Visuals and Space

Music and Space

Synopsis: Four Profiles

*Populist Politicians

*Blues Singers

*Confidence Men

*Outlaws and Gangsters




The title O Brother, Where Art Thou? is, in fact, an allusion to another movie. In Preston Sturges' 1941 film Sullivan's Travels, the title character is a wealthy Hollywood filmmaker who (in the midst of the Depression) decides to make a film about the suffering of the "common people" in order to redeem himself from the usual commercial pap he has been wont to produce. Drawing his inspiration from fictional novel, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," written by "Sinclair Beckstein"-a clear allusion to the "realist" novels of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck-Sullivan sets off in hobo garb in order to experience first hand some "common people" of his own. By a series of highly comic accidents, Sullivan eventually winds up on a prison chain gang in the South. In what is taken to be the real climactic moment of the movie, Sullivan and his fellow convicts are seated in a black church where they are allowed to watch a "picture show" for some much-needed relief and entertainment:

As he watches the film (it is a Disney cartoon) Sullivan comes to the realization that "common people" don't want to be told of their own suffering. They want to be entertained; they want to laugh. As both the title and this scene are directly referred to in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

the film, innumerable critics have taken to applying Sullivan's epiphany wholesale to the more recent film. While Sullivan's Travels is indeed an important source here, several key features of the original are left out in this analysis. Indeed, while the fictional filmmaker Sullivan decides against making that serious epic of human toil, the real filmmaker Preston Sturges does something perhaps more significant. Sullivan's Travels is a comedy, and it is a wildly funny and entertaining one at that. But as O Brother, Where Art Thou? alludes to this film, Sturges is also alluding to something with his title, namely Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Like that book, Sullivan's Travels is a satire-though in this case the target is the kind self-serious attitude to be found in much of the documentary style work of the 1930s. But at the same time the movie subverts the idea that simple entertainment is somehow more redeeming than serious reflective work by its own narrative arc; Sullivan could not have possibly arrived at his conclusion without having first been subjected to the suffering that he vainly set out to dabble in at the outset. In this way, Sturges ironizes both the "Sinclair Becksteins" of the world and champions of simple comedy, and in the process creates a profound serio-comic work. Of course, in Sullivan's Travels the irony is much more palpable (if currently under recognized by critics) because the disjunction between the literal meaning of what the film says and what it means-the formula for irony itself-is much easier to recognize. In the nearly sixty years that separate
O Brother, Where Art Thou? from Sullivan's Travels layer upon layer of complex value and meaning have been added to our understanding by the processes of cultural production. Preston Sturges could conceivably make a film that sought to bridge the gap between the tragedy of the Grapes of Wrath and the cartoons of Walt Disney. For the Coen Brothers-and for thoughtful readers of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?-this approach is no longer tenable. While the film may engender sincere nostalgic or sentimental responses to what is being depicted, there is no doubt that the film is constantly alerting the audience to its own artificiality not just in that it is a mechanical reproduction but that its very construction is laid bare. As many of those same critics have (more or less charitably) noted, the film possesses a very rambling, fragmentary structure that belies its narrative arc. Though this could be attributed to the choice of the Odyssey as model, which is notorious for this quality, it also underscores the contrast between it and Sullivan's Travels. The latter film has a completeness to it. The lack of this quality in O Brother, Where Art Thou? highlights my difficulty in drawing any specific conclusion from the film, even after analyzing at length a significant number of the formal conventions and content of the film itself. The film may be ironizing its subject matter, but any interpretation of the gap that separates the literal meaning of the movie from the one available to a careful reader of the film text. Perhaps this is ultimately the point: O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not actually "about" anything, and the resistance to meaning offered up by any given example in the film denotes the impossibility of the language of myth in American culture at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. What is left is the pleasure (unsatisfying as it may be) solely of the recognition of an allusion; in other words, a parody. In Barthes view, "mythic language" was an extension of everyday language. In order to read the "sign" that related the meta-linguistic, mythic "signifier" to its signified, the lower level discourse had to be at least comprehended. But on the other hand, Barthes also commented that mythic language could in effect empty the meaning from the content, and leave little but the form of its own linguistic structure and the residue of its original referent. Since the meaning of the factual and historical sources for the representational counterparts in O Brother, Where Art Thou? are so destabilized-how do we understand the "real" 1930s? or the 1960s? whose 1930s? which 1960s?-the mythic forms of the film flounder in the very chronotopic plane that the film text creates. As a film of process as opposed to about anything like a meaningful interpretation, O Brother, Where Art Thou? provides incredible insight into both the possibilities and limitations of myth today. And as a parody, the movie further defines "mythic language" within contemporary American culture. Parody, unlike satire, is by its very nature ambiguous. Even the most subtle of satires beg the reader to sustain interpretation throughout the text. Within the interpretative act, the reader is required to find a coherent meaning. O Brother, Where Art Thou? does not carry such implicit instruction. Instead, as a parody the film strings together a series of fragmentary, pastiched narratives whose singular pleasure is in the recognition of allusion. As I attempted to point out in each of the four profiles in this project, there is no valuation or explanation of context (which would grant meaning) to any of the archetypal American characters that the protagonists encounter in the course of the film. The pleasure (and humor, really) that is to be derived from these sequences in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is related to the film reader's recognition-on whatever level-of the narrative or symbolic form being parodied. Significantly, there is no real synthesis to be derived from dialectic of the parody and its source referent, unlike in a satire. This leaves the film as a whole just as ambiguous as its parts. However, O Brother, Where Art Thou? does offer up several competing conclusions to be taken or left as the individual reader sees fit.

