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November 09, 2011


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Mark Asch

I wonder whether termite/elephant distinctions are somewhat complicated by what we tend to call datedness. Not having seen this one yet, but being relatively predisposed to recent Eastwood, it seems that that stiffness of tone and on-the-nose dialogue evokes a fairly archaic mode of storytelling. There's something unfashionably square about Eastwood these days, so his prestige pictures feel like artifacts, which first of all inspires a nagging feeling of subtext, and also seems to go productively against the Oscarbait grain in spite of studio positioning.


When people talk about late Eastwood, I always think back to what my friend Paul Lovelace (a talented filmmaker in his own right) wrote about Eastwood at the end of the '00s:

"Pound for pound I would put Clint Eastwood’s output over the past decade up against anyone’s. While I don’t think Changeling is his best film of this century, I believe it is a solid representation of what makes Eastwood great. It’s engrossing, intense, gorgeous, goofy and occasionally sloppy. Overall it’s the work of a supremely confident filmmaker. Eastwood doesn’t dillydally while making his films, shooting few takes with minimal fuss. This method sometimes backfires, and even in his most sublime movies there are uneven moments. In Changeling, for example, the mental hospital scenes border on parody. The film is overlong, certain stretches drag and there are too many endings. But that’s OK. Rarely is a Clint Eastwood film without flaws. And it’s the peaks and valleys that are part of the fun. On top of that, his movies possess a visceral gravitas. It’s the same reason why I like punk rock."

David Ehrenstein

Fassbinder is a useful anaology in this context. Judi Dench as Edgar's Mom is a lot like Fassbinder's Mm -- who appeared in a great number of his films under her maiden name, Lilo Pempeit.

As for Clint resolving to make "impotant" films, I'm not so sure. When he started directing he stuck to genre items -- westerns and policiers. Slowly he began to expand to take in almost anything that interested him. He's pretty much done it all -- save for a musical.

I'd love for Clint to take a crack at Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along."

Brian Dauth

Fassbinder and Eastwood were born on the same day (May 31st), and share even more than that in terms of filmmaking practice.

Trevor Link

Let me state that I haven't seen the film yet, but a lot of the initial wave of criticism seems familiar enough, the kind of resistance I often hear regarding Eastwood. I see it as a resistance to thinking of Eastwood as a serious artist, one with ideas in addition to sentiment. I think that's why the accusation of "Oscar-bait," whether or not it's well-founded, is so appealing for some: it supplies a motivation not only to explain why Eastwood continues making films but, more importantly, why he makes the various choices he makes. Because, of course, the real motivation can't be purely aesthetic or, God forbid, intellectual! It seems strange to me that some of the subtext for criticisms of Eastwood suggest that he still, after decades of directing films (not to mention studying under great filmmakers), doesn't really know what he's doing--not really, not in a manner different from any other Oscar-bait filmmaker.

But what I really can't fathom about TFB's comment is the word "authority." I'm a big fan of Eastwood, and I like to think I've seen enough of his films such that what I see in them is not just a fiction I'm imagining. And what I see, perhaps above all, is Eastwood as a critic of authority beyond anything else. I'm very intrigued by your mention of Fassbinder, who was another politically slippery figure and critic of authority. Fassbinder has proven difficult for many to get a handle on him politically, because he surely rejects the left's party line, so there has been a temptation for some to view him as either too pessimistic to be political or just a bad, failed leftist (who should have known better). Eastwood's kind of coming from the opposite side of the spectrum, but they have a lot in common. Just as Fassbinder wiggled out of being merely a voice for the left, Eastwood has consistently rejected being exploited by the right. You could call him a libertarian, maybe, but I think he would reject being labeled altogether. And what really matters are his films, which are wonderful critiques of political power and authority. To cite one example, think of his solidarity with the solitary mother Christine in Changeling and how he carefully guides her past all the forces that would exploit or subdue her. In the end, Eastwood affirms the faith of a single individual's belief that her son is alive, despite everyone's skepticism. In an essay I wrote on the film (http://www.journeybyframe.com/2010/11/15/changeling-clint-eastwood-2008/), I said it reminded me somewhat of Dreyer's Ordet, which makes me doubly fascinated that you invoke Dreyer above.

