Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gran Torino (2008)

How does one approach a film whose ambitions so ostensibly outmatch its transparent habitat? Clint Eastwood should be credited for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that he, unlike Paul Haggis and many other overtly earnest filmmakers—some of whom seem hellbent on carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders—employs ample humor to coax and comfort his audience. The first half of Gran Torino recognizes the inherent comicality of the situation—an old Korean War veteran named Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) growls with dissatisfaction as he witnesses his old, depressingly deracinated Detroit neighborhood become transformed by immigration. Eastwood is tackling considerable issues, and his newest picture is his most thematically consistent film since his 1992 western masterpiece, Unforgiven. The trappings of the characters and the story through which they change suggest smallness, and the film is almost tinny in its exterior visualizations—yet seemingly purposefully so. Eastwood has given his viewer a portrait of the forgotten America in 2008, and it is a grimy, gritty and scabrous place. De-industrialization has hammered the mid-west and “rust-belt” to the point of exhaustion. Eastwood's Kowalski worked at a Ford plant for decades; now one of his two man-child sons sells Japanese cars. Kowalski is witnessing the death of his America—and the old ways in which his traditional outlook has been marinated. It is an ugly sight.

Death comes literally as well. Kowalski's life is immediately put through a self-microcosmic prism after his beloved, devoutly Catholic wife perishes. Eastwood's handling of unsympathetic characters—and perhaps particularly family members—in films like Million Dollar Baby and Changeling has been met with great derision by a vocal constituency. Gran Torino does not change the pattern; the family members are all “spoiled,” as Kowalski tells himself once in a mirror—and they are stereotypically so. A teenage granddaughter is especially out of a Disney comedy wherein such a character would usually learn an invaluable lesson. Here, however, she remains spoiled from beginning to end. She covets Kowalski's most prized possession, the very inanimate symbol of past American glory in the realm of manufacturing and creation in general—his 1972 Gran Torino, beautifully preserved by Kowalski in fine mint condition.

Kowalski is nothing less than the latest summation of Eastwood as an artist, both before and behind the camera. A knowledgeable Eastwood fan or merely observer cannot not interpret the character as Dirty Harry, v. 5.0 (or however many variations on the iconic character Eastwood has tackled since leaving the Dirty Harry series behind twenty years ago). Unforgiven was a manifestly revisionist picture, but so too was The Outlaw Josey Wales. Revisionist westerns, or simply more realistic and gray-area-oriented westerns had become the norm, not the exception, in the 1970s—whether they were created by Eastwood or Robert Altman, Arthur Penn or William A. Fraker. They, like Sam Peckinpah (whose films were marked with a specific import on the passing of this era) applauded and denounced the era they were examining—and arguably more importantly the Hollywood films that had visited the time period in the past. Eastwood's Gran Torino, then, works not merely as a western transmuted to the contemporary—but as a contemporary piece of revisionism. Not only that, but Eastwood is fashioning a mournful eulogy for the very machismo for which (in part) he became so globally famous, subtly reveling in it once more while admitting that it is comparatively antediluvian.

There is a pivotal moment in Gran Torino. Kowalski is enjoying himself for the first time in a great while with the Hmong neighbors he initially found exotically alien in their customs and ways. A girl belonging to the Hmong clan tells Kowalski that he is simply so American. When prodded about what that means, however, she simply shrugs. It is in the murkily bleary abstract that Eastwood finds the central base around which to frame the characterization. What is an American? And why is it that in his home country he finds himself, as a white man, as a Polish-American—theoretically genealogically belonging to a bygone wave of immigrants—to see his ranks perceptibly diminish? For Kowalski, it is he who is quickly becoming the minority.

