Theatrical Space in True Grit

In continuing to think about True Grit (2010), one of the things I noticed about the film is how theatrical some elements were. That is, there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on stages, literal and figurative, and on presenting scenes as if putting them on stage. A lot of the theatricality seems to foreshadow the final scenes of the film—in which it is revealed that Rooster Cogburn has joined a Wild West show, and that, in his final days, he was involved in putting the Wild West on the (outdoor) stage.

One of the earliest scenes, the hanging, takes place (almost literally) on a stage before an audience, complete with monologues from the primary actors, and ending with dramatic action.

The main characters alternate between being spectators and becoming actors, alternately performing and watching each other perform.  Early on, Mattie is a spectator, watching the hanging, watching Rooster perform as a witness in the trial scene.  However, in the sequence where Mattie crosses the river on Little Blackie, she becomes a performer in her own right, as we cut to shots of Rooster watching the action, as he has become the spectator.

Several scenes are shot as if the action was taking place in an arena, and the camera is looking down on the action. This might also suggest the viewpoint of being in the stands at an outdoor Wild West show. At least, I was reminded of  historical photographs I’ve seen of turn-of-the-century Wild West shows when watching the way the action was orchestrated in these scenes.

While staking out the cabin, Mattie and Rooster look down as LaBoeuf enters the scene, stands ups to the outlaws, and is lassoed. We hear the dialogue faintly as if from a distance. The cleared area outside of the cabin makes a natural stage. In this sequence, the difference between audience and performance is elided, as spectators finally  participate in the onstage action, affecting events that initially seem unaffectable because of the distance—Rooster firing into the group of outlaws (and hitting LaBoeuf as well).

In the climactic scene of Rooster facing down the five (four?) riders, that viewpoint is replicated with Laboeuf and Mattie the spectators watching the action play out below them on a flat plain. When I saw this scene in the theater, it reminded me of Thomas Cole’s paintings of scenes from The Last of the Mohicans, in which the characters are presented on a stage-like clearing, tiny figures in comparison to the surrounding sublime landscape.

In True Grit, we observe from so great a distance that there’s a long pause after LaBoeuf’s rifle shot, and we think he missed, but, in part we are waiting because the distance is so great that it takes a long time for the effect of his shot to be realized. Part of the shock of the scene, though, may be in the violation of theatrical space, as if a spectator from the back of the balcony had suddenly intervened in the performance on stage. One of the things I liked about the film was the emphasis on distance. When Rooster fires his gun as a signal to the watching Ned Pepper, we see the gun fire a long second before we hear the report.

Further comments, observations, or thoughts on True Grit are welcome!


Billy the Kid Pardon?

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico is in the final days of deciding whether or not grant a pardon to Billy the Kid.

As CNN reports (click on excerpt to go to full article):

Gov. Bill Richardson, called a Billy the Kid buff, is looking at an old promise by another governor, and not the Kid’s cold-blooded reputation, in deciding whether to issue a posthumous pardon, officials said.

“I think he will take the responses into account, particularly the learned responses,” Richardson’s deputy chief of staff, Eric Witt, said Wednesday.

So far, about 220 people are in favor of the pardon, while 180 are against, Witt said.

The website of the Office of the New Mexico Governor provides more detail about the debate and the reason Richardson is considering the pardon (click on excerpt for full article):

Over the past eight years Governor Bill Richardson has received dozens of communiqués regarding a pardon of Henry McCarty, a/k/a Henry Antrim, a/k/a William H. Bonney, a/k/a “Billy the Kid.” These reference the widespread belief that in return for damning testimony which The Kid provided at a later murder trial, a pardon was promised – but never granted – by then-New Mexico Territorial Governor Lew Wallace for earlier actions committed by The Kid during the Lincoln County Wars in New Mexico in the latter half of the 19th century. Specifically this issue revolves around The Kid’s alleged role in the killing of one Sheriff William Brady, a suspected operative of a rival faction during the Wars.

And, just because, Bob Dylan performing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (written for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid):

‘Tis the Season for True Grit (2010)

I just got back from watching the Coen Brother’s True Grit, which is a great deal of fun, and, in a strange way, even a kind of “holiday” movie, with its scenes of snowy weather and fat men with impressive beards (not many red suits or ho-ho-hos though). It even has a special holiday message. As Rooster Cogburn comments, “If a man wants a decent burial, he oughtn’t get himself killed in the winter.” Sure, not your usual seasonal greeting, but  a good point, and one that is effectively driven home by the image of several corpses propped up against a wall, as snow falls on the bodies and on the ground that is too frozen to dig. Part of the dark humor of the film, it seems to me, is in thinking about it as commenting on its own Christmas time release date by combining such holiday staples as gently falling snow with scenes of violent death.

Somewhat surprisingly to me, True Grit (2010) corresponds fairly closely with the John Wayne True Grit, at least in terms of plot events and other incidents. Although the new TG is pointedly not a remake of the earlier film, the similarities suggest how closely both scripts follow the original novel. One of the key differences is that TG 2010 follows the novel in adapting a framing device of having the older Mattie Ross narrate the film’s events via an opening and closing voiceover. And the final scene shows us Mattie 25 years later, one arm amputated (Mattie in TG 1969 survives a rattlesnake bite with no loss of limb), and arriving too late to see Rooster Cogburn one more time.

The new TG is also faster paced, funnier, and better acted than the earlier film. Replacing Glen Campbell with Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is in itself enough to ensure a better job of acting, and both Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Hallie Steinfeld as Mattie Ross are terrific. Mattie is a wonderful character, and if her major characteristics in TG 1969 were her strong will, intelligence, and quick tongue, she retains those qualities in the TG 2010 and is allowed to go further in terms of the film’s action. Her foiling of the ferryman at the river crossing is more effectively realized (she bops him in the head with an apple and makes her escape), and her crossing of the river on the back of Little Blackie is more spectacular than in the earlier film. Also, whereas LaBoeuf is the one who blocks the chimney of the cabin in the earlier film, here Mattie takes part directly in the action by climbing on to the cabin roof to block the smoke. The only real complaint I have about the movie is that Steinfeld’s name is listed so far down in the credits, after both Josh Brolin and Ned Pepper (neither of whom have much more than five minutes of screen time).

I would love to hear what other people thought about the film.

Fred Foy (Obit)

Seasons Greetings!

Seasons greetings from The Official Blog of the Western Literature Association! We hope you enjoy this musical on-line Christmas card: Jars of Clay performing John Denver’s “Christmas for Cowboys.”

And, from a John Denver holiday special called Montana Christmas Skies:


The Assassination of Yogi Bear by the Coward Booboo

If you haven’t already seen this short video (three minutes), it’s certainly worthwhile. It’s either a parody of the new soon-to-be-released Yogi Bear movie or it’s a parody of the film The Assassination of Jessee James by the Coward Robert Ford using the characters Yogi (as the outlaw Jesse James) and Booboo (as Robert Ford) as stand-ins for the title characters. Or it’s both. However you look at it, it’s brilliantly done.


Watching True Grit (1969)

In anticipation of the forthcoming new adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel True Grit (written and directed by the Coen Brothers), I decided to go back and look at the first True Grit adaptation, the 1969 film starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn (a “man with true grit,” as Mattie calls him). As a wee lad, I saw the film in the theater when it came out, and I don’t believe I have seen it since, although it certainly made quite an impression on me at the time—as did the Mad magazine satire that followed, True Fat (and I remember much more of True Fat than I do of the actual film—that’s what happens when you read and re-read your issues of Mad until they fall apart).

I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It’s an entertaining movie, with a witty screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, who was nominated for the Writer’s Guild of America’s award for Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium for the script. Despite being blacklisted for ten years after refusing to testify in 1951 before the U. S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, Roberts is credited with screenplays for over 30 films, including several westerns in the 1960s before True Grit. I suppose one might read True Grit against that backdrop, with heroine Mattie’s story allegorically representing Roberts’ own struggles against the injustice of the McCarthy era. That Marguerite’s nickname, Maggie, is so close to the name Mattie at least suggests how easy it would have been for the writer to identify with this particular heroine.

