Thursday, December 30, 2010

Some Thoughts on Recent Movies and Westerns

I rarely go to the theater these days and cannot remember the last time I did prior to this. I had a unique situation twice in the past few weeks where the times I went the movie had problems starting. The first one was during The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but they got it to work by starting over. The second time was during True Grit. They eventually got it to work, but with the opening minutes having a jazz theme from their quiz slideshow they show in between movies. I got my money back, but was given a free pass too. So, it kind of worked out in that I got to see True Grit for free the next day.

First, Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is good for a family movie. I enjoyed the books when I was kid, so I hope they film the rest of the books.

Second, I think the True Grit by the Coen brothers is worth seeing. I am not going to give it a full review here, but let me hit a few points. Some of what I am about to say are things I have mentioned before a few times.

When watching westerns you are watching the myth of the west in American history. Westerns are not the real history of the west. Yes, there are some historical nuggets here and there, but usually you are seeing some exaggerations and exceptions to the common way of life. As I have said before, if someone were to think westerns were real history he or she would come to the conclusion that all anyone did back then was try to kill each other. The violence on the frontier was quite rare. It did happen like all crime has happened in the history of humanity, but generally not in the way you see it in a typical western.

Why did the western develop in this way? This goes back to the days of the west where dime novel storytellers would hear some story on the frontier then exaggerate and warp it to create larger than life heroes and violent episodes. The public loved it and this continued into motion pictures.

Some of the reactions I see of recent westerns and the new True Grit movie is there is this idea that a movie should tell you how to live your life, how the community should live, or some statement about how the state should be run. For example, if a western has the bad guys get hanged at the end of the movie it means that we should approve of the death penalty. Another one, when you see a group of vigilantes take the law into their own hands that means you should too. Westerns are not really like that though. They appeal to the myth of the west where gunfighter gods could deal out justice. It might be nice if the world were really that way, but it is not and never was. It does appeal to one's sense of there being many injustices in the real world that needed to be made right, but what is nice in a western you get to see an injustice defeated once and for all in less than two hours.

I do see some simple moral virtues that can be emulated in western movies like courage. A western might use violence to show how the character shows courage. However, to suggest that a western is advocating violence is really going beyond the simple virtues.

My second point is that westerns are typically very simple stories. Someone has committed an injustice and it needs to be made right. Most movies are like this, but westerns especially so. A lot of westerns are just variations of the same story. In many ways they are predictable. There are certain things you expect to see in a western. It is just a matter of seeing or experiencing the trials of the main characters as they get to the final confrontation with the villain(s).

Now regarding the new True Grit, while I think it is worth seeing I cannot tell you right now whether I think it is a really great western. I will have to watch it again on dvd when that time comes. Certainly, the actors did a good job of playing their parts. It does have some good authenticity in that it really looked and felt like being in the old west. Of course, the cinematography and Texas scenery are very good. It did seemed to drag at points during the first hour, but I think the Coen brothers did what needed to be done with what they were working with. Whether this movie should have been remade (based on the book) I do not know.

The reason I mentioned the two points about the western myth and simplicity of story was because I have seen a lot of comments on this movie where people were expecting something completely different. The Coen brothers are well known for movies like No Country for Old Men where the stories are really different and the endings are complicated. One comment that rang with me is this movie it is an "outdated western." That's redundant right there, but it shows a lack of understanding of the two points I mentioned. At the end of the day, all the Coen brothers set out to do was make an authentic mythological western.