True Grit (2010) Joel and Ethan Coen

 I’m a little surprised that since I started this blog I haven’t written about quite possibly my favorite Coen Bros. movie, True Grit!  After all, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn was the first image I put as a Cover image!  Last night I brought the Blu Ray of the film to my uncle and aunt’s house and popped it in to show my uncle.  He was pretty skeptical about seeing it, having absolute love for the John Wayne version of the film.  I told him to watch the first 15 minutes of the Coen Bros. version just to give it a shot to see if it would interest him.  What started as 15 minutes turned into the entire hour and 40 minute running time of the film!  Although by the end of the movie he told me he thought the Coens version was maybe equally good as the John Wayne version, but nothing about Jeff Bridges performance made it better than the original.  Of course, while everyone is entitled to their opinion, I’m majorly inclined to disagree the 1969 version is a better film.  Hallie Stanford in my eyes does a far superior job as Mattie Ross, and is far less annoying than Kim Darby.  And as far as Bridges goes, he brings to the table his own unique spin on the crusty old Marshall Rooster Cogburn.  Some have said that the Coens version is closer to the novel.  I haven’t read the book, so I couldn’t say.  But there’s a host of great characters, humor, emotionI’m not the only one who feels this way, but Roger Deakens was robbed of the Oscar for cinematography.  He should have one it for the opening shot alone:  

The opening shot is incrediblemesmerizing and thoughtfullike we are entering into a memory.  The story is told through flashback by the adult Mattie Ross, recalling the death of her father, who was shot and killed at the hands of a drunkard outlaw, Tom Cheney.  One thing I’d like to point out right away in this tale of revenge is that there is no moralizing.  There’s no one trying to tell Mattie she’s wrong in her pursuit for revenge against her father’s killer.  This is after all, a story set in the old west, and while no one would disagree with her wants for justice, it’s the series of obstacles in her way he faces that makes her journey so compelling, and the price she pays getting justice (more on that in a bit).  

But it’s not just so much the physical obsticles that get in her way, its the very society in which she lives that forces her to overcome incredible odds.  The major thing being she’s a woman.  14 years old on top of that.  But she acts with the intelligence of a strong willed woman.  She is living in a society in the late 1800’s where women pretty much have no rights, and being a young teenage girl, she is constantly undermined and underestimated by the adult world that surrounds herAlmost every adult Mattie encounters tries to take advantage of her based on her age.  But she sees right through it.  That’s not to say that she isn’t totally naive.  She has never had the adventure or the experience quite like the one she takes with Rooster into the Chocktaw Nation in search of Tom CheneyHer inexperience with a gun, as well as when she wants to lighten the mood between Cogburn and LaBeouf by telling campfire stories is where we are reminded of her age.  

 The journey for Mattie enters into the realm of myth.  While I love so much of this film as a whole, my favorite sequence is the river crossing scene.  It symbolizes Mattie taking the first major step into the adventure, where once the river is crossed, there’s no turning back.  It‘s her fight…her struggle and leap of faith that brings her into the adventure.  It’s this heroic first step that tells us this journey for justice for her father’s killer is what she really wants.  She doesn’t know how deep the river is when she crosses it.  The horse could drown for all she knows.  But crossing the threshold is symbolized by the exciting heroic music by Carter Burwell as Mattie enters into the unknown.  The music is almost celebratory, as it should be when a person allows themselves to take the plunge and onto an unknown journey:

There is great chemistry between the larger than life egos of Rooster, Mattie, and LaBeouf.  If the three of them have anything in common, it’s that each of them has as much conviction as arrogance in their goals.  Rooster himself is a crusty, stubborn old man, who has an estranged son that left him, as well as succumbing to the drink.  However, he also loves having an audience for his old trail hand stories, talking to Mattie as they ride together about peoples he’s shot and stories about his past.  But what’s funny about this is the fact that he’s telling all of this to a 14 year old girl.  He doesn’t hold back what he says because of her age, he acknowledges her as a trail hand and an adult, making the relationship all the more endearing, which is pivitol to the final moments of the film.  Rooster is hardly a moral man, even in his opening courtroom testimony as he tries to skid around what really happened in a shootout that went wrong, which probably makes us wonder about the full truth of some of his stories on the trail!   

