Who knows what possessed them to do so, but when I was about ten my parents sat me down to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.  If it was cotton candy for its 1935 audiences, it was no less so for me:  I was riveted by everything from the corny jokes to those awkward segues into elegant Irving Berlin songs to that famous dress made of feathers in which Ginger dances cheek to cheek with Fred.  Even all these years later I can’t quite put my finger on why the ten-year-old me found this Depression-era relic so compelling — yet the quest to plumb what movies mean to us is irresistible.  In my case it was Fred & Ginger who began a lifelong love of film, and for some reason I’ve been thinking about this ever since seeing the Coen brothers’ True Grit last night.  Clearly, my tastes now run much darker than they did when I was ten, but I still find myself moved beyond easy explanation by this tale.  (And what can I say?  I’m perversely entertained by the contrast of the two films.)

There’s an awful lotta road between them, but I’ll talk your ear off over a few beers to convince you that these films are both about the joy of watching movies.  Whereas John Wayne dominated the 1969 original, the Coens people their story with much more modest actors such that the film focuses on telling a great tale.  And what a tale it is. 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) comes to town looking for someone to track down a man named Chaney (Josh Brolin) who killed and robbed her father, and she chooses U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man later referred to as “a one-eyed fat man.”  Cogburn drinks too much, kills too many of the men he was supposed to pick up, and might even cheat Mattie out of the $50 she gives him to start looking — but she believes he has the true grit for the job.  Things get more complicated when a self-aggrandizing (yet oddly self-conscious) Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) shows up hunting the same guy, determined to take Chaney back for some Texas justice rather than to Mattie’s home of Yell County, Arkansas.  And we’re off.  (I could say so much more about the terrific 13-year-old actor Steinfeld, but I want to emphasize here that this is truly an ensemble cast — part of her gift is knowing that she’s part of a triumvirate.  She’s already won eight supporting actor awards for her part [sidebar: why supporting?  that’s downright insulting] and has been nominated for a pile of other prizes, so I’m hardly the first to notice.)

Maybe this sounds like it combines every Western cliché you’ve ever heard of (in a genre that loves clichés), but don’t quit on me now.  It’s got the best dialogue I’ve heard since the Coens’ last 15 movies, except without the cussin’.  The Coens wrote the screenplay without using many contractions, leading to such locutions as “He has abandoned me to a congress of louts” — conversation that only gets funnier when it’s ricocheting between the whipsmart Mattie, the growling Rooster, and the slightly out-of-his-league La Boeuf, and funnier yet again when La Boeuf’s lines are slurred due to badly biting his own tongue in a tussle.  The Coens love three-way dialogue; just remember the exchanges between Donnie, Walter, and the Dude in The Big Lebowski or between Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou? to remember the greatness.  But I’m not sure it’s ever been as even-handedly delicious as in True Grit.  In an early scene the two men sit on their horses, watching the indomitable Mattie charge across a roaring river on her horse with only her head and her horse’s above water; Cogburn says dryly, “By God.  She reminds me of me,” to which La Boeuf responds, “Well then, we might just not get along.”  The relations between the three are always strained, just enough to keep the barbs flying.  Except when Rooster’s drunk, anyway — then he simply resorts to long-winded retellings of past adventures.  It’s at those moments when you feel no tension between the three main characters that you get anxious that the story is about to plunge us deep into a tight spot.

Great storytelling, terrific visuals, three equally great main characters held in perfect equilibrium, and that sparkling dialogue that gives The Social Network and Aaron Sorkin a run for the money — but those aren’t the only reasons why this movie made me think so much about why I love movies.  It’s something else, a magician’s gift for sleight-of-hand.  True Grit keeps distracting you with one thing and then producing rabbits from nearby hats — plot twists, a little gruesome bloodletting, a surprise appearance by a bad guy, a shoot-off.  Whereas some films practically flag that left hand working sneakily off to one side (hello, the utterly disappointing The Ghost Writer — how did that end up on so many best-of lists?), in this one I simply settled back to let the words, scenes, characters, and conflicts wash over me.  When Cogburn stands over the bruised body of La Boeuf and curses, “Damn that Texan; when you need him, he’s dead,” we’re relieved to find out he’s wrong — but your mind gets stuck on that sweet line, wishing you’d thought of it first.

A long time ago I saw Smoke in a Cambridge theater and throughout the film some jackass behind me kept turning to his friend saying, “I’m really enjoying this, aren’t you?”  As annoyed as I was, I know what he meant.  Sometimes a film creates a whole world that you just succumb to, childlike, without trying too hard to second-guess outcomes.  The words are so great and so unusual that you run them over your tongue like hard candy, and you let yourself get swept up.  That was my experience of True Grit, and that was my experience of Top Hat all those many years ago.  Don’t get me wrong:  True Grit isn’t a cheery movie with a Fred & Ginger outcome; I could say much more about the Coens’ love of cynicism and other themes that dominate their films, but that’ll have to wait for another day.  Still, I walked out of the film feeling buttressed up, somehow.  Maybe it’s because the new school year’s beginning and I could use some true grit myself.  Maybe I just need to take a tip from Rooster, who was partial to pulling a cork for comfort.  On these gloomy early January days — dark even here in the normally sunny Texas — we could use a tale that takes us outside of ourselves.

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