The Whatever Western

blitt siegel 5 The Whatever WesternNot to start the new year off on a dour note, but do you want to know why so many people have become hopeless about changing the political and economic mechanisms that rule our lives? Watch the 1969 True Grit and then go see the Coen brothers’ recent remake, which has just about all the critics swooning. In the former, vital characters apply their will to the world and stories unfold within a story. In the new version, the Coens’ devotion to the now happily marketable idea that life is senseless makes character, story and a convincing social reality disappear. Call it the “whatever western.”

In 1969, the year of the original True Grit, 15 inches of snow fell on New York City, nearly putting an end to John Lindsay’s mayoral career. The outer boroughs went unplowed for days, and it was precisely the working-class and lower-middle-class enclaves in the outer boroughs where Lindsay’s popularity was in jeopardy. People went nuts, and called for Lindsay’s head.

But that’s where the similarity to Mayor Bloomberg’s recent snow snafu stops. Lindsay was reelected, but not before having to undergo the most tumultuous electoral contest in the city’s history, which included a run for mayor by Norman Mailer, accompanied on the ticket by Jimmy Breslin for City Council president. “The difference between me and the other candidates,” Mailer liked to say, “is that I’m no good and I can prove it.” When Mailer visited Queens to stump for votes, a man asked him how he would clear the streets of snow if, during his mayoralty, another blizzard hit New York. “I’d piss on it,” Mailer promised. Nineteen-sixty-nine was like that. It abounded in colorful personalities who took on their environment.

In 1969, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators descended on Washington to protest the Vietnam War, forcing Nixon to withdraw thousands of troops from Southeast Asia even as he implored the “silent majority” to continue to support the war. In 1969, members of the gay community in New York changed their lives forever by taking matters into their own hands during the Stonewall riots that erupted in Greenwich village. Woodstock happened. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It was the beginning of the end for Nixon and the war.

Plenty of other things came to pass in 1969, good, bad and all degrees in between. The unintended consequences of those events were rife and multivalent, but if you had to sum up that year, and that moment, you would have to say that it was the year of living willfully. People  encountered each other, went into the world, and things happened.  Many of the seeds of the individual protections and  pleasures that we enjoy today were planted then.

Forty  years later, and presidents have to be more careful about breaking the law  (blatantly breaking the law, anyway); blacks, gays and women are  safer and more in control of their own  destinies; crime is down; the streets are not simmering  with rage; people lead healthier lives; our daily  existence is, thanks to the Internet, infinitely more convenient. But even our best public officials live in terror of being shamed and humiliated; we are plagued by war, mired in joblessness, banged around by soaring health care premiums and deductibles (the result of health care “reform”), slaves to the distractions and importunings of our proliferating gadgets, swamped by inarticulable unease.

The 1969 True Grit–about a young girl who hires a tough, hard-drinking U.S. marshal named Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne, to help her catch and kill the hired hand who murdered her father-had layered characters and great lines. As a ne’er-do-well, played by a young Dennis Hopper, lies dying on the ground after being stabbed by his no-good partner, he says about the man who has taken his life: “He never played me false until he killed me.” The language captures a situation and evokes a character at the same time. How quaint that is becoming.

In the Coen brothers’ version, that line has not survived. Nor has Mattie’s threat, repeated again and again in rising comedy, to summon her lawyer, “J. Noble Daggett,” to her aid. Daggett’s name has uncomically disappeared. And the Coens jettisoned the witty bit of repartee in which Rooster Cogburn asks La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell), why there is such a little reward for a man who killed a state senator. “He was a little senator,” replies La Boeuf, seemingly surprised by a naïve question. In one stroke, you got both men’s unsentimentality about money, Cogburn’s worldliness and La Boeuf’s weakness for whimsical explanations.

The Coen brothers’ film is beautiful, all at once cannily real and surreally uncanny, so masterfully paced that it seems more choreographed than filmed. The wintry landscapes are precise illuminations of the characters’ desolate interiors. There is something almost Wagnerian about the way Carter Burwell’s music and the painterly cinematography together mold poetic meaning–that is, if Wagner had been a pair of deadpan Jewish siblings.

But the characters, even Jeff Bridges’ almost campily oversized impersonation of Cogburn, exist as pasteboard cutouts adorning the evocative  landscape. They have been stripped of meaningful speech and psychological motives. You can barely understand what Mr. Bridges says, in fact. In the original, Mattie gets the better of a horse-trader by accusing him of passing off geldings as breeding horses to her unsuspecting father. In the Coen brothers’ film, she gets the better of the dishonest horse-trader, but you have no idea why since the geldings have disappeared from the script.

The original film was shot in autumn, and the shimmering golden trees, with their descending leaves, hint at mortality but don’t stifle you with explicit meaning. At one point, the golden trees serve as the backdrop to Cogburn and La Boeuf, while giant evergreens sway behind some bad guys who oppose them. The two images work to vaguely direct your thoughts and feelings, but you are not oppressed by overt symbols.

The Coen brothers give us not only the explicit wintry landscapes, but fablelike starry skies–The Indifferent Universe–and whirling snow at the beginning and toward the end of the movie–The Transience Of Time. You know the snow symbolizes fleeting time because an older Mattie explicitly proclaims time’s transience in the film’s final minutes. Physical environment in the Coen brothers’ film is like a running caption that fills in for character and dialogue.

In the original, Cogburn tells Mattie about his lonely, loveless life around a campfire, and she looks at him with furtive affection, then goes to sleep as he watches her protectively, with tenderness. Their exchange is filmed in intimate  close-ups. In their version, the Coen brothers have Cogburn tell her, barely comprehensibly, an abbreviated account of his life as they ride through the woods while the camera hovers in a long shot high above them. Cogburn’s desperate horseback ride with Mattie to save her life after she’s bitten by a rattlesnake has no sense in the remake. There is no connection between them. That’s why the Coen brothers shift into fable mode for that scene and portray Cogburn and Mattie looming abstractly against a star-filled sky. No story or character to give the audience? Present them with a symbolic image that they can mentally click on and then link to big meaning.

The point of the starry sky–as was the point of the Coens’ stylishly pointless No Country for Old Men–is to present the universe as amoral. It is as indifferent to who we are and to the stories we tell ourselves as it is to our fabricated categories of good and evil. These are themes straight out of freshman lit, but the critics are always mightily impressed when they find them in a Hollywood movie. Still, they might want to take a look again at the original True Grit. There the mingled yarn of good and ill, to coin a phrase, is exposed when you subtly learn that Mattie’s father, good man that he seems to be, also treated his killer like chattel. The Coen brothers excised that, too.

Instead you are left with that stunning, slowly swirling snow. It sent me back to 1969, and I wondered wistfully what characters might emerge and stories unfold if it was not  cleaned up within a reasonable amount of  time.

lsiegel@observer.com