Saturday, December 11, 2010

Will You Be Offended By True Grit?



When was the last time you dreaded a Coen Bros. release? I never thought this would happen to me. Given that I’m a major Coen Bros. fan and that I think they’ve been on a roll in the last five years (No Country for Old Men was my pick for the best of 2007, and A Serious Man was my pick for the best of 2009), I thought they had by this point reached a kind of invincibility. After my compadre Ryan Kelly was rubbed the wrong way by A Serious Man last year, however, I took notice of a strange phenomenon: not every Coen Bros. movie is for every taste. I’m not implying that they’ve always made perfect films; I’ve never been crazy about Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy or Burn After Reading. But after I read the news last year that the Coens were going to be remaking True Grit, my heart sank. And not because of any dislike I may have for Hollywood remakes, but because I did not think this was a story worth remaking.

I have a bad history with True Grit—mainly the dubious politics of the story. I first saw Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film about two or three years ago and was disgusted by it: it was, to me, a pro-capital punishment diatribe, a celebration of vigilante authoritarian tactics and a glorification of the “shoot first, ask questions later” gun-toting hero.

So, yeah… you can see where I’m going with this. I’ve gone on politically correct tirades on this site before (see my conflicted views of John Huston’s hanging judge Western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean or my furious smackdown of Tarantino’s Death Proof), so please read no further if you wish not to wade into those waters with me. But before I go out to see the Coens’ True Grit (and, thanks to a good friend of mine, I’ve acquired a couple of free tickets to an advance screening), I just gotta get this off my chest. This has to be said.



Last month, when I realized that the Coens’ remake was just on the horizon, I decided to do the best thing a person in my odd situation could do in order to prepare: read the Charles Portis novel. So many True Grit fans were telling me that it was far and away superior to the Hathaway movie that I wondered if maybe Portis had different insights into the politics of the story. Perhaps not all of them made it into the 1969 film, which was made at a time when audiences didn’t really care about such matters—they just wanted to see the Duke shoot up bad guys.

Jennifer Boulden of Awards Daily, however, cautioned me that I might not find what I was looking for in Portis’ novel. “I’m not sure you’re going to find his ‘take’ on capital punishment vastly different from either film,” she told me on her website. “I’m not completely sure there is a take on it. I see the material more as character studies of people who have a definite sense of justice, without necessarily passing judgment on whether that’s right or wrong.” Taking Boulden’s words into account, I mustered up the courage, purchased Portis’ novel and began reading.

Here’s what I know for sure: Portis’ novel is a very good piece of literature. It’s not a masterpiece like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West, but I can at the very least tell you that it’s a page-turner. If I came away from the Hathaway film despising the characters of Rooster Cogburn, Mattie Ross and LaBoeuf, then I have come away from the Portis novel loving them. The Hathaway film DOES NOT do the book justice. That doesn’t mean I don’t still hold reservations over the story, but we’re not there yet.

First of all, it’s difficult to guess from the book if Portis really does take a pro-capital punishment stance. I remain curious about a scene that occurs in the first 20 pages in which Mattie attends a public hanging and bursts into tears at the sight of it. Quoting from Portis’ text:

He [one of the men being hanged] was in tears and I am not ashamed to own that I was, too… Yarnell put a hand over my face but I pushed it aside. I would see it all… the Indian jerked his legs and arms up and down in spasms. That was the bad part and many in the crowd turned in revulsion and left in some haste, and we were among them… I have since learned that Judge Isaac Parker watched all of his hangings from an upper window in the Courthouse. I suppose he did this from a sense of duty. There is no knowing what is in a man’s heart. Perhaps you can imagine how painful it was for us to go directly from that appalling scene to the undertaker’s where my father lay dead. Nevertheless it had to be done (Portis, 20).

Why do you think Portis puts this scene in the book? I have never been able to figure out why. It’s in the Hathaway movie as well, but I’ve never gotten the impression that the scene is supposed to give Mattie second thoughts about whether or not she still wants to see the murderer of her father hanged. In fact, when she does end up going to the undertaker to see her father’s body, she regains her taste for blood. Portis never gives her any self-doubt or anything. And sometime afterwards, Mattie attends another hanging, and this time she is not so sympathetic towards the men being hanged:

They were mostly white men but there were also some Indians and half-breeds and Negroes. It was awful to see but you must remember that these chained beasts were murderers and robbers and train wreckers and bigamists and counterfeiters, some of the most wicked men in the world. They had ridden the “hoot-owl trail” and tasted the fruits of evil and now justice had caught up with them to demand payment. You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it (Portis, 37).

Again, I don’t understand what Portis is wanting us to take away from this scene. It’s apparent that he intentionally makes Mattie naïve throughout the story and often we hear her naiveté in her narrative voice, but I’m not sure if that’s the point. Undoubtedly there are many fans of the book who agree 100% with Mattie’s politics. Is that what’s expected of us, too?



Here’s my problem with True Grit: the man who murdered Mattie’s father, a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney, is never really seen by Portis as anything more than a coward. A one-dimensional, pathetic loser. Not an interesting villain by any means. He’s a man without humor and very nearly a character without humanity. How can we be expected to get as worked up as Mattie is over such a boring man? For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot of True Grit, it’s pretty basic: Mattie hires U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf to help her find Tom Chaney, bring him back to Fort Smith and then ensure that he is hanged. Mattie has so many ridiculous arguments with Rooster and LaBouef about where Chaney is hanged and what he gets hanged for (she wants Chaney hanged for the murder of her father, and not over the assassination of a state senator or his “Texas bird dog”), that they never stop to think about whether they should have Chaney hanged. The possibility of ensuring that he goes to prison doesn’t ever cross their minds. And the story doesn’t just seem to advocate for capital punishment—it also seems to advocate for torture. When Rooster is trying to persuade Mattie to allow LaBoeuf to take Chaney to Texas instead of to Fort Smith, Rooster ensures her of Chaney, “You can spit on him and make him eat sand out of the road. You can put a ball in his foot and I will hold him while you do it (Portis, 93).”

Look, Chaney is obviously a stupid, murderous coward who belongs in prison. That much I agree with. But the possibility of a long prison sentence for Chaney is not mentioned once in True Grit. This is why I get the feeling that Portis wrote the novel out of a longing for the Western justice of the old days, when criminals were executed and then the deed was done. True, back in the 1800’s there were very few opponents to capital punishment. It was generally accepted as a common consequence for high crimes and misdemeanors. But can you think of another Western that is great because it preaches a message of death penalty “retribution”? I certainly can’t.

Most of the great American Western movies have a way of seeing right through the reactionary violence of the genre. In Howard Hawks’ Red River (1947), John Wayne played Thomas Dunson, an overly obsessed cattle rancher who vows to have any deserters from his output hanged from the highest tree—until the Montgomery Clift character assumes command and kicks Dunson out. In Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is bitter about the dangerous Frank Miller not being hanged by the feds but then pauses and considers, “sometimes prison changes a man...” In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Wayne played Ethan Edwards, who at first seems like a likable protagonist until we come to realize that he’s an extremist and a racist. All of Sam Peckinpah’s most masterful Western films (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) see violence not as justified but as a miserable last hurrah for weakened gunslingers on their way out. Of course, on the other side we have the Sergio Leone Westerns, which aren’t as emotionally complex. But at least the villains in Leone’s films were interesting and colorful. Tom Chaney in True Grit is neither of these.

I find some solace for these troubles of mine in the scenes towards the end, when Mattie finally encounters Chaney at first hand. After she rages at him for murdering her father, Chaney says to Mattie:

I regret that shooting… Mr. Ross was decent to me but he ought not to have meddled in my business. I was drinking and I was mad through and through. Nothing has gone right for me (Portis, 172).



Portis makes that last line a repeated catch-phrase for Chaney. I’ve counted at least two other times when Chaney mutters this again: first, when he’s mocked by his fellow bandits; secondly, when he’s arrested by LeBoeuf. “Everything is against me!” he constantly complains. Am I wrong in interpreting that Portis is attempting to humanize Chaney in these passages? That Portis wants us to empathize with him, if not sympathize with him? If this is the case, then I don’t understand why Portis doesn’t do this more often throughout the book. In that chilling scene towards the end, when Mattie falls into a snake pit and Chaney is up above, looking down at her, Mattie, having just shot Chaney in the head, cries out to him,

Throw me a rope, Tom! You cannot be mean enough to leave me! (Portis, 202)

Of course, Chaney, as heartless as he is, doesn’t help Mattie. He just mocks her and waits for her to get eaten alive. Eventually, I guess, this is what spells out his own doom, and Portis’ universe contorts itself so that the villain gets his just desserts and falls into the pit with Mattie, while the snakes burrow into his face. A fittingly gruesome death for a gruesome man, in other words.

