Set in Depression-era Mississippi, O Brother Where Art Thou ?i features a trio of ragtag convicts who escape a rock-cracking chain gang in search of a $1.2 mn treasure that they intend to split three ways, so half-a-mill-a-piece if Delmar,ii one of the two joyfully dim bulbs, is to be believed. The other dim bulb, Pete,iii the more independent-minded of the pair, is the second gibbled leg of this wobbly stool, the essential entirety of which is supported, managed, and coordinated by the third leg, the silver-tongued Ulysses Everett McGill, played by the sub-40-year-old George Clooney in the acme of his cinematic career.
Now this wasn’t the first time I’d seen O Brother, it having been one of my father’s favourites many years ago, but it was the first time I’d seen it in over a decade. Last time, Everett’s quick-witted command of Latin,iv French, and various legal expressions,v in addition to his generally prodigious vocabulary, were over my head by some measure. But no more ! Now, I could enjoy the full breadth and nuance of Everett’s philosophy !vi And, of course, what is sane philosophy without the appropriate brusqueness ?
Pete : The Preacher said it absolved us !
Everett : For him, not for the law. I’m surprised at you, Pete, I gave you credit for more brains than Delmar.
Delmar : But they was witnesses that seen us redeemed !
Everett : That’s not the issue Delmar. Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.
Delmar : You should a joined us, Everett. It couldn’t a hurt none.
Pete : Hell, at least it woulda washed away the stink of that pomade.
Everett : Join you two ignorant fools in a ridiculous superstition ? Thank you anyway. And I like the smell of my hair treatmentvii – the pleasing odor is half the point. Baptism ! You two are just dumber than a bag of hammers !
Alongside this light yet pointed banter – and alongside the charm of century-old Southern culture, what with its proper hierarchy and racism that’s *MUAH!* stewed to a perfection – was a soundtrackviii that was simply tailor-made for singing along to. Chalk it up to my classical education, chalk it up to the fact that in my youth my father played the film’s soundtrack almost as much as he played his favourite Ella Fitzgerald and Red Army Choir records,ix chalk it up to the quite intentional sing-along nature of the songs themselves, but the music in O Brother is the kind of sweet sound that brings the pearliest smile to my face as I harmonised in, remember pretty well all the words.
Then came the second-to-last scene, where the trio dodged The Devil’sx last bullet :
Everett : Well any human being will cast about in a moment of stress. No, the fact is, they’re flooding this valley so they can hydro-electric up the whole durned state…Yessir, the South is gonna change. Everything’s gonna be put on electricity and run on a payin’ basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the superstitions and the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave new world where they run everyone a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yessir, a veritable age of reason – like the one they had in France – and not a moment too soon…
Had Everett been able to fast-forward eighty years, he might’ve been surprised to see that the mumbo-jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways hadn’t changed in the slightest… McDonald’s !xi
Who could’ve predicted that your brother would be right where you left him ?
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- 2000, Coen Brothers. Starring George Clooney. [↩]
- Delmar is played by Tim Blake Nelson. [↩]
- Pete is played by John Turturro. [↩]
- No, I didn’t know what a “paterfamilias” really was 15 years ago, and even if I readily inferred the meaning of it in context, it wasn’t until far more recently that I came to truly appreciate the weight, significance, and historical use of the term !
Such are the benefits of reviewing anything that was once over your head and discarded as unnecessary at the time or even mistakenly thought to be understood “well enough.” No you don’t “have the gist of it.” What gist ? [↩]
- Everett was locked up for practicing law without a license, after all. I guess “IANAL” hadn’t been invented yet. Or maybe it had and it just didn’t pay to disclose such technicalities. [↩]
- Ok, maybe not the full breadth and nuance. After all, while I tried to read Homer’s Odyssey a year or two ago, the epic poem on which the film is based, I found it unbelievably dry and put this sorry thing down after a half dozen books or so. I couldn’t tell you why, but Virgil’s Aeneid, which I’m currently digesting, is a vastly more compelling story. I’ll have to rewatch O Brother another decade from now. Surely I’ll have made my way through The Odyssey by then, right ? [↩]
- Everett is a Dapper Dan Man. [↩]
- The O Brother soundtrack won a Grammy in 2002, garbage though the award is. [↩]
- Which was a lot. I can barely recall him listening to much else. Louis Armstrong perhaps coming in at a distant fourth. [↩]
- Daniel von Bargen, whom you really should remember from Super Troopers, played Sheriff Cooley aka The Devil. If you haven’t seen either O Brother or ST, you should, not least of all because von Bargen won’t be making any more films any time soon – he died in March of this year at age 64. [↩]
- The above drawing is part of a honest-to-goodness Google patent filed in 2009, and when I saw this in the logs the other day, I laughed harder than I had in weeks!, unable as I was to get the picture out of my head of the vast seas of caprophagic idiots guzzling down USG kool-aid in the form of “smart” everything, no matter how baked out of their trees the USGoogle employees were when they, between fits of giggles and mouthfuls of cheetos, ask each other “Dude, do you think we could get them to do this ?”
A question which cannot in any way be materially different from the one that led to this :
To bring this back around to the subject of today’s review, another quote is in order. This one is from the upstart gubernatorial candidate in the film, Homer Stokes, who paints himself as a “Friend of the Little Man” in contrast to the “cronyist, nepotist, rascalist” incumbent. Stokes also just so happens to be the Grand Kleagle of the local KKK chapter :
Homer Stokes : Brothers! Oh, brothers! We have all gathered here, to preserve our hallowed culture and heritage! We aim to pull evil up by the root, before it chokes out the flower of our culture and heritage! And our women, let’s not forget those ladies, y’all. Looking to us for protection! From darkies, from Jews, from papists, and from all those smart-ass folks say we condescended from monkeys!
And really, given that he’d lived alongside a lot more negroes and niggars than you or I probably ever have or ever will, can you blame him for wanting to distance himself from the benighted monkeys pictured above ? Can you blame an unscientific man for seeing his culture as being a notch or two above primal pickle dudes ? [↩]