Tuesday, June 30, 2009


O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000, US, Joel & Ethan Coen)
“Well that's it boys, I been redeemed! The preacher done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight-and-narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting's my reward!”
“Delmar, what are you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry...”

The jokiness of the Coen brothers' southern-fried Odyssey means it's unlikely to touch the deep places of the human heart, but hey – so what? It's a lot of fun. The unexpected thing is that this shaggy dog yarn unravels in a cartoony world that's also surprisingly moral, taking seriously things like salvation and prayer.

Not that "serious" is a word we really should apply to anything here: Joel and Ethan are in their most playful mood this time out, gleefully juggling Deep South and Depression era mythologies with twinkle-in-the-eye movie references (like a Ku Klux Klan ceremony choreographed like the Yellow Winkies in THE WIZARD OF OZ!), glorious old time music and campy riffs on Greek mythology. The Coens admit no more than a Classics Illustrated acquaintance with Homer, but the tie-ins are daffy and delicious: we've got one-eyed Bible salesmen, beguiling sirens, fellow travelers turned into animals and a gospel-singing blind Teiresias. Ulysses' Greek name, Odysseus, translates to "man of pain and sorrow," and when George Clooney's stooge-like trio of chain gang escapees cut a record under the alias Jordan Rivers & The Soggy Bottom Boys, it's the traditional "Man Of Constant Sorrow" that becomes their theme song.

On first viewing, this film felt slight to me: the glorious soundtrack, featuring roots-gospel luminaries like The Fairfield Four, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, promised a spiritual potency that the silliness of the rest of the film didn't come close to fulfilling. Sure Delmar and Pete got baptized and saved, but the absurd suddenness of those conversions and their "dumber'n a bag of hammers" characterizations seemed to shrink the significance of those events, rendering them nothing more than the occasion for plenty of good-ol'-boys-get-religion gags.

Seeing the film a second time, that whole perception turned on its head. Sure this is a looney-tunes world, but if Pete and Delmar are hilariously naive and mostly just plain dumb, they're also just plain right more often than not, particularly when they put their trust in God or give credence to the words of the flatcar prophet. The most truly foolish of this gathering of likeable fools is Ulysses Everett himself, whose deliciously overblown rhetoric glibly explains away the Inexplicable and denies events that are, within the world of the story, undeniably miraculous – answered prayer, deliverance from death and prophecies fulfilled, even unto a cow on the roof of a cottonhouse "and oh so many startlements!" And inevitably, Everett's rational evasions just lead ever more impossible tasks on the road to his promised salvation.

If Everett is the kind of fool whose false wisdom is mocked in the biblical Book of Proverbs, his redeemed side-kicks point the way to another kind of foolery that's praised in Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians;
"Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Were is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, but God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things, so that no one may boast."

Like a piece of rock candy or some horehound twist tucked away under your tongue, this childishly sweet and mischievous story yields up its greatest pleasure gradually, over time. Where I once found its comedy superficial and its performances over-the-top, I now glory in the film's wise foolishness and serious fun, returning to favourite scenes over and over again. And when, out here in the less-wacky "real world," I listen to the pundits and professors of Nothingbutness summon up all manner of verbose and fancy justifications for their proposed world without wonder, I can't help but think of the obtuse and self-serving obfuscations of George Clooney's brilliantly-rendered Ulysses Everett McGill, and I find myself grinning.


No comments: