Coen Bros: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

I clearly remember seeing this movie for the first time. I was in Paris with

  and our wives and we were all very excited to see the new Coen Bros movie before it opened in the US. Before the title sequence even began, I knew that I was watching a singular work of genius.

If you haven’t seen it lately, as the studio logo unspools, instead of hearing the triumphal herald of the studio theme, we hear the unadorned chanting of a work song, studded with the thud of hammers on rocks. The picture fades in and we see a team of black prisoners, the “chain gang” imagined in dozens of ’30s dramas (except the chain gangs of ’30s dramas were all white), watched over by paunchy white men with shotguns under a punishing Mississippi sun.

And there in my seat in the small, boxy Paris theater (it was, literally, the last day of the movie’s run in France) I thought “You know what would be a good idea for a movie? A movie that shows the evolution of American music, beginning with its roots in slavery, showing how it springs from both broad sociological movements, yes, but also ties it to the specific rhythms of the everyday activities of the people performing it.” And then the movie began and I realized I am watching that movie right now.

(If you’ve never done it, it’s a real treat to watch an American movie, especially a comedy, with a foreign audience. They laugh at the jokes a few seconds before you do because they read the subtitles faster than the actors can speak.)

O Brother, Where Art Thou stands as the Coen Bros warmest, most expansive, most generous, most delightful, most optimistic movie. That it does all those things without having a proper plot is something of a miracle.

THE LITTLE MAN: Ulysses Everett McGill and his compadres (seemingly the only three white people in prison in Mississippi, who all happen to be chained together), like many Coen protagonists, seek a treasure, the suitcase full of money that will transform their lives and make them worth living. As with most Coen movies, the search for, control over and lack of money is the driving force of the narrative.

Now look at where that money comes from. According to Ulysses, the treasure was stolen in an armored car heist. That would make the money the possession of “the bank,” an institution that lost favor in Depression America for foreclosing on mortgages (which gave a bank robber like Baby-face Nelson heroic status, despite being a certifiable pyschopath). So Ulysses is a criminal, uniting with two other criminals to pursue money gotten in a crime, which was in turn gotten by banks in the act of what was widely perceived as another crime. Ulysses and his pals don’t find their treasure (because, of course, there is no treasure) but they do find success as recording artists, getting paid $60 to sing a song, which the record company then turns into unnamed profits, in yet another kind of criminal scheme. This all ends up benefiting Capital, in O Brother symbolized by biscuit magnate and corrupt governor Pappy O’Daniel, who hands out patronage and represents Politics As Usual.

So there is plenty of money flowing through the narrative of O Brother, and all of it is achieved through ill-gotten gain. Money flutters through the air around George Nelson’s car, gotten as easily as walking into a bank and taking it, lost as easily as running into a crooked Bible salesman. Everything is a con, Ulysses is a fake (as opposed to his “bona fide” romantic rival), everyone is trying to make a dishonest buck. God is a racket, music is a racket, even sex is used as a trick to turn a man in for the bounty on his head. The “real people” of O Brother, the farmers and clerks and store customers, the churchgoers and voters, are seen by all the main characters as rubes, sheep and marks.

(Money is not the only thing that flutters through the frame in O Brother. A number of butterflies also happen by, usually in scenes associated with Delmar. I take this to mean that money, as it is in Lebowski, is an abstract commodity that happens by by sheer chance, or else that Delmar is like a butterfly.)

(And then there are the cows. The Coens go to a lot of trouble and expense to mistreat cows in one scene [“I hate cows!” shouts George Nelson, apropos of nothing], and then place a cow on top of a building at the climax as proof of the Magic Negro’s prophecy. I’m not sure what the cows are all about.)

There’s a moment in Act I when Ulysses and his pals go into the recording studio to sing “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a stunning piece of music direction all by itself, but George Clooney’s doing something interesting in the scene. As Tommy plays his guitar and Delmar and Pete sincerely belt out their harmonies, Ulysses looks, of all things, worried. This always puzzled me until I realized that he’s worried about getting caught in yet another criminal activity — it doesn’t seem possible that “singing into a can” could be seen as a legitimate way to make a living.

