Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quick change

In retrospect, it is becoming clear that Clint Eastwood's great "late films" may, in fact, consist of only two: Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004). Those two masterpieces constitute a strong grasp of classical filmmaking (evinced also in the earlier Unforgiven) during an era of postmodern intensification and remixing, and for whatever their problematic aspects in terms of moral perspective - issues of class and gender, I think, are conservative in both films, no matter how much strength Hilary Swank endows her character with in Baby - at least there's no doubt as to where Eastwood stands. Changeling, however, and despite its stately compositions that are by now a calling card for Eastwood's approach to no-frills storytelling, is a narratively unsure and ideologically inconsistent work.

At its heart is a simple story (based on actual events, as its opening credits are eager to inform us): a young boy, in Los Angeles in the 1920s, is kidnapped and the LAPD, in order to assuage its public image, orchestrates a press conference in which the boy's mother is reuinted with her son - except it is not the right boy. In fact, the LAPD knows this, and is doing everything it can to make sure the mother is seen by the public as mentally unstable rather than a woman who simply demands justice (or "responsibility," as the film repeatedly frames it). The mother, Christine Collins, is played by Angelina Jolie, and as a friend pointed out, she embodies the mannerisms of the age with a sure hand (Jolie belongs in a film of the era; although Eastwood shoots the film in a beautiful desaturated color obviously intended to invoke a sepia-toned photograph of the period, I was left wishing he had filmed the entire thing in black-and-white). For the first hour, in fact, Changeling is mostly engrossing largely because of Jolie's performance.

The film's defects become salient by the second and third acts, however. It is apparent enough that Eastwood's critique of institutions is aimed less at the police, or mental hospitals, in total, and more at just the few bad apples responsible for their downfall. We are never meant to question the police in this film; we are only meant to question individuals the film has simply dropped into the role of antagonist (Jeffrey Donovan plays the police Captain just this side of Snidley Whiplash territory, and he and Eastwood are never able to infuse his character with anything approaching humanity). Because of this, Eastwood's ideological critique is never terribly sharp, and because his denouement ousts the perpetrators, we're left feeling that everything has basically been a-OK with these institutions since the 1930s. (This is why the film, although a product of its time, does not really work as a critique of Bush doctrine, or any other contemporary phenomenon, and it is difficult to imagine the conservative Eastwood consciously aiming for such significance). Puzzling, too, is Eastwood's perspective of Los Angeles: he would seem to be critiquing the star system of Hollywood when, late in the film, a man suspected of murder primps and preens for the camera, yet the film itself works (insofar as it works) only because of Jolie's star image.

No great film - no film - is completely consistent in terms of ideology, of course. But these caveats would be easier to stomach if Eastwood's narrative hand has been sure; after all, even detritus like Blood Work (2002) functions with a certain economy in its storytelling. But in Changeling he is uncharacteristically sloppy, pulling punches with flashbacks in the second half of the film (which seem to have been included not to provide to the audience with crucial narrative information - the images gratuitiously repeat what the voice-overs paired with them tell us - but to show brutal scenes of violence in ways that aren't too brutal) and tossing in John Malkovich's underwritten character (a local Reverend who espouses against the LAPD's offenses) whenever he needs to move Christine's resistance against the police department forward in the narrative. I credit Eastwood's ambition, but in attempting to critique so many institutions (Hollywood, mental health, the police, the media) in a narrative so unsure of itself, the film emerges with no stable perspective through which to analyze any of them.

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