Pretty appropriation

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an altogether more straightforward seeming film than the Coen Brothers’ typical output. Goofy comedies were an established facet of their oeuvre by the time they made this movie (released in 2000), but even there their only piece with a comparably linear narrative was Raising Arizona. This isn’t to say that they don’t indulge in many of their standard practices, such as lobbing symbols at the screen to see what meanings stick to them, and this is a loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, but as an essay in storytelling it doesn’t play tricks on the viewer.

It is a beautiful film. It was in fact the first feature film to be digitally processed in its entirety, as chemical methods proved unable to produce the effect the Coens wanted. Its palette was adjusted towards the browns and yellows of sepia, partly in order to enhance its old-time feel, and partly to compensate for the lush greenery in which it was filmed—as it was set in the deep south in 1937, an arid, dusty appearance was preferred. This post-processing was supervised by Roger Deakins, who was making his fifth movie with the Coens. His cinematography is, as always, breathtaking—its cleverness is perhaps less front-and-centre than in other films, but it may well be just that I wasn’t paying as much attention. This is the sort of movie that asks you just to sit down and enjoy it, without making any obvious demands on its audience, which can promote a less attentive and reflective viewing.

So, an entertaining comedy, concerning the misadventures and ineptitudes of a bunch of escaped convicts in the 30s. From the point of view of its narrative, there’s not much more to say than that. The acting is great, naturally: actors habitually give their best when they get a call from the Coens. John Turturro is a chameleon, and here he brings a character to the screen so different from Barton Fink or Jesus Quintana that its hard to believe it’s the same man. George Clooney wears a pencil moustache beautifully, delivering all the requisite film-star charm of the leading men in the films that inspire the Coens—although it should be said that this outing seems much less of an overt homage than other flicks in their catalogue. It’s full of moments of homage (not least its title, a reference to Preston Sturges’s 1941 Sullivan’s Travels), but it feels like a contemporary film when considered as a whole. This is probably why it actually made a decent amount of money, unlike most of their prior output.

Music is important to OBWAT. Its soundtrack, supervised by T Bone Burnett, is largely made up of new and existing recordings of period folk and popular music. The soundtrack album was a huge success, and music plays an important part in the story. There’s a broad stylistic range, taking in country, swing, bluegrass, delta blues, and gospel music—one character encountered by the three jailbird protagonists is called Tommy Johnson, and is clearly modelled on the blues guitarists Tommy and Robert Johnson (no relations), both of whom were reputed to have sold their soul to the devil for their preternatural facility. However, this brings us to the film’s major fault, as I experienced it.

I might have formed a different, less critical impression, if I’d seen fewer of the Coens’ other films, but having worked my way through their entire output up to this point, I’m starting to notice that their films are almost always about white men. Sometimes, to be fair, they’re about white women (Fargo being an obvious example), but very often women appear only as symbols or cyphers, rather than as fully-fledged characters in their own right. That’s certainly the case here. There’s a reasonably well-rounded black character in Blood Simple, but other than that people of colour are notably thin on the ground, and like The Hudsucker Proxy, OBWAT makes prominent use of the trope Spike Lee has termed the ‘magical negro’. Black people appear without histories or social context, as supernatural assistants to white protagonists, often in the form of janitors, possessed of down-home wisdom and inherent selflessness, but very little in the way of personality or narrative agency.

In OBWAT Tommy Johnson gets startlingly few lines, despite his proximity to the centre of the action, and this omission is all the more striking when considering where and when the film is set, and the use it makes of African American music. White racists are trumped and traduced, but not by black people, who are present in the film for purely ornamental purposes. Much of the cultural and social milieu that is exploited for the narrative belongs to black people, but their presence in 1930s Mississippi is almost completely elided. So although I certainly did enjoy this movie, particularly for its cinematography and its music, I have some profound reservations about a piece made by such intelligent film-makers as Joel and Ethan Coen, at the very end of the twentieth century, that is so lacking in social- or self-awareness.

They have gone on record as being uninterested in the big themes that some viewers identify in their work, and that’s all very well as far as it goes. They are interested in films and in narrative, in style and atmosphere. These are the things I love about their movies. But when the stylistic and symbolic materials they deploy have such important social and political meanings, unacknowledged in the work, their acts of homage become acts of appropriation, and the primacy of formal concerns in this film becomes an abdication of responsibility.

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