/ 18 February 2011

Western culture

Western Culture

The Coen brothers’ version of True Grit is going as a return to the novel by Charles Portis rather than a remake, as such, of the John Wayne vehicle that came out in 1969.

Still, it adds up to a remake of that movie, which won for Wayne his only Oscar for best actor and rejuvenated what remained of his career. (It even got a sequel, Rooster Cogburn, in which Wayne was teamed with Katharine Hepburn.)

No doubt the spectacle of the tough old codger playing a tough old codger, and doing so with a modicum of self-deprecating humour, warmed the hearts of the Academy. The star, whose film career began in 1926 and featured such classics as The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Red River, had nailed his militarist right-wing sympathies to the mast with The Green Berets in 1968, generating some controversy in traditionally soft-left Hollywood. But a large amount of residual affection for his screen persona, at least, probably meant a collective sigh of relief when he returned to the western — and a relatively traditional one at that.

For the late 1960s were when the “revisionist” western was born — the anti-Wayne western, you might call it. At that point, a genre deeply associated with American frontier values (which included the nobility of heroism as well as an assumed white supremacy) had been stumbling into a sentimental, even senile, sunset. The 1960s counterculture was making old-style America’s myths look hollow: good guys in white hats versus bad guys in black hats just didn’t cut it any more.

Sergio Leone had already shaken up the western with A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, though its impact in the United States came only with its wider release three years later.

Leone’s westerns were both minimal and operatic, informed by a European cultural history that had hitherto been alien to the western’s down-home sensibility. The lines between good guys and bad guys were blurred, and what seemed almost nihilistic on the surface was in fact driven by rather disillusioned left-wing politics.

Picaresque storytelling tradition
Witness Leone’s later work, Duck, You Sucker! (also known as A Fistful of Dynamite), where his politics come most clearly to the fore. The film is a remarkable conjunction of the picaresque storytelling tradition and rough modern comedy, coming out as a post-Marxist parable of the rise and fall of peasant insurrection, its collapse into corrupt self-interest and the machinations of the footloose revolutionary troublemaker.

At any rate, it’s notable that round the time the Wayne True Grit appeared there were various assaults on the old western tradition to be found. In the same year, Sam Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch, which is both a culmination of the traditional western and an evisceration of its values from within: he updates its notions of heroism to encompass self-aware self-destruction, as well as choreographing the kind of bloodbath that is surely closer to real frontier politics than the usual poetic stand-off of lone good guy and lone bad guy on a dusty street.

The year 1969 also saw the emergence of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where scriptwriter William Goldman revised the western to include those very countercultural values, or echoes of them. The result was a cynically charming buddy movie with a dash of late-1960s sexual libertarianism thrown in — though it should be noted that his characters are as self-destructive as Peckinpah’s, only more blithely so. In 1969, too, the Andy Warhol crowd regaled the world with Lonesome Cowboys, which assaulted the traditional western not just with sex but with a general disregard for any moral hierarchy whatsoever.

It wouldn’t be long before Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man took the American Indian’s view of matters (and identified the massacres of Indians with the war in Vietnam) and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller troubled both the straightforward romantic dynamic of the western as well as making those heroic gunfights look decidedly arbitrary and indeed suicidally silly.

So one can’t help feel that True Grit has a special place in the history of the western, giving it back some of the simple morality and good feelings it might by then have lost. It was already nostalgic in 1969. Thus for the Coen brothers to rework it today looks like a gesture of nostalgia for an era of simpler values, a step away from their own post-modern playfulness and wry irony, even the cool nihilism of their No Country for Old Men. Their True Grit seems devoid of irony, unless there is a soupçon of it simply in their decision to remake it.

The Coenism
Perhaps there was just a lot of money in it for Joel and Ethan Coen. Their only other remake, The Ladykillers, seemed rather pointless when set against the British original and their only movie not based on one of their own scripts, Intolerable Cruelty, didn’t feel much like a Coen brothers’ movie at all.

And that’s the trouble with True Grit: it’s perfectly enjoyable, and shows a fair amount of Coenism at the level of detail, but you can imagine the put-upon Barton Fink being faced with the notion of remaking a western more than 40 years old and thinking, “What the hell?”

The narrative of True Grit sets itself up as somewhat unusual: a teenage girl resolutely seeks vengeance for her father’s death, employing a fat, cantankerous old drunkard of a marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to sling the guns for her. Putting 14-year-old Mattie Ross at its centre, and giving her the narrative voice, was an innovation — as was the presentation of the figure who would formerly have been the hero as a one-eyed drunk.

And yet, of course, the old marshal rediscovers his inner (thinner?) hero, and tough little Mattie emerges as the very model of frontier values. At the same time, this inversion and combination provide some welcome comedy.

In the Coen brothers’ version the story is unchanged but for a return to the Portis ending rather than that of the Wayne film (which brings it closer to what fans of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid call an “elegiac” western). Mattie is still Mattie, though even tougher and played this time by Hailee Steinfeld (and excellently so); instead of Wayne, going as fat but wearing a corset, we have Jeff Bridges, who probably had to be padded up for the role — he is, of course, very good.

And, instead of Glen Campbell as a Texas ranger who joins the hunt, we have Matt Damon giving us a little of the quirkiness that one expects from the Coens but is otherwise absent from the movie.

All this is a lot of fun, and as far as filmmaking goes it’s impeccably done. True Grit is a hugely entertaining movie; it’s just not much of a Coen brothers’ movie.