Film Screening: “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

In this lesson we are going to examine the Coen Brothers 2000 Film, O Brother Where Art Thou. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it.

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Writer/Directors: Ethan CoenJoel Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Film Editing: Ethan CoenJoel CoenTricia Cooke
ProducersTim BevanJohn CameronEthan CoenEric FellnerRobert Graf
Original Music: T-Bone Burnett

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a 2000 comedy film written, produced, edited and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and John Goodman, with Holly Hunter and Charles Durning in supporting roles. Set in 1937 rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, the film’s story is a modern satire loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey. The title of the film is a reference to the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, in which the protagonist (a director) wants to direct a film about the Great Depression called O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Much of the music used in the film is contemporary folk music, including that of Virginia bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley. The movie was one of the first to extensively use digital color correction, to give the film a sepia-tinted look. The film received positive reviews and the American folk music soundtrack won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001. The original band soon became popular after the film release and the country and folk musicians who were dubbed into the film, such as John Hartford, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Chris Sharp and others, joined together to perform the music from the film in a Down from the Mountain concert tour which was filmed for TV and DVD.

Plot

In 1937, Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Nelson) escape from a chain gang at Parchman Farm and set out to retrieve the $1.2 million in treasure that Everett claims to have stolen from an armored car and buried before his incarceration. They have four days to find it before the valley in which it is hidden will be flooded to create Arkabutla Lake as part of a newhydroelectric project. Early in their escape, while still chained together, they try to jump onto a moving train with some hobos, but fall off due to Pete’s inability to get on. They then encounter a blind man (Weaver) traveling on a manual railroad car. They hitch a ride and he tells their futures. They “seek a great fortune” and they will “find a fortune, though it will not be the one they seek”. They will also see many wonders on their journey, including a “cow on the roof of a cotton house”.

They walk to the house of Pete’s cousin, Wash Hogwallop (Collison), who removes their chains but because he needs the money, turns them in to the police, led by Sheriff Cooley (von Bargen). The authorities set the barn they are sleeping in ablaze, but the trio quickly escapes with the help of Wash’s son.

When they pass a congregation on the banks of a river, Pete and Delmar are enticed by the idea of baptism, to the immense derision of the skeptical Everett. As the journey continues, they travel briefly with a young guitarist named Tommy Johnson (King). When asked why he was at a crossroad in the middle of nowhere, he reveals that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar. Tommy describes the devil as being “White, as white as you folks … with empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He love to travel around with a mean old hound”, a description which matches Sheriff Cooley and his dog.

They come across a radio station run by a blind man (Root) and record the song “Man of Constant Sorrow”, calling themselves the Soggy Bottom Boys. Unknown to them, the song becomes famous around the state. The trio parts ways with Tommy after their car is discovered by police, and they continue on their own.

Among their many encounters, the most notable are a bank robbery with the famous bank robber George Nelson (Badalucco), a run-in with three sirens who seduce and drug them, and a mugging by a one-eyed Bible salesman named Big Dan Teague (Goodman).

Everett and Delmar arrive in Everett’s home town only to find that Everett’s wife, Penny (Hunter), is engaged to Vernon T. Waldrip (McKinnon), campaign manager for gubernatorial candidate Homer Stokes (Duvall). She refuses to take Everett back and is so ashamed of him that she has been telling their daughters he was killed by a train.

While watching a film in a cinema, Everett and Delmar discover that Pete is still alive; the sirens had turned him in to collect the bounty on his head. After Everett and Delmar rescue him from jail, Pete tells them that he gave up the location of the treasure. Everett reveals that he was in prison for practicing law without a license and there was never any treasure; he only mentioned it to persuade the other men to escape so he could reconcile with his wife. Pete is outraged at this news, primarily because he only had two weeks left on his original sentence, which has now been extended 50 years in light of his escape.

The trio stumble upon a Ku Klux Klan rally, where Tommy is about to be lynched. The three disguise themselves as the color guard and attempt a rescue, but Big Dan reveals their identities and chaos ensues, in which the Grand Wizard is revealed to be Stokes. The trio flee the scene with Everett cutting the wires supporting a large burning cross, which falls on and incinerates some of the Klansmen (including Big Dan).

Everett convinces Pete, Delmar and Tommy to help him win his wife back. Disguised as musicians, they sneak into a Stokes campaign dinner that she is attending. Everett tries to convince his wife that he is “bona fide” but she brushes him off. The group begins an impromptu musical performance, during which the crowd recognizes them as the Soggy Bottom Boys and goes wild. Stokes, on the other hand, recognizes them as the group who disgraced his lynch mob and shouts for the music to stop, angering the crowd. He denounces the Soggy Bottom Boys as hostile to the social order but the crowd is unimpressed and runs him out of town on a rail. Pappy O’Daniel (Durning), the sitting governor, seizes the opportunity and endorses the Soggy Bottom Boys, granting them a full pardon while the event is being played on the radio. Penny accepts Everett back but demands that he find her original ring if they are to be married. As they leave the dinner, they run into a mob taking a jubilant George Nelson to jail. Delmar comments, “Looks like George is right back on top again”.

The group sets out with Tommy to retrieve the ring, which is at a cabin in the valley where Everett originally claimed to have hidden the treasure. When they arrive, the police order their arrest and hanging. Everett protests, stating that they had been pardoned on the radio but Sheriff Cooley ignores their pleas, responding that where he comes from, “[they] don’t have a radio”. The three begin to despair while Everett improvises a prayer to be saved. Suddenly, the valley is flooded and they are saved from hanging. Using their coffins as rafts, Pete and Delmar jubilantly praise God, while Everett dismisses the incident as luck. He pipes down though, as a cow floats by on top of a submerged cotton house. Tommy finds the ring in a desk that he is floating on in the new lake and they return to town.

Everett and Penny walk through town with their daughters in tow, singing. Everett presents the ring to Penny, who promptly states that it is the wrong one and demands her ring back. As Everett protests the futility of trying to find it at the bottom of the lake, the blind man rolls by on his railway handcar, his voice joining those of the girls in song.

Production

The idea of O Brother, Where Art Thou? arose spontaneously. Work on the script began long before the start of production in December 1997 and was at least half-written by May 1998. Despite the fact that Ethan described the Odyssey as “one of my favorite storyline schemes” neither of the brothers had read the epic and were only familiar with its content through adaptations and numerous references to the “Odyssey” in popular culture. According to the brothers, Nelson (who has a degree in Classics from Brown University) was the only person on the set who had read the Odyssey.

The title of the film is a reference to the 1941 Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels, in which the protagonist (a director) wants to direct a film about the Great Depression called O Brother, Where Art Thou? that will be a “commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.” Lacking any experience in this area, the director sets out on a journey to experience the human suffering of the average man but is sabotaged by his anxious studio. The film has some similarity in tone to Sturges’ film, including scenes with prison gangs and a black church choir. The prisoners at the picture show scene is also a direct homage to a nearly identical scene in Sturges’ film.

Joel Coen revealed in a 2000 interview that he came to Phoenix to offer the lead role to Clooney. Clooney agreed to do the role immediately, without reading the script. He stated that he liked even the Coens’ least successful films.

John Turturro, who plays Pete, had been a constant actor for the Coens. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the fourth film of the brothers that he has starred in. Other actors in O Brother, Where Art Thou? who had worked previously with the Coens include John Goodman (three films), Holly Hunter (two), Michael Badaluccio and Charles Durning (in one film directors each).

One of the notable features of the film is its use of digital color correction to give the film a sepia-tinted look. Cinematographer Roger Deakins stated “Ethan and Joel favored a dry, dusty Delta look with golden sunsets. They wanted it to look like an old hand-tinted picture, with the intensity of colors dictated by the scene and natural skin tones that were all shades of the rainbow.”

This was the fifth film collaboration between the Coen Brothers and Deakins, and it was slated to be shot in Mississippi at a time of year when the foliage, grass, trees, and bushes would be a lush green. It was filmed near locations in Canton, Mississippi and Florence, South Carolina in the summer of 1999. After shooting tests, including film bipack and bleach bypass techniques, Deakins suggested digital mastering be used. Deakins subsequently spent eleven weeks fine-tuning the look, mainly targeting the greens, making them a burnt yellow and desaturating the overall image timing the digital files. This made it the first feature film to be entirely color corrected by digital means, narrowly beating Nick Park’s Chicken Run.

