Saturday, 1 May 2010

'00 Ten Part One: "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000)

(Okay, so it's been quite a while since I stated my intention to run down my ten films of the last ten years, and my plan to make a prompt start clearly hasn't quite come into fruition, mainly because I simply hadn't had the opportunity to rewatch any of my selections in order to write about each film with it fresh in my mind. I can only apologise and shake my head at my own epic failure.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to reiterate that the films are presented here in no particular order. This isn't a countdown towards my number 1 film, nor is it a chronological list. I'm simply writing about these films in the order that I rewatch them in order to write about them here. O Brother, Where Art Thou? just happens to be first to be written about because, out of all my choices, I fancied watching it first.)

So, my inaugural entry to my ten is 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? from the cinematic canon of Ethan and Joel Coen. In some ways O Brother... may seem a strange, even perverse, choice: it isn't my favourite Coen Brothers film of the decade - that honour would most probably go to The Man Who Wasn't There - but as I said before, this list isn't simply going to be my favourite ten films of the '00s. It's also probably not the first, or even second, Coen film from this decade that would come to the mind of many. No Country For Old Men is probably their most notorious and highly lauded, and others such as Burn After Reading and Intolerable Cruelty are usually mentioned in the same first breath, with O Brother, Where Art Thou? relegated to the second and brought up after a little more brain-racking. But I have good reasons for placing O Brother... into my list above other Coen offerings, as well as all the other films made during the 2000s.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is, when all is said and done, one of the most finely crafted films the Coens have ever created. The story is simple: in Depression-era America, three men break off a chain gang in order to track down a hidden treasure. It would be so easy to finish off that synopsis with the oh-so-clichéd phrase "with hilarious consequences" - applied to every half-baked, hackneyed and unfunny comedy since the dawn of time. But it in this case it would be absolutely, one hundred percent true.

O Brother... is unashamedly Coen in feel and execution. Chronologically, the film was never going to have it easy, directly following the Coens' flawless character comedy and topper of many a film fan's list of all-time favourite movies, 1998's The Big Lebowski. Regarded by many as the brothers' finest film, and with both mainstream praise and a huge cult following that thrives and grows to this day, whatever film the Coens made next was going to be held up against the might of The Big Lebowski and picked apart relentlessly. So, did the brothers opt to try and outdo themselves and out-Lebowski The Big Lebowski itself? Or did they decide to head in a totally new direction with the arguably wise decision that a film of Lebowski's popularity and critical acclaim should not try to be replicated? Well, in O Brother, Where Art Thou? they kind of tried both.

The film has definite comparisons to The Big Lebowski - three guys on a quest without much of a point, where the humour comes from the situations they find themselves in and the interactions between them - ultimately, the characters are much more important than the story. So far, so Lebowski. But, at the same time, O Brother... is nothing like its predecessor, largely due to the different threads running through it that give it a decidedly less sprawling feel than that of The Big Lebowski. Homer's Odyssey ties together the events occurring and the journey that the men take. Some of the references to the Greek epic are clear (the seductive sirens on the rocks, John Goodman's larger-than-life cycloptic Big Dan Teague), others more subtle (the character of Pete, for example, can often be seen to represent the more mutinous and rebellious faction of Odysseus' men, and his "transformation" in the middle of the journey also has echoes of the temporary metamorphosis of the soldiers into pigs in Homer's epic poem). Attempting such a "loose" recreation of one of the most highly regarded and influential pieces of classical literature is arguably setting yourself up for a fall in many ways, but the Coens don't just manage it - they succeed in every way.

There is also the historical and cultural setting which forms a thematic link throughout the film. Placing their odyssey in the middle of America's Great Depression of the 1930s allows the Coens to present us with some bleak yet beautiful landscapes; the washed-out, almost sepia look of the film is exquisite throughout, with the tones and hues of each shot expertly chosen and crafted. The way the Coens play with light and shadow is also a joy to behold. The scenes in which the characters sit around a campfire produce some of the most photographically wondrous scenes I've seen on screen. We also see throughout the film the ways in which people from all walks of life cope with the hard times they are experiencing. The travelling trio experience everything from a religious congregation atoned of their sins by a priest in a river, to a gathering of a very different kind - a hooded Klan meeting complete with burning cross and prearranged lynching. We see an isolated farmer in a field of corn bewildered by electoral candidate Homer Stokes pledging to "stand up for the little man", complete with a midget companion to hammer home his point. And at one point Pete's cousin Wash tells the men that he's afraid the meat they're currently enjoying is "starting to turn" as he slaughtered the horse it came from several days previously. From start to finish, the troubles of the Depression are relayed in both serious and comedic fashion, but always with expert skill.

