Thesis: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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[. . .] The irony of the Coens' career is that, out of the marginalized business of "independent" filmmaking, they have so often striven to re-create such period pieces of the golden age of Hollywood's studios. Although Peter Biskind points to the Coens as an example of the larger symbiotic relationship that exists between "independent" filmmaking and Hollywood studio filmmaking, in the way that independent filmmaking "emerges at the bottom to inject new vitality into the system: the Oliver Stones and Coen Brothers of the 80s, the Quentin Tarantinos and Atom Egoyans of the 90s" (Biskind 429), the fact remains that the Coens seem most influenced by Hollywood product that was not independent in the first place, and represented in many cases the quickest cheapest sort of commercial product.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) are both set in the 1950s by contrast, but they are still attempts to revive film genres of the 1930s (the latter film is even shot in black-and-white) -- The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) is a pastiche of the "Screwball" comedies of the 1930s, a genre that the Coens had attempted earlier (with a contemporary setting) in Raising Arizona (1987) Meanwhile The Man Who Wasn't There straightforwardly adapts elements of noir and crime films of the 1930s -- in pastiche of various screen adapations of the novels of James M. Cain, like Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) or Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945) -- in the same way that (to varying degrees) Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and O Brother Where Art Thou? all manage to borrow from different elements of 30s crime films and B-movies generally. Viewers of Barton Fink will also recall that a large element of the film's plot hinges on questions of screenplay genre -- in point of fact, there never was any such thing as a "wrestling picture," although it sounds plausible enough, even though the prospect of the obese Wallace Beery wearing tights is meant to gain laughs from anyone who can still identify the once-famous '30s Hollywood star of the Garbo-and-Barrymore vehicle Grand Hotel, in which Beery beats Barrymore to death with a telephone (1932). Nonetheless, a "wrestling picture" sounds more plausible than the "chain gang picture," which was legitimately a film genre, prompted by Paul Muni's impassioned performance starring in Mervyn Leroy's 1930 film I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, with a genre that continues for a while and includes Humphrey Bogart's wryly comic turn in Michael Curtiz's We're No Angels (1955) -- a role played by Robert DeNiro in Neil Jordan's 1989 remake of the film, with a new screenplay by David Mamet -- and Stanley Kramer's socially-conscious Sidney Poitier -- Tony Curtis vehicle The Defiant Ones (1958). So when O Brother, Where Art Thou? opens, it is clearly and identifiably a film within this specific Hollywood sub-genre, although it is quite obviously a comic entry within that genre. Clearly the Coens are not merely adapting Homer's Odyssey in this film: they are also expanding their portfolio in terms of historical and stylistic pastiche of earlier Hollywood cinema. Again, one needs to be as steeped in the cinema of the 1930s to recognize their title -- "O Brother Where Art Thou?" -- as being itself taken from an earlier film comedy, Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges. Sturges's plot involves a Hollywood film director who wants to address the crises of the 1930s (including the Great Depression) by making a heartfelt (perhaps even bleeding-heartfelt) film about the plight of the American working man, to be entitled "O Brother Where Art Thou?" (This was itself likely Preston Sturges's own allusion to Arlen and Harburg's popular tune of the period "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?," and which epitomizes the sincere response to the economic and cultural malaise of the American 1930s.) As Josh Levine summarizes it in his book on the Coen Brothers, where he says the Coens's title

…is a rather esoteric joke, coming as it does from the brothers' favorite Preston Sturges film, Sullivan's Travels. In Sturges' film a Hollywood director of silly entertainments decides to make a serious film about the Depression called by the same name ["O Brother, Where Art Thou?"]: but because he actually knows only wealth and success, he decides to disguise himself as a hobo and go on the road, eventually ending up in prison. The lesson that the director learns while watching the prisoners laughing uproariously at a church screening of cartoons is that audiences don't want to see their lives depicted in movies: they want to escape for a while (Levine 159-61).

