Friday, June 10, 2011

Fading spectacles in the Coens' West

Last December, I failed to write a full review of "True Grit." Part of this was because I found it the most peculiar and yet most straightforward movie the Coens have made in quite some time. I didn't write anything because it was so NOT what I was expecting. Having watched it again on DVD this week, I see it for the big, grand filmmaking it is. It is both so UN-Coen and yet so fully Coen, the most mainstream film they've done in years but somehow still very quirky and nuanced.

Think about it though: Their last three films meditated heavily on the inability to achieve resolution. "No Country for Old Men" broke apart the Western's model of justice-driven violence and resolution, "Burn After Reading" turned the spy drama into a glass house and then giddily threw rocks at it, and "A Serious Man"...well, "A Serious Man" is a film with such a lack of hope I can't even string together a few paltry adjectives to properly describe it.

So why the sudden turn towards ostensibly mainstream narrative filmmaking? Why invoke The Western just three years after "No Country for Old Men" rejected the values of the Western? Further still, why invoke "True Grit" to the ire of John Wayne fans the world over?

The answers lie in the beginnings and the endings of things.

The prologue of "True Grit" is a single track-in and fade-in on a dead body lying in a light snowfall. Maddie Ross's old voice begins a reflection on the murder of her father. It is straightforward, almost journalistic, but certainly without the flourishes that come to line the coming acts.

The epilogue is twenty-five years after the fact, with Maddie traveling to visit Rooster, who has died from the heat just days before her arrival. Before his death, he was spending his time traveling with a Wild West show, "reenacting" the adventures and daring moments of his life.

Before I say a few things about the meat of "True Grit," I want to ponder this final epilogue. The Wild West Shows, and namely Buffalo Bill's, were the beginnings of the Western genre. They took historical events and played them up to mythic functions, satisfying for spectators a desire to see tremendous heroes conjured, dramatic problems resolved, and magnificent stories portrayed. Maddie's disgust with the Wild West Show is part of this recognition -- even in 1903, she can see how the debt to history is being severed. Historiography disavows history in favor a clearer, grander narrative that supports the myth of America.

It's this "mythic function" that the Coens' "True Grit" seeks not to debunk, but explore. If I believed John Cawelti, I'd tell you that genre is a mythic function. There have been many, many books written about the Western based on this conceit; its structures, themes, discourses all congeal around satisfying some sort of function. The best theory I've read is that the Western recounts/explains/sorts through the ideas behind America's expansion and its debt to violence.

So without writing pages and pages, a few thoughts: We generally conceive of the Western hero as a man of action, a man of DOING, who favors his gun over his voice. In "True Grit," everyone is concerned with talking. Characters recount stories, discuss deals, make trades, volley insults, establish plans, and engage in a very specific rapport. It's all structured with an incredible sense of detail to the beat of each conversation, the beat of each character. But the words become the action, the pauses in conversations the place to duel. Guns create disgusting wounds, and never quite work the way characters want them to.

Further, there's the quirky, gritty aspect to all the characters. No one is glamorous, no one is good. Not even Maddie. She uses a misguided sense of the "law" to let herself be driven by murderous impulses. It's against the muck of this society of ill-educated, drunken fools that the film establishes a fairy tale perspective, where Maddie is ushered through a series of tasks and meetings to learn certain lessons about having "true grit."

Most obviously though, there's Rooster, a man who rejects the very appearance, behavior, and action of any typical notion of "John Wayne." That was the beauty of John Wayne PLAYING Cogburn in the 1969 film -- it let him explore a whole series of traits he'd built for decades in a new light. Ironically, the demythologization of John Wayne led to the remythologization of John Wayne, such that anyone who hadn't seen the 2010 film recoiled in shock that the Coens would dare try to touch John Wayne's performance. That's part of the fun of watching Bridges do his take on the character. It's a total reaction AGAINST our impulse to create myth. It sees myth as born out of something else. That something else is, wait for it, DISCOURSE. Yes, myth is the result of a certain kind of discourse, a kind of talking and a pattern of explaining that "True Grit" uses over and over in its myriad characters as they take long pauses to tell stories and explain their motives. Genre is not myth, genre is a part of discourse that conjures myth (although were I to write further and more in-depth I'd do a series of moves that disavows our use of this silly four-letter word all together).

Its multiple discourses fracture instead of unite our sense of the West, such that it actually confounds our ability to clearly see the grandness of the vista. The vistas in "True Grit" are grand, beautiful, and well-lit, but they are foregrounded with characters locked in a fairy tale suspension. It resists turning them into spectacle because the Coens, with a cleverly placed eyewink at the epilogue, suggest that we've had decades of watching these characters parade as silly caricatures locked in a genre. And it's time we freed them of that prison.

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