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Cannes Report

With the Coens, You Get Homer Plus Honky-Tonk

A warm, funny film from the quirky fraternal auteurs pays homage to literature, cinema and country music.

May 15, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

CANNES, France — Partial as they are to somber expressions in their photographs, you might think the Coen brothers are not a whole lot of fun. You might think their sets are solemn, all-business affairs where silence rules and frivolity is forbidden. You might think all that, but you'd be wrong.

"There've been a number of times when we've laughed so much we've actually ruined takes and gotten the actors pissed off," says Joel Coen about himself and brother Ethan. "On 'Blood Simple,' we each ruined four takes, and the actor finally said, 'Will you be quiet over there and let me work?' On 'Fargo,' even though I must have been 20 feet away, I laughed so hard while Steve Buscemi was burying his loot in a snowdrift you can still hear it on the soundtrack. It sounds like Steve breathing, so nobody took it out."

That kind of contagious amusement will spread when the Coens' latest film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," opens in October. Premiering Saturday night before a black-tie audience, "O Brother" proved to be a cheerful and uproarious film, one of the Coens' funniest and surely their warmest, where the humor starts with a simple title card reading "Based upon the Odyssey by Homer."

In fact, this is the story of Everett Ulysses McGill (wonderfully played by George Clooney), who breaks out of a 1930s Southern chain gang with the dumb and dumber guys he's manacled to (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) and tries to get back home to his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter). Southern mythology as well as the Greek kind get a working over, and when a visual reference to a Herman Melville novel also made it in, the Coens thought of, but rejected, another deadpan title card reading "Portions also based on 'Moby-Dick.' "

Though officially Joel is the director, Ethan the producer and both writers, the brothers, whose "Barton Fink" won the Palme d'Or here in 1991, say there is no strict delineation of duties. "We're both there all the time; we both basically do whatever," is how Joel puts it. And the picaresque nature of "O Brother's" plot turns out to parallel the nonlinear way the Coens came up with it. "Like a lot of what we do," Joel says, "where the idea came from is hard to reconstruct."

It was the image of a chain gang escape that intrigued the Coens first. Then, Joel says, "when it became clear the central character wanted to get home, that suggested the 'Odyssey' to us more and more," and the brothers, in Ethan's phrase, "cherry-picked" the elements they thought would fit, including a blind seer, seductive sirens, and a fierce Cyclops played by Coen regular John Goodman.

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Not only did a chain gang suggest the South, but the brothers turn out to be serious fans of country music, both vintage and contemporary. "The plot became informed more and more by the music; it became a bigger and bigger element, it started to take over until the film became almost a musical," Joel explains. Since, for instance, it was common at the time to have politicians barnstorm with musicians, an electoral contest involving Gov. Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) was added to the plot as a way to weave in more songs, including a pair of rival sunshine melodies, "You Are My Sunshine" and "Keep on the Sunny Side." Finally, Joel says, "the film is a valentine to the music."

Under the supervision of T Bone Burnett and with the help of Gillian Welch (who has a cameo as a record buyer and sings the siren's song along with Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss), "O Brother" revives traditional songs as well as the music of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers as performed by musicians like John Hartford, the Cox Family and the Stanley Brothers. It's Ralph Stanley who provides a musical highlight, a hair-raising a cappella version of the traditional "O Death." Since the song comes out of the mouth of a hooded "Boll Weevil" (the film's version of the KKK), the Coens admit to being apprehensive about asking the legendary Stanley to supply the vocals. "He just said," Ethan reports, "whatever helps the movie."

(The Coens are in fact so enamored of the film's music that they are putting on a concert by all the performers involved on May 24 at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, and having veteran documentarian D.A. Pennebaker shoot it as a concert film.)

More than being set in the South, "O Brother" was actually shot in Mississippi during the summer ("104 degrees, 98% humidity, like going to the Amazon," says Ethan), a place that turned out to be lusher than the brothers expected. "It's greener than Ireland, an intense emerald green, it was quite shocking how garish the dailies were, and I said to Roger (cinematographer Roger Deakins), 'This is going to look like an episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger," ' " Joel remembers. Deakins began experimenting with computer-generated methods of selectively desaturating colors that ultimately gave the film the suitably muted look of tinted period photographs.

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