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True Grit: What a Fellowship

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

by DAVID Ker THOMSON

God is dead, but only recently so?he’s still sort of hanging around.  Is that the message of my life merely, or is it really in the Cohen brothers’ True Grit?  The film has trickled down through the cinema system to our local semi-rep theatre, the Royal, with moderate alacrity.  I remember vaguely reading a review, a bad one, a while ago, so perhaps there were other such reviews to speed True Grit on its way.  That review faulted the film for its fealty to the form, but it seems to me you shouldn’t judge a western for being a western.  As I said, it was a bad review.

True Grit is a tone composition, and if you miss the tone, you’d better make one up if you’re going to enjoy yourself in front of the big screen.  That big flat thing up there is called a screen, so you can’t expect the filmic form to just give itself away.  Still, considering all that’s going on, True Grit is accessible enough that you can be lulled into thinking it’s just another western, not that that would be bad thing if it were true.  Not since the non-western 37.2 Le Matin (which should be translated as 98.6 In the Morning, lol) has a film for me been so dominated by so literal a version of tone as: a few recurrent notes in the sound track.  The hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which is to evangelical cultural capital what The Hobbit is to male middle-school nerd angst, inserts itself insistently enough, though it falls shy of intrusive. [Warning: plot spoiler begins soon.]  Well, certainly I grew up with both.  What a fellowship.  If you want to understand me, read either the hymn or the Tolkien books like an owner’s manual.

The three main characters get to the end of the action scenes with a total of four good arms, so clearly the hymn is, at the least, a good joke, a variant on the old farewell-to-arms motif.  And given arms buildup in this century, this True Grit hardly has to reference its 1969 counterpart to remind viewers that at the least the topic here is hot flashpoints in cold wars.  The day before I was born, and two days afterwards (27 and 30 August, 1958) the Americans exploded nuclear bombs in the upper atmosphere in what might have been the largest fireworks display in history.  Arms R US.  Talk about being born under a bad sky. 

Everlasting arms.  The precise nature of rifled armament, and whether for example (as in True Grit) such a thing as an unrifled metal ball could hit a target, even fired downhill, at four hundred yards, is a subgenre of post-Civil War armament techie interplay which I happen to find as compelling as the hidden names of Gandalf.  My own ballistics guess on that is that the ball would tend to tumble erratically, but even here the film is smart enough to leave it uncertain about whether the long shot was effective or not.  And I suppose that any of the shooting jokes are self-referential and should be thought of as camera angles, at the least.

Because of some stuff I’ve seen in real life, I don’t look at hanging scenes.  My ten-year-old was with me last night when we were watching, and he told me when it was okay to look again.  But we were both caught off guard by the second hanging scene, a surprise loom that was a jocular interpretation of the old western adjuration, “hang ’em high.”  This might be one of the highest, if not the highest, hangings around.  Anyway, the point for me in these tree/death confluences is always Christ.  For non-evangelicals, that point might take a moment to settle in, but Christians are pretty good at linking trees with death fruit on them to the original carnal scene.  Incarnation is all about the enmeating, the en carne, of spirit as a rite of passing to deeper, sadder knowledge.

We saw the film the day after Palm Sunday.  Twenty-four hours earlier my writer friend’s mom had finally?thank God or goodness?starved to death after a nine-day vigil on top of some inoperable disease, so I had ready-to-hand all sorts of specific words for how bodies fall apart.  Death on Palm Sunday.  The mom was an evangelical, though I think there was some wavering on this point near the end, and my friend isn’t any longer, though she knows the Leaning hymn well enough.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus comes to town triumphant, but in the gospels he’s wise enough to know he’s also on an ass, and to know where all this is leading.  Please excuse me if I’m piling a lot in to a few paragraphs here.  I don’t have time to write the many pages that True Grit merits, let alone the western canon or even the Western, let alone deal properly with the death of old mothers and fathers or of the semitic storm god?my own semitic storm god.  Everything’s on the run these days.

A few brief impressions, then.  Liam the pre-teen climbed up on to me in the middle of the film.  There aren’t words to describe how grateful an old father is for such a thing, even as teendom gapes wide for his sons and even as cars transect the city like so many menacing unspent fuel hot rods.  Liam said later to Eva-Lynn that I was shaking as we watched.  Well, one would shake, agitated as one would have to be by the notes of Leaning.  Just consider how thoroughly I fell for my semitic storm god?a crush to which I gave everything, everything.  But he is dead now and one moves on into a darkness in which the stars are brighter the darker it gets.  The world ends, and then you carry on.  If you’ve seen the movie, think of the scene where old man Rooster runs, in a bid to save the girl, across an altiplano high enough, or followed by a camera low enough, that the stars of the cosmos are all about.  And when flesh fails, his duty discharged, the old man discharges his weapon.  It is finished, selah, as the good book says.

Afterwards Liam and I saddled up the Bob rig and headed out into the quiet streets edged in afterwinter grit, he singing a bawdy song plucked too early from the tree of knowledge, and I competing by calling out to the darkened house facades old bits of Leaning.  It’s almost Easter and things aren’t too bad, all in all.

Since my essays are sometimes mistaken for poems or jokes, I’ll finish with both, if you don’t mind.  A poem on the paradox of our human condition, then, in partial italics:

The Human Spirit

Leaning/Not Leaning.

David Ker Thomson lives in the Dufferin Grove and Garrison Creek watersheds.  Iris DeMent, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”  dave dot thomson at utoronto dot ca