Archive for December 2010
The good news is that the Coen brothers managed to at least pump the brakes on a Hollywood machine steaming out of control to remake any movie or television series that could in some way trigger nostalgia and thus generate a profit; all too often the machine has generated crap, crap, and more crap over the past twenty years. A short list of things that should never have been touched and that amounted to little more than cinematic turds includes The Manchurian Candidate, Halloween, The Fog, King Kong, Dawn of the Dead, Miami Vice, The Karate Kid, Rollerball… the list is too long.
But thankfully we have this new True Grit to rank up there with the likes of The Fugitive and 3:10 to Yuma as exemplars of what can be done to remake a film into something as good as or better than the original.
On the surface alone, the Coen’s vision of True Grit looks entirely different than what Henry Hathaway came up with in 1969. It’s a dark film shot on a different grade of celluloid that is a good match for the winter shadows and dark costumes of many of the characters. The light is yellow and dingy in the first half of the film as it seeps into courtrooms, offices, and boarding houses. Together, the blacks and grays and yellows pale and rudify the skins of the characters; even Mattie Ross, the fourteen-year old narrator, is pale and stark. The light, though, changes noticably in the second half when the film moves almost entirely outdoors into more natural (if harsher) winter light.
This plays well with the tone of the film. It is a stark portrait of justice; not justice pursued for what is right by the law, but “eye-for-an-eye” justice that is pursued in a cold, deliberate manner by self-righteous, scripture-citing Mattie. Fully aware of his reputation, she employs Rooster Cogburn as a bounty hunter to pursue Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father in cold blood. Punishment alone is not enough for Mattie; she wants Chaney to know that it is her extension of justice that he will face if apprehended– it is a distinction she makes with LeBoeuf the Texas Ranger, who is pursing Chaney for different reasons. It’s a moot point because Mattie shoots Chaney herself at the first opportunity, and then shoots him again and kills him in the climax of the film.
Establishing the proper tone for the film is perhaps all the Coen’s needed to do to improve upon the glossy, idealistic True Grit of 1969. But they do more. They find excellent winter settings in the mountains and woods of Indian Territory in which the action unfolds. They make excellent use of Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, as Chaney and Lucky Ned Pepper respectively. They are a grizzled, ugly, cold-blooded pair of antagonists who add great dimension to the film in the 10-15 minutes of screen time they are given. Pepper’s performance in particular is just about as far away as you can get from Robert Duvall’s clean-shaven, virile take on the role over 40 years ago. They also let Jeff Bridges find his own Rooster Cogburn, though in some respects he’s close to John Wayne. Cogburn is a sometimes comical character because of his propensity to “pull a cork,” but the man has his complexities and his dark side. There is emphasis placed on Cogburn’s Civil War background; he rode as a marauder with Confederate guerillas William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson. His turn as a federal marshall, and on the right side of the law, feels temporary at best– the first glimpse of him in the book and in both movies is under a cross-examination in which his tactics of pursuit and apprehension and his outright brutality are called into question. Bridges plays the part well without imitating John Wayne or overblowing the role as Wayne did. He is helped along the way by screenwriting that keeps Cogburn as a large supporting character and not the focus of the film. Mattie’s frame of narration is adhered to in this version, which helps keep Cogburn pretty much as is from Charles Portis’ book. Cogburn remains a dark and powerful force who only happens to be on the side of the law Mattie needs to enact her vengeance at that time.
None of this is to say that True Grit is perfect. It’s not. I am still troubled by the trailer that makes the film out to be a hip, stylized remake of an archetypal Western, as if that look is what it takes to appeal to the general movie-going public. The Johnny Cash rendition of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” used in the trailer doesn’t appear in the film. And why would it? The film isn’t stylized at all, and to use the Cash song would be a sin against the tone the Coen’s established. Furthermore, the Coen’s are guilty once again of introducing characters that have no impact on the plot, and dallying with plot elements that don’t advance the story. Most notably, there is the bearskin-clad medicine man who does little more than point Cogburn and Mattie in a certain direction; a direction they wouldn’t need but that the Coen’s tampered with the plot of the book and contrived a greater conflict between Cogburn and LeBoeuf that separated them and brought about the first encounter with Ned Pepper’s gang in a manner inorganic and unnecessary from the book. They also neglected a key scene before they set off to pursue Chaney in which LeBoeuf and Cogburn haggle over the terms of their work together and establish a healthy distrust–if not dislike– for one another. LeBoeuf and Cogburn separate again near the end of the film, which skews the climatic Mattie/Chaney and Cogburn/Pepper battles. It all ties together well enough, though, to make these minor considerations.
To me, it’s important to savor True Grit and take it for what it is: A great film born from the vision of respected film makers that not only outdoes the original, but transcends the source material in ways most movies don’t. Though don’t get used to seeing remakes of this caliber. A quick internet search revealed that remakes of Conan the Barbarian and Police Academy are pending. I won’t be holding my breath in the hopes that anybody can do with them what the Coen’s did with True Grit. Perhaps Robert Harrick said it best when he wrote, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may… .”
I’ve been fretting over the Coen Brother’s remake of True Grit for about two months now, ever since I saw the preview for it when I went to Jackass 3D. My initial concerns were in regard to them treading on sacred ground and trying to breathe new life into an iconic Western starring the greatest movie star of all time, especially when the film itself didn’t need to be remade. But a couple of months of research, some reading, and some contemplation on the whole notion has changed my tune. Right now, before I’ve seen the remake, my concerns lie more with the original True Grit than with whatever the Coen’s have conjured.
