POST-GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS….A HANDY TEN

The “Golden Age” of the Hollywood western is generally conceded to have stretched from 1946 to 1962. It’s bounded by the respective releases of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the former year* and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in the latter.

Based on the films each man released in ’62, the hand-off from Ford to Peckinpah should have been a natural one. What happened instead was what we like to call The Sixties.

All that’s beyond the scope of what I’m after here, which is simply to suggest some films for viewing that, taken together, make up an impressive legacy of their own. Call them markers on a trail to what might have been…

The Shooting (1966)
D. Monte Hellman

Harrowing. This film is as unsettling as In a Lonely Place…perhaps more so, because it doesn’t have Humphrey Bogart’s, or even Gloria Grahame’s, level of star power to supply a set of foundational assumptions. With this and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman invented what came to be called Acid Westerns. That’s a ridiculous moniker (did anyone think to call Lonely Place Acid Noir? As though it’s destabilizing qualities were merely hallucinatory? Thought not.) When Warren Oates is the stable one, you’re in another land alright. But it’s one that could only be reached through the gateway of the western–not a pill. Next to this, the best spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch look silly and ham-handed. Not to mention light-hearted.

Hombre (1966)
D. Martin Ritt

Strong by any standard. One of Newman’s signature “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Harper) and perhaps the best. Not least because his character has no redeeming quality except that he’s right. This is Stagecoach turned into a nightmare. One where the characters never quite wake up. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Martin Ritt (who made an awful lot of good movies for a guy who doesn’t get talked about much) watched a lot of Boetticher-Scott westerns somewhere along the way. Or maybe Elmore Leonard (who wrote the source material for this and Boetticher’s The Tall T–as here, Richard Boone played the villain) just brought certain qualities out of people.

True Grit (1969)
D. Henry Hathaway

Don’t sleep on this one just because John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance is larger than life even by his standards or because there’s been a fine remake. Kim Darby is still the definitive Mattie Ross. George MacDonald Fraser’s assertion that the line readings throughout are the closest we’ll ever have to hearing Victorian western speech as it was actually spoken makes it plain this is a window into a lost world. Charles Portis’ source novel provided dozens of memorable lines…and Marguerite Roberts’ script added a few more, without missing a beat. I still wish they had kept Portis’ ending, but everything else is in place. For Wayne and Darby and a host of fine characterizations (Strother Martin and Robert Duval are especially memorable) it will always be worth revisiting.

Bad Company (1972)
D. Robert Benton

One of the best roles Jeff Bridges ever had while he quietly went about being the best actor of his generation. Here, he and an equally effective Barry Brown are green as grass Civil War draft-dodgers heading west….and finding out maybe marching off the war wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. Bridges’ brand of American innocence is even funnier–and warmer–in a western setting. It’s a shame he didn’t come along twenty years earlier, when he might have made a dozen of these.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
D. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster had been players in the Golden Age and even made a couple of fine westerns together (Apache and the wonderful Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper). This gave them an opportunity to raise their game and they were more than up to the task. Lancaster was never better than as a grizzled scout trying to help a green lieutenant (a superbly callow, but learning fast, Bruce Davison), track down a renegade Apache band and perhaps even live to tell the tale. This might be seen as re-revisionist western–a kind of answer film to Arthur Penn’s misguided Little Big Man, which had perverted Thomas Berger’s great novel from comedy into parody, and presented the warrior cultures of the Plains Indians (in that case the Cheyenne, who held the U.S. Cavalry at bay for forty years) as peace loving flower children. No one, at least, will emerge from watching Ulzana’s Raid for the first or twentieth time under any misapprehension that Apaches would have been at home in the Age of Aquarius….or welcomed hippies into their own age.