Music is also used constantly throughout the film to hold together the proceedings. Music is seen to give hope, such as through the extreme popularity the men garner (albeit entirely unknown to them) as The Soggy Bottom Boys, a collective moniker they adopt when recording a song simply to earn a little money to feed themselves. When they are finally revealed (entirely accidentally) as the band, the excitement and joy in the audience demonstrates how powerful music can be in bringing positivity into the seemingly most hopeless of circumstances. Music is also used to punctuate some of the more dramatic moments in the film, such as when a trio of aging black gravediggers, upon finishing their work, sing the three fugitives to their planned execution with contrabass acapella gospel. The Coens' use music perfectly throughout for both setting the historical scene and the atmosphere, as well as an important device in telling their story.

The characters created in O Brother... are some of the Coens' most wonderful creations of all of their films. John Turturro follows up his sublime supporting role as Jesus Quintana from The Big Lebowski superbly in a more central and entirely different role as the ever-cantankerous and oppositional Pete. Tim Blake Nelson is brilliant as the simple and good-hearted Delmar, who gets some of the most comically perfect lines of the whole film (in deciding who is the leader of the group, Pete claims "I'm voting for yours truly", to which George Clooney's Everett replies "Well I'm voting for yours truly too; after a glance at each of the other two men, Delmar earnestly tries to resolve the situation: "Well, I'm with you fellas".)

But it is George Clooney who provides one of the most memorable Coen characters of their entire canon as the main protagonist. Ulysses Everett McGill is unforgettable for perhaps two main reasons. Firstly, his undeniable "gift of the gab", which Clooney makes his own from the first word he utters on screen. Everett's constant yet eloquent chatter gets the men into trouble as much as it rescues them from it. It also shows Everett up for what he really is: an intelligent man in the company of two knuckleheads such as Pete and Delmar, but not nearly as clever as he likes to think. This helps to raise him above the cartoonish or allegorical feel of some of the characters in the film, giving him dimension that is both likeable and pitiable. The second readon is Everett's obsession with his hair. Waking several times through the film with a semi-conscious utterance of panic about his follicular appearance, obsessing over his beloved Dapper Dan pomade throughout their journey, and even going as far as to enquire whether cousin Wash has any spare hairnets that he can use whilst they stay with him, this facet of the character is simple yet inspired comedy that the Coen Brothers do better than anyone else, and have possibly not nailed quite so perfectly before or since as they do in Everett

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is therefore an important film to the decade in many ways. It showed the Coen Brothers had the ability to follow up huge success with an original and authentic film that stands in its own right. Its grounding in literature, history and culture show that it is a film of substance, and yet it is still a film that can be watched and enjoyed as a light-hearted farce and finely crafted character comedy. And it helped form a turning point in George Clooney's career, which had in the years before featured more typically Hollywood roles in rom-coms, action thrillers and (yikes) Batman & Robin. The only less mainstream role Clooney had taken before O Brother... was 1996's Robert Rodriguez-directed and Quentin Tarantino-penned From Dusk Till Dawn; many Coen aficionados originally scoffed at the idea of Clooney in the starring role of the Coen's first film of the 21st Century, preferring that the part be filled by a Coen regular, or at least an actor used to roles such as that of Everett. But Clooney silenced them all. Ten years on, Clooney has collaborated with the Coens twice more very successfully in 2003's Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading in 2008, and has cemented himself as an actor of great skill, credibility and diversity. After 2001's Ocean's Eleven, the deal was sealed on Clooney, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? undoubtedly played a key part in the journey to where George Clooney is now in his acting career.

(So yeah, I'll try to make sure Part 2 of this list doesn't take quite so long to materialise here, but for now I hope you enjoyed this opening entry into my ten. I'd love to read any comments anyone might have on this, whether they are in agreement or to tell me I'm talking utter piffle.)

No comments: