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Nothing More, and Nothing Less

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Directed by Joel Coen.

The Coen brothers' latest film O Brother, Where Art Thou? begins with a scene I wish could prelude every one of their films in one form or another. What happens is very simple: after a botched attempt to jump on a passing train, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and his fellow chain gang escapees Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nealson) opt for a ride on a hand-powered rail car, a mode of transportation usually reserved for Donald Duck or buster Keaton. Pumping the car is an old, blind man, a prophet who foretells bizarre adventures for the trio, predicting that they "will see many strange things" and that they "will find a fortune, but not the fortune they seek."

How true, not just for this movie, but for all the Coen brothers' films. From the Pale Rider of the Apocalypse mounted on a Harley in Raising Arizona (1987) to the wintry, alien landscape of insanity in Fargo (1996), the brothers have shown us an assortment of oddities and curiosities as well as unexpected fortunes. So unique are their films that they cannot be explained. Instead, they must be experienced. They practice their own brand of storytelling wrapped with eccentric humor, creating a unique voice for each picture they make, guaranteeing that the audience will always "see many strange things." With O Brother, they have done it again.

And what a long, strange trip it is. Joel (writer/director) and Ethan (producer/writer) lead Everett, Pete, and Delmar on a loosely structured romp through the depression-era South as only the brothers can do. On their way to stop Everett's wife Penny from remarrying, they fall prey to the siren song of three river maidens and get conned by a gigantic, thieving, one-eyed Bible salesman. When Everett and his compatriots finally return home still on the run from the law, they disguise themselves as old men and pose as a mountain music group called the Soggy Bottom Boys. The climax can best be described as "apocalyptic," not just as the popular meaning of all-consuming destruction, but also as its true definition of revelation. They discover their true fortune: a free pardon, a clean slate.

An admirable theme, and a new one for the Coens. You have fun watching O Brother, Where Art Thou?, partly because you can tell that the brothers had a blast making it. There are weaknesses, however. As is the problem with many a road movie, the very thin narrative thread barely holds the film together. The Coens have told much tighter stories, some perhaps too tight (e.g., Miller's Crossing (1991) and The Big Lebowski (1998)). O Brother does not work quite as well, perhaps due to the filmmaker's insistence on incorporating numerous outside elements to the story. For example, the opening credits tell us that the story is based on Homer's Odyssey, but a more accurate statement would be that it frequently alludes to the Odyssey, gleaning only a handful of elements from Homer. The movie is also peppered with allusions to a multitude of stories and legends including The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Moby Dick, old-time radio comedy Amos and Andrew, blues guitarist Robert Johnson, crime legend "Babyface" Nelson, Cool Hand Luke, and even Flannery O'Connor's underhanded Bible-selling thief from "Good Country People." The Coens appear to be having so much fun playing with every Southern stereotype that they forgot to tie everything together.

Perhaps the most significant tip of the hat was to Sullivan's Travels, the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy from which O Brother, Where Art Thou? unabashedly takes its title. The hero of Sullivan's Travels, director John Sullivan, wants to make a film about the plight of the common man called O Brother, Where Art Thou? He sets out to live as a vagrant until he lands in prison on a murder charge. While incarcerated, he watches cartoons with his fellow inmates, who explode with laughter, delighted with the on-screen antics. When Sullivan clears his name, he resolves that the common man is better served through humor rather than high-minded social drama.

Being a Coen brothers fan and well-versed in their comic and aesthetic sensibility, I watched Sullivan's Travels with great interest to understand why they chose this particular title. But when I finished, something didn't quite mesh. In fact, it baffled me. John Sullivan may have decided that a laugh-out-loud comedy sells better to the masses, but he still reeked of pompous ignorance. Some humility would suit him better, but instead he continues to separate himself through expressions like "the common man." His demeanor, which he feels is compassionate, actually translates to disdain for people he sets himself above, as though we should all be thankful for John Sullivan to stoop to our level. Are the Coens that simplistic?

Thankfully, no, they're not. The Coens don't want to be John Sullivan, the self-pronounced friend of the masses, clumsily attempting to show empathy from the chair of power. The stories they tell do not talk down to anyone. They understand that the general public should not be so blatantly compartmentalized. The Coens's O Brother also contains a scene in which prisoners watch a comedy, but this time, no one is laughing. In fact, the Coens consistently admonish those who declare themselves a hero of the so-called "common man."

The most recent example comes from O Brother itself. The populist politician running for governor, Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall) pronounces himself "a friend of the Common Man," while his opponent Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) runs the "Pappy O'Daniel Old Time Music Flour Hour," and the people respond better to the music than to the political speeches. Homer Stokes undoes himself when he tries to stop Everett, Pete, and Delmar from performing a favorite song at a town meeting because they broke up a KKK lynching that he was leading. Homer Stokes believes he can gain popularity by claiming to be on the level with "the common man," but does not understand what his campaign slogan means, nor does he realize its patronizing tone.

The Coens's most enigmatic work, Barton Fink (1991), provides the best example of their contempt for artistic arrogance. In this story, Fink, a New York playwright gone Hollywood, aspires to create a new art form "for and about the common man." The film then takes great pleasure in mocking his high-minded aesthetic sensibilities until, like Homer Stokes, Fink gets it in the end, exposing his ignorance and proving he knows nothing of that which he professes to write about, the common man.

In order to avoid arrogance toward the audience, the Coen brothers have discovered a brilliant solution: just make your own kind of movies. Tell the stories the best way you know how, and do not try to pander to anyone, from the lowest common denominator to the critics. This is something they do well. The Coens's strength lies in their ability to be completely and wonderfully original. No other filmmakers like them exist. The tinge of surrealism, their brand of humor, and their visual energy can only be described as "Coen-esque." Now, when people ask me why I love the Coen brothers, I don't have to scramble for some aesthetic theory that qualifies them as high art. That would be missing the point. They don't make films to be dissected by college professors, nor do they make movies to appeal to a large population. They are themselves, nothing more and nothing less.

--David Schaap

David Schaap is a freelance writer from Sioux Center, Iowa.

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