YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE (At the Multiplex: December, 2016)

New category…where I write about new movies I actually see in the theater.

Hell or High Water
(D. David Mackenzie, 2016)

and…

Manchester By the Sea
(D. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Jeff Bridges and Michelle Williams are pretty much the only two working actors I’ll pay full price to see act in a theater anymore. (I’ll pay to see Jennifer Aniston, but that’s mostly to see what she’s doing with her persona, of which being even a very good actress is not the most essential part). Especially since Williams tends to make the kind of movies that rarely play around here, I don’t expect to get many chances to see them both in the same month. Some day they should do a movie together. Maybe he could play her dad. I’d pay to see that.

Bridges saves Hell or High Water even though he’s coasting. He hasn’t reached the state of post-Lonesome Dove Robert Duval yet, where he just plays the same guy over and over and looks sleepier and cootier every time out, but there’s a lot of his Rooster Cogburn (True Grit) in his Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, here. And, though I’ve only seen clips of it, I suspect a lot of his Bad Blake (Crazy Heart) as well. In theory, the movie should have a lot of other things going for it. The plot is a nice twist on the Robin Hood theme, the writing and directing are efficient, if hardly inspired, and the rest of the cast is good enough to get by, with Gil Birmingham a standout as Bridges’s Half-Indian/Half-Mexican partner.

There’s fun to be had. It didn’t bore me, a quality which, at today’s prices, I don’t take for granted.

It didn’t grab me either, hard as it kept trying. The best chance it had at pulling me in was with a soundtrack that tried a little too hard to match the desolation of its West Texas setting. The comparisons to The Last Picture Show, noted by a number of critics as a nice metaphor for our current bleak state of the national heart, are not entirely off base.

The problem is, it stays metaphorical. The connection never hurts and that’s where I know the right soundtrack could have helped because the one selection that strikes all the way home–the one that plays out with Texas losers Chris Pine and Ben Foster (the Howard brothers…nice joke for the Jesse James crowd) running down the dusty roads listening to a radio that, for once, plays something that sounds like it came from that dust–is so perfect it throws the rest of the movie off stride.

I don’t usually concede that anything Elvis did so well was done better elsewhere and I don’t concede it here. But it does fit the setting better. There’s a quality in Waylon’s voice–and Waylon’s alone–that nails the wasteland spirit of the new Texas dirt the way Al Green’s voice once nailed Black America’s Crack Epidemic, and Patty Loveless’s voice nailed Hillbilly America’s Meth-driven White Death, years before they actually happened.

Anybody who knew enough to put one Waylon song in this should have known enough to give him the whole show.

If they couldn’t do that, they should have hired Michelle Williams and given her one big scene. That’s just about what she gets in Manchester By the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s drearily well-made chamber piece set on the other side of the country in contemporary New England.

It’s not the first time she’s blown the nihilism clean out of a movie. She did it in a better movie called Me Without You as far back as 2001, and, more recently, in 2008’s Incendiary, which was not as good.

She does it again here and could have probably done it for Hell and High Water if somebody had just asked.

I imagine she has done it in a few other movies I haven’t seen–much as I admire her for taking this task on, and much as I believe it’s necessary for somebody to take it on, I really have to be in the mood for this stuff. When she picks up her Oscar next spring it will be for blowing nihilism out of whatever movie she’s been in for fifteen years running and because it’s her turn. God bless her for that. The best thing about that, if it happens, is that it will just be possible the thing is being done in time to save her sanity. I can’t believe she can take much more of this.

She’s so good in that one big scene that she actually allows Casey Affleck’s previously bewildered performance to finally come together–to merge the ruined man he’s become in the movie’s present with the vibrant man we’ve seen in the movie’s flashbacks.

And when he wins his Oscar this spring (assuming his alleged tendency to abuse women doesn’t catch up with him first) he should really thank Michelle Williams.

Because, without changing a single thing more, his performance stays together the rest of the way. By the end, I almost liked a couple of the people I was supposed to like. I even almost liked him. The only thing lacking by then was nerve.

What it needed, as the last scene played and gave way, yet again, to the dreary score, was one perfect kick in the modern gut. One song that nailed everything in place and turned the whole thing from a chamber piece into something worthy of Michelle Williams showing up, yet again, to save the day.

What it needed was something to reestablish the filmmaker’s true fake vision, to show that he didn’t really believe everything would be alright in the godforsaken land he had just gone to such mighty lengths to portray in so much excruciating detail.

Of course, the song that would have nailed it all in place came straight into my head. They really should call me in to help out with this stuff.

