Friday, January 14, 2011

The Middle Aisle: In Circa: True Grit (2010)

"I find that man has grit, true grit at that"- Maddie Ross (from the 1968 novel by Charles Portis)

In discovering just how to approach a review for this film, I had to search my thoughts for some time to discover a really empowered opening. When I finally sat down to write I had realized that the empowerment that I was seeking was much more personal than I had imagined and in the scope of an hours time I feel as though I could face the world, with a little help from the awe inspiring power of grace.

Needless to say, the film True Grit, a 2010 remake of the 1969 John Wayne film and 1968 novel- is much more a film about grace than about vengeance. For all of the discussions I have entered into about westerns, very little has been written about what one might signify as "the gray area" of western morality. It is in that indecisive center that I wish to place my review, for in doing so I intend to offer up two different interpretations of the Coen Brothers latest. Enjoy.

Left to Right: Halle Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Jeff Bridges as Rooster Coburn

True Grit (2010)
Directed by The Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan)

View #1: True Grit is a good film, and an altogether minimalist approach to western cinema
View #2: True Grit is a simple allegory for a long lost genre done so without the inclusion of the aforementioned directors staple style

The two views are very similar, and yet they create surprisingly different outcomes when deciding if this film is truly worth recognition. The Coen Brothers are known for a dry, witty, and unfiltered sense of irony in their films- and in True Grit all of those elements are amiss. Its as if the style that they have produced in films such as Millers Crossing, or even No Country simply could not exist in a western not based upon a stylized mythology. Too often modern westerns fall because they are too concentrated on recapturing the essence of what made the genre successful. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is probably the last of the great Hollywood westerns because it seemingly closed the door to any film that came after it. And yet, somehow there still seems to be material for which to base this film upon. 

True Grit, in the first view, is a film intent on viewing the west in the most realistic and minimalistic way possible. There is no great moral or lesson to the story, the characters exist in a teetering middle ground of moral ambiguity, and the course of journey changes the characters only if they allow change to become them. This is a post modern western: one that hinges itself on showing what is, and allowing the audience to make assumptions about what could be on their own time. Jeff Bridges Rooster Cogburn is a realist. He understands how to survive and what his past has forced him to do, but that is all that he knows. There is no sense that Rooster is a man of great moral dilemma, nor is he a man bound by tragedy. He exists because of men like Tom Chaney (Brolin) or Lucky Ned (Pepper), and not without a sense of duty- seen most prominently during the last 30 minutes of the film. But one never really receives the notion that Cogburn is acting because of a sense of moral conscience, only because of necessity. The villains, in this view, are seen without personal reflection or even much depth as to why they do what they do. Their intentions are simply survival from a trail of justice, and ultimately without the grace of screen time to truly develop before our eyes. I think that in this perspective we are given the pieces as they are, without any influence as to what they are doing on the board. Instead we make do with what becomes of the "game", satisfying or not. 

True Grit, in the second view, is a very simple yet finite homage to what the western genre used to be. In our modern conception of western period pieces, one could say that there have been several misfires (3:10 to Yuma, Open Range), and several noteworthy successes (No Country, There Will Be Blood). Rarely, however, has a film made in the modern era been able to capture the successes set forth by previous generations renditions. There are no new John Fords, or even Clint Eastwoods, regardless of the fact that the latter is still living. You can hear people talk about this "new True Grit" only in comparison to what has already been done, namely John Wayne's 1969 film. When looking at the film in this manner, one can see that the Coen Brothers set out to simply adapt the source material in the most stylistically simplistic way and create an unbiased approach to the western genre based upon our fascinations with the genre. This is driven more by what audiences are shown to follow, rather than their interpretation of what is actually taking place. It is certainly different than what Joel and Ethan have brought to us before, and in looking back across the film it shows. The characters in this interpretation are caricatures of western hero/villain character types, and thus only exist to fulfill certain duties within the films course. A good example of this is Matt Damon's "Le Beouf" as a walking, talking pulp cowboy come to life from a wax museum. He embodies a fascination with the west, without ever accepting the reality of its "true grit". Ironically however, it is Damon's demise within the film that strips him of that dignity very quickly, as if to say that our ideological fascination with the west can never truly exist realistically. 

Perhaps then we can mix both interpretations together to say that this film is both a throwback and a post modern approach to the genre, while still remaining faithful to its literature based source material. 

Whether you found the film to be too simplistic, or perhaps purposely post modern- the fact of the matter is that what True Grit is, is all that there is. There was no real message, other than a traditional sense of justice- which my girlfriend noted is the central theme of almost all of the Coen Brothers films, and thus in retrospect this film as well. I enjoyed feeling immersed into the film without apologies for the 1880s dialogue, or the rather straightforward narrative; but did feel that at times the film could have presented certain elements, namely the villains, a bit more prominently. Jeff Bridges is fantastic as a much more realistic Rooster Cogburn, which I know many would be mad at me for saying- as so many have already stated Wayne's iconic role as being more prominent. Somehow I found Bridges take on the character to be a bit more interesting, and altogether bound more to the realities of the Old West than Wayne ever really did. It will not be surprising if he, and Hailee Steinfeld (Maddie) get nominated for their roles, as they truly make up the soul of the film. 

