O Brother, Where Art Thou?

o-brother-where-arToday I will begin my review of the oddest script [in my opinion] in the Coen Brothers Scriptography. Quite a feat when you consider these are the same guys who wrote Barton Fink… and Raising Arizona.

When I reviewed A Serious Man a few weeks back, I noted that O Brother was a movie I hadn’t seen. What I neglected to note was that I hadn’t seen it because I never wanted to. That changed. My attempt to sum the Coens writing skills caused me to want to see it.

An upgrade to my cable package matched possibility with desire.

Having now seen the movie and read the script, I confess that I do NOT get this story. At all. I seriously thought about foregoing my usual questions in order to cut the Brothers a bit of a break. Just give them the screenwriter’s equivalent of a “wasn’t for me” and move on. Eventually, I decided that was unfair… to the Brothers. Someone needs to tell them when they’ve missed their mark. The greatest challenge to being a genius has to be that moment when no one will tell you your latest effort is awful.

I understand this script intends to deal with social issues in a Menippean Way. We will likely spend a great deal of time talking about the successes and failures of that approach as we move through the questions.

Additionally, I know there are those that love this script. I am dying to hear why in the comments. My statement from above that I just do not get this script is subject to revision if anyone can provide me with the evidence that the story is good.

The last thing I want to talk about before we get into the actual review is this habit the Brothers have of claiming [in some form or another] that they “didn’t try” or “don’t mean anything by” their work. In O Brother this gets manifested as the wildly unbelievable claim that they never actually read The Odyssey.

Why does this frustrate me? The following will help:

“The Cohen Brothers didn’t read the Odyseey either, so I think you’re okay.” (pgibso 1 yr ago reddit)

“The Coen Brothers never read The Odyssey when writing O Brother Where Art Thou. They only read a comic book version.” (BlindDollar 1 yr ago reddit)

Although Homer is given a co-writing credit on the film, the Coen Brothers claim never to have read The Odyssey and are familiar with it only through cultural osmosis and film adaptations. (IMDb 42 out of 43 found “the fact” interesting)

I could go on and on. The internet is literally full of dumbass people who actually think the following quote from the Brothers Coen approximates anything anywhere near the vicinity of actual truth:

“We didn’t really start with Homer”, Joel explains. “We started with the idea of these three fugitives escaping from the chain gang and Homer suggested itself later when we realised the movie was essentially about the main character trying to get home and having this series of adventures along the way”. At that point they remember this old Greek writer called Homer. “We never actually read it”, Ethan interjects. “But we read the comic book version of The Odyssey and tarted the movie up with the Cyclops, etc.” (The Brothers, Ethan and Joel)

My issue with this is that Ethan and Joel are making fun of the innumerable dumbasses out there in the world who can actually find a way to believe that neither of these highly educated, highly intelligent, WRITERS has ever read The Odyssey. They would probably smile and proclaim none of their scripts mean anything anyway—so what difference does it make?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sure I don’t want to make fun of those dumbasses myself. They deserve it. I want to say to old pgibso and to BlindDollar:

Why the fuck are you two so damn dumb?

But I want to do it in a Serious Way. I want to challenge those two morons to an octagon match. I’m not being metaphorical either. I am not challenging them to a spelling, or grammar, or cultural literacy test. I literally want to fight them UFC style until they submit. The prize being whoever wins gets to force the other person to never write another sentence again. I want to say to them:

You don’t get to be motherfucking writers if you don’t motherfucking read.

The Brothers are brilliant, and I will not hide behind my idolization of them. At the same time, I fault them for allowing everything to pass through their pens as if it were All a Joke. Their writing shows they do not actually believe this.

O-Brother-Where-art-Thou-2I think it is intellectual hypocrisy to adapt something as central to the Western Canon as The Odyssey and then pretend you didn’t know what you were doing. There is more hypocrisy in the fact  that they do not affect this same degree of nonchalance when it comes to all the things they borrowed from Sullivan’s Travels. Why is there no matching denial of having seen the Sturges film that lent the Brothers their title? Lastly, If they were so serious about being completely frivolous, then why give Homer a writing credit? Why not just make your film and allow your allusions to go unrecognized by the BlindDollars of the world?

My point in going on this long about this subject is that I plan to review this script as though it were a script WITHOUT pretension. I’ll pretend as though it isn’t a combination adaptation of The Odyssey and Sullivan’s Travels AND I’ll GIVE IT WHATEVER SCORE IT’S STORY DESERVES.

I consider that to be a roundhouse to the chin of the Brothers, Ethan and Joel. A verbal fuck you of sorts. An admonition to them about the importance of my time. [By “my” I mean the audience.]

If you would rather read about all the allusions to Homer and Sturges, check out the IMDb page. There are around a hundred entries listed there. [Conveniently, IMDb rates them by audience interest. Whether or not this is the same audience that believes the Coens have never actually read the Odyssey is… unclear.]

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

[Before I get into the actual review, I have to note that I couldn’t find a copy of this script anywhere except on IMSDb, so I can’t refer to page numbers like I usually do when listing quotes from the text. That’s certainly a bit annoying, but we will have to make do.]

Part A) For sure the Coens do not begin the script with a massive dose of exposition. We just meet the three convicts and try to piece together why we’re following them as we are following them. However, I do feel that every time a plot point is introduced, most all of the work is done by exposition.

PETE
He said we wouldn’t get it! He said
we wouldn’t get the treasure we seek!

Everett grows testy:

EVERETT
Well what does he know – he’s an
ignorant old man! Jesus, Pete, I’m
telling you I buried it myself, and
if your cousin still runs this-here
horse farm and has a forge and some
shoein’ impediments to restore our
liberty of movement-

This is how we learn the trio is looking for treasure at Everett’s beckoning? Ask yourself this: does Everett say what he says about Cousin Wash for Pete and Delmar’s sake, or for ours? I mean, don’t Pete and Delmar already know Wash is the horse farmer with the tools to set them free?

As I was reading, I saw this pattern happen over and over again. I think it happens so often because the story being told is so episodic. And yes, I know The Odyssey is also episodic, but A.) I’ve already said I’m not talking about The Odyssey, and B.) What’s good for Epic Poetry is not good for Screenplay Adaptations. I’ll cite only one more example and then call my point proved.

The faces of a six-year-old girl and her four-year-old sister
light up.

GIRLS
Daddy!

Next to them is a two-year-old girl with a string wrapped
around her waist. The other end of the string is held by a
woman in her thirties with a haggard, careworn face. The
woman also holds a babe-in-arms.

Everett, entering, goggles at the infant.

EVERETT
Who the hell is that?!

WOMAN
Starla Wharvey.

EVERETT
Starla McGill you mean! How come you
never told me about her?

SIX-YEAR-OLD
‘Cause you was hit by a train.

EVERETT
And that’s another thing – why’re
you tellin’ our gals I was hit by a
train!

WOMAN
Lotta respectable people been hit by
trains. Judge Hobby over in Cookeville
was hit by a train. What was I
supposed to tell ’em – that you was
sent to the penal farm and I divorced
you from shame?

EVERETT
Well – I take your point. But it
leaves me in a damned awkward position
vis-a-vis my progeny.

First let me note this exchange counts as one of the [more than a] few times O Brother made me laugh out loud. I’ll admit it’s some pretty funny dialogue. It is not, however, funny enough to distract from the fact that we are two thirds of the way through the script and this is how we’re finding out about all of Everett’s children… about Everett’s “careworn” wife. The script needs this to be the first time Everett’s children and wife have come up in order to make sense of the buried treasure story Everett told Pete and Delmar, but it’s very unconvincing that he has spent all this time with them and never mentioned his huge family.

This is the lowest dialogue score the Brothers have ever received from me.

4 out of 10 points.

Part B) Okay, so I promised not to mention The Odyssey in my regular review, and I’m not even through question one and I’ve now mentioned it twice. I suppose, however, I just can’t talk about subtext without acknowledging Everett is meant to be a “trickster” type character [in the manner of Odysseus]. The trickster being the fast talking [usually] male character who gets out of trouble by deceiving his antagonists with his silver tongue. (1) Everett has a slippery manner of speaking, for sure:

EVERETT
Well sir, my name is Jordan Rivers
and these here are the Soggy Bottom
Boys outta Cottonelia Mississippi-
Songs of Salvation to Salve the Soul.
We hear you pay good money to sing
into a can.