Some of you will no doubt tell me: wait a minute, so Chaney gets shot instead of hanged? So that means he ultimately doesn't get hanged at the end! Right? He gets shot by Rooster in self-defense! So what’s the big DEAL here, Zanzie?

The big deal, people, is that regardless of the fact that Chaney gets killed in a clear-cut case of self-defense, it doesn’t change the fact that he only exists in the story for one purpose: to die. And we’re supposed to feel good about how a character we hardly get to know—a character with problems that are never explained—gets his comeuppance at the end. This is another form of capital punishment. Sorry, but I’m unmoved.



If Tom Chaney were as eccentric of a villain as, say, Lucky Ned Pepper, it would be a different story. I actually like the scene towards the end where Rooster and Pepper ride their horses at each other and have a final Mexican standoff of sorts. Pepper says to Cogburn, “Well, Rooster, I am shot to pieces!” (Portis, 194) and then gets blown away by LaBoeuf. I find Ned Pepper’s death to be very poetic. Maybe that’s because Ned Pepper is a villain full of life: he’s got a wicked sense of humor, he’s fearsome, and he and Rooster have an angry past with each other (Rooster shot up Pepper’s lip). I can enjoy Ned Pepper’s death scene because it’s a colossal demise for a colossal villain. I can’t enjoy the death of a pathetic person like Tom Chaney, whose own death is just as pathetic.



Watching the Henry Hathaway movie again, there are only a handful of things I like about it. Hathaway’s direction of all of the action sequences is spectacular, for example. The Lucien Ballard cinematography is mesmerizing. Of the cast members, Robert Duvall has fun as Ned Pepper, and Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper and John Fielder (commonly known by kids as the voice of Piglet) do well in supporting roles. But everything else about Hathaway’s movie is bland, bland, bland. The Elmer Bernstein score is overbearing and doesn’t suit a film with a plot this serious. John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby are all just as obnoxious as I remember them when I first saw the film: they are each embarrassingly miscast in roles that deserve better. It bothers me that Wayne won an Oscar for this film, of all films, when he would have deserved it more for other films prior to that (like Red River or The Searchers, or maybe even Rio Bravo). The screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, while mostly faithful to the Portis text, omits Mattie’s narration—which, if you ask me, is crucial to the story’s point of view. And Roberts’ script also robs the Tom Chaney character of ALL of his humanity, taking away any elements of life that Portis may have breathed into him in the book. Studying Jeff Corey’s performance as Chaney, I can only sense him thinking to himself, Who in God’s name is this man I am playing?



So, we’ll see what the Coens come up with. Personally I think the casting in the remake is inspired. Jeff Bridges as Rooster! Matt Damon as LaBoeuf! Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie! Barry Pepper as Ned Pepper (they even share the same last name)! And I also think it was a masterstroke to cast Josh Brolin as Chaney. This way, audiences won’t feel compelled to automatically recoil from Chaney and cheer at his death scene—not when such a likable actor is playing him. There’s a part in the theatrical trailer where Brolin grabs a knife, stares angrily at Hailee Steinfeld and hisses, “I do not regret shooting your father.” I don’t remember this line anywhere in the book, but if I'm correct, there's going to be a scene in which Chaney and Mattie have a moral debate about the murder of Mattie's father and the punishment that Chaney deserves for it. Such a scene will hopefully humanize Chaney a bit more.



Another reason why I think the Coens will humanize Tom Chaney: they have dealt with villains like him in their other films. Look at Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing, Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo or Anton Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men. All of them are cowards and murderers who get involved in matters of killing because of their poor judgement. The Coens have an attraction to antiheroes with this kind of poor judgment. Their True Grit will obviously also be about Rooster, Mattie and LaBoeuf, but I also anticipate that they’ll examine Tom Chaney more carefully than Portis or Hathaway ever did. They may recognize that this is a man with serious problems, and that the audience may be interested in knowing about those problems.



