Facing a row of enthusiastic photographers, John Turturro—actor and one of the stars of the Coen brothers classic O Brother, Where Art Thou?—quips, “Where were you when the movie premiered?”
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a modest success when it premiered, respectable for an independent film, but not a runaway hit like its famous soundtrack, featuring bluegrass songs from the likes of Alison Krauss and The Stanley Brothers. But if the response to the movie at its premiere was muted, the response to it last night at its revival screening at the New York Film Festival was enthusiastic and familiar.
It’s the kind of response that can only be cultivated once a movie has been worn out on DVD, so that sharing a movie’s projection on a 50-foot screen in a room with nearly a thousand other enthusiastic fans takes on the kind of communal harmony that used to be the realm of the religious.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the Coens’s soft adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, but in typical fashion for them, they took the powerful epic hero at the center of the story and replaced him with a trio of simple convicts. They make movies about little people in a big world, and sometimes movies like theirs take a minute to find their audience. Watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? now feels like a testament to the faith of its investors—to pay for the first of its kind, and now an industry standard in digital effects work, and to build the sets and make the costumes and buy the music rights that make the film what it is.
The Coens are independent filmmakers, but there are times when they feel like the hopeful face of independent cinema—the promise that if you can dream big, dream weird, and hold true to your vision, then an audience will come. With filmmakers from Soderbergh to Spielberg decrying the state of the industry, in the Coens there’s just the persistence of filmmakers who do what they can year after year to get their vision onto the screen.
“I don’t think things are doom and gloom,” Joel Coen tells The Daily Beast. “It’s a healthy business, and so long as the American movie business stays healthy, a rising tide floats all ships, including movies that are at the margins. It’s a cause for celebration when movies are doing well—any movie—because that makes anyone who finances movies less fearful about doing things that might not be so mainstream.”
Of course, when you’re navigating the choppy waters of the moviemaking business, it helps to have a star like George Clooney on your side. For O Brother’s 15th anniversary, Clooney made an appearance to regale the crowd with stories from the set and joke about everyone’s age.
What keeps a man like Clooney coming back to the movies when everything from politics to philanthropy has come calling?
“I like doing movies and they’re fun to do,” Clooney responds. “The truth of the matter is that this is an industry where you can only do what you do and perform at the level you want to for a certain period of time and then they just take it away. So I don’t have to rush out the door, I’ll let them kick me out.”
But if the crowd at O Brother Where Art Thou? was any indication, the time for goodbyes is in no danger of approaching. In the industry now there’s always a rush to analyze the first weekend box office, but nights like the one last night at Alice Tully Hall make for a lovely reminder that movies can and do live well past the opening weekend.
The Coens and Clooney will reunite next year for another comedy—this time a Hollywood sendup called Hail Caesar! Predicting a film’s success a year in advance is a fool’s errand, but for filmmakers like the Coens, it’s not the short stakes but the long game that really counts.