As the above clip indicates, the sheriff-devil has finally caught up with the protagonists (including the blues singer Tommy Johnson) and is about to hang them-though they have been pardoned by Pappy O'Daniel-because, "the law is a human institution." Just before they are too meet their fate, however, the Tennessee Valley Authority (or God, depending) intervenes and a massive flood washes over them. As they scramble to the surface, a Victrola, a banjo, a picture of a Confederate soldier and other items float past. Only the four protagonists emerge from the flood. If you follow Ulysses Everett McGill's (George Clooney) speech in this scene, then the "meaning of this scene would be that the electricity that the TVA will be providing (alongside the amenities of media like radio and mechanical recordings) in effect displaces any of the "spiritual mumbo-jumbo" like the sheriff-devil and the blind prophet that have propelled the film along as source material to begin with. The second interpretation along similar lines is that (given the clip provided earlier of the final scene) the kind of mythic world that these characters inhabit is still available, but now only through apocryphal texts like old records. The film ends, of course, on the blind prophet pumping his handcart down the railroad tracks before the film fades back into black and white and the credits roll. What unites these two possible interpretations is, I believe, the fact that they concede to the fundamental truth (or meaning) of mythic language. They are essentially an acknowledgement of a belief-system that states that the meaning of these mythic forms in American culture was either at one time universal and accessible in the age before electricity and mass media and is now sealed off, or that the meaning of the mythic forms is always present but hidden away from the everyday by that same mass media but which can still be accessed through the right channels.

However, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is above all else a film which consistently acknowledges its own film-ness. Even the fade out to black and white in the final scene is an explicit indication of this. And from the outset, O Brother, Where Art Thou? consistently alludes to its own constructedness and stresses the artifice of recording, radio broadcast and other seminal elements within the film. And, as I noted regarding the genealogy of "bluegrass" and the categorization of the earlier string-band styles as "old-timey" perhaps there is no historical site to which one can point and say, "That is the source of the true American mythology." The 1930s and the South are convenient in that the era and the place are rich with documentation. But perhaps the real truth of the matter is that the mythologies of American culture were always constructed from sentiment and ideal, and mass media has only had the effect of thwarting any interpretation otherwise.