Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A shot at redemption

The release of Gran Torino comes about two months after the disappointing Oscar bait Changeling, and if Clint Eastwood's latest entry feels more modest and carefully crafted, it is not for lack of scope. Gran Torino, a story about a bigoted pensioner living, after his wife's recent death, in resentment of the growing Hmong population in his Detroit neighborhood, seeks nothing less than a reevaluation - a spiritual cleansing, perhaps - of one of Eastwood's central, and most troubling, personas. (Let me make clear: it is not Eastwood's only persona, but merely one of his most central; I'd argue it at least inflects his entire ouevre). It is the same figure familiar from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Dirty Harry as well as from Eastwood's own films as director, including even certain aspects of the relatively mild-mannered boxing manager in Million Dollar Baby, who initially bristles at the idea of a female fighter. This figure is a conservative who, when pushed, is willing to put his own sense of self-security in jeopardy when he scents that the very conservatism he holds dear - which allows for his self-security - is put at risk. Usually this "risk," especially in the films by Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, results in violence, the climactic shootout in which the Eastwood figure aggressively justifies his principles. His is an authority operating through the sense that the right principles have already been figured out, and that there is nothing more to discuss in defense of those values.

In other words, it's the same thing that once drove Pauline Kael to label Dirty Harry a fascist film: the idea that authority needs only itself to justify its violence. Eastwood's latest character is not exactly a fascist, but rather the worst kind of libertarian, one whose defense of self reliance is founded on the denigration and avoidance of others (and, especially, Others). Self-justification (or perhaps just an inward retreat into the self) is present in almost every scene in the first act of Gran Torino, as Eastwood's protagonist, the Vietnam vet Walt Kowalski, spews racial epithets and, even more often, wears an unwelcoming sneer (Eastwood is not so much acting with these sneers as he is channeling a composite ghost of past characters). Kowalski's racism is not particularly aggressive or violent, but it does shut down any attempt at social dialogue when the potential emerges. (Tellingly, an older Hmong character, a grandmother who sits on the porch of the house neighboring Walt's, is every bit as prejudicial, suggests that Americans have no sole purchase on xenophobic self-reliance). But although Walt is not exactly Dirty Harry, Eastwood does provide a few hints that aggressive and racist violence are buried within the character's past. Far from providing us a comforting nod that the violence he was complicit with in Vietnam was merely the product of following others' orders, Eastwood implies that such violence was simply the outgrowth of Walt's racism (although he leaves the question of exactly what acts Walt was responsible for during war, beyond abstract references to murder, ambiguous). In a sense, this evokes the theme of personal responsibility, familiar from Changeling, situating Walt's bigotry as the product of an individual's psychology, rather than an attitude that was institutionally produced.

But even if Gran Torino stops short of locating Walt's racism within American society as a whole, it does, to its credit, see the absolution for that racism in society. After a local Hmong neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), attempts to steal Walt's car, the titular Torino, in an attempt to impress a gangland cousin, Walt slowly comes out of his shell and begins to socialize with his neighbors (in part through his very gradual recognition that Thao is a good person caught up with the wrong crowd). The film, up to this point, has been intermittently schematic and superficial: for example, Walt's grizzled authenticity is developed less through a depth of subjective narration (do we ever really get to know who Walt is, beyond the persona through which Eastwood channels him?) than through simple contrasts, such as that between Walt's hard-working, Ford-factory blue collar philosophy and his granddaughter's navel-gazing (literally), gum-popping materialism (this is, on one level, just the whining of an old fart: if Eastwood had made this film fifty years ago, certainly hula hoops and rock and roll would have come under attack). And in contrasting the "good" Hmong who draw Eastwood's Walt out of his bigoted shell with the "bad" Hmong that populate the Detroit neighborhood's gangbanging streets, Gran Torino dangerously slips from economical and tightly structured to simplistic and politically naive. Such moves harm the film's dramaturgy as well: Thao, and his sister (Ahney Her) function less as fully developed characters, and more as foils: she, as the hard-willed, Asian variation of Eastwood's own individualistic self-sufficiency (she is not really that different; that she is so like Walt is what makes their relationship possible); and Thao as a younger version of Walt, perhaps, willing to learn and intelligent, but naive and without the proper authority figure to guide him into adulthood.

Gran Torino never quite overcomes these structural problems, but benefits (what recent film wouldn't?) through comparison with Changeling, primarily since the latter's missteps become even more apparent in contrast to the former's narrative economy. More importantly, the relationships are more genuine, despite the fact that Thao, as a character, never quite transcends the hole into which Eastwood and his screenwriter have pegged him. For all of his missteps in representing non-white communities and individuals, the relationship between Walt and Thao is affecting. After Thao's sister is beaten and raped by several of the same young men who earlier pressured Thao into stealing Walt's Tornio, Walt's palpable sense of complicity with the crime clearly suggests Eastwood's theme of racism and hate as a vicious circle begetting violence. To that extent, the film's ending is tragic: Walt, forgoing Dirty Harry's tendency to mow down the innocent before they can be proven guilty, can still only answer violence with violence, albeit of a sacrificial kind - the kind of violence which (in a perhaps unavoidably hypocritical way) demonstrates that more violence is not the answer. That both Walt and Eastwood see the future of America lying with Thao, rather than Walt's bratty, overprivileged grandchildren, is a relatively liberal gesture on Eastwood's part, albeit a highly limited one due to the fact that we're left wondering if either Walt or Eastwood really know who Thao is. One awaits, then, for Thao to ride into his next movie, in which he might function as a character existing apart from his director's own stab at spiritual and social redemption.

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