Kowalski, like Eastwood's William Munny in Unforgiven, is haunted by the past—and most crushingly by the violently deadly actions from the Korean War that have left a lastingly concomitant mark on his sad life. His boyishly fledgling priest (Christopher Carley) promised Kowalski's wife that he would hear his confession. Kowalski critiques Father Janovich's trite platitudes (“...death is bittersweet... bitter in its pain... sweet in its salvation...”), telling the twenty-seven-year old that he knows nothing about life and death. As Munny told the Schofield Kid, “It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man.” Eastwood is at his best when he follows the through-line that has most emphatically informed his art. Josey Wales was a man born out of violence, out of war, not entirely unlike Kowalski—and the stains on his soul were crimson. Perhaps Mystic River's most poetically poignant scene is Sean Penn's retired thug vowing to his dead, viciously obliterated daughter that he, not the police, will find her murderer—and kill him. Eastwood is in his element when he surveys the moral compromises that dot the trail to damnation like so many stepping stones. It is why the final shot of Million Dollar Baby feels like the most honest part of that film: Eastwood's character believed he was doomed to hell for his decisive action on behalf of the woman to whom he allowed himself to become close. Gran Torino has a wonderful little scene in which Kowalski simply shakes a Hmong youth's hand in a hardware store, reverberating the quietly beautiful shot of Eastwood and Hilary Swank shaking hands in Million Dollar Baby's scrappy gym. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk tip their hats to Eastwood's past iconic hero with an extended scene in which Kowalski confronts three black hoodlums molesting a female Hmong youth. Pulling out nothing more than his index finger in the shape of a gun barrel, he tells one, “You don't listen good, do you?” as in his confrontation with a couple of white goons in Dirty Harry's San Francisco tunnel. (“You don't listen good, do you, asshole?” he asked, holding his .44 Magnum.)

Like Dirty Harry, Eastwood's Kowalski makes a show out of being a bigot, referring to nearly every imaginable minority in insensitive, politically incorrect language. The eventual embrace of the unknown in the form of the Hmongs who have moved in next door represents a shedding of a protective shield of sorts. The audience laughs at Kowalski's blustery racism because it is clear from the outset that the man is simply alone and frustrated, not wicked or cruel. Gran Torino's message at the outset of the Obama presidency may not be welcome as completely palatable to all who partake in it, but it does serve to point to the decency of at least some of those who are comforted by their fronts of intolerance. In this way the first half's aforementioned reliance on broad comedy succeeds in disarming the audience, so that the “message” half of the message movie goes down far more smoothly.

The timing of the enterprise is most advantageous for Eastwood and his film. Detroit's “Big Three” are on life support, and fading fast. Policies that have fostered widespread shearing of American jobs have levied a heavy toll on the undergirding of the nation's economy. Five trillion dollars worth in trade deficits since George Bush #41 perfectly illustrate, as barometers, the depth of today's depredation. *And there is the matter of the first black president-to-be having been recently elected.) Not unlike older directors reacting to troubling times, Eastwood has created a defiantly “old man's movie,” like John Ford's Seven Women or Howard Hawks' El Dorado. Eastwood's character's love for his American-made car speaks to a love of the old, particularly when the new, as seen in the ghostlike atmosphere of the Detroit ghetto in which lives, with its urban sprawl and decimated streets, appears to be nothing but deplorable in its blighted hopelessness.

With the patterns created here, Eastwood has manufactured the final distillation of his own trademark character in richly Platonic terms—wringing significant meaning out of one of the great archetypal personalities of not just cinema but American culture. He grabs a potentially hoary cliché and enriches it. Representing the closest thing to John Wayne today, Eastwood does not so much redefine his—and his characters'—place in the newer America, and world, as he does acknowledge it. And he comes to terms with it. And he finally forgives it while putting it out to pasture one last time.

50 comments:

santa said...

ten things i hate abbout the dark knighht? i finishh things ---thats what i do

howard hawks said...

operation valkyrie is in effect

Tony D'Ambra said...

Alexander, Eastwood's film, which I haven't seen, may be good, but it doesn't sound particularly original or nuanced, and I can't say much more without having seen it. But I would say a couple of things. As one who grew up on the receiving end of racial epithets, I would not be laughing along at the 'broad humor' - in fact I would more likely walk out of the cinema. This aside, the motif here seems as antiquated as the protagonist. You open your review by letting Eastwood off the hook: "unlike Paul Haggis and many other overtly earnest filmmakers—some of whom seem hellbent on carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders—employs ample humor to coax and comfort his audience." What is wrong with being earnest and tackling big issues? We need more film-makers like Paul Haggis. In the Valley of Elah was a profoundly important film that was largely ignored. Eastwood is a smooth revisionist - so he has it easy - he wants you to believe that he is saying something profound and challenging, while making it as easy to swallow as a fruity cocktail. There is no real attempt to understand the greater economic issues that buffet people's lives or the failure of leadership and moral turpitude behind the forces that destroy urban locales, social cohesion, and individual lives.

Alexander Coleman said...

Tony, as always you bring many excellent and thought-provoking insights to equation.

Allow me to concede several points off the bat, so to speak. My first thought when I finished the review was, "I gave Eastwood a pass." I freely admit as much: I'm forgiving of the unoriginal arc of the story, the creakiness of the production, the drabness of Stern's cinematography (which I'll admit, I thought fit here).

