Light and Language in True Grit

True Grit –  by Mario A. Zambrano

There might be a better reason why I was impressed after seeing True Grit, the latest Coen film, other than that it was a film masterfully put together; from soundtrack to dialog to cinematography. I didn’t watch Westerns growing up, even with the insistent coaxing from my father. It wasn’t in my interest to watch cowboys ride horses and spit tobacco while abusing Indians making them out as if they were lesser than the horses they rode. John Wayne was mentioned more than a dozen times, and there was a particular tune my father would sing when he’d feel he’d performed some heroic deed. If I tried to sing it now it’d sound like the opening track to an Indiana Jones flick, but if I heard the melody I’d recognize it and be half-certain that a man was nearby with his chest filled with pride because of some stunt he’d performed to make him feel like John Wayne.

I’m not sure why I agreed to see True Grit, if it was because I was on vacation at home in Houston during the holidays⎯meaning that days are spent mostly making meals and waiting to see what my parents would like to do⎯or if it was because I’d heard hype about Jeff Bridges’ lead performance. I didn’t know at the time that this new adaptation, inspired by the novel by Charles Portis, had already been made into a film in 1969 with John Wayne himself, whom won an Academy Award for his role as Rooster Cogburn. I have my father to thank for letting me know. As the movie began, he leaned over to me and said, “Let’s see if this is as good as the original.”

Before an image is revealed, a track played, the movie begins with a young girl’s voice, prim and strong-willed, and a faint golden light slowly illuminating at the center of the screen. Mattie, the young girl, tells the story of how her father was killed, who killed him, and her plans for finding the man so that justice prevails. She finds the U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a drunk, one-eyed official known for his easy hand in shooting criminals, and offers him fifty dollars to find the man that killed her father. He hesitates at first, shocked and amused at the fourteen-year old’s insistent proposition, but finally accepts.

As I reflect on the film I realize that there are different kinds of films for different kinds of interest. If one wants to be wowed with the latest technological feats and cinematic effects then one could choose a film like Transformers or Harry Potter to sit back and be bedazzled. But if one prefers character and dialog then there are recent films like The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right to satisfy the itch. True Grit is one of those films.

There is a scene where Mattie haggles with a vendor trying to sell back a few ponies that her father had bought before he died. She’s only fourteen, and yet her wit and brilliance pierces the scene like a shaft of light in a dark tunnel, the way she handles the language is sharp and acerbic. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss for vocabulary and conversation, something that has gotten loose and easy over the years, especially amongst our teenagers. I was sitting atop a moment of irony: the most impressive highlight of the scene was the speed of mind and eloquence of rhetoric, yet there were no interchangeable vehicles or sweeping visual effects that could turn a human into a mongoose, and make it seem ‘real’. And there I was in a theater with a TMX sound system next to a young woman who a few minutes earlier had chanted with her husband such sophisticated phrases like, “OMG,” “For real?,” “She is so not right.”

What’s happened to our language? Was a Western film really impressing me on the grounds of verbal skills in a way that I thought could only be done in an English novel? Yes, it was. The Coen brothers, who wrote and directed the film, were doing a fantastic job in transcending me to a literary experience not commonly felt in blockbuster hits.

And like all good pieces of literature, there was a conscious attention to tone. In one of the end scenes, when Mattie is wounded from snakebite and Cogburn is rushing her to the nearest town, he rides across a flat plain, through a blue night. The camera faces them straight on, and the cinematography is as picturesque as any poet’s illustration of a sickle moon above sea. Earlier in the film during a trial scene, beams of gold light dive into the courtroom as the actors speak in silhouette. Throughout the film, the attention to light is magnificent, almost as if the point of view were of an aesthete⎯as I’ve come to consider Mr. Joel and Ethan Coen.

The film ended and I was satisfied, yet my father leaned over to me and said, “He didn’t flip his gun the way John Wayne did,” a bit smug that this new version wasn’t as good as the one he remembered. Later that evening after we had dinner, he showed me a Youtube clip of the original True Grit, showing me how John Wayne rode his horse against four other fugitives, rifle in one hand and pistol in the other, spinning his guns after each shot in that sort of gestural, emblematic way we associate with Western films. The image was of a different color, and at the end of that scene I heard the tune that accompanied every John Wayne flick of his time.

As I watched the clip, it dawned on me that something had been reinvented. I thought of Superman, and how a few years ago there had been a new adaptation of the film⎯as well as The Chorus Line; Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory; Psycho; and others. I wondered how the literary world would react if a writer decided to reinvent a past novel, say, Camus’ The Plague? Or Mrs. Dalloway?

Film and literature are two mediums, but it seems that one is getting the leeway to reinvent pieces that have already been invented. But maybe not? Perhaps if I wrote my own version of Alice in Wonderland, and wrote it with the same sort of attention to light and language as the Coen brothers have done with True Grit, it might make a new reader enjoy it. And perhaps there’d be a parent nearby who would say, “Alice is much meaner in this version; I don’t remember her using that sort of language!”

Of course, I have no interest in reinventing pieces of literature. I’d rather take a shot at invention. But it did raise a question: why reinvent films and not literature? True Grit is not like Lord of the Rings, a film in which the help of technology made capable the illusion of elves and hobbits. So why remake a Western? To show off language and light and how the perception of it can amend the experience of the same story told differently, filmed differently, seen differently? For goodness sake, Jeff Bridges doesn’t even flip his rifle like John Wayne, so what makes it better, what makes it different?

I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you that Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, even though he doesn’t flip his rifle after every shot in the climactic scene of the movie, he does get wounded, as the narrative is written, and does carry Mattie in his arms across a vast desert until finally, he comes upon a log cabin in which a yellow light turns on. The snow falls. And the light around them is a midnight blue.