Monday, January 3, 2011

True Western

True Grit as a post-revisionist Western

In terms of the frequency of its production, at least, the Golden Age for the film genre of the Western was the 1950s. Ever since, a variety of critics and filmmakers have hailed any number of movies as "revisionist." Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns of the sixties (featuring the emerging Clint Eastwood); Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969); Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970): all were seen, at the time and since, as convention-shattering, even as they repeatedly referenced Western mythology. The genre went into eclipse through the seventies and eighties, exceptions like The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Dances with Wolves (1990) notwithstanding. Eastwood himself kick-started the genre again with Unforgiven (1992), which won the Academy Award Best Picture -- and, of course, was hailed with the same term.

Revisionism is a term that's various and elastic; sometimes it refers to attitudes toward violence, toward Native Americans, or simply toward the narrative conventions of the western itself. Occasionally even "classic" western filmmakers like John Ford are considered their own revisionist, as when Ford followed a paradigmatic Western like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with the valedictory Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Revisionism has come to mean everything, and thus nothing -- except perhaps a kind of condescension toward the past on the part of those who conflate "new" with "sophisticated" and "old" with "simplistic."

It is in this context that I very happily very happily viewed -- for what I hope will be the first of many screenings -- of Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit last weekend. The Coens, who are among the most productive and satisfying filmmakers now working, nabbed a Best Picture Oscar for their 2007 project No Country for Old Men, a movie which, notwithstanding its 20th century setting, is essentially a western. True Grit, located in Choctaw territory in in the late 1870s, qualifies as a Western by just about any definition.

And it's here I will say flatly that True Grit is a post-revisionist Western. Yes, it is a remake of the 1969 movie starring John Wayne in a role that won him an Oscar on what was largely considered a collective sense of sentiment on the part of Academy members. (Jeff Bridges has the role of Rooster Cogburn this time, and makes it seem wholly his, and wholly effortless, as he always does.) And yes, the protagonist happens to be a fourteen year-old girl (played with really true grit by Hailee Steinfeld in an Oscar worthy performance herself). But there's no obvious effort to subvert, reconfigure, allegorize or anything else here -- except tell a very good story about a daughter trying to avenge the death of her father within the conventions of a genre that includes big landscapes, exciting shootouts, and rough justice administered with minimal government involvement. And lots of horses.

Of course, there are all kinds of nods to modern sensibilities here, ranging from the greater sense of agency on the part of the female character to the wry sense of humor that is the Coens' trademark. But they feel no need to somehow place nuance and beauty outside the boundaries of genre. The good guys, notably Bridges and the Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon, have their limitations. The bad guys (notably Josh Brolin) have partially redeeming values, ranging from a sense of humor to the good sense to recognize a smart, tough girl when confronted by one. And the oddly formal, but compelling language of Charles Portis's 1968 novel is imported to give the movie a distinctive voice. But what True Grit does more than anything else is make a case for the Western as a viable mode of artistic communication in the 21st century. And it succeeds, in gorgeous, parched colors.

Good to know something still works in this country.