And Heaven Everlasting's My Reward
I’ve been writing about movies on and off for a long time, but only became a serious freelance writer over the past year. I’m well past my expiration date for such an endeavor, and it’s a weird, always humbling experience to be competing for clicks with people both significantly younger than me, and rather more versed in film. Some of these folks have actually gone to school to learn how to become not just better film writers, but better film viewers, while my primary contribution is owning a couple of coffee table books about production design and reading Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide cover to cover. I’m no expert, I’m just good at sounding like I’m not talking out of my ass.
One issue that comes up more often when you start putting Yourself and Your Dumb Opinions out there is discovering that said opinion doesn’t jibe with everyone else’s. I recently attended a screening at the New York Film Festival that left me both puzzled, and emotionally unmoved. It’s not that I didn’t understand the movie or what it was about, more that I found the filmmaker’s minimalist style chilly and detached to the point of off-putting. Confident that I was feeling the “correct” way about it, I checked reviews of the movie, only to see words like “sumptuous,” “ravishing,” and “staggering” used to describe it. Considering my initial reaction was a sort of baffled shrug, I was a bit taken aback. Clearly I had missed…something, and clearly I was in the wrong for having done so.
After giving myself some time to mull over it, my overall opinion of the film ultimately ended up being mostly positive, though I never did warm up to the long, static shots of empty rooms and characters barely speaking above a whisper while refusing to make eye contact with each other. It still feels strange, and a little disappointing, to not have been swept into the movie like apparently everyone else who’s seen it was. It’s not a bad movie. I just wish I liked it more than I did.
This is an extremely roundabout way of saying that I’m not particularly a fan of O Brother, Where Art Thou.
Now, hold on a minute. That’s not to say I think it’s a bad movie. It’s good-natured and very funny at times, particularly when they encounter Baby Face Nelson, and the gag involving the “broom of ree-form.” Like The Hudsucker Proxy, it’s a loving homage to another time and place, artfully rendered, but with a somewhat hollow core. I admire it more than I enjoy it.
I remember watching O Brother not long after it was released on DVD, and thinking that it felt very long, when it fact it’s only an hour and forty-five minutes. I watched it again a few years later, and it still felt very long. Ostensibly based on The Odyssey (though the Coens admitted they hadn’t actually read it and based their adaptation off of other film adaptations), it feels a bit meandering and plotless, as our hapless heroes go on a series of quirky adventures after escaping from prison. I didn’t feel particularly invested in Everett McGill (George Clooney) winning back his wife. or in whoever got voted Governor of Mississippi.. When it ended, both times my primary response was a polite smile and nod. For all the obvious effort and detail that went into establishing the Depression-era South setting, not to mention the whimsical lapses into magical realism, it’s, well…kind of empty.
Again, I fully accept that this is merely a matter of taste, and not necessarily a reflection on the film itself. In thinking about this project, I’ve come to the realization that, with the exception of Raising Arizona, which is among my favorites of their films, I vastly prefer the Coen Brothers’ dramas over their comedies. The comedies, while always clever and visually appealing, don’t feature characters so much as caricatures, and thus feel a little distant and detached. Clooney is handsome and charming, but isn’t playing a person so much as a callback to the leading men of 1930s screwball comedies, like Clark Gable and Melvyn Douglas. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as Clooney’s prison break pals play their roles so broadly they might as well be Larry and Curly in The Three Stooges Story. Most of the other characters represent figures from The Odyssey, which, again, the Coens didn’t read, and thus can only depict them as vaguely sketched out archetypes.
But, man, it sure does look good. Whereas their dramas are subdued in both tone and color, the Coens’ comedies are bursting with life and spirit. Sunlight (albeit digitally corrected by Roger Deakins) looks like God’s most beloved gift, captured and turned to gold. The scene where Everett and the boys encounter some actual sirens is sexy, funny, mesmerizing, and a little creepy. No one knows how to make John Goodman’s panda bear shape seem absolutely intimidating the way the Coens do. I don’t dislike O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s very low on my list of movies I think warrant re-watching, mostly because I don’t think there’s a lot to be taken away from it, and that’s fine. It’s entirely possible that there wasn’t supposed to be.
In my efforts to try to become a more serious film writer (whatever that means) comes feeling like I must justify not really feeling a movie a lot of other people love. Expecting that your contradictory opinion, even if it’s polite and qualified with “But I didn’t hate it,” will be aggressively challenged is par for the course with social media. People take such things as attacks on their own taste, which sometimes is presumptuous, but occasionally warranted, when you consider how many individuals frame their contradictory opinions with “and thank goodness I’m the only one smart enough to say it.”
O Brother pulls a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an even higher audience score. It would be smug and intellectually dishonest of me to claim that the vast majority of people who watched and enjoyed it were wrong, while I, a person who is not particularly a fan of bluegrass music, am correct for feeling largely indifferent towards it. Maybe I’ll give it another chance one of these days, just to see if my feelings have changed. Nevertheless, I have the feeling it will still feel very, very long.