O Brother, Where Art Thou? Background

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Background

This Coen Brothers movie released in 2000 takes its title from a film made six decades earlier. In the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels, the title journey is undertaken by a popular director of comedy movies who has decided he wants to make a serious film based upon a Steinbeck-like novel titled “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The 2000 film takes places during the Great Depression, just like Sturges’ film, and just like the fictional novel that Sturges' director hero never quite gets around to adapting. Aside from that, however, any resemblance between the fictional novel and the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is entirely coincidental.

What is not coincidental is the resemblance between the movie and Homer's legendary epic about ancient Greece, The Odyssey. Like Homer’s epic verse, O Brother, Where Art Thou? features a blind prophet, a man named Ulysses who is struggling to return to the family he has not seen in years, the suicide-inducing song of the Sirens, and even a one-eyed Cyclops of sorts. The ancient mythological structure of the narrative is underscored by the much younger, but still somewhat old-fashioned soundtrack of stripped down Appalachian country music. The soundtrack to the film was, in fact, a much bigger commercial hit than the film itself. While the movie failed to win either of its two Oscar nominations, it did take home a Grammy Award for Best Film Soundtrack.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? not only looked to the past for inspiration. It also set the standard for the future of filmmaking by becoming one of the first major Hollywood productions to utilize the technological innovation of digital color correction as the means of lending the cinematography its distinct and thematically vital sepia tones. The autumnal mood of the narrative and the slow dawning of its inexorable march toward a happy ending that can only be described as ironic at best becomes a visual metaphor that is every bit as elemental to the overall construction of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with its potent soundtrack and literary inspiration.

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