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Michael Jones

Michael Jones

Posted: December 29, 2010 11:01 PM

Truer Grit

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Thank goodness we now have a truer grit.

Courtesy of the incredibly talented Coen brothers. Put them on a deserted island with an iPhone and a palm tree and they'd be able to use the video feature to make a South Beach-ian equivalent of Citizen Kane in a week.

I was never that big a fan of the first True Grit. "These days" are a lot like "those days" with a political slant available to illuminate or ruin everything. True Grit's John Wayne had become an extension the Nixon/Vietnam/Kissinger triad. By 1969 he was associated more with the preppy peppy God loving "Up with the People" chorus, white shoed-white belted golfers, and Andy Williams Christmas Specials than anything admirable or heroic.

Long gone was the John Wayne of The Searchers, one of the best American movies ever made. Long gone was the Cavalry Trilogy where he played older men with such a genuine feel that John Ford reportedly remarked "who knew the son of a bitch could act?" Before and after True Grit he played "younger" with increasingly improbable wigs and corsets.

Wayne hadn't made a really good movie since the underrated Donovan's Reef, which I call underrated because no one except me has ever heard of it.

Beyond Wayne and Nixon, most things by the late sixties/early seventies seemed fake, false, and FUBAR-ed. The astronauts and the moon landing were the only things worth believing in. But, young people, then and now, wanted to believe, wanted to believe in something, wanted to believe that there was more to life than the increasing despondency of the Greatest Generation, who, by the late sixties were heavily into two packs a day, three martinis a night, Cold War marriages, and reactionary politics as they watched the old clock click past fifty.

I can remember distinctly when I found something to believe in a movie: McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The only time a man has ever looked good in a fur coat. Starring the two most beautiful actors of their time or any time: Warren Beatty at his peak, Julie Christie, heartbreakingly, at hers. A Robert Altman movie, with natural dialogue spoken as in real life, a very different movie filled with sweat and pain, rain and mud, and an improbable love story. McCabe was a western like no western ever made before. A western that seemed to be true... much more like what it might have been like for a generation raised on cowboys in white hats and blue-eyed Indians. A generation disillusioned by the war and the politics of nattering nabobs of negativism, left adrift in a world that allowed "disco."

In McCabe a horse and rider amble into a new town carved out of a forest. It's snowing, the horse snorts plumes of frozen condensation in the cold air. This is no soundstage snow scene like the Futterman killing in The Searchers. The camera moves down the slushy path and there is a close up of the horse's hoof breaking the newly formed ice in a puddle.

I don't know why that struck me as the truth I was seeking in movies, but it did.

In the first True Grit, the reality of what the west was probably all about, appeared occasionally. John Wayne was promoted as starring in a role "that you've never seen him in before" or some other studio folderol. Indeed, Wayne seemed to relish leaving the ridiculous Colonel Mike Kirby of The Green Berets and the various tough guy at sixty roles he had doing with depressing regularity to play Rooster Cogburn. But, there was, risibly, a bit of Foghorn Leghorn in his portrayal.

The Director's casting ploy to "bring the kids in" (think Fabian in North to Alaska) by casting the Wichita Lineman, Glen Campbell, in a major role basically ruined the movie. It's watchable for Robert Duvall as Lucky Ned Pepper and the showdown in the meadow with Pepper calling John Wayne a "One-Eyed Fat Man," and Rooster yelling back, "fill your hand you sonavabitch."

In an equally troubled time -- unpopular wars, an economy on the brink, mendacity raised to an art form at all levels of society, graphic novel 3-D movies and reality TV shows the popular diversions of a society more despondent than the rapidly disappearing Greatest Generation -- the Coen brothers have made a great American movie in that greatest of American movie genres: the Western.

The truths of True Grit are almost forgotten American values: self-reliance, courage, honor (even among thieves), and grit. I'll explain "grit" to you youngsters: Grit: stick to-itiveness; not giving up; creating your own destiny.

Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, lately awarded the Medal of Honor, hit twice by AK-47 rounds, a third shattering his own rifle, showing American grit by not hunkering down and allowing the Taliban to cart off one of his soldiers. Going after them, killing when he had to, recovering his mortally wounded comrade.

Showing true grit by being flabbergasted that he would be awarded a medal for doing something, which, according to him, every soldier would do, has done, and will do.

In an America cowed into inaction by rules, regulations, trial lawyers, and political correctness, we are reintroduced by the Coens to young Mattie Ross. Her father was brutally murdered and robbed by that murderous scum, Tom Chaney. No one seems prepared to do a thing about it. Mattie Ross, made of sterner stuff than most, takes it upon herself to do seek justice despite her sex and tender age.

She means to hire someone with grit to go into the Indian Territory and, by whatever means necessary, bring that trash back to be hung by the proper authorities. Or, if Tom Chaney resists, to eliminate him with, well, extreme prejudice.

The Coens, by all accounts, have taken Charles Portis' plot and dialogue straight to the screen. They have let their cameras and aesthetic choices tell a great story. They cast talented actors in every role. No Justin Beiber to bring the kids in for them. No cultural icon to play against type as a marketing ploy. They found a remarkable young woman to play Mattie Ross. To paraphrase Cole Younger in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid: she is a wonderment. And, think about trying to cast someone to play Ned Pepper after watching Robert Duvall be Ned Pepper? If you were the actor cast it would be as intimidating as singing Nessum Dorma knowing that you're not Pavarotti... yet Barry Pepper does it and you don't mind. Matt Damon plays LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger, in a thankless role that he makes human and almost noble. The scenery plays the scenery, as the Coens know how to film the land.

Jeff Bridges is much better than John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. Let me say that again: Jeff Bridges is much better than John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. He isn't Jeff Lebowski playing a U.S. Marshall in some campy send up, or Obadiah Stane projecting back into the 19th Century. He's one of our great actors, given a larger than life role to play, with dialogue Shakespeare would have paid to hear, and, more than anything, he plays grit as if born to it. A truer grit than the previous Rooster.

I'd bet this movie makes millions.

I think America still embraces an ethos of self-reliance, courage under duress, honor, and stick to it-tiveness despite the United States of Me that sometimes seems the water we swim in.

When I walked out of the theater, wonderfully entertained, glad to be alive while the Coens are making movies, and muttering "that's brave talk for a one-eyed fat man" under my breath, I overheard a young girl ask her boyfriend if he liked True Grit.

Darling, he answered, the Rooster abides