Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 17,
2001, edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
At the Movies: `O Brother, Where Art Thou?’
Bob Dylan has said that his 1997 invitation from Ralph
Stanley to join him in a duet on his "Clinch Mountain Country"
album was "the high point of my career." And in teaming up
with his musical hero, Dylan contributed more than a song. He
introduced legions of his fans to another national treasure: Stanley,
the veteran bluegrass musician and brilliant vocalist whose signature
Appalachian lament, "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow," Dylan
featured on his own debut album of 1962.
Now Joel and Ethan Coen have brought their own love affair with
American homegrown music to the screen with "O Brother, Where Art
Thou?" Their light and dark fable, set in the rural South of the
1930s and inspired by Homer’s "The Odyssey," is a music-driven
wonder — an inspired paean to song that masquerades as a comic
Ulysses Everett McGill, played by George Clooney, is the story’s
debonair hero, a smooth-talking petty criminal who escapes from a
Mississippi work gang chained to a duo of lame losers: the sweet
simpleton Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), and the cranky criminal Pete
(John Turturro). Tracked by a tireless, vengeful lawman (truly
reminiscent of Homer’s angry god Poseidon), the trio’s break for
freedom takes them on a surreal journey strewn with awesome obstacles
and larger-than-life adversaries. Ostensibly motivated by the lure of
buried treasure, we learn that Ulysses’ true purpose is to be reunited
with his wife Penny (Holly Hunter) and seven daughters in Ithaca,
Just as Homer’s "Odyssey" takes us back 2,700 years to a time
when poetry and song suffused human activity, so the Coen Brothers’
film harks back to a time when music was part of the nation’s very
fiber, something shared by everyone at home, in church, in taverns,
and town halls. Its panorama of American roots music encompasses
white, black, sacred, and secular.
The film opens with Homer’s timeless invocation, "Sing in me,
Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways
of contending." A blind black soothsayer, riding the rails on
a hand-powered cart, is the first man the escape convicts meet. He
tells them emphatically: "You will find a fortune but not the
fortune you seek."
In scene after scene of "O Brother," sound
precedes sight. Both onscreen characters and offscreen audience are
swept up in the sound of music before a grand moment of unveiling
reveals a stunning scene and the source of the seductive sound.
Mountain music, delta blues, lush gospel harmonies, and chain-gang
chants — the bedrock of American roots music — are all here,
along with the faith-powered bluegrass themes that drive the story.
Joel Coen has called the film, "a valentine to the music"
— with a nod and a wink, we assume, to Hollywood’s screwball
comedies of the ’30s.
The high lonesome sound of "Man of Constant Sorrow," one of
the Stanley Brother’s emotion-churning songs that has been traced
back to a 1913 songbook by Dick Burnett, a blind singer from Kentucky,
is at the heart of the story. Presented in no less than four different
vocal and instrumental versions, the song is the source of any fortune
Ulysses stands to gain. Ralph Stanley, born in 1927, has said he heard
his own father sing this song. Its haunting, lonely lyrics that begin,
"I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all my
days," evoke all the travails of life on earth, be they those of
the convict, hobo, Jesus Christ — or the wandering Ulysses.
Another powerful presence is Stanley’s a cappella rendition of the
folk ballad "O Death" which provides the film’s most serious
and searing moment. Recorded for the movie, it is sung during a
grotesque enactment of a nighttime Ku Klux Klan lynching by a cast of
hundreds in the style of some sort of stadium half-time show. It is
here that the dreaded giant Cyclops — John Goodman in a
frighteningly comic turn as a dishonest Bible salesman — almost
gets his single eye put out by a javelin-like weapon in the form of a
Produced by T Bone Burnett, the film’s soundtrack is a sizzling
amalgam of vintage recordings and contemporary renditions of America’s
old time music as might have been heard in the late ’30s. Much of the
music is performed live on screen, literally by such characters as
Tommy Johnson, the convict Delmar, and the grave-digging Fairfield
Four. Other actors lip-synch to performances of old time music by
a host of gifted contemporary artists.
The film’s burnished vintage recordings include the opening chain-gang
chant "Po Lazarus," performed by James Carter and actual
prisoners, as recorded by Alan Lomax, as well as Harry McClintock
singing his 1928 hobo classic, "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Most
potent is the 1955 recording the Stanley Brothers singing "O Come,
Angel Band," featuring the lovely tenor voice of Carter, and
Ralph on vocal harmony and hammerclaw-style banjo, that closes the
Over the course of their music odyssey, the Coen brothers add another
layer to the musical fantasy with the key character Tommy Johnson.
