Monday, 2 September 2013

O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the Struggle to be Bona Fide

This essay is a companion-piece to a previous essay I wrote about A Serious Man. Both essays are adapted from chapters of my BA dissertation on the Coen brothers. Major spoilers ahead.

Joel and Ethan Coen's 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of the directors' most purely entertaining, crowd-pleasing movies. It's funny, smart, and has an amazing soundtrack, but what's probably less obvious about the film – or at least, less lauded – is the fact that it also engages with some important and uncomfortable questions about the era it depicts, and more specifically the relationship the United States has with its own history. Much like The Hudsucker Proxy before it, O Brother uses our culturally-informed impressions of an era to examine the values of that time, but goes on to explore how our perception of that time was itself constructed.

It's difficult to attempt an analysis of O Brother, Where Art Thou? without first addressing the influence of two other works on the film – Homer's The Odyssey and Preston Sturges' classic comedy Sullivan's Travels. The influence of the latter is as follows. Sullivan's Travels is about a successful director of comedies who plans to make a serious, socially-conscious drama film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?. After he is arrested for assault, Sullivan and his fellow convicts are treated to a Mickey Mouse cartoon projected in a church (a scene which finds its analogue when Pete's chain-gang show up in the cinema in O Brother), prompting him to decide that pleasing the masses with entertainment is the greatest kindness he can do for the poor – a populist sentiment shared by the Coens' film. In the film's DVD commentary, Joel Coen went so far as to say their film is the one Sullivan would have gone on to make. The influence of Homer's work is established in the opening titles, when we are presented with a rough translation of the opening lines of The Odyssey:

"O Muse!/Sing in me, and through me tell the story/Of that man skilled in all the ways of contending/A wanderer, harried for years on end..."

The most obvious elements cribbed from the epic poem are the general arc of a man trying to return home to his wife and several of the main characters. We have Ulysses Everett McGill (“Ulysses” being the Latin translation of “Odysseus”), his wife Penny standing in for Penelope, and Menelaus “Pappy” O'Daniel as King Menelaus. To name a few of the more oblique references, we have the one-eyed Bible salesman Big Dan Teague in lieu of Polyphemus the Cyclops, three seductresses for the Sirens, a blind railroad traveller as Tiresias the prophet, and a baptist congregation in place of the Lotus Eaters. 

The relative shallowness of correspondence between The Odyssey and O Brother is perhaps unsurprising given that the Coen brothers claim never to have read the original text, knowing it only from general pop culture and adaptations. Indeed, the debt the film owes to Homer's work never feels like it's “the point” of the film, nor is it slavish enough to really call it an adaptation or even a re-imagining. It seems like these references, rather than actually allowing us to interpret the film fruitfully, are more useful in setting up expectations. The Odyssey gives the film the register of an epic narrative and a structure which feels suitably mythic, even to those who may not pick up on the specific references – a register that alludes to a period in history, but is outside history itself. In fact, The Odyssey is not the only “myth” alluded to in the film. 
Notice, for example, the two black men carrying ice to the next town over which is seven miles away. Knowing that the ice will melt before they reach their destination, this image calls to mind the myths of both Sisyphus and Tantalus, while simultaneously depicting the economic hardship for black people in the depression. A more contemporary form of “myth” can be seen in Chris Thomas King's character Tommy Johnson, who claims to have sold his soul to the devil for superior guitar-playing ability. This refers to the real-life historical Tommy Johnson, and the perhaps better known Robert Johnson who were rumoured at the time to have done the same thing.

So despite how prominently these two works would appear to figure in O Brother Where Art Thou?, it would be a mistake to overestimate their significance, as the film actually makes reference to a large number of Depression-era cultural objects. As well as the use of The Odyssey as a blueprint for the narrative, the film also maps onto The Wizard of Oz in some interesting ways. Simple Delmar, clearly in need of a brain, shares the Scarecrow's galumphing arm-swinging run, and is rewarded at the film's end with a place in Governor Pappy O'Daniel's “Brain Trust”. Acerbic Pete is believed to be missing his heart when a toad is all that's left of him after the Sirens kidnap him for their bounty. Everett is Dorothy, finding his way home. Their journey takes them to a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, revealed to be the upcoming candidate for governor, Homer Stokes, whose political power crumbles upon exposure of his racist ideals. 

Steinbeck is evoked when a kid is defending his farm from “men from the bank” (The Grapes of Wrath) and in Delmar's maxim “you ain't no kind of man if you ain't got land” (Of Mice and Men). George Clooney himself appears to be modeled after Clark Gable. Less relevant but also interesting is when our heroes ride their coffins to safety after the flood, referencing the ending to Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Many of these references appear to express a common desire: to escape hardship by either returning home or reaching a promised land (whether in this life or the next) – a place of material comfort or economic plenty. The musical choices seem to express this too. “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” describes a hobo's vision of paradise, while “I'll Fly Away” expresses the wish to go to “God's celestial shore” and to get away from the “cold iron shackles”. By tying together all of these texts, the Coen brothers seem to be pointing towards a kind of cultural monomyth, a tempting name for which would be the American Dream. It's notable that the $1.2 million the Soggy Bottom Boys are chasing after turns out to be a myth too – one of Everett's design in order to convince his fellow convicts to escape with him.