The Shootist (1976)
D. Don Siegel

A setup to be sure. John Wayne, cancer victim and last of the Golden Age cowboys, playing John Bernard Books, cancer victim and last of the Old West gunfighters. But, with the great Don Siegel (like Martin Ritt, an underappreciated pro’s pro) at the helm, an impeccable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone–one could go on) and a lean, well-measured script, it defies expectations and transcends its own nostalgia. It self-consciously echoes a hundred westerns, none more than Shane. Except this time, the gunfighter does not ride out of the valley. And it isn’t clear what he has done for Civilization–except represent the best of what it inevitably washes away.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)
D. Robert Day

In the eighties, the western was represented most ably on television, with adaptations of Louis L’Amour (usually starring either Sam Eiliott or Tom Selleck) leading the way. This and the Selleck vehicle, Crossfire Trail, are my own favorites and can stand for the lot–fine westerns that might not have stood out in the Golden Age, but certainly would have held their own. Elliott and Selleck, both excellent, are a wash and Crossfire Trail gave Wilfred Brimley the role of a lifetime. Still, I’m giving this one the edge because it has a slightly more expansive story and a fine performance by the always under-utilized Kate Capshaw, as an eastern woman adapting to the mindset of the frontier more rapidly  than her husband (an equally good Tom Conti), in part because she grasps how vulnerable any woman (let alone one as fetching as Kate Capshaw) is in a land where the law is what you make it.

Lonesome Dove (Miniseries) (1989)
D. Simon Wincer

Speaking of television….This epic mini-series blew the doors open when it first aired. There was serious talk of the western being revived in a way that hasn’t really occurred since. And it’s all that. None of the fine cast were ever better, and, though the story is an old one (it’s about a cattle drive after all), the mini-series length gave Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, among others, a scope rarely afforded elsewhere. They took full advantage. The effect on Duval’s career was unfortunate. He’s satisfied himself with playing old coots ever since, with markedly diminishing returns. Jones didn’t get his mojo back until he learned to laugh at himself in the Men in Black series. But that doesn’t diminish what they did here, in the company of the strongest female cast to appear in any western (again, the length matters)–Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Glenne Headly, all superb. The other volumes in the Lonesome Dove series are good, especially Streets of Laredo, with James Garner and Sissy Spacek taking over the Jones and Lane roles (and being everything you would expect from those two). I also recommend Larry McMurtry’s source books. But the space opened up here has never been filled by anything else, making it, in its own way, as epic as anything done by the old masters.

Appaloosa (2008)
D. Ed Harris

An entertaining, if troubling, update on the town-taming ethos. The set up is similar to Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s entertaining, if troubling, take on the town-taming ethos from 1959. I like Appaloosa better. The story is tighter, the grim psychology more relentless and logical. And there’s a rare good middle-age role for Renee Zellweger. Those who worry about the western (or any action) genre bleeding into fascism will not be comforted, but not being comforted is a symptom of the concerned citizen and you could spend your life worrying about subjects a lot less worthy of your time and attention. And I’m normally not big on actors directing, but Ed Harris does a lovely, understated job here. No fancy camera tricks, just straight, non-nonsense storytelling that lets the good actors (including himself) do their thing.

True Grit (2010)
D. Joel and Ethan Coen

It feels a little odd to include both versions of True Grit on such a small list. Thee are other worthy candidates even if I did leave off spaghetti westerns (God help me, I do like Sergio Leone), Peckinpah (I like several of his later westerns, including, until the end, The Wild Bunch–that’s the part that excites a lot of people but seems to me senseless bluster), or spoofs (highly recommend the Kennedy/Garner Support duo and Waterhole #3).

But I can’t choose between them and I certainly can’t leave them both off. This has the advantage of great atmosphere and sticks reasonably close to Portis’ story and language. Jeff Bridges proves again that a lot was lost when he didn’t get to make more westerns. Matt Damon acquits himself well. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a compelling contrast to Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross and gives the role her own stamp–maybe proving that, like Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s just a great character, open to a wide array of interpretations. And the Coens more or less restored the book’s ending, pulling the punch only slightly by not having the older Mattie recite the entire last paragraph of the novel, which gets my vote for the finest ending of any American novel. It was a hit and, once more, there was talk of reviving the western. There always will be such talk–the western is in our DNA. But if we have to live with what we have, it’s still a lifetime investment getting to know the best of it. If you want to take that journey, everything here is worth adding to your list.

**NOTE: Howard Hawks’ Red River was shot in 1946 but not released until 1948. According to one of the film’s stars, Joanne Dru, the main reason was trouble in the editing room, resolved when Hawks sought Ford’s advice (Ford did not, so far as I know, do any actual editing but made some key suggestions). Hawks later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich that Ford was always in his head anyway. I mention it only to illustrate that Ford was always in everybody’s head. Regarding anyone who’s up to any good, he still is, even if they’ve never heard of him.

 

ROSANNA ARQUETTE….A HANDY TEN

(Warning: Occasional rough language due to movies being quoted.)

Rosanna Arquette is the only modern actor who is indefinable in conventional crit-illuminati terms and the only artist I know of who consistently broke through the Frozen Silence that descended on the Empire in the eighties (made all the more remarkable by that being the moment her career began).

She might not be the most gifted. There are plenty who think she’s not the most gifted in her own family. But she’s the most disorienting. She might read a bad line straight, just to get it over and done with. Hard not to given the number of bad lines forced on her after Harvey Weinstein ruined her career (you know, “allegedly”).

But she’ll never read a good line straight. I doubt she knows how.

She was partly raised in a commune and I once read/heard that she played in the mud at Woodstock.

Or maybe I dreamed it.

Either way, I choose to believe it.

The only way it would be more perfect is if she was born there.

For the express purpose of destabilizing the future.

The Executioner’s Song (1982)
D. Lawrence Schiller

Originally a mini-series, then edited down to movie length for a Euro-release, later edited back up (though not all the way) for a “director’s cut.” In other words the confusion begins right here, in Arquette’s breakout role as Nicole Baker, the girlfriend and personal addiction of spree murderer Gary Gilmore (they stopped him at two, but he’d have killed everyone in the world to be with her). It’s spare and compelling, one of the best films about the empty moral landscape of post-Viet Nam America. And it establishes one of Arquette’s great themes: She makes men want to shoot other men in the head.

More thoughts here.

(NOTE: This is finally being released in its original form–Blu-Ray, January, 2018. An interview with Arquette is listed in the extras. Those of us who have settled for blotchy, half-audible YouTube downloads all these years can’t wait to hear her say “You and seven other motherfuckers!” the way it was meant to be heard. UPDATE: 1/28/18 I just checked Amazon and the new release is apparently….flawed. Check there before you purchase. In the meantime, the long version is on YouTube.)

Rating as..

Movie: 9/10 (for the original cut, which is the only one I’ve seen).
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

Baby It’s You (1983)
D. John Sayles

Awe inspiring. Is it a coincidence that the only time John Sayles worked with Rosanna Arquette is the only time he managed to get out of his own way? Or that Arquette is the only post-seventies actor besides Illeana Douglas (also raised in a commune) who “got” the sixties? I mean, how simultaneously liberating and traumatizing it was? Especially for women?

Opinions will vary.

My answers are No, No, No and No.

Not a coincidence that is.

The best film of the 80s and the decade’s best performance.

This one’s readily available….more thoughts here.

Movie: 10/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

“Rosanna” Toto (1982) and
“In Your Eyes” Peter Gabriel (1986)

Arquette had contemporary romantic relationships with somebody in Toto (who cares who….that it wasn’t the guy who wrote the song probably matters to his mother) and Peter Gabriel. In the moment, everyone knew and admitted these songs were about her and couldn’t have been about anyone else. After her star faded, everyone denied it and insisted they could have been about anyone. Of course they did….and, of course they did. No man likes to admit some woman makes him want to shoot other men in the head.

