The Odyssey Film

ART TIMES July/August 2009

WE’RE ALL FAMILIAR — well, we once were, weren’t we?— with Homer’s epic poem about Odysseus (aka Ulysses) who left his wife and idled away ten years laying waste to Troy then spent the next ten years bumping into some pretty funny things on the way home.  Thus the term ‘odyssey’ for a journey of some duration filled with encounters that can turn your hair white before reaching the desired goal.  This so far sounds like a drive on the Long Island Expressway but there is more to it than that.  A really good odyssey should come as close as possible to the transformative, spiritually awakening experience of Odysseus himself— or as close as we can come given our current dearth of one-eyed giants and other assorted chimera.  An odyssey does sound like a lot of fun and its story line has been a favorite of filmmakers ever since Odysseus sneaked into his palace and shot his wife’s would-be lovers full of arrows.  Now a good many of these movies have been of a couple of characters dashing from East to West slaughtering willy-nilly along the way.  Endless stretches of desert are the preferred location for these adventures, the motorcycle the preferred mode of transport, though a fast car serves just as well so long as it’s a TransAm.  A litter of corpses is a nice odyssey touch; after all Odysseus’ trip was strewn with corpses and did end happily amid a heap of them.  The 1993 “Kalifornia” comes to mind here with its requisite East to West movement and a fair number of bodies scattered throughout; more of the same with “Natural Born Killers” in ’94.  Its also quite possible for an odyssey to end as a Greek tragedy with the adventurers buying the farm as happens in “Easy Rider” and “Thelma and Louise” and in a very modest manner in “The Daytrippers”.  An odyssey might also have an unspecified or unknown destination compelling the audience to figure it out for themselves.  Bunel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” is something like this.  At least we see a gaggle of people periodically hurrying down a road going we know not where, possibly looking for a place to have an uninterrupted dinner.  His “Phantom of Liberty” begins as an odyssey more in the classic sense with two tramps straight out of Waiting for Godot off on a religious mission and running into mysterious incidents but then Bunel seems to throw in the towel and no one knows what is going on anymore.

A curious twist on the odyssey tale is seen in the 1992 film “Roadside Prophets”.  Seemingly a standard bike fare, two men race through the wasteland of Western deserts to find a casino called El Dorado, named for the mythical City of Gold.  Their mission is to bury there the ashes of a friend who had been electrocuted playing a video game.  On route they meet up with the hangovers of the 60’s Flower Children era— political radicals, New Agers, Eastern mystics and a couple of LSD dreams thrown in – Timothy Leary makes an appearance, even Arlo Guthrie.  All of these encounters are satirically portrayed and as if in a sad allegory, empty remnants of a now meaningless past.  The odyssey withers in a disappointment— no one is transformed, nothing is changed, the prophecies false, there is no El Dorado.

In recent years there have been a few odyssey films of sorts.  “Wild Hogs” clumsily attempts it, a middleclass version featuring three ageing males distressed with their mundane lives — motorcycles, deserts and no dead bodies to liven it up.  In a stretch “Superbad” and others like it might be viewed as teen odysseys overcoming obstacles in a quest to lose virginity.  Odysseus, I figure, would be ashamed to have his name associated with these poor efforts.  But there is, however, one that sticks charmingly to the classic odyssey story.  While “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” is a free adaptation — it’s not like Odysseus and his comrades sang a lot save for a sea chantey now and then — and pays homage to the basic story points.  Led by George Clooney, and you must admit he makes a fine Odysseus, three escaped convicts set out on a desperate journey chasing after a treasure that doesn’t exist.  Right off the bat we have what any genuine odyssey starts out with — a prophecy, this one intoned by a blind man who is a stand-in for a combination of the original Cassandra and Teiresias.  And before you can rattle off the names of the Twelve Olympians, the three are seduced by the Siren’s song. One of the ladies, I guess for reasons of story economy, is a Circe who turns John Turturro into a toad rather than a swine, which is her usual custom.  John Goodman sporting an eye-patch makes a dandy Polyphemus, the Cyclops and the KKK episode an adequate substitute for Odysseus’ harrowing sail through Scylla and Charydis.  Everything winds up in a spectacular flood, reminding us of the dunking Odysseus suffered at the hands of Poseidon and a couple of thunderbolts, the hero returning to his Penelope and doing away with her suitor — not with arrows this time.  It’s true, the film does lack corpses — a few dead cows maybe but that’s not clear.

For my money, “Oh, Brother” has it all over the re-doing of the Odyssey by Italian filmmakers in the 1954 “Ulysses”.  I mean after all, Kirk Douglas alternately speaking in dubbed Italian and then in English?  Fuit Ilium, I say, (something about Troy, it’s all I can remember from high school Latin).