Friday, August 13, 2010

"We're in a tight spot!"

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a movie I've been vaguely aware of ever since it came out, but which I'd never seen, for one reason or another. Mostly that I just kept forgetting about it, and even though I've enjoyed the work of the Coen Brothers in the past, there was just something about O Brother that kept me from...well, no, that's not the way to put it. It just never seemed to jump up past my interest level that can be described as "Huh, maybe I should watch that sometime." But I was at the library a week ago, saw the movie on the shelf, and thought, "Well, check it out and if I don't watch it, fine."

So I watched it, and I loved it. What a wonderfully fantastical movie. It's really something to behold. It's an epic fantasy story, with journeys and traps and villains and betrayals; it's an epic fantasy story with implausible escapes and divine interventions and grim prophecies; it's an epic fantasy story set in Depression-era Mississippi with no actual magic in it at all. Fantasy, with no magic. Or maybe it does have magic. There are events in the film that could be magical...or maybe they're not. We don't know.

O Brother is famously a recasting of The Odyssey, in the deep South. Three prisoners escape from a chain gang, led by Ulysses (!) Everett McGill, who tempts them with promises of a treasure that he hid before his prison sentence. The three men are, at first, literally inseparable; the only reason it's these three men escaping is because Ulysses is chained to these two guys. So off they go, on their way to McGill's home, hopefully in search of treasure, with a very scary and relentless law enforcement man (whose actual legal affiliation is never really explained) on their tails. The three men come across a blind man driving a manual railroad car who speaks prophetically; a one-eyed Bible salesman; three women in a river who seduce them with their song; and...well, I don't want to spell it all out, since part of the movie's charm is spotting all the parallels to The Odyssey.

One that stood out is the early scene in which the convicts come across a group of people, presumably Baptists, all slowly walking through the forest whilst singing, down to the river for their baptisms. The old pastor at our church actually used this scene a few times in services to illustrate the power of baptism, but seeing the movie, I wonder if the actual parallel isn't so much to the power of the Holy Spirit but rather to the Lotus Eaters, who are lulled into apathy by the food they eat. But I digress.

I loved the dialogue in this film -- there's an enormous amount of craft in the script, with characters speaking in the kind of long, florid sentences that you just don't hear much anymore in movies these days (if, in fact, you ever did). McGill, in particular, has a laconically verbose speaking style that's just a joy to listen to. Early in the film when looking for someone to break the chains that are binding him to the other two men, he asks some hoboes: "Say, any of you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wanderin'?" Or, as when he asks his ex-wife why she's been telling their daughters that he was hit by a train and she replies that it's better that than "He's a criminal and in prison", "Uh, I take your point. But it does put me in a damn awkward position, vis-a-vis my progeny."

The best thing about O Brother is its music, which is deeply steeped in the roots and folk music of the Deep South, including spirituals, jazz, and popular revival music that is the precursor to rock-and-roll. There's a reason the O Brother soundtrack album sold extremely well back when it came out. I'll need to get it myself.

Yeah, I'm late to the party, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? really pleased me on a lot of levels.


Lynn said...

I LOVE that movie, for all the reasons you said.

Roger Owen Green said...

I've NEVER seen the movie, tho I LOVE the soundtrack.