O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2)

O-Brother-Where-Art-Thou r21Today I conclude the review of “the oddest script in the Coen Brothers Scriptography”. If you missed Part One, here is the link. Unfortunately I can’t provide access to the script. The IMSDb page is the only resource I’ve found.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

It’s very hard for me to determine where this first 10 pages ends based on the version I used for the review. After debating about whether or not I should draw up a proportion then cross multiply and divide, I finally just decided to call page 10 as the end of the scene with the CHILD. [This is the same scene quoted as the individuation example at the end of the previous review]. In other words, we will go with the following line as our page 10 demarcation:

DELMAR
There’s a good boy. Is your daddy
about?

Prior to this, we have a fairly entertaining sequence of the trio escaping capture [pretty much in spite of their efforts on escaping’s behalf]. There is also an interlude with the blind “Tiresias” character. [The Brothers call their version of Tiresias, Old Man. They put him on one of those pump action antique rail cars, whereupon he prognosticates like his literary forebear. Of course, the Brothers never read The Odyssey, so none of this was intended.]

The Old Man informs us that the convicts will not receive the treasure they seek, though “Fate has vouchsafed” them a reward. The contents of this reward are not revealed, but there will be many “startlements” including a “cow on the roof of a cottonhouse”.

As I’ve hinted at several times previously, this script is going to rank in the lower end [possibly, dead last] of my eventual ranking of Brothers scripts. Yet, it would be disingenuous if I allowed my eventual feelings about this script to interfere with my initial enjoyment of these first ten pages. The episodic complaints I will level in the next question are not apparent by page 10. The script begins with humor and, even, a small degree of mystery.

At least, for me, they began this misstep of a script somewhere near… the right foot?

15 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) You can’t allow me to use the word episodic [to describe the narrative of your script] as many times as I’ve used it in the wind up to this reveal question and also expect me to give you a healthy score. I also can’t give you partial credit just because I’m quite sure you knew the risks you were taking when you indulged your penchant for literary flippancy.

A defender of the story in this script would need to explain to me what gets setup and what gets revealed… other than the two or three things any decent trailer for the movie might provide:

1. There is no treasure.
2. The SoggyBottom Boys are a hit.
3. They end up working for Governor O’Daniel.
4. They are pardoned for their past crimes.

Of these, the only one I felt was meaningfully setup was the success of their “Man of Constant Sorrow”. Everything else just happens.

2 out of 10 points.

Part B) Everett’s engine is excruciatingly well-defined:

EVERETT
Uh, the fact of the matter is – well,
damnit, there ain’t no treasure!

Now it is Pete’s turn to be stunned. He and Delmar stare at
Everett.

EVERETT
Fact of the matter – there never
was!

PETE
But… but…

DELMAR
So – where’s all the money from your
armored-car job?

EVERETT
I never knocked over any armored-
car. I was sent up for practicing
law without a license.

PETE
But…

EVERETT
Damnit, I just hadda bust out! My
wife wrote me she was gettin’ married!
I gotta stop it!

Everett wants to stop his wife from marrying the nefarious Vernon T. Waldrip. He actively moves toward this goal throughout the script. There is even a ticking clock pushing him to get to his goal. Starla is slated to marry Vernon on the following day [after this speech] unless Everett can convince her otherwise.

My issue with this is that the audience has NO IDEA this is Everett’s real engine until we are two-thirds of the way through his story.

In general, I believe you should be honest with the audience about your protagonist’s motivations. It helps them identify with your character and pulls them into “rooting” for her. There can be exceptions to this, of course, but most of these concern an engine which is ALSO hidden from the protagonist. [The Sixth Sense is an example.] It is very hard to elude the idea that the Brothers have just pulled an engine “bait and switch”. I would vouchsafe an unrepped writer her points reward if she did this, so let me vouchesafe the same unto The Brothers Coen:

1 out of 5 points.

Part C) In the next part of this question, I will go on a bit about what I believe to be the pinch point of this script. Because of that, I will shortchange my response in this part. I’ll just list the line and tell you that, satirically, it works quite well… structurally, it serves no purpose at all.

PETE
It’s awful white of ya to take it
like that, Everett. I feel wretched,
spoilin’ yer play for a million
dollars’n point two. It’s been eatin’
at my guts.

I’ll award the points as though it were a split decision:

2 out of 5 points.

O_Brother_G_06Part D) We’ve finally gotten to theme and I feel that I am about to be REALLY hard on my favorite Authors/Brothers. I mentioned in the prologue to this review that there are obvious Mennipean overtones to this story. Now that we are undertaking thematic explication, I will commit to saying those satiric “overtones” are meant to take the place of a legitimate theme. In other words,

O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t have a theme. (2)

It might be helpful, before I [inevitably] get to far from my point, for me to establish the ground rules for the “genre” the Brothers are playing around in. From Wikipedia:

Other features found in Menippean satire are different forms of parody and mythological burlesque,[2] a critique of the myths inherited from traditional culture,[2] a rhapsodic nature, a fragmented narrative, the combination of many different targets, and the rapid moving between styles and points of view.

