If nothing else, the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? keeps the siblings in good company with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and P.T. Anderson, being assembled almost entirely out of elements from other cultural artifacts--The Odyssey most significantly, or so it seems. (The filmmakers have seen fit to give Homer an onscreen story credit, if not a percentage of the profits.) Equally unoriginal, it seems, are the brothers' needlessly defensive responses to such observations. During the alternately frivolous and evasive press conference that followed the first screening of their latest pastiche O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the Cannes Film Festival in May, director Joel Coen took pains to point out that the pair's sources were more literary than cinematic. (He'd done the same thing 15 years earlier, after Blood Simple--which takes its name from Hammett, damn it!--had unspooled in its local premiere at the Walker.)
True enough, the name "Homer" does lend an extra layer of importance to a movie bankrolled by Disney. Yet, following an amiable trio of escaped cons through an embellished rendition of the Depression-era South, the Coens' new widescreen odyssey appears more strongly informed by The Wizard of Oz, Down by Law, the films of Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels in particular), and, perhaps most of all, the toe-tapping bluegrass tunes that pepper the soundtrack. Indeed, in its best moments (of which there are a few), O Brother, Where Art Thou? has a twang to it.
At the start our wacky, pinstriped heroes--Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson)--are escaping from a chain gang through endless fields of Mississippi grass, discovering before long that it's mighty hard for three men to hop a freight train when they're chained together at the ankles. Clooney's charmingly arrogant and freewheeling Ulysses is a pomade fetishist and the most literate of the bunch by far, using words like bifurcated and paradigm without so much as a trace of a Southern accent. (As in most Coen movies, the sophisticates can be spotted by their lack of regional dialect.) By contrast, Turturro's drawling Pete is an ornery moron who yearns to become the maitre d' at his own restaurant, while Nelson's yellow-toothed Delmar is a superstitious simpleton who'd love more than anything to buy back the family farm. The ever-ironic Coens treat these dreams with "sincerity" in the film's gentler moments, their camera slowly tracking into the men's fire-lighted faces as they wax philosophic about their hoped-for success.
But this wouldn't be The Wizard of Oz--I mean, The Odyssey--without chronicling the travelers' encounters with a wide variety of eccentrics. A blind pullcart driver tells the boys they'll never find the $1.2 million in hidden treasure that prompted their desire to escape. The musician Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) shows up to confess having sold his soul to the devil in trade for his guitar-picking prowess. And trigger-happy bank robber George Nelson (Michael Badalucco), who prefers not to be called by his nickname Baby Face, drags the men along on a heist or two.
Historical it may be (after a fashion), but the Coens' strategic use of Delta blues music mainly allows for more cross-pollination of genres--much as those zany camera moves in Raising Arizona, and the surrealist touches in Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing, helped distinguish those movies from appearing slavish remakes of old Hollywood fare. Appropriately, the film ends (and I'll be a little vague here) with an unironic affirmation of pop culture's ability to outshine politics in the public imagination--or perhaps just the Coens'.
One needn't note the out-of-nowhere digital FX that fantastically wash away the movie's realism to grasp that the Coen Brothers treasure the pure power of escapism--a notion that was made clearer still at Cannes. When he wasn't answering, "I don't know," "It's all very unconscious," and "These are really hard questions," Joel Coen addressed the Sturges influence head on, claiming that O Brother "is the film that [the fictional director Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels] might have made if he had been allowed to make an important movie--and if he had been a fan of country music." But notwithstanding its emphatically argued point that the Ku Klux Klan is bad (imagine a Busby Berkeley-choreographed KKK rally and you have a sense of O Brother's most elaborate set piece), this movie is nothing more than a diversion--the film Sullivan might have made after deciding at the end of his travels that the mass audience really just wants to be entertained.
And yet the Coens want the respect of highbrows as well--the gratuitous credit to Homer being one means to that end. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Joel Coen's only impassioned comment at the press conference came in response to one critic's astute observation--along with his assertion that the brothers were being "cagey"--that O Brother pulls specific bits of business from The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath as well.
"You know, it's a funny thing," replied the director, clearly trying not to sound defensive. "Sometimes these references to other movies are conscious--certainly the Wizard of Oz stuff is conscious, and the Preston Sturges stuff. But sometimes it's unconscious. Now, you guys [of the press] have seen a lot more movies than we have, and sometimes [reviews of our movies] contain references to things that we've never even seen." (No doubt it's equally unconscious that the elder Coen's "never saw it" defense is a faithful remake of a comment reported in the Strib in 1985.)
"There are things in our movies that might not come from a particular movie per se," Coen continued, "but from a general awareness in the culture....It's not a question of being cagey about it." Granted, maybe it's more a question of the filmmakers' not-unusual desire to latch freely onto whatever happens to be drifting through their psyches: Certainly, it has worked wonders for them up to now. And since the Coen Brothers' inarticulate assessment of their art has--unconsciously--left this critic with a reason for being, it makes sense to conclude by cataloging the contents of a key shot in O Brother, Where Art Thou? After a digitized tidal wave conveniently rescues the heroes from their fate (and the film from its responsibility to realism), we see from underwater a container of Ulysses' precious Dapper Dan hair wax, a rope swing, and a record player floating across the screen--the appropriated cultural signifiers that the Coens' imaginations have bestowed upon their audience.
Now, wasn't it Joseph Campbell who said that water is the symbol of the unconscious? And might one of his works be adaptable for the next Coen Brothers movie?