LaBeouf also starts out quite the stubborn arrogant man, flashing his badge with pride that he’s a Texas Ranger.  He constantly fights Mattie at the beginning when she won’t give him the attention he so desperately craves.  Mattie‘s headstrong ways, as well as headbutting get her into a lot of trouble in a society that’s constantly fighting against her.  LaBeouf even takes out his frustrations on her whipping her with a stick.  That scene in itself is interesting considering he’s wanted to smack the shit out this headstrong girl from the get go.  But what’s also just as interesting and endearing is the bond that forms between them, where Mattie does see his courageousness in the face of danger and admits to having misjudged him.  LaBeouf tells her the same in return.  To the point of tears even, Mattie doesn’t want him to leave when LaBeouf feels Cogburn is right and the trail has gone cold.  

Of course, no great film is without a great villain.  What’s great about Tom Cheney’s character is that he isn’t properly introduced until the 3rd Act of the film, where before hand he’s only talked about.  For filmmakers, this is a pretty big challenge, when you have a character that’s only talked about for a long period of time, it really takes a great actor playing that character to deliver on that performance, and on the promise to the audience that this is going to be a compelling character.  Josh Brolin thankfully is such a great actor that he pulls it off.  There’s debate among the characters about how to feel about Cheney.  Mattie found him slow witted, but LaBeouf warns her that that was his act and not to underestimate him.  He is a killer after all.  When we finally meet Tom Cheney, we can believe Mattie’s descriptions about him not being terribly bright (why wouldn’t he lead his own gang instead of always joining up with other outlaws like Ned Pepper?)  Mattie also faces the challenge of being thwarted by her want for revenge, where she’s against LaBeouf who wants Cheney hanged for killing a state senator.  Mattie wants Cheney to know he’s being killed for murdering her father.  While Rooster than argues what difference does it make so long as he’s killed anyway and justice has been served, it’s the principle and the only satisfactionemotional closure Mattie can get if she knows Cheney will be killed for murdering her father.  

This leads to the climactic moment when Mattie kills Cheney, and she falls back into the snake pit.  The snake bite and the loss of her arm through infection is the price she pays for her revengeCementing that is the long ride Rooster takes to get her to a doctor, the last leg of their journey together.  In another sacrifice, there’s the killing of Little Blackie, the horse Mattie loved, symbolizing the end of her innocence.  The longest journey at the end is powerful and moving, as well as making a hero out of Rooster, who doesn’t stop in his effort to save Mattie.  It’s Karma, but in the end we see it was a price Mattie was willing to pay to find peace of mind in herself.

 In all honesty, I think the remake of True Grit is better than the original John Wayne film.  It takes the themes of the film to a much deeper level.    What really shines about this version is what the Coens had to say about the powerful themes of the film.  There is no moralizing about whether Mattie’s quest for revenge is right or wrong.  Even though this is a revenge story, what it says more to me is that it’s about the quest to find peace in our lives, even if that search for peace comes at a price.  It was important that Mattie lost her arm for killing Cheney, because if it didn’t come back to her, it would have made her no better than Cheney himself.

True Grit (2010) is one of my favorite films of all time.  It’s a film I could pop in at anytime and just be as satisfied with.  If you love the John Wayne version and are skeptical about the Coen‘s version, don’t underestimate this new take on the movie.  If you need any convincing about that, just remember, it’s made by the Coen Bros. after all!    

Pain makes Art

Olivier: “So why are you an artist Claire?”

