Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Flaccid Western (The Coen Brothers' True Grit)

Well, I'm against it [aging]. I think it has nothing to recommend it. You don't gain any wisdom as the years go by. You fall apart is what happens. People try and put a nice varnish on it, and say, well, you mellow. You come to understand life and accept things. But you'd trade all of that for being 35 again.—Woody Allen

The Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010) is a perfect example of the negative influence that Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) has had on the western. Ending like that film with an epilogue set in a graveyard at sunset, it is so slow and talky and sepia-tone and elegiac that it makes one long for the virility of a young man's western like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959), which ended with John Wayne fucking Angie Dickinson (or at least that's how I remember it). The problem with modern westerns is that they need to lighten up and get laid.

When did westerns stop being fun? The original True Grit (1969), directed by Henry Hathaway, appeared at a transitional moment. It had been thirty years exactly since John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) made Wayne a star, and the popularity of westerns was in decline. With the war being fought in Vietnam, audiences were understandably weary of a genre associated with celebrations of ethnic cleansing, and it didn't help that Wayne was an outspoken supporter of that war. A few years earlier, Clint Eastwood had become a huge star for appearing in a series of gritty Italian westerns by Sergio Leone that positioned themselves culturally as demystifications of the west. And Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (released the same year as True Grit) went further still in its images of indiscriminate slaughter. The next decade saw even more revisionist westerns, and Wayne continued working steadily until 1976, when he made his final film, The Shootist, but the age of the western as a popular genre in Hollywood was essentially over.

These days not many westerns get made in Hollywood (notwithstanding those set on other planets, like Star Wars [1977] and Avatar [2009]), but when they do, they're invariably made by older directors for an older audience. Eastwood himself was a notorious womanizer in the 1970s (according to Wikipedia, he's fathered seven children with five women), and part of what makes his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (1971), so personal and memorable (if not good, precisely) is the degree to which it reflects its maker's anxieties about the possible consequences of his promiscuity. Northern California in the late '60s was his happening, and it clearly freaked him out. But twenty years later when he directed Unforgiven, Eastwood was well into his sixties, so it's not surprising that he was thinking more about retirement than getting laid. That said, when it comes to making a genuinely mature western, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995) is virtually alone in offering a serious critique and revision of the mythology of the west.

Six years after Unforgiven, the Coens made their first film with Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski (1998), which wasn't a big hit at the time but seems now in retrospect possibly the definitive movie of its era, given how much sagging middle-aged male flesh there is on display here. Released in the same year as the Monica Lewinsky affair and Viagra, the film contains numerous references to the western (beginning with the opening shot of a tumbleweed), but far from the Duke and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, here both male leads are obese and hilariously ineffectual if not literally impotent. (There's even a minor subplot involving the potency of the Bridges' character's sperm.)

But where The Big Lebowski provides an affectionate ribbing of baby boomer anxieties about decreasing virility, in their subsequent neo-western, No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coens attempted to elevate the same concerns into something far more grandiose. Adapted from a 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy (who fathered a child in his seventies--what's he trying to prove?), it starred Tommy Lee Jones as a Texas lawman who's metaphorically impotent in the face of the world's evils, represented here by a sociopath with an obviously phallic cattle gun. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that even in a western as vigorous as Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) there would be jokes about male impotence.

By my calculation, Hawks was about fifty-four when he made Rio Bravo (roughly the same age the Coens are now), and Hathaway was eight years older when he made True Grit, yet neither film feels like the work of an old man. The latter film ends with the Duke giving a joyous display of his mastery of horse riding, set to an upbeat western theme with horns that go dah dah-nuh dah-nuh--an image that all but shouts, "I ain't dead yet, partner!" Bridges, on the other hand, seems to have modeled his performance after the alcoholic doctor in Béla Tarr's Sátántangó (1994). To say that the film lacks energy would be an understatement; it is a depressed and lethargic slog of a movie. I think what the Coens need is some Viagra and a weekend with Angie Dickinson.

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