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July 18, 2010


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Chris O.

This is beside the point (and I mentioned the example before, though I haven't read Denby's review), but I think the looking back longingly in "Knight and Day" is done, perhaps, with a wink, rather than a sad sigh. I could be grasping at straws, but at one point, Cruise even looks out above his RayBans "Risky Business"-style; he walks down an exotic city street a la "Eyes Wide Shut;" pilots a plane in a scene; of course, then there's the whole "Mission: Impossible" persona, and I drew (long shot) connections to "Vanilla Sky" and "Jerry Maguire." It actually made the film more enjoyable.

Tony Dayoub

This is a non-argument as far as I'm concerned, and I believe this is largely what you're saying also, Glenn. Isn't it a given one should consider Eastwood's screen persona in appreciating the films he's directed? Would this even be a question in another field of art?

The point is, of course, whether this is why Eastwood gets a critical pass from you. But isn't the other side of this that his films are sharply attacked for the same reason? GRAN TORINO got fairly slammed by those who could not distinguish the film's Walt Kowalski from Harry Callahan, conflating the character's deep-seated racism with Callahan's right-wing tendencies. But as I argued in this blog at the time of its release, would GRAN TORINO have been so polarizing had it been directed by someone like John Ford? Kowalski, and the way he is used as a vehicle for the film's concerns, bear a strong resemblance to THE SEARCHERS and its protagonist.

So why wasn't Eastwood credited for making GRAN TORINO in the classical Fordian tradition?


Why wasn't he credited for making GRAN TORINO in the classical Fordian tradition? Because GRAN TORNIO, as one clever critic wrote at the time it came out, plays something like a hybrid of CRASH and a Dennis the Menace cartoon. Racism? Right-wing tendencies? Who even cares about that when the thing's written and directed with the subtlety of a middle-school play? If Ford were directing this movie, do you think he'd allow the screenwriter to include dialogue between the Eastwood character's sons like "Look at the Old Man glaring at Ashley" and "What do you expect? Dad's still living in the 50s. He expects his granddaughter to dress a little more modestly"? Ford would show you the glare with no words, because no words are needed, in one shot of the girl and one close-up of Clint, and he wouldn't let Eastwood act like an SNL parody of himself. Ford didn't have to underline every point that he made, nor was he so given to making so many insipid points. That's just one of the things that separates him from the incompetent hack Eastwood's become in the twilight of his career.

Oliver C

"[Cruise] walks down an exotic city street a la 'Eyes Wide Shut'..."

If only Cruise really had walked down actual New York streets in 'Eyes Wide Shut', as opposed to unconvincing sets and process screens!


The NYT graced us with another such "everything's-going-to-hell" article just today:

Whatever Happened to Mystery?


'Gran Torino' is more Fulleresque than Fordian. And that accounts for it working despite or maybe because of the absurdities of the approach.

The Jake Leg Kid

Is it really possible for an actor to have appeared in as many films as Robert DeNiro has without ever having revealed his true self on screen? If every film truly is in part a documentary of its own making, this would seem impossible. Maybe DeNiro's opacity is his true self and the mistake lies in trying to see something behind it. As for Eastwood, I tend to look at things the other way around. In other words, the knowledge that the man on screen directed BIRD imbues his underplaying with a soulfulness and guile that I might not see in it otherwise. Of course, this is likely a product of only having encountered Eastwood when he was well into his directing career.

Tony Dayoub

Asher, even Ford's dialogue can ring too literal-minded when taken out of context. But since "clever" is your bag, I don't expect you to understand.

Fuzzy Bastard

@ Asher: Yes, that. Exactly.

@ Tony: You're right that this wouldn't even be a question in another field of art. Because in every other field, it's treated as a given that serious criticism engages with the work itself, not the media persona of the creator. Indeed, in most other fields of art, it's considered sort of retro to read the work through the lens of the artist's persona---it's kind of an odd historical accident that film studies became very hung up on the author just as serious literary criticism was proclaiming said author dead.


