Friday, April 15, 2016

Reading the Coens: "O Brother Where Art Thou?"

The Coen brothers are not Christian artists, but they are masters of their craft. And, while they appear to pay close attention to every detail in their stories and use every subtlety to advance their story, like most postmodern artists, they avoid being too specific about the meaning in their films. So, even though I am bringing my own preconceptions to their work that sees things likely unintended by them, I celebrate truth wherever I find it.

O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)

“It’s a problem of perception.”

It is no secret that this story parallels the Odyssey in many respects. But it is also the story of a man’s path to faith in a world of intellectualism and ideology.

In short it is the story of a convict who escapes the chain-gang to prevent his wife from marrying another man. Along the way he and his fellow prisoners have many adventures. They encounter all sorts of criminals and con-men, many of whom represent ideologies and institutions of the 1930s south. His companions find forgiveness and grace through revivalists, but Ulysses Everett McGill remains the staunch intellectual.

Everett: Well, I guess hard times flush the chumps. Everybody's looking for answers... Where the hell's he going?
[Delmar runs out to be baptized]
Pete: Well I'll be a sonofa. Delmar's been saved.
Delmar: Well that's it, boys. I've been redeemed. The preacher's done washed away all my sins and transmissions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting's my reward.
Everett: Delmar, what are you talking about? We've got bigger fish to fry.
Delmar: The preacher says all my sins is washed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.
Everett: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?
Delmar: Well I was lying. And the preacher says that that sin's been washed away too. Neither God nor man's got nothing on me now. C'mon in boys, the water is fine.
Pete: The preacher said he absolved us.
Everett: For him. Not for the law. I'm surprised at you Pete. I gave you credit for more brains than Delmar.
Delmar: But they was witnesses that seen us redeemed.
Everett: That's not the issue Delmar. Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the state of Mississippi's a little more hardnosed.
Delmar: You should of joined us Everett. It wouldn't have hurt none.
Pete: Hell, at least it would of washed away the smell of that pomade.
Everett: Join you two ignorant fools in a ridiculous superstition? Thank you anyway. And I like the smell of my hair treatment - a pleasing odor's half the point. [laughs] Baptism. You two are just dumber than a bag of hammers. Well, I guess you're just my cross to bear.

Shortly after their conversion, Everett’s companions have him pick up a hitchhiker, who they find out has sold his soul to the devil. This also reveals that it is the devil himself who is pursuing them, in the form of the chain-gang boss:

Tommy: I had to be up at that there crossroads last midnight, to sell my soul to the devil.
Everett: Well, ain't it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I'm the only one that remains unaffiliated.
Delmar: This ain't no laughing matter. Everett: What'd the devil give you for your soul, Tommy?
Tommy: Well, he taught me to play this here guitar.
Delmar: Oh son. For that you sold your everlasting soul?
Tommy: [shrugs] Well, I wasn't using it.
Pete: I've always wondered, what's the devil look like?
Everett: Well, of course there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Pete, but the great Satan himself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork.
Tommy: Oh, no. No, sir. He's white, as white as you folks, with empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He loves to travel around with a mean old hound. That's right.

Tommy is headed to make some money at a radio station/recording studio. They all record a single together as “The Soggy Bottom Boys”, that—unbeknownst to them—becomes huge hit across the state.

Music is an important part of this film. It isn’t a musical, but the songs that are interwoven throughout provide the atmosphere and philosophical underpinning for the story. They are songs about death and struggle, life and afterlife, but there are also uplifting, positive songs born out of faith.

Their hit single leads to them receiving a pardon from the governor of the state who is seeking reelection. It is broadcast over the radio from a campaign event. However, when the gang head to Everett’s old home to retrieve his wife’s wedding ring, the devil is waiting for them, set to hang them. Even though they (Pete and Delmar at least) have been assured of forgiveness and grace from God, and have obtained forgiveness and grace from the government, the Devil has other plans.

It is at this point, in desperation, that Everett drops any pretense of cleverness and prays to God, begging for forgiveness even though he does not deserve it.

God intervenes, and the valley that was scheduled to be damned as a reservoir is flooded in an instant. The men are saved and the devil and his minions are nowhere to be found. It is Everett’s baptism. Pete and Delmar acknowledge the miracle. Everett tries to explain it away until he sees a cow floating past on the roof of a house. This stops him short and we remember the prophecy of a blind man the gang encountered right after their escape:

“You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek. But first... first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see things, wonderful to tell. You shall see a... a cow... on the roof of a cotton house, ha. And, oh, so many startlements. I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto your salvation.”

There is a theme of perception woven throughout the film. That prophet at the beginning of the film isn’t the only blind man. The record producer who makes them the hit of the state is also blind. They encounter a cyclops who is a crook posing as a Bible salesman. If memory serves, the gubernatorial opponent who is also a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is the only character to wear glasses. And, of course, the Devil character has no eyes.

In the end, Everett has to let go of his perception. He has to stop seeing explanations for everything. Stop seeing the angles he takes advantage of as a conman. He has to surrender his perspective and turn helpless to God for salvation. It is an act of desperation, but it is the only way out of his predicament. And, all along his journey has been guided by forces unseen. Even though he tries to talk and reason his way out of every problem, he is ineffective and it is mere chance—or providence—that gets him back home in the embrace of his family.

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