Homer Meets the Coen Brothers: Memory as Artistic Pastiche in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

By Toscano, Margaret M. | Film & History, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Homer Meets the Coen Brothers: Memory as Artistic Pastiche in O Brother, Where Art Thou?


Toscano, Margaret M., Film & History


The Coen brothers' 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? presents an intriguing and unusual case for the question of whether historical accuracy is important in films that use classical antiquity as a direct setting or indirect reference point. With key elements of the film based on Homer's Odyssey, O Brother is set in the American south during the Great Depression. Those familiar with the often whimsical style of the Coen brothers probably did not know what, if any, connection this effort would have to either historical period. However, lovers of Homer have noted many clever allusions to the adventures of Odysseus in the O Brother, while those interested in the myth of a charming Old South appeared pleased at how the film nostalgically presented 1930s southern culture.

Classical Allusions

Homer's Odysseus becomes Ulysses Everett McGiIl (George Clooney) in the Coens' reimagining of the epic Greek story. Though he is also a man who prizes his intellect as a mechanism for making his way back home, Everett soon discloses a shallow obtuseness beneath his clever and fast-talking rhetoric. Still, like Odysseus, Everett longs to get back to his beloved wife Penelope, a.k.a. Penny (Holly Hunter), who is being courted by a suitor. Unlike her ancient counterpart, Penny is not exactly the faithful wife; she divorces Everett in his absence to pursue a more profitable match. And even when the couple is reunited at the end, the last scene depicts Penny nagging her ever-apologizing husband, who is followed by seven daughters rather than one son.

Homer's blind prophet Tiresias is central in the Coens' version, too, though now he appears as an old black man (Lee Weaver) who says he works for "no man" and has "no name" (echoing Odysseus' famous lines). In riddles, this blind seer warns Everett and his companions (Pete played by John Turturro and Delmar played by Tim Blake Nelson) of the perils of the journey but predicts a successful homecoming. In O Brother, the Cyclops takes the guise of John Goodman's conniving, one-eyed bible salesman, who examples an on-going religious subtext (again similar but quite different from Homer). The Sirens now appear as seductive songstresses in wet dresses (played by Mia Tate, Musetta Vander, and Christy Taylor), also filling Circe's role as beautiful witch by supposedly turning Pete into a toad (and they even recall the role of Nausicaa and her maids with their clothes-washing). But Ulysses Everett McGiIl, unlike the ancient Odysseus, has no defense against any of their feminine wiles. Along with his companions, Everett gets "liquored up" and intends "to fornicate" because he does not have the good sense to see that the Sirens plan to tum the men over to the law for the reward money.

More subtle references to Homer's story include: the hero's journey to the underworld, which has become the fire and brimstone meeting of the KKK; the conversion of the Lotus Eaters into the glassy-eyed crowd waiting to be dunked in the river for baptism; the saving of Odysseus from the watery deep, mirrored in Everett emerging from the floods of the Tennessee Valley Authority; the transformation of Poseidon into Sheriff Cooley (Daniel Von Bargen), who also represents an unrelenting and blind revenge (note the sunglasses). And just as Poseidon ignores Zeus' decree that Odysseus shall return home, the trooper also does not care about anyone else's authority - in this case the indifference concerns the governor's pardon at the end. The modern Ulysses also returns home in disguise, through a fake beard and blackface in the film, making Everett appear to be a down-and-out, old hillbilly like the beggar Odysseus. Once again there is a showdown among opposing forces at a banquet. The ancestral home is threatened but still intact, at least long enough to yield an object that gives legitimacy to Ulysses' relationship with his wife (the tree-bed in Homer vs. the ring in the film).

The hero is saved in both cases by a deus ex machina; fate plays a prominent role in both stories -all is "foreordained," as Everett claims. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Homer Meets the Coen Brothers: Memory as Artistic Pastiche in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.