An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Between two ferns, so to speak

I'm a month or two late to be chiming in on this topic, but I'm still fired up, dammit. Basically, I'm feeling caught between two equally wrongheaded camps in my (favorable) response to Gran Torino. Ever since I first saw the movie in December I've been growing increasingly frustrated at members of my generation who are inclined to view the film as "unintentionally" funny or otherwise inept. And now I have another group to be frustrated at, thanks to the good-ol-boys at the National Review, who are doing a whole thing about the top 25 "conservative" movies. Gran Torino is #25. I'm not going to dignify them with a link.

I don't want this to come across like I'm saying "I'm the only one who understands it!", because that is not remotely true. Manohla Dargis got it. Glenn Kenny got it. Scott Foundas got it. Many other smart souls on the internet and in print have written smarter appreciations of this movie than I am capable of producing. Still. I don't think it's one of Eastwood's best films and I don't think it's a masterpiece, but it deserves better than (to put it in the reductive terms of the 2008 election) the snarky, narrow-minded, uninformed derision of Obama-voting youth and the racist myopia of McCain-voting geriatrics. (As long as I'm getting all CULTURE WARRIOR about this, let's say that my comrades on this issue belong to the part of the venn diagram showing the intersection of Obama voters and Gran Torino fans. And no, the irony that Eastwood leans conservative and supported McCain is not lost on me.)

At first I was thinking that the movie is something of an auteurist litmus test, since most of the positive notices take at least a semi-auteurist tack in placing Gran Torino within the context of Eastwood's career (as both director and actor), and most of the snark is coming from people who probably haven't even seen Unforgiven, let alone Bronco Billy or A Perfect World. But then how to explain the millions of Americans who ate the movie up and carried it to #1 at the box office (doing record numbers for an Eastwood-directed film)? Not a lot of auteurists in that bunch, I'm guessing, and there's obviously nothing wrong with that. But how many of those people watched the movie through the same lens as the National Review douchebags? Probably not that many, but still, read Andrew Breitbart's conservative take on the movie and you'll see why I'm uncomfortable with the reaction: "[Eastwood] blows away political correctness, takes on the bad guys, and turns a boy into a man in the process. He even encourages the cultural assimilation of immigrants."

Ugh. There's always a risk of this kind of misidentification—it's like when wannabe thugs view The Wire as a cool celebration of gangster life, opining on message boards about how Namond deserved to get got. Conservatives are particularly myopic about this stuff; if they see any representation of conservative "values" they automatically assume it qualifies as an endorsement. The politics of Eastwood's movies are famously ambiguous, but Gran Torino takes Clint's character Walt Kowalski on a journey that not only gives lie to Breitbart's Dirty Harry fantasies, but renders questions of political views pretty irrelevant (if they were even relevant to begin with).

As for my snarky contemporaries, I don't want to go all Denby on their asses, but gah. Listen hear, people: did it occur to you that while you were laughing at Clint's overheated growling and dated racial epithets that you were supposed to be laughing? Why did so many people jump to the conclusion that this humor is unintentional? Clint Eastwood knows what the fuck he's doing! He's working in a specific register, in which everything is melodramatically heightened and slightly removed from reality in its bluntness. Yes, he literally growls, and you're supposed to find it a little funny—it's not a flaw or deficit in the filmmaking or acting. It's the intention. Not many filmmakers adopt this kind of tone these days, so I understand why it confused some people. But you should investigate your confusion rather than chalking it up to dumbness or ineptitude on the film's part. And look, it doesn't take an auteurist to figure out that Eastwood is playing with his own iconic image—something he's been doing for decades, but rarely with the blunt humor on display here. That seems too obvious to state and yet I worry that members of my generation (and I'm talking about, you know, the smart ones) are so disinterested in film history/culture that it's lost on them. When snarkheads try to prove that they're smarter than Gran Torino, they're actually proving that they're stupider.

Ha, and then there's the splinter cell within the online critical community that's declaring Gran Torino overrated, best represented by this questionable piece of contrarianism at Reverse Shot, which muses: "The fact that so many smart, discerning critics have fallen in line behind such an obviously terrible movie speaks to entrenched auteurist agendas: Eastwood’s consensus status as the last American 'classicist' (to use a much-abused term) gives him a pretty long leash and leads to some remarkable feats of critical calisthenics—my favorite being the idea that Gran Torino is a seriocomic work of mischievous and pointed self-parody."

Well, self-parody isn't quite right, but uh, the movie is unequivocally a seriocomic and pointedly introspective work on Eastwood's part. And I'm not even getting into the movie's other virtues and subtleties, which are many. Really. As for the argument that critics give Eastwood too much slack because of his rep, how do you explain the mixed-at-best reaction to Changeling? Sure, there's always the danger when a living artist becomes canonized that his work won't be judged objectively. But it's insulting to both critics and Eastwood to suggest that the warm reception of Gran Torino is purely the result of "entrenched auteurist agendas," especially when that suggestion is clearly disproved by the reception of a movie released only a couple of months earlier.

This post is too long. I'm sorry. I blame Abe, for bringing that National Review list to my attention. I can only assume he was punishing me for some unknown offense. And now, if you read this, I've punished you.

One last thing. To the dismissive snarky jerks of my generation, and to the creepy crypto-racist Republicans of my parents' generation, may I politely suggest that all of you get off my lawn?


  1. joke's on YOU, because i don't know HOW to read.

  2. I'm imagining that comment spoken in a deep Eastwood growl.