Saturday, August 29, 2009

O Anthropology, Where Art Thou?

Set in Mississippi in 1937 the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a contemporary retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey that has Ulysses, Delmar and Pete escape from a prison work camp in order to quest for the treasure that Ulysses had buried after robbing an armoured car. This film was indeed made for the purpose of mass consumption and is art who Morphy and Perkins define as “associated with bodies of knowledge, technologies and representational practices that provide insights into the whole life world of a society” (2006: 2). The film uses ‘traditional’ or ‘old timey’ bluegrass, gospel and blues in its’ soundtrack help to provide both lyrical and textural support for the historical and cultural aspects of the rural south in the depression era United States. This is used both as background and as a performance by a character in order to validate a sense of authenticity to their character and suggest the “cultural heritage of ‘the South’ is itself constantly evolving and constantly new” (Chadwell 2004: 3). This assigning of “qualitative values to properties of the material world” is how Morphy defines aesthetics and ideas of power, class, race, gender, economic practices and religious beliefs are all represented (1994: 7). The benefits of film are obvious, its’ dynamic nature is a better format for a range of representations rather than the static forms of sculpture or painting. The emergence and explosion of visual global mass media in the form of television, video and film have meant that artists now have a greater dynamic canvas in a which a plethora of representations can be not only embodied, but interact.

The film negotiates power relationships through its’ use of music. Even in the early days of recorded music in the southern United States a certain level of authenticity was attached to ‘old timey’ and bluegrass players, seen as a rejection of an emerging mass culture which threatened their own, regardless of their actual background or where their music originated (Chadwell 2004). The association of music being ‘old timey’ suggests nostalgia and heritage however this construct is flawed due to the fact that “technological progress was part and parcel of the professionalisation and popularisation of country music” with over five hundred radio stations transmitting in the South from the 1920s” (Gonzalez 2003: 102). Conversely, ideas of mechanical reproduction were utilised by ethnomusicologists like Alan and John Lomax allowing them to document, study and preserve American folk history (Gonzalez 2003).

O Brother, Where Art Thou? gives an insight into social relations during the time with there being limited acceptance of the growing black minority. Our protagonists, being convicts, have more in common with African Americans than their ‘cleaner’ living counterparts, something which Content refers to this as “the natural solidarity of universal brother hood” that “arises out of shared suffering” (2001: 44). Yet still there is a sense of prejudice when they initially meet a blind, black oracle who’s predictions of the future are scoffed at by Ulysses who says, “How does he know? He’s a negro…and an old man!” An indication that race would be somewhere on the same level as senility as a basis for deriding someone’s opinion. The oracle also exclaims that he has no name which illustrates the administrative practice of the time of rural blacks not registering births. The use of traditional bluegrass, gospel and blues songs also give us lyrics for interpretation. The performance of ‘Po Lazarus’, a tale of a black fugitive who is hunted down and killed by a deputy, by the black chain gang at the beginning of the film is a typical ‘work song’, used by the oppressed black minority of the time as a form of rebellion. A certain authenticity is given to the ‘old timey’ music being propagated in the film, a music supposedly representative of white values and culture however, as Chadwell notes, “the discourse authenticating this music as ‘old time’ manages to elide the connections between African American and White Southern cultures” (2004: 3). He also points out the irony in which “authenticity is invoked by cultures actively engaged in erasing or avoiding their actual roots” (2004: 4). During the film the trio attempt to record (with the help of black bluesman Tommy Johnson) a song for a radio station for monetary gain, something they are only able to achieve once they conform that they are indeed white and are willing to perform something ‘old timey’.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? also gives us clues regarding (assumed) gender relations during this point in history. Strang explains that “gendered categories of material culture and gendered social identities and roles are ubiquitous: there is no culture in which they cannot be observed” (1992: 77). Upon finding his ex-wife, who is now due to remarry, Ulysses objects and refers to himself as ‘paterfamilias’ indicating that males are the head of family units. The film also seems to be male gendered, our protagonists are all male, the lead female is objectified as a ‘wife’ or someone who needs male support in order to survive. Ulysses quest for treasure itself can be seen as him fulfilling the role of the contemporary hunter-gatherer whilst Penelope desire for a mate that is “bona fide” is a maternal wish for a honest, stable provider that is committed to raising a family.

As this was set during the great depression economic practices are represented through both the film and through the soundtrack. The opening credits are supported by Harry McClintock’s 1928 version of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountains’, a tale of hobo heaven that describes “a land that’s fair and bright, where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night” and also “where they hung the jerk that invented work”. Economic hardships felt in this, largely agrarian, environment are also expressed by a desperate need for landowners to hold onto their property. Upon visiting Pete’s relatives the trio find themselves threatened by a young boy who queries “Are you men from the bank?” then later reveals that his father had told him to shoot anyone from the bank. Later on, when questioned over what he was going to do with his share of the treasure, Delmar indicates that he would buy back the family farm from the bank adding “you ain’t no kinda man if you ain’t got no land”. This hardship is also expressed by Tommy Johnson when he sings a version of Skip James’ ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’ which contains the lyrics “And you say you had money, you better be sure, 'Cause these hard times will drive you from door to door”. The Coen’s also use body composition to enunciate class with the more rich and powerful being far larger in girth than our malnourished protagonists. Content adds that “in the lean years of the depression, double chins and big bellies brand these villains as ‘fat cats’” (2001: 46). He also adds that this difference between the “exploiter and the exploited” is far more pronounced than differences in race and gender (46).

Being set in Mississippi, the ‘deep south’, we see religious representation play a major role in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. After escaping from the prison work party Delmar becomes baptized, an act that he sees as comparable to a pardon until he is informed otherwise. The music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is littered with religious overtones such as ‘Down To The River to Pray’, ‘In The Highways’ and ‘Angel Band’ showing that Christianity was certainly central to their community at the time. Cosmological understandings are also expressed here with a Ku Klux Klan meeting being in opposition to “all the people say that we come descended from monkeys” pointing to a direct belief in creationism and a rejection of theories of evolution. Upon being picked up by the trio Tommy Johnson explains that he was at the crossroads last night where he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for skill in playing the guitar. Both the crossroads and deals with the devil feature in both white and black cultures (as Satan and Papa Legba respectively) with the crossroads being an environment where barriers between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead are blurred (Pearson and McCulloch 2003). The lawman, who is the personification of Satan in O Brother, gives us clues to his otherworldliness when he attempts to hang the trio after they have been pardoned of their crimes by the Governor. The trio protest on the ground that they have been pardoned to which the lawman replies, “the law is a human institution”. They are inexplicably saved by what Cant refers to as “the flood of modernity” (2007: 66).

The Coen brothers film’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? gives us an insight into attitudes toward race, gender, class, religious beliefs and economic practices that existed in the Southern United States during the depression. The film uses music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, as both lyrics as text for interpretation and for a sense of cultural authenticity to give support and validity to the experiences of our protagonists. The fact that our protagonists seem to share more in common with criminals and blacks rather than those of similar social groups and standings speaks more of the “universality of human experience” rather than lines drawn between people on the basis of race, gender (Strang 2005: 2). Cant sums it up best by saying that the Coen’s have “shown us a way in which both geography and history are impregnated with culture in the Deep South of Mississippi during the depression, an area sure inseparable in our minds from the images of the region created by literature, music and film” (2007: 63).


Cant, J. 2007. ‘Homer in Tishimingo: Eclecticism and cultural transformation in the Coen
Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?’, in Comparative American Studies 5 (1): 63-79.

Chadwell, S. 2004. ‘Inventing that “Old-Timey” Style: Southern Authenticity in O
Brother, Where Art Thou?’, Journal of Popular Film & Television 32 (1): 2-9.

Content, R . 2001. Review of O Brother, Where Art Thou? By Rob Content. Film
Quarterly. 55 (1): 41-48.

Gonzalez, E. 2003. ‘The Motif of Music in Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art
Thou? And Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Revue Francaise D’Etudes Americaines 98: 99-110.

Morphy, H. and Perkins, M. (eds). 2006. 'The Anthropology of Art: a reflection on its
history and contemporary practice', in The Anthropology of Art: a reader, Oxford;
Malden, Mass.; Carlton, Vic.: Blackwell. pp 1-32

Morphy, H. 1994. ‘Aesthetics is a Cross-cultural Category’, in J. Weiner (ed) A Debate
Held in the Muriel Stott Centre on 30th October, 1993. John Rylands University Library of Manchester: Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory

Strang, V. 1999. 1999. ‘Familiar Forms: Homologues, Culture and Gender in Northern
Australia’ in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society, 5 (1): 75-95.

Strang, V. 2005. ‘Common Senses: Water, Sensory Experience and the Generation of
Meaning’, in Journal of Material Culture 10 (1): 93-121.


Coen, Joel and Ethan Coen. O Brother, Where Art Thou? DVD. Touchstone Pictures. 2000.


Various Artists. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Mercury Records. 2000. Compact Disc.

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