Claire Fisher:”Because I have a lot of pain.”  -Six Feet Under

So in writing this blog, I’ve decided I want this to be more than just a movie commentary/review blog.  Of course, I’m keeping the title “Moviecappa” because the subject of film is my field as an artist.  The things I want to talk about pertaining to art I see mainly through the world of film.  But I feel any discussion I want to make regarding art could be valid for any form, if it were sculpture, or painting, writing, photography, etc.  I’m an animator, so animation is the art form I am most passionate about.  In my mind animation is one of the most powerful, “living” forms of art that can do anything your heart can imagine.  For such a powerful artform however, it’s also, in my opinion, one of the most repressed.  
I’ve often complained about always seeing the exact same story elements and structure in animated films for the last 15 to 20 years.  It’s gotten so bad that it feels like we’ve gotten to the point where audiences (as well as animators) are willing to make up excuses for bad storytelling, to either justify or hoo-rah-rah their pals in the animation industry.  In my last big post I talked about a lot of animators coming from repressed backgroundsI’m sure anyone whose pretty observant can acknowledge the animation industry attracts a high level of the Jesus crowd.  It’s not to say anything against people based on their religious backgrounds (I have several buddies who come from strong religious backgrounds, myself included having gone to church and being raised Catholic).  But with a lot of artists of this nature running the show, the impact we get in animation storytelling is a lot of moralizing and lessons the characters are supposed to learn, despite the fact that there might be a more pressing urgent issue about the characters and their world.  Which of course gets ignored.  The character learns a lesson…but is it the right lesson about being human?  Or is just P.C. moralizing?  

The artists/animators get the job done when they work for someone else (a big studio for example), but in a nutshell…they’ll do what their told…and won’t nessecerily take a stand to protect their vision, even allowing themselves to compromise it or be walked all over by somebody else.  As some will probably think when I say this “well, that’s the price you pay when you work for a studio”.  Well, yeah, in a way it is.  But for a lot of these artists, the goal isn’t so much about their vision as it is the job.  

When we were kids we all had the big studio we wanted to spend our life working for.  Many people in the most recent generation are motivated to work for Pixar.  As a kid, I was motivated to work for Disney.  The movie that had the greatest impact on me as a kid was Beauty and the Beast.  Part of it was the fact that…well, the Beast was just freaking awesome.  But I knew what moved me more was the emotional heart, and the Beasts “death” and transformation at the end, which shed several tears from myself.  But that was 1991.  Disney is not same company as it was then.  And of course, no one expected Toy Story would come along and change everything, making CG films the dominant form of animation.  In college that put me in a crisis where I suddenly had no direction as an artist.   Jobs, as well as motivation for the field I wanted to be a part of, became non existant.  

I like CG, but I have no use for it, and to this day, what motivates my heart has always been 2D traditional hand drawn animation.  It’s a vision I have for myself and the medium of animation I will find a way to make a living at.  For some people, it’s simply easy for them to adapt to the new medium in order to keep themselves employed.  But while those artists may manage to stay employed, at what cost is it to the pursuit of their visions as artists?  Without sacrificing their jobs, they’ll compensate for it in other ways, such as making children‘s books for example, that they’ll hope will be picked up by a studio to be made into an animated feature.  But for those not motivated for making children’s books, they may have their jobs, but because they’ve already gotten the job they’ve craved so long, boredom sets in.  I see it in a lot of my animator friends on Facebook.  They’ll take up expensive hobbies, such as acting in theater, or gymnastics, or dance to find any form of expression for themselves…but it serves to take them farther away from animation, the medium they first fell in love with.  They’ll make up reasons for how having these hobbies or outside excursions applies to what their doing at their job…but it really doesn’t.  An animator working for a huge corporate studio like Blue Sky, Dreamworks, or Pixar, will always be expected to deliver a certain type of animation performance in CG and not stray from that.  No animator today has the freedom of the Nine Old Men at Disney to explore the possibilities of animation, unless your name is Glen Keane, Eric Goldberg, or Andreas Deja.  If any artist tried to explore something other than what the studio expected from them, they‘d be fired.   