Available on YouTube.

Double Bill:

After Hours (1985)
D. Martin Scorcese

and

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
D. Susan Seidelman

The movies that “killed” Arquette’s career. (For details, go here.) In After Hours, she played a kook in a movie about a straight (Griffin Dunne) who keeps bumping into kooks all through one long, dark New York night of the soul. First in a line of tormentors that includes, among others, Teri Garr and Cheech and Chong, she was the only one who got onto the film’s oddball vibe enough to match its Dante-esque pretensions. If Scorcese had been bold enough to cast her in all the female roles the movie might be more than a curio.

Still, her performance is worth seeing, especially in light of its natural pairing with the same year’s Desperately Seeking Susan, a big hit that won her a BAFTA, the biggest “award” of her career (typically, it came for a “Supporting Actress” when she’s clearly the lead) and had her playing the straight to Madonna’s kook.

Is it a coincidence that the only time Madonna was as free on-screen (whether in movies, videos, television interviews or taped live performances) as her obsessively contrived image, was opposite Rosanna Arquette playing a woman seeking a small taste of the same freedom? Or that the only movie where she radiated movie star charisma was this one?

Opinions vary….

The moment in Desperately when Arquette’s repressed housewife, yearning to breathe free, reacts to a simple magic trick, is one of the loveliest in American film and just the sort of scene her tormentor/producers seemed to have bet the Woodstock girl, forever fighting to keep her clothes on, couldn’t play

After Hours 

Movie: 7/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 8/10

Desperately Seeking Susan

Movie: 8/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

These are both readily available.

8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
D. Hal Ashby

Filmed within a fast heartbeat of Desperately Seeking Susan. Anyone who thought the shift from The Executioner’s Song to Baby It’s You was shocking should double-bill Susan and this bleak little enterprise sometime.

I just watched it for the first time in thirty years. I remembered it as a hot mess–such a hot mess that I couldn’t really trust my reaction or my memory.

I mean: Rosanna Arquette? Jeff Bridges? Hal Ashby? How bad could it be?

I’m not prepared, on a second viewing, to say it’s a stone cold masterpiece. But it’s got me wondering. No idea how or why I didn’t respond at all back when. I’m sure I wasn’t aware of the spats between Ashby and the studio that resulted in it being taken out of his hands and made just about everyone involved (including audiences) want to wash their hands of the whole thing.

Forget all that. Time has redeemed it. I’ll be watching often, trying to figure out just how much.

But, if it were every bad thing its detractors claim, it would still be here for two reasons:

1) The newly released 30th anniversary DVD has interviews with several of the key players. A year before the Harvey Weinstein revelations (in which she played a prominent role), you can see and hear the career he and his legion of enablers stole from her in every line of her face and every word she speaks.

2) This hot-mess masterpiece has the ultimate Rosanna Arquette line, which is also the definitive noir line. Jeff Bridges’ slightly addled detective finds her in the house of Andy Garcia’s drug dealer (a scintillating, career-making performance), where she’s been taken by force.

And the moment they’re left alone:

“What’s he want?”
“He wants to fuck me and kill you.”

You pretty much have to be there for that, if you want to get Rosanna Arquette.

Because it sounds like a line any good actress could deliver…until you hear her deliver it.

And, to be fair, when it comes time for the men (three in this case) to shoot each other, they mix it up by going for chest shots.

This is now readily available.

Movie: 9/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

Black Rainbow (1989)
D. Mike Hodges

An effective, moody Gothic from the director of Get Carter. For a Brit, he does a fine job of catching the Southern atmosphere. (Arquette has shown a knack for playing hot-to-trot southern chicks–see also The Wrong Man and Big Bad Love.) There is typically fine work from Jason Robards (as Arquette’s father, manager and exploiter) and Tom Hulce (as a small town reporter, trying to get at the truth of a “vision” Arquette’s supernatural medium was granted of a murder). Years before her sister played one on TV, the elder Arquette gets at the quiet heart of a medium’s classic dilemma: someone who hates herself for playing the suckers…only to find even more anguish and confusion when her gift turns out to be real.