To be honest, when comparing Eastwood to Haggis (who, it should be noted, had a major hand in writing Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby as well as his two langourous Iwo Jima movies) I was primarily comparing Gran Torino to Crash. Crash actually did have some sense of humor about itself, at times (the two black hoods chatting about white racism moments before their next crime) but it was always in such a self-important context that the "message" side of the message movie never ceased shouting at the viewer, to borrow phraseology from my own review. In the Valley of Elah is actually a far more interesting film to my mind (aided by superior acting, again obviously in my opinion) and your recent defense of it was extraordinarily well-argued. I still have issues with the picture, but I do not have a problem with directors tackling huge issues and trying their best to run all the way to the endzone with them. Like you, and unlike many others, I thought Tony Gilroy's effort with Michael Clayton was everything that so many critics say they desire and, in certain cases, turn on when they are actually confronted with it--a film striving to make crucial statements about sociopolitical and cultural matters through characters. (Again, your piece on that film was exquisite.)

I myself was quite surprised by how much of the theatre (in liberal Marin County, California, no less) was bursting in laughter at Kowalski's casual racist language. In Armond White's unfavorable review, he compares Eastwood's performance and film to the creation of a kind Archie Bunker and there is definitive truth to that.

I think that it is in part the very predictability of Gran Torino that (from the perspective of most audience members, in any event) partly sanctions their laughter. We all know Kowalski's an inherently good guy behind that rough-and-coarse-as-sandpaper exterior, in no small measure because Eastwood is again playing a variation on the same Harry Callahan figure--who beneath all of the bluster cares about people he becomes close to, whatever their skin color and ethnicity.

Which, in turns, makes me question the legitimacy of what many perceive to be the film's very premise. I have only read four reviews (one of which was Allan Fish's) but a commonality between them (less so of Allan's, of course) is that Kowalski's racism is burned away by the Hmong neighbors. This is skipping off the course of reviewing the film per se, but nevertheless: I think it would be interesting to have seen a far less likable actor in the role, one with whom the audience could not relate particularly well. As it is, I never was entirely convinced of Kowalski's racism--he tosses ethnic slurs to his Italian barber and Irish construction contact like so many balls at a baseball game, and they reciprocate--and so in my interpretation I see him as hermetic, in the aftermath of his wife's death. (What is it about me today? I have to quit it with the uncharacteristic sports analogies.)

As for your last point, I will say, yes, I surely agree. Eastwood's film isn't a "real attempt to understand the greater economic issues that buffet people's lives or the failure of leadership and moral turpitude behind the forces that destroy urban locales, social cohesion, and individual lives." Too often films, like art in general, can only (or the filmmakers and artists believe they can only) comment on the effects and consequences, and not the cause(s) and reasons. This can be very frustrating, but I honestly believe it is here where Eastwood's film is most successful, insomuch as it is far subtler than the clumsy, overwrought and unwieldy Changeling or the schematic and distancing Flags of Our Fathers. (Both of which are interesting endeavors but seem too expansive for the more minimalistic Eastwood to properly control.)

Here, Eastwood is simply telling a story again--not unlike The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy and Unforgiven. As is the case with many classically structured dramas, each central character has a perfectly understandable backstory that informs his actions. Mystic River had that, too, and it is for those qualities, among others, that I generally give that film a pass, too, even if in its grandiosity it seemed a bit eager to squeeze for the last ounce of possible dramatic theatricality. (Having said that, I actually like the third act tonal shift with regards to the Sean Penn-Laura Linney dynamic, which enlivens the picture and tries to make it about more than what it seemed to be.)

In a way, Gran Torino is a bit like Coming Home to Michael Clayton's Apocalypse Now. Leaving aside the contestable merits of all four films, two are about the effects of tragedy, loss and disheartenment, while the others are attempting to describe the roots of that immeasurable despair. That makes Gran Torino sound loftier than it is in some ways, but as a simple, unadorned story, it manages to say a good deal more than most films I've seen in 2008 about where America is, if not describing the hows and whys.

SPOILER WARNING

(It should be noted, too, that whereas Coming Home and Apocalypse Now in their respective ways seemed to finally accept and subsume the ache and sorrowfulness of their times and places, Michael Clayton and Gran Torino fight to beat the overwhelming odds. Their endings are vastly different, but they both opt for nothing more painful than bittersweet.)

Sergei Smirnov said...

