Composite Journal

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                                     Composite Journal One
South and Southern: The film marks itself as Southern by saturating itself in stereotypical
archetypes, characters, settings and situations. It opens on a chain gang, a linchpin of the
mythology of the South and its brutal legal system. All of the characters speak in a stereotypical
southern drawl, and seem to fit already existing molds of southerners. Even their aspirations for
the future are taken straight out of pop mythology: Pete wants to move out west, wear nice
clothes and have people say “yessir” to him, while Delmar dreams of buying back the family
farm. Beyond the characters, the settings—cotton fields, farms and run-down shack houses—are
all typical backdrops for Southern lore. Even the situations the characters find themselves in are
pulled straight from the collective imagination. KKK rallies, lynchings, and baptisms are among
them. The film is clearly not making an attempt to create any kind of realistic representation of
the Mississippi delta during the depression. In fact, the Mississippi delta during the depression is
a cliché in itself. Rather, the Coen brothers seem to be enjoying themselves immensely by taking
all of our society’s preconceived notions, lingering prejudices, mythic constructions, movie
characters and other flotsam of popular culture having to do with the South, and mashing them
into a movie. The result is a farcical self-conscious pastiche of pop culture “Southern-ness” that
attempts to boil down all of our strange beliefs about the South into a single story. This is similar
to what Homer did when compiling a whole set of disparate hero stories to form the Odyssey, the
film’s inspiration. Those who look too hard for the connections to the epic poem are missing
what the film owes it in its concept: it’s a whole set of stories, not just one, that brings together
all kinds of tall tales, lies and popular conceptions and fuses them into one long oft-ridiculous
story. What becomes clear by the end is that the film is more about our understanding of the
South than about the thing itself.
Power: Within the film the characters who garner the most attention remain virtually powerless
throughout the entire plot. Instead, the most obvious people who hold the positions of power are
the Governor of Mississippi Pappy O'Daniel, a candidate for the same job Homer Stokes, and a
Bible salesman named Big Dan Teague. Although each one of these characters are decidedly
different from one another there are certainly a few characteristics that they all share. As each of
the characters appears throughout the film one can not help but notice how similar each one's
appearance is to the other. To begin, they are all white men, which is in reality a realistic
representation of who would have actually held the power in the south during the depression era.
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Other similarities move beyond their gender or race and instead focus on their appearance. Each
man in power was not only over-weight but actually quite obese further suggesting that these
men do little beyond sitting around. They are also usually dressed from head to toe in all white,
a dramatic tool that clearly reinforces the superiority of the white race in the area during this time
period. The men are constantly be shown sitting around and are collectively represented as being
lazy and unmotivated. They are also portrayed as people who have very little concern for the
welfare of others, but instead choose to focus only on what would benefit them most effectively.
Time: The story is told in chronological order and deals with events occurring during the Great
Depression. Almost everyone is struggling, as is shown especially well through the character of
Pete’s supposedly trustworthy kin, who temporarily provides the escapees with shelter against
the police. Yet, he later turns them in for the bounty while apologetically saying, “It’s the
Depression. Gotta do for me and mine own”. Besides representing time by major events
occurring in the world, the sense of time is also demonstrated by certain manifestations of
modernization. Though it seemed that the South was indeed modernizing, such as seen through
means like George Nelson’s car, it was also shown that the movie was set many years back from
modern day because of such occurrences as the Sirens washing their clothes outside on rocks as
well as the head of police stating to the three criminals that he had not heard of their pardons
because he did not have a radio. Besides dealing with technological modernization, the movie
also covered the progress that integration was making. For example, during the three men’s
escape, the black in the stripes of their prison suits is distinctly faded. Therefore, possibly this
could foreshadow that these men’s actions would show a fading of the sharp line that separated
whites from blacks; such actions include their incorporation of Tommy into their band, The
Soggy Bottom Boys, as well as risking their lives to save his during the KKK’s attempted
lynching.
Gender: Men dominate this movie, and attempt to gain even more power by speaking of women
in a negative manner and therefore disabling their authority. Certain men describe women as
deceitful, seductive, or unable to take care of themselves for examples. One man who describes
females as acting deceivingly is Everett, who states that, “ Truth means nothing to a woman.”
Yet this is hypocritical in realizing that truth meant nothing to him; he has completely deceived
two men into believing they were going to find a huge treasure and turn their lives around.
Everett also feels that, “ Woman is the most fiendish invention made by the devil”. This idea can
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serve to demonstrate the evil seductiveness of women as the Sirens sing the lyrics, “ You and me
and the devil makes three”. Therefore, it can be assumed through their song that the Sirens are
influenced by the devil to entice men, and furthermore lead them to their doom. Lastly, Stokes,
as leader of the KKK, states to his male followers, “Let’s not forget those ladies who look to us
for protection, against Darky, Jews,…and those people who said we come from monkeys,”
inferring that women are delicate creatures in need of male assistance. Clearly, women are
shown to be deceitful, temptress-like, and utterly defenseless. Though some women do exhibit
these stereotypical characteristics, females in this movie such as the Sirens and Penny prove that
there is more to women than these supposed aspects. Though the Sirens are in fact deceitful and
temptress-like, they are certainly not indefensible; they instead show that women can use their
powers of seduction to gain power over men. Similarly, Penny is somewhat deceptive and also
able to take care of herself. Her deception can be seen as she lies to her children in telling them
that their father was hit by a train and killed. Yet she did this with their best interest in mind and
would continue to assert her newfound power in the role as single parent. She started with
bringing back her maiden name for herself and her daughters, thereby removing her husband’s
branding mark and taking away his possession over them. This seemed to be a very empowering
(and humorous) move that showed her ability to hold her own in a male-dominated society.
Therefore, is it a necessity for women to display such negative actions of deceit or seduction in
order to acquire power?
Music: The role of music in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou is provocative if examined as one
would a literary device. Although the soundtrack has been celebrated and there are instances of
a more typical use of music throughout the movie, there is also music used as signposts (or
chapter markers.) Some of the songs call out the beginning of important scenes and turning
points in the movie, while others remain in the more traditional use of Hollywood films, as filler
or background to the visual importance.
       This other use, of music as a signpost, is most clearly seen in two scenes, the conversion
of Delmar and the seduction by the Sirens. The conversion of Delmar (from an inveterate, if
hapless, criminal to an upstanding Christian) occurs after strains of music break through the
woods our heroes are wandering through. Before there is any action, the environment is
examined in a long pan shot and reveals the baptismal party. But before the viewer even gets to
the actual meat of the scene, the music alone tells us that something important is about to
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happen. This also happens with the appearance of the Sirens. The music calls through the
woods and draws the viewer (and Pete) to the scene. When the music starts, almost subliminally,
the Sirens call Pete from the car but the important action is revealed to the viewers last, all to the
haunting strains of the Sirens' call. Hearing the song in the wood and seeing the reaction of the
characters is preceded by the song, and only then is the viewer allowed access to the scene. Both
of these scenes, and others, show a use of music that is not just a background to the action, but, at
times, a character in and of itself.