Lastly, I think it's important to remember that Jean-Marie Straub once referred to John Ford as "the most Brechtian of filmmakers." I think we tend to see Eastwood as a figure somewhat like Ford. To some, they are both a little sentimental and stodgy, neither really a "thinking man's" filmmaker, but I don't believe this is right at all. I think many people would be confused and surprised by Straub's point about Ford, but I also think that there's more than a little of what he was talking about in Eastwood as well.

The Siren

Glenn, this is a very patient post; me, I have long been fed up with the "Oscar bait" insult. "Oscar bait" presumes that the one making the accusation knows precisely what motivates someone to make a movie, and that the accuser's magic 8 ball offers definitive evidence that awards-grubbing was the primary motive. In Eastwood's case, "Oscar bait" says that his greed for an Oscar (because two aren't enough) was as or more important than his ambition to say something about a huge figure in American history (history hardly being a submerged motif in Eastwood's films); his desire to tell a thwarted love story (no shortage of those in Eastwood either); or even just a vague notion from Eastwood that no one ever made a great movie about Hoover and maybe he should give it a go.

I haven't seen J. Edgar, and I haven't wholeheartedly loved an Eastwood picture since Unforgiven. But given that the man can pretty much make what he wants now, I don't see why dialing for Oscars is a more likely explanation than Eastwood's being drawn to big stories about big moral quandaries. Still less do I see how accusing him of this kind of bad faith says anything worthwhile about his films; and least of all do I understand what is contributed by using "liberal" as a perjorative.

Manny Farber was a great, great critic; but I wonder if he intended his white elephant/termite distinction to be engraved on stone tablets and hurled down on filmmakers from Mount Sinai for decades afterward. With due and loving respect for Farber, the hell with that.

Trevor Link

Seems I messed up the HTML. Here's the link if anyone's interested: http://www.journeybyframe.com/2010/11/15/changeling-clint-eastwood-2008/

John M

"Oscar bait" became somewhere along the line the go-to epithet of lazy critics, along with "Sundance quirk." Lazy, murky stabs at what motivates an artist--and an updating of the old "Important Work" knock by certain Farber-Fuller-Genre-is-King acolytes on anything that has, gasp, an interest in larger meanings. I mean, god forbid an American director flex a little fucking ambition.


Perhaps Eastwood is content with his statuette haul now, but it was pretty sad to see him appearing in ads for Mystic River, wih footage from the film intercut with talking head shots of Clint saying that in his film, "people were the special effects". You'd think he'd have the integrity to avoid this kind of shameless hucksterism, let alone having to take a jab at Lord of the Rings in the process.

And after that failed to bring home Oscar gold save for Penn and Robbins' wins (the former a ridiculous validation of the actor's OTT histrionics when he was much more deserving for his subtle work in 21 Grams), he sure looked like he was rushing to get Million Dollar Baby out in time to qualify for the next year's beauty pageant, robbing Scorsese out of an award he earned a lot more than Clint with his underrated direction of a meh script on The Aviator.

Yeah, I'm still bitter about that. But my points about Clint's intentions and not being above the pettiness of the awards season stand. If everything post-M$B is a legitimate extended victory lap with no eye on the prize, then fair enough.

Brian Dauth

Glenn, what I enjoy about your writing is that you can live with the termite and white elephant components of a work of art in a comfortable postmodern/queer way. Your writing seems free of the modernist insistence on internal consistency. Both Eastwood and Fassbinder mix and match in a wonderfully queer and freeing way.

