Category Archives: The Coen Brothers

Dramas, Blockbusters, and the Academy Awards

Almost every year detractors complain of the Academy’s disregard for popular entertainment. In Oscar’s eyes, the “movie” is somehow inferior to the worthy “film”. As a filmmaker, you either dumb down your craft to make nine figures, or you take your work seriously, because Academy voters like nothing better than art that knows it is serious. When both coalesce it is the exception, not the rule.

Last year the dichotomy between pop and art were obvious: Cameron’s crowd-seducing Avatar vs. Bigelow’s indie thriller The Hurt Locker. I use the labels “movie” and “film” with caution. They are more economic distinctions than aesthetic ones. Avatar glowed with as much breathless artistry as The Hurt Locker simmered with tried-and-true exercises in Hitchcockian suspense. Bigelow’s effort made back its $11-million, but only squeaked in and out of theatres. Meanwhile Avatar charged, dominating the box office for seven straight weeks.

By giving Best Picture to The Hurt Locker, the Academy lived up its reputation for high-brow snobbery. Of course, they would not give the award to the biggest cinematic event of the year (which Avatar was, tepid plot aside). Of course, they would not give The Dark Knight a nomination in 2008. Even doubling the amount of nominees did not give the popular films a fighting chance at the award.

This year, unique visions and commercial appeal have paired together in a surprising number of films that won critics and audiences. In an industry increasingly dominated by massive budgets and groundbreaking special effects, Americans (and, let’s not forget, Canadians) have turned overwhelmingly to niche auteurs and dramas.

A group of strong contenders are poised to carve the Academy between themselves, maybe evenly. There is no binary Cameron-Bigelow showdown. Undoubtedly, The Social Network is the zeitgeist biopic routing the accolades and winning the critic’s affections. Fincher’s cynical drama raked in $192 million, despite having little star power (only Justin Timberlake in a supporting role) and an unsympathetic host of characters.

Even more extraordinary was True Grit, which grossed $138 million domestically. Considering the Coen brothers are hardly mainstream material and the Western is a genre long thought dead, this was the year’s runaway hit. The psychosexual Black Swan also exceeded expectations with an impressive $83 million, despite director Daren Aronofsky’s poor history with the box office. Other indies excelled: The Fighter won $75 million; The King’s Speech crossed the Atlantic and the $100 million mark.

From hollywoodnews.com

This was an amazing year for dramas, original concepts, and a dead monarch’s stutter. Even among the blockbusters novelty prevailed. Who would have thought a two-and-a-half hour mindbender like Inception would gross $800 million? Granted, the ads were prefaced with “From the Director of the Dark Knight”, but Christopher Nolan does not have the same draw as Spielberg or Bay. Neither does Tim Burton, who gambled on an unpromising March release date to sell the monumental Alice in Wonderland.

But what about the usual cash machines, the sequels, remakes, and star vehicles that fill the most seats year by year? As Brooks Barnes noted in The New York Times, a large number of expected steamrollers tanked. The Killers and The Tourist needed foreign rentals to make back their budgets, despite having the full weight of studio marketing. Sex and the City 2 and The Revenge of Kitty Galore also underperformed domestically.

I have hope, as Barnes does, that audiences are becoming more demanding. They want an Inception or a Despicable Me rather than another Prince of Persia. Strong numbers for the Oscar front runners could be a signal of audiences maturing out of the governing 18-25 male demographic.

To understand the shift to quality it is useful to go back to last winter, when Avatar was well on its way to breaking the billion-dollar benchmark. Cameron’s visuals, scope, and 3D mastery have not yet been equalled, even challenged. Has the standard been set too high for subsequent blockbusters to compete? Were Avatar’s stunning looks and banal story so mismatched as to train us to spot rehashed material in subsequent spectacles?

There are too many outliers to answer in the affirmative. 3D did wonders for Resident Evil: Afterlife and Clash of the Titans, and the requisite summer sequel Iron Man 2 exploded globally. But the same magic is gone, or at least waning. Tron Legacy, in all its attempts to be 2010’s Avatar, was only a moderate success. When True Grit is approaching the same numbers as Tron’s domestic haul, one can be optimistic enough to say we might just be sick of the same shit.