(The notion of “artist as outlaw” is one that the Coens share with their fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan [who provides The Dude’s theme song in Lebowski], a connection I will explore more in my thoughts on The Man Who Wasn’t There.)

(But while I’m here, of course there is a more explicit Dylan reference in O Brother with the Coens’ use of “old-timey music,” which was enjoying its first revival in the Depression-era South, and then had a second revival in the late fifties in the North. Bob Dylan recorded the song that Ulysses sings, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” on his first LP.)

(Wash Hogwallop refers to the O Brother‘s economy by saying “They got this Depression on,” a line which has always sounded telling to me. Wash doesn’t see the Depression as the result of any confluence of economic events, he sees it as a a deliberate choice made by powerful people in faraway places, as though one would throw a Depression the way one would throw a garden party, as though it was a deliberate trick played on the poor, uneducated people of the South. Which I’m sure is how it felt.)

MUSIC: Music, we find, transcends the criminal world in O Brother, and is the thing that lifts the narrative from the commercial to the spiritual. As in most Coen movies, there are two major strands of music at war with each other — in this case, “black” music (blues and spirituals) and “white” music (folk and gospel). Instead of symbolizing the conflicts of the main characters as it does in most Coen movies, music here becomes subject matter itself. O Brother, in the course of its Three-Stooges narrative, chronicles a moment in American musical history where black music and white music fused, through the secular miracle of mass communications. Radio in the ’30s was like MTV in the ’80s — it brought all kinds of music into all kinds of worlds that had never heard it before, and musical cross-pollination in O Brother almost single-handedly transforms The Old South into The New South.

(Sam Phillips said in the ’50s that if he could find a white singer with the negro sound and the negro feel, he could revolutionize music. O Brother turns this formulation on its head, having its trio of white singers [who actually are seen in blackface for one sequence] be confused for black singers singing white music — a notion that shocks and enrages the racists of The Old South but delights the enlightened souls of The New South.)

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Surprisingly, O Brother presents the Coens’ darkest view yet of law enforcement. Police are absent in Blood Simple, comic bunglers in Raising Arizona, corrupt in Miller’s Crossing and menacing in Barton Fink, but O Brother goes so far as to paint them as literally evil, and the sheriff in charge of tracking Ulysses is no less than the Devil himself.

Thismakes tracking the spiritual signifiers of O Brother easy as pie. If Sheriff Cooley is the Devil and damnation, and is symbolized by fire, then God and salvation must be symbolized by water, and water symbols flow through O Brother like, well, I’d have to say like water I guess. The churchgoers in the forest walk down to the river, where their sins are washed away, the sirens pretend salvation while washing their clothes, Pappy O’Daniel, selling his biscuits on the radio, reminds his pious listeners to use “cool, clear water” in their recipes, a flood comes to save Ulysses and his pals, and even Pete’s cousin, who frees them from their chains, is named “Wash.”

(Then there is the moment where Sheriff Cooley almost lynches Pete by torchlight during a thunderstorm, and even makes a reference to the “sweet summer rain,” the Devil, we might say, quoting scripture to suit his purpose.)

The flood at the end of O Brother is caused by the building of a hydroelectric dam, the dam that’s going to bring enlightenment to the South. Which would make Franklin Roosevelt God, I guess, but it’s worth noting that George Nelson, in his final appearance, rejoices that it is electricity generated by this dam that’s going to shoot through his body and make him “go off like a Roman candle.”

(Radio is a force explicitly linked to God in O Brother — the soul-saving music goes out on it, Pappy O’Daniel depends on it for his campaign, and, at the climax, when Ulysses tells Cooley that the governor himself has pardoned him, on the radio, Cooley’s icy reply is “Well we ain’t got a radio.”)

MAGIC: There is a higher percentage of supernatural occurrences in O Brother than usual, or so it seems. Pete gets turned into a toad, but then it turns out not, the Devil buys Tommy’s soul, or maybe not, God saves Ulysses, or maybe that’s just the federal government. There is a balancing act going on all through the movie, every time something mysterious happens another explanation soon comes along to render it mundane. Magic is mostly cleansed from the narrative, but doubts still linger — in the final shot, the Magic Negro who advises Ulysses in Act I is seen still pushing his handcar across the railroad tracks of the New South.

“Everybody’s lookin’ for answers” in O Brother — some turn to racism, some turn to crime, some turn to sex, some turn to old-time religion, some turn to political reform. Penny’s daughters turn to her. The only answer that seems to be “right” is music, which seems to be able to heal all wounds and knit together a sundered society.

THE MELTING POT: Ulysses and his wife, Dan Teague and Pappy O’Daniel are all Irish-American. I don’t know where Delmar is from, and as for the Hogwallops, well, your guess is as good as mine. (Dan Teague, I’m guessing, is a reference to “McTeague,” the protagonist of Eric von Stroheim’s Greed. Other characters seem to be French-American, such as the Radio Station Man, and then there are the Afrian-Americans, largely unnamed (except for Tommy Johnson, the Robert Johnson stand-in) who make up a kind of Greek chorus.

The movie starts with the image of the chain gang singing a spiritual and ends with the image of a photograph of a rebel soldier being washed away in a technologically-induced flood. There are centuries of history in those two images, tracing the history of the south from slavery, the Civil War, through Reconstruction (which gave birth to the KKK), widespread poverty, the Depression and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which, as Ulysses notes, created a New South, literally washing away centuries of backward living, superstition and corruption (I remember visiting relatives in the South in the 1960s, and there were still plenty of people who were the first in their families histories to own telephones). Which is all very interesting, but one must note, what does that have to do with us?

I think O Brother, in a way, is about the internet. In the same way that radio (and then television) changed the way America saw itself, the internet is doing the same thing to the world. The language that Ulysses uses to describe the New South (“They’re going to run everyone a wire, hook ’em up to a grid”) could be applied with greater accuracy to our global situation today. And, without a doubt, we find ourselves in the middle of another cultural cross-pollination, which, according to the philosophy of O Brother, will save us from ourselves.

Following this metaphor would mean, of course, that America in AD 2000 was a nation of racist, intolerant, superstitious, backward-thinking yahoos. Oh, wait.

One nice thing about the generosity of O Brother is that it is not absolute. Pappy O’Daniel is, without a doubt, a corrupt, cynical politician, and is still very much in charge at the end of the movie. We like him better than we like Horace Stokes because Stokes is a blatant racist and O’Daniel endorses mixed-race music, but even in Ulysses’s moment of redemption there is still a threat behind O’Daniel’s endorsement — O’Daniel will pardon Ulysses only if he promises to go straight, which Ulysses promptly does. But, given the moral universe presented in the movie up to that point, it’s hard to imagine Ulysses being very happy working a straight job.

ECHOES: O Brother features the second of (to date) three scenes in Coen Bros movies where escaped fugitives have peculiar conversations with clerks in roadside establishments.

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16 Responses to “Coen Bros: O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
  1. igorxa says:

    what about parallels with the odyssey?

    • Todd says:

      I am unable to find parallels to The Odyssey in O Brother, which is unsurprising since I haven’t read it. But then, neither have the Coen Bros. I like the quote at the beginning, though.

      • kleenexwoman says:

        There are definite parallels to the Odyssey, too numerous to list here, too obvious to be unintentional, and probably meaningless unless you have read the Odyssey–“Ulysses” is even another name for Odysseus, so I’m really surprised that the Coen Bros. haven’t actually read it. The mythological parallels seem more like a reference point to hang the movie on than anything, though.
        The fold-in for the soundtrack even comes with a little article about how it’s basically a Depression-era retelling of the Odyssey.

        • brandawg says:

          I can see how the Coens maybe read the Odyssey in high school because the references they make seem straight out of a 9th grader’s interpretation of the events.

          • Todd says:

            The title sequence clearly says that O Brother is based on The Odyssey, but the Coens have always said that they haven’t read it and that they meant the title as a joke, that the events in the movie have only the most superficial connection to Homer’s epic poem.

