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January 12, 2009

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B.W.

Here's what I found interesting about Walt's racism: it was completely outdated. He was slinging slurs that haven't been uttered since the freaking Korean War. Gives you a perfect sense of this man's current state: he's been clinging to a vanished past for a long time, and now he's losing his grip on it. Gran Torino isn't about racism at all, really, although it seems Mr. Aradillas would like it to be. It's about accepting change and passing the torch to the younger generations. And of course it's also about Clint Eastwood, in that wonderful meta-textual thing he's been doing since The Outlaw Josey Wales. Gran Torino may not be one of Eastwood's best films but it's one of his two or three best performances as an actor, I think. We should be past this racism-controvery stuff, people; we learned in 10th grade, when we read Huck Finn, that a racist character does not signify a racist work, necessarily.

Also I don't get the Pauline connection. Is this a reference to her branding of Dirty Harry as fascistic? Because in that case wouldn't it be the Paulettes who *are* arguing against the film? I'm confused.

Glenn Kenny

@B.W., I think the point is that A.A. wants to argue contra the film, as a non-Paulette. As in, you don't have to be a Paulette to not like the film.

shawn

Here's the text of an e-mail a reader sent in reply to my review (http://tinyurl.com/9ouobe). I haven't responded because the idea of further engaging an ex-cop with these views who can easily find my workplace or home is a tad concerning. (I especially admire the three 'insteads' in the third sentence; for some reason, I was reminded of a cowbell...)

Anway, the note:

"Although your review of this movie has some good aspects in your remarks about Eastwood, it still misses the fact that Walter Kowalski was attempting to confront the redefinition of what made life good in this country and in particular Detroit. Instead you have followed in lockstep the politically correct morons in this country to instead label Walter Kowalski with all of the negative stereotypical labels you could find, instead of looking deeper into the root issues of what is eating this country alive. Many of us Kowalski's believe there are certain aspects of American life that aren't available for compromise or redefinition because the certain ethnicities choose to do so rather than adapt to being a real American like our forefathers had to do. The other issue that was treated lightly was that these Hmongs appeared to have been converted slightly to seeing the world through Walter Kowalski's eyes for the better. If you ever had to be exposed to life and death experiences like many of us retired policemen, then maybe you would understand better Walter's remarks. The really sad thing is that most the generations now don't even see it as a loss that the Kowalski's are quickly disappearing from the American scene and not for the better."

Glenn Kenny

Well, that's disquieting. Lord knows the film does offer enough raw material to support a, how shall we say, reactionary interpretation. But I rather wonder if the folks who think like your correspondent maybe nodded out in the last 20 minutes, missing the "You don't wanna know" response to the question "What's it like to kill a man," not to mention Walt's final act, a vengeance-eschewing piece of {SPOILER ALERT!] non-violent resistance if there ever was one. Yes, the picture hits a number of what you could call pro-assimilationist notes, but they're considered one, not blatant "our way or the highway" bromides.

shawn

Here's the thing: "Gran Torino" won the BO sweepstakes this weekend (cue cringe-inducing L. Klady pun). My question: Who the hell were all those people? My fear -- and I haven't lived in NY or LA since '92, so it's based in experience -- is that the answer is "My Correspondent and Other People Who Resent 'Milk,' 'Doubt' and 'Slumdog Millionaire'" is far likelier than 'Auteurist-Minded Cineastes Who Have a Snowball's Chance in Hell of Understanding What's Actually Happening in That Film'.

White America scares the fuck out of me.

swhitty

I should say right off -- with all transparency -- that I think Clint Eastwood is a hugely overrated director.

An iconic presence? Absolutely. A truly great filmmaker? Arguable, at best.

I'd point to the flat and cliched compositions that run through so many of his films (including the standard, shot-from-below, snarling closeup of him telling off someone at gunpoint -- in "Gran Torino," and "Unforgiven," and so many others, since Don Siegel first handed him the shot in "Dirty Harry").

Or his poor self-composed soundtracks -- including the derivative score for "Changeling," the risibly romantic Spanish guitar that popped up whenever his young Hispanic costar appeared in "Blood Work," or his own awful closing vocal track in "Gran Torino."

Or his overly tolerant (or, perhaps, simply lazy)direction of his fellow actors. It's fine when he has a cast (as he did in "Mystic River") whom he can leave alone. But he did the young performers in "Gran Torino" no favor by not pushing them. And, under his own direction, he comes off worst of all -- those closeups of him snarling here seem like outtakes from "Bride of Frankenstein." ("We... belong... white!")

