Sunday Movie Night: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Happy Sunday everyone. Guess I’ll watch a movie tonight. I couldn’t really think of anything to watch but I saw that one of my Twitter friends was watching ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’. Its funny because this film came up in an office discussion last week. As in 1/2 of the office hated it and the other 1/2 agreed that it’s amazing [because it is]. I’m probably in one way or another a fan of every single Coen brother’s film they have been involved in for many reasons. Even the shitty ones. So tonight, I’m watching a flick about folk music based on The Odyssey by Homer, which is genius.

Before I get started though, a bit about the Coen Brothers:. If you check the wiki link you’ll notice how diverse and well respected their films are. ‘O Brother..’ is of course one of my favorites, but the early ones are the best. Think ‘Raising Arizona’ or ‘Blood Simple’ as an example. Anywas back to the Soggy Bottom Boys…
obrother

Mostly copy/paste from Wikipedia, my comments are italicized…

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a 2000 adventure comedy film written, produced, edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, with John Goodman,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 epic poem, Odyssey. The title of the film is a reference to the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, in which the protagonist (a director) wants to film a fictional book about the Great Depression called O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Much of the music used in the film is period 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 an autumnal,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.

[Trailer]

This movie kicks so much ass. Watching it right meow. We’ll get to the soundtrack later but one the thing  that I appreciate the most about the Coen’s films is the dialogue. Where some directors welcome and almost encourage ad-libing, the Coen brothers do not. I’ve read that countless times. The dialogue in their films are are precise and meticulous as any storyteller could make make it. So when you see on your script, “AND STAY OUT OF THE WOOLSWORTH!”, you deliver the line the way it was intended or I’ll hire someone else. Anyways…

[Plot] | Spoilers:

Three convicts, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), known as Everett, Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang and set out to retrieve the $1.2 million that Everett buried. The three get a lift from a blind man driving a handcar on a railway. He tells them that they will find a fortune, but not the one they seek. The trio make their way to Pete’s cousin Wash’s house. They remove their chains and sleep in the barn, but Wash betrays them and they are woken by policemen led by Sheriff Cooley, who have them surrounded. The police try to smoke them out, but Wash’s son rescues them.

The group set out for the valley again. While driving past a lonely crossroads, they pick up a young black man, Tommy Johnson, who claims that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play guitar. In need of money, the four of them make their way to a radio broadcast tower where they record a song for the radio as the Soggy Bottom Boys. Soon after this, they part ways with Tommy. Unbeknownst to them, the recording becomes a major hit.

dddddddaaaaaaaa

The group is driving near a river when they hear a song. They rush down to the river, where three beautiful women are washing clothes and singing a bewitching song (“Go ToSleep Little Baby”); after drugging them with corn whiskey the men lose consciousness. The women correspond to The Sirens in The Odyssey. Upon waking, Delmar finds Pete’s clothes lying next to him, empty except for a toad. Delmar is convinced that the Sirens “loved him up” and transformed Pete into the toad. Later, one-eyed Bible salesman Daniel “Big Dan” Teague mugs them and kills the toad.

toad

The two arrive in Everett’s home town. He goes to confront his wife Penny about changing her last name and telling his daughters that he was hit by a train. He gets into a fight with Vernon T. Waldrip, his wife’s new “suitor.” After this incident, he and Delmar are in a cinema when a chain gang is marched in. Pete is part of the chain gang and warns them not to seek the treasure. Later that night, they rescue Pete from prison, and he tells them that he gave away the treasure’s location to the police. When Delmar tells Pete about the “toad” episode, Pete responds that the only thing the Sirens turned him into was to the authorities, in return for the same bounty Pete’s cousin would have received.

