True Grit

We saw True Grit over the weekend, the Coen brothers’ rendition of the  novel by Charles Portis, which had also been made into a movie that earned John Wayne an Oscar.  I’m a fan of the novel and both movies, including this one.

The John Wayne movie is an iconic Western, and I like icons.  This one is darker and, well, grittier, and I like that too.  The Coen version is especially good in bringing to the forefront the novel’s language.  The 19th century was a time of greater formality than our own, with an attention to codes of good manners and the use of a more flowery language than we usually do today, in our hyper-casual culture.  That was also the era of black and white morality, when the Bible was on everyone’s lips.  And yet, at the same time, on the American frontier,  the era was also wild, violent, barbaric, and squalid.  The Coen brothers capture both of those co-existing dimensions perfectly, and it’s a sight to see.

The performances by Jeff Bridges as the drunken U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as the formidable 14-year old Mattie Ross out to avenge her father’s murder are as good and as memorable as anything you will find in the movies.  I also loved the movie’s score, based on 19th century American hymns (e.g.,  “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”).

I urge you to read what Stanley Fish has to say about this movie in his blog post via Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’ – NYTimes.com..  The postmodernist literary critic, who now seems to be going beyond postmodernism in a good way, got his start, like me, as a literary scholar specializing in applying Reformation theology to 17th century literature.  He says this about the movie:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

Fish takes a key line from the movie:  “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” He then offers what I would call a Calvinist interpretation of the film.

A Lutheran interpretation might take the grace bit a little differently, agreeing that everyone is a sinner but showing God’s hand in the vocations being carried out in the story.

At any rate, True Grit is  great fun, and it will also stay with you.

If you’ve seen it, weigh in.

My thoughts on Dawn Treader

I understand why some filmmakers make changes when they make a movie out of a novel.  The two art forms are different.  The movie version of Voyage of the Dawn Treader added some plot elements–the green mist, the seven swords–but, as my wife said, they sort of served the larger story, tying together an episodic plot that works better in print than on the screen.  The movie nailed the characters, though, especially Lucy, along with a Reepicheep wonderfully voiced by Simon Pegg.

The Christian elements were there, with lots of talk and examples about not giving in to temptation, something you don’t hear about in most movies.  In the book, Aslan scratched out Eustace’s dragon-nature, supplemented with some great baptismal imagery.  In the movie, once Eustace turns into a dragon, he does all kinds of heroic deeds, and then Aslan changes him back (without touching him, though).  One could construe that as implying that a person does good works, which then merit God’s grace.  Whereas the book has the grace coming first, and then the good works.  But I think the theology was unintentional.  In a movie, if you go to the trouble of devising a good special effects dragon, you need to have it do as much as possible.  The movie did include one of the Narnia series’ most important lines from Aslan, where he tells the children that when they go back to our world they will have to know him by a different name, and that the reason he brought them into Narnia was so that they could know him better in their world.

So I thought the movie was good.  I enjoyed it.  I recommend it.

And yet why do I feel so lukewarm about it?  I realize that a novel has characters, setting, plot, and theme.  The movie did an OK job of approximating those.  But a novel also has language.  It also conveys a feeling. I guess it was the feeling of the Narnia books that I was missing.

Because the story in a novel is happening in your mind, as  you picture the events in your imagination, the effect is deeper and, by definition, more imaginative, than just watching images on a screen.  Reading entails an inner experience.  In movies, we are more detached from the images we are watching.

There is another problem, though.  Movies today have a hard time rendering fantasy.  Yes, they can now create the most fantastical special effects.  But because they are so realistic, so hard-edged, the elements that make fantasy–namely, mystery and wonder–are dispelled.  Fantasy needs to have softer edges to work.  I had the same problem with Inception, an interesting movie about the relationship between dreams and reality, but there was nothing dreamlike about any of the dreams!   Movies and special effects today are just too literal! (Come to think of it, I recall Lewis making this same point, about how fantasy doesn’t work well on the stage or in film.  Does anybody have that reference?)

I do think a movie maker will one day figure out how to use special effects to create truly special effects in the imagination of the viewers.

I can think of one example, though, of a fantasy movie based on a novel that worked in its own terms and in capturing the feel and the imaginative rush of the original.  That would be the Lord of the Rings.

Why do you think the movie version of Tolkien’s trilogy worked so much better than any of the movies of the Narnia series?

Dawn Treader launches

I was greatly disappointed with the movie version of Prince Caspian, and I feared the treatment of Voyage of the Dawn Treader would be more of the same, playing down the Christian themes in favor of Hollywood blockbuster cliches.  I had heard from people who might know that Dawn Treader would go in that direction, despite the disappointing box office performance of Prince Caspian.  That movie caused Disney to dump the franchise, but Dawn Treader was picked up by Fox.  (The first Narnia movie, by contrast, was both faithful to the original, in its story and its themes, and extremely successful.)

But now the word is that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which opens this weekend, is good!  That it keeps the Christianity!  Also that it works as fantasy, with spectacular special effects in 3-D no less.  So I’m excited.

Here is the positive review from WORLD:

WORLD Magazine | Treading carefully | Megan Basham | Dec 18, 10.

If you see it this weekend, please post your verdict here.

from Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Megamind

We went to the movies over Thanksgiving weekend and saw Megamind.   The animated parody of the superhero genre featured a supervillain who finds himself turning good.  It’s actually kind of Augustinian (existence is good, so evil is a privation of being).  It was also quite humorous.  But see it, if at all possible, in the 3-D version.  That technology works remarkably well with these modeled computer animations.  The visuals were spectacular, making better use of the new 3-D possibilities than Avatar, in my opinion.  It’s a movie that will please both children and adults and will corrupt neither.

This makes me want to start going to  movie theaters again, after a rather long hiatus.  Does anyone have any recommendations about the current offerings?

Tolkien vs. the Beatles

Imagine:

Once upon a time, the Fab Four—having slain the pop charts—decided to set their sights on the Dark Lord Sauron by making a Lord of the Rings feature, starring themselves. One man dared stand in their way: J.R.R. Tolkien.

According to Peter Jackson, who knows a little something about making Lord of the Rings movies, John Lennon was the Beatle most keen on LOTR back in the ’60s—and he wanted to play Gollum, while Paul McCartney would play Frodo, Ringo Starr would take on Sam and George Harrison would beard it up for Gandalf. And he approached a pre-2001 Stanley Kubrick to direct.”It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson said.

via Little-known sci-fi facts: Tolkien killed a Beatles LOTR movie | Blastr.

HT: Joe Carter

Freedom and Government

To the list of great political theorists, I would like to add director John Ford. I’d like to raise for your consideration a comment I made on the “Who holds the deed to your house” post:

We watched “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” last night in my film class. The lawless “state of nature” does NOT promote private property or free enterprise. Rather, in that movie, the lawless cattle ranchers, with their power and gunslingers, were taking the property of the small farmers so they could have an “open range.” Only until law came to Shinbone and the people voted for statehood was private property protected.

(What a great movie, by the way! Jimmy Stewart AND John Wayne AND Lee Marvin AND Lee Van Cleef, not to mention great supporting actors such as Andy Devine. And the incomparable direction of John Ford.)

To expand the point: Many conservatives and libertarians believe that government, by its nature, limits human freedom. In a state of minimal government, free enterprise economics would thrive, and human beings would form in other dimensions of life an analogous self-regulating order.

In the thought experiment that is John Ford’s movie, “Liberty” Valence may have liberty, but he is about the only one. There is no private property. When he wants to take someone’s steak, he just takes it. When the cattlemen want their cattle to graze on farms, they just cut the fences. Because the advocates of the “wild west” do not respect anyone’s private property, there is no free enterprise economics. “Shopkeepers” stand with the small farmers to work for a rule of law and statehood for the territory. The community has to stand up against Liberty Valence. Violence (cf. “valence”?) is indeed necessary to create social order. Liberty Valence has to be shot. And those who can stand up against him, like Tom Donophan (John Wayne), ironically, also have no place in the new civilized order.

But, according to Ford, government is necessary for freedom. Not that government cannot also squelch freedom, as in the totalitarian systems of Fascism and Communism, both of which Ford fought. But a democratic government and the rule of law, in his mind, was a prerequisite for both personal freedom and a free economy. Isn’t he right?


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