On ‘True Grit’: The Old Can Be New Again

I was reading a fascinating blog post by preeminent film scholar David Bordwell today.  In it he discusses psychologist Richard Gerrig’s concept of anomalous suspense: the notion that one can often feel fear or dread and even genuine suspense when experiencing something he or she has experienced already; in this case, watching a film. Even though the person has seen the outcome and knows what will happen, that knowledge doesn’t prevent the emotional centers of the brain from producing those feelings over again. Depending on our appreciation of a given film, that film can wield visceral emotional power over us even as we anticipate the actions within it, shot by shot.

Bordwell goes on to discuss what inner workings of our senses contribute to the phenomenon of anomalous suspense, but you can read that stuff yourself. I mention all of this in support of my own argument, one I submit not only to my readers, but to myself, since as Alice would say, “I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.” It’s a new year, and in 2011, I’m vowing to unlearn what seems to be a cardinal rule of film snobbery: Beware the evil of the remake.

Film critics/snobs seem to feel justified, duty-bound even, to unceremoniously dismiss remakes of classic films as tripe, just cogs in the soulless Hollywood money-making machine. They lump these films in with the sequels and the prequels and the franchise reboots; it’s all uninspired, unoriginal schlock for the lowest common denominator of moviegoers, they say.

Well, I’m proud to say that I didn’t succumb to these haughty impulses. I took in a screening of True Grit, a remake of the classic 1962 John Wayne western. Granted, other film-nerd shortcomings reared their ugly heads, like the tendency to fetishize certain directors (auteurs, that is), because let’s face it, I’m a lemming when it comes to the Coen Bros.  Also, my father is a huge John Wayne fan, and I gave him the Charles Portis novel for Christmas, as well as a gift card to his local cineplex, so I sort of bound myself to seeing it at some point.

Anyway, the movie is a richly filmed and well-cast piece, and while it doesn’t push any envelopes (to many critics’ lament), it achieves what seems to have been the Coens’ main objective: to pay filmic homage to a novel they deeply admired, and by rendering it in a modern filmmaking style, to lend the story and its characters renewed caché with today’s audiences. Immediately afterward, I found myself aching to revisit the original film, and to read the book as well, and even though I knew from the first frame that Tom Cheney and Ned Pepper’s fates were sealed, I reveled in the unraveling of it all. Now you can accuse me of misplacing media theory to your heart’s content, but I believe in the power of anomalous suspense, and that is why I recommend this film.

Here is where I address the dissenting views of this film from the aforementioned critics/snobs (and here’s where I begin sounding like an apologist, but like I said, I’m a lemming). To dismiss this film as ‘mainstream’ for the Coens fails to recognize that the qualities they admire in the novel fall perfectly in step with the touchstones of their oeuvre:

1) A spitfire, indomitable female protagonist. Hailee Steinfeld is to the Coens’ True Grit what Holly Hunter was to Raising Arizona, and what Frances McDormand was to Fargo. Their characters all took resolute action in bitter circumstances, and they all faced challenges, often caused by their obstinance, that tested their fortitude.

2) Dialogue imbued with a rich sense of time and place. Be it the smirk-inducing verbal tics of the Minnesotans in Fargo, or the bygone slang and dialects of the Depression-era wiseguys and yokels in Miller’s Crossing and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (respectively), the Coens’ films display lingual subtleties such that a blind and deaf person reading the script in Braille could determine the film’s setting within a few sentences. In choosing to take much of the film’s dialogue directly from the novel, it seems the Coens found these qualities to be inherent in the work.

In short, you can’t judge a book by its cover, by its movie, by its movie’s remake, or by the standards of its remake’s makers (though I have tried). Judge it as a film made with love, admiration, and respect for its source content. And try not to cover your eyes, even though you know what’s coming.


A few thoughts on film in 2010

As we look back on the year in film that was 2010, it would seem that the medium made few significant strides.  Aside from a few major standouts (Inception, The Social Network, The Black Swan), the year’s releases read pretty fuzzily:

What was that Matt Damon thing? It was just like a Bourne movie only… not?


And remember that CGI thing with Steve Carell and all the little goggle-eyed blobs?


And wasn’t Denzel Washington in a zombie movie or something?


As sure as there were forgettable ‘original’ films (Greenberg), there were exponentially more derivatives, Hollywood’s favorite old reliable ways to make a buck.

We saw sequels, some good (Toy Story 3), some bad (Little Fockers), and some ugly (Hatchet II).  We found the remakes, some good (True Grit), some bad (Robin Hood), some weird (Alice in Wonderland), but most of them ugly (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Predators, The Wolfman, The Crazies, I Spit on Your Grave, etc). And lastly, we had franchise reboots, and guess what? they were good (The Karate Kid), bad (The A-Team), and unforgivable (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).