            • igorxa says:

              but don’t they always downplay the highbrow in their work when they are talking about it? even as a skeleton, the odyssey is quite a heavy one to underscore a movie. i guess i was hoping you would expound upon it. besides, it’s fun to pick out the references, if nothing else.

  2. craigjclark says:

    The first time I saw O Brother was on New Year’s Eve 2000 and I caught either right before or right after Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (because I wanted to see both before the year was out). I don’t know whether that had anything to with my reaction to it, but it was the first Coen Brothers film that I wasn’t immediately bowled over by (and I even saw Hudscucker in theaters). When it came to DVD I didn’t rush out to buy it, but I eventually did, hoping that a second viewing would raise its profile. It did, but I didn’t get much more out of it than I did the first time (unlike, say, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which improved a hundredfold on subsequent viewings).

  3. seamusd says:

    While I agree that this film is “a singular work of genius” in the way it retells Homer in a modern, yet “old timey” way, it is a flawed work. My biggest problem with the film is the way it ignores the jim crow aparteid of Mississippi in the 1930s. None of that oppression is seriously addressed. THe KKK meeting is a comic book representation of a very serious issue. And the way the crowd at the rally suddenly seems to forget the institutional racism they were raised under because the love the Soggy Bottom Boys simply doesn’t sit right. Granted, the film is a comedy the way only the Coens can make one, which one could argue doesn’t leave room for serious social or historical commentary. Nevertheless, the way the whole issue of segregation is whitewashed is a major flaw the the film.

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    I think the cows are a comment on technology and society, like Fop, Dapper Dan, the steam locomotive, the telegraph and the telephone (“They’re going to run everyone a wire, hook ’em up to a grid”) and so many other crucial placements of tech in that movie.

    If Science Fiction is Speculative Fiction with a tech slant and vice versa then “O Brother” is a great science fiction movie very much like “Chinatown” is also a great science fiction movie.

  5. 55seddel says:

    I have a question for clarification.

    Would you say that within the overall parallel co relations with AD 1930s and AD 2000 America, The Tin Can, and recording studio would be a symbol of Napster? I assert this for 3 reasons.

    The fact that there are 4 people recording in the studio, and one member in the back who has apparently sold his soul to the devil.

    Next we would have the blatant copying of the song and pirating to all radio staitions, and the record producer blind to all that is going on, yet still savvy.

    Finally the choice of song and the presence of a black man, who turned his soul in, are both interesting. Man of Constant Sorrow rings to me as a stand in for Harvester of Sorrow a song by Metallica.

    Am I trying too hard?

    • Todd says:

      It would surprise me if the Coens gave that much thought to Napster while they were writing O Brother, but I find that great art lends itself to many different interpretations.

      I was about to say that the Coens had never heard of Metallica, but of course The Dude mentions that he used to be a roadie for them — and they were assholes.

  6. jbacardi says:

    When I first saw this, I thought the Coens were trying to do The Wizard of Oz, and I’m still not sure that it wasn’t in the mix.

    I gotta tell you, living here in Kentucky, that people around here ate this film up- and people around here aren’t really aficionados of the Bros by any stretch (the closest 8 screen theatre to me, in Glasgow, KY, about 12 miles away has yet to show No Country For Old Men and I doubt it will). I think most folks looked at it as a Smokey and the Bandit-type redneck romp, to be honest. Everybody loved the soundtrack for sure- even my mother, who rarely buys music, bought a copy.

    • Todd says:

      The KKK rally is quite definitely a nod to The Wizard of Oz, as well as the notion of water being a miraculous cure-all.

      It’s nice that folks in your town saw it as a redneck romp, that’s what the Coens kept saying it was — a “hick movie,” to be precise, “the most expensive Ma and Pa Kettle movie ever made.”

  7. kleenexwoman says:

    Thank you for this commentary. This is one of my favorite movies ever, and one of the only movies that anyone in my family can agree upon; I always knew there was something in it besides a straight-up, music-saturated retelling of the Odyssey, but couldn’t quite put a finger on it.

  8. gdh says:

    Half of these reviews, my initial response has been “That was a Coen Bros movie?”
    Mind you, I haven’t seen any of them besides The Big Lebowski.