Monday 14 March 2011

True Grit (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, USA, 2010)

One moment emblematic of True Grit: Lucky Ned Pepper’s teeth. Dental calculus fused to crooked pegs, a fresh coating of furry biofilm the colour of English mustard set in a grimace of dried, cracked lips. Some real dirty realism. Take the voices: the almost subsonic, sometimes incompressible growl of Rooster Coburn; the transformation of LaBoeuf’s measured, dignified articulations to comic thwollen tongued thounds; the educated, erudite precision and farm-hand tenacity of young Mattie – all circumscribed by the style of the King James Bible. Wonderful. And the same goes for the situations traversed by the characters: Mattie and the pony salesman, Rooster getting drunk on his horse, LaBoeuf and his hissy-fits – all encompassed in a wintering wild west, the indifference of humanity and nature both sides of the river frontier: Fort Smith and the lands of the Choctaw. Realism, yet more-so. True Grit is a joy.

Yet the question has been asked, do we need True Grit? In the first place, it is an old style classic western. In the second place, it is a remake of old style classic western. ‘This True Grit,’ writes Will Self, ‘says nothing more substantive about the role of Manifest Destiny in American self-conception (which is what, in the final analysis, all serious westerns are about) than the last one did’. Self’s target is not simply True Grit, but the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. For Self ‘it was inevitable that, sooner or later, they would feel compelled to make – or rather, remake – a western.’ Why? Because the ‘central problem’ with the Coens’ is ‘their reflexivity as directors, making films of films rather than films tout court… this is why – even at their best – the Coens’ films have a feeling of being refracted rather than immediate experiences’ (‘Flirting with genre,’ Guardian: 12.02.01).

Is it enough to respond to Self by saying that True Grit is not a remake? That it is, instead, a ‘different version,’ a different take on the original novel by Charles Portis (Philip French, The Observer: 13.02.11). I think not. For Self it is the films of the Coens’ in general that perpetrate a refraction through other films, True Grit is simply the most obvious sign of such poverty.

Perhaps, by way of response, in order to affirm rather than negate the film, we should rather begin, at least initially, by agreeing with a certain aspect of Self’s diagnosis. We must say ‘yes’ True Grit is a remake. A remake of the 1969 version. Further, we should push on… surely Self does not go far enough? We are also tempted to say the film is a remake of The Wizard of Oz. As Krishna Stott, director-producer-writer at Bellyfeel, remarked after we saw the film, Mattie has something of the look of Judy Garland. But it goes beyond the look: a girl enters a world of dreams and nightmares. She is carried from one world to another, over the river by her horse, and – at the end of her adventure – back through the night by Rooster. The girl has adventures with a bullying coward, a man of tin and a drunken scarecrow. Or perhaps a remake of Tarkovsky’s Stalker? Which itself can be seen as a remake of The Wizard of Oz

And of course True Grit, both films, are also interpretations of scripts, which were re-imaginings of a book. And the tone of the movie can be said to be a resituating of the literary atmosphere of a Cormac McCarthy novel, or even, in an entirely different way, the gaming environments of Red Dead Redemption. In other words, a whole nexus of remakes of remakes, including a remake of all the other films the Coens’ have made, which in turn remake other films. Is not every film a remake of other films, books, plays and paintings?

Yet we must not be hasty and claim that the problem is the exact opposite of the one posited by Self, that no film can be anything other than ‘refracted,’ that no film can reach ‘immediate experiences.’ Rather, we would like to say that the dichotomy is a false one, a false problem with a long history. Plato – in his the first version of the problem – describes a world of pure, ideal Forms that exist beyond our senses and the manifestations of those pure Forms on the Earth appear as particular objects. However, the artist, in this narrative, only makes a copy of the object, a copy of a copy, an imitation (Republic). In other words, all art is condemned as being a third degree away from the truth. Plato, will attack his own theory (Parmenades) and rework it, going on to describing two types of copy, the true and the false (Statesman; Sophist). This false copy is what will become known as the simulacrum, that which distorts. A few thousand years later Jean Baudrillard will describe the simulacrum as being a fourth remove from the truth. First comes a reflection of reality; second the distortion of reality; third the loss of reality; and finally the simulacrum, which ‘bears no relation to any reality whatsoever’ (Simulacra and Simulations). Self’s analysis is in this lineage.