And here’s what’s been bothering me about the Coen Brothers’s version of True Grit. In the advertising thus far, Mattie has been nearly absent, with actors Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and James Brolin getting top billing, and actress Hailee Steinfield (who plays Mattie) barely mentioned (and visible only briefly in the television advertisements). What is remarkable about the 1969 True Grit (in addition to an amiable and amusing performance from John Wayne) is the centrality of Mattie (played by Kim Darby). Tom Chaney killed her father, and she is going to bring him to justice, and both the camera and the story follow her every step of the way. Is the new version of True Grit going to be a film in which Mattie is reduced to a secondary character?

Michael Cieply, writing in the New York Times (December 3, 2010), notes “feminist spunk displayed by Mattie Ross, as portrayed by the television actor Kim Darby,” as being a notable feature of the 1969 film. He also writes that  “Studio production notes, also on file at the academy library, described her as ‘perky.’ In their leaner, meaner new movie, the Coens deliver a fiercer young heroine.” At least, Mattie is being mentioned by the directors, even if she isn’t being shown much in the advertising.  And, although I haven’t seen the new movie yet, I have to say that Mattie is pretty fierce in the first film, and describing her as “perky” seems to be the studio’s way of spinning a female protagonist to make her seem less progressive and daring than she actually is–by describing her in terms of a stereotype (the “perky” heroine) that doesn’t really fit her character. “I won’t rest,” Matty asserts, until “Tom Chaney’s rotting in hell.” Perky?

Abandoned by Cogburn and La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) at a ferry crossing, Mattie escapes from the man who is supposed to escort her back to town, dashes off on her pony, and fords the stream on her own, while Cogburn and La Boeuf stay high and dry on the ferry. Perky? Cogburn comments, “By God, she reminds me of me!” And would anyone describe Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn as “perky”?

And that’s not the only place where an explicit comparison is drawn between the two.  Mattie is a delightful character, a fourteen-year-girl  confidently navigating a man’s world, armed with her father’s pistol and the full authority of her lawyer Daggett (“She draws that lawyer’s name like a gun,” Lo Boeuf comments). Chaney dismisses her as a “bookkeeper,” but she is clearly the brains of the family and of the family farm. She confronts livery owner Stonehill (Strother Martin) about four ponies that her father purchased from him before he was killed, insisting that Stonehill buy them back. As she observes (and as her father apparently hadn’t), the ponies, although purchased for breeding purposes, are in fact geldings, and thus her father’s deal (she argues) should be voided. If lawyer Daggett is one of her weapons, another is her quick wit and clever way with words. Few western heroes, who are generally known for talking little, command words (and through words, people) the way that Mattie does. She succeeds because she is smarter and stronger-willed than anybody else in the film. It doesn’t hurt that she can out-talk everybody as well, and it also doesn’t hurt that, when it comes time for shooting, she is perfectly willing to fire her oversized pistol. “I’m here to take you back to Fort Smith and hang you,” she tells Chaney. When he moves toward her, she fires the pistol and wounds the man. “I didn’t think you’d do it,” Chaney replies shocked. It’s best not to underestimate Maggie, which Chaney does, and, by the end of the film, he’ll repeat that mistake, and Maggie will shoot him again.

True Grit is about 20 minutes too long, Glenn Campbell is really not a good actor, and there are too many action sequences (including a fairly silly encounter with a rattlesnake) at the end of the movie.  Still, the film was an unexpectedly engaging experience, in large part because of Marguerite Roberts’s script, and particularly the humor of the script. Ned Pepper, an outlaw that Chaney has taken up with, is someone that Cogburn has been chasing for a while, even getting close enough to shoot him “in his lower lip.”  “How did you happen to wound his lower lip?” someone asks, “What were you aiming at?”  Cogburn replies, “His upper lip.”  In some ways, the film has a sensibility akin to the 1990s television series, The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr., although not willing to push the comic elements of the story nearly as far as Briscoe County. I’m looking forward to the Coen Brothers’ version of the novel (they have been quite explicit in noting that this is a new adaptation and not a remake of the 1969 film), but I’m now kind of wishing that someone would remake the original film—with Bruce Campbell as Rooster Cogburn.