haert

Everett then concludes he and Delmar would have shared the same fate had the Sirens returned before they left the river. Everett also reveals that there was never any treasure – it was a simply an excuse to help justify their escape. In reality he was imprisoned for practicing law without a license. Everett continues that he had just learned that his wife was planning to remarry and he had to figure out how to stop the wedding. He explains that escaping alone would have been impossible, Pete and Delmar just happened to be chained to Everett, which is why they all escaped together. Pete had just expressed remorse for betraying his friends when he told the authorities about the treasure, but now becomes outraged at this, and the two get into a fight. During the scuffle they stumble upon a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob. Tommy is being held prisoner and the Klansmen are going to hang him. The trio attempt to rescue Tommy, but Big Dan, a Klan member, reveals their identities. Chaos ensues, and the ‘Grand Wizard’ reveals himself as Homer Stokes, a candidate in the upcoming election. The trio rush Tommy away and cut the supports of a large burning cross. The cross falls on Big Dan, presumably killing him.

Everett convinces Pete, Delmar and Tommy to help him win his wife back. They sneak into a dinner that she is attending, disguised as musicians. Everett tries to convince his wife that he is ‘bona fide’, but she brushes him off. The group begins a performance of their radio hit. The crowd recognises them as the Soggy Bottom Boys and goes wild. Homer Stokes, on the other hand, recognises them as the group who disgraced his mob. He shouts angrily for the music to stop. After he reveals his white supremacist views, the crowd drives him out on a rail. Pappy O’Daniel, the incumbent candidate, seizes the opportunity and endorses the Soggy Bottom Boys. Upon learning of their fugitive status, he grants them all full pardons. Penny accepts Everett, but she demands that he find her original ring if they are to be married.

The group sets out 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 arrest them, and Sheriff Cooley is not convinced by their claims of receiving pardons. The valley floods and they are saved from hanging. Everett finds the ring in a desk that is floating on the new lake, and they return to town. However, when Everett presents the ring to his wife she tells him it’s the wrong one, and demands that he get her ring back.

Yeah, It’s a long story. Comparing it to their other films, the scope is so massive, it’s not like The Big Lebowski where half the film is set in a a bowling alley and the rest in an apartment or a soundstage. Which brings me to production, and in particular, Roger Deakins.

[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.

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 andFlorence, 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 11 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.

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 using a Spirit DataCine for scanning at 2K resolution, a Pandora MegaDef to adjust the color, and a Kodak Lightning II recorder to put out to film.

The Coen brothers have been using Roger Deakins as a cinematographer and partial editor since ‘Raising Arizona’, I believe. Considering the diversity of the look and quality of their films separately, I think it’s awesome how they work with one specific uh, camera guy from film-to-film. Now on to the sountrack…

[Music]:

Music in the film was originally conceived as a major component of the film, not merely as a background or a 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. Burnett in turn consulted with famed Los Angeles music historian Alan Larman.

The Soggy Bottom Boys singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” at radio station WEZY. Exterior scenes of the station were filmed at a set constructed west of Valley Park, Mississippi, and the recognizable mast tower remains at this rural location:32.648775°N 90.939418°W.
Some of this Wikipedia data is nuts.

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.

boys

The notable use of dirges and other macabre songs is 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 Sunny Side”, “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 songwriter Harley 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 album. 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 five-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. The same connection can be made to Robert Johnson, who was also reputed to have sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in return for musical skills. This attribution is supported when the boys drop off Tommy at a crossroads, “Cross Road Blues” being a signature song of Robert Johnson.

Well yeah, I was born in Kentucky, so I guess Bluegrass is in my blood, but tbh, I tried to learn how to play the banjo for five damn years and all I can do is fake my way through an Old Crow Medicine Show song. The soundtrack to this film, like a lot of my favorites, is even that important to spending your time in a cinema or just sitting on your damn couch with your cats. Becuase that’s what I’m doing.

Again, I wanted to mention that I decided to watch this flick [although I’ve seen it countless times] because it came up twice in two separate social circles. I find it fascinating that Miri really liked it and Greg was just like ‘whatever’, so there’s my review. Happy Sunday, 🙂

Score for ‘O Brother, Where Art thou’ [7/10]  

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