Monday, 5 September 2011

O Brother Where Art Thou? (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000)


OK, I'm going to have to come right out and confess it; I don't get O Brother Where Art Thou?

I've no objection to the idea, in fact I think it's a great idea. I've a great fondness for stories set in both the American South and during the Depression, so the whole concept really appeals to me. And I have no problem with a free adaptation of a text - I'm quite happy to substitute an overland journey for a nautical one, the chain gang for war, three protagonists for one hero, the police force for Poseidon, and so on.

No, my problem is that I can see very little relation between the film and the text it's supposedly 'based on'. I'm not one of those people who think an adaptation of a novel or, in this case, an epic poem, should be utterly faithful to the text. Film is a different medium and requires different things and I have been known to defend changes made to The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and other literary adaptations at length. Myth is especially flexible and I think you can and should do all sorts of things with it, as my enduring fondness for Troy will show you. If this film had said it was 'inspired by the adventures of Odysseus', in the same way that Moulin Rouge! is inspired by Orpheus, I wouldn't have batted an eyelid. What confuses me about this film is that it claims to be 'based on The Odyssey'. 'Based on' implies some level of similarity between the two versions, and The Odyssey is a specific text which offers a specific version of the myth. This is what confuses me about the film, which seems to bear very little relation to the poem.

Here are some things The Odyssey is about:

Fathers and sons - the son searching for his father, their reunion, Odysseus' relationship with his own father.
The wife who waited 20 years for her husband, refusing and tricking all other suitors.
Power - Penelope doesn't just preserve her romantic relationship with Odysseus, by refusing to remarry she preserves his throne while Telemachus is young and Odysseus is away.
A long journey full of exciting incidents which Odysseus survives by quick wits and cunning.
The homecoming of a veteran of war .
The high price of war, both in terms of those lost and the results for the survivors.

This is by no means a complete or exhaustive list of what The Odyssey is about, but it covers some of the major themes, I think. Aside from the series of bizarre adventures escaped by quick wits, none of these are obviously present in O Brother Where Art Thou?

Penelope is the strangest thing about this film as an adaptation of The Odyssey. There's nothing wrong with the story of the guy out of prison whose wife has turned her eye to someone else whom she thinks is a better bet, it happens, but it's not The Odyssey. The entire point of Penelope in The Odyssey is that she rejects all suitors and waits for Odysseus to return and reclaim both her and his kingdom. Calling a character 'Penny' and having her about to get married to someone else - but from choice, not from necessity - does not make her the same character, not if the way she behaves is the exact opposite. Perhaps an argument could be made for an exact inversion of the original story if much of the rest of the story remained similar, but it doesn't - this is just the biggest difference out of many.

There are a few superficial references to The Odyssey. Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus, used by James Joyce in his (equally baffling to me) novel. There's a blind prophet who says he has no name, though in the poem that's a trick of Odysseus' own, and Tiresias certainly has a name. 'A Man of Constant Sorrow' does fit The Odyssey, or it's a good description of Odysseus anyway, the ever-suffering, like a Greek Job. At one point, some beautiful women sitting on rocks entrance the men with their singing in order to bring them to ruin, like sirens (in fact, Delmar calls them sirens). John Goodman plays a one-eyed character, i.e. a Cyclops.

On the other hand, some of the apparent references don't seem to make much sense. The character called Menelaus doesn't appear to bear any relation to Menelaus to me. The character called Homer definitely doesn't bear much relation to Homer. The Cyclops is a Bible salesman, which might be a comment on modern Christians but doesn't seem to have much to do with the myth (unless the idea is that Christians are uncivilised savages who eat people... hmm, maybe I don't want to go there!).

So why claim the story is based on The Odyssey at all? The film opens with the opening lines of the poem, focusing on Odysseus as the wily trickster. Ulysses McGill is, indeed, something of a trickster character and by far the brightest of his little group (which is not saying much). He tells tall tales, like Odysseus does, and uses disguises. However, the trickster is such a common character in literature from across the world that it's a Jungian archetype - one slightly wily lead with a disguise or two does not equal The Odyssey. Perhaps the writers were inspired by The Odyssey, but that doesn't make the final script 'based on' it.

The closest this film gets to The Odyssey for me is in the theme of struggling (and physically journeying) to regain a life that was lost. In this respect, Ulysses really does have something in common with Odysseus. Both have been torn away from home and family and are trying to get back, to recover said wife and family, along with their former social status. In this respect, Ulysses really is a modern Odysseus, and this is probably the film's best claim to be an adaptation of The Odyssey. You could also draw a parallel between Ulysses ruining his friends' lives through his own selfish desire to return home to his wife, and Odysseus inadvertently getting all his men killed, but I think that's reaching a bit far, really, and it works out OK for them in the end anyway.