Since they don’t, sometimes I just have to turn the sound off in the movie theater behind my bloodshot eyes and let the right song play in there and walk out with a grim smile on my face.

I was never more right than I was this time. By the time I hit the parking lot, I had convinced myself I had almost been in the presence of greatness.

 

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Notes on Narrative in True Grit and the Breathlessly Awaited Eleventh Maxim!)

[NOTE: This is an update of a piece I roughed out for my own amusement back when the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit reached theaters in 2010. I love both film versions and think the novel is a masterpiece. But, for the sake of this piece, that’s actually neither here nor there…I was more fascinated by two other, not entirely unrelated elements. First, the Coens’ ability to hoodwink the media in much the same fashion that politicians do, namely by relying on a mindset that is both lazy and servile. Second, by just how hard true narrative is to really master….Since it fits some themes I frequently visit here, I finally got around to putting it in shape….Well, good enough for a blog post anyway!]

First….True Grit, in whatever form, is Mattie Ross’ story. so here she is, saying her piece in three voices:

First voice:

TRUEGRITCOVER

“He (Rooster Cogburn) directed LaBoeuf to take his horse and find a position up on the north slope about midway along one stroke of the V, and explained that he would take up a corresponding position on the south slope. Nothing was said about me with regard to the plan and I elected to stay with Rooster.”–from Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit.

Second voice:

truegritdarby1

“I go where Rooster goes.”–Kim Darby, from the 1969 film version.

Third voice:

True_Grit_steinfeld2

“I picked the wrong man.”–Hailee Steinfeld, from the 2010 film version (choosing LaBoeuf over Cogburn).

That is, she picked this guy:

TRUE GRIT

Over this guy:

TRUEGRITBRIDGES3

Not for a date mind you, but to kill the bad men.

As Hailee Steinfeld’s folks might say: Oy vey.

And so, with all that in mind for starters…a little rumination:

It’s a testimony to just how great a character Mattie Ross is, and how many valid interpretations she might be able to bear, that the choice Hailee Steinfeld’s “Third Voice” Mattie makes in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit does not sink their very fine film.

By all rights it should.

Having already violated the impeccable narrative structure of their source considerably by, among other things, having Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf leave the scene once (to be brought back by some not overly reasonable coincidence), the Coens have him not only leave it a second time (for no better reasons and to be brought back under a circumstance that is, if anything, even less likely than the first), but leave it with Mattie begging to be taken along!

That’s about as far from “I elected to stay with Rooster,” or “I go where Rooster goes,” as anyone can get.

Naturally, the chorus of those who insisted the Coens were “truer” to the book, in form, spirit or both, was loud and long–not merely an echo of what the Coens’ themselves had been very publicly insisting ever since it got about they were re-making True Grit, but, by the time the film was released, a rising crescendo.

The most egregious example of that crescendo was probably Dana Stevens at Slate.com, who, a whole day after admitting in one of the website’s podcasts that she had never read the book or seen the original film, blithely wrote:

“…this version of True Grit hews more closely to the cult novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne.”

Granting that anyone who uses the word “cult” to describe a million-copy bestseller (which has subsequently inspired two major hit movies, one of which merely won that obscure cult figure, Mr. Wayne, an Oscar, plus a sequel and a network television movie, all before becoming a #1 New York Times bestseller again upon the release of the second movie) probably cannot be considered an intellectual titan, there’s no reason to pick on Stevens.

Allen Barra (writing for the Daily Beast), after noting how “surprising” it was that so few reviewers actually knew Portis’ novel, then gave an example of how closely the Coen brothers had stuck to the source:

“The Coens’ script preserves the thumbnail description of the marshals available to her:

‘The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear does not enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings in his prisoners alive….Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best that they have.’

‘Where,’ Mattie wants to know, ‘can I find this Rooster?’”

Well, actually, the description of Cogburn, and Mattie’s response, were preserved in the Coens’ version. But the description of Quinn is considerably altered…enough that it deflates the clear punch of Portis’ prose, a mistake the original film never made once and which the Coens made, if not frequently, then at least far more than they needed to.

Incidentally Barra, having declared himself a fan of both Portis and this newer version of the film, is no fan of the original, which he describes as “sloppily made.”

Detailing the sloppiness of Barra’s own review would require a small essay of it’s own (that described above is the least of it), but at least he’s not Tom Shone.

Shone, a former film critic of the London Sunday Times who did not have a paid outlet at the time, but perhaps merely wanted to give Dana Stevens a full run for her money, wrote about the film on his website. He complained of a “plot robbed of forward thrust by fidelity to the meandering byways of Portis’ plot (is there a limit to the number of times Le Boeuf can change his mind about whether he wants to be with the other two or not?)”