Studios recognize this but, typically, are taking shortcuts. When Sony hired Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) to direct its Spider-Man reboot, industry watchers like Variety called it a watershed moment of abandoning studio journeymen in favour of untested young talent. I think the more pressing issue is that Sony fully expects us to watch Peter Parker learn to climb again. No later than 2013. I thought the success of this year’s contenders would inspire Sony to find Webb a project to suit his subjective and postmodern takes on romantic comedy.

Keep 'em down, boys, don't let him make another movie.

 

Increasingly, it does not matter what Canadians and Americans think. Foreigners are gorging themselves on Hollywood crap. Gulliver’s Travels has little right to make obscene amounts on money, but Jack Black did just that outside the U.S. Flashy, simple, and loud, action movies easily transcend cultural barriers. Producers can jump on the 3D bandwagon (regardless of how gratuitous and poor most 3D is), and exhibitors can charge higher ticket prices.

While I am glad that so many award-winning dramas plundered the  home box office, this might be a minor blip in the Hollywood model and not the start of a trend. Clearly, studios are still hedging their bets on animation, sequels, and comic book adaptations.

Now the challenge is putting new wine into old bottles. Nolan’s reinvention of the derailed Batman franchise showed the MPAA how to inject high-brow gravity, no matter how superficial, into the familiar origin story. 20th Century Fox has already picked up Aronofsky to direct Wolverine 2. The result should be interesting, but I hope auteurs will be given support for their own projects, even if they have to “make one for the system”. However, if attendance continues to drop almost ten percent a year, than the system might have to green light stories as original as their directors.

This article can also be found in next week’s issue of The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper. If you liked this, subscribe to Post Projection on the right.

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Old and New Grit

In a New York Times article on John Wayne’s True Grit (1969), Michael Celpy describes the film as a last bastion of the classical form, one in competition with bold new hits like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. Celpy speculates that the Coen brothers, ever the explorers of expired genre, might dig closer to the soul of the Charles Portis novel True Grit was based on. Without Wayne domineering the screen verbally and physically (the Duke was 6’4”), the complex character of Rooster Cogburn, and his hunt for the coward Tom Chaney, would be allowed to take centre-frame.

I read Celpy’s interesting rehash before seeing the Coen’s True Grit – a real work of art, if not always likeable – and then watched director Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation. While many pieces of the dialogue (presumably lifted from Portis’ book) are exactly the same, the two films could not be more different animals. In general, Hathaway has gone for the sunny and saccharine: a familiar (overly so, in my opinion) Western at the end of the genre’s heyday. The Coens, unsurprisingly, have embraced the stark sensibility of the novel, using their trademark irony and coal-black humour to re-imagine True Grit.

The Landscape

Their revisionism discards some of John Ford’s iconography, including the panoramic backdrops of the glorious American Southwest. Hathaway loves his wide-angle lenses, hardly missing an opportunity to frame Wayne with a stunning mountain, cliff, or other postcard section of Colorado or California. Look at the title card:

And now look at a frame from the 2010 version:

Part of the difference is technological. Hathaway was shooting in vivid technicolor, while the Coens might have used  filters to achieve a more washed-out look. The 2010 film also employs more close-ups and medium shots, largely ignoring the landscape. Hathaway is a resolute classicist, using medium shots and continuity editing. We are meant to see the landscape, the characters, and the action as we would if we were watching the action unfold in front of us, not through the highly controlled medium of film.

Instead of romanticizing the American frontier, the Coens turn up the grit meter. Their Dardanelle, Arkansas is dusty and dirty. It is, like in the novel, winter, not yellow-tinged spring/summer in Hathaway’s adaptation. Hathaway’s set designer Walter Tyler gave Dardanelle a clean, wholesome sheen. It is basked, like most of the film, in cloudless sunshine and its inhabitants dress colourfully, which brings me to…

…Mattie Ross

Kim Darby as the plucky  heroine in 1969:

And Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie in 2010:

Steinfeld is clearly in her father’s clothing: the wide-brimmed hat, thick coat, and belt are too big for her. She is trying to step into his shoes, literally and figuratively. Darby has her own clothing: orange-brown sweaters, feminine jackets. More colour. Her androgynous bowl cut make her seem younger; Steinfeld’s stern (and long) pig tails suggest an intense drive for preparation and presentation.