Rather than try to opine at length about all of these, and inevitably arrive at the same top 10 list as everyone else, I’m awarding my 2010 tip of the hat to those who trod upon old, familiar ground for more noble reasons than making a buck off the same old schlock. The major accomplishments in film in the past year came in the restoration and (re)release of classic and historic works from around the world. This year, many skilled archivists and restoration buffs went to great lengths to ensure that films from across cinematic history will survive, intact and as their creators intended.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin underwent 35mm restoration, high-definition digital transfer, and comes complete with new, more accurately translated English intertitles and the original score by Edmund Meisel. Perhaps most importantly, this version even includes never-before-seen scenes that had been deleted by German censors short after the film’s 1925 premiere in Berlin.

Fifty years after it launched the French New Wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (Á bout de souffle) was newly restored for an anniversary high-definition release. IFC Films struck a new 35mm print of the epic 9 1/2 hour documentary, Shoah, which Claude Lanzmann culled together from hundreds of hours of footage taken over the course of 12 years he spent interviewing Holocaust survivors across the globe. It will be screened in arthouse theatres across America in the coming year.

The foremost of these achievements, however, is the newly restored Metropolis, the seminal work of dystopian science fiction by Fritz Lang. Culled together from the two most completeprints known to exist (one from New Zealand, one from Argentina), years of restoration yielded an definitive edition contains all but eight minutes of the original director’s cut. A 35mm print of the film is currently touring cinemas across the US, and locals listen up! It will be visiting Bloomington, screening at the soon-to-be-open IU Cinema in February. Furthermore, for the first time in the States, a salon orchestra will perform the newly lengthened score live in the theatre!  As I type this, students from the Jacobs School of Music are likely getting their first glimpses of the score and beginning to rehearse.

In an era bursting at the seams with new cinematic formats (digital transfer, digital video, 2D vs. 3D, DVD vs. Blu-Ray, Internet streaming, mobile viewing, 3D TV, and so on), it is comforting to know that, at least in these cases, special care has been taken to secure the future of the art form’s most revered reels of celluloid. And better yet, the fruits of these efforts are being distributed, being cast across the silver screens once more in all their original glory, being presented as they were meant to be seen. Let us resolve to make 2011 the year we re-discover the joy of the movies, and let that joy come not just from the latest CGI, 3D roller-coaster flick, but also from the wonder of all that a re-release of a classic film entaileshas been painstakingly cared for, frame by frame, restored so that it might retain its original power for future generations.

The Netflix School of Art & Design

In my experience, many of the best filmgoing experiences are often not actively sought out, but rather stumbled upon. I recently watched a trio of fascinating films that not only challenged my perception of the everyday world, but also sharpened my awareness to these careful, complex constructions of non-fiction we call documentary. And the best part was that I never had to leave the sofa. All three of them were available for instant viewing on Netflix. =)

Between the Folds (2008, Vanessa Gould)

Sure, we’ve all folded a paper airplane, a paper crane, or a little paper pinwheel that tells your fortune. In this manner, we’re all acquainted at an early age with the Japanese art of paper folding known as origami. But as with so many grade school endeavors, we quickly dispense of them to develop more ‘practical’ skills. Well, what if origami could offer new insight into advanced mathematical theorems? could save drivers’ lives on the highway? could aid in the development of custom drugs to combat mutating viruses and even cancer? Newsflash: it’s doing all these things now.

An expanding abstract work of origami by by Chris K Palmer

In Between the Folds, director Vanessa Gould explores the origins of the art form, its contemporary masters, and its fascinating intersections with cutting-edge math, science and technology. Through a series of vignettes, she introduces paper-folders who create animals, abstract figures, kinetic sculpture, guerilla public art, and even make the very paper they fold. She also incorporates footage and discussion with the Japanese grandmaster of origami, Akira Yoshizawa. From here she moves into the scientific manifestations of origami, from its use in the classroom to explore abstract and linear algebras, to mapping DNA with origami. Scientists are even incorporating origami technique into compact, expandable technologies like automobile air bags or solar panels and satellite dishes for planetary rovers. Spellbinding.

Objectified (2009, Gary Hustwit)

The objects we surround ourselves with on a daily basis can often become invisible to us. The chairs we sit in, the computers we work on, the coffee cups we sip from; they don’t often command our attention as much as they accommodate our activities. In this film, interviews with several of today’s top designers draw attention to what has become a new paradigm in product development: the alienation between form and function. In the digital age, the form of cell phones, computers, and other mobile devices have less and less to do with their function, and director Gary Hustwit illustrates this in deft fashion.

Clockwise from top left: Dieter Rams, some design students workshopping a toothbrush, Jony Ive, and Marc Newson

The film contains rock stars of modern design, like Jonathan Ive of Apple and Dieter Rams of Braun, as well as innovators of days past, including the designer of the first laptop computer. The cumulative effect is a magnification of and a new awareness toward the way every day objects work. The film also addresses a lot of current debates as to the future of design, like sustainability in production, quality vs. cost, and the motivations of companies vs. the motivations of designers. Aesthetic and intellectual stimulation pair like fine wine and cheese in Objectified.