Finally, when it comes to "Gran Torino" and Walt K -- can we spend a second talking about the hypocrisy of the film? I mentioned this in my review at the time, but isn't it peculiar that Walt can come up with every insult in the book (and a few new ones besides) for Asians? But the worst insult he can think of for African-American gangstas is "spooks"? And the worst for Jews is, well, "Jew"?

Anyone who, unfortunately, has ever known anyone remotely like Walt knows this partiality is patently absurd. But Eastwood knows he can't throw around the n-word and the k-word and still get his big-studio movies funded (or at least not picketed at the multiplex). Luckily, though, it's still OK to sling slurs at Asians (and gays, and Poles and Italians). You can still be prejudiced against "those people" and not, you know, unlikable.

So, meet Walt Kowalski -- the PC bigot.

For awhile, I thought it was only me but interestingly, as the movie moves into wide release, some other people have picked up this theme. Here's another, heartfelt critique

http://coolercinema.blogspot.com/2009/01/utterly-offensive-gran-torino.html

Glenn Kenny

Stephen—I think your point about the infinite variety of Walt's anti-Asian slurs versus the creative paltriness of his other slurs is interesting, and illuminates (for me) Aaron's objections up to a point. But again, just as in the case of the ex-cop creeping out Shawn Levy, I have to ask—did you nod off in the last 20 minutes of the film? Because, really, I would tend to argue that allowing yourself to {SPOILER ALERT!!!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!!!} actually GET COMPLETELY FUCKING KILLED IN A HAIL OF GUNFIRE in order to improve the lives of the people who you once referred to in such creatively vitriolic terms might, just might, vitiate the impact of the aforementioned terms. I mean, really, what the hell does a guy have to do?

As for the review you linked to, heartfelt it indeed is. But it's also concern-trollish to the extreme.

Aaron Aradillas

You know, sometimes I say things (or write 'em) that I should probably take a moment to think what I'm really trying to get at. I now realize in wanting an enviroment that would not turn into a he said-she-said situation, I've run the risk of doing just that. My bad.

Anyway, I am fully aware that a character can be racist but doesn't immediately mean the story is racist. I learned that in the 6th grade. Like The Visitor, Gran Torino is both ill-informed or condescending toward its non-white, non-Western characters and cultures.

Glenn, you brought up John G. Avildsen's still disturbing Joe, and that is the character I was thinking about while watching Gran Torino. Eastwood's Walt is Joe the Plumber (I mean, construction worker) made safe for mass consumption. The opeing funeral and reception sequences showed real promise. We are meant to see the world through Walt's eyes, and we do feel his frustration and anger. Then, the movie starts to go for "observational" laughs that feel cheap. Unlike Milion Dollar Baby, the depiction of the family is embarassing. There's a big difference between being distant and simply not knowing your own family. You'd think Walk and his kids and grandkids just met. Didn't their mother (who apparently was a saint) teach the kids how to handle Walt? (The big phone call scene between Walt and his son has a real cat's-in-the-craddle vibe to it.)

Then there's a scene in Walt's bar where he tells a "funny" racist joke. "A gook, a Mexican, and a colored man walk into a bar..." Right there is when my heart slowly began to sink. I realized this was going to be the kind of P.C. drama where the "old-timer" character would be racist, but reframe from using the words "nigger" or "fag." If he did, then Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk would really have to answer some tough questions. As it is, Eastwood likes to describe Walt as being anti-social, not just anti-Asian. Rrrrrrrright.

Gran Torino is the story of a member of a certain generatin that stands for action, not words, and how we need guys like Walt to protect us. It's the John McCain story re-cast as a Clint Eastwood vehicle. The final message of the story is that everyone should stay on their lawn.

Now, I fully understand that defenders of the movie will say Eastwood is dong exactly the opposite. People argue that Gran Torino is the latest installment in Eastwood's long-running deconstruction of a mythic American male figure. That's true in films like White Hunter, Black Heart, A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, and M$B, but not this time. Thao, Sue and their family are standard issue hard-working, obedient immigrants, an ideal for all other "guests" to follow. They are so passive and grateful for Walt's protection that they "forgive" his constant slurs.

It is the film's schematic nature that causes the final act to make very little sense. After Sue is assaulted, why is Walt so hesitant to attack? He's been pretty carefree with brandishing his big gun around up until that point. And it is precisely at that moment the audience is primed for Walt to go into action. It's as if a Clint Eastwood vehicle decided at the last minute to become an Antonioni film or something.

