Here Comes the Flood: O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Evan Kindley In 1922 the journalist Walter Lipmann published a book called Public Opinion, in which he introduced the world to the notion of cultural “stereotype.” How is it, Lippmann wondered, that we deal with the amazing variety of the world that confronts us? “Each of us lives and works on a small part of the earth’s surface, moves in a small circle, and of these acquaintances knows only a few intimately,” Lippmann wrote:
Of any public event that has wide effects we see at best only a phase and an aspect... Inevitably our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine. (79)
Conquering the world - even our own little corner of it - inevitably involves developing certain fixed categories and forms, which organize everything we encounter. This is where stereotypes come in. According to Lippmann, stereotypes are not exactly rational - in fact they are closer to superstition or myth - but they make rational activity on a vast, consistent scale possible:
[The stereotype’s] hallmark is that it precedes the use of reason; is a form of perception, imposes a certain character on the data of our senses before the data reach the intelligence. The stereotype is like the lavender window-panes on Beacon Street, like the door-keeper at a costume ball who judges whether the guest has an appropriate masquerade. There is nothing so obdurate to education or to criticism as the stereotype. It stamps itself upon the evidence in the very act of securing the evidence. (98-99)
Stereotypes, of course, have a bad press, and Lippmann himself saw them as lazy at best, dangerous and destructive at worst. But he also recognized their utility, especially in the world of art (indeed, he draws the figure from the art historian Bernard Berenson). And it’s hard to deny that stereotypes, when placed in the right hands, can have powerful aesthetic effects. If I were to nominate a cinematic master of the stereotype, I think the prize would have to go to Joel and Ethan Coen. The odd thing about the Coens is that they’re major filmmakers, beloved of the intelligentsia, who deal in very broad social, ethnic and racial stereotypes, a narrative approach that has been out of fashion in sophisticated circles since well before Lippmann coined the term, and whose stock has been steadily falling since. Yet the Coens love stereotypes, and they deploy them brilliantly, using them as the building blocks for their baroque constructions. They take enormous care to be simultaneously smarter and dumber than their intended audience: if “appealing to the lowest common denominator” gets a bad name, the Coens realize that that’s the way you set up the most beautiful, complex equations.
In this they follow their idol Preston Sturges (whose Sullivan’s Travels provides the title for O Brother Where Art Thou?), who also wrote complex whirligig plots and crackerjack dialogue for stereotyped characters. But the Coens tend to think bigger than Sturges, hop genres more often, and go after philosophical game he was content to let scurry away. You could compare them to Charles Dickens, maybe, who also married grandeur of theme and encyclopedic attention to detail with cartoonishness of characterization, but even he stuck to his own period for the most part, whereas the Coens have traveled all over the twentieth century (though, it’s worth noting, always staying on native soil). It’s as if they’re so in love with stereotypes that they need to turn historian in order to seek out more and more recondite examples. Say what you like about them, the Coens do their research: they dig deep for their stereotypes in cultural history, retrofitting attributes that people haven’t thought to make fun of for decades, drawing on the accumulated reserves of more than a century of American opinion in order to produce their effects.
Take the example of O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ first film of the decade. Critical consensus at the time regarded the movie as charming but slight, a goofy genre exercise buoyed by its vintage folk soundtrack, beautiful production design, and the then-novelty of George Clooney’s comic performance. Some critics - notably Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman - disliked the film and objected to the broad Southern stereotypes. But the unapologetic use of stereotypes has always characterized the Coens’ films, particularly their comedies, from at least Raising Arizona onwards: O Brother just indulges the habit a little more fully, and perhaps thematizes it more. Ostentatiously “based on the Odyssey by Homer” (with additional uncredited source material by Herman Melville), the film is overtly mythological in its interests, only the Coens are more interested in the mythology of the American 30s, and the eras that preceded it, than they are in classical myth. They’ve always loved following models, whether Jim Cain or Raymond Chandler, though they’re never been interested in reconstructing them exactly. Pouring their meandering narrative into the mould of Homer’s Odyssey (a trick previously employed by James Joyce in Ulysses, published the same year as Lippmann’s Public Opinion), the Coens superimpose stereotype onto stereotype, letting classical categories contain Southern Gothic and vice versa. The film follows three escaped convicts - Ulysses Everett McGill, Delmar O’Donnell, and Pete - on a mission to recover some hidden treasure, win back the heart of Everett’s estranged wife Penny, and avoid the long arm of the law, accidentally becoming “old-timey” recording stars known as the Soggy Bottom Boys in the process. Along the way they encounter some loosely sketched historical figures (gangster Baby Face Nelson, bluesman Tommy Johnson), and stereotype after stereotype after stereotype: poor white trash, obese fat cats, loquacious Southern gentlemen, boxcar-riding hobos, et cetera. (They also work in allusions to Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night, James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha stories for good measure, keeping their highbrow credentials in order as well.) Yes, O Brother does veer at times into Hee Haw territory--but Hee Haw is as much a part of the national culture the Coens want to hold on to as the “authentic” Southern culture it was travestying.