Alexander, I just want to give you credit. There are some people on the Internet who might post alright reviews of movies but then dont comment in full. SOme of them prolly just parrot others for there reviews and can't think on there feet but you prove over and over you're the "real deal." Your comment back to Mr. D'Ambra is thorough and thoughtful. Terrific review here ofa movie I've not seen too. Your review makes me wanna read any reviews of westerns you've written. Any here?

Alexander Coleman said...

You caught me just as I was headed to bed, Sergei.

Thank you for the very kind comments.

Oh, goodie, I get to link up to a couple of reviews:

2008 western: Appaloosa

1958 western: Fort Massacre

Tony D'Ambra said...

Thanks Alexander for your response. I am really glad I provoked it, because it is way better than your review, and one of your best pieces ever.

I am an iconoclast of sorts, and that makes me, for better or ill, impatient for forthrightness and unbridled commitment. So I have little time for movies like this, that safely tread water and don't make a splash. Sometimes you need to shout to be heard.

We can agree to disagree...

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Tony, for the kind comments about the comment, haha.

(And thank you again for your recent gift to me. I'm enjoying it a great deal!)

I understand what you are saying, though, Tony. I suppose we can agree to disagree, though I do agree with your principled stance in the abstract, even if I enjoy good efforts that don't shout if they aren't interested in doing so.

Again, though, thank you for your thoughtful remarks and kind words.

Moses Hernandez said...

I love your final line about Eastwood forgiving the persona, as a great (and very subtle) tie-in to Unforgiven.

I liked the movie but I liked your writing about it more. I wish the movie was even half as layered as your piece. I agree that Clint's character is the most kind-spirited bigot you'll ever find in the movies. But some how it all worked for me. The whole movei is on the verge of becoming one huge cliche but Eastwood is just good enough a director and actor to pull it off. It sounds weird to say this but I think I agree that it is prolly his best since Unforgiven. To me that doesn't too say much but oh well. Great thoughts all around in the review and comments section.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Moses, for noticing the aptness of the final line and all of the very kind comments.

Gran Torino's greatest charm, for me, in some ways comes from its very intimate, low-key and seemingly unambitious characteristics. It does teeter on the cliched, and it is not visually stimulating or very original. However... Sometimes those films say more about human nature than others, and that usually depends on what the director is bringing to the table. I thought Eastwood finally went after one in his wheelhouse (there must be something about this film that provokes the sports analogies in me) and soundly connected. Whether it was a home run, or a double, or a single, probably depends on whether or not you respond to Eastwood's long-established interests. The film works as something of a chamber piece, a sinfonietta after Eastwood's repeated efforts to make much more ambitious films. With regards to Eastwood, I prefer this film. I suppose I could say I prefer claustrophobic Eastwood to his more voluminous undertakings.

Sam Juliano said...

I will deal with this and the Spielberg tomorrow, there will be no further wait. Circumstances here have been beyond my control, but this will be rectified tomorrow. I assure you i will have much to say. My deepest apologies to you for this delay, you deserve way better.

Alexander Coleman said...

Please, Sam, no need to apologize, my friend! This is a very busy time of the year for almost all people, and you, with all of your familial and professional responsibilities must see to them before anything else! Hope all is well. Thank you for the kind spirit of your remarks, however, they are much appreciated.

elmore smails said...

maybe tony d ambra should watch a movie first before he criticizes it

Tony D'Ambra said...

Hey Elmore. I did preface my post by saying Gran Torino "may be good", limited my comments to the substance of Alexander's review, and referred to Eastwood's ouvre generally - apart from expressing my feelings on racial slurs in the context of 'broad humor'. Suffice to say, I don't think your comment is fair or reasonable...

lanica said...

I think elmore's comment is fair, and why the hell would you want to talk in depth about a film you haven't seen Tony? Are you that bored with your life?

Sam Juliano said...

Yeah, Elmore is out-of-line. Mr. d'Ambra made no judgement on the film at all, he just discussed prospects and likelihoods.

I agree that Alexander's success with this post is two-fold. Both his review and his exhaustive follow-up comment to Tony are exceptional, as are Tony's own posts.