Casting Kim Darby as an assertive young woman was possibly, for 1969, a feminist statement, but the Coens toughen their Mattie Ross even further. Steinfeld never mourns for her father. She is all business and no-nonsense Protestant work ethic. Darby is caught weeping and gazing at her father’s coffin, while Elmer Berntsein’s emotional chords make a go at your heartstrings.

The Music

Bernstein’s score sounds like a variation of his superior work on The Magnificent Seven (1960). The theme is bouncy, raucous, and goes down easy. In 2010, frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell looked to religious sources for inspiration, borrowing piano arrangements from Protestant hymns for a minimal score.

Rooster

Jeff Bridges wears his patch on his right eye; Wayne wore it on the left. Maybe it’s a sly statement by the Coens that they are not reprising a John Wayne character. Bridges, in a scraggly beard and unkempt clothes is a baroque disaster. He does not strut and drawl like Wayne, but slouches and speaks out the side of his mouth. Both are colourful, self-conscious performances (even Bridges, the most natural actor out there, is mugging for the camera), and both, in their own way, are great characters. Wayne is especially engaging when he tells Darby about his divorced wife and estranged child, a moment when he sheds the grand gestures for more vulnerable confession.

La Boeuf

In 1969 and 2010, the pompous Texas ranger enters with the clank of his enormous spurs, dressed in the best frontier fashion and sporting a cowlick. Matt Damon is a serious-faced fool in the Coens’ version, while country singer Glen Campbell is hokey – or maybe he just appears that way because of the buck-teeth and the forty years of irony-saturated culture that have passed since he played La Boeuf.

Like Rooster, the 2010 La Boeuf has facial hair – changing attitudes to beards, maybe? There is also less regard for assuring the audience that Mattie is safe from two grown men. In 2010 Mattie awakes to find Damon’s La Boeuf smoking a pipe, staring at her from across the bedroom. When he tells her he was considering kissing her in her sleep (as Cambpell did in a different context in 1969) it comes off a touch creepy. This could be the Coens playing dark tricks, or maybe a move to instill unease in the viewer, to align us with Mattie’s loneliness and vulnerability at the hands of patriarchy.

Tom Chaney, the father-murdering coward in question is a whiny  Jeff Corey in 1969 and a whiny Josh Brolin in 2010. The latter radiates more danger, and equal amounts of odd stupidity (“Everyone is against me”). Hathaway cast a young Dennis Hopper as the unfortunate Moon, who tells Mattie and co. when Ned Pepper’s (Chaney’s boss) will arrive. He is stabbed by his partner Quincy, an eerie night scene cinematographer Roger Deakins lit in flickering candlelight in 2010. Of course, that same moment occurs at sunny midday in 1969.

Overall, the Coens deliver a grittier True Grit. While most of the plot is unchanged from Hathaway’s film, a few key differences do make all the difference. La Boeuf splits off from Rooster and Mattie in 2010, giving more screen time for the pair to banter, fight, and develop an unusual but endearing relationship. There are more moments when the protagonists are on the verge of giving up; Wayne and Campbell, meanwhile, are always certain they are hot on Chaney’s trail. In 1969, therefore, the plot moves along on a comparatively straightforward path. In 2010 the characters waver, bicker, abandon and save each other.

There is a lot more desperation in the Coens’ envisioning of the frontier. When Mattie is bitten by a rattlesnake, Jeff Bridges charges over moonlit fields, first on a horse and then on foot, to get the child home before the venom kills her. In contrast, Wayne rides the horse out (but does not shoot Little Blackie in the head, as Bridges does) and steals a horse and wagon from some cowboys. His trek, in daylight and Bernstein’s uptempo music, feels like high adventure. The Coens have never been so optimistic.

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Filed under Jeff Bridges, John Wayne, The Coen Brothers