What the Coens understand about stereotypes is the way they allow for mobility and adventure: by holding on to some simple mental categories, you can range pretty far afield and take in a lot that might overwhelm you if you took everything on its own terms.1 Alone among American art filmmakers today, the Coens stand up for stereotypes: they insist on their world-making potential, their fitness as a foundation for constant exploration. And O Brother Where Art Thou?, however broad-strokes it may be, does present a world in a way that only a few films of this decade have been able to do. It’s a world built out of material from the past - mental categories as much as material artifacts - which tries to reconstruct a sort of phenomenology, a way of experiencing the world, that may or may not have ever been available before. Lippman wrote that, in stereotype, “the accepted types, the current patterns, the standard versions, intercept information on its way to consciousness” (85). And while they make plenty of hay out of what “intercepts information,” the Coens take care to avoid the “current” and make only partial reconciliation with the “accepted” and the “standard”: they prefer lore to fact, and legend to common sense, apocrypha to evidence, heresy to doxa. Above all they prefer old stereotypes to newer ones, which is part of why the further back in time their movies are set the more satisfying they tend to be.2
Which isn’t to say that the Coens romanticize the past, though they’re certainly open to romances of all forms. What keeps the Coens from being mere connoisseurs or curators is that they maintain a very sharp critical and satirical edge at all times, which is what makes people often take them for cynics or sadists. The Coens work deep and they work fast, letting the rich loam of American cultural history do a lot of the work that other screenwriters and directors get from naturalism or original stylization. And, of course, when you dig that deep, some pretty unpleasant stuff tends to get dredged up along with the gold, which explains the presence at the margins of the Coens’ silliest comedies of atrocities like the Holocaust and lynching. The Klu Klux Klan scene in O Brother, which some otherwise sympathetic critics found out of place or over the line, is necessary to remind us of just how ugly the sepia-toned, “old-timey” South could be.
But above all, the Coens’ use of stereotypes allows them to work, to make a quick succession of fully realized movies where many of their peers waste time crafting worlds ex nihilo. Lippmann recognized in 1922 how convenient stereotypes were for productivity:
[T]he attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types or generalities, is exhausting, and among busy affairs practically out of the question... [M]odern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead we notice a trait which marks a well known type, and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads (89)
Consider this: over the course of the last decade, Joel and Ethan Coen have written, produced and directed seven feature films--exactly as many as they managed to make during their first sixteen years of activity. The sum total alone is impressive: what other mainstream filmmaker, besides Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, turned out as many big-budget feature films in the 2000s? (Eastwood made nine and Spielberg eight, in case you’re counting.) Their unusual productivity contributes to the impression that the Coens are living in some other, more industrious movie era than the rest of us, if not the Golden Age of studio directors they show so much affection for, then at least the 70s, when you could count on an Altman, Scorsese or Ashby delivering a film a year, give or take. But also consider the fact that these seven films are so different, and so fully realized on their own terms. The Coens’ 00s oeuvre includes, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, their worst film (The Ladykillers), their strangest (The Man Who Wasn’t There), their most anonymous (Intolerable Cruelty), their most crowd-pleasing (No Country for Old Men), their darkest (Burn After Reading), and their most personal (A Serious Man). But all of them have stereotypes at their core, and we may want to ask ourselves: could all of them have been made, by the same two people, without the shortcuts provided by stereotyping?
Ultimately O Brother Where Art Thou? is a film about modernization, and the tensions between “old-timey” tradition and the forces of cultural and economic change. If the rural buffoonery of the Soggy Bottom Boys is classic pastoral (shepherds goofing off in their off hours), there are business interests encroaching on this easy world at every edge: the radio station man’s ad hoc recording studio, Menelaus Pappy “Pass the Biscuits” O’Daniel’s flour empire, Big Dan Teague’s aggressive Bible salesmanship. A subtheme is the pleasure of the outmoded, a pleasure that O Brother, with its immaculate bluegrass score, also provides, though this itself, as the mega-success of the film’s soundtrack album also attests, is easily monetized (RADIO STATION MAN: “I’m lookin’ for some old-timey material. You see, people can’t seem to get enough of it.” EVERETT: “The Soggy Bottom Boys have been steeped in old-timey material. Heck, we’re silly with it, ain’t we boys?”). Modernity means efficiency: Everett (like Odysseus before him) is a manager, struggling to run his operation on sounder, more streamlined principles. We see this in one of the film’s earliest scenes, where the boys run into a blind seer on a railway handcart:
DELMAR: You work for the railroad, grandpa?
