- LULU / PANDORA'S BOX
- DAPHNIS AND CHLOE
- FEDRA
- THE FUGITIVE KIND
- THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS
- PHAEDRA
- HERCULES CONQUERS ATLANTIS
- YOUNG APHRODITES
- CONTEMPT
- PROMETHEUS FROM THE VISEVICE ISLAND
- SANDRA OF A THOUSAND DELIGHTS
- THE GOLDEN THING
- THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS
- EURIDICE BA 2037
- IPHIGENIA
- A DREAM OF PASSION
- CLASH OF THE TITANS
- THE YEARS OF THE BIG HEAT
- ENIOCHUS - THE CHARIOTEER
- ANTIGONE
- EDIPO ALCADE
- THAT'S LIFE
- BLADE RUNNER
- VERTIGO
- MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA
- ORPHEUS
- PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN
- ULYSSES
- HERACLES AND THE QUEEN OF LYDIA
- BLACK ORPHEUS
- ANTIGONE
- ELECTRA
- JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
- ‘«Ň GORGON
- OEDIPUS REX
- ‘«Ň ILLIAC PASSION
- THE CANNIBALS
- ŐEDEA
- NOTES FOR AN AFRICAN ORESTEIA
- FOR ELECTRA
- PROMETHEUS IN THE SECOND PERSON
- VOYAGE TO CYTHERA
- ULYSSES' GAZE
- ‘«Ň MATRIX
- O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
USA, 2000


Directed by: Joel Coen. Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Director of Photography: Roger Deakins. Set Design: Dennis Gassner. Costume Design: Mary Zophres. Music: T-Bone Burnett, Carter Burwell. Film Editor: Roderick Jaynes (Coen brothers), Tricia Cook. Cast: George Clooney (Everett Ulysses McGill), John Turturro (Pete), Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar), Holly Hunter (Penny), Charles Durning (Pappy O’Daniel), John Goodman (Big Dan Teague), Michael Badalucco (George “Babyface” Nelson), Wayne Duvall (Homer Stocks), Chris Thomas King (Tommy Johnson), Daniel Von Bargen (Lawman Cooley). Production: Ethan Coen for Touchstone Pictures, Universal, Studio Canal+, Working Title. Length: 108 min. Colour.

In the 1930s, Everett, Delmar and Pete, escaped convicts from a Mississippi penitentiary, cross the country in search of the place where Everett says he has buried a treasure. On the way, they meet Tommy Johnson, a black bluesman, and they make a record with him that turns out to be a big hit, unbeknownst to the convicts. As they continue their journey they get involved with three washerwomen/Sirens on the river, who give Pete over to the authorities, and also with a Bible salesman who robs them. Everett helps Pete escape and confesses to the others that there is no treasure, but that his true intention is to find his wife Penny before she marries Stocks, a demagogue in the employ of the state governor’s biggest rival in the upcoming elections. The three convicts save Tommy Johnson from the clutches of the Ku Klux Klan and realize that the leader of the local KKK is Stocks. During an event where they sing their big hit, they expose Stocks, and the governor, who is re-elected, pardons them. They are arrested, however, by the prison warden and while they are being led to the gallows, they are saved by a flood.

A finely wrought entertainment film
One of the earliest gags thrown out (and apparently away) by the Coen Brothers is their po-faced title-credit claim that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on the Odyssey. Aha, you think, typical smart-alecky college-boy spoofery… and then darn it if the Homeric parallels don’t start coming thick and fast. A hero called Ulysses heading back home to see off the suitors for his wife Penny/Penelope; a one-eyed and hence suitably Cyclopean bad guy in the corpulent form of John Goodman, crooked Bible salesman and KKK goon Big Dan Teague; a trio of exquisitely sexy sirens, who coax our crew, three escapes from a chain gang on a trail of a cache of buried money, to the river and oblivion with sweet song and spiked hooch, and even manage to turn one of them –or so his superstitious pals believe– into a frog; blind men prophesying signs and wonders, and a guy called Homer.
None of which would appear to have very much point, other than in adding a certain quality of bookish gamesomeness to the proceedings for those in the know, just as a movie buff’s knowledge of the film’s undeclared source, Preston Sturges’ 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels (in which the idealistic director played by Joel McCrea yearns to make a socially conscious epic entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou?) will give a little extra relish to the scene in which a chain gang is marched into the local cinema for their weekly dose of motion entertainment. Disparate as they otherwise are, though, the two classic sources of Sturges’ Travels and Homer’s Odyssey do have at least one thing in common: they share the basic structure of the episodic adventure journey – a form which can have the virtue of mating a reasonably strong narrative drive with a pleasingly wide and promiscuous range of subject matter.
The better part of a century ago, both James Joyce and Ezra Pound twigged to the usefulness of the Odyssey as a clothes line for hanging your obsessions on, and though the Coens are neither as universally compendious as Joyce nor as nastily deranged as Pound, their film is also a bit of an encyclopedic rag-bag or cabinet of curiosities, stuffed to bursting point with the minutiae of American popular culture and folk memory. At one point or another, their film invokes more or less directly all of the following and more: the satanic legend of blues guitarist Robert Johnson, the career of Louisiana governor Huey Long, The Wizard of Oz, the modernizing and devastating activities of the Tennessee Valley Authority, bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, The Grapes of Wrath, Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor’s religious zealots and hucksters, writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans’ account of the Depression years, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and the Lord alone knows what else.
Above all, it’s a compendium of American musical styles of the period, from blues and gospel to bluegrass and back again, comparable in spirit and sheer enjoyment value to Harry Smith’s celebrated anthology of American folk music on the ’20s and ’30s, re-issued on CDs a couple of years ago to ecstatic reviews and brisk sales. (Did the Coens join the rest of us in snapping it up?) Simply, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has one of the richest and most satisfying soundtracks I’ve heard in years: hats off to T-Bone Burnett, who arranged and produced it, as well as recruiting a lot of the performers.
And what is true of the music is true of the culture which produced that music: it would be hard for filmmakers with no real attachment to Americana to produce a movie so besotted with the bric-a-brac of their nation’s half-forgotten folk ways. It was always clear that the Coens were film-fed boys, but less clear how reverent they felt to their pop-cultural roots. Maybe, like Ulysses or Odysseus, they’ve finally come home to Ithaca. In any event, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a finely wrought entertainment film, one which any con might be pleased to see on his afternoon away from the chain gang.

Kevin Jackson
"Sight and Sound", Vol. 10, October 2000