On criticism and bombing.
WARNING: This editorial is longwinded.
None of us—save for H.L. Mencken—likes being criticized, even if the criticism is honest. Or, as our shrinks tell us, especially if the criticism is honest.
I lug around the awkward suspicion that I was sort of born to be a critic. I’m worried what that makes me.
[Pause for your joke.]
Some of us will do anything to avoid criticism. At exaggerated levels, people will lie and steal and kill so as to avoid it. That’s how crazy the subject can be. Perhaps the rest of us just build moderate, safe lives in the hopes of escaping detection.
I don’t know what I mean exactly by saying I was born to be a critic, but soon into my reading career, critical writing pulled me in and held me for keeps. Critical thought was a way of getting deeper into art that I had no power to produce but maybe, with help, I had the power to appreciate.
A love of criticism impacted this magazine. When we put out the first issue of The Oxford American, I knew it had to unfurl a long interview with Pauline Kael, The New Yorker’s galvanizing movie critic. I had been so rewarded by her critical brilliance at that stage in my life that I nearly glowed with the idea of sharing her insights.
All of this sprang to mind when we decided to collect and print memories of people who knew, or had met, Barry Hannah (another writer who appeared in our first issue).
People who knew Barry from the days when he drank and from the days when he had stopped often refer to the two periods as “Bad” Barry and “Good” Barry.
I at times seem to revel in “Bad” Barry stories because my take is that his transformation from a bad drunk into a wise sober man not only affected his personal life but also pushed him out of a mid-career slump into a late period of total command. I still regard Barry’s transformation as shocking and not totally believable.
When I share “Bad” Barry stories, I sometimes risk sounding like I merely want to trash the man. But in real life, as in his work, Barry himself was one of the most cutting, truth-telling, hard-riding observers you could come up against.
Here is one of my “Bad” Barry stories.
It was late at night in the house of a girl I was pretend-courting. The bars had closed but she and I were still clinking glasses and listening to her stereo. She was sitting on my lap. I remember this well. There was a sudden banging on the door.
Girl pops off my lap and opens door gaily. It’s Neighbor Hannah and, like us, he is drunk, maybe even more than us and he seems to be gurgling more than talking.
Neighbor Hannah crushes into the living room—only wussies wait—and the girl bounds off to the kitchen to stir up more drinks—a party! He and I suddenly loom together in the same room in a pervading silence. I knew Barry from the bookstore and the bars but we certainly weren’t friends. He puts Roy Orbison on the stereo (I remember that) and sits down across from me. This was before the magazine and I was still trying to figure out basic things. I knew Barry Hannah as a more or less terrific writer (certainly at his best, he was brilliant) and I was mostly in awe of him.
An attempt to discuss music flops.
It is the late ’80s or early ’90s and at this time in his career Barry’s most recent books had seemed more like autobiography than fiction and they were very short and more like novellas than novels: Hey Jack! (1987) and Boomerang (1989).
The awkwardness and silence pounded on me. Trying to be literary, I said something like, “Well, Mr. Hannah, I’ve noticed that your last few books have been very short. Have you, I mean, uh, have you thought, well, um, about writing a big book?”
Barry’s head drooped down to his chest. For a moment, I thought he had passed out. But he very, very slowly raised his head back up so that his eyes were looking straight into mine, at which point he paused. It was clear he had finally noticed me. And then, our eyes still locked, he slowly brought up his right hand and very purposefully pointed his middle finger at me in a well-known gesture.
That was the first time Barry Hannah noticed my existence.
In retrospect, this is more of a “Bad” Marc story. My question was stupid, of course. Dumb, young me. (But, for the record, by “big book” I meant “a book with lots and lots of pages.”)
Still, “Bad” Barry was perhaps the worst drunk I knew. I only refer to those times when I saw him after he had taken in more than he should have. That’s when he could be insulting, condescending, even mean. These observations would not really be worth sharing, and would be mere trash talk, if what happened next didn’t happen: Barry stopped drinking, on a dime, as if overnight. In an interview, I asked how sobering up affected him and, at first, he kind of shied away and said, “I’m not my own critic. I’m not hovering above me.” But then he said, “I think everybody who gets sober from the kind of life I had is radicalized in some way from the person he was.”
Remember: He was a radical to begin with. So for a radical to see sobriety as radicalizing says much, no matter how low-key he was playing it.
