"O Brother Where Art Thou?" is the title of the movie that was going to be made in the film Sullivan's Travels, a film about the depression, poverty and reality. Well, it's close. I am watching the film for the third time, but each time that I watch it, I gain insight.
The Coens' claimed that they were deeply influenced by Homer's Odyssey in the writing of this film, although they had never read the poem fully. I'm sure they read a summary. But deeper than this, they were interested in placing their own philosophy of life in the film.
Our Ulysses is on the run from the law, just as Odysseus was running from Poseidon. Like the epic poem, the gods of O Brother are capricious and fickle-- we have the governor of Mississippi, his opponent in the coming election and the representative of unmerciful justice. There is a debate in the film as to whether there is another, all-powerful god over all these other human. The power of these gods are not magic, but music, which can stir the hearts of humans and create powerful actions to occur. Ulysses is fated to the poorest luck possible, just as his epic counterpart. He and his travelling companions are beaten, tricked, betrayed, and run into the worst of characters-- one-eyed monsters, women intent on their destruction, and chased by powers of destruction. Finally, they find that they have their own music that can guide their own fate, which leads Ulysses to his true treasure-- his family and his wife who is being wooed by another man. Through the power of a merciful god? Or fate? Or luck? Ulysses achieves his goal-- home and hearth and family. Perhaps.
The Coens' philosophy begins with a universe that cannot be determined. Is it God? It is fate? Is it luck? Whatever the case, for the most part we are all a sad sack, trapped in a cycle of bad luck. The way to move ahead is to grasp onto our fate, to take action in every moment that it presents itself. That action might be theft, it might be earning money, it might be working with people who are perhaps unsavory. But we will never achieve the next step we need in life unless we keep moving. Death is stillness, passivity, inaction. Only when we keep acting do we know who we are. And when we keep making those steps, we find that the universe isn't opposed to us, but in the end it fits together, for the best. And the best for us is home, hearth and family.
Besides the themes of this film, the music is marvelous. This is one of my favorite soundtracks of all time, brilliantly produced by T Bone Burnett. I listen to the music all the time so it is so wonderfully familiar when it appears between the cracks or in the forefront of the film. Each song is the magic of the film: not just the tone, but the power of each scene, the sound of the god or monster shaking the universe, all attempting to fruitlessly force their own will upon humanity.