The Real West From the Smithsonian

True Grit (2010 film)
True Grit (2010 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


This is a documentary about the factual side of the novel, True Grit, and its two movie versions. I found it illuminating and I think you’ll enjoy it as well.


In America, we often assume that in the past was a nation of bedrock religious belief, hardworking, nose to the grindstone solid citizens and just general goodness. It wasn’t like that. It was messy and cruel – and for much of American history, religious beliefs were simply not that big a deal. Lincoln, for instance, was elected in spite of the fact, he was not a church goer, did not believe in life after death and possessed many other beliefs disturbing to the religious minded. Robert Ingersoll stood a good chance of being elected to the Presidency in spite of the fact, he is also known as the “Great Agnostic.” Don’t believe me – look these things up – find that reality that is American history.


Here’s my promise: if you study American history in detail and with a determination to understand from the point of view of a regular citizen, you will find a complex story full of sex, scandal and intrigue; and you will also find an incredible saga of courage and determination to build a nation unlike any other. I promise you that will love this country more as you work to understand it.


James Pilant



From around the web.


From the web site,


I can’t recommend reading the novel highly enough – both films fail to
capture much of the story, although because it’s a short book with vivid
dialog, both do follow it faithfully far better than Hollywood usually
follows an original novel.  The novel is dense with fictional details
that just don’t come out in the movies.  Also, the novel is all about
the voice of Mattie Ross, and neither movie captures that.  Movie makers
consider voice over narration the kiss of death, but I wish they could
have put more of book Mattie’s thinking into movie Mattie’s
performance.   And strangely Portis sense of the dramatic appears
superior to each set of movie makers because when each film diverts from
his plotting and scene setup they suffer.  Portis had a keen sense of
plotting and drama that both films wisely copy fairly thoroughly. 



Adam Sandler’s New Film, Just Go With It, Has Ethical Problems (Why is unethical behavior funny?)

Why do we put up with unethical behavior in films and television?

Why do we laugh at the unethical and cruel in comedies? Are we released from moral responsibility because it’s all in fun? Comedies are a release from the tedium of our daily existence. One of the reasons they are funny and entertaining is that the rules that normally apply to us, temporarily have no effect. In real life, we don’t laugh at someone falling down. It’s a tragedy. but pratfalls have been a staple of comedies from the beginning.

It’s also an opportunity to humiliate the villain. And authority. From the Keystone cops to the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we delight in seeing power humiliated and brought down. Kids vs. adults. Workers vs. Management. Husbands vs. wives. Children vs schools and parents.  It’s a way of getting rid of conflict, dealing with it. Who cannot be punished in real life can be defeated in the world of fiction.

Corporations and the world of finance are major, constant villains in films and television. While in reality, the major figures in these powerful institutions are largely immune to prosecution, make enormous sums of money and are morally oblivious to their actions, in film after film they get their comeuppance. If there is little justice in reality, there is a great deal in fiction. It is a reflection of the powerlessness of the general public that justice has become a fictional concept like angels and wizards.

But what is to be done about our acceptance of cruelty and unethical behavior in film? Some of us can develop analysis skills that the brain can not turn off during the viewing of visual entertainment. Television and movies tend to go past the thinking parts of the brain and straight into the unconscious. We can learn to interfere with this process and think about what we are seeing with a critical eye but only a few will manage this. What is to be done?

Societies have to attack a lack of ethics in entertainment across long periods of time by a consensus view that change is necessary. Remember that fifty years ago most humor was ethnic full of degrading jokes about stupid Blacks, penny pinching Scots, drunk Irishmen, cat eating Chinese, etc. It took time and persistence but that kind of humor to pass away. In that sense, we have made ethical progress. Cigarette smoking and jokes about rape have largely disappeared from the media. That is also progress.

I would not go back to the film censorship of the twenties and thirties. I appreciate realism in films. But unethical behavior is portrayed so often as normal that I worry about the effect on thinking. Harming people or their possessions is not funny. Most people are able to make the distinction between reality and fiction, but not all. I believe we should take a more active role in deciding what is acceptable behavior in our media.

This review is by Dana Stevens and can be viewed in its entirety on Slate.

… The true source of this movie’s evil lies in what I can only, at the risk of sounding priggish, call its value system. Simply put, all of these people are horrible to each other, and only about 10 percent of that horribleness is ever acknowledged. Every relationship in the film is crassly transactional: When Danny takes Katherine shopping to outfit her for a single appearance as his wife, she exploits the opportunity to the hilt, loading him down with bags containing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of purchases. Later, one of her children blackmails Danny into buying them all tickets to Hawaii; he complies resentfully. None of this angling for expensive presents is presented as greedy or materialistic in the least; it’s just the way people with less money get what they want from people with more. Danny, for his part, takes advantage of his position as sugar daddy to insult and abuse his whole entourage of traveling companions. He’s so consistently awful that, when he briefly manages to treat the children with mildly avuncular jollity, his harem (which is how I came to think of the Aniston/Decker dyad) coos over him as if he’s just cured polio.

Which brings us to the movie’s treatment of women: Hoo boy. Where to begin? Major plot points hinge on the understanding that Jennifer Aniston is a frumpy old hag who can only earn the longed-for prize of being leered at by creeps when she doffs her clothes to reveal an unexpectedly slammin’ bikini body. (The fact that said leering happens in the company of the Aniston character’s son adds an extra-unsavory twist.) In not one but two scenes, one scantily clad woman is explicitly and lengthily compared to another by an audience consisting mainly of men. The second of those scenes—in which Aniston competes in a hula contest with Kidman—also makes a point of casually insulting old or fat women, who are peremptorily booted off the stage for insufficient hotness. As for the movie’s treatment of race, suffice it to say that in those rare moments when Hawaiian and other nonwhite characters appear, they’re generally depicted as obese buffoons.

