Saturday, January 29, 2011

Movies, Movies, More Movies

It was three weeks ago that I slid across my front stoop on the ice and flipped over the railing onto my head and shoulder.  I haven't so much been doing normal things since then.  One thing I have figured out that I can do, however, is see movies in the theater.  I don't do that very often when I'm not injured, but I have discovered that the height and angle of movie theater chairs is about as perfect as I can get for getting my shoulder into a non-excruciating position.  So, I've seen a lot of movies in the last three weeks.

Last night, it was "No Strings Attached."  It was fairly predictable - hello, romantic comedy, what do you think is going to happen?  It's not like Natalie Portman is going to remain forever single or run off with the jackass doctor.  But it was funny and cute and sometimes even poignant, which is what a romantic comedy is supposed to be.  I will note that my friend and I were the only ones in the theater laughing, which I found curious.  Seriously, there was dead silence behind us.  But I suspect that the older couple found it a bit crass, and the two teenage couples in the theater were likely a) on nervous first dates, b) too young to get it, or c) making out.

Last week I saw "The King's Speech" in Toronto.  Movies are expensive in Canada, by the way.  Many things are expensive in Canada, actually.  I think the sales taxes must pay for their obviously superior educational system.  Okay, so I don't really know if Canada is putting out more scientists or geniuses or whatever, or how their students would compare to U.S. students on standardized tests, but I do know that nearly everyone you meet in Canada knows and cares about what's going on in the world, which is a refreshing change from the land of ignorance and apathy.  It may or may not be related, but the theater was nearly full on a Thursday afternoon to see "The King's Speech," a quiet, slow-paced, thoughtful movie about role, identity, and facing psychological obstacles.  The acting was just beautiful, and the movie is well worth any Oscars it wins.

Sometime before that, I saw "How Do You Know?"  It's worth mentioning that my roommate and I had started out intending to see "Season of the Witch," but decided based on its absolutely terrible reviews to see something else.  I'm not sure we made the right decision.  The dialogue was stilted and unrealistic, the characters annoying, and the ending was so cloying that I wanted to vomit.  Paul Rudd had a few touching moments as a guy whose life is completely falling apart, but I was distracted by wondering why anyone would want anything to do with the Owen Wilson character.  It just didn't really make any sense to me.

And before that was "True Grit."  I have to say, I hesitated to even see it.  ***Spoiler Alert***
The original is one of my favorite movies ever, and John Wayne is Rooster Cogburn.  Any other possibility seems kind of ridiculous.  I feel about this movie the way some people feel about their pews in church: changing it seems completely disorienting, and another movie trying to sit in that spot...the idea was kind of appalling.  Ultimately I was too curious to boycott it, however, and I surprised myself by actually liking it.

Jeff Bridges was an entirely different Rooster, gruffer (thanks in part to that weird growly voice that I did not particularly like), somehow more obviously broken by his drinking, his motivations less clear, his overall character less noble - which is saying something when compared to the John Wayne version, who was a less than upstanding citizen to begin with.  But there seemed to be more of a moral center to the John Wayne portrayal from the beginning, which makes it less surprising when he nearly kills himself trying to get an injured young girl to safety in the end.  I knew what was coming, and yet found myself expecting that the Jeff Bridges version would just ride off and preserve himself.  When he doesn't, the surprise lends a different kind of poignancy to the new film.

Glenn Campbell's LaBoeuf was slick, arrogant, and decisive; Matt Damon's portrayal is none of those things.  He's weary, a bit ragged, and full of self-doubt.  He's not enough of a pretty boy for some of the lines about him to make sense.  He keeps deserting Rooster and Mattie, which would probably seem totally normal if you haven't seen the original.  He's less likable but more interesting than the Glenn Campbell version.

Hailee Steinfeld in the role of Mattie Ross was probably my favorite part of the movie.  She didn't quite pull off the rigid, self-righteous entitlement that Kim Darby did, but she did manage to combine enough of that naive chutzpah and unstoppable determination with a vulnerability that the original did not have.  She actually is the age that the character is supposed to be (Darby was 22 when she played this role), which probably helped.  She's less indignant at being treated badly and more genuinely afraid.  It's even less believable when this round-faced child with braids takes off across the wilderness with two rough men in pursuit of the man who killed her father - which is part of the point of the story.

It's a motley crew that sets out on this seemingly impossible venture.  That was true in the original, but it seems even less plausible that there is any chance of winning in the new version.  The two men seem hopelessly broken, the girl utterly without the skills or knowledge to accomplish her goal.  Of course, they don't really win by any reasonable definition, in either movie, and less so in the new one.  LaBoeuf dies (in both), Mattie is physically maimed (and perhaps emotionally as well, depending on your interpretation of the ending), and Rooster is seemingly unchanged by the experience.  The man they were chasing does die, but not in any way that demonstrates justice to a greater community, which is what Mattie hoped, or which procures the reward that the two men were after.  The ending of the original was humorous and uplifting, suggesting a newly acquired tenderness in Mattie and an ongoing relationship between her and Rooster.  The new film follows the book, but seems even more stark and dismal on screen.

I didn't like the ending.  I'm used to the original.  I wanted to see Rooster jump his horse over a four-railed fence and shout, "Well, come see a fat old man sometime!"  But there is a troubling kind of beauty in the realism of the new version, in which a hard journey doesn't soften the people involved, and the search for vengeance doesn't end in happily ever after.

I've wondered many times why I like the original so much, aside from the nostalgia of bonding with my dad over it.  It's full of revenge and death, which are not really high on my list of values, and it venerates a concept of honor that revolves around retribution - also not something I'd endorse.  Mattie's unexpected toughness, which appeals to my feminist sensibilities, is balanced by the traditional damsel-in-distress-rescued-by-rugged-man story line.  I admire the moral center that drives the characters (although the moral compass tilts a bit more in the new version), but when it comes down to it, that core doesn't really exhibit any of the Christian values that I try to live and teach now.  If you want it done, you have to do it yourself.  Justice sometimes requires violence.  The ends justify the means.  These are not the values I hold true.

Except that they are the values that I grew up with, and apparently they're still in there.  And they're not entirely negative.  They're the same values that have taught me that if I want to see change, I have to act, not wait for someone else to do it.  That if I want to see justice, I may have to be tough about pointing out injustice.  That goals require a long view in which some of the actions to get there may have negative consequences.  And then there is perhaps the ultimate lesson of "True Grit:" even if you act according to all you believe to be right, it may not end up the way you hope.  Not exactly the most uplifting of messages, but maybe the most true.  (Hm, there might be a reason why I ended up a Calvinist.)          

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