This year’s New York Film Festival played host to a 15th Anniversary screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ Dirty Thirties road movie, though it hardly seems like that much time has passed. I might have described O Brother differently — say, the Coens’ Dust Bowl love letter or the Coens’ Homer homage or the period highbrow escapee buddy whatever — except that the directing duo melted all of that babble away in the post-screening “discussion” of their writing process. “We just started with ‘three guys on the road'” said Joel; Ethan added, “then we tarted it up with Homer.” That was that. Next question. The Coens are experts at both of those things: interpretive film direction and film interpretation deflection.
But they were no less the storytellers on stage, despite their succinctness, and they were joined by O Brother stars George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as well as legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The latter was a pleasant surprise, and though the Coens have recently worked with the likes of Emmanuel Lubezki and Bruno Delbonnel it’s endlessly exciting that Deakins will return to the fold (as will Clooney) for the next Coen film Hail, Caesar!; if it’s at all the blend of O Brother and Barton Fink that it appears to be, then it can’t come soon enough.
One got the sense during the screening that many in the audience hadn’t seen O Brother before. Clooney’s Everett elicited a laugh at every convoluted explanation; Nelson’s Delmar got the same from every big face. Literal gasps came from the theater at the smushing of poor frog-form Pete. Toes tapped at “Man of Constant Sorrow” and the applause at the end credits somehow seemed fresh, like making up for a decade-and-a-half worth of never having seen O Brother. Considering the Coens sat in the box above likely co-cringing at every place they could have edited more perfectly, Deakins next to them noting shakes of the camera not visible to the human eye, perhaps to them the applause didn’t say we just saw this for the first time and we loved it. Perhaps to them it said time to get back to work.
Or: O Brother is just still that engaging fifteen years on. Maybe the theater was chock full of people who have pored over every Coen film and thought deeply about them and purchased The Odyssey on Kindle in an attempt to better “understand” the buddy movie at hand. Regardless, laughs were still laughed, gasps gasped, toes tapped. Some of the more inscrutable Coen flicks like A Serious Man and Barton Fink and Hudsucker and even Lebowski and No Country have a fair number of detractors, people looking to “get it”. O Brother seems like one of those, stuffed with symbolism and mythology, but at heart it’s just what Joel said: a road movie. A buddy comedy. Like the maybe-inspirational Sullivan’s Travels, the primary goal is to have a good time at the movies. Everything else is a bonus.
Again, after the similarly-inscrutable moderator lazily paraded the famous people onto the stage for the Q&A, the cast and crew delved into a series of making-of stories. Clooney noted how great it was to watch the film for Charles Durning, playing the incumbent Governor Pappy O’Daniel, particularly for the dinner concert scene in which Durning’s Pappy does a shoe-shuffle across the stage to the old-timey stylings of the Soggy Bottom Boys, licking his finger and testing his hips for heat. Deakins noted the difficulty in shooting the baptism scene, attempting to get a 90-foot crane to stay motionless as they tracked a crucial shot. Joel Coen added that the shooting of that scene was complicated by water moccasins, describing the man the production hired to wade through the water with a golf club and a burlap sack. And the entire stage riotously recalled the filming of the KKK
Dance Off rally, wherein a surprising amount of black actors apparently played extras garbed in white Klan robes. Clooney first mimicked these guys casually tucking the white hoods under their arms as they scooped catered food onto their plates; then he mimicked passengers on a plane flying overhead to a nearby airport looking out the oval windows to see the fiery cross and dancing Klan members below, then exiting the plane via parachute with a look of perpetual confusion.
The best little anecdote was, again, via Clooney, who said he sent the script to his Southern uncle to have him record his drawl and send it back. Said uncle obliged, but made sure to note that “people don’t really talk like this down here”. Earlier, Tim Blake Nelson had highlighted how little the script changed after the Coens finished it — the draft of the shooting script you got on the first day was pretty much the final movie in paper form. So Clooney ditched the script altogether and just worked off the tape recorder, at least until Ethan Coen asked why he said everything in the script except damn and hell. Now Clooney was onstage mimicking himself, calling his uncle and exclaiming “you rewrote the Coen Brothers!”
It was fitting that these six guys would slip back into conversational vignettes regarding the time they had making O Brother, reminding each other of ridiculous things some of them had forgotten (“Remember Charlie Durning?” “Remember the water moccasins?”), because that’s kind of how O Brother is structured, which is to say it’s not very structured at all. The trio are on a quest for treasure — but what’s that? A man down in Tishomingo pays money if you sing into a can? O Brother diverts itself consistently such that the movie itself is nearly vignettes, episodic encounters just like Odysseus had. Sometimes we’re not even warned and we just find the trio wrapped up in a bank robbery with Baby Fa—excuse me, George Nelson. He’s gone two scenes later. If you hadn’t seen O Brother before you could conceivably hop in at any point and still be on the same page, and if you’d seen it a million times it might still retain all the liveliness for not being tied down to what came before.
One of the Coens (Joel, if memory serves, who was certainly the more talkative brother) mentioned that making a movie is not always fun. “But this one was,” he said of O Brother. Even if those words came from someone other than the guy who directed the movie, that much is obvious.