MAN
Well that all depends. You boys do
Negro songs?

Everett grimaces, thinking.

o brotherEVERETT
Sir, we are Negroes. All except our
a-cump- uh, company-accompluh- uh,
the fella that plays the gui-tar.

MAN
Well, I don’t record Negro songs.
I’m lookin’ for some ol’-timey
material. Why, people just can’t
get enough of it since we started
broadcastin’ the ‘Pappy O’Daniel
Flour Hour’, so thanks for stoppin’
by, but-

EVERETT
Sir, the Soggy Bottom Boys been
steeped in ol’-timey material. Heck,
you’re silly with it, aintcha boys?

And, in this particular instance, his manner of speaking does get him what he wants. Unfortunately, this and Everett’s original deception of Pete and Delmar [the one which allows him to escape the chain gang] are the only times his tricksterish qualities come through for him. More often than not he is thwarted by necessary physical properties of the world:

EVERETT
Well, ain’t this place a geographical
oddity-two weeks from everywhere!

Or, his verbal stylings are just highly polished conversational trinkets that don’t have actual value [or meaning]:

EVERETT
Pete, the personal rancor reflected
in that remark I don’t intend to
dignify with comment, but I would
like to address your general attitude
of hopeless negativism. Consider the
lilies a the goddamn field, or-hell!-
take a look at Delmar here as your
paradigm a hope.

DELMAR
Yeah, look at me.

EVERETT
Now you may call it an unreasoning
optimism. You may call it obtuse.
But the plain fact is we still have…
close to… close to…

He loses his drift as all three men turn, reacting to the
sound of an approaching speeding car.

EVERETT
…close to… three days…

Since Everett [almost] never convinces anyone to do what he wants, his way of speaking leaves us laughing at him instead of with him. You sometimes get the feeling the Brothers have misshapen their “trickster”… maybe they just crafted a fool.

I feel as though O Brother is not only the most episodic script of theirs I’ve yet read, I also feel it is the ONLY one so far in which the characters were underdeveloped.

4 out of 10 points.

Part C) In spite of the fact that I am [obviously] not the world’s biggest fan of this script, I can’t deny that all our major players are properly individuated. It would probably be best to stick with one of the big three players as our example, but I have been really hard on this script so far, and I want to end Part One of this review by being kind:

CHILD
You men from the bank?

PETE
You Wash’s boy?

CHILD
Yassir! And Daddy tolt me I’m to
shoot whosoever from the bank!

He pokes his rifle at the three men, who raise their hands.

DELMAR
Well, we ain’t from no bank, young
feller.

CHILD
Yassir! I’m also suppose to shoot
folks servin’ papers!

DELMAR
Well we ain’t got no papers.

CHILD
Yassir! I nicked the census man!

This scene really made me laugh. Upon reflection, it’s also the reason I have so much esteem for the Coen’s. This CHILD character has no more than ten lines in this script, yet he feels like he deserves a film all for himself:

10 out of 10 points.

Part Two coming soon.

Footnotes:

1. It occurred to me as I wrote this sentence, that there might be room in these ideas for future research. Is the Trickster the origin of the Anti-Hero and, thereby, the Super-Hero?

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2 responses to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?

  1. I’m a Homer guy, as opposed to say a Shakespeare guy. I was in some ways set on my path in elementary school by a dumbed down version of the Odyssey that I adored. Studied the Illiad for my bachelors.

    O Brother is a complete misfire for me. I sort of wish it didn’t exist.

    • Very happy to hear I’m not the only one.

      I think it’s interesting that the Coen Brothers films which were most successful in terms of the studios ROI [with two prominent exceptions] are the least successful for me. Someone might incline toward calling me an elitist over that fact, which would be true only if one meant good when one said elite.

      I’m pretty sure the Coens would also think its ironic [given the message in the Sturges film they borrowed from] that this film made so much money. They also, if I know them at all after these nine reviews, probably think they’re pretty clever [considering the Mennipean stuff we will be talking about in the back half of the review] that their soundtrack was even more wildly successful than their wildly successful film.

      Overall [and in spite of the fact that I found a few things to celebrate in Part Two of this review] I agree with your summation– this one would have been better off if it had stayed in the trunk.

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