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In what might be classified as an “entertainment irony,” it has taken a straightforward film set in the past to pry the public’s attention away from a complicated film set in the future. With all of the overblown adoration and critical acclaim being heaped on Inception—Christopher Nolan’s most recent movie—for the last six months or so, it is very refreshing to see the movie-viewing world actually giving credit where it is due: to Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit. Although not quite a perfect film, True Grit is the kind of movie that reminds us why we are so fascinated by movies in the first place. While Nolan seemingly takes great pride in his “intellectual” approach to storytelling, the Coen’s confidently take Nolan behind the woodshed for the spanking he so obviously needs, reminding us once again that intellectual storytelling does not just mean using big words and multiple layers of dream sequences.
I don’t say this to belittle Nolan’s work. In fact, I was rather surprised at just how much I was unimpressed byInception. I had expected much more from such an able director. By the same token, I also had high expectations for True Grit. The two films actually have much more in common than initially meets the eye and should be studied side-by-side by budding film-makers and interested film-watchers alike. Both make use of a relatively small number of characters, are light on character development, and are heavy on dialogue. Both are visually stunning and well-acted (for the most part) and are technically well-executed. The differences between the two has little to do with the mechanics of film-making, but has everything to do with storytelling. While both are relatively simple stories that become more complex as they unfold, Nolan force-feeds complexity into Inception, while the Coen’s allow complexity to build naturally in True Grit.
It has become vogue as of late to make reference to the “anti-intellectual” climate of modern America. This is most often heard by self-proclaimed elites of the left, but it can also be heard being voiced by the right. Roseanne Barr made the claim recently on Anderson Cooper’s show about how Sarah Palin is capitalizing on the “anti-intellectualism of Americans.” While I don’t necessarily disagree with her, I would be interested to know what Barr means when she says “anti-intellectualism.” It is not as though Roseanne Barr is well-known for her own intellectual achievements or her contributions to raising the intellectual climate in America. I could just easily claim that Roseanne Barr herself has made a mint by capitalizing on America’s anti-intellectualism. The problem with a term like “anti-intellectual” is that it suffers from the very thing it is criticizing: ambiguity. One person’s anti-intellectualism is another’s intellectualism. It is not as though we are all suddenly suffering from a fear of intellectual material, the real issue is that we all believe we are the intellectual ones and everyone who disagrees with us is an anti-intellectual. We have together become a nation of anti-intellectuals; all the while thinking that everyone else is the problem, not us.
Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than by the overwhelming amount of praise and accolades being given to Inception. It’s not so much that it is a bad movie; it’s far worse than that—it is a pretentious movie. It is a movie form of Roseanne Barr herself: an anti-intellectual masquerading as an intellectual. It is a hollow shell of a movie puffing itself up to make it appear as if it has something profound to say. It is a movie that demands your valuable time and attention and then proudly rolls the credits when it sees the look of confusion on your face. It is a commentary on the current state of thought in this country: when you can’t clearly state your position on a given issue, the next best thing to do is to obfuscate and complicate. In other words, if you can’t convince them with logic, dazzle them with BS. The main reason that Inception is scoring such high points with critics and viewers alike is because no one is willing to stand up and say “that was the biggest scam of a movie I have ever seen.” No one is willing to say that it was two and a half hours of sheer nonsense, because everyone is afraid to be labeled anti-intellectual, especially in the entertainment world. Happily, I don’t have to worry about such things.
Quite to the contrary of this smokescreen of intellectualism, True Grit seems to revel in its simplicity. Much time and energy has been spent wondering whether the 1969 John Wayne version of the film is better than the Coen’s version, but all comparisons of this sort severely miss the point. Just as 1969 was an era of American history filled with much pseudo-intellectualism exported from the ivory towers of American universities, so is 2010. A movie likeTrue Grit comes about, like Esther, as just such a time when it is needed to provide counter-balance to a country gone mad on its own intellectual tonic. The Coens remind us that life is far less complicated than we have made it, and even a drunk gun-for-hire knows this simple fact. When it comes down to it, justice is what we all want—even if we have to ride across the Choctaw nation to find it. Wrongs must be made right; hidden crimes must be punished publicly. There will always be conflict between opposing sides—sometimes even among the sides—but any 14-year-old girl can tell you that a man that sheds innocent blood is in need of having his own blood shed.
This is what makes True Grit such a remarkable counterbalance to the anti-intellectual fluff of Inception. While one movie stakes its claim on its near incomprehensibility, the other aims for the dead center of reality—in the everyday happenings of a world filled with sinful men doing sinful deeds. Christopher Nolan’s cerebral mumbo-jumbo is straight out of modern psychology, but the Coens take their cue from a much older source: biblical anthropology. True Grit shows us a world where the heart is indeed deceitful above all things; yet it also reminds us that honor, respect, and courage are not simply words, they are duties. Inception, on the other hand, shows us a sanitized world of pure intellectualism; one where man is his own only hope, and where Nolan’s protagonist chooses to hide out in a dream world in order to avoid the pain and struggle of the real world. True Grit shows us a world where men face their fears, whileInception shows us a world where men hide from them.
And to this end the two movies become commentaries on the real struggle facing the men of this present world: Are we covenant-keepers or covenant-breakers? Are we men of “true grit” or are we men of false intellectualism? Are we willing to ride across the desert to meet the enemy face-to-face, or will we simply sit behind our computers picking fights in “virtual” reality? Are we using our intelligence to illuminate and simplify, or are we using it to darken and complicate? These are important questions to ask and answer in this current climate of “anti-intellectualism.” None of us are truly “against” intellectualism per se, just against one particular strand of it. Like Roseanne, we are quick to resort to the “anti-intellectual” argument when it appears that the other side isn’t buying into our rhetoric. The political right appears as foolish to Roseanne as she appears to them, and no amount of political intellectualism is going to change that. But with the tense political climate that we currently have in America, and with the tense religious climate in Africa and the Middle East, we would be foolish to believe that it will all melt away one day. It has been simmering since 1969.
In his book The Dust of Death, Os Guinness writes:
Who will forget the pathos of the closing scenes of Woodstock, the debris-strewn garbage apocalypse and the haunting improvisations of Jimi Hendrix? “People think I’m free,” he once said. “Actually I just have to keep on running.” Joni Mitchell notwithstanding, the bombers were still bombers, butterflies were rarely to be seen, and the children of God were no nearer to the garden. “I had a dream,” sang John Sebastian, but that was as far as it went. Such visions never troubled reality. 
Such visions never trouble reality because such visions never have anything more to offer than dreams. Like Inception—where the real world is a nuisance and a nagging reminder that our dream world doesn’t actually exist—modern political dialogue is little more than variations of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. But even King realized that his dream would never become a reality until he did something more than think about it. Modern dreamers aren’t nearly so grounded in the real world. We don’t need dreamers, we need doers. Like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, we need to be roused from our beds of inactivity by the youthful exuberance of a 14-year-old whose simple light has yet to be extinguished by the adult world of “complication.”
Is the world a complex place? You bet it is. But complex problems seldom require complex answers. We must never forget that intellectual pride stems from moral superiority. Rather than telling your opponent how much you care, why not show him instead? It’s amazing what a cup of cold water and a hot meal can do. We’ve done enough talking; it’s time for action. Do we have the true grit necessary for such a task? Our dreams for the future demand action in the present. Our world and our country are desperate for it and Christ commands it. What more motivation do we need?