There is also a very funny scene which directly references The Odyssey, when Delmar thinks the sirens have turned Pete into a toad, just as, in the poem, Circe turns Odysseus' men into pigs. I liked that bit.

I have a few other issues with the film as well, not related to Homer. I just don't get the Coen brothers in general - the only other of their films I've seen is True Grit, which I absolutely love but which is much, much closer to the original text and the only major digression from the novel - the Bear man - is the bit I don't understand and would have cut from the film. Poor Tim Blake-Nelson, an excellent actor, has creeped me out ever since I saw the scene in The Good Girl where he forces Jennifer Aniston to have sex with him, which is hardly fair on my part but does distract me a bit. (It's a testament to his acting skill really - and he's a Classics major, so that's a point in his favour!)

Then there are a lot of cultural references I simply don't get - I have a vague notion George 'Babyface' Nelson is a real bank robber from seeing the Johnny Depp film Public Enemies, and I have a nagging feeling that the singer who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads is a real character too. Perhaps I'd understand the connections to The Odyssey better if I actually got the American cultural references, but I'm pretty clueless on those.

I actually like the film, which is beautifully shot and has a fantastic soundtrack. There's no doubt this is an enjoyable and in many ways fascinating film. It's just that, for me, it doesn't encompass any of what I think of as the central themes of The Odyssey. It's a good bit of film-making, but it's not Homer.

29 comments:

  1. I think it's a work of genius - probably my favourite of the Coens' movies. Yes, it does play fast and loose with Homer, but odes it do so any more than Ulysses? I appreciate the pattern they make from the bits they have thrown up in the air.

    And the Coens do have a habit of lying to their audiences - Fargo alleges that it's a true story, which it's not. The Coens have subsequently claimed that they never read the Odyssey at all - I don't believe that either.

    My favourite bit, because it's the most subtle, is the Underworld section, where Clooney and Blake Nelson go into a cave (in this case a cinema) and meet someone they believe to be dead (Turturro), who gives them enigmatic instructions.

    Yes, George Nelson was a real bank-robber. And the guitarist is Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads.

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  2. I think Tony's points cover a lot of the issues you have with the film - all I'd add is that the Bear Man in True Grit might be a reference to a monologue from The Big Lebowski, another Coen Brothers film which you absolutely have to see.

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  3. As William Hurt's character notes in the film, The Big Chill, "Sometimes you just have to let art flow over you."

    Or not.

    You should try several of their other films, though you might find them equally baffling. They baffle me sometimes, but I still enjoy them.

    Fargo
    The Big Lebowski
    Miller's Crossing
    Intolerable Cruelties

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  4. What Tony said. Fargo was made up and claims to be true. The Big Lebowski seems made up but is chock full of real experiences of the Coen Bros and their friend Jeff Dowd (www.jeffdown.com).

    So think of this as "inspired" by the Odyssey.

    As with many Coen Bros films, this one bears repeated watching. If for nothing else than the exhiliarating cinematography and the heart-wrenching music.

    But you MUST see The Big Lebowski, even though it has nothing to do with Classics. That and Quo Vadis, which does. C xxx

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  5. Tony, good point about the Underworld section, I hadn't thought of that (I was waiting for a river of blood I think!) I don't get Ulysses either I'm afraid (got two pages in, gave up and gave it away!).

    I will try to see The Big Lebowski at some point, if only to get all the Dude references that pop up all over the place! Caroline, I totally agree about the cinematography - it's gorgeous. And I *love* True Grit.

    I really don't like people who lie to the audience though! The Fargo thing has always, always annoyed me. Just personal taste I guess!

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  6. Has everyone seen this?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/2011/09/more_or_less_debt_-_a_european.html

    The Debt Crisis ecplained using The Odyssey

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  7. Fascinating - though I'm afraid no amount of mythological analogies is likely to help me understand economics... (OldHousematetheRomeone once spent a very frustrating few weeks trying to explain the Stock Market to me)

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  8. "Inspired by" is probably a lot closer to the truth, but if you look at the list of things you made that the Odyssey is about, the vast majority of people only know the adventures on the journey. A much smaller share will also know about Penelope and the suitors and almost nobody knows about the Telemachy.

    Otherwise everything Tony said. The movie Crossroads is sort of based on Robert Johnson and the story that he sold his soul to be able to play guitar. (And he apparently went from being really bad to really good in a very short time.)

    Finally, for something in a similar vein, see if you can find the novella "A Dozen Tough Jobs" by Howard Waldrop. It deals with Hercules in a similar setting and hews much closer to the original legend.