New Orleans bluesman Chris Thomas King plays the sweet-tempered
itinerant black musician whom we first meet in a golden panorama of a
lonely crossroads — just like the one where blues great Robert
Johnson is said (like Italy’s Niccolo Paganini before him) to have
sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for otherworldly musical
King’s performance of Nehemiah "Skip" James’ "Hard Time
Killing Floor Blues" — widely considered one of the greatest
Depression era songs — is a musical high point. So is the
Fairfield Four’s powerful a cappella gospel rendition of "Lonesome
Valley," and Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch’s
siren song, "Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby." Portraying
Ulysses’s angelic looking, but hard-bitten young daughters, a
contemporary girls’ trio, Sarah, Hannah, and Leah Peasall, give a
lovely performance of Maybelle Carter’s hymn, "In The
Highways." The icing on the cake is actor Tim Blake Nelson’s
terrific on-camera rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ song, "In The
Stephen Root plays the omnipotent — and blind — radio station
operator (and cousin to the Wizard of Oz) where the cons journey with
Johnson for the promise of $10 payment for "singing into a
can." This is where the convicts’ hit recording of "Man of
Constant Sorrow" — recorded by the Stanley Brothers, Mike
Seeger, Bob Dylan and myriad other American musicians — is made by
the self-invented Soggy Bottom Boys. As Menalaus "Pappy"
O’Daniel, a Mississippi governor fighting for re-election, Charles
Durning puts in the most potent comic performance, playing the
perennial stereotype of a corrupt Southern politician with such
spontaneity, it’s as if it had never been done before.
The wanderings of Ulysses are also conjured by the film’s Lotus Eaters
who lull Ulysses’ cohorts into peaceful lethargy — a blissed-out
Baptist congregation gathered outdoors for a mass baptism to the
strains of "Down to the River to Pray" sung by Alison Krauss
with the First Baptist Church of White House, Tennessee.
True to the Coen brothers’ gifts, the world of "O Brother, Where
Art Thou?" is a boundless, skewed universe presented in the warm
hues of memory — golden ochers and soft browns. And just as
Homer’s epic poem lives on as a 3,000-year-old testament to the
presence of poetry in the universe, so this film offers a modern
tribute to the enduring power of song in human affairs.
— Nicole Plett
Montgomery, Regal .
The Rutgers’ based New Jersey Film Festival opens its
spring edition this week with a plethora of recent and out-of-the-way
titles presented weekly, from January 19 through April 28.
Opening night features Raul Ruiz’s 1999 "Time Regained," an
impressionistic portrait of Marcel Proust, author of the monumental
seven-volume novel, "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu." Directed
by Ruiz from a screenplay co-authored with Gilles Taurand, the film
stars Catherine Deneuve as Odette de Crecy, John Malkovich as Charlus,
Emanuelle Beart as Gilberte, and Vincent Perez as Morel. Screenings
are Friday to Sunday, January 19 to 21.
Ruiz bases "Time Regained" on Proust’s volume of the same
name, following the deconstruction of its author and the construction
of book. He describes "A La Recherche" as "the last great
dream of the 19th century and the first modern novel of the 20th
The film opens in 1922. Marcel Proust is on his deathbed, looking
through photos and remembering his life. Gradually his own experiences
yield to those of the characters in his novels, and fiction eclipses
reality. The story becomes a play of body language and symbolism,
as the figures transform into marionettes in a world of madmen,
in a dreadful masquerade, a Ball of Faces.
Ruiz notes that Proust wrote his masterwork "in secrecy, in public
silence, and covert additions." The metamorphosis of the man into
a novel stemmed from Proust’s working methods: on the one hand,
deletion, and non-completion; on the other, fresh starts, continuation
on a higher level, and addition; then, when all seemed finished, the
assembly, disassembly, and reassembly of pages, episodes and
Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, New Brunswick. Screenings are
Fridays through Sunday in Scott Hall, Room 123, College Avenue Campus
(near the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street). Thursday
screenings are in Loree Hall, Room 024, Douglass College Campus (near
the corner of Nichol Avenue and George Street). All programs begin
at 7 p.m.; $5 non-members. Information 732-932-8482; Website:
drama about four desperadoes in Central America and two truckloads
of nitroglycerine, Thursday, January 25. Dancer In The Dark,
the acclaimed new film fable by Lars Von Trier about a single mother
in the Pacific Northwest, stars pop singer Bjork and Catherine
Friday to Sunday, January 26 to 28.