It's all the artist's persona. Richard Wagner, Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dali for quick examples in three different arts. Are we talking cross over today? I don't see much divergence with Eastwood's professionalism from actor to director.
What about an actor who is a Sunday painter and has a massive art gallery opening? Or an actor who writes a novel or makes music? do we give them passes? Maybe. It's an interesting point Glenn. What about the great Norman Mailer directing "Tough Guys Don't Dance"? Did you give that a pass in someone's eyes or like it for what it is...pure Mailer?

Glenn Kenny

"Tough Guys" is a VERY unusual film even by the peculiar standard established by the Mailer filmography in toto. It's difficult for me to discuss in this forum without feeling conflicted because (sorry if this sounds like name-dropping) I've grown friendly with a couple of the man's relatives recently; one is a relatively close neighbor. I bug him sometimes that I want him to come over and watch the whacked-out adaptation of NM's already quite unusual "An American Dream" for an impromptu commentary. It's gonna have to wait until my TV is fixed. But long story short, I think "Tough Guys" is...fascinating.

Chris O.

No questions for Stamp about "Teorema"?

Evelyn Roak

Leaving aside Clint Eastwood for a moment, Fuzzy, you don't really believe that, do you? A novelist's life is never mentioned in the criticism? Nor a painters? How in the whole wide world does one explain what is written about Matthew Barney by that standard? Or Jonathan Safren (Saffron) Foer or Michael Chabon, to use modern examples (as you claim the other arts have moved on, though Philip Roth, for example, is still writing, and still being written about the same way)? One can argue whether this is a good thing, as is being done in this very post and discussion, (or if the above mentioned artists are any good. I'm inclined, outside of Roth, to say no) (and I'm not even staking a claim here) but to pretend that there are large swaths of criticism in the other arts that don't do the same thing that is being leveled at discussions of Eastwood, and the whole of film, is patently absurd.

The qualifier of "serious literary criticism" and invoking the "death of the author" here also is staging a fight on grounds that are not level (and are wildly different in regards to the context of the practice and place of those criticisms and their varying histories). No offense to Glenn here, and none is intended in any way, but there is a difference, in intent and form (without a hierarchy of either being privileged over the other) in the type of essay this is and say an essay in a journal like October. If you want to compare academic literary and film or painting or music criticism the picture is much different.

Glenn Kenny

@ Evelyn: No offense taken, and in fact I'm in complete agreement.

Fuzzy Bastard

@ Evelyn: Partly, yes, I am thinking of the different kinds of criticism---in lit-crit, at least, the kind that's heavily indebted to biography is considered middlebrow at best, tabloid trash at worst. Yes, when a novel is featured on radio interviews, the novelist will be the frontman, but that's well understood to be the opposite of serious criticism, which is typically focused on the text and disdainful of attempts to parse the author's intention. This has been the case, really, ever since the New Criticism of the 30s.

I'm not sure which writings on Barney or Chabon you have in mind, so I can't speak to that. But like I said above, it seems to me that the major distinction between serious and minor criticism in other fields, as called out by Tony, is the ratio of author to text under consideration, but in film criticism, the ratio is oddly reversed. In any other field, it's well-established that if you're talking about the author's intentions, you're writing a magazine profile, but if you want to write criticism, you analyze the text, and don't let the author's intentions corrupt that analysis (since it's pretty generally agreed that a work of art is a tricksy thing, with a marked tendency to express things its author might not have intended).

As I come to better understand how auteur theory is used, I get less and less impressed by it. I came to film from literature, and thought of auteur theory as something akin to death-of-the-author ideas in the CompLit department---by downgrading the importance of the scribbling genius, you get to treat things once regarded as flotsam as a coherent text. This can sometimes spiral off into critic-centric nonsense, but at best it allows for fascinating readings of previously-ignored material, readings which can parse the viewer's individual experience of a work, which is always more important than the artist's intention anyway. But I'm starting to suspect that even for its founders, auteur theory was merely a resurrection of nineteenth-century Great Man theory, a way to endlessly replay stale dramas of authorial heroism.

