This is the second installment in a three-part series. Read part one here.
“The law? Law is a human institution.”
The Invocation of the Muse, swinging picks building into rhythm, human voices chanting in song – the sound of the men working on the chain gang. Black men in black and white stripes, washed out color film.
And so the Coen Brothers begin the new millennium with a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, set in Depression-era Mississippi – as a musical comedy.
Smooth talking Ulysses Everett McGill escapes from the chain gang (for practicing law without a license), shackled to two dimwitted fellow convicts. He is set on a journey home to see his estranged wife, Penny, and their daughters.
Along the way they encounter a blind prophet on the railroad, real-life delta bluesman Tommy Johnson (who, like his better-known namefellow Robert, allegedly sold his soul to the devil), Lotus-eaters in the form of a mass baptism in the river (the Coens continuously mash up Homer’s Greek traditions with the Christian themes of the film’s Southern setting) washerwomen Sirens, a Cyclops Bible salesman and the Ku Klux Klan (robed as white sheep) all while being pursued by the empty-eyed Poseidon devil, in the form of a relentless Sherriff in shades.
They even manage to record an unlikely hit record.
Like all the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” is a traditional folk song of the American South. The song dates back to the turn of the last century, but was popularized in the 1950s by the Stanley Brothers. In the early 1960s it became a folk staple. Bob Dylan included a version on his debut album.
Humor doesn’t always travel well, in part because humor tends to be topical and rely on local language. What was humorous to a previous century or to a foreign population is not necessarily an easy sell for contemporary Americans. When it comes to William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, you have both hurdles to leap, although at least the play is written in the same language that we currently speak. Kind of.
Few people were surprised when Joss Whedon decided to film a version of Much Ado at his Santa Monica estate, back in 2011, due to his penchant for romantic banter, from the television show Buffy to the megafilm The Avengers. He chose to make the low-budget film in twelve days as a way to relax creatively while producing The Avengers. If that decision isn’t a clear sign that Mr. Whedon is capable of different lifestyle choices than most other Bardolators, then the use of his house as the set hammers home the point. The place is a mansion, of course, but it’s also a sprawling estate capable of staging incredible intimacy, full of nooks and crannies, not to mention an infinite amount of bookcases and wine glasses.
For the most part, the quick pace of the production leads to a light and fast-paced film, although there are a few scenes that would have benefited from a couple extra takes. For example, Benedick eavesdrops on some men who know he is there and are painting falsehoods in the hope to have Benedick (Alexis Denisof) fall in love with Beatrice (Amy Acker). Denisof’s physical humor induces chuckles, but the audience is left wondering how he can hear through the glass doors, which was a missed opportunity to have the conspirators purposefully open each door and window, one at a time, making sure that they capture Benedick and his imagination. Similarly, Benedick’s monologues could have been more light-hearted and heartfelt if delivered to the camera, as with Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
The cast itself is very white, which would be less remarkable if not for the African American woman in the background, who only comes to the fore to serve as the foil for Claudio’s assertion that he will marry as he’s told, even if the bride is an Ethiope (that is, black). And yet Whedon had no trouble in cutting a different bigoted line — Benedick’s oath about Beatrice that “If I do not love her, I am a Jew.” Shakespeare’s particular racism was not of the same degree as Nazi Germany or antebellum America but it was a progenitor, and worth either contextualizing or excising, rather than selectively excusing it through laughter.
Alfred Hitchcock may still reign as the master of suspense some thirty-three years after his death, but many of his most ominous moments and movies were punctuated and accentuated by a nearly irrepressible sense of humor. Hitchcock’s wry wit comes across clearly in the personal introductions he made for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series (1955-65) as well as the famous cameo appearances he made in his own films. If you’ve got ten minutes to spare, the magic of YouTube allows you to watch every one of these cameos, starting with 1927’s The Lodger: A Story of London Fog.
The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto runs a Hitchcock festival every year or two, and this past weekend they did showings of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his earlier 1934 film. The 1956 version stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, and is an excellent example of Hitchcock’s fondness for sprinkling humor on even the most macabre of situations — in this case, the possible death of a child. (I allude to events in this movie but don’t spell out the plot, even though it has been over half a century since its release!)
The film set-up is light-hearted, as Hitchcock offers up a variation of the All-American family that could work within the wholesome confines of a family sitcom of that era. To put this in context, Leave It To Beaver started its run the following year, in 1957. Ben McKenna (Stewart) and his wife Jo (Day) are similar to Beaver’s June and Ward Cleaver, both of them kind and upstanding, raising a boy who makes innocent remarks designed to elicit chuckles in his elders.
HANK: If you ever get hungry, our garden back home is full of snails….We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman.
The film commences with several ethnic stereotypes designed to coax chuckles from the audience as Hitchcock sets the scene. There’s the Muslim couple upset when Hank inadvertently rips off the woman’s veil. There’s simultaneous laughter at local customs and the clumsiness of the American tourist as Stewart struggles to eat using only three fingers of his right hand.
Representative of the role of humor in general, rather than falling short of the required seriousness, Doris Day’s penchant for comedy and music make her character Jo all the more compelling. Just before the situation darkens, Ben and Jo stroll through the Marrakech marketplace, making jokes about how their trip has been paid for by Ben’s medical practice.
JO: You know what I was just thinking? You know what’s paying for these three days in Marrakech?
BEN: Yeah, me.
JO: Mrs. Campbell’s gall stones.