There is this danger for artists in the field of animation to be obsessed about “the job”.  They’ll spend their lives driven by a childhood ambition to get the job they’ve always wanted, but once they have it and they’re well paid, it’s hard to get away from that income.  Especially when you plan to start families and buy a house.  To sacrifice “the job” to find something greater, when you have the burden of family and mortgages and bills to deal with…well its hard.  They’re are some artists who have taken the leap of faith to search for something greater in themselves.  But at the same time they face a stigma that their peers will attach to them, other artists who will see the sacrifice as act of selfishness, that the person is putting themselves before their familyIn some cases, they might be right.  But in most cases, for their peers who protest, it’s an act of jealousy when they were too afraid to make the sacrifice themselves.  They want to bring the rebel back down to their level.  And they’ll make excuses for why they didn’t take the well trodden path.  They’ll tell the rebel artist they’re essentially inviting pain on themselves.  But that’s exactly the idea.  

  We’re trained from our parents, or from our religious faith to avoid exposing ourselves to pain as much as possible.  But sometimes, resisting your exposure to pain only leads to the inevitable…that your pain eventually catches up with you.  Especially when your at an older age and ask yourself what your life would have been like had you taken that road less traveled, where what would have happened if you sacrificed it all to find your voice, instead of spending your life supporting someone elses voice…a voice which may in fact be repressed to begin with.  I once knew a guy, a Disney animator, who compared his idea to exposing yourself to life by a vacation he was taking to Hawaii.  It’s the same for a lot of artists, who base their exploration as artists and their life experiences they put in their art based on their hobbies.  That’s not what being an artist is about.  

A true artist, in my opinion, is someone who acknowledges their pain.  They don’t try to hide from it.  Every animator’s pain is not the same as what we’re told in every formula animated feature put out there.  Not every animator or artist sees themselves as an outcast.  Not every artist has angry father issues.  But there are those animation artists who have suffered more in their lives than anyone knows, but the from what the industry tells them to do in their job, their voice winds up becoming repressed.  We all have something to say, and the pain for many of us runs deep.  It’s always different for each person.  There are artists who suffer heavy traumas.  There are those who have never been able to act on their repressed sexuality. While something may be P.C., it doesn’t mean that we’ve evolved or that the repression doesn’t exist anymore.  It just means that now there’s going to be another group of people who are forced into a closet, with unanswered repressed feelings they are unable to express.  What was once acceptable becomes unacceptable, and vise versa depending on which side of the coin you’re on.  Democrat, Republican, Gay, Straight, Bi (Being Bi, both sides of the coin, there’s a paradox for you).  But the heart of being human, the grey of what life is isn’t what audiences want to see.  They just want what’s going to reaffirm the position for which they stand, which turns everything into a Black and White issue.  I see this happening A LOT in storytelling today in movies today (not just animation).  It’s not that we’ve gotten better or that we’ve outgrown a level of indifference.  It’s just that the power has been shifted to the other side.  It’s a constant cold war.  

I’m not trying to go off on a tangent here.  But what I’m saying is these are the issues we as artists have to express.  In Americans especially, there is a lot of anger.  A lot of darkness, and so much of it goes unexpressed.  Being an artist isn’t a choice.  It’s a gift.  And it’s a responsibility in yourself to seek out the truth, no matter how painful and harsh it might be, and share it with the world.  As artists, it’s acknowledging the pain we all feel that helps others accept what they already know inside is true.  Someone needs to show it to them.  If you’re an artist, that someone may be you.    If you’re an animator or a cartoonist, a cartoon could change the world.  Animation is a gold mine at the box office for sure.  But audiences today don’t eat these films up because they’re good.  They‘ve only become accustomed to what they know.  They’ve only seen and acknowledged the one way a cartoon has been made.  

If you’re an animator, you have a greater calling insideA voiceand a fire waiting to explode in you.  You can’t tell me you’re not one of those people who doesn’t have something deeper to say or you would have never found yourself pursuing this life course if it had no meaning.  Find a way to bring it out of you…and acknowledge the pain you have inside.  That’s where your greatest art will come from.