Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Arkansas News: Coens and Portis, genius on genius

A must-read: this wonderful feature on True Grit from a newspaper columnist who knows the famously publicity-averse author. He joins the rest of us in being excited to see the upcoming Coen Brothers film adaptation!

Coens and Portis, genius on genius
December 5, 2010

The Arkansas News
By John Brummett

Go here to read the article online

All the insider movie rage last week was about the imminent debut at a movie theater near you of the genius Coen brothers’ version of “True Grit.”

It is from the novel by Charles Portis, the lovably reclusive author in Little Rock whom some consider the best American writer of our time or at least the most under-appreciated.

Portis is not much for attention by photograph or interview or tribute or the unsubstantiated superlative. His personal style is as lean and minimalist as some of his writing.

If he warms to you at all, and you cannot be sure of that, it is because you do not bother him or make over him and you do not let it rile you that, when he finally decides to engage, he goes all right-wing.

He loves having been a Marine in Korea. He likes the militaristic field-positioning of old-style football. He hates our litigious society.

Or at least that is what he said. I do not profess actually to know. I only profess to have had the privilege of inhabiting a bar stool next to his a time or two.

I am fairly sure he despises pretense especially when verbose.

Once when I was editor of the Arkansas Times when it was a slick monthly magazine, Portis gave me an epic piece about the Ouachita River that won a national prize. All he asked was that I not change a word unless I talked with him first and not to make a big splash about him on the cover.

I said I would never do such a thing.

That banner above the nameplate — “Charles Portis discovers the Ouachita” — was no big splash. It was medium-sized.

All he ever said to me about writing a novel was that “you gotta have a story.”

I took that to mean it is one thing to write a sentence or a paragraph or an essay, but that it is something else entirely to conceive of a drunken eye-patched U.S. marshal in Fort Smith who heads out for serious character development in the unlikely company of a noble teenage Arkansas hill girl determined to seek justice for the murder of her father by a most-evil outlaw.

That is “True Grit,” and what the Coen brothers — Joel and Ethan — have done with it has now been seen by a few critics, most of them admiring and a few extolling, and will get its theatrical release Dec. 22.

The main criticism has been that the movie, by clinging so closely to the novel and by stressing peculiar and archaic language and slow character development, may not offer the mass appeal of the action-adventure form.

But that is not detraction. It is roaring endorsement.

The Coen brothers are known for homages to great literature and for mastering the distinctive dialogue of places and periods, as in “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Raising Arizona” and “No Country for Old Men.”

This is technically a remake of the John Wayne vehicle of 1969, but poor Glen Campbell ruined that one trying to portray the Texas Ranger. Matt Damon gives that role a go in this one.

Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn and, in apparent deference to Wayne, puts the patch on the other eye. A new young actress is introduced as Mattie Ross.

Paramount so likes the product that it is putting it out for the awards season.

I will admit to being a little excited. It is not every day that a story based from Yell County and Fort Smith by an author of my acquaintance gets made into a big-time film by the most gifted and imaginative filmmakers of our time.

I do not know if Portis is excited. I do not know what that would look like or how one could tell.

All I know is that I read that he didn’t know who the Coen brothers were and will be happy as long as the checks come in.

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