It seems to us that these, and other, versions of the simulacrum partake of a fundamental negativity. Rather, we would like to suggest that every image has two sides: one true, one false; one faithful, one a simulacrum; one ‘refracted,’ one an ‘immediate experience’; one original, one a remake. Each image, each filmic composition of images, cannot but put these forces into play… the dynamics of any image, of any film, are thus the outcome of this play of forces…

Gilles Deleuze explores just such a play of forces in a number of ways throughout many of his books. For example, in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze sees Plato’s negative-simulacrum as a lost opportunity. Rather than a distortion opposed to a faithful copy, the simulacrum can become an affirmative falsification, can indicate a circulation of images not a stratification of levels of truth. Deleuze will abandon the concept of the simulacrum in later work, replacing it with the rhizome, with deterritorialisation, with machinic assemblages and various other conceptual fragments. One trajectory is that of the cliché. And it here we can re-approach cinema.

As Philip French beautifully maintains, the way the courthouse is dressed and filmed in True Grit ‘evokes the paintings of Thomas Eakins, the Philadelphia recorder of emerging middle-class life, and represents the bourgeois world that's encroaching on the frontier’ (The Observer: 13.02.11). In his book on painting, Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation, Deleuze has this to say about the cliché:

‘It is a mistake to think that the painter works on a white surface… If the painter were before a white surface, he – or she – could reproduce on it an external object functioning as a model. But such is not the case. The painter has many things in his head, or around him, or in his studio. Now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas, more or less virtually, more or less actually, before he begins his work. They are all present in the canvas as so many images, actual or virtual, so that the painter does not have to cover a blank surface, but rather would have to empty it out, clear it, clean it. He does not paint in order to reproduce on the canvas an object functioning as a model, he paints on images that are already there, in order to produce a canvas whose functioning will reverse the relations between model and copy’ (FB, 86).

We can clearly see here the Deleuzian take on the faithful reproduction and the simulacrum… and he goes on to restate this thus ‘clichés are always already on the canvas, and if the painter is content to transform the cliché, to deform or mutilate it, to manipulate it in every possible way, this reaction is still too intellectual, too abstract: it allows the cliché to rise again from its ashes, it leaves the painter within the milieu of the cliché, or else gives him or her no other consolation than parody’ (FB, 87). So, there needs to be a second moment, ‘it would be much better to abandon oneself to clichés, to collect them. Accumulate them, multiply them, as so many prepictorial givens’ (FB, 92). In this way, ‘only when one leaves them behind, through rejection, can the work begin’ (FB, 92). Yet the question remains ‘how do I proceed so that what I paint does not become a cliché?’ (FB, 93). There is, of course, no universal solution… ‘one can fight against cliché only with much guile, perseverance, and prudence: it is a task perpetually renewed with every painting, with every moment of every paining’ (FB, 96).

In other words, even though Self’s critique of the Coens’ is badly formed (the films are bad because they are copies, rather than, all images have to escape cliché), it is none-the-less a crucial one. The question becomes, do the Coens’ – through their filmic images and procedures – manage to escape cliché, and if so, how? What is the Coens’ way? In particular with True Grit, and in general across their oeuvre.

Deleuze’s returns to the problem of clichés in his cinema books. He describes two broad domains of cinema, the movement-image and the time-image. The former aligns, more or less, with classical cinematic codes, while the latter with modernist, arthouse and postmodernist strategies. The former flows from image to image, binding the spectator to the images so as to ensure they think with the film, the latter operates through different tactics, attempting to break the flow of images, and give the spectator the chance to read, rather than simple see, the film. It might be thought that the move from movement-image to time-image describes the path from cliché to an overturning of cliché… yet this is not the case: ‘there is no value-judgement here, because this new regime – no less than the old one – throws up its ready-made formulas, its set procedures, its laboured and empty applications, its failures, its conventional and ‘second-hand’ examples offered to us as masterpieces’ (C2: 132). In other words, the moving beyond cliché has nothing to do with the move beyond classical realism. So, how do we know if a film escapes cliché…? Only in the particular strategies it puts into play…

Let us return to Self’s coup de grâce for True Grit, that the film ‘says nothing more substantive about the role of Manifest Destiny in American self-conception (which is what, in the final analysis, all serious westerns are about) than the last one did’ (‘Flirting with genre,’ Guardian: 12.02.01). We may baulk at the idea that all westerns, all so-called serious westerns, must engage with the concept of Manifest Destiny, but let us leave this to one side. We may also not want to compare True Grit 1969 to True Grit 2010, we may prefer to think the film in and of itself, but by way of conversation, let’s allow ourselves to do so…

Mattie Ross, a precocious fourteen year old girl, turns up at Fort Smith to bring the killer of her father to justice. However, Tom Chaney, the killer, has crossed the river, disappearing into ‘Indian territory’. So Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn , a man who answers – she is told – her request for a bounty hunter with true grit. Trouble is, Cogburn is a fat old drunk, well past his prime. The scenario is thus set for revenge!