The reason the tonal shifts in M$B work is because we've been prepared for them. M$B is a very Catholic film. The character of Frankie Dunn is constantly pestering his prest with questions about "faith." The priest finally tells him to stop asking questions and believe. Frankie asks the same of his fighters. The difference is that Frankie doesn't have faith in his fighters and they end getting hurt. He learns that there can only be one God.

The priest in Gran Torino is not as well drawn. Like everything else not having to do with Eastwood, he's there simply for plot mechanics.

Finally, the movie just feels rushed. Eastwood's "faith" in 1-2 takes is deadly when working with young non-actors. Ahney Her as Sue displays a natural screen presence and intelligence, although Nick Schenk's Screenwriting 101 script betrays that intelligence by having Sue not hold onto her pride after she's attacked. (I actually thought the story was going to have Sue press charges and her attackers get off on a technicality. Instead, she loses her identity and Walt gets mad.) Bee Vang in the crucial role of Thao is wildly uneven. He pouts, then sulks, then then grows a pair almost overnight. It amazes me how Eastwood's ability to come in underbudget and ahead of schedule is somehow an indicator of quality. He should think about doing a third take every now and then.

P.S. Anyone care to defend the closing-credit song?

don lewis

Not to knock any critical insights at a film buuuuut....is it just me or is "Gran Torino" just a pretty crappy movie? I mean, if this thing came out in the spring or summer, would anyone *really* be discussing it? The idea that it will get any Awards season recognition is annoying as hell.

I think Aaron is spot-on in saying the movie feels rushed but to take the whole affair a step further....it's not only rushed but it's an edgy Lifetime movie at best. "Unforgiven" is so great because it's brutal and honest slams the door on the genre, at least in terms of Eastwood's contributions to it. "Gran Torino" is being played up like it's the same kind of thing only as a bookend to the Dirty Harry films and frankly, it absolutely is not.

All points made about the racism being held back are also spot-on because what made Dirty harry so great was, he. would. fuck. you. up. No prob, no second thought. Walt's like some curmudgeonly old man who's being curmudgeonly for the sake of being curmudgeonly. The only award "Gran Torino" should be vying for is the "Emperor Has No Clothes" Award...but it would lose that category to "Benjamin Button."

B.W.

"I mean, if this thing came out in the spring or summer, would anyone *really* be discussing it?"

That's a critique of Hollywood's messed-up release patterns, not of the film itself. You're right that it probably wouldn't get awards buzz if it were released in the spring, because NOTHING gets award buzz when it's released in the spring (c.f. Zodiac, which should've been mentioned in the same end-of-year breaths as TWBB, NCFOM, etc, but largely wasn't).

But serious-minded viewers and critics would still be talking about it, because it's an important new piece in the Clint Eastwood puzzle. I don't think anyone is arguing that it's one of his BEST films. It does feel rushed, and the non-Clint performances are rather amateurish, and the script contains its fair share of hokey familiarity. But it's a valuable film for two reasons: the way it tweaks the Eastwood persona and fashions a tragicomedy out of it, and its tale of generational change and acceptance thereof. It's also valuable for Clint's performance, which I'd say is one of the three or four best of his career.

swhitty

Nah, didn't nod off at the end, Glenn -- I would have missed that god-awful closing song if I had! -- and I agree the ending is a stunner. Especially to anyone who got good doses of self-sacrificing morality tales from the nuns, as I know I did.

It also, I will say, is of a piece with most of Eastwood's surprising recent work, which is about the futility of revenge and the self-destructiveness of violence. A big change from how he started, but you can chart it from "Mystic River," right through the two war films, to this.

But my point was never that Walt is an irredeemable racist -- it's that he's an unbelievable one, whose racism has been diluted (in some very peculiar ways) to make it more acceptable to a mainstream audience.

Also that there's some sloppy filmmaking going on here, as the cogently critical AA (and even the more positive BW) say as well...

Tony Dayoub

I think it's important to note that this film is a highly subjective character study fashioned in a blunt and classical way (as opposed to a subtextual realistic way) because it reflects the world view of its central character and the time in which he formed it (his early adulthood probably the 1950s).

Walt is conscious enough to use the word "spook" versus the N-word because he knows that the second word is far more inflammatory. But even if you don't take that as a satisfactory explanation, there's this.

His specific racism against Asians is a manifestation of a Post-Traumatic Stress resulting from his guilt and self-loathing in regards to his killing them in the Korean War. This is further exacerbated by the relatively quick and confusing acceptance of peace with his enemies (enemies which he had recently killed) after the resolution of said war. Kowalski never recovered from this turn of events and uses his directed racism of Asians as a distancing move from his perceived enemy more than anything else. It is, then, not surprising to see him have a whole range of epithets reserved for Asians and a limited vocabulary when insulting other races.

