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"True Grit": Voids and Trajectories

True Grit: four keenly-realized characters suspended in a moral vacuum. The realization of the characters is a question of the actors' inventiveness and a certain interaction of editing and screenwriting; the moral vacuum belongs to the directors, who are also, incidentally, the screenwriters and editors. The Coens have a pervasive disingenuousness which is usually construed by their supporters as playful and by their detractors as symptomatic of a lack of backbone; their films are full of false attributions, red herrings and parodies presented as facts, and the directors either take the neuroses and motivations of their characters (especially leads) with a grain of salt or are drawn to characters that inspire incredulity or even contempt (George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There, John Malkovich in Burn After Reading, Tom Hanks in The Ladykillers, etc., etc.).

Taken together, these tendencies can make for good comedy but suspect drama; the "Based on a True Story" credit in Fargo is a bleak and funny gag, but the bible verse at the beginning of True Grit seems like the first in a series of elements that could only be called "moral bric-a-brac"—acknowledgements of morality within the space of a film that doesn't really admit any concern for moral issues and which takes its ugliness at face value. Jeff Bridges, booting Indian kids off a porch, is every bit as spiteful as Eastwood in Gran Torino, yet there's nothing in True Grit to balance or counteract his spite; this is either a moral flaw or the entire agenda (it'd be a stretch to call it a "point") of the film.

Daniel Kasman summed up the Coens' A Serious Man (and Haneke's like-minded The White Ribbon) like this here last year: "a cinema of such precise predetermination that the movies are in essence over before you even sit down to watch them." This applies to True Grit as well, but, as in the Coens' better films, the predetermination is less a question of subjecting the characters to a gauntlet and more an outgrowth of the characters themselves. Throw Jeff Bridges' borderline-incomprehensible drunk, Hailee Steinfeld's determined girl, Matt Damon's flamboyant Texan and Josh Brolin's Neanderthal bandit into any scenario, and you'd probably end up with the same outcome, because their characters, however well-defined, are unbendable. This, essentially, is what makes True Grit an anti-classical Western (however "old-fashioned" it may try to present itself as being), because the classical Westerns, even Budd Boetticher's leanest, built their dynamics around a pliability of character; rules and motivations were bent, either by the landscape or by the needs of the community / group. The characters of True Grit, on the other hand, travel towards each other in straight lines across the desolate Indian Territory; their inevitable collisions are not a question of fate or morality, but entirely based on their personas—and this, in turn, raises the question of whether the film is nihilist or existentialist.

I'm inclined to go with the former, or at least to say that the film's second-hand existentialism is yet another keen disguise.  I'm inclined to think that the Coens are apolitical not because the individual films lack politics, but because each film puts on a different kind of politics like a costume (coarse cynicism in Burn After Reading, American populism in The Hudsucker Proxy, vaguely neo-conservative dread in No Country for Old Men, etc.), and I'm also inclined to think that they're amoral filmmakers (which is not say that they're amoral people) because their morality changes from film to film, and their personal stances (whatever they may be) are largely uncoupled from their directing. That is to say: True Grit, for better or worse, is an object d'art, and at a certain point it becomes impermeable. This makes it all the more ironic (and fascinating) that the character-driven non-plot of True Grit—a small group of people whose sense of identity, purpose and the world expresses itself through "inevitable" petty actions, and ultimately through a selfless act—is essentially the story of the old (still extant) cinema. This was—and is—a cinema driven (like literature, theater, art or music) to express something other than itself. But this story is told through the devices of a "second cinema," the "post-cinema" that has emerged since the 1970s and of which the Coens are often the standouts. This is a high-minded cinema where decisions are replaced by choices, a cinema of conscious, often ironic stances, which concerns itself not with using movies to answer external questions, but with using form to support its own internal systems of character and plotting. Here, this mode of filmmaking has been purposed to follow the trajectories of four people who are its opposite. But those people are seen as alien, as if the camera doesn't quite understand them—as if their purposes, however faithfully reproduced, could never completely be understood, and though we know that Bridges carries Steinfeld of his own free will, it can't quite be explained why, except with a shrugging "that's just the sort of guy he is."