banker, his innocent daughter, and a blackmailer, Thursday, February
1. Aimee & Jaguar, Maria Schrader stars in the 1999 Max
drama, set in Germany during World War II, that focuses on a love
affair between two women, one a model of Nazi motherhood, the other
a Jewish member of the underground. Friday to Sunday, February 2 to
Lubitsch, starring Greta Garbo as a Soviet agent romanced by Melvyn
Douglas, Thursday, February 8. Requiem for a Dream, Darren
new feature, adapted from a novel, about four drug addicts and their
fall into a pit of self-induced misery, Friday to Sunday, February
9 to 11.
festival with $2,500 in cash prizes, $8, Friday to Sunday, February
16 to 18.
classic drama depicting the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin,
considered one of the most important films in the history of cinema,
Thursday, February 22. Goya in Bordeaux, Carlos Saura’s
and beautiful new portrait of the final years in the life of the
Spanish painter, Francisco Goya. Friday to Sunday, February 23 to
1. Quills, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Caine, and Kate Winslet star
in Philip Kaufman’s new film about the final days of the notorious
Marquis de Sade, Friday to Sunday, March 2 to 4.
Greek myth of the musician Orpheus set to a samba and hip-hop score,
Friday to Sunday, March 23 to 25.
Confirm titles with theaters.
Black, and Penelope Cruz star in the Western drama based on the
novel. AMC, MarketFair, Regal.
goings on at a Silicon Valley software company headed by Tim Robbins.
on his very own desert island. AMC, Destinta, Loews,
Montgomery, Regal .
film about a French chocolate shop. AMC.
about a magical sword with romance and martial arts, with high-wire
fights staged by the choreographer of `Matrix.’ In Mandarin with
AMC, Loews, MarketFair, Montgomery, Regal.
(Orlando Jones) and a street guy (Eddie Griffin) trade identities.
AMC, Loews, Regal.
Plummer in a modern day vampire story based on the life of German
filmmaker Murnau. AMC, Destinta, Loews.
their wheels. AMC, Loews, Regal.
with music by Sting. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair,
he wakes up married to Tea Leoni. AMC, Destinta, Loews,
by Gus Van Sant with F. Murray Abraham, Michael Pitt, Anna Paquin,
and Joey Buttafuoco. AMC, Loews.
fable brought to the screen. AMC, Destinta.
Documentary written and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris about the
10,000 children who left their families and their homes in the months
prior to World War II. AMC.
as an FBI agent going undercover for a big beauty contest. AMC,
Destinta, Loews, MarketFair, Regal .
also a hymn to bluegrass music, starring George Clooney, John Turturo,
Tim Blake Nelson, and Charles Durning. AMC, Loews,
Regal . @LT = Proof of Life. Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe star
in a thriller about a guerrilla kidnapping in South America.
and Michael Caine star in an adult film loosely based on the life
and writings of the Marquis de Sade. AMC.
Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Vince Green, and Terry Kinney. Loews,
MarketFair, Regal .
story of a quaint New England town is invaded by a Hollywood movie
crew stars Alec Baldwin, Charles Durning, William H. Macy, Sarah
Parker, and David Paymer. AMC, Loews, Montgomery, Regal.
on the verge of World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis starring
Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Culp. AMC, Loews,
spearhead drug war finds teenage daughter is a heroin addict. Starring
Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine
AMC, Destinta, MarketFair, Loews, Regal.
moviegoers on the edge of their seats with a suspenseful tale of a
mountain rescue told with ample special effects. Stars Chris
Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, and Scott Glenn. AMC, Loews, Regal.
with the ability to read women’s minds, including those of Helen Hunt
and Bette Midler. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair,
and Mark Ruffalo as an adult sister and brother who stick by each
other, written and directed by Ken Lonergan. Montgomery.
AMC Hamilton 24 Theaters, 325 Sloan Avenue, I-295 Exit
65-A, 609-890-8307. 24-screen, stadium-seating multiplex. $7 adults;
$5 matinees; $5 twilight.
Destinta, Independence Plaza, 2465 South Broad Street,
Hamilton, 609-888-4500. Stadium-seating 12-screen multiplex. $6.75
adults; $5 matinees.
Loews Theaters, Route 1 South, New Brunswick,
Stadium-seating multiplex. $8.50 adults; $5.25 matinees.
MarketFair-UA, Route 1 South, 609-520-8700. $7.50
adults; $4.75 matinees.
Montgomery Center Theater, Routes 206 and 518,
609-924-7444. $7 adults; $4.25 matinees.
Regal Cinemas Town Center Plaza, 319 Route 130 North,
East Windsor, 609-371-8473. Stadium-seating, 15 screens. $7.50 adults;
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