As to the review, I again commend you for integrating a thorough consideration of the film with American culture, the advent of a new administration, politically incorrect language and the decline of Detroit's Big Three, all of which enrich the entire GRAN TORINO experience and heighten what seems to be a simple story of a resurrected misanthropic bigot into a wider pantheon of pertinent sociological issues.
I especially like the thorough consideration of Eastwood's character, Walt Kowalski, who quickly finds to his didain that he's now a member of the extreme minority, an dis living out his life in "rust-belt degeneration" and is witnessing the "death of America" and he has always known it.
I think the Eastwood persona and legend were showcased most flamboyantly in this film, which in the end is solid, but hardly remarkable.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is easily Eastwood's greatest film, for a host of reasons, and it eclipses UNFORGIVEN, MYSTIC RIVER, the manipulative MILLION DOLLAR BABY and this film.
Another reviewing triumph from Coleman's Corner, a place where the easy way out is never an option.

Happy New Year's to you Alexander!

Sam Juliano said...

Lanica, isn't the purpose of these threads to discuss films, regardless of whether one has seen them? Is there a rule here that one should only discuss what one has seen? Wouldn't it seem highly likely that Tony has seen a number of Eastwood films (if not all) in his life that would allow him to make a good stab at the issues at hand?

I think that Alexander welcomes all comments about film, and discourse is not (stringently) limited to those who may be fortunate enough to have a local movie theatre near them.

Mr. d'Ambra, a film noir scholar, lives in Australia, and can't always see the films as quickly as we do. That does NOT mean that Alexander Coleman should be deprived of his always-enlightening commentary, which we all benefit from immensely.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Thanks Sam. I am obliged to you for your support here.

Elmore and Ianica, I am happy to discuss the substance of my posts here at any time, but if you feel you must make personal attacks, please don't use Alexander's blog - you know where you can find me.

Alexander Coleman said...

This is what happens when you leave the Internet (and therefore your blog) for an unusually extended period of time. (In this case, two days.)

Lanica, I'm all for open and even straightforwardly confrontational discussion at Coleman's Corner, but there is no reason at all to insult Tony, especially in such a personal way.

Thank you very much, Sam, for the comprehensive comment on my review of Gran Torino.

Ultimately, I found Eastwood's newest to be something representing a return to form, and his more immediate interests. It has its incendiary elements, and it's partly a gritty movie and partly a fluffy one, with some of the "old school" Eastwoodisms and quirkiness of some of his more offbeat work to make the film generally succeed. Some will call it unambitious, others will call it B.S., but I for one enjoyed the balancing act.

W.T.R. said...

alexander's astonishing analytical skills prove once again to demonstrably penetrate the innerworkings of another movie. no one melds sociopolitical and cultural discussion with cinema as powerfully as you alexander. i am continually amazed by you. you have placed gran torino in the context it must be placed in to be truly understood. tremendous. clint eastwood's movie here is his best since unforgiven in my opinion because he examines his own cinematic persona. truly deep work by you alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, W.T.R. Very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Great movie. People should not underestimate Clint Eastwood this Oscar season. He gives the valedictorian performance of his long and storied career.

Alexander Coleman said...

You may be right, Anonymous, you may be right.

Moses Hernandez said...

I hope to God the Academy gives Eastwood a pass. Doesn't he have like 10 Oscars and 30 nominations by now? Yawn.

Alexander Coleman said...

Something like that, Moses. Haha.

Matthew Lucas said...

Good points about the film's timeliness, and I think it will be judged in a very similar way by film historians later on down the road.

And it does indeed feel like a summation of his career. Which may be one of the reasons why I loved it so much.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Matthew. I knew you loved this one. My feelings are quite favorable, and, honestly, I want to see it again. If Eastwood is to be believed--and I sense that he should be--this is his last performance.

It's my favorite film by Eastwood in a long time. Does it just barely lose out to Flags of Our Fathers for you?

Matthew Lucas said...

Probably. "Flags" is probably one of the ten best of the decade for me. But of his output since 2000, "Gran Torino" is probably second or third (depending on if you couple "Letters" with "Flags" or not).

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, all right.

I love how Eastwoodian his newest, Gran Torino, is. I'm sure you agree with this--in fact, I'm positive I saw you write as much--but to me, no one else could have made this film work. (Either behind or before the camera.) This was old school Clint, but the maturity and thoughtfulness transcend the material.

Anonymous said...

Clint Eastwood is my hero. Can't wait to see this movie. It should be great. Thanks for the review.

mc said...

I think this is Clint Eastwood's best and most profound movie in a long time. Better and more profound than Million Dollar Baby. Terrific review, Alexander. You have looked at the social/economic and cultural context of this move.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, mc. And I agree. This is Eastwood back, doing what he does best, making an almost defiantly personal film once again. Thank you again.

Daniel Getahun said...