Some people won’t talk about “Bad” Barry, at least not in public as I am doing now, because they think it makes him look bad and they love him. I actually think it makes him look good and, even more, that it is simply the truth. It makes him look good because sobering up likely required immense strength and self-awareness.
So, yes, Barry used to drink bad. And to go from experiencing the searing, poetic insight he has about people in his writing to whitewashing the writer himself doesn’t jibe. In fact, Barry’s work emphasizes the necessity of looking hard into our hearts. Does it not?
For Barry Hannah, becoming sober was a way for his powers to regroup and blast forth better than ever. Many of the stories found in his next two (sober-era) books, Bats Out of Hell (1993) and High Lonesome (1996), have to be regarded as some of the finest short fiction from this country.
I judge his writing more or less the same way I do the man. That’s why I am convinced I would likewise dishonor the high talent that resides in those American classics of his—Airships, Bats Out of Hell, and High Lonesome—if I say sweet lies about the books of his that I disliked only to be nice or avoid conflict or fit in with certain circles.
Those two skinny books he wrote, Boomerang and Hey Jack!, I think are cop-outs and a misuse of his gift. In them, he was coasting. One even uses the n-word fatuously. I’m supposed to fib about that?
I also think Yonder Stands Your Orphan, his last novel (2001), is a mess and hard to get through. But unlike the other two failures, it wasn’t phoned-in and I respect the effort.
For God’s sake, we can’t lie about our love! Barry Hannah sure didn’t.
I realize that I’m kind of flippant. I need to keep in mind the excruciating effort it must take to create and finish a book, even one that doesn’t satisfy all readers. But I still think a sincere love for literature should prompt us to be honest about our reactions even if they hurt feelings. Books hurt feelings, too.
I also think if you are going to be a public performer, you need to accept that people will judge you and that not everybody cares whether you like their opinion of your art or not. For things I’ve written and published and edited, I know like hell I’ve been criticized and had my tender feelings stomped on.
I experienced some harsh criticism last week when I made the mistake of introducing an act at The Alabama Theatre in Birmingham where we were putting on an ABALABIP! show. I’m rarely comfortable on stage but I guess over the years I’ve been there enough, more or less, to feel like I can survive the experience. Not like the old days. Once at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference I was in such a panic about appearing on stage that I made my colleague at the time, John Jeremiah Sullivan, promise that he wouldn’t attend the event because I knew seeing somebody in the audience I recognized would freak me out even more. Well, John, he’s such a card, he snuck in (I saw him). He later told me that my general expression made him think I was about to throw up.
In Birmingham last week, I made the mistake of thinking that I could pontificate at length about my opinions and that people would love me because I was I. What I failed to calculate was that every event has its own special vibe that you, as a “performer,” must be aware of and must serve or elevate. Or else! When I climbed onto the stage with a microphone in hand, I was immediately hit by the fact that this was The Big Time. The Alabama is one of the most immense and imposing theaters I have ever entered. If my beloved Ryman Auditorium used to be a humble church, then The Alabama used to be a cathedral.
Whatever experiences you may have endured on less intimidating stages don’t automatically make you ready or good enough for The Big Time. Or so I learned. (Thank God the ABALABIP! musical talent—The Secret Sisters, Arthur Doyle, Sex Clark Five, Mary Gresham, Ralph “Soul” Jackson—all performed with sweet artistry. The Big Time was invented for talent like theirs. The only “performer” who bombed was me, as pretend emcee.)
The next day when I told my cabbie that because I had bombed at The Alabama Theatre, I now was an expert at bombing, he looked at me sharp and said, Oh, so you think all of a sudden you’re an expert because you bombed one time?
I looked back at him just as sharply and said, Yes, I am expert at bombing because you learn everything you will ever need to know about bombing the first big time you do it.