The trailer from the film:

Why Business Is Hollywood’s Go-To Villain, Especially Now (via BNET)

BNET has an interesting essay complete with clips about the corporation as the villian of choice. It’s a fun read and the film clips alone are enough reason to view the article.

James Pilant

Corporations and their leaders are seldom cast as movie heroes.

But in the movies of 2010, whether you were at the multiplex or the art house, the go-to bad guy was the American corporation.

Even the adorable Despicable Me has super villains who need to finance their nefarious schemes and pay a visit to the Bank of Evil, or, as the posted sign indicates, the former Lehman Brothers. From Tron: Legacy to Inception, the choice of evildoer was so consistent it was a relief …. Read More.

“The Apartment” And Business Ethics

In 1959, the Apartment, was filmed. It starred Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine. It was nominated for ten academy awards and won five.

They filmed some scenes in New York and intended to make much of the film there but Jack Lemon became very ill after at all night shoot in Central Park. So, they filmed most of it on the lot in Hollywood.

It’s beautifully filmed (I like black and white) and there is a great deal of subtlety in the details of the background that add to the message of the film

Why do I use it in class? First, it’s a view of an America that has ceased to be. An America whose history has tremendous resonance for our own.

Lessons from the film. (Not in order of importance.)

1. There is no normal in America. Every year we think this is normal, that everyone should do this. It’s how it is and you can’t change it. Well, it’s changing anyway. The only normal is constant motion in the direction of a new normal. It’s an important lesson because some of my students feel like they can have no effect in this world and thus should retreat to a private world of friends kept at a distance and media individualized to kill time and give a brief, fraudulent feeling of fulfillment.

2. I want my students to see the changes in how women are treated and how they adapted. Women were relegated to certain jobs and they realized their only avenue to improving their lot in life was to marry well. Many of the women in the film are just temporary forms of entertainment for all intents and purposes.

3. One of the strangest qualities of the film, and the director himself pointed this out, the Jack Lemon character, for the most part, is the architect of his problems and yet we feel sympathy for him and identify with him. And again, the Shirley MacLaine character largely chooses her own fate and we feel sorry for her.

There’s a big lesson here – we often feel sympathy, often a sense of identification and sometimes, even envy, with the unethical. I tell my students about the time one of my students came to me with this story of woe that virtually demanded sympathy. And I felt that way, until I noticed a sentence in this long story of suffering. So, I stopped him and said, “You did what?” There then followed a not very effective explanation. You see, he was a criminal. He broke the law. He was in the mess because of his own decision making. He did not deserve my sympathy. Yet, I was confident that every student he regaled with his tale of suffering felt bad for him.

If we are going to practice ethics, we are going to have to be tougher than that. People who do bad things, who treat other people cruelly, who act without honor or scruples, deserve moral condemnation. That will not change because you’re related to them, because they are friends, really attractive or you like their story. Practicing ethics is tough and it means being tough on other people who do wrong.

If you know what should be done and let it have no effect on your actions, you are acting unethically. You have failed to act ethically.

4. The role of minorities in the film is important. I believe that if film goers in 1960 believed that the film was inaccurate in its portrayal of women and minorities, it would not have been a success. Blacks in the film appear twice in the film, once a shoeshine boy and then, a group waiting to clean the offices at the end of the business day. My eagle eye students found a black man working among the mistreated proles in the huge office background and, once again, at the Christmas party (same guy). It just goes to proves that when lecturing it’s safer not to let them talk!

If my students ability to find a minority in the background when I couldn’t was bad enough, they really got me on the Eastern Europeans. I missed the fact that his neighbors and landlady were of the same ethnicity His landlady and his neighbors are all immigrants and recent ones. (The film is only fifteen years after the close of the Second World War.) They were warm and kind to the Jack Lemon character although judgmental about his ethical failings. (I did not realize the importance of this until it was pointed to out to me. Now, in my defense, I did realize the importance of his neighbor, the doctor, but I didn’t get the big picture.)

I was never able to figure out whether the restaurant hideaway was Chinese or Japanese. It seemed like one of those ethnic groups running a restaurant with some kind of Tahitian background. But basically we can conclude from the film that orientals are okay as long as they are serving food.

Generally, how did the film portray the different groups. The white corporate types were greedy, licentious, petty, and lacked any self perception whatever. Blacks are in the background, soulless workers who pretty things up. Chinese (possibly Japanese) are allowed certain profession but corporate life isn’t one of them. The Eastern Europeans are authentic human beings. They are tolerant and kind but willing not just to make moral pronouncements but willing to call attention to them. They openly criticize the Jack Lemon character for his (not real) sexual adventures. They have a moral center. Aside from our two main characters, they are the only real human beings in the film. And to be blunt, our two major characters only arrive at human hood in the last few minutes of the film.

If there is no other reason to show the film, the movement of the main characters from caricature to humanity makes it all worthwhile.

The doctor is the moral center of the film. He issues the call to personhood to the sinner in the next apartment.

As in instructor, it’s a good choice because there is no difficulty in getting students to watch and remember the film. They enjoy it and it leaves its mark on them. That makes it more useful than many more “on point” films.

If you are going to teach, misdirection, implification and appeals to unconscious motivations are legitimate tools.

James Pilant