O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In the big rock candy mountain...


There's a moment about 40 minutes into O Brother Where Art Thou where our three main characters are gathered around a campfire. They're wanted men, aimless in their wandering, with nowhere to go. The hitchhiker they've picked up, a man who's allegedly sold his soul to the devil, picks at the guitar:

'Hard time's is here an ev'rywhere you go. Times are harder than th'ever been befo'' You know that people are driftin' do' to do' But they can't find no heaven I don't care where they go'

The three of them barely moving, thinking about what they'd do if they ever got a hold of Ulysses' fabled treasure, what they'd always dreamed of. It's a rare moment of contemplation. A reminder that we're all wandering aimless in some way or another, clinging on some rock in space by the glow of a camp light - but we all had dreams, that much was certain.             

O Brother Where Art Thou is the Coen Brothers' take on the Odyssey. It's not a good adaptation. It's hardly even an adaptation at all. Aside from a one eyed monster and some Sirens, the work bears no more than a passing resemblance to anyone who's read more than the Wikipedia summary for the story. Indeed, the brothers themselves admit to never having actually read the epic poem. Still, the tale that they weave is nonetheless entertaining - filled with staple Coen quirks we've come to expect and caricatures enough to make Twain smile. There's a certain language to Coen films, a sense of world-building that emerges out of characters and places - the things they do being just so off - be it the inertial weirdness and slackerism of The Big Lebowski or the blown-up business lingo in The Hudsucker Proxy. Here's no different. Rich characterization is laid on in thick Mississippi accents: there's the hijinks of babyface Nelson, the most peculiarly run record label you've ever seen, even a whole subplot dedicated to hairnets and head-grease. But here there's something more to it, a certain self-awareness that illuminates what makes the Coen's body of work so implacably enjoyable: fable. The film is heaped with a soundtrack universally hailed, a collection of colloquial tunes, a brief explanation of what it is exactly. Songs to enchant with folk mysticism, the kinds of events that only exists as the rumble in the air. So too is the film a series of unbelievable fables. It's a microcosm of entertainment itself.             

The role of the Odyssey in the film's story is not so much as an adaptation for the sake of it, but as a thematic instructive - a symbol for the power of story. Throughout the film, we follow a self-proclaimed 'man of constant sorrow', but that isn't what we see. We see the apple pies, the impromptu twang of guitar, the ethereal baptism at the basin of a lake. These are not bound to the black and white bars of a chained man, but manifestations of a specific time and a place we've come to regard only in pictures and songs. The film begins by fading in from black and white stills, physically pulling us through that fleeting window of nostalgia. At a time of depression and captivity, the Coens find fondness, even even. People just can't seem to get enough of that ol' timey stuff, as one character remarks. And no more do we look back fondly on these tales of the 20's as the characters of the film might trace themselves back on the legacy of Odysseus. What the Coens have done is constructed a recursive narrative, a question posed to the endless cycle of myth. We are creatures of stories, constantly living in the past, constructing a coherent being of the things we've done. And so far removed are these constructions that we often fail to realize them before we're desperately claiming to recreate them in our so far removed images and noises. Perhaps in that respect the message of the film is as simple as that campfire, that invention old as humanity itself - the moment, the being of what we are, what we've done - looking up at the sky and wondering on al our dreams. The delicate twang of a guitar gone on in the background. You know that people are driftin' do' to do'...