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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Blu-ray. O Brother, Where Art Thou?



O Brother,  Where Art Thou?  (Four Stars)

U.S.: Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000 (Touchstone/Disney)
   O Brother, Where Art Thou? — for whose title alone Joel and Ethan Coen deserve a medal — is an outrageously entertaining and inventive movie that still hasn’t gotten its due. The Coen Brothers’ gaudy ‘30s-era road-movie-musical, is based, or so Joel and Ethan say, on Homer‘s “The Odyssey”, which supplies some sirens, a cyclops (John Goodman, at his Barton Fink darkest and meanest) and a really nasty Penelope (Holly Hunter)  — but it’s also inspired quite obviously by Preston Sturges‘  1941 comedy classic Sullivan‘s Travels,  the movie that bequeathed “Brother“ its title. (Explanation: In Sturges‘ picture, “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” is the name of the socially-conscious drama that Joel McCrea, as hit musical comedy director Sullivan, creator of the smash hit “Ants in Your Pants” musical comedy series, wants to make in defiance of his Hollywood studio bosses. They object.)
 Sullivan finally decided not to make his serious heavy-political, Capital vs. Labor American magnum opus, but to make another comedy instead. The Coens’ “Brother,”  on the other hand, set in ’30s Mississippi, has enough knee-slapping music and rowdy, smart, no-holds-barred humor to satisfy anybody — though Sullivan’s bosses would have probably asked for (and gotten) “a little (more) sex.”
  The Coens’ movie, which I think is a bit of terrific ,  is about three convicts (played with rare idiot’s delight goofiness by George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Duncan), who escape from a chain gang and embark on their own dimwitted but hilarious quest to get Clooney, their Odysseus, back to his Penelope. In between, the doofus threesome run into a corrupt gubernatorial election, involving Charles Durning, and become hit bluegrass idols, with their amazing performances and recording of “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
There’s also, believe it or not, a Ku Klux Klan rally, as Busby Berkeley might have choreographed it, and a Bonnie and Clyde-style interlude with a notably manic-depressive Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco). Roger Deakins is at absolute peak form, his colors shimmering like goldenlight.  And if you don’t love T-Bone Burnett’s fantastic knee-slapping bluegrass “old-timey” score — well you’re nuts, get out of town.
I thought O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the best movie of 200o, and it’s held up. I like it just as much as I like The Big Lebowski. More maybe. It has a visual beauty and playful erudition and impudent wit that remind you of the best movies of the ’30s, and a hip social savvy that puts you in mind of the ’70s. And it’s as much damned fun as a 200s movie can give us.   
 As I partly said in the Tribune (and I‘ll stop quoting myself from now on):  “This is the one of the best things the Coens have ever done: saturated with multicultural gags that suggest I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang remade as The Wizard of Oz,” or a Marx Brothers movie scripted by P. Sturges and William Faulkner…It’s a daringly irreverent and unstoppably witty picaresque musical comedy…  that uses our movie and literary myths of the Depression South to fashion a great American shaggy-man-bites-dog odyssey.” Hmmm. Yeah!
Extras: “Making Of” Documentary; “Man of Constant Sorrow” music video; Storyboard to screen comparison. 
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon