The Walking Dead: “Live Bait”

As we’ve noted before on the blog, we’re interested in television shows that fall under the category of post-western: television shows that take the Western out of the 19th-century American West and locate it in different places and sometimes different time periods.

The AMC series The Walking Dead literally takes place in contemporary Georgia, but we are metaphorically in a frontier situation brought about by the zombie apocalypse, which has caused civilization to collapse and humanity to return to a state of nature. (See earlier posts, “Two Guys Walk into a Bar . . . .” and “Wrapping Up The Walking Dead.”)

The most recent episode of The Walking Dead, “Live Bait,” played around with several western motifs in a story that centered on a character known as the Governor (or Phillip, in a former life, and Brian, the name he adopts in his most recent self-invention).

One of the early scenes of the Governor, alone and wandering, plays out with the sound of “The Last Pale Light in the West” by Ben Nichols playing on the soundtrack. If the Governor is not literally walking West in this episode, the song suggests that at least metaphorically he is doing so, as the protagonist of the song is walking toward the “setting sun” that is “in his way.” Even if he (like the speaker of the song) is asking for “no redemption,” the song connects the Governor to those two classic western motifs–heading west (into the sunset), looking for, or accidentally finding, redemption along the way.  And what better way to seek redemption than to help out a trio of stranded female homesteaders—I mean, post-apocalyptic survivors—after their father dies? The episode moves forward with the Governor moving on with a new family of sorts, including a young girl that reminds him of his own long-lost daughter.

Throughout the series, the Governor has struck me as being portrayed in a way that suggests or recalls John Wayne. Actor David Morrisey, who plays the Governor, does so somewhat subtly in his vocal delivery, but, I think more clearly in his body language, at various times striking poses that recall Wayne’s cowboy persona. And when he shows up onscreen in “Live Bait” with an eyepatch and an unruly beard, there’s more than a little resemblance to Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn (and a whole lot of resemblance to Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken in Escape from New York), or maybe it’s Jeff Bridge’s version of Rooster that is striking me when I look at the Governor.

As the episode progresses, he shaves his beard, keeps his eyepatch, and indeed looks like a new man. Is redemption possible for the Governor?

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Django Unchained

I must admit to admiring the audacity (or perversity) of opening Django Unchained on Christmas Day, as Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-violent blaxploitation spaghetti-western-homage is about as unlikely a holiday movie as I’ve ever seen.  True Grit, which was a Christmas Day western gift a couple of years ago,  had some imagery and themes consistent with its holiday release day (even if Rooster Cogburn was hardly a typical holiday movie character).  With excellent performances by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz as the film’s bounty hunter heroes, and a delightfully crazed and comic turn by Leonardo DiCaprio as villainous slaveholder Calvin Candie, and a filmmaking style that is so over the top that you can’t even see the top that the film is way over because you are up so high, Django Unchained is certainly one of the more interesting westerns to come out in a while, and one that is brave enough to cast an African American hero at its center, and brave enough as well not to gloss over the brutality of slavery in the way that so many other “southern” westerns have. And unlike other “southerns,” Hell on Wheels among them, Django Unchained is not so enamoured with the cowboy with romantic southern roots as to make him the hero (even as such westerns simultaneously play up the southern roots and downplay the connection to slaveholding). The southerners in this western are not the heroes, and that is a revision that the western has long needed to make.

There are 6 quarts of blood in the human body. Each time someone is shot in Django Unchained, it seems like the full 6 quarts comes flying out and splashing around the movie screen. Tarantino has mentioned in interviews that he wanted to bring an “operatic” style to the violence, and, I suppose that might be the case if Herschel Gordon Lewis were an opera director.

One of my favorite parts of the film is the wagon that bounty hunter King Schultz—disguised as a dentist—travels in, topped as it is by a large human tooth on a spring. As the tooth wobbles back and forth, the spring squeaks in a rhythmic way, and I suspect this is an homage to the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, with its squeaking windmill (and, indeed, Tarantino may even have lifted that sound from Leone’s movie as the source of his squeaking tooth noise). Another reason that I love that tooth is that it seems to comment on what I’ve started to referring to as the “dental revisionism” of the contemporary western. As we all know, the perfect teeth of contemporary actors have little in common with the teeth of the 19th century characters they play in westerns, and there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of filmmakers to “correct” the dentally inaccurate portrayals in earlier generations of westerns. They have been doing so by using dental prosthetics to reflect the poor quality of dental care in the Old West. And, in every film that I’ve seen, the revisionist corrections done in the name of realism have been anything but realistic. My first thought on seeing an actor smile to reveal enough moss to make an “Old Manse” feel jealous is not, “wow, what an attention to realistic detail,” but, “wow, that looks really fake.” The giant tooth bobbing up and down atop the wagon is a more realistic looking tooth than most of the prosthetics that I’ve seen. And if Tarantino didn’t then indulge in the same sort of dental revisionism via prosthetic teeth that I’ve seen in far too many movies, I might suspect a sly commentary on the practice.  To Django Unchained‘s credit, the prosthetics show more restraint than almost anything else in the film, and none of the mouths quite reach the absurdity of Walton Goggins’s ridiculously bad teeth in Cowboys and Aliens (which remains my nominee for the Prosthetic Teeth Hall of Fame). (See Cowboys, Aliens, and Prosthetic Teeth.)

Although the civilized and educated King Schultz is in many ways just the opposite of Rooster Cogburn, he fulfills somewhat of the same role as Cogburn in True Grit. As a gun for hire, or a lawman for hire, Cogburn suggests that there’s a fuzzy line between a Marshal and a bounty hunter. Schultz plays the experienced bounty hunter to Foxx’s Django, who takes on the Mattie Ross role, learning the ropes from Schultz. Among the differences, the path that Shultz and Django take moves from one frontier to another, from the story of western bounty hunting into the world of plantation slavery, one with which Django (a slave whose freedom is purchased by Schultz) is intimately familiar. As the film shifts in its second half from the bounty hunter story to the infiltration of Candie’s plantation (“Candie Land”), Foxx shifts roles in a way that Mattie does not—as he is the expert on negotiating this particular violent frontier.

With its two bounty hunters (as well as its revenge/rescue plot), Django Unchained reminds me a little of For a Few Dollars More, which I watched again fairly recently, and was somewhat surprised by the high body count in the film (especially when many of those body’s are loaded onto a wagon at the end to be carried in for their bounties). I don’t know of anyone has done a body count yet for Django, but it would probably take more higher math skill than I have. The question may finally be: which is higher? the body count or the number of times America’s most popular racial epithet gets used? As I said earlier, whether it’s the blood or the bad language, Django Unchained is a very unlikely holiday film. It is nonetheless a good action-packed western for those of us who prefer a showdown or two (or six) in our holiday films.

Justified: End of Season Two

Both the title (“Bloody Harlan”) of the season concluding episode of Justified and the song that played over the end credits (“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”) were very appropriate given what occurs in the episode. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, avoid reading any further, as it will be difficult to discuss the episode without revealing who leaves Harlan alive and who doesn’t.

One person who does leave Harlan alive is Raylan Givens, and he’s lucky to have made it out alive. In one instant, when he is tied up and hanging by his foot from a tree with a very very happy Dickie Bennett taking swings at him with a baseball bat, it’s Boyd Crowder who shows up to save Raylan—although not necessarily for Raylan’s sake. Earlier in the episode, in a raid on Boyd’s house, Dickie shoots Ava Crowder (demonstrating that he has a penchant for shooting women in their kitchens), and Boyd’s presence is not so much to rescue Raylan as to kill Dickie.

In the second moment, Doyle Bennett has the drop on Raylan, who is wounded and on the ground beside a car after an outburst of gunfire. Doyle makes a common mistake, in that he fails to take Tuco’s advice from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (“when it’s time to shoot–shoot, don’t talk”). “This bullet’s been on the way for 20 years,” Doyle says to Raylan, which turns out to be the last words Doyle speaks on this earth. It’s good to have skilled sharpshooters like Tim for friends. The marshal’s service arrives just in time, Tim takes out Doyle, and Art arrives with the rest of the marshals to secure the Bennett residence. Even though Raylan is in Harlan on his own “personal time” as Art tells Winona when she entreats him to help and he initially refuses, he changes his mind, and perhaps this is a step toward a reconciliation between Raylan and Art after a season that has seen the relationship between the two become increasingly strained and distant.

One of the most interesting parts of the episode involves the return of Loretta McCready to Harlan, as her story arc in the season is resolved by turning into a version of True Grit.  She bolts from her foster home, after stealing her foster father’s pistol, and, as Raylan rightly observes, “She’s likely going down to Harlan to avenge her daddy’s murder” (Raylan knows this because, he says, “that’s what I would have done when I was fifteen”). When the man she’s contracted to drive her to Harlan balks, Loretta responds, “I’ve come this far. I will see this thing through.”  Mattie Ross couldn’t have said it better.

When Mags Bennett tries to convince Loretta that she’s really too frightened of the gun to pull the trigger, Loretta proves otherwise and shoots Mags in the leg. If Tuco is right, and it’s better to shoot than talk when shooting needs to be done, Raylan knows that sometimes it’s time to talk, not shoot. Wounded himself, he convinces Loretta to put down the gun and saves her from murdering Mags. Loretta proves that she’s tough, but she escapes from the episode without becoming a killer.

Mags, however, does not leave Harlan alive. Somehow or another, Dickie is the only Bennett alive at the end of the episode. Mags takes herself out with a poisoned swig of her “apple pie” moonshine.

Unlike season one, which ended with a cliffhanger, season two resolves most of its primary plot lines in this episode. Raylan’s isolation from his colleagues at the Marshal’s service comes to an end, or, at least, they come to his rescue. The Bennett crime family dynasty has crumbled. We don’t know, however, whether or not Ava has survived the gunshot wound. And although Winona intercedes with Art on Raylan’s behalf, we don’t know if she’ll be waiting for him when he returns to Lexington. Even though Raylan was justified in his actions, which were taken to save Loretta, his willingness to put himself in danger while he is on leave and without backup is one of the reasons Winona divorced him in the first place. I guess we’ll see what happens in season three.

Frank Rich on True Grit

Columnist Frank Rich had an interesting take on True Grit in his New York Times column Sunday (Jan 22, 2011), comparing it to The Social Network, and arguing that True Grit depicts America as we wish it could be while The Social Network depicts (critically) the America that is (click on the excerpt below to go to the full article).

I wonder if the appeal of True Grit to a broad audience is also reflective of contemporary views of heroism, longing for a hero, perhaps, but skeptical. True Grit both mocks and celebrates its heroes. Cogburn is certainly a flawed hero, as well as being as much a comic character as a heroic one. LaBoeuf is a comic character throughout, but he nonetheless rises to the occasion, and despite his vanity, thin-skinnedness about the Texas Rangers, and cow-licked hair, he makes the astounding shot that fells Ned Peppers.

From “The One-Eyed Man is King” (by Frank Rich):

But what leaps out this time, to the point of seeming fresh, is the fierce loyalty of the principal characters to each other (the third being a vain Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon) and their clear-cut sense of morality and justice, even when the justice is rough. More than the first “True Grit,” the new one emphasizes Mattie’s precocious, almost obsessive preoccupation with the law. She is forever citing law-book principles, invoking lawyers and affidavits, and threatening to go to court. “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another,” says Mattie. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.”

That kind of legal and moral cost-accounting seems as distant as a tintype now. The new “True Grit” lands in an America that’s still not recovered from a crash where many of the reckless perpetrators of economic mayhem deflected any accountability and merely moved on to the next bubble, gamble or ethically dubious backroom deal. When Americans think of the law these days, they often think of a system that can easily be gamed by the rich and the powerful, starting with those who pillaged Lehman Brothers, A.I.G. and Citigroup and left taxpayers, shareholders and pensioners in the dust. A virtuous soul like Mattie would be crushed in a contemporary gold rush even if (or especially if) she fought back with the kind of civil action so prized by the 19th-century Mattie.

Talk about Two Americas. Look at “The Social Network” again after seeing “True Grit,” and you’ll see two different civilizations, as far removed from each other in ethos as Silicon Valley and Monument Valley. While “Social Network” fictionalizes Mark Zuckerberg, it mines the truth of an era — from the ability of the powerful and privileged to manipulate the system to the collapse of loyalty as a prized American virtue at the top of that economic pyramid.

Reading True Grit

If the difficulty I had finding a copy of Charles Portis’ True Grit in a bookstore is any indication, I’m not the only person inspired by the Coen Brothers’s new adaptation to take a look at the source. I always find it interesting to see what strategies filmmakers used to adapt a book into a movie. First person narratives like True Grit seem particularly difficult, in part because of the difficulty of transforming literary voice into a cinematic style, and in part because written narrative seems more amenable to creating the illusion that we are truly sharing a character’s perspective. The transition from first person may have been easier with True Grit, as Maggie is a narrator who is intent on observing and describing the world around her. Rather than providing the subjective experience of Rooster Cogburn’s testimony at the Wharton trial, she provides us with a transcript, stepping completely aside from her place in the narrative to let the words of Cogburn and the lawyer Barlow carry the story. Rather astonishingly, the exchange from the novel plays out almost verbatim on screen—it’s rare when dialogue written to be read works as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.

