Monday, January 24, 2011

The popularity of "True Grit" as a reflection of nostalgia for the rural?

Believe it or not, that seems to be the subject of Frank Rich's column in yesterday's New York Times. He comments on the widespread popularity of both the 1969 original and the recently released remake, and he attributes this to several factors. Having credited the Coen brothers' fine film-making for the popularity of the latter version, Rich speculates that the "the latest “True Grit” juggernaut also has something to say about Americans yearning at a trying juncture in our history — much as it did the first time around." Rich doesn't use the words rural and urban, but he suggests them, elsewhere commenting on both films' popularity with a "national mass audience and elite critics" alike.

Rich recalls that the first version of the film appeared in the midst of anti-Vietnam sentiment, writing that even "the Times critic, Vincent Canby ... put it in a year-end list of bests dominated by such antiestablishment fare as “The Wild Bunch,” “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy” (that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner) and the ultimate anti-Western, Andy Warhol’s sexually transgressive “Lonesome Cowboys.”

Canby called the film “a classic frontier fable that manages to be most entertaining even when it’s being most reactionary.” Rich goes on to re-characterize reactionary as "retrograde," describing the plot as involving a 14-year-old girl (Mattie Ross) who hires a retired federal marshal (Rooster Cogburn) to avenge the death of her father by tracking down the man who killed him. (Incidentally, young Mattie Ross is from Yell County, Arkansas, in the Arkansas River Valley, which today has a population of only about 20,000.  She goes to Fort Smith, Arkansas, on the Oklahoma--then Indian territory--border, to settle her father's affairs).

I'm not sure what's so reactionary or retrograde about it. Obviously it is a period piece, set in the late 1800s. But here's what Rich says:
Like classic Hollywood Westerns before it, “True Grit” in all its iterations has an elegiac lilt. Uncivilized hired guns like Rooster may have helped tame the West and dispatched bad guys, but they were also capable of lawlessness and atrocities. ... Ultimately, law, religion and domestic institutions like marriage — which Rooster failed at — had to prevail if America was to grow up. For a weary mainstream 1969 audience, and not just a reactionary one, the restoration of order in “True Grit,” inevitably to be followed by Rooster’s ride off into the sunset, was a heartening two-hour escape from the near-civil-war raging beyond the theater’s walls.
As for the popularity of the remake, Rich attributes it to what he believes is America's current need for an escape. But he also opines that one of the "most stirring" things about the new “True Grit” is "its unalloyed faith in values antithetical to those of the 21st century America so deftly skewered, as it happens, in 'The Social Network.'"

The rest of the column compares "True Grit" with "The Social Network" in terms of values, specifically the rule of law, along with issues like elitism and corruption. I'm not sure I clearly grasp what Rich is trying to convey, though he writes of the appeal of loyalty and a "clear cut sense of morality and justice." He implies that these are lacking in the tale depicted by "The Social Network."

In the end, Rich's column leaves me wondering if he is suggesting some appeal to the simplicity of earlier times--and of rurality itself, even though he has mocked these in his own earlier columns.

I am also reminded of this NY Times item from the magazine this week, "Only Cowgirls Run for Office." In it, Rebecca Traister suggests that the cowgirl ideal or type is peculiarly American and one on which female politicians in the U.S., have often drawn--or at least reflect. She lists Hattie Caraway, Jeanette Rankin, and Ann Richards as examples, and she notes that while states like Kansas, Arizona, and Texas have had multiple female governors, eastern states have rarely elected women to the post. An excerpt from Traister's story follows:
What we do have, to serve as the foundational fantasy of female strength and individualism we’ve agreed upon as embodying American power, are cowgirls: Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, the outlaws, frontier women and pioneers who pushed West, shot sharp, talked tough and sometimes drew blood. Frontier womanhood has emerged as one of the only historically American models of aspirational femininity available to girls — passive princesses and graceful ballerinas not being native to this land — and one of the only blueprints for commanding female comportment in which they are regularly encouraged to invest or to mimic.
So, there you have it: Part of the appeal of Mattie Ross and "True Grit" may be the same frontierswoman icon that also draws us to the Gabrielle Giffords and Sarah Palins of our fair country.


RH said...

I loved the movie; I have a real fascination with westerns such as "True Grit," and the not quite as good but still enjoyable "3:10 to Yuma," because they bring to life a world where justice is so precarious.

Today, at least in densely populated areas, we often take it for granted that police can respond to a crime within minutes. Admittedly, that isn't really true in many communities, but I think most would agree that at the very least, America has very large and somewhat reliable institutions in place that exist to enforce the law.

In the post-Civil War era of "True Grit," justice was so remote and so uncertain that to seek it out really did require true grit. As I watched the movie I was really struck by how much Mattie had to endure in order to right the moral balance of the world by bringing her father's killer to justice. There were long rides through difficult terrain, nights out in the cold, perilous encounters with thieves and murderers- she braved all of that and more because she had to do what was right. I loved the quote from Proverbs that opened the movie: "The wicked flee when none pursueth."

And it is worth note that it wasn't just vengeance she sought- she had no interest in torturing Tom Chaney, as Rooster offered to do, nor to see him hanged for other crimes- she wanted to see that there was a moral accounting for what was done to her father.

Getting to Rich's article in the NYT, I completely agree that he does allude to a bit of nostaliga for the rural- and he may be assuming that it would be appropriate to assume that rural culture is imbued with Mattie's sense of moral fortitude.

But what I think he's really getting at (or what I hope he's getting at), is that our collective sense of right and wrong, of justice, has lost a lot of the clarity that it may have once had in the days of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn. The irony is that back then, justice was so very elusive, but in modern America we possess wealth and technology that would enable the ferreting out of even the most clandestine of crimes. But, as I think Rich is arguing, the very greed that was instrumental in creating that wealth has clouded our sense of what justice is, and our passion for seeking it out. Maybe moviegoers are connecting with that old-time sense of right and wrong.

Or, as Rich admitted, maybe people just wanted to eat popcorn and forget about the world for a couple hours.

N.P. said...

I have difficulty in weighing one set of values over the other, which is essentially the problem with essentializing the rural and the urban. Rich, in making a dichotomy between "The Social Network" and "True Grit" seems to value one over the other without any direct reasoning.

First, there is the obvious problem that both are stories of how we view our lives - not of how our lives actually work. Moreover, the fact that these are made by huge multinational movie studios, also tends to diminish Rich's value judgment.

Second, it is a reflection of nostalgia - especially considering that we are a nation of individuals with rights and freedoms developed by our (somewhat elitist) founding fathers. The obvious ability to have such freedom is not lost upon me, especially considering the advent of things such as facebook, but by making such broad statements - it seems to forget the time period we are in, and actual real situations occurring.

Instead of theorizing and contrasting - perhaps the similarities should be drawn. Both movies involve true grit and both movies ultimately are a good story.