Movies That Molded a Geek: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Most of the previous Movies That Molded a Geek have been films that I saw as a child.  Still, we never stop growing (inside), and our new favorites come to define us.  I recently realized that one of my favorite movies is over ten years old.  I saw it when I was still in high school, and if it didn’t directly determine my future taste in movies, it’s at least indicative of the trend.  Not to mention, this is a seriously geeky movie.  Thus, let’s talk about the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Simply put, O Brother is a retelling of The Odyssey, set in Mississippi during the 1930s.  Despite rumors that the Coen brothers never actually read the source material, it’s loaded with references that make English teachers giddy, from a blind prophet to Sirens to a Cyclops.  However, it’s probably more widely known for its soundtrack: a mix of bluegrass (referred to in the movie as ‘Old-Timey’), gospel, and blues.

When you think about it, though the soundtrack is a perfect complement to this film, the genres seem an apt metaphor for most Coen films: Light on the surface, deceptively simple, but with a dark and macabre aftertaste.  At any rate, I loved the arrangements and usage in the film, and I was not alone: the next year, as a freshman music major, I watched my school’s top choir put on a concert of spirituals and similar songs.

It’s easy to geek out to O Brother, and not just from references to Homer; Film geeks, history geeks, and music geeks can all find something to love, too.  For a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it brings serious research cred.

But why is it one of my favorite films?  Why do I like it so much more than any other Coen Brothers film, more than most other films, period?

Well, it hits just the right tone for me when it comes to humor.  From Clooney’s smart lines that consistently make me smile to slapstick that catches me off-guard when I haven’t seen it in awhile, it’s just perfectly balanced to my sensibilities.  There are certainly dark parts to the film – Mississippi in the 30′s wasn’t necessarily the friendliest place – but those parts are all more implied (the cow doesn’t count).

Then there’s the Southern aspect.  I have never really considered myself a Southern girl, but between my immediate family and I, we’ve lived in every single state in the Southeast (south of Kentucky).   As such, I’ve got a pretty well-rounded view of the South.  And no, it’s not like it’s still Depression-era there, so I can’t directly relate, per se…  But the film itself wasn’t actually written or filmed in the 30s, so of course it’s informed, at least a little, by modern Southern culture.  And maybe it hasn’t changed all that much in 70 years.  Regardless, it’s possible that my experience allows me to like O Brother even more than someone who was raised in Oregon… but I’d like to think that the script is good enough that that’s not necessarily true.

I haven’t gone very much into the plot, because I want you to see this movie if you haven’t (The Odyssey is probably enough information, anyway).  Seriously!  Unlike some of my childhood favorites, which might come across as a little dated today, I really feel O Brother still holds up.  And I know some of my current favorites might be a little too dark or violent for some, but not this film (but if you’re going to watch it in front of your kids, I’d suggest… 10? 13?).

There.  I’ve spoken my piece, and counted to three.

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