Beautifully written as always, Alexander, with a nod to prior influences that are beyond even my reach.

"For Kowalski, it is he who is quickly becoming the minority." This is where the movie starts and ends for me. It's Walt's defensiveness that defines his attitude and actions, and I see Walts all over the place here.

And I don't mean to be a stick in the mud, but I'm baffled that an entire review and discussion has progressed without more than one mention of screenwriter Nick Schenk, the man who recorded every single one of those epithets while he was writing the screenplay in this city, surrounded by the same Hmong residents who would end up being cast in the film. The way I see it, Gran Torino is a documentary about modern-day Minnesota. That puts me in an easily defensible place (unless you also live here and think otherwise), but so be it. I don't think I've seen a more accurate cast of characters portrayed on screen all year.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Daniel. And thank you for bringing up the screenwriter, Nick Schenk. What you say is quite interesting. I did read your "Taking It Home" piece on Gran Torino and found it very interesting, considering the unique perspective you have where you live.

How much of the "negativity" towards Hmong immigrants stems from that multiple hunters' murder from a few years back in Minnesota, do you think?

Daniel Getahun said...

Interestingly, I don't think that wasn't the tipping point that it may have seemed (minor clarification: the shooting occurred in Wisconsin. Also, there was a little-reported retaliatory killing of a Hmong hunter two years later).

Which is not to say these shooting didn't cause tensions to flare on both sides. But the more "subtle" jabs and comments, as evidenced in Gran Torino, have been going on for as long as the Hmong have been here (since after the U.S. abandoned them following Vietnam). Many have risen to great heights, including the state legislature, but for the most part they are marginalized, treated as unwelcome immigrants (not desperate refugees). I wouldn't say the prevalence of gangs is what it may SEEM to be in Gran Torino, but certainly that is a temptation for any recent immigrant group trying to claim their territory.

It's an interesting situation, especially since many aspects of Hmong culture (as evidenced by the film) are so extremely opposite from Western culture (i.e., eye contact).

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, that's right! I kept thinking that the murder took place in Wisconsin--I couldn't remember exactly--but then I wrote Minnesota.

Your clarifications and interesting relation of this matter are extremely important in considering this film, though, Daniel, and I thank you for sharing them in full here.

Why do you think Schenk set the film in the Detroit area? Perhaps to avoid some of the more obvious controversy in Minnesota-Wisconsin?

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, and that way Eastwood's character could be an autoworker, and I do believe Schenk and Eastwood intend for Detroit--and the industry with which the city is synonymous--to symbolize America, in a certain way.

chocolate lover said...

I really REALLY enjoyed this movie. Great cinema? No. But a whole heckuva lotta fun. Clint is the Man!

Daniel Getahun said...

Here I have to make that important clarification - Schenk fully set the film here when he was writing it. Just before production, Michigan offered a 42% tax rebate for production and Eastwood, ever the good businessman, moved the show. Apparently it is one of the show changes made to screenplay - when his son asks for Lions tickets (whaaa?) instead of Vikings tickets.

Incidentally, there was a large Ford plant here in St. Paul, so that piece of the story worked outside of Detroit anyway. And yes, I very much agree that that adds to the Americana factor.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, chocolate lover.

Daniel: You are absolutely "the expert" with this one! I had no idea until reading you that the film was originally to take place in Minnesota. Interestingly, I have recently read several online articles about how more and more films are being shot in Michigan because of the state's tax rebate incentives.

Thank you greatly for bringing this to my (and everyone else's) attention.

Insight said...

I am not a film critic, just an average person who saw the movie last night for the first time. Just as Walt does not feel he can remove the stain on his soul by saying a confession in Church and saying some Hail Mary's and Our Fathers, his last action is one of real redemption, as he says "Hail Mary full of Grace". But rarely do I look for film reviews after I have seen a movie, just to see what other people think. This movie is outstanding...

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Insight, for stopping by and commenting.

I agree that Walt's confession to the priest is done simply for the sake of his deceased wife. In many ways, it is not long after that, when he confesses his sins, in a way, to Thao, that sees his real confession. Again, though, thank you.

The Cinema Guy said...