In the 1969 film Cogburn takes centre stage, in the 2010 film it is Mattie. And while in both films it is Mattie who kills Chaney, and in doing so is thrown backwards by the recoil of the rifle into a snake pit, in the 1969 film she recovers, while in the 2001 film she does not. This is made explicit in the coda, which reminds us that the film began with the voice over narration of an older Mattie, thus positioning the entire film as a flashback, as a memory, a narration of an older Mattie.

This leads us on to the most crucial differentiation between the films, which can be explored through the Deleuzian cineosis. While both films are of the movement-image, their component image differs. In True Grit 1969 the action-image dominates. Action-images explore the way in which situations are associated with character behaviours. However, as we have seen, True Grit 2010 is caught within a flashback. Flashbacks operate within the domain of thought, mental-images, which explore the way in which a film captures the thinking of characters. Flashbacks are recollection-images, powerful component of the domain of thought in that they attempt to depict on-screen the remembrances of a character or characters. For Deleuze flashbacks are the instrument of ‘psychological causality,’ a ‘closed circuit which goes from the present to the past, then leads us back to the present’ (C2:47; 49). When unambiguous this is a strong sense of destiny… it is the past which leads inexorably to the present and will dictate the future.

Mattie looses her arm, remains unmarried woman, appears severe. This is not what we expect. The trials in the lands of the Choctaw were not adventures that would drag the girl from a cloistered adolescence towards a fulfilled maturity. This is why the Coens’ went into such detail of Mattie’s character in Fort Smith. These adventures essentially ruined her. The film does not explore the glory of revenge, but rather explores the futility of revenge through loss. Many years later she attempts to find Rooster at the Rodeo, but he is gone, is dead. Absences permeate the film, her father, the disappeared killer, her arm, Rooster – and… so beautifully absent we barely notice it – the Choctaw. The people are missing…

The manifest destiny of the Anglo-Saxon colonizers is revealed for what it is, the annexation of territory after territory, betrayal upon betrayal, as we know so well through Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Rather than an allegorical Colombia, bringing civilisation and justice, these whites are whites doing what whites do. The Coens’ True Grit does indeed have something very different to say about manifest destiny… It is the colonizers' right, their ‘manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty,’ so wrote John O'Sullivan, democrat and New York editor of The Morning Post in 1845. And now the spirit of manifest destiny crosses oceans with democracy and oil. The Coens’ True Grit, in this way, enters into a machinic assemblage with 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq…

In a sense, you could say that the film has gone back to the book, is more true to the book than the original film. However, as we have already discovered, this is no way to designate the originality of a film, the escape from cliché. However, in the case of the Coens’ this could at least be said, in this specific instance, to be a clue, an indicator. This is a film that takes the conventions of the classic western seriously, deploys those conventions through the politics of the neo-western yet has the self-reflexive surface of the ‘post-modern’ western. The film manages to have its cake, eat it… and then throw it back up. True Grit is a return to the classic western made possible only by passing through the neo-western and the post-modern western. Which is to say, more classical than the classical, a reverence for the classical, not to copy or imitate it, but to return to the very beginning and re-invent it. To look again. And this, surely, is the procedure of the Coen’s in general, across all their films, to return to the beginning to look once more, to rediscover originality before the cliché. And this is why they are not simply content to make a western, but instead to remake a great western, one of the last great classical westerns. This is not a tribute, this is not nostalgia, this is an affirmation of cinema.

‘Sometimes,’ writes Self, ‘it occurs to me that the job of a serious cultural critic mostly consists in telling the generality of people that their opinions – on films, on books, on all manner of widgets, gadgets and even the latest electronic fidgets – simply aren’t up to scratch. It’s a dirty, thankless task, but someone has to do it’ (‘Flirting with genre,’ Guardian: 12.02.01). The Nietzschean response – a response echoed in the very procedure of Deleuze’s cinema books, where he only discusses what he considers to be masterpieces – would be ‘let looking away be my only negation!’ (The Gay Science: 173).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, I love your review nearly asmuch as I love this movie (and a large 80% of Cohens' transgender affirmative work).