the animal difference
January 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
[SPOILERZZZZ ahead, obviously]
I saw True Grit yesterday; like most (all?) Coen Brothers films, it was funny, absurd, morally ambiguous, violent, beautiful, etc, etc. Our protagonist, more or less, is a young girl whose pursuit of justice (or vengeance) is at once inspiring and silly (“I don’t want to see him hanged in Texas for a Texas crime!“). We have the usual cast of antiheroes, anti-antiheroes, honorable thieves, human scum, laughable braggarts. Words, ideas, judgments, bullets, fly through the air at a dizzying rate.
On the margins of this human drama, however, there is another story that plays out. A story circulating between two antagonistic poles of animality: the horse, the snake.
* * * * *
Even before the horse, there are horses. But these horses are not yet animals; they are empty figures, entries in a ledger, prices to be haggled over. There is a coon, too, or at least the prospect of one, in the story Mattie tells of going coon-hunting with her father. Rooster is not impressed: a coon-hunt does not count, a man is not a coon. But, insists Mattie, it’s the same principle… Killing an animal, killing a man: seen from the proper perspective, these can be the same thing. Is she right? Perhaps it is still too soon to tell.
Our proper introduction to the animal comes a little later, when Mattie makes, or fails to make, the acquaintance of her horse, Little Blacky. He is a spirited (not to say spiritual) animal, young and strong, bursting with superabundant life. As the stable boy says to Mattie, on the occasion of this (non-)introduction: You’re not heavy enough, he doesn’t even realize he has a rider, he thinks it’s just a horsefly… The young girl is light, lacking, not all there. She is ‘not quite’ a proper rider, ‘not quite’ a man, perhaps closer to an animal than to a man. Whereas the horse is more than a horse. (But at the same time, still just a horse: “What’s his favorite treat?” “Well, he’s a horse… so that means he likes apples.”)
This horse — from which the rider is in a certain sense inseparable, having never been entirely ‘there’ in the first place — this horse becomes, through a couple of key sequences the we will have to analyze in a moment, the closest thing the movie has to a moral center. The horse is the place where the ‘true grit’ of the title will manifest itself. And, curiously, this will happen only through the introduction of another animal.
But first, the girl must become a man. Or, more accurately, must cease to be a “girl”, this not-quite-man that is the object of so much scorn and condescension. So, at the very moment when she is treated most patronizingly — the reins of her horse seized by a man who would guide her away from danger, back towards town — she refuses. She steers her horse away from towns, away from men, into the river. Horse and rider alike struggle against the current; and while praise is reserved for the horse’s efforts (“That’s some horse!”), it is clear, as soon as they surface on the far bank, that things have changed. Have begun to, anyway.
* * * * *
The snake (or snakes — for here it does not really matter) emerges from a dead body. Not the first dead body in the film, nor the last, but certainly the most frightening, and the most dangerous. Up until now, bodies have been harmless, and animals helpless. But the snake is different.
The snake is cruel, demonic, resentful: it rattles and hisses, terrifying you, trying to drive you away; you let yourself become terrified, you run, but it bites you anyway; you do not die but are marked forever by the experience. You lose something, becoming less-than, or other-than, wholly human. You lose something, without anyone gaining from your loss, which simply disappears, like the second gold piece, never to be found.
Of course, there is a point at which you could die. You could lose not only something but everything — which would mean victory for the snake. Once again, there is a struggle, and everything is in question.*
The horse will be the key to this struggle, as he was to the last one. Here the flow he fights is not the river but the blood, which is to say, time itself. He fights, he runs, he would reverse time, annul space, if he could — all this, despite having nothing to gain. He is not fighting for his own life, trying to reach safety before drowning; he rides towards nothing he can see, and even the audience is not quite sure where he is going. Little Blacky will die without knowing. For only the selfless sacrifice of the horse can undo the cruelty of the snake.
* * * * *
There’s a kind of spirituality running throughout the Coen brothers’ work that I’ve noted before. It’s most obvious, I think, in those films (Fargo, Burn After Reading, The Ladykillers, to name a few) that are structured around what I like to call a “secret miracle”, after the Borges story of the same name.
In that story, a writer who is about to be executed in a Nazi prison camp pleads with God for time to finish his final work. His prayer is granted, finally, as he stands before the firing squad: time comes to a halt and the writer ‘lives’ an entire year, frozen in place, writing and revising the work inside his head. When he finishes, time resumes again and the bullets strike him dead. The “secret miracle” can be performed, it seems, only on condition of being immediately withdrawn, vanishing from the world without a trace.
So, too, in the films mentioned above, we arrive at the end only to find that there is no longer any vantage point from which a coherent story can be pieced back together: every reliable witness is dead, every relevant piece of evidence destroyed. There are knowing references to this process of self-effacement in The Ladykillers and (especially) Burn After Reading, which ends with a meeting between two high-ranking CIA agents who have been observing, from a distance, the unfolding farce. What did we learn? asks one; Nothing, admits the other.
It’s easy to read these blind fools as stand-ins for the audience, but it’s also inaccurate: for the audience, like the reader of “The Secret Miracle” — like God himself — knows exactly what just happened. We leave these films feeling strangely reassured, convinced that there is a transcendent viewpoint from which everything makes sense, every effect is traceable to a cause, no matter how minor; and while such perfect knowledge may remain permanently off-limits for foolish mortals, we can experience some approximation of it in the theater.
If the Coens’ more recent films (No Country for Old Men, True Grit — I haven’t seen A Serious Man yet) mark a move away from this motif, I wonder whether something else will come to take its place. Perhaps it is no longer enough to stage publicly the sacrifice of sense, to unmask the empty aspirations of human vanity; perhaps now, as in the oldest myths, a wholly innocent soul must be offered up as well.
*: Psychoanalysis, naturally enough, would have something to say about this second ride, and the ‘paternal’ third party that is here superimposed upon the union of horse and girl. But psychoanalysis is, I think, still too human for our concerns here. At any rate, it does not exhaust the power of this fascinating figure, this one-eyed, two-named cowboy — both “Rooster” and “Reuben”, animal & man, a drunk who growls and spits and kills like a savage beast, but must also answer for himself before a court of law… and who ends up on display, in something not unlike a zoo.