This network of sources the Coens are drawing on is interesting because what it gives us is a view of the Depression-era South without ever really attempting to represent the period as an actual historical fact in itself. Rather, the film itself is constructed out of the detritus of the age it depicts – an assemblage of cultural material. The film never professes to really show us Mississippi in 1937, but rather our collective idea of what that place and time consists of as we know it through music, film, literature and myth – the only means we have to revisit the past.

For instance, notice the film's use of anachronism. At one point, Pete compares himself to Papillon, a French convict who was imprisoned at the time of the film's setting, but whose story would not be known until his memoir was released in 1969. Similarly, George “Babyface” Nelson makes an appearance in the film, even though the real historical Nelson died in 1934, three years before the film's setting. Nelson not only acknowledges his own status as a historical figure (“These little men caught off with the criminal of the century. Looks like the chair for George Nelson!”) but he even goes on to describe himself as “bigger than any John, live or limp”, as if to affirm his status as a cultural icon beyond his actual flesh-and-blood existence as a historical person. While it's perfectly possible that these were just oversights on the part of the Coens, it could be read that these elements were chosen for inclusion due to their relevance to the cultural era, even if they don't line up historically.

The other function these relics of the Depression serve is that they point towards issues of how history itself is constructed, in terms of what is retained through the ages, what is lost to the passage of time, and what is destroyed or re-written. The issue of posterity is in fact central to the plot, as Everett is not just trying to win back his wife, but also his place in history. Penny has told their children that Everett was “hit by that train” and reverted the family name back to “Wharvey”, thus eliminating Everett's legacy from historical record. His daughters compare him unfavourably to Penny's new suitor by dismissing him as “not bona fide”. Another instance of this selective view of Americas' history can be seen in Homer Stokes' speech at the KKK rally:

We have all gathered here to preserve our hallowed culture and heritage from intrusion, inclusion and dilution of colour, of creed and of our old-time religion... darkies, Jews, papists, and from all them smart ass folks who say we come descended from monkies. That's not my culture and heritage”.

The prevalence of racism in O Brother is interesting because it creates a constant reminder of the region's not so distant slave-owning past while never directly addressing it (see for example the opening scene, featuring rows of exclusively black prisoners breaking up rocks on the roadside – free from slavery, yet still in chains). The assignation of the name “Homer” to the KKK leader seems particularly apt as, through his revisionist views, he could be said to take the role of a singular author of history, re-writing his own people as the victims. His exposure as a racist by being broadcast on radio – an emergent and more democratic mode of representation, spreading his word far and wide – could be therefore read as pointing to mass media (entertainment for the masses) as a vehicle for social justice and more truthful representation. It's notable that in O Brother, racism is not beaten by politics or a crusade for social justice – it's beaten only because the crowd want to hear the Soggy Bottom Boys sing.

If historical amnesia is shown to be desirable for America on the cultural level, it's shown to be even more alluring on the personal level. Of course, America is presented as the land of “forgive and forget” Christianity, where redemption and reinvention is in reach for everyone. The Soggy Bottom Boys are in fact purged of their sins three times over; first by God in the baptismal waters, the second time by the law when O'Daniel officially pardons them, and the third in the flood which saves them from the clutches of Sheriff Cooley. 

The flood in particular is a potent image, calling to mind the Great Deluge – the flood that drowned the wicked, flattened all that came before and restored everything back to year zero to begin anew. In the wake of the flood, relics of Depression-era Mississippi float by – a banjo, a Victrola, a photograph of a Confederate soldier – the only remnants of a world now beyond recovery, the cultural artefacts through which we can experience the past. The flood is not only redemptive for the characters, but also a clean break from history. As Everett himself helpfully explains:

They're flooding this valley so they can hydroelectric up this whole damn state. Yes, sir, the south is gonna change. Everything's getting put on electricity and run on a paying basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstitions and the backward ways. We're gonna see a brave new world when they run everyone a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yes sir, a veritable age of reason. Like the one they had in France.”

This ending seems to suggest the beginning of the modern era – a time of record, knowability and science, not a time of superstition, myth and legend in which history can be buried or denied. However, the Coens quickly undermine this notion when Everett spots a cow on the roof of a cotton-house, as prophesied as the start of the film. As the film ends, we watch this same prophet pump his cart down the railway track while Everett's youngest daughter looks on as the image fades back to black and white. History will always be part-myth and part-fact, accessible only through what we leave behind, and what we choose to say of our time, but the Coens, in their usual populist mode, remind us of our own role in writing history, and urge us not to leave it to those who have a stake in denial or distortion. History is written by the winners, but we can all be bona fide.