BLIND SEER: I work for no man!
DELMAR: Got a name, do ya?
BLIND SEER: I have no name!
EVERETT: Well that right there might be the reason you’ve had difficulty finding gainful employment. You see, in the mart of competitive commerce…
“The mart of competitive commerce” is where Everett thinks he is, at every moment: part of his desire is to extend that mart to every corner of the globe. The question the film raises is whether stereotypes are more a thing of the benighted, pre-modern world or the built-up, rationalized modern one. One imagines Everett’s world getting faster and faster, the characters that people it getting broader and broader: “There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance.” (Everett could be the ancestor of Ryan Bingham, the character Clooney plays in this year’s Up in the Air, who memorably boils it down thus: “I stereotype. It’s faster.”) Also concerned with time is Big Dan Teague, who briefly seems like Everett’s double before he beats him up, crushes his toad, and steals his money: “Allow me to introduce myself. Name of Daniel Teague. Known in these precincts as Big Dan Teague. Or to those who are pressed for time, Big Dan! Tout court.” Nobody in the world of O Brother is really all that pressed for time, but they all feel like they should be, and sense that very soon they will be.
So are stereotypes a bad thing - the snake in the garden, signs of a postlapsarian society? Maybe: I wouldn’t put it past the Coens to have such a view of modernity. On the other hand, as even Lippmann admits, “there are uniformities sufficiently accurate, and the need of economizing attention is so inevitable, that the abandonment of all stereotypes for a wholly innocent approach to experience would impoverish human life” (90). Aren’t the changes wrought by modernization positive gains, for some at least? Isn’t their proliferation, if in one sense a limitation, in another an enrichment? And aren’t the Coens themselves thoroughly modern millworkers, churning out movie after movie year after year?
The theme of modernization is underlined in the unexpected epilogue, in which Everett, Pete and Delmar return to Everett’s “ancestral manse” to reclaim Penny’s wedding ring and are apprehended by the vindictive Sheriff who’s been chasing them for the whole picture. The three convicts, about to be executed, get down on their knees and pray to God, even the supposedly atheist Everett (“Lord, please look down and recognize us poor sinners...”); their prayers are answered by an enormous wave which floods the screen with pomade tins, a banjo, a framed picture, a victrola, a dog, a tire swing. When the flood settles and our three heroes return to the surface, they speculate about the cause of their good fortune:
DELMAR: A miracle! It was a miracle!
EVERETT: Delmar, don’t be ignorant. I told you they was flooding this valley.
DELMAR: No, that ain’t it!
PETE: We prayed to God and he pitied us!
EVERETT: Well, it never fails. Once again you two hayseeds are showing how much you want for intellect. There’s a perfectly scientific explanation for what just happened.
PETE: That ain’t the tune you was singin’ back there at the gallows!
EVERETT: Well any human being will cast about in a moment of stress. No, the fact is they were flooding this valley so they can hydro-electric up the whole durn state. Yes sir, the South is gonna change. Everything’s gonna be put on electricity and run on a payin’ basis. Out with the old superstitions, the mumbo jumbo, and the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave new world where they run everybody a wire and hook us all up to the grid. Yes sir, a veritable Age of Reason, like the one they had in France. Not a moment too soon.
The point here is that both the scientifically minded Everett and the superstitious Delmar and Pete have an immediate, readymade explanation for their lucky break: Everett’s “perfectly scientific explanation” is as much a stereotype as their deus ex machina, and his vision of rational progress is as much a pipe dream as the Big Rock Candy Mountain invoked by song over the opening credits. Of course modernization never really occurs, nothing’s ever permanently on a “payin’ basis,” and the lost world of superstition, mumbo jumbo and stereotype always survives (often stronger than ever), but that doesn’t stop nostalgists any more than it does utopians. The Coens are neither, but they are more interested than people think in the connections between the past and the present, and O Brother Where Art Thou? is even rather prophetic in its way. The American 2000s have seen a terror attack, a devastating Southern flood, an economic collapse, and a series of bitter political battles between a false populism and a compromised liberalism. Few American filmmakers have fully responded to these changes - yet - and it may seem odd that a broad period comedy, made in the first year of this momentous decade, ends up saying so much about the experience of living through them. But the past, as the Coens know, isn’t dead. It’s not even past.