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Ulysses Unchained. Popular Culture and the Metapoetics of Remembering in Oh Brother, where art thou?

Daniel Wendt. University of Bonn. Germany

 

Ulysses Unchained. Popular Culture and the Metapoetics of Remembering in Oh Brother, where art thou?

Daniel Wendt. University of Bonn. Germany

wendt.da@gmail.com

In the opening credits of Nathan and Ethan Coen's flm Oh Brother, where art thou? (2000) Homer's Odyssey is stated as a source of inspiration. Right from the beginning the viewer of the flm is called to be attentive to references and scenes from the Odyssey. This flm clearly plays with the expectations that result from knowing at least the most famous episodes (Sirens, Cyclops) and motives used throughout the flm, although the story is transferred to 1937 rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. However, the flm is not a simple flm adaptation of the Odyssey like Mario Camerini's Ulisse (1954), but a work of art of its own. It interweaves several traditions form the bible, American history (fctionalized upon historic fgures and events), and the history of popular music. The flm is a mosaic of diferent layers of the past, which are essential for the construction of American cultural identity.

The flm begins with a typical scene from jailbreak movies: the main character, Ulysses Everett McGill (who is trying to gain back his ex-wife Penny), and two other convicts, are freeing themselves from the chain gang, a group of prisoners chained together to perform menial or physically challenging work as a form of punishment, which has been used as a way of perpetuating African-American servitude. In a metapoetic reading, this can be referred to the chains of tradition, both concerning history and art. Instead of leaving the tradition behind (seeing tradition as »chain of infuence«) it is cleverly transformed : Ulysses and his comrades become (rather accidentally and without knowing) famous singers. The Homeric rhapsode is made a popular folk singer. The flm subjects the story to the laws of modern popular culture. Furthermore, Ulysses Everett is a clever man (at least in relation to his hillbilly comrades), but (unlike Odysseus) his plans mostly fail. It is only accidentally, that the story ends well, by a deus ex machina. In terms of Aristotelian story telling the Film is a failure too, as nothing happens by necessity, but only unprepared. The Coen Brothers turn the Homeric epic into a (Western) comedy.

Despite the fact that Ethan Coen described the Odyssey as »one of my favorite storyline schemes«, both directors »confess« that they haven't read the epic and that they were only familiar with its content through adaptations and numerous references to the Odyssey in popular culture. According to the them, only the actor Tim Blake Nelson, who has a degree in Classics from Brown University had read the Odyssey. However, some scholars have shown that the flm is full of quotations and open or hidden allusions to the actual text of Homeric poem.1 Therefore, the question arises, why the directors paradoxically play down the role of the »original« text which is highlighted at the beginning of the flm. The paper seeks to investigate the flm's appropriation of the Odyssey in terms of commentaries on the process of reception and appropriation itself. How does the mixture of myth and history correspond to the question of cultural memory, of mythifcation, and the modes of popular culture?

1 For instance: Flensted-Jensen, Pernille (2002), "Something old, something new, something borrowed: the Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou", Classica Et Mediaevalia: Revue Danoise De Philologie, 53: 13–30.

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