The Siren

@Dan: Someone needs to show Ben Brantley the latest Isabelle Huppert interview.

I've always found the intersection between the real lives of actors (and directors and other film artists) and their screen work to be interesting, at the very least. Sometimes it's illuminating, as I have argued with Joan Crawford and George Sanders, for example. Other times it most decidedly is not--and to Glenn's example of Delon I would add the actor's onetime lover Brigitte Bardot as an example of a film person whose real life and thoughts I really, truly wish I had never encountered in any forum anywhere at any time.

But I don't think all such inquiries are intrinsically worthless, even if they are far from the most important work of a critic. In fact, with film, the attempt to sever entirely the persona of the artist in general (and stars in particular) from serious analysis is probably doomed to failure.

Tony Dayoub

Fuzzy Bastard, I completely agree that an author's intentions should bear minimal impact on criticism. Keeping with my GRAN TORINO example, I'm certain that THE SEARCHERS, Ford, and Harry Callahan played little part in Eastwood's CONSCIOUS choices when crafting his film (Callahan probably being one he probably couldn't completely push out of his mind). But knowing about an artist's life, milestones in his career, etc., definitely provides a road map from which one can draw certain conclusions.

One conclusion I draw (and I'm only being reductive for the sake of expediency) is that Eastwood's films are a reaction against his popular persona, in ways he wouldn't care to admit. I'm sure he would refuse to admit his intention is only to show he is a multi-dimensional person who shouldn't be defined by the albatross of Dirty Harry.

Evelyn Roak

Fuzzy, you are comparing apples and oranges. And what exactly do you mean by “serious criticism”? The point I was making was that to compare the kind of essay that was written here, or on analogous sites, or in analogous publications, to what you seem to be alluding to, academic literary criticism, is an unfair and spurious thing to do. The more accurate parallel would be something like The New York Review of Books, or Bookforum, or n+1, etc. in which one regularly finds criticism that engages with the authorial presence, image and reception. Now, if you wish to look at equivalent academic film criticism I think you would find a criticism very different in character and purpose, one that lines up much more readily with the academic literary criticism you allude to in approach, scholarship and focus (with all the differing methodologies, camps and feuds and rival publications that go along with it ((this is meant lovingly))).

You also bring up here the distinction of textual analysis and authorial intention, hardly a new battle to be fought. But it is also a sidestep away from the issue at hand. The questioning here (and you seem to be confusing questioning with espousing) is not about authorial/directorial intent but about the complications of an actor/directors screen-image as an actor and its relationship to the audience in their work as a director. This is a very different thing than what the leaders of the New Criticism fought against, is very different from Roland Barthes, is very different from Paul de Man and is a far different thing than what you seem to see as akin here.

I am not sure how familiar you are with academic film criticism, as you say your background is in literature, but you seem to be conflating two very different forms of criticism and drawing an ineffective parallel. That is the distinction that I was attempting to make above. Further, in prompting the comparison of the rise of auteur theory and “death of the author” trends in literary analysis one must look much deeper at the place, time and history of both the art and critical disciplines which engage them in a way that is very different from what is being asked here.

Chris O.

Maybe this isn't apt, but the example of Mel Brooks taking his name off "Elephant Man" and "The Fly" just occurred to me. He made it a point to avoid confusion/conflation.

jim emerson

Wow, a Bill Evans/Orrin Keepnews headline! I love it.

James Keepnews

Me, too! :}


Damm. Toby Dammit is scary.

Fuzzy Bastarrd

The Louis Malle installment is still my favorite part of Spirits of the Dead, but Toby Dammit is an incredibly fun source of VJ material.

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