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Friday, Oct. 24, 2014

True Grit? Really????

Posted Friday, January 21, 2011, at 8:59 AM

For years, I have surprised people who have asked me what my favorite movie is.

I always answer, "True Grit."

Serious movie buffs always squint their eyes and stare at me to try to judge if I'm joking.

With True Grit back on the radar with the new version by the quirky Cohen Brothers, maybe people will realize my choice isn't as weird as it sounded and, maybe, they'll check out the 1969 original with John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell and realize the original is just as good, if not better, than the new one.

The original was definitely out of place when it hit the screens. 1969 was the age of turmoil, Viet Nam war unrest, civil right protests and violence. It was also the age of Flower Power and hippies and "doing your own thing". The two trends were joined as a new generation of directors and actors made weird, rough, daring new films like Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Alice's Restaurant.

As an aspiring hippie, I liked the new cinema but I also loved westerns and when I went to see True Grit I was amazed. Big budget studio films were out of style, westerns were out of style, and John Wayne was an unpopular dinosaur, especially after producing and starring in The Green Berets, his movie that glamorized and defended the unpopular Viet Nam war.

But, as the tale of Mattie Ross, the young girl who recruits crusty U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to help her hunt down her father's killer unfolded, it was clear John Wayne was determined to show he was as feisty and crude as the times and he gobbled up the scenery like nobody's business. Kim Darby was adorable but stubborn and maddening. Glen Campbell was a terrible actor who woodenly spoke his lines. So bad, he was great for the part of the conceited Texas Ranger.

And it wasn't the typical shoot 'em up. It was hilarious, irreverent and suspenseful, all at the same time.

People talked so realistically Ozarkish it was scary. When Mattie Ross unexpectedly comes upon her father's killer, Tom Chaney, on a river bank, the little girl pulls a ridiculously huge pistol out of her gunny sack and says, "I'm here to take you back to Fort Smith and hang you." "And I think I shall not go, how do you like that?" Chaney replies. After Mattie uses all her might to cock the pistol and it goes off, a stunned Chaney grouses, "Everything happens to me. Now, I'm shot by a child."

The movie is filled with jaw dropping plain spoken comments of show-em- no-mercy lawmen, grimy outlaws and regular people, all struggling to survive and make some sense out of the cruel world of early Arkansas and parts west.

I didn't know it until years later, but what really made True Grit great was the novel it was based on, by Arkansan Charles Portis. Portis is a master at capturing conversation and much of the dialog in his novel was in the film, which closely followed the original story.

I read about a year ago, the Cohen Brothers decided to remake True Grit after one of them read Portis' novel. The story said they wanted their True Grit to more closely follow the novel, making it as gritty as the book. I laughed at the idea the Cohen Brothers could stick close to the spirit or intent of any book. Their entire career has been based on writing strange and quirky films that often start out normal enough before veering off the cliff into the lake of their strange vision. Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and Fargo are great examples (and my favorites).

But, somehow, the Cohen's did make a "real western" and did stick to the real "True Grit" and may have their biggest box office success. Not that they have ever seemed to care about making money. Maybe it was their respect for Charles Portis that kept them on the path.

The strange thing is, the Cohen's made True Grit when Portis' four other novels are more the type of literature they would be attracted to. True Grit is a straight forward story with a real plot, while his four other works are a bit strange. Stories that start in one direction and head off in several others with plots that are dryly funny, make specific points but not always a lot of sense. Like the Cohen's, making popular art and a lot of money never seemed to be the reason Portis banged on a typewriter.

I have read several comments from reviewers and columnists that, after seeing the True Grit remake, they intend to read the rest of Portis' works. Good luck with that. Except for True Grit, most or all are out of print and hard to find.

I obtained his first novel, the 1966 Norwood, on Amazon for just a dollar-fifty. It was an ancient, yellowed original paperback copy. Norwood tells the story of a just released marine who is restless after returning to small town Texas to work at the gas station and care for his strange sister. The restlessness pushes him to hit the road in search of another veteran who owes him 70 bucks. After a series of adventures and close calls, he winds up back home.It's a novel about nothing much but it says a lot about life.

The copy of The Dog of the South that I obtained on Amazon was brand new. The 1979 novel tells the tale of a young Little Rock man who takes off after his wife and her first husband run off together in his car. He wants his car back, not his wife, and the chase leads him through Texas and Mexico to Honduras. Its first half is hilarious, the first book I've read in ages that made me frequently laugh out loud, but it gets seriously dark and twisted as it goes on. One of those books I tried to read slowly to make it last, but couldn't put down.

His other two novels? I've ordered Masters of Atlantis, published in 1985 (about cults and

secret societies) and Gringos, published in 1991 (about the strange adventures of Americans who wind up in Mexican jungles searching for the meaning of life...or something like that.) I guess Amazon is trying to round them up. I was told to expect them in one to three months.

That goes to show you Charles Portis is a much praised cult author that not many have heard of or read. He seems to like it that way. Portis published a short story in a magazine in the 90's and hasn't been heard from since. Let's just say he keeps a low profile. He refuses to cooperate with those who want to interview him or write about him and did very little to help promote the "new" True Grit. Like a lot of Arkansans, the El Dorado native who lives in Little Rock, just wants to be left alone.

But the world will always have "True Grit", a novel that is often compared to "Huckleberry Finn", another little book by a cantankerous southerner, Mark Twain. That's not a bad way to be remembered.



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I used to call this blog "Stranger In Town" but time goes by quickly. After a year in these parts, I realize people will still say, 'he's from off' but I now proudly claim I am a "Stranger No More"! After a lifetime in living in big cities, small town life has produced surprises, good and bad but, after more than a year, I love it (most of the time!). I promise to keep on writing about stuff that interests me and things I think of to complain about. I hope you will continue to check in occasionally to read and comment.