Visuals and Space

Music and Space

Synopsis: Four Profiles

*Populist Politicians

*Blues Singers

*Confidence Men

*Outlaws and Gangsters



Visuals and Space

As I discussed in the introductory section, a "chronotope" is the particular logic of space and time in a text. The text under discussion in this project is the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and it manages to establish its own chronotope very early and distinctly in the film. I would like to begin this discussion with a clip from the very beginning of the film:

As the clip indicates, the first image that is presented is the text of a quotation from the first lines of Homer's Odyssey. The film then begins in black and white with a shot on an empty landscape. Gradually, the visual image transitions into a sepia tone as it covers various angles of a group of men (mostly African-American) working in striped clothing on a prison chain gang. The accompanying music is actually a field recording done by Alan Lomax from the period from just such a chain gang. The images and music call to mind the "documentary" impulse so prevalent in the 1930s, and clearly situate the film initially within the same heritage as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans' Farm Securities Administration photographs, the Lomax's field recording project,
and the socially-conscious docu-dramas like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) and fictional fare like Preston Sturges' satire, Sullivan's Travels (1941). Quickly the film moves into the title sequence. The title of the film are interesting in that they are clearly drawing off of the design prevalent in the inter-titles (or the frames where written dialogue is displayed) common to films from the silent-movie era. Interspersed with these titles, the film presents the trio (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, respectively) of characters: Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete, and Delmar. They are in the process of escaping from the same chain gang depicted earlier, though by this point the film has moved into color. The title sequence ends with the words, "Based on the Odyssey of Homer."

Though the film is done in mostly in color, it is framed by black and white sequences at the very beginning and the very end. The final sequence of the film is shown below:

In this clip, we see George Clooney's character after he has completed his own "Odyssey" and returned safely to his wife and children. As they cross the railroad tracks, a man on hand-car moves down the railroad and the film segues back into black and white. This figure is the same one whom the trio catch a ride with earlier in the film, available below:

This man is understood to be a blind "prophet" and his powers of extra-sensory perception foreshadow several of the events in the film. Alongside the alerts that are the references to Homer, the black and white sequences, and the silent film inter-titles, the presence of unrealistic characters like the blind African-American prophet serve as signposts guiding the reader of the film into a particular way of understanding what is being depicted on screen. Supplementing this, the "color" images that dominate the rest of O Brother, Where Art Thou? are significant in that they have all been digitally processed to bathe the film in a warm, dusty glow that has nothing to do with Mississippi in summer or fall, and bears even less fidelity to "true color" that Technicolor or any other typical post-production process. In fact, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first film to be completed in the United States completely digitally in post-production. This factor becomes as significant as any character in the film, creating a landscape and individual images that are even more distended from non-mechanical natural vision that even the aforementioned FSA photographs. Essentially, what all of these contributing forces do in the course of the film is to create a space (or a representational plane) that is in effect an idealized vision of the South in the 1930s.

This is precisely the kind of thing that Bakhtin was referring to when he posited his theory of the "chronotope." The film O Brother, Where Art Thou? possesses a highly particular logic of time and space that are constructed within the text itself. Significantly, this movie does this in very explicit ways from the very outset. However, the particular logic of space and time in the film operates in some contradictory ways. To begin with, the movie starts off with a reference to the "documentary" styles of the 1930s. Immediately afterward, it alternates between the digital processing of the characters and its own title sequence, which self-referentially marks this as a film. As I set up a dialectic that goes on in O Brother, Where Art Thou? between the 1930s and 1960s earlier, it is perhaps useful to assign roles to the specific elements at play in the first few sequences of the movie. Clearly the black and white images of the landscape and the chain gang (and the field recording that the actors lip-sync) are part and parcel with the 1930s. The digitally processed color of the whole film would then be associated, in my view, with the 1960s or after in which the decade of origin is retrospectively burdened as the site of "authenticity." Of course, in this case digital processing stands in for rose-colored glasses. But then several things muddle this analogy. One is the title sequence. With its self-conscious use of (an albeit) archaic filmic trope, the filmmakers display an awareness of the artificiality of the entire project. Then again, the direct allusions to Homer as well as the choice to fade out on the prophet figure belie that very interpretation; even if the film is self-consciously artificial, it is also self-consciously mythic. By making the equivalency between myth and Bakhtin's conception of the "epic," it is possible to understand the "mythic" signposts in the film as indicating that-before any of the action has actually taken place-readers of the film know its general outcome. This is true for any number of tropes used in film or literature: from Star Wars' "Once Upon a Time in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…" to the fairytale "Happily Ever After," the form of the narrative is closed off and finite. But the epic or mythic also contains specific ways in which meaning is to be perceived. O Brother, Where Art Thou? presents a complicated, highly ambiguous situation from the outset: whereas a traditional epic or mythic form construes what is being depicted as abstract from linear history but containing a distillation of values (in the form of metaphor or parable), this film adds the element of artificial, mechanically reproduced media forms to the mixture by way of the inter-titles.

If the chronotope that O Brother, Where Art Thou? sets up in the text of the film is indicative of an idealized Depression-era South that exists in the imaginary realm of the representational and the mythic, how then are the conflicting elements to a stable mythic forms (i.e. artificial and mediated) to be understood? This section and the section on music that follows are attempts to define in Bakhtinian terms the space that the film creates. But as yet, very little content analysis has been done as to the events depicted on screen. In the subsections under the heading Synopsis: Four Profiles, I will analyze several key historical and cultural references that are central to the film under the theoretical auspices of Barthes' conception of "mythic language" that serve as this project's attempt to understand the function of content and the place of meaning within the now bounded sphere of the representational plane and temporal and spatial logic of the chronotope within O Brother, Where Art Thou?.