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  9. Possibly of more influence on the movie than The Odyssey comes from the source of the title--Preston Sturges' early 1940s movie Sullivan's Travels where a director wants to make a film about the Depression (titled O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The director travels to experience the suffering going on but the studio undermines his project.

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  10. I'm quite surprised to hear that "Crossroads" was based on the Robert Johnson story - I had no idea Britney was a blues fan.

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  11. Oh, you must read Ulysses, it's brilliant. (I read it while I was in China, though I confess I only got 850 pages in before I packed it for the homeward shipment and then never quite got round to finishing it. And now it's too late, and I would have to start again. Which I may well do.)

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  12. Matt, that's totally what I thought for a minute there - after I wondered what an old soap opera had to do with it...

    Tony, yes I really should try again as I only gave it a few pages - though Mum suggested I might prefer Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man so I might start with that one

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  13. I had no idea Britney made a movie called Crossroads. 1986? Ralph Macchio and Jami Gertz? Music by Ry Cooder and Steve Vai? *sigh*

    As for Joyce, I've never gotten past page 3 or so of Ulysses. I quite liked Portrait of the Artist and The Dubliners, but other than that he tends toward the pretentiously unreadable.

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  14. Rumor has it (that is I as told this by a friend in the "Industry" who heard that ...) the Coen brothers did not actually read the Odyssey, but rather were told the story, liked what they heard and took it from there.

    Now, chances are they did read parts of it in High School, however this all sounds very typical of Hollywood. All that not withstanding, I like the film and that's good enough for me.

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  15. I don't know whether to believe that or not - but since the main things taken from the Odyssey are the Sirens, the Cyclops and the name Penny, it's certainly plausible! I'm generally not a fan of the sort of messing around they like to do, though I do like the film. But True Grit is by far my fav - a straightforward adaptation!

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  16. I see what the Coen brothers did with this piece in the same light as what Renaissance and Baroque artist did with Ovid, moreso a quotation of motifs and names to relate to the source allegorically, rather than represent it directly.

    If the Coen brothers are on record for saying they have not read in the Odyssey in full, why should we disbelieve it? The word itself has entered common parlance as a descriptor of a grand adventure. Invoking the names of the characters takes it a step further, but only in an allegorocal sense.

    In a way, it reminds me of Kurosawa's adaptations of Macbeth and King Lear(Throne of Blood and 'Ran' respectively. Totally gone are Shakespeare's language and locations, but the key characters and events are there.

    Kind Regards
    H

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  17. This is an old post, so maybe not much point to this reply -- but I think there's a lot more in the film that does do interesting things w/ the Odyssey - but at a certain level of abstraction.

    1) The setting: the whole move takes place at a moment when the valley that the protagonists are in is "about to be electrified." We're on the verge of modernity, when technology is changing the world that the story nostalgically clings to. That, in itself, is not a bad translation of the _Odyssey_ and its relation to the epic tradition. It's the end of the age of heroes - the epic genealogies are all dying out - and Odysseus, with his trickster ways and skill at speaking, looks more to the future than to the epic past.

    2) Baby Face Nelson is _also_ Odysseus. When he drives away from the cops, he can't resist turning backwards and shouting his name to them, just as Odysseus does when escaping from the Cyclops; the tension between safety and kleos in nicely enacted here. (Note also that this sort of psychological doubling is used in other films by the Coen brothers; cf. Nick Cage's character and the bounty hunter in _Raising Arizona_).

    3) The way that the movie plays with the notion of kleos (epic fame through song). Throughout the film, the three men are unaware that their reputation is growing, as the recording that they make as "The Soggy Bottom Boys" is getting extensive airplay. As a result, in the climactic scene at the political rally, when they come out on stage they are instantly recognized -once they start singing - as celebrities. Think a bit about Odysseus' travels; everywhere he goes, everyone has already heard of him, and wants him to tell stories about this Odysseus fellow. Those stories provide an identity for him to inhabit - they pave the way for his eventual success -- as does the fame that the "Soggy Bottom Boys" have obtained through this newfangled thing called radio (see #1, above).

    There's lots more to say, but those are some of the Odyssean things I see in the movie --

    Cheers,

    Kirk

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  18. Perhaps - though I associate kleos with fame through the hero's military glory, retold through *other people's* songs rather than singing itself - if our heroes gain fame through singing, that would make them more Demodocus or Homer himself...

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  19. Adaptations are something that I take great interest in. There have been some travesties - for example I Am Legend, which totally misses the point of the novel (the point that gives it novel the title). If the film has the same title, there is almost a promise that the film should be a close adaptation of the source material. Some interesting examples (to me) of adaptations that vary both vary from their source material and both feature William Burroughs. Firstly, Blade Runner was based very loosely on [i]Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep[/i], yet took its title from a screenplay by Burroughs, to which it also has very little similarity. Secondly, Naked Lunch is practically unfilmable, so Cronenbourg created a film that was very dissimilar.

