First, I asked my girlfriend to see True Grit with me. “No.” she replied, and there wasn’t any more discussion about it. Her tone had implied “you should know better”.
So I went to my roommate. “Definitely!” he answered, “let me just call my girlfriend and ask her if she wants to go.”
“No, no, no, no.” I explained. “This is a no girlfriend affair.”
“Well, obviously,” he told me. “I’m just asking her for the points. I know she’ll say no.”
For all its art, brilliant story-telling, and beautiful cinematography, True Grit was still a cowboy film. And all four of us knew what it would ultimately be about: an infantile masculine fantasy: justice, retribution, wrongs righted through conflict, action, and the super-heroic. I often wonder what the (undoubtedly non-violent more sophisticated) equivalent fantasy is for women. Resolution not through physical altercation but talk? An involved tale about an understanding woman who treats a villainous rake so well that she reaps the rewards of his redemption?
True Grit, of course, made what is a now a common substitution in the Hollywood playbook: the protagonist of our masculine revenge fantasy is a woman. Long ago, I swore a sacred oath never to see another film featuring a “sexy female assassin” ala Kill Bill, several forgettable Angelina Jolie features, La Femme Nikita, et al. But Hollywood, of course, in its intoxicating dance of ever-retreating signifiers was way ahead of me. For every year that passed, they knocked a year off the sexy female assassin’s life until she was a twelve year old girl dressed in spandex spitting mob bosses on a lance in Kick Ass and it was so perverse I couldn’t look away. To be fair, Hollywood didn’t invent the twelve year old female assassin. It borrowed the idea from Japanese Manga and cinema (Lain, Battle Royale– a movie from which Tarantino culled his schoolgirl assassin actress for Kill Bill, and more recently, Gunslinger Girl).
True Grit‘s cross-dressing Mattie, I think, owes something to this crowd (she is noticeably younger in the remake). But her closest analogue is probably the “re-imagined” Alice in Tim Burton’s “sequel” to Alice in Wonderland. The screenwriters for that film professed they wanted to make a “strong-willed, empowered woman” (“because girls need role-models”). (See “Drinking Blood: New Wonders of Alice’s World”, N.Y. Times Feb. 26, 2010) So they transformed Lewis Carroll’s character, a clever and sensible girl who solves riddles and math problems, into an action hero who dons a sword and shield and slays monsters. In other words, in a well-let-them-eat-cake moment that reveals a sort of profound, almost child-like misunderstanding of what’s going on, the action film genre reasoned that the ultimate aim of feminism was to make women men– to place them, as it were, in the role of honor in our obscene violent fantasies– because the alternative, that, god forbid, there might be a better fantasy out there– well, how could that make any sense?
This isn’t meant to imply I’m not a fan of gender-bending and cross-dressing. I mean, who isn’t? Here, it might be helpful to bring up Jeff Bridges’ alter-ego. While the Coen brothers cast him into the past as a Wild Man of Old, a Man when men were Men, across the halls of the Cineplex the Disney corporation had him acting out the completely contradictory role of the man in the finicky exciting digital future, the hero tinkering in our modern golden age and living out the (laughable) myth that technology will make our lives better. In Tron: Legacy, one could feel the vague censorious cloud of the film’s corporate handlers in every scene. Creativity, including gender roles, was narrowly defined and could not move an inch. In a sort of anti-cross-dressing moment, the homosexual character in Tron wears the “white” female outfit as he betrays our heroes for a well-mixed martini. It had to be unambiguously certain: he was the other. As much as the protagonists were straight he was gay. And there was no bisexual spectrum connecting the two, rather a binary gulf: character’s were either on or “off”.
So in True Grit, I did appreciate the one inversion the Coen brothers made in the otherwise constant variables of the Hollywood equation, the one character who cross-dresses. I just wished all the other characters had as well, or maybe, everyone but Mattie.
Thane Rosenbaum wrote a review on the True Grit as well. I like some of Professor Rosenbaum’s ideas; but I don’t think he goes far enough in his analysis, historically and intellectually, but also, to borrow a term from class, “spiritually”.
Freud says the most commonplace of all dreams is wish-fulfillment; i.e. when the prisoner dreams of escape. If the film is a dream, says Professor Rosenbaum, then the purpose of the dream is wish-fulfillment. And what has the audience been denied in reality that they can then only receive in fantasy? Are the teeming masses flowing into the theater because they want a more perfect legal system? Is that what rankles them at night as they twist in their sleep during a brief respite between wretched workdays? Or is it because they yearn for blood, they yearn for cruelty, and they yearn to step into the shoes of the avenger because they themselves, somewhere in their dis-empowered hearts want to make everyone feel the lick of their lash and the sting of their dead-shot aim? Revenge, is, after all, a dictatorial fantasy; it allows us to imagine ourselves as the ultimate unassailable champion. And this, in turn, allows us to ask the next question: what would happen if I had everyone up against the wall? If I could decide what was right and wrong and mete out punishment to boot?
To say the audience is watching cowboys get shot off horses because they yearn for a special hitherto unreachable form of justice is like saying men watch pornography because they yearn to see pizzas delivered and copy machines fixed. Like the prosecutor who is so disgusted by those he imprisons it becomes clear to everyone he gets a giddy thrill from obsessing over their crimes, justice is a pretext for cruelty. Is the film Gladiator, as the professor suggests, a subconscious cry for a more perfect legal system? Or need we look any further than exactly how it appears– a very literal expression of bread of circuses? The protagonist’s suffering, the villains, the un-righted wrongs, those are just the broken copy machines and ordered pizzas, the incantations that wind up the spell, so that, in the end, the sex and blood can flow. It’s the medium not the message.
This idea is, in fact, in the original (1969) True Grit. In a scene cut from the 2011 version, as Mattie witnesses the hanging an old lady tells her, “That’s Judge Taylor up there. He says it’s his moral duty towards justice to watch every hanging.” To which Mattie replies, “There’s no telling what’s in men’s hearts”, i.e., the judge’s exhortation to high-minded justice may just as likely disguise his sadism. And later, when John Wayne stops the Texas ranger from spanking Mattie with a switch, John Wayne utters, “you’re enjoying it just a little too much.”, i.e., you’re getting an impulsive, sexualized thrill out of your so-called punishment. As the poet Heine says in a piece of prose also quoted in Kafka’s diaries (both were lawyers who despised their profession), “Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, He will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees.”
The most wrong sentence in Professor Rosenbaum’s review is this one, “far from enabling vigilantes, maybe movies are projecting what true justice actually looks like.” Let’s look at this idea through the lens of two works the professor cites to prove his point, “Ancient Greek myths” and Hamlet.
The oldest extant piece of drama we have, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, happens to be Greek, and strangely enough, happens to about the origins of the legal system. In the trilogy, Orestes must avenge his father by killing his father’s murderer who turns out to be his mother. The play displays the type of pre-legal system that has existed throughout most of human history, the one that’s still in our bones, and seeps out whenever the law breaks down; it’s known as the family (or gang or tribe) feud. Under the mores at the time, Orestes was required by honor and sacred obligation to avenge any death in his family (his father’s death most of all, since this was a patriarchal system). However, since the family unit was the organizing societal and legal principal, it was also Orestes’ highest moral duty not to kill his mother. Hence his quandary. A secondary problem with this way of doing business was that the cycle of violence never ended. We see that difficulty pointed out all the time in fiction, the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo & Juliet, the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords in Huck Finn, everyone in every mafia drama, and the Baltimore drug feuds in The Wire. Finally, at the conclusion of the Oresteia, enter Apollo and Athena, rationality prevails, the state takes the responsibility of administering the law away from the family and creates the western legal system. The opposite has happened. Revenge has not exploded in a blood-fest, but has been diffused through art and the gods of art.
We also see the remnants of this system in Hamlet. Shakespeare based his play on the pre-Christian Scandinavian myth of Amleth, the prince who feigned madness so that he would not be killed by his uncle. Amleth was about the organizing principle of pre-Christian Viking society, the comitatus relationship, in which a young warrior swore fealty to a local lord promising to avenge him in battle. The most disgraceful thing a young warrior could do in Viking society was to retreat from combat after his lord had fallen. (One can imagine how this system worked fabulously for 50,000 years of tribal feuds, but then failed spectacularly when the Gauls were confronted with the tank-like Roman phalanx.)
And of course what makes Shakespeare’s Hamlet interesting is not that stupid system that prevailed for 100,000 years of prehistory and still inheres to the sides of our hearts, but of course, the question that comes directly afterwards, the rationality, the Apollo and Athena: Why am I doing this? What exactly do I want?
So whenever I see dramas about lawless places like the wild west, or inner-city Baltimore, I don’t imagine I’m watching some sort of “true justice”, rather the base, and the idiotic, the lowest common denominator. Something that grows like a weed in places where there is misery, ignorance, and neglect.
“True justice” is in fact the very opposite, not a settling of the score, but a sort of selflessness, an annihilation of the ego and doubling up of the rewards to your enemies’ side of the ledger. It must be, as I mentioned earlier, a different fantasy entirely. I can think of two examples, an old Buddhist myth in which a Buddha (not Siddhartha, but an earlier one) fed himself to a hungry tiger after being overtaken with pity for the starving beast (in other words, he was so selfless he sacrificed the last thing he had to his enemy, his existence) and the New Testament expression, “turn the other cheek” (which doesn’t mean to turn around or ignore an insult, rather to offer up your right cheek after you enemy has struck the left one). This is what I mean when I said the review is spiritually wrong.
This idea is also in the 2011 True Grit. And to the credit of the Coen brothers, the transcendent moment of the film is not when Rooster or Mattie gets his/her man. Rather, the scene that propelled the film to the Academy Awards was the laboring, heaving Rooster bearing Mattie across the arid plains in front of a blanket of soft compassionate stars. This is what the audience wanted to see, a transformation from selfish, money-driven, lonely killer, to magnanimous, self-sacrificing friend. Rooster’s identity becomes intermingled with Mattie’s beloved black pony (whom she also redeemed from a lonely death) as both Rooster and pony seethe and strain to carry her as far as they can. Mattie, too, is self-sacrificing for her love; she cries and sobs and begs Rooster not to drive the horse so. Like the Buddha, she would rather die than let it die.
So where does that leave us?
Well, I think, we’ve unraveled half the sweater, and, to return to the cross-dressing metaphor, are now standing, embarrassingly enough, in a tank top. We’ve begun to pull at the thread: yes the legal system is screwed up, now more than ever. It is designed to disenfranchise, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Its outcomes depend on money and the entire profession (including the “eleemosynary” portions) lives and dies by its sickening congress with corporations. But is this why people are so unhappy they gather in crowds, like the crowds in True Grit, to see hangings (real or imagined) and men shot of horses? Of course not. Of the many armed tentacles that disenfranchise them, the law is but a distant appendage. So, in our film interpretations, and our interpretations concerning the legal system maybe we should cast our gaze a little farther when we’re looking not only for the seed of dissatisfaction in movie-goers hearts but also just how low down on the ensnaring vine of our social systems we should aim the lop of our vengeful axe.