I may be exposing myself to ridicule, but I’m not ashamed (well, maybe a little) to admit that I’m not quite sure I understand this review. Are you saying that the characters in the movie are cut from the same cloth as the revisionist westerns of the sixties? Is that what you are referring to when you say “old cinema”? Also, is the post-cinema that you refer to the same as post-modern movies that tend to take place in moral vacuums? I guess what I’m asking is: are you saying that the characters are modern while the setting/tone is postmodern?
Don’t worry Jacob — we here at the Daily Notebook are here to be ridiculed, not to ridicule. I’d say that the characters are cut from no cinema except the cinema (which you identify as “post-modern,” and which could very well be described that way) True Grit belongs to; it’s odd, however, that they also serve as a metaphor to an older mode of filmmaking. To make a long story short: I think that around the 1970s (and surely by the 1980s), cinema split in two — or, even more accurately, a new different sort of filmmaking budded off from the filmmaking of the classical auteurs. After we said “great directors have styles,” the next generation all decided they would cultivate individual styles of their own. It was to possess a “personal style” that became their goal, while the classical auteurs developed styles by reaching for a goal that lay beyond cinema. So, to answer you final question: the entire film is in a sense post-modern, though the characters could serve as a (very flawed and basic) metaphor for what was once “modern cinema” (and probably remains so).
Thanks for clearing that up. Not that your review wasn’t clear, but the follow up certainly helped me understand your point of view. And, sorry for the admittedly general use of the term “modernism” both post and otherwise; I just assumed that the Cohen’s lack of moral tone could be considered post-modernism, but the lines between modernism and post-modernism remain blurry in cinema’s short history. (For instance, how long did “modernism” in cinema actually last? It seems it was coming into fashion when post-modernism was taking form in other works of art and social/philosophical thought) Anyway, your thoughts on the split of cinema are very interesting. I’ve visited your blog on occasion, but haven’t been through your archives (too much stuff on this here interweb) so could you direct me to any writing you have done on this 70’s split?
I agree, Ignatiy. The Coen’s cinema, which I admire and dislike on the same grounds - seems to be about nothing, that is: cinema. The question is, to what end? And do you really think they are part of something? Who else is „post-cinema”, in your opinion?
In case you haven’t seen the film and are inclined to take Mr. V. entirely at his word, I’d like to point out that Bridges’ character boots the two Indian kids off that porch when he sees them torturing an animal. I guess for Mr. V. you get a pass on torturing animals if you’re oppressed by colonialism or something. Good to know.
Christoph, I don’t think a film about cinema would be a film about nothing (in fact, it would be about everything…). As for “post-cinema” (or “post-filmmaking,” as Serge Daney called it), it’s a complex topic that probably deserves some writing at length outside of a comments field. I don’t think the Coens are part of some movement, but more the result of a shift that occurred somewhere in the mid-to-late 1970s. Mr. K, I’d have to see the film again, but I didn’t get the sense that Bridges’ swift boot to their behinds was motivated by anything other than playful malice on his own part. Perhaps I misinterpreted the scene — though a critic I spoke after the screening interpreted it the same way. Then again, it could be folie a deux…
He definitely kicks the kids because they were torturing the donkey. On the one hand, I think the break you’re talking about it real. On the other hand, it seems like Manny Farber was seeing a similar break (the same?) between Hollywood movies in the 30s and the work of Welles/Stevens/Wyler/late-Hitchcock/late-Ford/etc in the 40s/50s. Using the tension between earlier, less-self conscious art and later, more self-conscious art can be a useful critical stance, but I’m not sure that shift occurred in the mid-to-late 1970s or at any other specific time. Rather, it grows out of the anxiety of influence and was/is probably always there
Mr. Kenny is right. Bridges even yells at them to stop right before kicking them off the porch. And I don’t think TRUE GRIT is about nihilism at all. It’s a fever dream half-remembered by an amazingly ahead-of-her time woman who still feels hope/joy even at the end of the film, despite her loneliness and isolation in male dominated genre.
This conventional wisdom I see over and over from critics that the Coens are nihilists seems completely backwards to me. It is as though an agreement was reached years ago by all critics that this was how we were to view their films and that was that. I would argue instead that the Coens are strict, nearly puritan, moralists, who find the world a fallen, violent place that holds immense peril, especially for the selfish and evil. The virtuous (and those too dim to do real harm) may escape a visit to this world of darkness, but it leaves a mark. This is not a nihilist point of view, more akin to Calvinism than anything else. Mr. Vishnevetsky finds different politics in each film, I find them to exist in a fairly consistent – though evolving – moral universe. In The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Hudsucker Proxy, we have basically well-intentioned people who get caught up in selfishness and are nearly destroyed, only to escape at the last minute. In Burn After Reading, the same sorts do not escape. Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men both feature fairly innocent people who commit one crime and open the floodgates of violence and evil on themselves and their loved ones. Once again, in the earlier film, the innocent lives and in the later, she is killed. Many people dismiss the moral seriousness of Fargo because they see the Gundersons as ridiculous, perhaps saying more about the critics themselves than the film. I’ve always found Marge to be the film’s moral center, whose simple loving life with her husband is a kind of ideal, and whose inability to understand the evil she’s seen ends the movie. Barton Fink, on the other hand is about a smarmy, above-it-all hack who is condemned to hell. True Grit, examined in this light, is following Mattie Ross’s journey from thinking she is able to handle the larger, violent world of Cogburn and La Beouf, to being confronted with the horrific reality. If we posit a morally strict universe, her fall and subsequent snakebite after killing Chaney is a kind of instant karma. The biggest clue to the Coens’ own feelings about this interpretation might be their portrayal of the “nihilists” in The Big Lebowski, where despite being being petty and ridiculous, they do the only real harm in the movie by causing Donny’s heart attack.
@PG- “True Grit, examined in this light, is following Mattie Ross’s journey from thinking she is able to handle the larger, violent world of Cogburn and La Beouf, to being confronted with the horrific reality”. I agree with this assessment and it seems to me the “larger violent world” might be correctly labeled Patriarchy. Mattie Ross, a 14 year old Fatherless girl, thinks she can handle/master/overcome Patriarchy. The earlier scenes in the film show her doing just this. She beats adult men at commerce, coerces them into helping her on her quest, gets away from the boatman, crosses the river showing great courage etc. The final 1/3 of the film seems meant to show us that Mattie can’t really do this. She is a little girl and ultimately she needs to be saved. In fact, during this section she seems to be almost punished for assuming the ultimate symbol of gendered violence the big gun (phallus). I guess we were supposed to be moved by Rooster Cogburn’s race to save her. Or, was this meant cynically? The scene with the Native American boys is very strange. I agree that Rooster Cogburn boots them off the porch b/c He sees them mistreating the Donkey. However, my reading of this scene is not that Rooster is some kind of animal rights activist. The scene is kind of twinned in my mind with the opening execution where the two White Men get to say last remarks (one long winded and whimpering, the second concise and terse) and the Native American Man is not. The Coen’s play that scene for a laugh (which is got in the theater I was in). Rooster’s treatment of these two little boys is similar. I don’t imagine He would have behaved quite the same way with little white boys. Rooster’s violent kicking of the boys is also played for a laugh. To my mind both of these scenes are very ugly and distasteful. The later of these especially so. I doubt the Coen brother’s think too much about Native American issues. I’d love to ask them if they even know the shocking statistics about contemporary violence against Native Americans, or the incredibly high suicide rate among Native American adolescents, or the high levels of depression, alcoholism and drug dependency. It’s impossible for me to share in the laughter of these scenes. I also don’t think the audience would have found it so hilarious if Rooster would have felt the little African-American boy at the stables was mistreating one of the horses and had physically assaulted him. I think that would have read as racist- both the representation of such a young child torturing an animal and a large White male kicking a little Black boy. That is because we have well funded civil rights groups like the NAACP that would have clearly pointed out the problematic nature of these scenes. We also would have had more people in the critical establishment calling these issues out. I am hard pressed to understand the ideology of the film and this tends to be a problem with much of the Coen’s work. Sure they might think they are being “apolitical” but that doesn’t mean that the narrative doesn’t have political uses. As I read the laughter in the audience the film was working politically with a kind of “hidden curriculum”. “Isn’t it funny that White people could kill and kick Indians with impunity”? And I read the emotional grip the final scenes had on the audience as “Isn’t it ironic that uppity little girls that think they can take on male power really end up getting punished by god/nature and needing grown men to save them”?
On seeing the movie recently I found that I liked it very much. A huge John Wayne fan I didn’t think that Bridges surpassed that performance, but I also think he didn’t try and the way the movie is structured it made for a much better film than the original. One of the things that i enjoyed about the film was that it had a Ken Burn’s type of narrative, which I found enchanting and mesmerizing, and which made the movie very enjoyable. I don’t make distinctions about old cinema and new cinema, but the picture was a joy to watch. Very rare for remakes from my experience.
@Craig Harshaw, I don’t think the Coens meant for any of those readings you are finding in the film. That doesn’t mean they are not there, but I certainly did not find those points you noted problematic. Hell, if you wanted to find really ugly territory within the narrative, Rooster is a self-declared member of Quantrill’s raiders, who infamously sacked Lawrence, Kansas and killed every man between 13 and 80. That seems a lot more morally repugnant than kicking a couple of Native American kids who were being cruel to a mule. But the Coens don’t linger on that aspect of Cogburn’s character, just as they don’t linger on issues relating to Native Americans, because it’s not a part of their central purpose. This film ,just like their last three, is a film about what a good person does when confronted by something incomprehensible or evil. In all three the thrust of the Coens’ work is the idea that even if we can’t resist or prevail over larger and more violent forces, the simple act of trying to be a good person is a worthwhile effort and the ultimate protection against the horrors of a cold and violent world.

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