However, one of the pleasures of the book is Maggie’s narration, especially when she goes onto the kind of tangents that tend to get cut out of film—there’s more space for leisurely telling in a novel. I particularly like those moments when she speaks directly to the reader, or even to specific groups of readers:

I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious “clap-trap.” My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.

Some people might say, well, what business was it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to the short devil a good turn. Chaney was his tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?

I also like the way she puts quotation marks around words like “clap-trap,” and “stunt,” and, well, some dozens of other words that she uses.

The Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit follows the novel so closely, that it makes those moments of departure all the more interesting. Although the Coens, in interviews, have said they weren’t interested in remaking the earlier film (and, if I’m recalling correctly, even stated that they didn’t re-watch it), there seems to be an homage here and there to the John Wayne film. For example, in the book, Mattie does not at any point take Cogburn’s tobacco away and roll his cigarette for him, but she does so in both film versions of True Grit.

Another significant departure from the novel is when LaBoeuf gets angry at Cogburn’s continued disparagement of the Texas Rangers and goes off on his own, leaving Mattie and Rooster to travel together without him.  In part, this seems to create an opportunity to include Mattie in more of the action (she’s the one to climb on the roof of the cabin to drape a jacket over the chimney; she’s the one that must climb a tree and cut down the body of the hanged man).

And that entire sequence of Mattie cutting down the body, not to mention the discovery of the body itself, is not part of the novel. The character listed in the credits as “Bear Man” is a new character, and his appearance wearing a bear skin (complete with head) is one of the film’s most bizarre moments—as is the revelation that he’s a kind of frontier dentist (who should, by the way, pay a visit to Lucky Ed Peppers, whose extravagantly unattractive rotting set of choppers gets my nomination for this year’s Academy Award for prosthetic teeth design).  The appearance of Bear Man was one of the more memorable moments in the film, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

Music in True Grit

Based on David Fenimore’s comments:

Michael’s got me thinking about the role that the soundtrack plays in this rhythmic distancing of perspective. I remember noticing the alternation of traditional sweeping orchestral “western” music with more intimate (and synchronistic) folk-flavored music. I was especially aware of this in the final scenes, when the epilogue (as I remember) is set to a honky-tonk solo piano, a striking contrast from the mythic sweep of stars as Cogburn brings Mattie “home.”

Building on David’s observation, what follows the epilogue is Iris DeMent’s haunting version of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which plays over the credits (and may begin while we see Maggie walking away from Rooster’s grave). My memory may not be completely accurate here, but I believe that the melody of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” appears here and there throughout the film—perhaps even in the orchestral music behind the scene of Little Blackie’s last ride and Cogburn’s bring Mattie “home” (to use David’s phrase).

True Grit Doing Well at the Box Office

The Coen Brothers adaptation of True Grit is doing well at the box office, earning higher numbers than expected. This also seems to be having an affect on the sales of the novel—at least based on anecdotal evidence. I’ve been trying to buy a copy of the novel to read for the past couple of weeks and have had little luck—it’s been sold out at the places I’ve checked.

Below are excerpts from a couple of articles about the box office success of True Grit (click on excerpt to go to full article):

From the Los Angeles Times:

The 2010 holidays brought big-budget action movies, 3-D family adventures and star-driven comedies, but the season’s only undisputed hit is an old-fashioned, guns-blazing western.

“True Grit” sold a studio-estimated $24.5-million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada on its second weekend, just short of the $26.3 million taken in by the more expensive and hyped “Little Fockers.”

From the New York Times:
For the Coens “True Grit” is already a personal best. It has easily surpassed ticket sales for “No Country for Old Men,” their highest-grossing film, which took in $74.3 million after its release by Miramax Films in 2007, and went on to win the best picture Oscar.

Asked if he had any idea why this version of “True Grit” (it was first filmed in 1969) had connected so strongly, Joel Coen, who spoke by telephone on Monday, said, “None at all.”

Joining the conversation a few minutes later, Ethan speculated that, after 15 films, the mass audience had simply stopped avoiding them. “We just outwaited everybody,” he said.

More pragmatically the brothers pointed out that “True Grit,” which received its PG-13 rating despite a heavy body count and graphic language, was more accessible to a younger audience than their R-rated pictures, which include “Fargo” and “A Serious Man.”

A softer rating, Joel said, was integral to their concept of the film, which is about a girl’s fight to avenge her father’s death. “We knew we wanted it to be a movie younger people could watch,” he said.