So about 60 years after Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), the Coen Brothers come along with their imagining of the movie that Sturges’ hero wanted to make: O Brother, Where Art Thou?. And we’re bringing it up not only for comparison, but also because it’s the second anniversary of the Asheville Film Society, which originally kicked off with the Coens’ first film, Blood Simple. Though this imagining—loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey—is generally considered one of their best films, it was not a film that its distributor thought much of. It came out around Christmas, but with the lamest press kit I’ve ever seen and booked into only one theater in Asheville. Yet it played so long that the poster nearly fell apart from sun damage by the time the film had stopped being shown. I don’t really think there’s any such thing as an instant classic, but if I did, this would be one. Endlessly inventive—and with dialogue that would have delighted Preston Sturges—it not only could very well be the film put forth in Sullivan’s Travels, but numerous scenes and touches of Sturges’ movie are reflected in the Coens’ film—like the chain gang prisoners being taken to a movie. The blind wise man in O Brother is closely related to the black preacher in Sullivan’s Travels, while the trainhopping in the more recent film is a comedic variant on that in the old movie. The Coens don’t stop there either, since they also evoke Busby Berkeley musicals (bizarrely in a KKK rally) and The Wizard of Oz. Yet somehow it makes a unified whole and ends up being its own movie in the bargain.
The Asheville Film Society will screen O Brother, Where Art Thou? on Tuesday, May 22, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.