erik lundegaard

Half-True Grit

Did you read Frank Rich's column last Sunday? Back in the Bush years, he was required reading for me. Less so now. That's actually good. It's nice to be able to disagree with him about a good president rather than huddle together in obvious opposition to a bad one.

His column Sunday was about the movies and America, specifically what “True Grit” and “The Social Network” say about different visions of America. It was much linked to and applauded.

But the article felt like half truths to me. Rich writes:

What is most stirring about “True Grit” today — besides the primal father-daughter relationship that blossoms between Rooster and Mattie — is its unalloyed faith in values antithetical to those of the 21st century America so deftly skewered, as it happens, in “The Social Network.”

He writes:

But what leaps out this time, to the point of seeming fresh, is the fierce loyalty of the principal characters to each other (the third being a vain Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon) and their clear-cut sense of morality and justice, even when the justice is rough. More than the first “True Grit,” the new one emphasizes Mattie’s precocious, almost obsessive preoccupation with the law. She is forever citing law-book principles, invoking lawyers and affidavits, and threatening to go to court. “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another,” says Mattie. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.”

Loyalty? A bit, but hardly fierce. Mattie only goes on the trip in the first place because Cogburn finally allows it (Damon's character, LaBoeuf, is horse whipping her, remember). Cogburn and LaBoeuf constantly fight. They split up, come back together when the bad guys close in, and are on the verge of splitting up for good when Mattie sees Chaney, her father's killer, by the stream, and Chaney kidnaps her. These characters are really only as loyal to each other as I am to Frank Rich. I'm with him when the bad guys, the Chaneys/Cheneys of the world, are nearby or in power. Otherwise we squabble.

(Fun fact: Josh Brolin is the only actor who has played both Bush and Chaney.)

Rich then writes of “The Social Network”:

In contrast to Mattie’s dictum [“There is nothing free but the grace of God”], no one has to pay for any transgression in the world it depicts. Zuckerberg’s antagonists, Harvard classmates who accuse him of intellectual theft, and his allies, exemplified by a predatory venture capitalist, sometimes seem more entitled and ruthless than he is. The blackest joke in Aaron Sorkin’s priceless script is that Lawrence Summers, a Harvard president who would later moonlight as a hedge fund consultant, might intervene to arbitrate any ethical conflicts. You almost wish Rooster were around to get the job done.

This is also off. The Zuckerberg of “TSN” pays with his friends, particularly Andrew Garfield's Eduardo, and with his Rosebud of girlfriends, Erica Albright, with whom, at the end, he's still intent on connecting. He's someone who connects the world with each other but can't connect himself. That's his tragedy. That's how he pays.

(Agreement on Summers, by the way, whom the film portrays not only as too self-important to intervene in a student squabble but not visionary enough to see what Facebook might become. He scoffs that it's a million dollar idea when it becomes a multi- multi- billion-dollar idea. This man, by the way, with such strong vision, is once again economic advisor to the president of the United States.)

But that's as far as I got in my critique. Thank God for Richard Brody over at The New Yorker, an increasingly necessary read, who pretty much takes care of Rich in the opening graf:

Pundits who lay hold of movies often seem merely to filter them to yield predetermined results—as Frank Rich does, in Sunday’s Times, in a piece in which he draws tendentious conclusions from a comparison of the stories and the box-office results of the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” and David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”

Now that I've read Brody further, though, I have a problem with what he says, too. He writes:
Actually, “True Grit” is a success because it allows viewers to have their cake (the cake of extra-legal frontier justice) and to eat it (in the form of a wholesome recognition that the pursuit is damaging to the pursuers, and that, though the extrajudicial hunt makes for quite a show, it’s one that, in the modern age, is obsolete, enjoyable precisely and solely as a tall tale). It’s not a movie for the post-meltdown age but one for the post-9/11 age of devil-may-care vengeance.

Does “True Grit” feel like a tall tale to you? As movies go, it's fairly rooted in time and history. It's obviously wish fulfillment, and revenge fantasy, but less so than most Hollywood wish fulfillments and revenge fantasies. The hero is a drunk. His sidekick is full of hot air. The villain, Lucky Ned, has honor. Meanwhile, Mattie, forever using the fact of her lawyer as both bribe and cudgel, is the one who metes out frontier justice on Chaney. But we don't get to enjoy it. As soon as it happens, she begins to pay. Cogburn lost an eye, LeBoeuf nearly a tongue, and now she loses an arm. And a horse. And her youth. That's hardly devil-may-care. That's why the film resonates so. It lives up to its own principles. Nothing is free but the grace of God.

“True Grit” also resonates because it's a good metaphor—not for our time, or for a time long gone, but for our own interactions in times of crisis. Frank Rich, Richard Brody and I are squabbling now; but soon, too soon, the Cheneys of the world will be strong again and we'll ride together.

Rooster, not riding into the sunset.

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Posted at 06:40 AM on Fri. Jan 28, 2011 in category Movies  

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