which sharply, especially due to Elvis’ nieces, speaks to his own deficiencies of depth and momentum.
Not long after this, the dubiousness of Ulysses’ smart-ass observations and chatter is taken up again by his encounter with a Bible salesman who steals the depressive largesse which came from Baby Face, while praising his kinship in having the “gift of gab,” supposedly so far superior to Delmer’s perceived state of being “tongue-tied.” The Bible exponenent, after beating them senseless, leaves them with a tag line that involves surprising bite within the slapstick romp (albeit dark). “So long, boys! See you in the funny papers!” By contrast, the send-off of those talented and passionate little gals, blithely shifting into rounds (“I’ll fly away, fly away in the mornin’/ I’ll fly away, fly away/ When I die hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away, fly away…”), involves Ulysses purchasing his preferred hair conditioner, Dapper Dan, and then stealing a car parked at the crossroads grocery.
In tandem with the cinematographic crosscurrent as stemming from mass prosaic capitulation and seldom-noticed poetic resilience, there is a set of gestures in this film that could readily be taken for signing off on any programs that might have alluded to something more than farce within the purview of human existence. This would take us back to Miller’s Crossing (1990) and its coming to terms with the function of disinterested resolve in face of an imperative toward abrasive irony. Our Ulysses—“I’m a Dapper Dan man, dammit!”—in conjunction with that explicit statement at the opening credits that O Brother has something to do with (is “loosely based on”) the Odyssey by Homer, falls so ridiculously short of the dignity of his namesake that one might be tempted to identify the linkage as part of a historical collapse. Add to that, his spouse, Penny (Penelope), is not at all faithful and intelligently gentle like the prototype but in fact is as perversely self-serving as the garrulous stooge who fathered her children. Having been won back by the lead singer of the Soggy Bottom Boys, she scuttles the marriage that was to give them a new lease on love because the only wedding ring that would do had been lost in flooding for the sake of a hydro-electric reservoir (a bid for lighting up such a citizenry as they who show no hope of rising to George Nelson’s way with electrodynamics). The screen credit designating George Clooney, who plays Ulysses with a fine combination of screwball loose steering and Clark Gable winsomeness, is accompanied by a facile song that never gets off the ground, to wit, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” “I’m headed for a land that’s far away/ Beside the crystal fountain/ So come with me, we’ll go to see the Big Rock Candy Mountain…” He can rattle off self-serving sophistry like, “It’s a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” But his sensibility shows in fact virtually nothing but “logic,” mundane calculation on behalf of easy comfort (Candy Mountain-style). (Getting together with his lady-love, he promises her, “My adventurin’ days is done.” He doesn’t begin to realize how funny he is.) He ridicules the lack of scientific pragmatism in Delmer and Pete’s “spiritual mumbo jumbo and superstitions”; and falls on his knees to pray for a God’s assistance when facing a hangman (a point Pete catches him up on the last time we see him).
Looked at “logically,” the scenario points to a virtually unchallenged kingdom of scoundrels. But this is not a film resting upon that quantitative logic. We are, I think, given some substantive (however abstruse) direction for the impact of those strangely affirming musical interludes, by way of another preamble to counter (or, better, synthesize) the one referring to the version of the Odyssey which the narrative contrives. There is, seemingly unremarkable for a tale from the ink-on-paper era, an epigraph that in fact bounds far ahead, leaving the Great Depression, if not superseded, no longer great. “O Muse/ Sing in me, and through me tell the story/ Of that man skilled in the ways of contending/ A wanderer, harried for years on end.” That invocation, we might now recognize, would be about the Coens’ invoking the dynamics of inspired music in order to put in its place the likes of Ulysses, “skilled (to some extent) in “the ways of contending.” Relishing the insistence that they have never read the Odyssey, the Coens would go on, no doubt, if put on the spot, to deny knowing anything about Heidegger’s An Introduction to Metaphysics and its extended reflection upon pre-Socratic poets (like Sophocles and Homer) and pre-Socratic philosophers (like Parmenides and Heraclitus)—delivered with remarkably non-Heideggerian abrasiveness, and even insult, that punchy bathos, in fact, that the brothers find themselves continually struggling to subdue. That book does battle with gab-mavens deriving from Plato; and it sets about elucidating how rare a mastery of “skill in all the ways of questioning contending” would be. As thus primed, the film would spotlight an obtuse smartass like Ulysses from the perspective of uncanny song and thereby cover him (and his myriad ilk) with a patina of a musically loving wit.
In this vein we have the incumbent Governor, Pappy O’Daniel, and his campaign brains trust batting around the notion of trumping the reform challenger’s gimmick of a midget to give a multiple kick to the optics of sweeping out the unacceptably cluttered and spent debris that was the political leadership, and to juice up his slogan of “Servant of the Little Man.” Pappy’s walrus-like son, lolling on the family’s antebellum porch in the summer heat, suggests finding an even smaller midget, at which his pappy belts him with his straw hat and zaps the lot of us with his scattergun outcry, “…and that’s the god-damn problem [reflexive smallness] right there!” Then the campaign team chimes in, in the aura of Pappy’s fortuitous exposure of smallness, “It’s a problem of perception…” Such canny chatter—of which we have several tons during the two-hour whirlwind—can, despite the slapstick cladding, find itself endowed with just enough aural and visual edginess to keep us clinging to the primordial business at hand in this daring new Odyssey. At the outset, the protagonists give us a chain-gang and runaways in chains; at the conclusion, Ulysses’ daughters trail behind their bickering mom and dad, linked to the “Pater Familiaris” by a rope of string. In the meantime the flooding reminds us of the primacy of kinetics and its heartbeat of free sensibility. (The lynch-mad sheriff declares to the boys, who have pressed the sanctity of their pardon, “The law is a feudal institution.”) The radio station—a white, clapboard, deserted-looking former filling station (with a sign spelling WEZY) having been just reachable by Demy’s ESSO in a Cherbourg color-enhanced for biting uncanniness (while the landscape of O Brother has been burned out for minimal magic)—may seem laughable. But if you look and listen closely, you may see that it’s as formidable as the Louvre, with a blind CEO who could be called a new Homer.
Up next, more about the Coens’ take on Ulysses, in Inside Llewyn Davis.