Sunday, February 13, 2011

Life and Death

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2009)

It’s commonplace now to call Clint Eastwood one of the great American directors. I don’t strongly disagree, although I’d be hard-pressed to nail down what that greatness actually consists of, aesthetically or thematically speaking. For me, and I suspect for many others, Eastwood’s presence and unique relationship to Hollywood reverberate enough to get you to two stars before the lights even go down. Having long smoothed off his persona’s rough edges, he seems supernaturally relaxed, and everything he does generates new reports about his speed and assurance. He had two new films last year, Changeling and Gran Torino, and this just two years after his World War Two double-header, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima (which he made in Japanese, for crying out loud). These aren’t minor little movies, like one-set Gus Van Sant experiments – they’re logistically demanding, the kind of projects that occupy other major filmmakers for a year or two at a time. Oh, and he often writes the music for them too (he even sings on the Gran Torino soundtrack). And his wife’s reportedly pregnant.

Eastwood the Director

He won directing Oscars for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby; virtually every film he makes seems at least to contend for nominations. They’re usually riveting. And yet it’s usually easy to cite their limitations. Million Dollar Baby is a good yarn with a twist, but what else? Flags Of Our Fathers is remarkably intricate and fluent, but its central preoccupations are conventional and stately. Changeling is unwieldy and unfocused. And notwithstanding what I said about rough edges, there’s often a crude edge to his sensibility. Changeling, again, seems to gloat over the fate of the child murderer. Many of the films have violence as a putative subject, but it’s hard to distinguish studied analysis from smooth exploitation (not that Eastwood’s films are alone in this).

On the other hand, his aversion to over-embellishment, to over-lighting, over-acting, over-anything really counts for something. Despite presumably unlimited access to anything and anywhere he wants, Eastwood somehow manages to retain his maverick credentials. Over and over, his protagonists have to assert their rights and individuality against a corrupt or merely foolish governing machine. The movies aren’t morally complex or strident (Million Dollar Baby’s treatment of euthanasia might be the acid test here); they valorize self-determination, but despise those who fail to grasp their responsibilities (even if on occasion those responsibilities consist of little more than not being an a-hole). Eastwood’s fluid but terse style perfectly fits this instinct. Getting it close enough and moving on resembles an article of faith; dawdling perfectionists belong with the despised paper pushers of the Dirty Harry films.

Gran Torino apparently wasn’t written specifically for Eastwood, but it’s hard to imagine it existing in any other form. He plays Walt, a retired Ford autoworker, who just lost his wife, doesn’t get on with his sons, and increasingly resembles a one-man bulwark against changing times, embodied in particular in the neighborhood’s increasing diversity. He doesn’t want anything to do with the Asian family next door, but intervenes in a gang fracas – simply because the fight spilled over onto his lawn – and from then gets drawn more and more into the family’s well-being. But the stakes keep ramping up, until Eastwood’s character – as they always have – takes it on himself to do the right, and dramatic, thing.

Gran Torino

The movie sharply divided critics: some saw it as an autumnal masterpiece, others as silly and decrepit. It certainly belongs with the late films of Hawks and Ford and others, which elicited exactly the same split response (it reminds me in particular of a film like Red Line 7000, which applied something of the classic Hawksian tone and sensibility to a consciously modern setting and almost entirely unknown cast). Walt is an outrageously overdrawn character, whose dialogue for much of the film consists solely of taciturn zingers at everyone and everything around him. It’s not exactly elevated material, but I must admit I laughed – with genuine unironic pleasure - more through this film than at any other this year. What surrounds Walt though is often flaccid and superficial. The screenwriter raved in interviews about how Eastwood didn’t change a word of his script, but given the dialogue’s often-clunky quality, this seems to speak to undue rushing and making do, more than to canny fidelity.

As in Million Dollar Baby, the scheme includes a young Catholic priest, existing here largely to be pummeled by Walt for lack of world experience. Walt killed at least thirteen people in Korea, and says the memory never lets up for a day; he prides himself on his superior knowledge of death, while conceding he’s often known or cared less about life. Day to day, this only fuels his hard-man isolation. But the film is about redemption; not through the formalized mechanics of family or the church, but through a fearsome pragmatism encompassing the strategic use of one’s own mortality. In a way it’s an inversion of the ending of Million Dollar Baby, and immensely resonant when set against Eastwood’s massive screen body count.

Future Of America

The main change he did make to the script was to shift the action to Detroit, thus benefiting from the current backdrop of auto bailouts and primal fears about the industry’s survival; the title refers to Walt’s pristine 1972 auto, another symbol of better days. There’s a reactionary quality to this, to the degree that the new melting pot America seems to carry the symbolic can for eroding security and simplicity. But when Walt disparages selling as a profession, and urges the young neighbor to try construction instead, he’s speaking about an ideology of self-sufficiency and pride, not about economic opportunism. The old man’s care for his tools, and his solicitousness in transmitting that across an enormous generational and cultural divide, provide some of the most touching and optimistic moments.

Ultimately, the way that all shakes out, Gran Torino will be one of my cherished films of 2008, one of the few I’ll certainly want to see again. If it does end up as Eastwood’s final screen performance, it’ll be one of the most blisteringly appropriate final notes in history, brazenly glorifying in his persona’s classic strengths and limitations, paying due homage to better days, then gracefully and memorably moving on. I don’t know, returning to my beginning, that it helps materially in resolving whether he’s a great director. But you know, who needs more dutiful greatness anyway? Classic, muscular, flash-free star-driven cinema is going the way of the Gran Torino, and I dare say for much the same reasons (that’s another article). When there are no more Clint Eastwood films, it will be one more cause to fear the worst.

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