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O Brother Where Art Thou? (November 20, 2014)

In 1941, Preston Sturges, the dean of American comedy writer-directors, made a picture called Sullivan’s Travels, which, as it happened, was the third film I showed when we started this series of movies at the Library. The details of the movie aren’t important, but the central character in it, a movie director, wants to make a socially conscious movie, called O Brother Where Art Thou?

This film, with the same title, is the 158th movie we’ve shown in this series at the Library. Like the Sturges picture, it also shows prisoners on a chain gang in the South. It was filmed in Mississippi and South Carolina in the summer of 1999 and had its general release in the U.S. in December 2000. It was written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and directed by Joel Coen. Editing was by the brothers (credited under the pseudonym Roderick Jaymes) and Tricia Cooke. Cinematography was by Roger Deakins, who used digital means to alter the film’s colors to a sepia look. Music was by T Bone Burnett, who used bluegrass and old-time country sources to contribute to the feeling of the picture, so successfully that the soundtrack album won a Grammy award for album of the year. Production design was by Dennis Gassner, art direction by Richard Johnson, set direction by Nancy Haigh, and costume design by Mary Zophres. The central three characters were played by George Clooney, long-time Coen brothers collaborator John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson. Actors we have seen in previous movies reappear – including John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning. The brothers credit Homer’s Odyssey as the source of the script, and indeed we meet a cyclops, and sirens, as George Clooney, playing Ulysses Everett McGill, makes his way homeward. It cost $26 million to make and grossed $72 million. The Coen brothers were nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay based on material previously published, and Roger Deakins was nominated for one for best cinematography.

A.O. Scott reviewed it thus, in the New York Times in 2000: “It is, all in all, a rambunctious and inspired ride in which the Coen brothers' voracious fascination with the arcana of American popular culture and their whiz-kid inventiveness reach new heights of whimsy. . But like The Hudsucker Proxy, (this) is a richer and more serious movie than it seems at first, and it risks being unfairly dismissed as an empty exercise in style. For one thing, this film has at its center an elusive, highly mannered performance that appears to belong, as much as the vintage roadsters and ice-cream suits, to a vanished era. Mr. Clooney not only looks like Clark Gable, with his hair slicked against his scalp and his carefully etched Art Deco mustache, but he also gives the kind of detached, matinee-idol performance that used to be Gable's trademark. Mr. Clooney's self-conscious line readings and leisurely double-takes are like a wink to the audience. We never forget that, whatever else the script may demand, we're watching a movie star. That we're watching a star of the present moment playing, in effect, a star of an earlier age only doubles the fun and adds to our sense of dislocation. . . Sometimes, as in Fargo, the Coens' fondness for outré regionalism verges on contempt, as if they were implicitly contrasting their own sophistication with the literal-minded dumbness of their characters. . . But if the filmmakers sometimes indulge in easy mockery of the South and its people, they also deliberately subvert such glibness through their brilliant and entirely sincere use of American folk music. As recorded by regional labels and collected by enterprising folklorists. . . the American vernacular music of the 20's and 30's retains an indelible, uncanny intensity. It provides a window onto what the music critic Greil Marcus has called ‘the old, weird America,’ a world of magic, superstition and deep feeling.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. I hope you enjoy watching O Brother Where Art Thou? with me tonight.