The affinities of Stuges's Sullivan's Travels with the Coens' earlier Barton Fink should be readily apparent: both are about the conflict between light entertainment and serious artistic fare, although the plot eventually renders the debate moot as the film becomes a parable of a writer's inability to witness an actual melodrama taking place around him (until he is involved, and a woman is dead because of him). The murderer played by John Goodman is (crucially) physically not unlike Wallace Beery, whom we never see in the film but who is referred to frequently. Barton has utterly failed to take an interest in Goodman's attempts to confess to him what is later revealed; that he is the serial murderer "Mad Man Mundt." Further details in Barton Fink really do require the viewer share the Coens' enthusiasm for the Hollywood "studio system" of the 1930s. A little period knowledge reveals that Barton Fink himself bears significant resemblance to playwright-turned-screenwriter Clifford Odets, who began as a committed socialist playwright writing loud and sentimental indictments of society (such as Golden Boy, eventually filmed with the young William Holden) but ended his career writing screenplays like the astonishingly bitter and macabre -- but technically flawless -- script for Alexander MacKendrick's noir masterpiece The Sweet Smell of Success. Fink's fellow studio scribe W.P. Mayhew is clearly meant to be identified as William Faulkner, a Nobel-prize winning novelist whose work for the studios included noirs like Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945) and Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946). And the morbid hotel in which Barton faces his writer's block is clearly indebted to another serious novelist turned Hollywood hack, Nathanael West, who managed the Hollywood hotel in which visiting writers were housed (Doom 53). Odets, West and Faulkner all churned out genre pictures for the studios like Barton does but the fact remains that Barton Fink itself is, oddly enough, not a straightforward genre picture of any sort -- although on the surface it seems to be a movie about the movie business, like Singin' in the Rain or The Bad and the Beautiful, a ghoulish noir melodrama seems to be happening all the way through the film, it happens offscreen: the severed head is never removed from the box Fink carries. O Brother, Where Art Thou? presents a similar stylistic congeries. And just as Barton Fink invokes Faulkner, West, and Clifford Odets, a similar list of literary allusions could be made for O Brother Where Art Thou?, invoking a canon of American rural or vernacular literature, with some of it from the 1930s-era south depicted in the film -- including Faulkner. Ryan P. Doom suggests that the Coens' choice of setting "surrounds the characters with a snapshot of Faulkner's South (his short novel 'Old Man' also seems to serve some inspiration)" -- there might also be a nod to Faulkner's much-anthologized story "Barn Burning" in the extended sequence in which the Sheriff sets fire to the barn (Doom 102). Other moments provide clear allusions to other Southern writers. Flannery O'Connor's bleak little story "Good Country People" -- about a fast-talking and ultimately treacherous Bible salesman -- is lurking behind their portrayal of the Bible salesman Big Dan Teague. And although in general the fast-talking confidence trickster seems to be more of an American archetype, we might see a hint of Melville's Confidence-Man or Mark Twain's Duke and Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn. (Twain is also an influence on other elements of the Coens' imagination here, including the Mississippi regional picaresque, with a seemingly controversial stand in favor of racial equality, and even for a yokel's tall tale about an amphibian). All of these elements need to be added into the mix in terms of the Coen Brothers basic aesthetic procedure of pastiche: they even present the extended sequence in which Ulysses Everett McGill and his companions save Tommy from lynching at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan is filmed by the Coens as an elaborate parody of a physically comedic (and yet dramatically important) sequence from The Wizard of Oz. It is important to be aware that this is just a basic function of their aesthetic, although they manage to do… [END OF PREVIEW]

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O Brother, Where Art Thou?.  (2011, February 17).  Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/o-brother-art-thou/5167935

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"O Brother, Where Art Thou?."  17 February 2011.  Web.  19 April 2019. <https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/o-brother-art-thou/5167935>.

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"O Brother, Where Art Thou?."  Essaytown.com.  February 17, 2011.  Accessed April 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/o-brother-art-thou/5167935.