On a quick re-viewing, I’m not sure every bit works. But most of it does and the spell is sustained by Arquette’s ability to project her unique combination of sexual arrogance and emotional vulnerability. No one shoots anybody in the head….but one man is shot through her ghost, which is roaming about seeking revenge on Dad for seeing dollar signs in her faraway eyes. And Hulce is prepared to spend his life searching for her, truth be damned.

This is easily available in full screen. For the proper widescreen edition released in Europe, you’ll need a converter or an all-region player.

Movie: 9/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

The Wrong Man (1993)
D. Jim McBride

For once, the movie’s as mind-bending as she is…and she was never more mind-bending than here. By this point fuck me kill you was like a bass line running through her screen presence from movie to movie. The bass line from “Gimme Shelter” maybe.

And while fuck me kill you may be her definitive line, the consummate Rosanna Arquette scene (and noir‘s) comes here, when she bare-backs John Lithgow as he’s crawling to meet room service, just about a hot minute after she threatened to shoot him in the head.

Headspinning.

Available (like quite a few of Arquette’s movies) only for streaming or download on YouTube.

Thoughts here.

Movie: 9/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 10/10

Pulp Fiction (1994)
D. Quentin Tarantino

I’ve said it before, I say it again. If Tarantino had switched Uma Thurman’s lead and Arquette’s cameo his whole movie might have come alive, not just the one scene. Instead, he was gutless and too damn stupid to know he was planting evidence against himself.

Else Weinsteined.

Assuming there’s a difference.

Readily available, alas.

Movie: 7/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 8/10

Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard

One of those artsy movies that’s so self-consciously unpretentious it defeats itself, despite a fine cast. But it’s a nice coda on Arquette’s Vulnerable Vamp period. The character she plays here has no arrogance. She’s just out for the usual impossible combination of kicks and security. Hence, she delivers real poignance in a movie that too often settles for an approximation.

More thoughts here.

This one is readily available.

Movie: 7/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 9/10

Law and Order: Criminal Intent (2005) “Sex Club”
D. Alex Chapple

It was inevitable that Arquette would end up trying to evade Goren and Eames. And that she’d make her attempt in one of the series’ best episodes, one that keeps exploding in your face even on a third or fourth (or probably twentieth) viewing.

Peter Bogdanovich plays a Hugh Hefner style “playboy,” transplanted to New York but with his little black book very much intact (if not in his possession). Arquette plays an upper middle class mom who may, or may not, have been the star of one too many mind-blowing orgies.

The perfect part in other words, and at least some of the raw anger she brought to it might have been aimed at her own exploiters–among whom Hefner (with whom she had a longstanding feud over nude photos he published without her consent) was not least. I have no reason to suspect it was the least bit autobiographical, but it’s hard to believe she didn’t identify on some level.

Movie: 8/10
Rosanna Arquette Movie: 9/10

(Available as Episode 14 from Season 4 of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.)

….As of today, Rosanna Arquette has a hundred and forty-nine acting credits on IMDB. She’s worked constantly, perhaps to compensate for the A-list parts she routinely didn’t get after she rebuffed the industry’s top mover and shaker, perhaps just because she likes working. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a dozen or more golden moments that have eluded me thus far.

I plan to keep looking.

You never know when she’s going to rise up and make one more man want to shoot somebody in the head.

But even if she never has another golden moment or there’s nothing left undiscovered in her vast catalog of mostly cast-off or workaday roles, she’s left something indelible for the future to reckon with.

How many survivors in her generation–molested or unmolested–can say half as much?

Go ahead. Start counting.

You won’t need your second hand.

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!