Five respectable, if not especially revelatory, nominees; no controversy. It’s a recipe for irrelevance, which would probably suit some in the music branch just fine this year. They famously shot themselves in the foot last year when they nominated (and then un-nominated) a tuneless dirge from a barely seen red state-baiting exploitation film simply because its composer used his position on the branch’s executive committee to e-blast his colleagues, imploring them not to ignore his work. So does this year’s slate represent an apologia on the music wing’s part? Much more than that, and given the contextual status of the category’s two highest-profile contenders, the best original song race could end up being the entire Academy’s chance to collectively say it’s sorry on a scale that far outpaces the category’s typical stature.
Glen Campbell (#1–10 of 4)
Ed Howard: The idea of the modern western as an art of deconstruction has become so engrained in today’s film culture that it’s disconcerting when a new western comes along that doesn’t take a revisionist stance on the once-beloved Hollywood genre. Westerns don’t get made very much these days, but when they are we expect them to be in the lineage of Peckinpah or Leone rather than the old Hollywood craftsmen who made the genre so ubiquitous in the 1940s and ’50s. You see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Although most film fans would expect a Coen brothers western to be a sardonic, revisionist take on the genre, True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s first proper stab at a genre that has often haunted their work in spirit, is a good old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness western in the classical tradition.
This actually shouldn’t be surprising. There are markers of western style in many other Coen films, notably O Brother Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men: the love of landscapes, the gruffly poetic language, the stark morality, even the fascination with hats that runs through Miller’s Crossing, for in what other genre besides the western do hats mean so much? True Grit might be the Coens’ first actual western, but it’s such a natural fit for them because they’ve always kind of seemed like western filmmakers in a deeper sense. This is why the Old West milieu, sparsely populated as it is with oddballs and degenerates and criminals, feels like an extension of the Mexican border towns of No Country for Old Men, or the wasted Northwestern wilds of Fargo, or even the backwards suburban absurdity of Raising Arizona.
True Grit is an adaptation of a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, which was already made into a film in 1969 by director Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne in the role that won him his only Oscar. Though the Coens’ film differs from Hathaway’s in several important ways and numerous smaller ones—apparently because the Coens follow the novel, which I haven’t read, more faithfully than Hathaway did—the two films also share a good amount of common ground. What’s ultimately most striking about the Coens’ film is how traditional it is, how unshowy and subtle. It balances humor and darkness and action, and it does so within a wholly classical context. First and foremost, it’s just a great story and a great western, and its humble artifice is very refreshing.
Charles Portis, the author of the original incarnation of the story of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who hires a one-eyed U.S. Marshal to avenge her father’s death, started his writing career as a journalist in Arkansas after serving as a sergeant in the Korean War. The novel, entitled True Grit, was his second, but it wasn’t until after a fruitful career with the New York Herald Tribune at their London desk that Portis returned to his home state and started to write fiction. Despite leaving his foreign correspondent’s post, Portis retained his beat reporter’s precise attention to detail, as the book is filled with accurate period parlance, historical allusion, and “research” done by the narrator, Ross. In fact, True Grit saw its first publication in serial form in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968, which is fitting considering the heroine’s own penchant for journalism and the field of reporting.
Mattie’s attention to detail and use of newspaper clippings to back up her tale is pleasurable, even as she tells the tale from a quarter century down the road. We are introduced to her avenging Marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, through a partial transcript of a court hearing, which she managed to dig up from old newspaper archives. The adult Mattie concedes that she did this while researching an article she wrote, entitled, rather verbosely, “You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge.”
“Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” directed by Jake Nava
“Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” doesn’t really have verses or even a chorus, it’s all-hook, moving from one high-energy Beyoncé shout to another, never really letting up. The titular hook’s rushed through in the same double-time as that keyboard line on-speed and Jake Nava’s video similarly starts and doesn’t stop. It’s all performance on basically no set at all, Beyoncé kinda lip-syncs, instead focusing on her and the other two dancers’ Bob Fosse “Mexican Breakfast” walk-it-outs with minimal lighting tricks with minimal cuts.