    I remember, a while back, reading an interview in [i]Uncut[/i] magazine (sadly I can't remember the issue), shortly after The Big Lebowski. In it, they said that they were going to do a musical based on The Odyssey. The interviewer said that it was a throwaway comment, playing games with the public (as Tony has previously stated)- something that they have a reputation for doing. Therefore, I don't think their statement that it's based on The Odyssey can be taken at face value. Two other Coen brothers films need mentioning - The Big Lebowski is looseley based on The Big Sleep (yet doesn't seem to mention the fact) and No Country For Old Men is very accurate (Bardem's escape from handcuffs feels like an almost exact representation of the scene in the book - the way it is described as something he's done many times). The Coen brothers obviously know how to make a direct translation to film, which suggests that when they do make a claim to source material, there is a reason. What that reason is in this case, however, is something that requires further investigation.

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    1. They certainly can do very good faithful adaptations when they want to - True Grit is very close to the source novel, and brilliant

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    2. I think 'when they want to' is probably the salient point. That they've said that they haven't read the book is something worth considering. Could they have been trying to create an additional level of interpretation between the original source and their creation? A sort of Chinese whispers process?

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  20. I am a big fan of film adaptations - Lord of the rings, sense and sensibility and the shawshank redemption are only a few adaptations that i have enjoyed. I do believe that film adaptations of well-known works are a good idea as certain films that have been made brilliantly really can become favorite films.
    The question of whether or not it is important to stay close to the original is a difficult one for me to answer. I believe that both staying close to the original and 'wandering' from it can create great film adaptations but i also believe that if the creator has wondered 'far' from the original it should not be so much announced as being based on the original but put forward as Caroline already noted as 'inspired'on the original. I believe this to be important as when hearing a film is 'based' on a well-known novel i then expect the film to be very close to the original and would be disappointed if certain parts were removed or not portrayed closely. The term 'inspired' i believe would be a better use as my expectations would not be to watch an adaptation close to the original and i would enjoy the film much more without expectations being ruined.

    I have not seen O Brother Where Art Thou? but from looking at an overview of both the odyssey and the adaption, i feel that the film wanders to far from the odyssey story-line to be 'based' upon it but do agree that 'inspired' by the odyssey would be a better suited term for this adaptation.

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  21. I'm a fan of adaptations, I feel that they can be an avenue for those that don't know a story to find out more. So, for that reason alone, adaptations should stay close to the original - in other words - they should not mislead. As has already been mentioned, inspiration for a film is not the same as saying a film is based on an original, there is nothing wrong with inspiration and many great films have been made this way, but to base a film on an original, to me, means it should be an accurate portrayal of the original.

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    1. I don't mind film versions adapting and changing things, but I think there's a line somewhere between 'base don' and 'inspired by'...!

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    2. speaking for Lord of the Rings, while I can appreciate the cinematic experience and they do tell roughly the same story, there are enough major changes to undermine some of the most important threads in the book. For example, in the book the Ents are moved by their own suffering and the land's need to help, but it takes the new experience of encountering the Hobbits to push them into action. This nobility is lost in the film as they are emotionally blackmailed into action. This undermines their strong morality, weakened by lack of 'hastiness' ie, inaction

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  22. I think that the extent of ‘based on’ with regards to a film is down to personal interpretation. As raised by many others I think conventionally ‘based on’ implies a close resemblance to the original which OBWAT is not. However, it could well have formed a basis to some of the key story lines and so it is right that it is credited. Perhaps ‘inspired by’ may seem more apt, but if the Coen Brothers felt strands of the film were taken from the Odyssey perhaps they felt they owed it direct recognition. Unless something is labelled as a remake, I think that there is license for a wide degree of interpretation. I don’t think it’s vitally important to stay close to the original, but it would certainly help the audience if the writers indicated the links with and their reflections of the Odyssey, clarifying how it influenced OBWAT.

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    1. Don't get me started on re-makes - that's a whole other argument! (I get cross when True Grit is called a remake of the 1960s film - it's not, it's a new adaptation of the book)

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  23. Unless I am emotionally attached to a book, and a film is made which shows no respect to the original writings, I usually think changes to make the story more accessible are a good thing. However, I do think that a film maker should really love the book first - otherwise it just becomes a case of pinching a starting point to make money out of a film. The TV adaptation of Brideshead was almost word for word in places and was very satisfying to watch, but some of the adaptations of Romeo and Juliet have been shambolic - but if it gives a reluctant reader a new insight into Shakespeare, then is it a bad thing?

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    1. That's a good point - anything done with love for the source material tends to work out OK, more or less!

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