In a scant year's time, between 1999 and 2000, George Clooney went from "Three Kings" to Three Stooges. And if that sounds like a career going down faster than a sinking ship, it's not--especially with the heady and outrageous Coen brothers at the helm.
The Three Stooges meet Homer--sans Jethro
To create "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" director-producer Joel Coen said that he and brother Ethan "sort of combined The Three Stooges with Homer's Odyssey," adding that they realized midway through production that they were also probably filming "the ‘Lawrence of Arabia' of hayseed movies." With bluegrass, gospel, country and folk tunes driving each scene and even setting up an Act Three resolution, "O Brother" is also a quirky, foot-tapping musical. Put it all together and it's an amazing odyssey of a film that has all the mythic power of its inspiration, and the kind of magical realism that put Latin American fiction on the map.
A treasure trove of literary and cinematic allusions, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" begins with a quote from The Odyssey which invokes the muse and also pays homage to silent movies with old-style decorative title cards. Foremost among the cinematic allusions is the film's title. Preston Sturges, in "Sullivan's Travels," told the story of a Hollywood director known for lightweight comedy who sets out to make a serious social statement in his next film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"--though his producer insists it should be a musical. To get a fix on reality, Sullivan sets out dressed as a hobo with only ten cents in his pocket--but his odyssey into the Depression-era South sours when he's double-crossed and ends up serving six years on a chain gang. In the end, he concludes that he would never know enough suffering to make "O Brother."
Classic quest formula
The Coen brothers took over for Sullivan the way Spielberg took over for Kubrick, and solved the problem of comedy vs. social statement vs. musical by combining all three elements within the framework of Homer's classic wayfaring plot. The Odyssey chronicled Ulysses' journey home following the fall of Troy, after which he was blown off-course and encountered a blind soothsayer, Lotus-Eaters (who gave Ulysses' men a narcotic that made them forget their quest), a gigantic one-eyed cyclops, a temptress who turns men into swine, sirens (whose song lures sailors toward them, only to perish on the rocks), an island of cattle belonging to the Sun that Ulysses' men defile, and Calypso's island (where Ulysses is held prisoner). But Ulysses, determined to return to his wife, presses on and enters his kingdom in disguise to size up and defeat the suitors who had been swirling, like gnats, around his wife, Penelope.
In the Coen brothers' version, Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) is serving time on a Mississippi chain gang for practicing law without a license and plots to return home when he hears his wife has plans to remarry. He cons the two hayseeds chained to him (John Turturro as Pete, Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar) into escaping by telling them he knocked over an armored car and will share the hidden money with them. Pursued by an ominous prison guard (mirrored shades of Cool Hand Luke), they meet a blind man who foretells their journey. Along the way, they encounter hogs (well, Hogwallops), one of the men is turned into an animal (well, sort of), sirens, and a blustery one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman) momentarily derail them. Eventually, in ZZ Top disguise, Everett and his Soggy Mountain Boys return home and he re-woos Penny (Holly Hunter).
American folklore . . . and more
But the Coens, whose screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, also tap into American mythology from the Depression era. Their Three Sturges are joined by Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), an African-American blues guitarist who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads (ala legendary bluesman Robert Johnson) so that he could play like the devil. And gangster legend Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco) crosses their paths, blasting away with his tommy gun at "coppers" and defiling cattle in the process. Then there's the quintessential Big Daddy southern politician, with Charles Durning playing Pappy O'Daniel. Though the offbeat humor, incredible music (compiled by music archivist T Bone Burnett), Academy Award-nominated cinematography (by Roger Deakins), and engaging performances will be enough to satisfy many viewers, this buddy road picture will most appeal to serious literature and cinema buffs.
Anyone who recalls seeing the scarecrow, lion, and tin man peering at the singing soldiers of the wicked witch will delight in a Klan rally scene that echoes their attempted rescue of Dorothy. Those who read Moby-Dick will smile when a coffin pops up after a flood to save the survivors. And the few people who've read Frank Norris' McTeague will find it incredibly intellectual of the Coens to include a dual reference to that early American novel. Teague is the burly-but-not-bright Bible salesman's name, and in the novel McTeague is a strong-but-dumb dentist who practices dentistry without a license--something Clooney's ne'er-do-well character aspires to at the end. And there are a lot more allusions to be found.
"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is the headiest and silliest offering from the Coens to date. And like the brothers--whose most recent film, "True Grit," earned 10 Oscar nominations--it only seems to get better with age.
Last spring on one of the forum threads at RogerDeakins.com, the Coen's cinematographer--Oscar-nominated for his work on "Fargo," "No Country for Old Men," "True Grit," and this film—told a reader that he supervised the less-common VC-1 transfer to a 50-gig Blu-ray disc and thought it looked "far superior to the original release." I never saw this in theaters, so I can't say. But I do still have the DVD, and this new hi-def transfer is far superior. Though there's still a slight-but-appealing layer of film grain visible in negative spaces such as blank walls and sky, the level of detail is superb in all depths of field. Deakins and the Coens deliberately opted to begin with black-and-white and transition to a sepia-toned print that features desaturated colors except for occasional bursts and scenes. They use color in the dissolves as well, and the effect is striking. Edge detail is quite good, and there's also a nice sense of 3-dimensionality. But you can really appreciate the sharpness of the transfer on those color-shifting dissolves. "O Brother" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is an active DTS-HD MA 5.1 in English, though it can startle at times with sounds just barely off-center that are channeled far right or left. There's not much in the way of rear-speaker involvement except during T-Bone Burnett's musical score, which is one of the best movie soundtracks . . . if, that is, you like bluegrass and American country-folk music. An additional audio option is Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Though there's no commentary (a pity, since a nine-minute standard-def "making of" featurette only whets our appetite for more remarks from the Coens), and an excellent feature from the DVD--"Painting with Pixels," which explains how the Coens and Deakins wanted a Dustbowl-era look, and to achieve that they shunned the traditional photochemical laboratory processes and manipulated all the footage digitally (the first live-action picture to be processed that way) turns up missing. But carried over from the DVD is a "Storyboard to Scene Comparison," during which viewers can click back and forth between film image and storyboard drawing, or see them together on a split scene while they watch two long scenes--the flood and the Klan rally.
Rounding out the extras are the theatrical trailer and a likeable "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" music video featuring the Soggy Bottom Boys and a clogging Clooney--who isn't just good looks and charm. "He's also a goofball," Ethan Coen said, "which lends itself to the part very well."
This goofy odyssey has so much going for it that the Blu-ray should get lots of play over the years. Everyone who has the capacity for abstract thought, raise your hands . . . and take this Coen brothers' journey.