Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Homer on the range

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Coen Brothers' version of True Grit (2010) is that the film is utterly classical, completely un-ironic and un-modern, and that it has grossed well over $100 million domestically at this writing, and will probably reach $150 million theatrically before it stops being tracked, which suggests that it will do at least $200 million overseas, where filmgoers are less averse to Westerns.

And this is a Western. Not a comment on a Western or a parody of Western or a deconstruction of a Western. It is the really and truly thing in a way not seen since perhaps the early 1970s. The last breakout hit Western was Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, which, in typical Eastwood fashion, was out to explode the myths of the West. Well, it evidently did its job, because the bloody entrails of the American Western film have been lying around for a decade and a half now waiting for someone to at least give them a respectful burial. (Robert Duval and Kevin Costner kept trying without much effect).

So how surprising to find the Coens stripped of their absurdism, their slapstick, even their short lenses and shock cuts, rendering a film that would cause Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher to weep in recognition. No, True Grit doesn't advance the Western, but it restores it to the place of honor in American culture that it deserves.

Because the creators of the Western are our Homers and Virgils. It is as foolish to expect historical precision from John Ford as it would be to expect it from The Iliad. These narratives are after bigger game -- the central truths of human existence, once we have taken away the trappings of society, family, culture, and set Man out alone in the landscape.

The central idea of this version of True Grit is found in one of the few passages not taken from Charles Portis's novel, an exchange in which Rooster, LeBoeuf and Mattie are discussing the distinction between malum prohibitum and malum in se (a dialogue exchange reportedly written for and cut from The Big Lebowski). Can you get more elemental than this, a consideration of the nature and classification of evil? And Mattie and Rooster are bonus in se. Sure, Rooster has done some prohibitum, but like the bad-goodmen in Westerns going back to William S. Hart, through John Wayne's Ringo Kid and Shane.

And in case you think I'm pasting this mythic framework onto the movie that isn't there 'cause I'm so kind of pointy-headed academic, consider this: in order to catch the villain, the bête noire, the McGuffin of the piece, it is necessary to pass out of known territory ACROSS A RIVER in the company of a one-eyed man, a cyclops, to land that is unknown. There she meets a half-man, half-animal (the doctor in the bearskin) and a dead man flying through the air (the man hung high). In capturing Tom Chaney, it is important to recapture a talisman of her father -- his gold pieces, as it is to bring the villain to justice. And the moment Mattie performs her one act of evil -- taking vengeance and killing a man, she immediately FALLS INTO A PIT. And in the pet THERE ARE SNAKES. And the snake BITES HER. And Rooster carries out of the wilderness (riding a rather magic beast Little Blackie, who must die to save Mattie) into civilization and safety and is thereafter NEVER SEEN AGAIN (by us filmgoers). And from the snakebite, Mattie loses an arm, an instrumentality of that evil. Nonetheless, her final quest is, like Antigone, to bury the body of the warrior, Rooster, who by carrying her and saving her life has become a spiritual father or brother.

The Coens have visited this territory before, explicitly with O Brother Where Art Thou? and There Will Be Blood, which has a number of mythic echoes. But True Grit wears its mythic duds lightly. Not only are there few Coen-type flourishes (admittedly the mad old doctor is one), but the photography, acting and dialogue are extremely restrained. Roger Deakins as cinematographer and chief operator indulges in no hand-held and minimal traveling shots; the camera is on sticks most of the time, as it would be for Ford or Hawks. The color tampering is minimal (especially compared to most films these days) and the only visible effect is a rather fantastic starry sky over Rooster as he bears Maddie towards civilization. The language is ornate, yes, but not to elicit laughter, but to remind us that this is a different time and place, before irony, sarcasm and indeed self-consciousness of any kind, and even an old drunk like Rooster can understand and uphold honor. Hence the lack of contractions, the use of Biblical language and Latin quotes.

A word about the John Wayne vs. Jeff Bridges thing. I must first admit a prejudice. I like the early, shy John Wayne, the John Wayne of They Were Expendable, Fort Apache and A Lady Takes A Chance, a great romcom the Duke shared with Jean Arthur. Even as late as The Quiet Man, he has that "aw-shucks" quality that is extremely endearing. I don't care for the swaggering bellowing Duke. But there's no doubt that Wayne dominated the first version of True Grit and gave a performance of great power and persuasion. But, for me, that's the problem. True Grit is supposed to be Mattie's story. It didn't help that the 1969 film has the execrable Kim Darby as Mattie, an actress who is to acting what nails on a blackboard is to teaching. Letting True Grit become the Rooster Cogburn Show is akin to the way Marlon Brando (inadvertently) distorted A Streetcar Named Desire, which is clearly Blanche's story, except when the actor playing Stanley obliterates everything else around.

True, Jeff Bridges is not the kind of overwhelming actor that the John Wayne of 1969 was. (Although let's see what he's like when he's 70.) But I would argue that it is not lack of talent, but a desire to keep Mattie in the forefront that explains Bridges's restraint in the role. As it is, the film is nicely balances Mattie as the apex of a triangle between the garrulous LaBeouf and the bibulous Cogburn. (At times I was put in mind of Cat Ballou, with another young woman of the West hiring a man to help her avenge her father's death. If True Grit hadn't been published three years after the release of Cat Ballou, I would suspect the latter of being a side-door parody, what my grandparents called a "spoof.")

I am very happy that True Grit is probably the first Western that millions of Americans will have seen in a movie theater. I hope it whets their appetite for this rich and complex genre, which easily contains and sustains our abiding myths, not just of the American experiment, but of the human experience.

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