Gee, if he had left out the specifics of his complaint, I might have been able to conclude he had actually read the novel and just wasn’t very perceptive.

But, no, he needed to go the last mile and prove himself something worse (because, of course, the “meandering” to which he so disapprovingly refers is all the Coens and none of Portis).

If only I could believe that the Sunday Times had sacked him for such.

As it is, I’m stuck leaving my faith in human virtue to the side yet again and am thrown back on purely philosophical questions such as whether Mattie Ross would have any more truck with me than with thee?

See, I’ve never been too sure.

My first acquaintance with Mattie was in the first film. I saw some piece of it on television some time in the vaguely remembered seventies. My viewing was in black and white, on a 19-inch rolling screen (there used to be a thing called vertical hold, children, and in your poorer households, it did not always “hold”). I remember being struck by how little Mattie, and the actress playing her, cared for whether she was liked.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I had never encountered anyone in life or (discounting villains) the movies, who cared so little.

Brave choice by Ms. Darby and she’s still paying the price.

John Wayne, thankfully, will always have defenders, and so opinion was fairly evenly divided among reviewers. the blogosphere and the general public, as to the worth of his performance as Rooster Cogburn. But in the wake of the Coens’ version, I didn’t find a single mainstream defender of Darby (who was instead retrospectively slagged and slandered for being “perky,” “adorable” and “crush-worthy,” not to mention far too old to be playing a fourteen-year-old and a pain in Henry Hathaway’s neck).

As I’ve written elsewhere, I rate Darby’s performance in the original True Grit as the second best ever given by a woman in a western (just behind Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance…don’t worry she never got the credit she deserved either).

You don’t have to agree with me or even think Darby was any good at all to attend further. Such things are purely subjective. But If you found her “adorable,” please check yourself into some government facility. I’m depressed enough as it is. I don’t need to see my tax dollars being further wasted not helping you.

There’s no such thing as an “adorable” Mattie and no such thing as an intelligent actress, writer or director who would ever want to see her portrayed that way. Whatever one thinks about the people playing those various roles in the versions of True Grit that now exist for the world’s perusal, none of them were or are stupid.

And that gets to the heart of what’s really, really good (I’d even say great) about the newer version…and also what’s rather problematic about it.

It gives us not only a Rooster Cogburn who is vastly different than the original film (but still perfectly valid in terms of the novel’s structure and themes), but a vastly different Mattie.

These differences have been variously noted–Cogburn more than Mattie, if only because John Wayne cannot be readily dismissed even by a brain-dead intelligentsia (which I believe I have fairly represented above). But because no one took Darby seriously, the only thing that has been left to say about Steinfeld is that (take breathless pause here) she really is the age Mattie is recalling in the novel (narrated from old age), and she’s not Kim Darby.

Bad luck her, I thought after seeing the ubiquitous trailer in the months leading up the Coen version’s release.

But you know what? Breathless reviews aside, Steinfeld’s Mattie quickly won me over and she did it the only way (given my history with both the book and the earlier film) she could have.

That’s by giving a performance that ranks high on the list of women in westerns all by itself (just off-hand, I’d say top ten and pushing for a spot in that top five I listed).

This is perhaps even more than usually impressive because she’s got so much working against her at the start.

She might have been thirteen (only a year younger than the Mattie of the novel’s principal action and eight years younger than Darby had been, though it should be noted Darby was not really playing fourteen but probably more like sixteen or seventeen, an age for which she was more than credible and which, unlike having LaBoeuf ride off a couple of times for no good reason, does no damage to the story), but she was also a lot of other things.

truegritdarbysteinfeld

(Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld)

First off, tall (5’8″ according to the publicity at the time and you can believe it when she stands next to the sheriff Barra refers to above and I can’t be the only one who found myself thinking she could take him three falls out of five) where Mattie was short (“no bigger than a corn nubbin” according to Rooster in all versions including, rather incongruously, this one).

Also drop-dead gorgeous where Mattie was plain (in the book) or at least not gorgeous (in Darby’s case);

Not to mention an arrow-straight force of nature with no hint of sorrow touching her face outside one very brief (and well-played) scene when she is given her murdered father’s possessions, and no feminine quaver touching her voice (Darby made quietly and deeply effective use of both).

And, oh yeah, Steinfeld was in a Coen brothers movie and not just any Coen brothers movie but one where they’ve made a reach for the brass ring and invested themselves emotionally and narratively to a very high degree.

