Friday, February 25, 2011

O Brother...

O Brother, Where Art Thou?Imagine a Three Stooges episode where the stooges act out The Odyssey--to an authentic bluegrass soundtrack.  As improbable as that might sound, it is exactly the recipe for the amazing movie O Brother Where Art Thou.  You will laugh at the silly stupidity of it all, marvel at the intellectual jokes, admire the film-making techniques, and cry with real emotion at the epic heartbreak of it all.

Unlike the movie Troy, O Brother does not pretend to be a retelling of Homer.  However, there are numerous parallels and remakings.  Some of the references are obvious, but many are not.  If you've just read The Odyssey, you'll appreciate all that playfulness and cleverness all the  more.

George Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, a man who escapes from a chain gang with two of his fellow inmates.  He is definitely the clever one of the three, and he leads them through episodic adventures and tribulations roughly parallel to what Odysseus experiences.  And like Odysseus, Everett seeks to go home to his wife and offspring.  In the film, "Penny" is played brilliantly by Holly Hunter.

In some of the episodes, film characters carry echoes of several storylines from the book.  For example, the women who sing so beautifully that the men are pulled off the path are the Sirens--but also reflect Circe, Calypso, and even Nausicaa doing her laundry.

Occasionally I found myself trying to force the scenes to fit together--but that is just not the way this movie works.  Nods to Homer are everywhere, but this is in no way just a modernization of the Odyssey.  Everything from the Cyclops to Helios' cattle appear, but not always in their right places or plot-lines. I had to let myself sit back and enjoy the brilliant quirkiness.

Everett is cunning and well-spoken, just as Odysseus is.  The two characters also share a tremendous pride or vanity.  Everett's vanity is shown through his special concern about how his hair looks and his great love of Dapper Dan hair pomade.  Although his vanity is played for laughs through almost the entire movie, the picture changes at the end and left me with a lump in my throat.  I won't say more, but if any of you know what I'm talking about, I'd love to hear what you thought.

My very favorite scene: When the Odysseus character yells at his young daughters, "I am the only Daddy you got!  I am the damn pater familias!" in his intense Deep South accent.

*  *  *

Of course the music is one of the best parts about the movie.  Traditional music threads throughout--as an integral part of the movie rather than as background.  Perhaps the highlight is when the three jailbreaks form the Soggy Bottom Boys and record a song together: "Man of Constant Sorrow":

Note: The name Odysseus can be translated as "the hated man" or "troubled man" or "the man who brings and receives pain"--that is, "the man of constant sorrow."

And here is an audio of the immortal Ralph Stanley singing the same traditional song:


  1. My husband and I went to see this movie at a cinema in Paris, France. It was a subtitled version, not dubbed, so we could hear the original dialogue and see how it was being translated for the French audience. At the beginning, I was dubious in the extreme. I almost wanted to slide down in my seat and hide under it! We both had the same feeling: “Oh, no! This is going to be terrible and reinforce everything French people think about what Americans are.” At times the humor was pretty broad, as were the characterizations, but in the end we were completely won over. As you say, the music helped a LOT! That beautiful, beautiful music! We left the theatre with heads held high, and I had tears in my eyes.

    At that time I had not read the ODYSSEY. Later, when I did, the “echoes” you mention, ones I hadn’t recognized before (everyone knows parts of the story even without reading it), came back to me. The sound track is a wonderful CD, by the way.

    This morning I reached the chapter in UNSPEAKABLE where the young woman who can sign with Junius makes her visit. This story leaves me speechless.

  2. Great review! This is a fantastic movie, but you are right about how one has to watch with some flexibility when comparing to the Odyssey...

  3. PJ--Absolutely! I too rolled my eyes at the beginning and thought this was going to be yet another one of those movies--but within just a few scenes, I was totally invested. I love your story of seeing it in France!

    I've heard that the filmmakers did not begin with an idea of connecting with the Odyssey but realized the connections as they were going along. Fascinating.

    I'm still so honored that you are reading Unspeakable. Thanks for telling me!

    Rachel: Yep--lots of funny and serious allusions, but definitely not just a film adaptation.

  4. Although I don't think this is necessarily the finest of the Coen brothers' films, it's by far my favorite. Much of it was shot in and around the area where I was living at the time. A lot of the people involved with the film dropped by the bookstore where I was working then, so naturally I was excited about seeing the finished product. I had moved to New England by the time the movie was released, and I swear that my husband and I were the only two people watching it in our theatre who got it--all of the humor, many (not quite all) of the references to our own collective Southern mythology, and appreciated all of the music.

    The movie was shot and set in the Mississippi delta, so while the accents are definitely what you might call Deep South, they're not mountain accents, which are quite different, BTW. Different pronunciations and cadences.

  5. Crowe: How wonderful to get to experience the making of the film! Did you sell the film folks a lot of copy of The Odyssey?

    As I Carolina southerner, I'm ashamed I messed up the accents and will correct the post ASAP. Thanks very much.

    I'm thrilled to find your blog-- especially since you are a Welty fan!

  6. Very interesting post-before I read it I would have dismissed this movie without seeing it-I will look for it on cable now-

  7. Mel: So glad to hear it! Hope you enjoy it.

  8. @ As the Crowe Flies and Reads:

    Not ALL of the movie was filmed in the Delta. The siren scene, for instance, was filmed at the D'Lo water park in Simpson County, square in the middle of the state. (I was there this afternoon . . .)


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