Hello, Mr. Coleman.... Just got a chance to see this one. I can only say that I was truly stunned at how incredibly weak this film is. Director Eastwood has never been accused of subtlety (which is why he is drawn to writers who deal in polemics like Lehane & Haggis), but this film has all the nuance of a lightning strike. Directors who cast non-professionals successfully most often employ long rehearsal/workshop periods. Eastwood - he of the short shooting days and minimal number of takes, is probably the exact wrong kind of director to work with "regular" people. As a result, the performances from the non-actors here are excruciatingly bad across the board, and some of the scenes are so poorly handled that it's amazing to see them in a big budget film. Issues great and small abound, but in the interest of some kind of brevity... What Catholic wake takes place in a church with an open casket as part of the funeral instead of in a funeral parlor?... How many times did we need to see the gang member cousin and his friends awkwardly visit "my littler cousin" (we got it the first time)... Wouldn't it have been a lot more interesting if the "Toad" wasn't a complete innocent forced to steal Walt's car?... After Walt's first ten ethnic insults the "joke" wore thin and the continued use of various Asian slurs just added up to overkill and added nothing to the character. Having known a number of equally hard men of that generation who were staunch racists - none of them behave like that (they often have "work friends" of other races who are "all right"), and trhis is true regardless of how much Walt "didn't care anymore" (if that's the idea here). It's especially not true of a man who, for years, would have worked with people of other races at a Detroit Ford plant, etc... Also, Eastwood/Schenk's characterization of blue collar people and that supposedly pithy back and forth insult-filled conversations between Walt and the barber and Walt and the construction foreman are not at all representative of the way people talk - those scenes smell of actors speaking in an ironic, stylized way, self-conscious and aware of HOW they are speaking - truly horribly written scenes in every sense... The performances by the non-pros are made even worse when matched up with Eastwood, a veteran actor who knows what he's doing. On the one hand, Eastwood has these untrained people speaking cliched platitudes, and on the other, he, at times (ala the scene where the young Hmong girl is first accosted) lets them improvise with no direction or purpose. In both cases the actors flounder, consistently looking and sounding uncomfortable and uncertain - a reflection on the script, but mostly on the man in charge... The most interesting thing about the film is the idea of this being Clint's swan song, and the nod to his on screen persona. Unfortunately, the "humor" (wink, wink) falls completely flat, and winds up coming off as something akin to self-indulgence (yeah we get it - he's a grumpy racist). The repeating of the slurs, though, is primarily a way for Eastwood and Schenk to try to cover for the fact that the plot is mere melodrama, and the truth of the matter (as you eloquently state) is that we, as audience, have no real question about Walt - "aw shucks, he's really a good guy no matter what he says". What's insulting is that the Hmong neighbors keep on lovin him no matter what he calls them to their faces, something I personally find to be not credible at all... The shame of it is that through all the falseness on screen one can see the film it could have been - a gripping story about racism, changing economies/ neighborhoods, anger, guilt, and redemption. In the hands of directors committed to a minimalist aesthetic like Ramin Bahrani or perhaps Anna Boldin and Ryan Fleck, who are used to using non-professionals, and would've cut through all the BS and gotten to the real guts of this story.

Alexander Coleman said...

Cinema Guy, thank you for the vast and breathless response to the film and my review of such.

Although I do share some of your qualms with the film (and the term "qualms" may indeed be quite generous, especially for you), it was not the disaster it seems to have been for you.

There are many cliches and the film is laced with an archness that can be grating in places, but where Eastwood may not be receiving the kind of critical assessment and treatment a young, "hip" filmmaker might, would be in his slightly deceptive adoption of aforementioned cliches and hackneyed contrivances for the sake of making fair points and comments about same. It's a difficult balance, and Eastwood, as you state, is not known for his subtlety, but there are flashes of meta-commentary on his own character juxtaposed with the (another cliche) "changing time."

I actually liked the non-professional performers, who lent some legitimate verisimilitude to the picture. There are, however, uncomfortable Eastwood problems; as is the case with most of his post-Unforgiven work, the film is choppy and sloppy in its editing (though at least the lack of visual keenness matches the picture's gritty, deracinated environment and washed-out climate).

Thank you once again for that fantastic comment, Cinema Guy!

the cinema guy said...