Here is what happens when you bomb:
You try to say something and you immediately realize that the audience is against you, that they see right through your flimsy being and they are already tired of your shit. And suddenly the audience is not a mass of unseen faces but one large overbearing entity. One judge. You try to make a joke about how nervous you are. About how your “shrink” told you to pretend everybody is naked. You put pauses in the wrong places. Nobody thinks you are joking. They think you are weird and unfunny. But you continue to speak because you are suddenly as stupid as you have ever been in your life and even though your words are witless, flat, insincere, and dead, all you can do is talk. And maybe you think you can rush through your words and be done with it but suddenly there is no rushing. Time slows down and sucks you down like muck or quicksand and every word you try to say comes out wrong and comes out worse than the previous word you said. And your awareness of how bad you are only makes your next word badder. You try to leave the stage but your legs won’t move so you keep talking. You garble every other word. Midstream—you are catching on!—you decide to eject the other half of what you were going to read and just get through with the bare minimum—up to this point you had been “improvising”—but what little you have decided to read, you start to read poorly and somehow your self-editing seems to prolong your speech. You don’t know how to escape. You say everybody’s name wrong. Jake Hess becomes Jack Huss. You sense that Jake Hess’s kin is suddenly in the audience hearing you mock him. You say Lucky Millinder’s name and suddenly Lucky Millinder’s name becomes unspeakable. He becomes Mucky. You know that is wrong so you try to say it again but it still comes out Mucky. You try again and the best you can do is to shriek out “Mucky Lucky!” in your own Howard Dean moment and you try to pretend you are joking somehow but you feel everybody’s spirit go down in one hard and quick and permanent fall. Amid all the great music, in this grand theater, you are single-handedly bringing down the good faith and buoyancy that once lived with the audience and you know what bombing feels like and you are bombing and you know you are bombing (that’s the curse of bombing, you know it) and you keep bombing, which means you just keep talking and garbling and talking and garbling.
When Time opened up again and you finally got offstage, a few people tried to say nice things but their hearts weren’t in it and other people, more direct, simply avoided eye contact.
You might think after such a humbling experience that I would be more sensitive to the mere effort required in trying to be creative (I now know that true creativity is required just to be a decent emcee), but, knowing me, you would probably be wrong. Yes, I know I sucked and I know I deserved the bad reviews and the lack of eye contact and whatever else came my way. If editors shouldn’t tap dance, they shouldn’t tap dance, and I say let them know in any honest way you want.
The day before our Birmingham visit, I was in Washington, D.C., kicking tires, making sure everything was on the up and up. Actually, I was attending the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, an event I had been told would be a “circus.” This was my first visit to an AWP Conference and I became part of a crowd of 8,000 writers who flooded into two immense hotels. The description of “circus” turned out to be accurate. Luckily, circuses are fun and I had a blast and was not afraid to do a little clowning of my own.
One panel, featuring contributors to BOMB magazine, took up the subject of something like “The Future of Book Reviewing.” I don’t know what I was expecting but watching and hearing the panelists soon caused me to squirm. One panelist said he didn’t read a lot of book reviews before becoming a book reviewer. Another said she would hardly waste her Saturday mornings reading reviews. The boldest panelist said that book reviewers should be “fair” and “charitable” to the writers they review. As an example of this fairness and charity, she said that even though she had disliked “two hundred pages” of a book she had read, she would never mention such a truthful reaction in print because what was the point of hurting a writer’s feelings? She and the other panelists agreed that as writers themselves they didn’t enjoy putting down other writers. They knew firsthand how hard and lonely the business was and honorable writers have to stick together.
When question-time came, I opened my big mouth and said something like, I’m sorry but I’m really distressed by what I hear. You all talk about “fairness” and “charity” to the writer, but what about your readers? Don’t they have a right to know what your honest impressions are? I don’t think literature should be reduced to clubbiness where you are only nice to people in your club and you treat readers as if they don’t belong. Readers care about what they read and they deserve your honest reactions and if you didn’t like two hundred pages of a book, you shouldn’t hide that truth from them.
The bold panelist said I didn’t quite understand. That all she meant was that she usually reviewed books when she was already familiar with the writer’s work and therefore it was not really a matter of hiding her true feelings, because she only selected books to review that she probably would like.
I had already sat down after my own comments, but I couldn’t shut up: Well, that’s great. I’m glad you are able to decide in advance whether you are going to like a book you haven’t yet read.
At this point, a young editor from a literary review stood up and said something like, My publication focuses entirely on reviewing small-press books and since small-press books are routinely and severely ignored by most big media outlets, we feel that we should devote the few pages we have to those small-press books we admire. Yes, there are bad small-press books but we just ignore them rather than trash them. We only have forty pages to use and there are so many good small-press books that don’t get any attention that we don’t want to use what little space we have on trashing books.
I later went up to this editor and said that while I respected her position, I was still nagged by the idea that such a policy inadvertently condescends to small-press books. It’s like: Hey, small-press books are fragile and they can’t handle the big-press world where (BOMB aside) hard criticism abounds. Our little books can’t compete on the same turf with the books of the big boys and big girls.
