You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…
I think this was the first Coen Brothers film I saw in the cinema. I went with my mother, and she sang quietly along to this song. (I apologise retroactively to anyone in that cinema offended by the blatant Wittertainment code breaking). It has a special place in my heart. But because of that – and because it’s essentially a light-hearted piece of work – it’s also hard to write about.
If the Dude went on an odyssey in The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou fully invokes and embraces its Homeric origins, but I don’t think it actually has as much going on deep down.
This Ulysses is not particularly brave or cunning, nor does he have Odysseus’ political savvy – though he sure does talk a lot. Ulysses Everett McGill just wants his family back. Delmar just wants to buy back the family farm. Pete wants to buy a restaurant that he can go to work in every day and be respected. In some ways that is incredibly profound – but I’m not sure how seriously the film takes those desires. All three men are to a large extent a figure of fun, and their road trip is a very entertaining watch – although always for them. Pete nicely deconstructs the awfulness of following Everett around.
Who elected you leader of this outfit? Since we’ve been following your lead, we got nothing but trouble. I’ve gotten this close to being strung up and consumed in a fire and whipped no end and sunstroked and soggied. And turned into a frog.
If the Iliad is about war, the Odyssey is at least partially about what happens at home while war is going on – and while Odysseus tries to get home. In O Brother, what is going on at home is the dust bowl. The politics has a nice line: the unconcerned establishment (Pappy O’Daniel) vs. the new broom and friend of the little man (Homer Stokes) – who turns out to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But it is also a little lightweight. it doesn’t really ask what that does to anyone other than Everett, who manages to get his ex-wife back after her new beau’s bona fide job disappears along with Stoke’s integrity. Pete’s cousin sells the trio out because, ‘They got this depression on,’ and McGill is travelling around with Tommy Johnson, a black man who has sold his soul to the devil for mad guitar skills (yes, Coens, all your faves are problematic) – but there’s no thought about how any of these frankly terrible political choices might have an impact upon either of them, or on the rest of the community.
- Empty Roads? Several. We open on an empty roadway – one lined by the men of the chain gang on both sides. Then throughout the film various cars that will carry Everett, Delmar and Pete trundle or race down empty dusty roads.
- Terrifyingly bright daylight? It’s all bright. Bright, desaturated and dusty. It’s beautiful – but when you think about why it’s light that, it’s kind of terrifying. The more cinematically terrifying bright light in this movie is flames.
- Incredible Carter Burwell score? No. This is the Coen’s only Carter Burwell-less score. It does, however, have that amazing T-Bone Burnett curated soundtrack.
- Very realistic violence? Who wants to be in a chain gang or attacked by Klansmen? But equally the fight between Everett and Vernon is gloriously cartoonish.
- Extremely black lines delivered straight?
Those boys desecrated a burning cross!
- In obsession with odd hair? Ulysses is obsessed with his own hair:
‘Well, I don’t want Fop, goddamn it! I’m a Dapper Dan man!’
And pretty great female leads? Hello again, Holly Hunter, as Penelope, with a bonfide suitor. She’s not taking any of Everett’s nonsense and she’s just trying to keep her girls and her together. Everett might be more appealing to the viewer than her new beau, Vernon, but the viewer can’t help but feel for her and her reasons for marrying him.
Vernon here’s got a job. Vernon’s got prospects. He’s bona fide. What are you?
This particular Penelope is wise to the flaws of her Ulysses and the perils of her situation, and she is darn well not going to sit around weaving until he gets back. The nice thing about this Ulysses is that to some extent, he takes his lumps.