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Screening the Golden Ages of the Classical Tradition$
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Meredith Safran

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781474440844

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474440844.001.0001

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Gilding American History through Song Culture in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Gilding American History through Song Culture in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

(p.65) 3 Gilding American History through Song Culture in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Screening the Golden Ages of the Classical Tradition

Ryan Platte

Edinburgh University Press

In the first of two chapters investigating the role of Homeric epic in fabricating golden ages, Platte reveals how Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which proclaims its debt to Homer’s Odyssey in the opening credits, also re-enacts Homeric epic’s creation of a golden age. Platte focuses on the role of song in generating ancient and modern societies’ gilded memories of the past, including the nostalgia-laden misremembering of the Depression-era American South in which the film is set. Platte emphasizes how technological change affected the American folk-song tradition through recording – a phenomenon similar to that which changed Greek song culture into “Homeric” epic. By focusing on a moment of epochal change, the filmmakers undercut the notion that folk music is a simple and genuine artefact of the past. Instead, invoking nostalgia through song exposes the artificiality of the traffic in nostalgia, which has shaped attitudes toward the ancient Greek and modern American pasts. Through the protagonist’s encounter with two Homer avatars, the Coens dramatize both the process of nostalgia-creation for such a golden age and the rejection of attempts to politically weaponize it: in this case, by obscuring racism in romantic depictions of the “Old South.”

Keywords:   O Brother, Where Art Thou, Homeric epic, American folk-song tradition, technological change, American “Old South”, nostalgia, Odyssey, recording, Depression, golden age, racism

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