Naked and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Politics and Poetics of Epic Cinema
This chapter compares and contrasts two films, both of which are deeply engaged with Homer's Odyssey. The two films are the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Mike Leigh's Naked. There are, of course, many films which quote from or adapt or reuse the Odyssey, but this stark, rhetorical juxtaposition has the benefit of revealing two particular sets of questions, which have a wide implication for the study of the reception of Homer in modern media.
The first issue is with the generic resources of the Odyssey.It is striking that in ancient literature the Odyssey feeds into both tragedy and comedy, both into later epic and into the lower traditions of realism. Even a scene as apparently horrific as the Cyclops episode can become comedy, as Euripides' satyr play, the Cyclops, most immediately demonstrates. This is matched by my two films, where one is as brutal and difficult to watch as any modern film, the other a successful mainstream comedy. The Iliad or the Aeneid does not have quite such a bifurcated reception, I think, however laughable Troy is (and whatever burlesques were produced in Victorian Britain).1 What is it about the Odyssey that allows such multiple readings? And what differences does such a history of reception make for the possibility of using the Odyssey in modern writing and film-making?
1 There is a good treatment of Victorian Burlesque in Hall and Macintosh 2005: