Sunday, September 25, 2011

Coen Brothers: True Grit, Part 1

Mattie Ross: "Well, I’m sorry that you are paid piecework not on wages, and that you have been eluded the winter long by a halfwit."

The Coen Brothers' recent version of Charles Portis' novel True Grit (1968) is a real treat, and it's made a ton of money. End of story.

That stated, I'd like to take a passing glance at two of several aspects of the film that are compelling. The story is set in and around Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the Choctaw Nation in eastern Oklahoma, in the late 1870s (i.e. smack between Deadwood and Hang 'Em High).

1. Economic exchange: The entire story is rife with exchanges. Not only are people paid for goods and services with gold or paper currency, there are other deals made, including by barter. Most of these exhanges involve negotiation and bargaining, and sometimes on the idea that a certain offer may be the final one. One example: Mattie and Rooser cut a hanged men down from a tall tree in Choctaw country. A rider approaches (apparently Choctaw), makes a deal with Rooster and rides off with the body;  said rider fires a shot to warn Rooster of the approach of another rider (part of his deal with Rooster). Next rider appears carrying the same body of the hanged man, which he retrieved from the first rider in exchange for some small goods.  Second rider offers to trade the body back to Rooster, having already extracted the dead man's teeth. And so on.

2. Morality, Ethics, and Codes of Social Behavior: Malum prohibitum (Illegal by way of changeable law or custom) and malum in se (Evil in and of itself, regardless of law).  

One man, about to be hanged in Fort Smith along with two other men by order of the Hangin' Judge (Isaac Parker, a real historical figure), notes in his final words that he'd not be hanging that day if he'd a'killed the man he'd intended to. And he is correct: compare his plight with that of Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who is sanctioned by law, and who therefore can kill with virtual impunity (same as soldiers in wartime, within certain stated limits). Cogburn has killed dozens of men under variable circumstances, the details of which, for the most part, we'll never know. However, he admits to having robbed a bank, to boot.

Malum prohibitum and malum in se are literally discussed by Mattie, who is fourteen, and LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger.  

Examples of malum prohibitum: blue laws. Selling liquor on a Sunday. Smoking Cuban segars (cigars) in the USA in 2011 (illegal), as opposed to in 1911 (legal). Selling beer on a Friday in 1929 (illegal) versus in 2011 (legal). Consensual sex between adults, regardless of marital status (legal in 2011 in parts of the USA, but technically prohibited in other parts). A gift of money (legal) vs. an open exchange of money for sex  (prostitution = illegal, except where it's legal). Marrying across "race" (illegal in much of the USA before 1967, legal throughout the USA since 1967). In sum, some laws are dumber than others, and some evils are more truly evil than others. Some perceived social evils are not in fact evil at all, and some things not touched by laws of the day may actually be evil.

In the next post, a little comparison with Sergio Leone's vision of the American West.    

Today's Rune: Breakthrough. 

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I liked it and the book a lot. Heck I didn't even mind the early version. Just a darn good story.