Eathan Coen, Joel Coen and Roger Deakins

Eathan Coen, Joel Coen and Roger Deakins

O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first time a digital intermediate was used on the entirety of a first-run Hollywood film which otherwise had very few visual effects. The work was done in Los Angeles by Cinesite utilizing a Spirit DataCine for scanning at 2K resolution, a Pandora MegaDef to adjust the color and a Kodak Lightning II recorder to output to film.

A major theme of the film is the connection between old-time music and political campaigning in the southern U.S. It makes reference to the traditions, institutions, and campaign practices of bossism and political reform that defined Southern politics in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Ku Klux Klan, at the time a political force of white populism, is depicted burning crosses and engaging in ceremonial dance. The character of Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel, the Governor of Mississippi and host of the radio show “The Flour Hour,” is similar in name and demeanor to W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, one-time Governor of Texas and later U.S. Senator from that state. W. Lee O’Daniel was in the flour business, and used a backing band called the Light Crust Doughboys on his radio show. In one campaign, W. Lee O’Daniel carried a broom,an oft-used campaign device in the reform era, promising to sweep away patronage and corruption. His theme song had the hook “Please pass the biscuits, Pappy,” emphasizing his connection with flour.

While the film borrows from real-life politics, there are obvious differences between the characters in the film and historical political figures. The O’Daniel of the movie used “You Are My Sunshine” as his theme song (which was originally recorded by real-life Governor of Louisiana James Houston “Jimmie” Davis) and Homer Stokes, as the challenger to the incumbent O’Daniel, portrays himself as the “reform candidate,” using a broom as a prop.

Music

Music in the film was originally conceived as a major component of the film, not as a background to support. Noted producer and musician T-Bone Burnett worked with the Coens while the script was still in its working phases, and the soundtrack was recorded before filming commenced. Much of the music used in the film is period-specific folk music, including that of Virginia bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley.  The musical selection also includes religious music, including Primitive Baptist and traditional African-American gospel, most notably the Fairfield Four, an a cappella quartet with a career extending back to 1921 who appear in the soundtrack and as gravediggers towards the film’s end. Selected songs in the film reflect the possible spectrum of musical styles typical of the old culture of the American South gospel, delta blues,country, swing and bluegrass.

There is a notable use of dirges and other macabre songs, a theme that often recurs in Appalachian music (“O Death,” “Lonesome Valley,” “Angel Band,” “I Am Weary”) in contrast to bright, cheerful songs (“Keep On the Sunnyside,” “In the Highways”) in other parts of the film.

The voices of the Soggy Bottom Boys were provided by Dan Tyminski (lead vocal on “Man of Constant Sorrow”), Nashville songwriterHarley Allen, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s Pat Enright. The three won a CMA Award for Single of the Year and a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, both for the song “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Tim Blake Nelson sang the lead vocal on “In the Jailhouse Now”.

“Man of Constant Sorrow” has five variations: two are used in the film, one in the music video, and two in the soundtrack. Two of the variations feature the verses being sung back-to-back, and the other three variations feature additional music between each verse.Though the song received little significant radio airplay, it reached #35 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in 2002. The version of “I’ll Fly Away” heard in the film is performed not by Krauss and Welch (as it is on the CD and concert tour), but by the Kossoy Sisters with Erik Darling accompanying on long-neck 5-string banjo, recorded in 1956 for the album Bowling Green on Tradition Records.

Tommy, the lead guitarist of the Soggy Bottom Boys, is an intentional reference to the legend of Delta Blues artist Tommy Johnson, who claimed to have sold his soul to the devil in return for blues fame.

Reception

The film was a box office and commercial success, grossing $71,868,327 off its $26 million budget. The film received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives a score of 77% based on 147 reviews, with an average score of 7.1/10, making the film a “Certified Fresh” on the website’s rating system.

Roger Ebert gave two and a half stars out of four stars to the film, saying all the scenes in the film to be “wonderful in their different ways, and yet I left the movie uncertain and unsatisfied.”

Awards

The film was selected into the main competition of the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. It stood second.

The film also received two Academy Award nominations at the 73rd Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Cinematographer Roger Deakins was recognized with both Academy Award and ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nominations for his work on the film.


Quizzes

"O Brother Where Art Thou" Quiz