Otherwise, I’ll be at a loss for judgment. True Grit is an entertaining book, and Charles Portis writes with amusing prose... but what, exactly, are we supposed to gain from this story? Satisfaction that a dead man is avenged? That may be an acceptable lesson if you’re a person who believes in eye-for-an-eye justice. But what if you don’t?

19 comments:

  1. Well Zanz, I can't claim to have any inroad here, having never seen or read True Grit, so maybe none of this will be helpful. But I thought your comparison of characters between Ned Pepper and Tom Chaney was illuminating. I can't answer this now, and I might be offbase, but is it possible you're extrapolating political principles from an ineffective portrayal of a character who's really mostly a plot device? Just from your description of Pepper, I'm feeling like the most vibrant parts of the book/movie involve the conflicts with him, not with Chaney (hell, those last words are so fantastic I should be happy to speak them myself).

    You also say that the narrator's meant to be naive, so it seems entirely possible that the story is trying to cast judgment on her perspective, but isn't accomplishing that effectively. Although I do see some shadings of irony in her having to beg for help for someone she's been pursuing vengefully the entire story; it seems like there's a lot of elements here that point towards a more complicated notion of the story, but they're just not strong enough for that reading to be fully there (unlike what Kurt Russell contributes to Death Proof!). It also seems like the movie of True Grit had to pare down what already seems a pretty light novel. I fear for the eventual Blood Meridan adaptation.

    Speaking of which, something that surprised me was the namecheck of Blood Meridian. Having read a lot of McCarthy, I'm admittedly surprised you were so fond of the book. Granted, it's got a complicated view of violence, so that may be why you appreciate it, but ultimately, violence, death, warfare...they win. I mean, there's gnostic readings of it, or criticisms of American imperialism readings, etc etc, but ultimately, that's pretty inescapable at the end. The Judge is dancing. He says that he will never die.

    But then there's that thing with the damn holes that I'm still trying to parse three reads later.

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  2. Your idea of checking out the 'original' ,book that is, was within all reason and not surprising considering your thoroughness in your criticisms. Thanks for all your efforts they will stay with me while I view the Coens' newest. I can't say I've ever been the kind of fan many are though I find their stuff amusing but forgettable almost immediately in fact after viewing. Blood Simple stands out for me but after that it's all pretty much standard. Even though it's the standard they set in play it's still a formula and as such sticks to predictability. I think the fact that The films haven't much to set themselves apart gives me pause in calling anything the Coens do better then good or fair. While each new one sets out to startle and amuse, none actually puts itself above the norm. So I won't expect much more here and probably won't be disappointed.

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  3. Okay, I just got back from seeing the film. Let me just say that it's an excellent film, and one of the best movies of the year. But it didn't... quite accomplish the things I predicted here. The Coens have made a brilliantly acted and directed film, but I don't think they've been successful in rising far above Portis' material. I'll probably dish out all of these criticisms in an eventual review of the film when it opens wide. I intend to see it again.

    Joel, you are absolutely dead-on about how Ned Pepper is the most interesting villain in the story: I'm surprised how well you were able to interpret that from my piece, since you've never read the book or seen the Hathaway/Wayne movie! Yet you also hit on precisely WHY the differences between the films' two villains bother me so much. Why couldn't Tom Chaney have been as colorful of a villain as Ned Pepper is? Tell me what you think after you see the Coens' film.

    About Blood Meridian, I haven't read it in a couple of years, but what I remember loving about it is how unflinching McCarthy is in the face of all that senseless carnage. The violence in that book is repulsive instead of thrilling, and it makes a very strong, potent statement about the ugliness of all the bigoted genocide that the Judge and his partner Glanton release onto those Mexican Indianas, and vice versa (I'm referring to Glanton's death scene, which I distinctly remember; I think an Indian splits his head in two). The ending in which "the Judge wins", as you've put it, was also downright scary as hell. I honestly think that McCarthy is our greatest living novelist: he's like a combination of Faulkner and Peckinpah, and his prose is so, so juicy. I felt the same way after reading The Road, and after seeing John Hillcoat's terrific (and insanely UNDERRATED) film adaptation. I didn't read McCarthy's book of No Country for Old Men, but when I saw the Coens' movie I was so amazed that I nearly broke into tears. Oh, how I wish their remake of True Grit had that same power.