Movie Clips + The Middle Aisle Critique

Hello and Happy Friday! I have just completed the first installment of a new segment over @! This new segment is called, "Clip of the Day" and will focus on presenting a daily film clip based upon my reflections, emotions, and overall thought process for that day. You can check out the site on the link below by clicking on the picture!

Also, I would like to take this time to offer up the chance for you to select films that you would like to see reviewed by me. If you would like to submit a query for such a thing, simply post a comment on this blog entry or email me at, and I will be sure to get to each request as they are submitted.

If you have noticed, the clip that I have used is from an external site called, which is a fabulous resource for finding key clips from many important and unimportant titles! I recently discovered this site as I was looking for new ways to increase readership to my blogs and thought I would pass it along to anyone looking to kill some time.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Recurring Dreams III: Spaces Between Spaces: a memoir of my father, 1998

Ms. Sasha Trent,

I know we have never met, but I could not think of anyone else to pass along this information to, and I have seen you from afar for the past few weeks and thought that perhaps I could entrust you with this. You see I have a great secret to tell you, and I must do it rather quickly.

Let me start by saying that my father was a very mysterious man. I never knew when we he would occupy our house, and when he would be off engaged in a world that I knew nothing about. It was like an apparition took the place of what my father was supposed to be- an image where a corporeal form should have been. One day he was gone completely, and I could tell that my mother had all but been lost in sorrow. She was so distraught that one day I came home to find her standing at the kitchen stove boiling water, and it had bubbled up over the sides to burn her entire arm. Needless to say we admitted her the very next day to Open Arms care facility- where she has resided ever since.

I knew my father, as much as a young boy could truly know his father. In all the days of my youth, I must admit that the legacy he left behind has become somewhat of a passion for my teenage years. It may as well have been preordained that I would one day discover the entirety of my fathers greatest secret, which I alloted to an incident just 3 months before his final disappearance. Whatever may have been said about my father, before his disappearance in 1995- you cannot deny that he was gone long before that date. He hated the modern world, and in several cuss filled rants I heard him denounce everything from God to the establishment of government. Nights upon days upon nights were focused on his work, which he would keep almost completely secret, and on many nights one could hear him seemingly struggling with someone down in our basement. My mother had thought he was being attacked but soon was banned from my fathers study completely for what he called, "an unnecessary hinderance." This did not sit well with her; but my mother was never very strong, and in time the entire community felt that he had simply started this family as a way of quieting the neighbors accusations of him being a possible nut-job. His lifelong goal had centered around a single concept.  My fathers greatest obsession had been with what lay behind the reality that we understood- that veritable wasteland of dimensional space that separated us from the levels that we cannot see. My mother thought he had gone crazy; but I had always thought the idea was somewhat magical. This concept was a fixation for him, and whenever he would come home he always entertained the ideas he had with my mother, who almost never shared his passion. She loved the man he was, but could never leave what he had become. This unfortunate circumstance led to much of the memories that I remember of him- filled with sour words, and harsh lashing vocal tones for which he could not separate emotion from legacy. Every dream I have of this time seems to be in black and white; but one thing remained out of monochrome- the tears in my mothers eyes and the fiery rage of my fathers anger.

The dawn of understanding my father and his peculiar ways came about in unforeseeable conditions. I had been asleep all afternoon with the flu, and my mother was out with a few women she knew from the local country club. I awoke to hear terrible noises in the room below me- as if someone was literally ripping themselves apart. I knew that this was my chance to discover what had been going on, even if it meant I would be punished. My father had ignored me for weeks, but never in a harsh way. He at times would smile at me and make sure I knew that he was available if I needed him. He never said such things; but I knew from his nods and stares what he had meant for me to understand. I rushed down the stairs as quickly as I could, while still remaining rather silent- for I did not wish to be noticed out of fear that I may too become enthralled in a merciless panic. Through the cracked door to my fathers study, I lay my hands along the frame. My single innocent eye peered into his realm, a place I was forever forbidden to enter. To my amazement I came across the discover that would forever change my life.

My father, a man known for his eccentricities- had finally become one with his desires. With elongated fingers, he began to pull at himself in the most peculiar manner. At first I almost cackled with laughter; but I resisted the compulsion seconds later. What I saw was a twisting of his very essence, brought about my a rather peculiar motion that I would soon recognize as "soul splitting". From his very core he seemed to grasp his soul and switch places with what lay beneath his surface. Crackling and turning like the pages of a book, where one could find no separation of where the narrative began. In one instant I saw my father's insides become as the wind, and his physical body as a mere shadow. In one more instant I saw upon his face something that I could never have imagined, the sign of pure, unadulterated joy. And then, finally, like the switching of a light switch he was gone! And in his place only the outlined memory of what was once there. He had discovered the ability to place his soul outside of his body- in a magic act that at the time had me clutching my body in fear and panic.

This was my fathers secret, that he could go behind the reality of his being by existing in the spaces not meant for existing. Behind all that could be seen he went, and soon- in my belief- he stayed.

In the three years since his disappearance I have thought long and hard about that day- and daily I have studied his notes for what he called, "the space between spaces". It is on this day that I leave this place and go where I believe my father would want me to go- to a reality unbound by the emotions of daily life, and instead filled with the vast elongation of where our souls find peace, as his did.

If I am never found, please know that I would appreciate you publishing this- as it is the only record (along with the three journals attached) that exist on the subject and I would hate for my father or I to be represented poorly in the media.

Thank You,
Eliot Joyce