Eastwood the filmmaker knows that using the N-word in our current cultural climate would call attention to a the particular schism unique to blacks and whites in America, i.e. its roots in slavery, the history of the civil rights movement, and the advent of affirmative action. Rather than simply pay lip service to the complexity of such an unwieldy issue in a short 2 hour character study, Eastwood wisely narrows his focus to examine Walt's particular disgust with Asians who impact him directly by a) moving into his neighborhood, and b) opposing him during his involvement in the Korean War.

Aaron Aradillas

Yes, but Eastwood himself has described Walt as being anti-everyone. The critics defending Gran Torino have gone out of their way to do the heavy lifting for Eastwood and screenwriter Eric Schenk.

@Tony: That all sounds good, but execution of the story does not lead a viewer to see that way. The movie is an action-comedy that turns meldramatic in the last act.

There seems to be a new trend in movies where filmmakers are trying to give their genre exercises an added layer of "significance" by doing a bait-and-switch in the final act. The Coens turned a cat-and-mouse Western into something else with No Country For Old Men and got awards and the best reviews of their careers. Now Eastwood has done the same.

There is something to said for a filmmaker setting a course and staying on it. It's not that I object to bait-and-switch storytelling, but it seems to work when we realize there was something bigger at work all along.

Eastwood's M$B is a perfect example of this. The people who felt gut-punched by the final act were obviously not paying attention. Also, Paul Haggis is most definitely a better screenqriter than Nick Schenk, Crash excepted.

P.T. Anderson's Hard Eight is another fine example of a movie not ending the way you are led to believe.

Tony Dayoub

@Aaron, I don't see the bait-and-switch. If you're referring to his death at the end, I felt that there was ample forshadowing that he was going to die one way or another, i.e. the coughing up blood. If you're referring to his sacrifice for the Hmong, I believe that the disconnected Walt was jarred into thinking of the consequences of his actions by the assault on Sue, a woman he finally connected with after the death of his wife. It's arguable that the importance of this event supercedes the attack on Thao (he seems to look down on men he perceives as weak in some form or another, a chauvinistic trait to be sure, but borne out of his own self-loathing for the weakness he displayed by killing during the war), as Walt seems to feel a certain chivalry for women after the loss of his wife, i.e. Sue, Thao's girlfriend. If you're referring to his decision to lay down his life vs. opening a can of whup-ass on the gang, then I feel that you've ignored the fact that through all the bluster this is a man that still finds the taking of a life, any life, as repellent.

Your premise that the film starts out as an action-comedy is a stretch. There is little action, and though some of Eastwood's bluster may have been played too broadly I find it no different than the type of comic relief found in a typical Hawks or Ford drama.

Allow me to reference "The Searchers" in order to make another point, and I preface this by asserting that I am in no way elevating "Gran Torino" to the same class as that classic film. In Ford's film, John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is the protagonist, is a racist, frequently uses epithets against the Native Americans in the film, yet still musters the tolerance to work with Jeff Hunter's Martin - a half-Native American - to pursue his quarry. For about 115 minutes of its running time (and years, in the film), Edwards is committed to killing his own niece (Natalie Wood) simply for being presumably defiled by the Native Americans who kidnapped her. And then in the last few minutes, Martin convinces Edwards to let her live. Happy ending, save for Edwards extricating himself from the life he can't be a part of due to his inherent and unresolved feelings for the Native Americans.

The plot remarkably tracks similarly with "Gran Torino". So why can we give Ford a pass for the "bait-and-switch" at the end of "The Searchers"? Or the comic relief that Hank Worden's Mose so jarringly injects into every scene he's in? And why can we be so cavalier towards Ethan Edwards' own racism yet admire his heroism?

Is it because the fact that Ford's film is a Western it adds another layer of distance or archetypal reduction to the events in "The Searchers"? Had "Gran Torino" been a Western with Native Americans replacing the Hmong would we even be having this conversation?

I found Eastwood to be unusually direct and economical in his storytelling, a relative rarity in his recent films. And I applaud the fact that he trusts us to do the heavy lifting, rather than get anymore on-the-nose than the movie is already accused of being.

Craig

Haven't seen Gran Tarino. But I am familiar with Kael and her coven, and weren't/aren't they typically anti-Eastwood, not pro?

MovieMan0283

I have not seen Gran Torino. However I did once convince Andrew Sarris to autograph a book with the inscription, "I forgive you for being a Paulette."

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