    Shane, I disagree with your take on the Coens, but you know that already. I consider No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, A Serious Man, The Big Lebowski and, to some extent, Fargo, all films that have influenced me and even changed my life a little. True Grit in my opinion doesn't reach the heights of those films, but as I was telling Joel, it comes damned close. If you're a fan of the book, I don't think you will be underwhelmed. I actually think it's better than the book, though only by a maragin. I'll explain the reasons why in an eventual review.

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  4. Adam: I only skimmed parts of this, because I haven't seen Wayne's True Grit in at least a dozen years, and I kind of want my memory to be fuzzy when I see the Coens' version. So I'll offer these two quick replies with the caveat that you might have addressed these issues later in other parts of the post that I skipped over.

    1) You note the film's preoccupation with hanging and suggest the movie wants to endorse Old West justice. But, well, if the story is set in the Old West, to some extent how can it possibly avoid this? Back then, that was the punishment for the crime, so to not suggest otherwise would be to take the story out of its time. Personally, and, again, it's been a while, I think if there's something especially dated about the film and maybe even the novel, it's not its penchant for corporal punishment so much as its fascination with Mattie's bloodlust. In other words, the film is sexist. Over and over again it's celebrating the oddity of a woman being out for blood, as if women are incapable of such things.

    2) You mention that Chaney is only seen as bad, that he isn't rounded into anything but an object for Mattie's hate. True. But then the whale in Moby Dick isn't a complex character either, and that doesn't deter what the film is: a portrait of Ahab, a portrait of obsession. I'm not saying this to disqualify your arguments. I'm simply saying that sometimes it's OK when a character is nothing more than a plot device.

    Looking forward to seeing this when it comes out!!

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  5. Jason, I'll be curious to hear what you think of the Coens' movie. I realize I'm in the minority on some of my complaints over it, though I do think it is a great film and that it surpasses both the novel and the Hathaway/Wayne film.

    I agree with you that the story is overly fascinated with Mattie's bloodlust, though I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a sexist portrayal; a lot of female fans of the book seem to know exactly why Mattie feels the way she does. Regarding Chaney as being like Moby Dick, the reason why I don't think that comparison works very well is because Moby Dick ended up conquering Ahab. The ambiguous villain wins out in the end.

    Moby Dick is, after all, an anti-vengeance story. True Grit is the exact opposite. It celebrates Mattie's vengeance. If Rooster, Mattie and LaBoeuf had all failed in their pursuits (and I'm not suggesting they should have--they have every right to be chasing after Tom Chaney), then maybe the comparison to Moby Dick would be more accurate. But no: they find Chaney and they kill him. In the brief time that we are introduced to Chaney we don't get to know anything at all about him. I think this is a mistake, and I wish the Coens could have at least made an attempt to correct it.

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  6. I'll hold back on saying too much here Adam, as I haven't yet seen the film, and am not really sure what issues/questions/context I can effectively broach here. I will say that I thought A SERIOUS MAN was a brilliant film (right on Jon Lanthier!) and even more impressive for me than NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and I must say I was anticipating this film about as much as BLACK SWAN (which terribly disappointed me) and the yet-to-be-released Malick. In any case, your bottom line verdict is well-noted, and there's no better place to come when I am prepared to take on some serious analytical discussion.

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  7. And I am delighted that you broke your pledge Adam!

    If you didn't this superlative Icebox Movies exclusive would not have appeared this weekend! Ha!

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  8. Righteo, Sam. I figured three weeks was long enough for the good ol' hiatus.

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  9. Having just finished Portis' novel myself, I was struck by how little Chaney or any of the criminals in the story actually mattered at all. This is a character piece about LaBoeuf, Rooster and above all, Mattie Ross. I think the POINT of the book is just in the pleasure of storytelling and of dialogue. That's it. Obviously Mattie's tale is the defining account of her life and I imagined she put it down into words in a fashion similar to famous men of the West--Wyatt Earp, Will Bill, etc., just to recount the heroics of the time for a nostalgia-hungry public, decades after the fact.

    Mattie's subjectivity explains the lack of characterization on the "other" side of things. Compared with her interactions with LaBoeuf and Rooster, her knowledge of Tom Chaney is slim, and anyway, her mind was made up towards him before she left on her journey. Even her knowledge of Ned Pepper is mostly second-hand from Cogburn.

    It's a character piece, which is why a Coen bros. adaptation excites me--they're masters of character.

