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April 9, 2002

Doc Spotlight

Garth Bond

Last week was a great one if you're a fan of the Coen Brothers, with Raising Arizona on Wednesday and The Man Who Wasn't There on Friday. But this Wednesday is a perfect time to see the other half of the Preston Sturges/Coen Brothers series with Sullivan's Travels. As serious Coen Brothers fans probably know, Sullivan's Travels provided the title for their 2000 release, O Brother Where Art Thou? In fact, it was this connection which first suggested the series. But the Coen Brothers drew a lot more than a title from Preston Sturges, and Sullivan's Travels is a great way to check out the similarities.

To begin with, Preston Sturges shares (and probably helped to shape) the Coen Brothers' wickedly satirical sense of humor. His characters, like theirs, are quirky, deeply flawed, and frequently unaware of the faults and foibles so transparent to the audience. Sturges was quite possibly the finest comedic writer working in Hollywood in the '30s and '40s; he was certainly the most cynical.

The old saw is that satire is inherently conservative, and in a certain sense both Sturges and the Coen Brothers confirm the claim (if you don't think so, check out the 10th-week screening of Miller's Crossing and notice the way the film's intricate plot invokes and relies on ethnic and sexual prejudices). But in both cases, the thoroughgoing cynicism of the filmmakers undermines any simple identification with the ostensibly conservative message of the films. Without going into too much detail—don't want to spoil it for you—Sullivan's Travels seems to argue not merely that Hollywood can't make serious films, but that it shouldn't!

But why, then, does Sullivan's Travels itself seem so…well…serious?

Because it also demonstrates another similarity between Sturges and the Coen Brothers: the desire to flout Hollywood conventions. The film begins as a comedy about slumming when a famous Hollywood director does a laughable job of posing as a bum in order to make a serious documentary about the Depression (entitled O Brother Where Art Thou). But it suddenly shifts gears into heavy melodrama when the director is mistakenly presumed dead and, in his one successful attempt to pose as a bum, ends up on a chain gang. The shift in genre is not unlike the similar change midway through the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink showing a week from Wednesday.

In fact, the weekly alternation between Sturges and Coen is designed to highlight these sorts of connections. While Sullivan's Travels may provide a title for O Brother Where Art Thou?, its focus on Hollywood and the difficulties of making "serious" film is closely mirrored by the Coen Brothers in Barton Fink. The Hudsucker Proxy offers a madcap look at the world of capitalism and industry, while the double feature of Palm Beach Story and Christmas in July offers the Sturges take on the spirit of invention in a

capitalist world. Miller's Crossing and The Lady Eve both center around conniving and duplicity. Unfaithfully Yours is one of the masterpieces of dark comedy, a tale of bungled murder much like that of Fargo.

So come check out Sullivan's Travels for its connection with the Coen Brothers. Or just come because it's a great movie. You won't be disappointed, though you'll probably be surprised.