Archive for January, 2011

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.