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  10. All good points, Sales. I agree with you that since the story is narrated by Mattie and told entirely from her point of view, not everything can be clearly understood. But if Charles Portis could at least make Ned Pepper an interesting villain, I don't understand why he couldn't apply the same characteristics to Tom Chaney. Portis keeps attempting to humanize Chaney ("Everything is against me!") and he evens makes weird attempts to address the issue of capital punishment (the scene at the beginning where Mattie attends the hanging), but ultimately none of this ever coalesces into anything substantial. That's my problem with the story: as much as Portis wants to tell a character piece from Mattie's subjective point of view, he tries to do other things as well until he finally bites off much more than he can chew.

    As I address in this piece, you can sort of tell where Portis stands, politically, by analyzing the death scenes of both Ned Pepper and Tom Chaney. Pepper, a three-dimensional character with a wicked sense of humor, dies a romantic death--as he should, because he's a romantic villain. But Tom Chaney is a villain without any romanticism or any interesting character traits: he's a weak, one-dimensional, average coward, and I suspect that by killing such a regular average joe off, Portis is trying to make a political statement: that the only way to respond to such a pathetic person is to either kill him or let him go. Portis doesn't humanize Chaney because he WANTS us to hate everything about him. By refusing to humanize Chaney (even though he's obviously a human being, just like Mattie's deceased father whom Chaney murdered), Portis pressures his readers into despising the character and being pleased at his death (not because the death itself is memorable, but because we're supposed to be satisfied that the cowardly bastard got his in the end).

    I am sure yo'll love the Coens' movie. I know I did. One thing I'm also sure you'll enjoy, as I did, is Hailee Steinfeld's performance as Mattie: she is truly a bright newcomer. Of the film itself, what I'm about to say here might not make sense, but I think it's the Coens' "flawed great film." There's so many things I loved about it than I can almost--ALMOST--forgive the basic problems I still have with the story. Like I said in the above posts, I think their movie is actually better than the book. I'll try to address all of this more clearly when I publish an official review, maybe next week, when the movie opens wide.

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  11. Adam: Leave it to me to use an example in argument that only accentuates your point. Ha! Yes, I suppose Moby Dick was a poor example, for the reasons you point out. My larger point was simply that sometimes characters could be MacGuffins, and not actual multidimensional characters. I just should have picked a better reference.

    Also, as for Mattie's bloodlust: I'm not saying THAT is what is sexist. I'm saying that the original film's fascination with her bloodlust suggests a dated, limited attitude about women. The film tries to get awful lot of miles out of how supposedly interesting it is that a female could be so single-minded in her pursuit of bloody vengeance.

    Looking forward to seeing what the Coens do with it.

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  12. But the problem with making Tom Chaney into a MacGuffin is that the whole story revolves around him. It's told from Mattie's point of view, but the story is about people going off to find a man with the hopes of either shooting him or bringing him back home to be hanged. The fate of a man's life is in their hands. It strikes me as crass for Charles Portis to be treating such an extreme measure as if it was an everyday thing. I don't want to sound like a stereotypical liberal here, but killing/executing a man is not as fun and as necessary as this movie makes it out to be.

    I mean, yeah, that's how most criminals were punished back then. But Charles Portis doesn't treat this simple fact with objectivity: he treats it with envy. That's why he robs the Tom Chaney character of all his humanity: because Portis wants us to be as blood-tasting as Mattie is. He wants us to hope that the character dies a gory, justified death. Portis would love it if our own justice system went back to this kind of system. Either the Coens don't realize this, or they agree with his worldview!

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  13. Interesting analysis. I had huge problems with Rooster Cogburn kicking the Indian children on the porch. Why did the Coen brothers include this scene? Was it in Portis's novel? It really rubbed me the wrong way. In terms of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian", I have to disagree. Not only is it overwritten, its characterizations of Indians is racist and repulsive. Just because the whites are depicted as evil as the Indians, that's no excuse.

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  14. "And we’re supposed to feel good about how a character we hardly get to know—a character with problems that are never explained—gets his comeuppance at the end. This is another form of capital punishment. Sorry, but I’m unmoved."

    Adam, I enjoyed your post here, and I'm glad you read the novel. I read it too. I love it, but I love the 1969 film as well.