All of this blather is a segue, or really, a justification, for the minority views I want to share about the new True Grit movie.
First of all, what should we call people obsessed by True Grit? I vote Grit Nut. As such, my take on the new film version of True Grit, by the vaunted Coen brothers, is gonna be touchy. Touchier than a non-Nut’s would be. Touchy as a Trekkie’s would be if a new Star Trek flick put the wrong kind of helmet or shoulder pads on a Klingon. You know what I mean? Consider this a warning. If you can’t deal with infantile touchiness, or you are friends with the Coens or the actors in the movie, I’d advise you not to read what follows….
I understand that movies cannot be point-by-point, faithful recreations of the books they are based on. That’s why the credits read “based on Moby-Dick” and not “reproducing the experience of the book in every way imaginable, including footnotes.” But if a movie is going to be “based on” a book, what does that mean? It should mean that somehow or other the spirit of the book is captured or deepened—or why bother? If you want to ignore the spirit of a book, you should make your own thing and leave the book out of it.
Case in point: The first movie version of Lolita (1962), by Stanley Kubrick, deviates from the print masterpiece. But enough true artistry went into Kubrick’s playing around with the spirit of the book (particularly in the handling of the actors) that it lingers sweetly, as an emphasis on some but not all of the themes of the book. Meanwhile, a newer attempt at Lolita (1997), by Adrian Lyne, is a complete and trivial disaster. Lyne pays keen attention to period (surface) details and juices up the sexuality of the material, but he stubbornly neglects (or doesn’t comprehend) the book’s genius and humor. Lyne shoots beautiful film, but not beautiful content, and his taste for explicitness conveys that there is no sin greater in Hollywood than subtle innuendo. If you ever wanted to see Frank Langella’s package waggle back and forth in slo-mo, Lyne’s is the treatment for you.
First and foremost, the failure of the new True Grit centers around the casting of the young actress playing Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). This is where I feel like the biggest ass, since Miss Steinfeld is both very talented and very young. But for all that, I have to say that she is not quite up to portraying the complexities of Mattie Ross, the heroine of True Grit. At times, she nails it (especially when haggling with Colonel Stonehill about her papa’s ponies) and, at times, her expression is natural and effective (see her reacting while Rooster is on trial). But often her range feels stuck, without variation, in one tone—no peaks or valley, just midrange. The Mattie of the first True Grit movie (1969), by Henry Hathaway, is played by Kim Darby, an actress who is subtle and dynamic throughout. Darby effortlessly expresses a vast range—reserve, confidence, jubilance, surprise, fear, horror—and the result is a wildly effective performance.
The first True Grit movie also does not rely on Kim Darby’s looks. Although Kim Darby in real life was, I am sure, an attractive girl, she manages to look more or less plain in the movie. This is important. Mattie in the book is twice described as ugly. That may be a harsh description tossed out by characters who don’t like her but we, the readers, are supposed to understand that she is nonetheless plain. Mattie Ross in the book and the first movie is a girl who not only doesn’t, but also cannot, rely on looks or cuteness to get what she wants. She must cause all her own successes, as many of us plain people must, through brains or grit. That is no small part of her character or eventual triumph.
In the new version, Hailee Steinfeld’s prettiness is emphasized by the Coens. The first time she appears on screen, the camera forces you to notice her lush lips even before you notice her eyes. The moviemakers know she has beauty and they are squeezing it. It is almost a miracle that even a long-ago (to us) Hollywood movie like the first True Grit could be made with a female lead who is not supposed to be a sexpot.
Again, I understand that in getting them onto the screen, books must be changed. You can’t keep everything in, or as is. But the truth that “change happens” does not prove that all changes are equal or that they all pan out. Yes, yes, yes, once they make an agreement with an author, directors obviously have the right to make whatever changes they want. But as a movie lover, and in this case, a True Grit lover, you also have a right to respond to tweaks as you see fit.
In the book and the first movie, much attention is given to how Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn go back and forth on whether he will join her in her quest. In the new version, there is no such skirmishing. Rooster turns her down in one scene, but in the next we hear they’ve come to terms. Easy as pie. My view is that the Coens should have trimmed other scenes if they lacked time to show how Rooster and Mattie battle to understand each other. That dynamic is key.
In the book and the first movie, Mattie meets the young Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, at the communal table at the Monarch boardinghouse. Not so in the Coen brothers’ version. I loved their No Country for Old Men, and in their True Grit, LaBoeuf suddenly acts like the Javier Bardem character in No Country—and not like himself. One thing I hate about how super villains are depicted in new movies, even in No Country for Old Men, is how they almost always have supernatural or mythic powers that allow them to move past any earthly obstacle, like doors or alarms, and how they are always one mysterious, quiet step ahead of the good guys. You get an ill-placed whiff of this when little Mattie wakes up to meet LaBoeuf, not at the communal table downstairs but in a mysterious cloud of pipe smoke near the foot of her bed. You don’t need to be a Hollywood shrink to know that the Coen brothers are sexing up the ante here. Where mutual attraction was a vague subtext of the book and first movie, here it reaches pipe-smoking Freudian obviousness. Virgin Mattie even yanks up the bedsheets to cover her youthful chest when LaBoeuf, now an implied sexual threat, begins to talk to her. Such a menacing subtext also ignores LaBoeuf’s corny Boy Scout ethics to which he is actually loyal.
One of the compliments I keep hearing about the new True Grit is how it is truer to the book than the first movie. This is false in many demonstrable ways. (The first version cuts much but what it keeps is often verbatim from the book.) Midway through, the new version decides to split up the team of Rooster and LaBoeuf. This is the equivalent of splitting up Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Laurel and Hardy. I.e., you don’t! The whole frickin’ point of their relationship is not that they don’t want to break up, but that, in the end, their sense of mission and honor keeps them together beyond the temptations of self-interest or wringing each other’s necks. This is another key theme of the book. Unfortunately, new Hollywood doesn’t see honor as anything but an unfilmable irrelevance to those of us living in 2011.
After that split-up, yet another split-up occurs when LaBoeuf gives up on Mattie, and then Rooster does, too! Even though the Coens could no doubt make lively artistic arguments for these changes, I’ll still respond that they alter the heart of the book and first movie. I’m not just referencing precedence; my argument is that the book and first movie handled the material with more wisdom and art.
The only reason the new version splits up the duo twice, I think, is so that when Rooster and LaBoeuf get back together in the inevitable heartwarming nick of time at the very last possible Rocky Balboa, Star Wars moment, we are supposed to totally give in to the Hollywood-directed surge, complete with the pumping up of the soundtrack.
In the new version, when LaBoeuf (no connection, as far as I know, to the Arkansan Sleepy LaBeef even though they pronounce their surnames the same) says he is giving up on Mattie and her mission, Mattie, to try to win him back, says, “I picked the wrong man.” Meaning: she should have signed up initially with LaBoeuf not Rooster. This is one more fundamental redoing of a major point of the book and first movie (she never says such a thing in either) and comes across as cloying. Further sentimentality occurs when the rewriting of Portis has LaBoeuf responding, “I misjudged you as well. I extend my hand.” Barf.
With the exception of the miscast but immensely talented Hailee Steinfeld and a few others, there is much spot-on acting in the new version. Damon, as LaBoeuf, was an inspired choice and deserved more screen time (another reason I hated the splitting up of the LaBoeuf/Cogburn partnership). Bridges as Rooster is solid and consistent, no surprise there. Joe Stevens as Lawyer Goudy is a treat as is Dakin Matthews as Colonel Stonehill although it is really, really hard to improve on Strother Martin’s impeccable and hilarious performance in the first movie. (It is also hard to improve on John Wayne’s Rooster. Wayne, as both a man and an actor, was at times nothing more than a big chump. But at his best, and in True Grit he was this, he is a subtle and generous and intuitive performer. His comic timing after drunkenly falling off his horse and pretending he fell on purpose so as to tell Mattie and LaBoeuf where they would be camping that night is complete genius and should be watched and re-watched by actors in training.)
A totally new scene featuring the non-Portis character of “Bear Man” (played gloriously by Ed Corbin) is first-rate. Even though “Bear Man” feels like he would be more at home in a Cormac McCarthy movie than in a Charles Portis movie, I acknowledge that he is an artistic and daring addition, and I hope this shows that I don’t dislike all changes, only bad ones.
Because the Coens have a way of emphasizing detail, the less successful performances stick out as “bad” even though they aren’t really bad—they are just not great. Barry Pepper is an actor I am often in awe of but in playing Lucky Ned Pepper (and yes, I love the squaring of the Pepper name), he merely apes Robert Duval’s performance from the first movie, down to tonalities. For proof, play the two performances side by side when they shout out, “Too thin, Rooster! Too thin!” One man’s mimicry is another’s homage; I get that; but I still prefer new spins, not re-dos.
Josh Brolin, who for some reason gets third billing in the movie posters I’ve seen (with type treatment as big as Bridges’s and Damon’s), is noticeably off. First of all, and through no fault of his own, he’s a pretty boy. But the character he’s playing isn’t. The character he’s playing needs to be scrawny, desperate, backstabbing, whimpering, conniving, and weak-hearted. Unfortunately, Brolin’s prettiness makes us see qualities other than those and that’s thoughtless casting. Worse, Brolin’s performance is flat. He reads his line competently and manages competent expressions and uses a funny voice, but there is nothing interior going on and his character, the killer Tom Chaney, is about how his interior feelings always ooze out to wreak havoc on the exterior.
Charles Portis is not a god. But every line of dialogue he wrote in True Grit tries to be distinctive to each character. Some of the dialogue created by others for the new film tries hard and honorably to keep Portis’s voice and zone but, nonetheless, fails. I don’t think Portis would have used the phrase “wait a minute” in his book. In fact, the phrase he used in his book was “stop a minute.” In this context, “wait” to me sounds like it came out of the twentieth-century world of industry and wristwatches whereas Portis’s “stop” conveys something a tad older and less mechanical. I also don’t think Portis would have his characters in the book confuse “cornbread” with “corn dodger” or, in one pivotal moment, allow Rooster to say “I’ve grown old,” which he says in the movie. Hollywood idolizes youth more than it idolizes money and power and the phrase “I’ve grown old” is what aging Hollywood men say to themselves when they feel they are looking at themselves truthfully and hard and they are sad. But it’s not what an aging gunslinger, used to the solitary life, and familiar with the hardness of nature, would spout at a crossroads moment in his life as if it were an epiphanic, previously unnoticed truth.
New Hollywood often expends so much attention and manpower on getting subtle visual details right that they lose sight of inner details. If I had to choose one, I would say inner details are more important than surface details, but I also know that the masters, the best artists, get both right.
Sue Lyon, who played the first Lolita in 1962, was older than the character in the book (surface detail). The girl who played Lo in the 1997 remake, Dominique Swain (achingly beautiful Nabokovian name by the way), was closer to the younger, real age of the character of the book (surface detail). But Lyon’s performance reached more nooks and crannies and depths (inner details) than Swain’s did and as a result you didn’t care what Lyon’s real age was. You cared more about her onstage age. This might be akin to Shakespeare’s time when boys played the girl roles. If the boys were inventive, charming actors, no doubt there were times, if you were in the audience, when you probably forgot or didn’t care that a boy was playing a girl’s part.
Same thing with Mattie Ross. Kim Darby lacks the glamour-puss looks (surface detail) that male directors in our day and age require for their female leads. Darby was older than the character of Mattie Ross in the book. But she was so damn good and nuanced (inner details) that you don’t care about her “plain” looks (actually you like them) or her age (you stop thinking about it after her first scene). Miss Steinfeld has beauty and talent and a great future on her side, but her perfectly correct youth did not abruptly or magically imbue her with the wherewithal to plunge as deep into the role as Darby did.
I hope nobody shares these critiques with the Coen brothers or Miss Steinfeld or Mr. Pepper or Mr. Brolin. I know I am being caustic at their expense even as I know they did their part: They were brave and talented and boldly put themselves up there on the high wire. They also had honorable reasons, of which I know nothing, for making the choices they made. But I am not them, I am only me, and I can only be true to my reactions and that is one of the dangers of art. Once you release your art, other people, even manhandlers like me, get to experience it and respond to it and you can’t control us…even if we are wrong in our understanding and what we need more than anything is to be told what to think.
I was filmed for possible inclusion in the “extras” section of the forthcoming DVD of the new True Grit even though, believe it or not, I don’t like playing in front of a camera. I only agreed to have my interview filmed because of A) personal vanity and B) my sincere regard for the artistic accomplishments of both Charles Portis and the Coen brothers (I consider Blood Simple and The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men to be entrenched members of the American Film Pantheon). I didn’t see the new True Grit before their DVD team interviewed me and if my words here get to them I am sorry if the Coens and co. feel betrayed. And if the DVD isn’t finished, they might even want to chop me out of it. Of the last, I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m just glad the Coens took on Portis. I’m glad they love his book and I’m grateful their movie has brought people to it. And if I succeed in hurting the feelings of the Coen brothers or their brave actors, I take responsibility for that and I would just humbly advise them to keep in mind that if they had seen me on stage in Birmingham the other weekend they would have known, once and for all, that when this particular critic tried to do something that was similar to what they do—appear on stage before a big crowd—I failed miserably and embarrassingly and profoundly and worse than they could ever, ever do. They can take solace in the fact that I recognize that what artists do is beyond what I can do, and had Joel and Ethan and Hailee and Barry and Josh and the contributors to BOMB and everyone else I’ve ever criticized been in the audience at The Alabama Theatre, they could have, and they should have, first snickered and then booed me and then later bashed me to their friends or even blogged or written about my stupidities—to no end. And I would have deserved each and every smackdown.
Here’s another Barry story: I once saw him standing in front of Square Books shortly after he and Jimmy Pitts, our late friend and brother and poetry editor, had become tennis buddies. This was after the magazine had started, and long after the “big book/finger” incident. (By the way, Barry was both one of the toughest and easiest men I’ve ever worked with in the writer/editor dynamic. If you were wrong about a suggestion, he would devastate you with his response so that you knew instantly how wrong and stupid you had been. And you had been wrong and stupid, so shut up and deal with it and man up. And he didn’t devastate you with longwinded insults but with short, beautiful, cutting insights. From this I learned that if you were going to try to have Barry consider your ideas about his beloved and all-vital writing you had better be at your best, goddammit. And so I tried to be. And eventually I learned that whenever I happened to make a suggestion that had sense and music behind it, Barry would accept it—easily and without ego. Like all the best writers I’ve worked with, his attention was completely focused—not on the size or glory of his byline—but on improving the story at hand. And if outside ideas could improve the story, even, or especially, in a very minor way, he wanted them because in the best art every detail matters. Just be right, goddammit. Barry could have a huge, overwhelming ego once his work was done, but when he was in top form, and it came to the act itself, the art itself, Barry had no ego and he was truly beautiful to work for and experience. And I thank him to this day for that lesson.) So anyway, Barry is still outside the bookstore, smoking, and I say to him, Well, Barry, I hear you and Jimmy Pitts are tennis buddies now. I’m terrible at doing voices but Barry’s easy; all you do is pretend to be Tom Waits or a gruff Army sergeant: “Yeah. Great tennis player. Hard swing. But, but…strange boy, strange boy…” and he shuffled on, in thought.
Naturally, I later told this story to Jimmy, and his wife, and everybody else I could corner—and I remember at first Jimmy kind of grimaced at it. But then he got it like I got it. Jimmy was a strange boy. And if you, as a strange boy, are able to impress yourself on Barry Hannah, who spent his life engaging and inspecting strange boys in his work so that we might even call him the Emperor of Strange Boys, then you really must have an awesome gift, an awesome personality to catch and thrill the great man in this way.
So what at first to Jimmy was a “Bad” Barry story, he finally considered a “Good” Barry story. On page 76 of this issue, Jimmy’s colleague, true friend, and sometime-nemesis (how the poets do battle!), Louis Bourgeois shares a poem about Jimmy that he first shared at Jimmy’s funeral. We’re proud to run it.
MORE GRIPES ABOUT THE NEW TRUE GRIT
by Marc Smirnoff
I thought I’d had my say about the new True Grit when, this weekend, I read someone in an Arkansas weekly saying his favorite movie line of the year comes from the new True Grit when the undertaker says to Mattie Ross: “If you would like to sleep in a coffin, it would be all right.”
Well, hell. It's not out of my system. Reading the “sleep in a coffin” line drives me to point out that this was another bad addition by the Coen brothers to the original material (both the book and the first movie).
Here is the undertaker scene from the book:
The Irishman [the undertaker] said: “If ye would loike to kiss him it will be all roight.”
I said, “No, put the lid on it.”
We went to the man’s office and I signed some coroner’s papers. The charge for the coffin and the embalming was something over sixty dollars. The shipping charge to Dardanelle was $9.50.
Nothing creepy going on there. A paragraph earlier, Mattie said, “The Irishman was courteous and sympathetic….”
In their movie, the Coens decide to add new meanings to this scene. First, in an emphatically creepy manner, they have the undertaker ask Mattie if she would like to kiss her dead father who is lying in a coffin. Then, they don’t let her sleep at the Monarch boardinghouse, which is what Portis allows in the book. The Coens decide there is no room there and force Mattie to sleep in the same room with her dead father…and two other corpses. To keep the necrophilia vibe going, the Coens have the undertaker say: “If you would like to sleep in a coffin, it would be all right.”
Okay, modern dudes change things around. Fine. But by having the undertaker speak in overt dialect, Portis was probably touching on the old Irish tradition of letting family members kiss the deceased. The Coens, in their misreading, have merely turned the Irishman into a panting perv.
This change also reveals that the Coens, in this scene, miscomprehend their heroine. Mattie, because she is very particular, if not, in some ways, shrewd, would likely not be willing to sleep in a room with three corpses, not because she is fearful (on the matter of sleeping with corpses, she could be; I don’t know) but because she would recognize the possibility of disease lurking in those three bodies. Mattie has grit—yes—but she’s not stupid. She’d find a barn to sleep in if there was no lodging available, or an open field, rather than succumbing to that room.
A perceptive critic in The Believer magazine once wrote that Portis’s fiction is like Cormac McCarthy’s, only funny. With the undertaker scene, the Coens cor-mac’d Portis.
The beginning of the new True Grit, when the three men are hanged on a scaffolding in public, further perplexed me. In the book, the Indian who is about to be hanged says, “I am ready. I have repented my sins and soon I will be in heaven with Christ my savior. Now I must die like a man.”
Mattie, in the book, even goes on a little about how hearing those words affected her.
But, in the new True Grit, when the Indian opens his mouth to speak, a sack is placed over his head and all his words are muffled and unheard.
I don’t know what the point of this change is. Some conservatives might say excising dialogue in which Christianity doesn’t look foolish or evil is just typical anti-Christian knee-jerkism. I’m not willing to say they are wrong. All I can say is that the first time I saw the new True Grit, I was in a packed theater and when the hangman covered up the Indian with the hood, there was great laughter.
What did the Coens mean by this change? Did they want to generate great laughter or were they trying to show us how grotesquely dismissive many white people were of Indians—how we, at most times, literally or symbolically silenced them?
I honestly don’t know. I just wish, when changing material, the Coens had made their own points clearer.
Later, yet another scene involving Indians is handled differently in the new movie than it was in the book. In the book, Rooster comes up to a porch where he sees two boys, one an Indian, one a white, torturing a mule.
Portis: “Rooster went up first and walked over to the two boys and kicked them off into the mud with the flat of his boot. ‘Call that sport, do you?’ ”
Rooster lets the mule go free and then lectures the boys on mending their ways.
Even though this scene is essentially replayed in the new movie, the first time I saw it, I didn’t catch (or remember from the book) that a mule was being tortured. The second time, I caught it, briefly. The Coens do not emphasize the animal abuse: You do see Rooster free a pony but you may not understand why. What they do emphasize is Rooster kicking the boys—both of whom are now Indian!—off the porch.
That kicking also got laughs from the big crowd I saw the movie with…but was I the only one who was confused by why Rooster was kicking the two Indian boys? Did everybody else understand the Indians had tortured the mule and that Rooster was merely standing up for animal rights?
Again, I don’t mind good additions. In the book, Portis writes this about the triple-hanging Mattie witnessed: “I have since learned that Judge Isaac Parker watched all his hangings from an upper window in the Courthouse. I suppose he did this from a sense of duty. There is no knowing what is in a man’s heart.”
In the first True Grit movie, the writers and directors make these words come to life. Mattie (Darden) is shown, in a crowd, watching the preparations for the hanging. Apropos of nothing (except her conscience?), a snippy woman standing next to Mattie says something like: Judge Parker watches all the hangings. They say he does it from his sense of duty.
The camera pans to a figure in the distance standing alone on the balcony of the imposing courthouse. The brooding judge.
Mattie says, aloud: Who knows what’s in a man’s heart?
I still regard this as a perfectly fleshed-out addition. It may even be an improvement over the book.
When we love something, or someone, the details matter.
We flubbed a detail in the print version of my editorial. Instead of writing that Barry Hannah’s sobriety “pushed him out of a mid-career slump into a late period of total command,” some sucky editing caused the foul phrasing “a mid-career slump in his career” to appear.
Kind of ironic, eh? Here I am bitching about details that I think were messed up in the new version of True Grit when the messenger himself messes up a detail. Proves I’m a hypocrite, right?
Maybe. But screwing up our detail pained me and pissed me off—pains me and pisses me off still—not because I love my editorials, but because I love this magazine and I want us to get the details right.
When we don’t, we fail.
Hannah illustration by James O'Brien.