Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dialog of "True Grit"

Have NOT the Coen brothers read 1870's dialog of characters created by Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott?  In attempting to rout out all modern day colloquial speech in an attempt to create authenticity in this film, the Brothers Coen have essentially rounded up the culprit they assumed might murder 19th century realism (a.k.a. Spoken Contractions)  shot him with an AK47,  kicked his bullet-riddled body to the curb, and left him dying on the streets of their scenes. And as injustice would have it, they are not only being given a handsome monetary reward for the over-kill of an innocent, but will receive the accolades of a grateful society who just assumes the Coen icons know what they are doing just because of their "Coen-ic" icon status.

The forced dialog of "True Grit," while meant to be the connecting piece to the era of this film simply spoiled it for me.That's not to say I didn't love the movie, I did. The filming is cinematically stunning, the story is more than engaging, and the acting, well, it's simply like cream cheese frosting on a triple-layered carrot cake. Still, the Coen brothers' decision to have a multitude of characters in "True Grit" utter dialog in totally "de-contraction-alized" speech ("I do not think..., We cannot go..., I will not be..") was disappointing at best. Of course, instructing the actors playing the Mattie Ross and LeBoef characters to use more formalized speech creates the image of these characters as zealots to their causes; but to hear the ruthless outaws who are ready to murder Mattie and Cogburn utter sentences like, "I do not regret shooting your father," or "I will kill this girl,"  made their characters unbelieveable. I fully comprehend the intention of making this a period piece, but I disagree with the execution of that process. It's not that I don't understand artistic license and creation, but going overboard linguistically made me feel as if the Coen brothers, given half a chance, would try to straighten out the swirls in VanGogh's Starry Night just to make it appear to be a more authentic sky.  

Of course we know that the colloquial speech of the 19th century contained fewer contractions than speech consistent with the fast-paced 21st century. Those of that era who could read and wanted to enhance their station in life, imitated language from the printed word which we know is inconsistent with the running flow of language learned "by ear".  But even when my grandfather, born in the late 1800's. was trying to impress someone, he never used speech without contractions to the extent that the characters in "True Grit" were directed to do. Language evolves subtlely, it doesn't take gigantic leaps to a whole new species. If you want to show a character who has learned language "by rote," you have them articulate more precisely and lessen the contrations of their speech - A BIT!  The Coen brothers, if undertaking a remake of Little Women, would probably have the character Jo saying: There is just something really wrong with me. I want to change, but I - I cannot. And I just know I will never fit in anywhere.   Alcott herself,  closer to the period than the Coen brothers, had Jo speaking these "contractualized lines": There's just something really wrong with me. I want to change, but I - I can't. And I just know I'll never fit in anywhere. The Coen's slashing of contractions was just all too ubiquitous in this film.

In addtion to throwing out every apostrophed verb that 19th century characters would have uttered, the Coen brothers neglected to create characters who might speak with left-over remnants of his or her mother language or with more pronounced regional dialects.  Couldn't at least one character in this film have had an bit of an accent to reflect some heritage? ( For heaven's sakes, you can hear the Swedish in my husband's speech and he's about 3 generations removed from Sweden!)  Certainly, Twain and Alcott's writing reflect this fact. 

The only two characters who, in my opinion, should have been directed to carry the dialog without contractions were Mattie Ross and LeBoef. If it had been only Mattie and LeBoef who spoke in formalized speech, the intensity of their passion of purpose would have been better contrasted with the other characters. And how much more humorous would LeBoef's Dudley Do-right persona and Texas Ranger devotion have been if the Coen brothers had directed Matt Damon to combine a more obvious Texas accent (since his character was actually a Texas ranger) with the de-contractionalized speech of a Dudley Do-Right of the Northwest Mounted Police character!  There was very little laughter at some of the most comedic lines delivered by Damon in the theater I attended, I believe, because of a failure of that direction - a shame! 

So  I say to you, Coen brothers, from here in my humble RV home, I do believe you're consulting with the wrong people. For goodness sake, grab a reputable historical linguist or maybe even a student in Applied Phonetics 101 at UCLA before you go off and try to create an image of the past that’s inaccurate - that's all I'm saying.