Mr. Coleman. Thanks for the response, and sorry for the loss of your friend... Perhaps I am simply missing the meta aspect of the film. I do see that Eastwood is paying homage to himself (or at least the on screen persona he created), but his latter films strike me as far too earnest and old fashioned (sometimes in a good way) to be capable of that kind of ironic stance... To clarify, I love non-pros in films, especially when used by some of the Italian neo-realists, Bresson, The Dardenne brothers, Ken Loach, or any other number of directors who elicit the best out of them. I just think these particular people were left without adequate guidance, and their performances come across as largely awkward, forced, and self-conscious... As someone who appreciates minimalism I recognized the attempts in this direction, but, like his other recent films, found the story nonetheless reaching for more at every pass (the priest/Walt's Christ-like sacrifice), and an inability to reconcile these two divergent approaches made for a wildly uneven final product The difference between Gran Torino and films like Mystic River; The Changeling, et al though was that the structure and approach of those films fit a grand approach - morality plays conducted on a wide, sweeping stage. Here the same big ideas - personal guilt, eternal salvation, racism are jammed into a tiny story that can't possibly contain all that ambition... Since I seem to be in the minority on this one, I suppose I'll have to chock it up to simply not "getting" what the fuss was about...

Alexander Coleman said...

I think you make a perfectly valid point here, Cinema Guy: sometimes Eastwood's earnestness suffocates the subtexts of his own pictures, and while I personally consider Gran Torino to at least reasonably achieve the kind of parity of meta-commentary with its admittedly "hokey" premise, I can certainly see where for others it would simply not work.

It's interesting, too, when thinking about the film Eastwood had immediately directed before this film--Changeling (I reviewed that as well; I'm not sure if you've seen that one). There, I was (I think) able to parse out where Eastwood was tinkering with the "classic" formula of 1920s-1930s "women's pictures" from Hollywood, and commenting on it--which are tendencies we (today) associate with someone like Quentin Tarantino, who prides himself at utilizing cinema as an almost academic, meta-editorializing exercise on genre and cinematic conventions while simultaneously indulging in same. I'm afraid that Eastwood is unable to completely make this marriage succeed unless the screenplay with which he is working has already laid a sound foundation. (I'm thinking of Unforgiven here--which seamlessly wove the supposed "cliches" of the Western into the very fabric of the narrative and its numerous characters, something Eastwood's more recent pictures have indeed had trouble managing.)

Nonetheless, thank you for the clarifications, including your thoughts on non-professional actors (I share your sentiment almost exactly) and thank you for the condolences and words of goodwill. It's always a fine experience to debate and discuss cinema with you, Cinema Guy.

the cinema guy said...

Mr.Coleman - thank you for clarifying for me. I don't know how I could've failed to recall Unforgiven, a classic in which Eastwood did indeed do some genre re-invention and obviously had a real sense of the history of the movie Western, breathing life into what at the time seemed like something close to a dead genre. I'd even go as far as to say that he just might have opened the door for Deadwood; The Assassination of Jesse James, and other recent fare that followed... Despite the period setting, I hadn't thought of Changeling in that light, but will go back and read your take. I'm sure I will learn something, as I always do when reading your work... Excellent point about Eastwood really being dependent on the material he's working with... Tarantino is most certainly the poster boy for referential filmmaking, although his taste in cinema and fetishization of all thing "B," I think, marginalizes his more recent work to some extent... I have always found the Coens to be the most effective filmmakers of this type, artists who can sometimes take two or three genres, simultaneously paying homage, poking fun, commenting on, and utterly re-inventing them all by creating gloriously singular hybrids...

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the kind words, Cinema Guy, and I appreciate your thoughtful follow-through. Yes, in many ways Unforgiven is the film around which Eastwood admirers can most thoroughly erect intellectual buttresses around his subsequent work--his films since may never attain that kind of impeccable sharpness and maturity of vision, but you can at least see strides in that lofty direction.

Excellent point about how Unforgiven opened the door for the "revisionist Westerns" from the HBO series Deadwood to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (though perhaps the films' "revisionism" can be referred to as "realism"; Eastwood's contributions notwithstanding, certain efforts at "Western revisionism" may date back as far as Anthony Mann and films such as Fort Massacre. That said, there is no question that Unforgiven supplied a "modern" template for future Westerns, and even films which explore the ramifications of and complex sociological coping with violence, which Gran Torino ostensibly attempts to essay.

I concur with your points both for and against recent Tarantino, insofar as his passionate love for "B" material arguably confines him to a more limited sphere of influence, though that is certainly opening up a major can of worms, one which we may be delving into when his newest picture arrives in one month.

I look forward to future exchanges of thoughts with you on many other films, including the Coens' pictures, which I tend to analyze to death. :-)

the cinema guy said...

Hah - it's the Coens fault. I think they do it on purpose...I like your comment about Unforgiven and realism, which is a more precise term than reinvention. Yes, there are other previous examples of western revisionism (a whole other topic as is Tarantino), although I have never seen Fort Massacre...

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, all true, Cinema Guy. :)