Helvetica (2007, Gary Hustwit)

Though I didn’t realize it until I began composing this post, this film, along with Objectified, is part of a trilogy of films on design by Gary Hustwit. And where that film explored the realm of industrial design, Helvetica delves into modern typography and print design through the history, development, and evolution in use of what may be the world’s most ubiquitous font: Neue Haas Grotesk, now known as Helvetica. Hustwit moves from its invention in 1957 in Switzerland, to its initial popularity in corporate re-branding during the late 60s, to the backlash against the font in the 80s, and its resurgence in the 21st century. He ties the film together brilliantly with footage from all over the world demonstrating the font’s omnipresence: in advertisement, branding and logos, government signage…everywhere!

Between the Folds works so wonderfully as a primer on folding due to its breadth of subjects. Like a giant work of origami, each of the film’s vignettes (with austere labels like “The Artisan,” “The Choreographer,” and “The Postmodernist”) adds new technical, aesthetic, and intellectual complexities to the fold (wink). And all within a lean 57 minutes. Hustwit makes print and industrial design relatable and appreciable in by conveying both the passions of the people who do it, and by revealing the artistry, craftsmanship, and philosophy involved throughout.

For anyone who’s rekindling a love for documentary, design, or even Netflix, give these films a spin. Er, stream. Instant streaming.

“Devil”: M. Regains his Grip by Loosening It

A towering, luminescent number 1 against a sea of black. This is the image preceding the opening of Devil, the latest film “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan.” And as the first release for Night’s production company, The Night Chronicles, the aforementioned digit marks the literal beginning of his proposed series of supernatural-themed films. These are films which Night has vowed neither to write or direct, but to offer up as collaborative efforts with other filmmakers, and these filmmakers truly do shine. Their achievements with Devil are compelling evidence that one small step back for M. Night Shyamalan, the director will be one giant leap forward for M. Night Shyamalan, the franchise.


The detective attempts to calm the frightened passengers of a damned elevator. (Jacob Vargas, left; Chris Messina, center)


In the film, a beleaguered detective, played with urgency and gravitas by Chris Messina, investigates a suicide near a downtown office building. Meanwhile, 5 strangers, including a security guard, enter an elevator in said office building where, as the poster proclaims, “one of them is not what they seem.” And there is truly little to gain in revealing further plot elements because just like the Space Mountain roller coaster at Disney World, the thrills in an M. Night film are most effective when the audience is left in the dark. In fact, many of the film’s most compelling moments take place in the pitch-black of the malfunctioning elevator.  This is where inspired sound direction provides high-octane fuel for overactive imaginations. A brilliant credit sequence that literally turns Philadelphia on its ears, is among the highlights of the graceful cinematography of Tak Fujimoto, Hollywood film legend and past Night collaborator. He captures Devil‘s mood and executes its visual storytelling with bravado. The score by Fernando Velázquez was also highly evocative, and worth noting for setting a brooding, sinister tone from start to finish.


The frightened passengers aren't buying it.


Sadly, such technical proficiency across the board drew attention to a few missteps in narrative, especially some redundant and distracting narration by a security guard (Jacob Vargas), the contents of which bordered on self-spoilers. For the most part, though, the script stays taut and engaging, and under the directorship of the Brothers Dowdle (QuarantineThe Poughkeepsie Tapes), the acting seems substantially more naturalistic and nuanced than in previous M. Night works.


From left to right: M. Night Shyamalan, Drew Dowdle, John Erick Dowdle


But to be sure, Devil still has Night’s fingerprints all over it. The skeleton of the film is the same one that’s been haunting him for some 15 years now: Something strange is happening in Philadelphia. Themes of the supernatural have been Night’s M.O. since the beginning, from ghosts in The Sixth Sense to Those We Don’t Speak Of in The Village to, uh, killer wind(?) in The Happening, and Devil is no different. There’s even a twist ending, which could hardly come as a surprise to anyone by now. What’s different here is that at long last, Shyamalan seems to have shed what has been a crippling fixation upon his own authorship. In repeated attempts to establish himself as a self-contained talent, as the embodiment of that giant glowing number 1 in a sea of black, perhaps, Night’s early faith in sound thriller film technique (a la Hitchcock) quickly gave way to blind faith in his own artistic whims and fixations, culminating with Lady in the Water, a laborious story-within-a-story that was at best self-indulgent, and at worst, highly alienating to his already waning fan base.

And so it is with an ensemble cast, as well as an ensemble crew, that Devil marks a triumphant return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. Come for the thrills, stay for the story, look forward to future collaborations between Shyamalan and great rising talent, and rest easy knowing you won’t find any God-awful director cameos.

Rated PG-13 – Blood spurts and bodies swing, plus there are scares that dwarf most from his past films (maybe because they aren’t his – Bah-zing!)