    When Chaney gets killed, I don't think there's much to enjoy. He gets killed pathetically. He's wounded already, gets shot by Rooster, and then falls into the pit. I saw this movie multiple times in packed theaters in 1969, and never a cheer was uttered at the comeuppance. I think the viewer is too focused on Mattie's predicament. Chaney doesn't matter. His death doesn't even matter. What matters is getting Mattie to safety.

    I viewed this movie less as a revenge tale than as the story of two unlikely persons coming to an understanding of each other. Also, I don't thing the Coens film will be much different. They said they were going to be more faithful to the novel, but I think the 1969 original is a faithful adaptation. For one thing, it takes the dialogue right out of the book.

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  15. Louis, the scene where Cogburn kicks around those Indian kids is in the Coens' movie, yeah. I thought it was a funny scene, though--especially the way the Coens deliver it. There's a lot of biting humor in their remake that I enjoyed.

    I don't think Cormac McCarthy's depiction of Indians in Blood Meridian is racist, though. I do agree that the book is told from the point of view of racists, but that was the point: McCarthy was disgusted by that type of atrocious carnage in our nation's bloody past.

    Hokahey, thanks a bunch for reading. You've made some undeniably good points there--points that are so good, I may have to alter my review of the Coens' film, which comes out next week. I wanted to write in my other review that we're supposed to cheer at Chaney's death, but I think you're correct: we're more focused on Mattie falling into the pit. I still think Portis is nothing but scornful of Chaney, but that's another story.

    One of the few merits the '69 film has going for it is, as you say, that much of the screenplay quotes the book line-for-line. My big problem with the original film is the embarrassing miscasting. I love John Wayne, but I don't buy him as Cogburn--I'll explain in my review next week why I think Jeff Bridges plays the role better. And don't even get me started on Glen Campbell and Kim Darby!

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  16. I guess the question that keeps coming up for me is to what extent the problems with the original story are the fault of Portis' viewpoint as opposed to his ability to tell the story effectively. I tend to be pragmatic about stuff like this - if a story doesn't give enough energy or depth to a villain to make his fate at least compelling, I write it off as the creator failing in a crucial aspect, and usually I move on. We live in a world in which A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors exists, and time spent worrying about mediocre stories is time that could be spent unlocking the mysteries of that most perfect of films.

    Zanz, you seem to be torn as to whether this failing is coming from Portis' viewpoint or his ability: did he bite off more than he could chew, or did he want to deprive Chaney of audience sympathy? The fact that there IS a sympathetic villain in the story suggests that he's not incapable of portraying a villain in a compelling manner. Honestly, I'm starting to sway here: although, again, I have no inroad, it really does seem like some of these faults are Portis having contempt for his character. There's interesting ways for a writer to show that, though, ones that illuminate character. Let me ask you this: how often do we get to see Chaney in the novel? How early does he show up in person? (I think I saw a suggestion here that he really doesn't show up until late in the novel, which would probably turn me back to the land of Ineffective Narrative Strategies. But I guess there's ways to do that too, if the villain's interesting or evocative enough. High & Low comes to mind).

    Now, your average person at this point would probably go and READ the damn book, or at least watch the movie. Well, it's not on TCM right now, so nuts to that. That is time I could spend reading Kevin Canty's Into the Great Wide Open and/or hitting on hipster girls.

    Sometimes, you just have to prioritize.

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  17. Actually, I was hoping the Coens would make Chaney into some kind of Colonel Kurtz villain: make him show up at the end of the movie, and then make the entire last half hour nothing but him and Mattie engaging in stoned philosophizing about violence and God. Then have Mattie sneak up behind Chaney to the tune of Jim Morrison music and whack him in the back of the head with a machete.

    I kid, I kid.

    In all seriousness, though, because the Coens saved Chaney for the ending of the movie, I wish they had made his character count more. They certainly make Barry Pepper's scenes as Ned Pepper count, but not Josh Brolin's scenes as Chaney.

    My advice: check out the Coens' movie when it opens wide next week. And then, after you've seen the movie, check out my review--which will be published sometime after December 22. You don't wanna miss it, dude! After all... the Zanz abides.

    (I can't believe I just said that.)

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  18. Adam, I couldn't wait. I've posted my contribution to the Spielberg Blogathon at Little Worlds. Enjoy!

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  19. Excellent, Hokahey. We'll publish that sometime this weekend.

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