Oh, brother, here we go again.
I finally broke down and rented “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” against my better judgment. I found found it both mildly entertaining and oddly embarrassing. It felt like watching old movies that portray African-Americans as shuffling people-pleasers who are comic by their very nature. This time it is poor white pre-Depression-era Southerners offered for our amusement. “How can anyone look at these people and not laugh,” I can imagine one Coen brother saying to the other, grabbing the point that had eluded such observers as James Agee.
The Coen project was to take people deemed ludicrous in their very existence and lend them the dignity of myth by using the unwitting yokels to retell the Odyssey.
One might as well argue that “The Beverly Hillbillies” was a retelling of The Grapes of Wrath.
Which brings me to my main concern, the film’s use not of myth but of music. The brothers have done for Ralph Stanley and a handful of artists what “The Beverly Hillbillies” did for Flatt and Scruggs: made them famous by ridiculing their art and its origins, with the willing participation of the objects of ridicule, now on tour cashing in.
The principal difference between the film and the series is that “O Brother, Where Art Thou” is done with a hipster flick of the wrist, whereas “The Beverly Hillbillies” was ham-fisted.
After watching all these fake beards, squinched faces and chicken wing moves, I wonder whether Bill Monroe’s reaction to the film would have been very different from his take on the TV series. The father of bluegrass music was famously upset with Flatt and Scruggs for allowing the genre to be stripped of its essential dignity in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” While Monroe’s sense of humor was legendary, he never perceived himself as a clown. He was no “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden.”
It’s one thing to have a sense of humor about yourself. It’s quite another to help people mock you.
And so what if Monroe’s reaction was mixed with jealousy of the greater name recognition and commercial success enjoyed by his former employees? Why shouldn’t he have felt a little bitter? He’d been on the road for decades, struggling to stay in business and keep a band together, while never making or permitting the slightest compromise in his vision of the music. This was a man, remember, who declined to participate in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s hugely popular “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” projects.
What do you suppose Monroe would have thought of the scene in which the Ku Klux Klan entertains itself by lip-synching Stanley’s acapella version of “O Death”? If he were still alive, can you imagine having the nerve to ask him? How does Ralph Stanley himself feel about it?
If watching this film with Bill Monroe would have been unthinkable, can you imagine what Bill Faulkner would have thought of it? If the Coen brothers were half as hip as we’d like to think they are, they’d have left some clue that they’d ever read Faulkner’s “Old Man.”
Maybe they have read it and just couldn’t afford to call attention to it. The thought of one of these rustic clowns writing a literary masterpiece would be damned inconvenient. It might spoil the mood.
Similarly, the use of any actual blues music (such as, Heaven forbid, John Lee Hooker’s great flood song, “Tupelo”) would have spoiled the tired old “crossroads” joke that the film’s one Black character was inserted to tell. (And hey, if we got a Black guy, we need some Klan guys, right? said one anti-establishment Coen brother to the other, as hiply as you please.)
That the music from the film is apparently more popular than the film itself may represent a kind of subversive triumph. Is it useful to imagine Gillian Welch infiltrating this project, as opposed to being exploited by it? If people like sorrowful music because they think it’s funny, should the artist really care? Does the dollar make you holler? Will it bother Welch if we snicker the next time we hear “Orphan Girl,” after seeing her in this movie? (I won’t.) Is this the final revenge of Louis Armstrong, seen as a comic figure by generations deaf to his music?
Whatever, it is telling that the hit song from the movie, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” is heard not in Ralph Stanley’s classic original version (or in any serious bluegrass legend’s version) but as performed by what amounts to a third-generation studio pick-up band. Not that they don’t do a good job on the song, but the implication is that the real thing wouldn’t quite satisfy the need.
Here’s my real problem with the Coen Brothers Circus. As Bob Dylan (and as Flatt and Scruggs themselves, in a stunning cover version) once said, “You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns/When they all did tricks for you.”
David Vest is a writer, poet and piano player for the Cannonballs. A native of Alabama, he now lives in Portland, Oregon. Visit his webpage for samples of the Cannonballs’ brand of take no prisoners rock & roll and other Vest columns: http://www.mindspring.com/~dcqv