Somehow, Steinfeld–and, to be fair, the Coens as well–made all that work for the character.

I never quite bought the Coens’ repeated story (always couched as supremely ironic serendipity) that they scoured the country in general and the south in particular and, at the last possible moment, miraculously found the one girl in America who could, in their oft-repeated phrase, “handle the language.” Let’s just say I’m not surprised that when two Jewish guys from Minnesota who have spent most of their adult lives making movies decided to re-invent Mattie Ross, they searched the world over and finally settled for a tall, gorgeous, Jewish kid from the movie capital of the world.

And nothing wrong with that by the way.

As I say, Steinfeld really is all that. Nothing much resembling Charles Portis’ Mattie Ross, maybe, but the sort of humdinger who makes it very easy to think she could have got the job done her own way had she by chance been set down in Fort Smith in the 1870s!

The Coens deserve credit for more than a slick marketing campaign, though. They made a relatively complex narrative film (brave enough) and, for once, laid their own joke-ridden quasi-nihilism largely to one side (all but unheard of for anyone as invested in po-mo cynicism as they are).

Of course, such things take practice and whenever they left Portis to one side and struck out on their own, they tended to get lost.

Steinfeld’s Mattie, for instance, is an accomplished rider and horse-trader, but is strangely ignorant of a pony’s eating habits. Having been told by a young hand who is as confused by her ignorance as the viewer might be, that a horse likes apples (who knew!), she steals a supply of them from a bowl at the boarding house where she is staying (an action Portis’ Mattie would never contemplate and the Coens’ Mattie, still capable of telling Rooster, “It’s all stealing” in a later scene, is not sufficiently re-imagined to accommodate).

These are small things but they demonstrate how easy it is to lose track of narrative essence if you don’t have the requisite habits of mind and are rather accustomed to using bits of business and cheap “irony” for connective tissue instead of meaningful human behavior.

Even more problematic, the Coens’ needless departures from Portis’ structure, are not fully fleshed out. Hence we have Mattie, not LaBoeuf, questioning Rooster Cogburn’s morals when he announces his intention to shoot one of Ned Pepper’s gang in the back. And Rooster putting Mattie, not LaBoeuf, in danger when they encounter their first bandits (something Portis’ Rooster would never have done). The reason Mattie has to behave thusly, against her own grain, is that the Coens’ re-imagined story has LaBoeuf elsewhere. Unfortunately, for all the changes they’ve rung in Mattie’s character, there’s nothing to indicate their Mattie would be likely to have a moral–as opposed to practical–qualm as to whether vicious outlaws were shot in the back or that their Rooster would put Mattie in unnecessary danger (at least not while he’s sober).

Again, these are small things, but annoying because needless–and probably a mistake the Coens could have avoided reflexively by this point in their careers if they had spent the last twenty-five years making films worthy of their considerable talents instead of the modestly amusing (or modestly disturbing) time-killers which they have chosen to produce instead.

But I digress. If you can either ignore these sort of things or leave them to one side–and I confess I saw the movie five times in the theater and have seen it at least as many more on DVD, so yes, I have to admit it is certainly possible–this is at least within shouting distance of being a great western and the most worthy addition to the form’s screen-canon since the original Lonesome Dove miniseries (which in turn was the most worthy addition since 1962, the year of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ride the High Country, though there were certainly some good ones in between).

I don’t think it rates quite as high as those landmarks but that’s no shame. John Ford was film’s greatest narrative master and Valance was the decades-long culmination of habits the Coens were trying out for the first time. Ride the High Country was one of the few times Peckinpah would ever keep things simple enough to make an emotionally complicated film that didn’t actually require a more than basic narrative. So coming only a little short of those marks still ranks as a fine achievement.

As impressive as their actual film was, though, it could never hold a candle to the Coens ability to control the other narrative….the narrative the intelligentsia (such as it is) would be bound to accept and perpetuate unless they wanted to go completely off-script and do something besides carry water for the cool people.

Fat chance, that. Hence, the one thing the Coens most assuredly didn’t do–stay true to the book–was bound to be the thing they most consistently got credit for doing.

Just like they planned it.

And, maybe not surprisingly, the next time I caught up with them they were doing this. Nothing to do with developing any more complex narrative then, and small wonder.

So for an Eleventh Maxim, I suggest borrowing a simple rule from politics (one which we mere citizens need not cast aside in our quest to understand either politics or art merely because virtually all political “journalists” do), and suggest to critics that they resist their own worst instincts and insist on treating artists thus:

Never listen to what they say. Only watch what they do!