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An Odyssey of Irony

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Coen Brothers had long desired to reimagine The Odyssey in their world of film for some time. As Tim Blake Nelson reminisced at a New York Film Festival anniversary showing of O Brother, Where Art Thou, on the shelf of Joel Coen once sat a copy of Homer's epic, stuck with a note that read "soon to be a motion picture by Joel and Ethan Coen."

The peril of Odysseus and co. are transplanted into the depression-era south and steeped with political and racial irony. The Coens maintain an observant eye of the social standings of their period piece here. The opening shot gleans over the sun-beaten toil of a Black chain-gang "turning big rocks into little rocks", to borrow Samuel L. Jackson's foreboding words in Django Unchained. Soulful hymns both empower these bonded men and power the score's introduction. But there is irony in the image of our White trio of faulted heroes who luck out in their escape into the distant fields.

John Turturro

Throughout their winding journey, Everett (George Clooney), Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), and Pete (John Turturro) labor through obstacles that each lay parallel to The Odyssey. They first encounter the blind prophet Tiresias, in the form of an elderly Black rail rider. Everett is quick to dismiss the old soothsaying drifter in an act of Hubris akin to Odysseus' fatal flaw.

Themes of Vanity

George Clooney, while also being a self-professed Coenhead, was ideal to portray the character's silver-tonged southern charm and vain eccentricities. The Kentucky native called in a favor to his uncle to have him tape record all of his lines in the script so that Clooney could study and perfect that southern drawl.

Turturro and Nelson's performances as Everett's mentally dull cohorts round out their leader's slickness. When the trio stumble upon a congregation of Baptists in the lake, mirroring lotus eaters of The Odyssey, the two honest but thick-skulled convicts rush in to wash away their sins. As the voice of religious cynicism throughout the film, Everett watches the baptism with a grinning contempt. Although even the viewer can see what the Coens are expressing through Delmar and Pete's actions, the desperate human need for any quick cleanse of conscience.

A remorseful Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) leaves a dollar for a stolen pie a

Where Art Thou further showcases religion in the heart of the bible belt in an ironic light. John Goodman as 'Big' Teague, The Coen kins' envisioning of Homer's Cyclopes, is a violently opportunistic shill veiled underneath the appearance of a bible salesman.

Tommy, the blues guitarist who they pick up along the dusty trails of their journey, informs the trio he was on his way to sell his soul upon instructions by the Devil. With this information the now foursome detour to a remote radio station to record a smash hit for ten dollars a piece. The metaphor here lying in the common occurrence of early Black Jazz and Blues musicians being exploited out of their earnings. The Soggy Bottom Boys, as the impromptu band fashioned themselves, is a deep cut reference to the 1940s Bluegrass duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs that went by the moniker the Foggy Mountain Boys.

As the Coen Brothers continue with their allusions to The Odyssey, whether in the form of the Sirens of the lake, the suitors of Penelope (or Penny in this case), they satirize the glib nature of American politics during the era of patronage. Governor Pappy O'Daniel, who gives the group a strings-attached pardon after they prove themselves on stage (à la Odysseus' bow challenge), was a reference to a Texas politician of the same name who utilized the new frontier of radio to build his populist platform. His opposition in the gubernatorial election moonlights as the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The Coen Brothers toy with the clan as they use the scene of their failed lynching to mimic the 'March of the Winkies' from The Wizard of Oz, which itself was based off of a Nazi parade march titled 'SS Marschiert in Feindesland'.

A flood may have saved a momentarily pious Everett and his ragged brethren from the noose after he fell to his knees in a vulnerable plea to God's mercy, but quickly resorts back to his religious cynicism and credits the divine intervention with the hydroelectric dam project. As the trio drift in the sea of wreckage clung to a casket, borrowing imagery from Moby Dick, Everett waxes on the modernization of the South. In a firmly tongue in cheek display of dramatic irony, he woefully misplaces his trust that it will lead to a "veritable Age of Reason... like the one they had in France."

The sheriff watches the blazing inferno

O Brother, Where Art Thou is a morally observant road-film as well as a closeted musical. It's prose-like title pays homage to the Preston Sturges film Sullivan's Travels, with the Coens endeavoring to make true the fictional film-within-a-film that Sturges' character never completed. Abound with allusions to both literature and film, folk and bluegrass deep cuts that display a rich grasp of local lore, and the obvious mirroring of The Odyssey, the sepia-washed journey colors a unique spot in the Coen Brothers' library.


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