For sure, all of that can be found in O Brother. But what, in the name of all that’s satirical, was their target. One essayist I found thinks that:

In the case of O Brother,
we may not be able to identify the Coens as
writers with any particular point of view,
but we can identify them as orchestrating
agents who stand at the point where all
images intersect. This unifying center, however,
imposes no unifying order. (3)

I disagree.

This script is about institutionalized Southern Racism, and how being “An American” involves recognizing the fact of institutionalized Southern Racism. [If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know I am NOW intensely interested.] I arrived at this conclusion when I came across the following line [listed above as the pinch point]:

PETE
It’s awful white of ya to take it
like that, Everett. I feel wretched,
spoilin’ yer play for a million
dollars’n point two. It’s been eatin’
at my guts.

When I read that line I was instantly transported backwards to my Southern Youth. The expression [where I grew up] was “mighty white of ya”, but the message was the same. Again, it was another of those things that people just said. I’m sure I heard it a thousand times if I heard it once.

I actually had a bad moment in my reverence for the Brothers after reading that line. It stopped my progress in their script. In my notes I wrote:

THERE BETTER BE A GOOD REASON FOR THIS!

The line turned a script [I already wasn’t enjoying that much] into even more of a chore. I believed I knew the brothers well enough to know they wouldn’t play with racism the way they play with everything else, but I wasn’t sure my belief in them was warranted. This line, of hideously impotent racism, meant they were throwing the audience a challenge:

Can YOU decode the anti-racist message of our script?

O Brother thus unmasks nostalgia
for the Old South as a violent longing for an
ideal past that never was, for a polity whose
racial and political strife undermines the
unattainable coherence for which epic desire
longs. In fact, the Klan scene in O
Brother underscores the film’s mockery of
the cultural monologism on which such
virulent patriotism depends, and which the
contemporary packaging of America attempts
to enforce.

I agree.

Amazingly, this is from the same essay in which it was previously claimed there was a unifying center without a unifying order. Perplexing [to the academia-uninitiated], since this barrage of sentences seems to be EXACTLY the point.

This movie came out in December of 2000. I’d love to know when it was written. Could it have been during the infamous election campaign that [almost] finished in November of that year? Are the Coen Brothers commenting on the Values that informed so many of the presidential choices that year? Is there something being said about the American Exceptionalism that constantly gets touted as SOMETHING LOST? Are they reminding us that not everything a Culture misplaces actually counts as a loss?

I think so.

I also think it counts as something of a miracle that they managed to convince 78,000,000 million dollars worth of people to go and see their commentary. Perhaps they had to be as flippant with their allusions as they were in order to make the withering nature of their critique palatable. If it hurts my feelings that they have to throw in a couple of racist allusions to satisfy themselves they were being serious, then let me be the minority opinion. I do have to ask, though: if Ole BlindDollar didn’t get they had really read The Odyssey, do you think he also didn’t get they were condemning our racist history as our racist present?

At what point does subtle become inscrutable?

7 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) I’m not sure anyone else could design such an ambitious story and have it come off [and be received by most critics] as though it were an exercise in nonchalance. I am very happy that My Brothers chose to say something about institutionalized Southern Racism. I just wish they had done it with all the emotional force with which they are often capable.

4 out of 5 points.

Part B) I did not like this script very much [possible understatement]. There are some great stretches of dialogue, but the characters all lack authenticity. I understand that they meant this as something of a “screwball” comedy, but the result is that it occasionally reads more like Dumb and Dumber 2 than The Big Lebowski.

2 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

It’s very hard to live in harmony with something that doesn’t exist. However, as I did in the previous question I give the Brothers a lot of credit for thinking of broaching this subject. I also commend them for the ambitiousness required to make something serious APPEAR so trivial.

The idiocy that continues to make headlines in our impending presidential selection process partially convinces me they were right to treat that idiocy as slapstick. The kind of person that would believe the Coens never read The Odyssey is the kind of person who is likely to accuse whole countries of being filled with criminals just seething to rape and kill as many White people as they can.

I cannot endorse this script, but it’s heart was in the right place:

8 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 59

Footnotes:

2. Do you think this might be the reason it is so episodic?

3. Tracy Seely, O BROTHER, WHAT ART THOU?: POSTMODERN PRANKSTERISM, OR PARODY WITH A PURPOSE?

[I read the title of Seely’s article at least nine times before my mind converted the “WHERE” to the actual “WHAT”]

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