True Grit (1969) was but one of five Westerns of some renown at the box office in 1969. It competed that year with Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Paint Your Wagon. Aside from the truly lamentable last film mentioned, True Grit kept company with three other films that went on to become legendary in the Western genre (it can even be argued that the other three went on to become legends in all of film). My problem, then, is that in the best-case scenario, True Grit was the fourth best Western that year alone. So why all the hype? What Kool-Aid have I been drinking that got me to rank it amongst the all-time greats?
True Grit is not a bad film, though, by any stretch. It has an original plotline with a fourteen-year old girl as the protagonist, solid humor, visually appealing landscapes (which by then had been a long-time Western cinematographic trope), fine acting, some great gun fights, and John Wayne. How can it go wrong? The source material for the film was outstanding, and the screenplay adaptation is about as faithful as that of The Godfather. Maybe in any other year in film that would be enough, but it’s not enough to sustain True Grit. It remains a servicable film at best, albeit an enjoyable one, but it never transcends its source material. It is the book on film with very little exception, and also with very little noticable effort on the part of the director to add flare. In comparison to The Wild Bunch and BCATSK, it’s clean and safe. Sanitized. That is perhaps its biggest problem.
The Western was an expiring genre by 1969, and it’s because of films like True Grit that it was on its last legs. Too many Westerns for too long stuck with the standard archetypes. Staying true to what we know to be standard Western form was not going to help a Western during some of the most tumultuous social crises in American history. The hippie counter-culture, Vietnam protests, and Woodstock, amongst other events, were drastically reshaping Americans values and social mores. Those evolving values were more apparent in the horribly violent The Wild Bunch and the ironic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than they were in True Grit. Even Once Upon a Time in the West has experienced a resurgence in which critics have reassessed its cultural cachet and place in the socio-political environment of the time. Changing tastes and broadening perspectives were even apparent in the box-office draws from 1969: True Grit earned less than 1/3 of the top-grossing film of the year, which was BCATSK. Finally, the American Film Institute ranks The Wild Bunch at #6 and BCATSK at #7 on their all-time greatest Westerns list, whereas True Grit isn’t in the top ten.
My reconsideration of True Grit has even gone as far as to question why John Wayne won Best Actor for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. No doubt that he does a solid job in the role (it is perhaps a role only he could play), but it was no greater than his roles in Red River, The Searchers, or The Sands of Iwo Jima, for which he was also nominated for Best Actor. Was he better than his main competition: Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy? Voight and Hoffman would have made as much if not better sense for the award given their mutually stunning performances, and that Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture and is a far greater film with a much greater cultural impact than True Grit (plus Hoffman was just beginning to show off his incredible talent and diversity– his portrayal of Ratso Rizzo came only two years after his breakthrough as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate). But this is where politics probably plays a part in the whole situation. Midnight Cowboy was a breakthrough, too, bringing counter-culture to further legitimacy by recognizing it’s content and subsequent controversy as substantial and relevant to our lives and culture. It remains the only X-rated film to win Best Picture. My best guess is that perhaps the Hollywood conservatives weren’t willing to sign off on the whole deal and let Midnight Cowboy take so many major awards, and Wayne conveniently appearing in a substantial and popular role in the most American genre of film was enough to seal the deal for him. Wayne was on his last legs even as True Grit was being filmed, and the Best Actor nod may have been recognition for an outstanding career and a thank-you for what he did to embody all that American is.
So I look forward to seeing the remake of True Grit, which I will in the next few days. I don’t want to see Jeff Bridges outdo Wayne as Rooster Cogburn (I don’t want John Wayne lessened in my eyes; his iconic status and the nostalgia I associate with him play strongly in my mind). I want to see the next iteration of the Western; something that will not only take Charles Portis’ book beyond its own pages, but will rank up there with recent gems like Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma. I trust the Coen brothers to deliver.
Sometimes I wonder why the hell I write. I can’t ever seem to find all the time I want for it. Too often I end up writing in fits and starts before walking away from unfinished products with jagged edges that will cut or splinter me the next time I pick them up. Some of those fits are twenty minutes long; some of those starts will carry me a week or two. Maybe what I need to think about instead is that it’s still writing, and that I’m still doing something to sharpen my skills.
This has been on my mind for the past month, ever since my Creative Writing class approached the end of the first drafts of their short stories. I started writing a short story along with them about two months back, and promptly dudmped it after my writer’s group gave me feedback on it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue to sweat over it; I guess I dug myself too deep of a hole with it. Maybe I’ll come back to it if I can find the time.
Working with my students’ writing has caused me to be flooded by rewrite after rewrite after rewrite, and thusly I have spent more evenings editing their stuff than I care to admit. For many of them, it’s been a long, slow, painful process. I need to teach them better next time. All that editing has kept me from my own work. I haven’t much felt like digging into the disturbing world of my last story after melting my brain with student work for an hour or two each night.
Marking their short stories has kept me from something else, too–a poem I started two weeks ago after I continued to replay in my head a woman I work with literally acting out a scene from her childhood during a conversation she was having in the office one day. An image kept recurring in my mind, and finally I decided there was enough there for me to write about. And it felt like a poem all along as I was thinking about it. Finally something tripped in my mind that set into motion the processes the led me to putting pen to paper. So I poured some spare minutes and an hour or two into the poem here and there until I got to about a fifth draft that I liked. But that’s not the problem. Hell, that’s the good news. The problem is that I’m not sure I’m allowed to write about what my coworker was talking about. I’m not sure I’m allowed to make the observations and comments I’m making. The narrator in the world of the poem is a black woman who grew up in poverty; the scene is of a transformative experience she had with her grandmother. I’m not sure I’m allowed to speak about that of which I don’t know when I write a poem if it tangles up religion, race, and economics. I don’t know how I would respond if someone asked who the hell I think I am to say what I’m saying.