I also want to add that another way to understand the termite/white elephant dichotomy is as one between the heteronormative and the queer/fabulous. Farber's "just-us-guys" approach -- kicking the aesthetic tires and looking under the hood -- leaving no trace -- "Just the fact, Ma'am" – rises out of the 1950's aura of sex panic and pink terror. Farber’s criticism has a strain of sex panic running through it -- his response to the shot of a male character's bathrobe-clad rear-end in Cukor's THE MARRYING KIND is hysterical. And I still have no idea what to make of his take on Brando in STREETCAR when he bemoans/panics over the “lush physicality and a show-off’s flamboyance to the character of Stanley [that] makes him seem like a muscular version of a petulant, crazily egotistical homosexual.” Huh? He is equally confused about Montgomery Clift. This division expresses itself today in the manly “go-with-my-gut” approach versus the elite-designated approach (elitism being historically associated with the fey and the queer – pinot noir instead of a manly can of Bud).

The Siren

First, a correction: because I am not a big Oscar-ologist (at least not for the modern era) I wasn't counting Eastwood's producing statuettes, which bring his grand total to four; or five counting the Thalberg.

I don't see anything sad or extraordinarily venal about an ad campaign that uses a movie's superstar director talking about the movie. Would you say the same of Hitchcock? And wait, we're pinning the entire responsibility for a release date on Eastwood? As well as the Academy voters "robbing" Scorsese?

warren oates

As someone else noted above, Eastwood is a supremely confident filmmaker, and that's part of the problem for me. I wish he'd doubt a little more, take a little more time with all of his creative decisions, not the least of which is the question of which story is worth telling, which script is ready to go. I've heard interviews with some of his recent screenwriters, where, to a one, they all recount the collaboration as being the quickest and easiest (though for exactly these reasons not necessarily the best) of their careers. They finish the script, he shoots it -- even sometimes against their objections that it needs more work -- end of story. Yet Eastwood's best film, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, was born of the what's probably most serious disagreement he's ever had with a writer.

Chris O.

"Just as Martin Scorsese is highly unlikely to throw a RED camera on his shoulder and take to the streets to revisit the San Gennaro festival,"

This is so off-topic (and odd), but I think Scorsese would be perfect for a documentary on Allen Klein. Beatles, Stones, Jodorowsky, on and on... he'd be the guy to do it. Someone should.

That's my career advice for the day.

Brian Dauth

Warren: that is what is great about Eastwood -- he does not miter all the corners of his films -- just as he breaks free of coherent conceptions of masculinity in his films, he also ignores the need for absolute conherence in terms of form -- in fact, I would argue that the fissures and breaks he introduces are what allow his films to breathe as capaciously as they do. Like Fassbinder, there is an immediacy in his work -- neither artist second-guesses himself or strives for a clotted, over-determined mise en scene.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Trevor: By "reaching for authority", I don't mean Eastwood has a reflex trust of authority figures. I mean reaching for authority as an artist in a way I find maddening. The angles, the lighting, and most especially the music (oh christ, the music!) all seem to me utterly bludgeoning in demanding that I think as the director does. Considering their similar roots in Westerns, I always think of Eastwood as the anti-Altman---shots composed like trimmed hedges, precisely marked lighting, and moment after moment where the director is pathologically unwilling to let me form my own conclusions, or even make a decision about what to look at. It's not the wild expressionism of Scorsese, which embraces its own unstable subjectivity, but rather the glum authority of a filmmaker who is going to tell you exactly what's what.

Certainly when I say Oscar bait, or liberal, I don't mean that I can perceive Eastwood's motives in making or doing anything (much less that being liberal is a bad thing). Just that his movies always seem to me clenched with terror that any viewer anywhere might just possibly get The Wrong Idea. Gran Torino, for example, has lots of fun with its irascible racist lead, but keeps looking over its shoulder to make absolutely, positively sure you don't ever think he's anything less than totally wrong, or worse yet that you ever have a moment of sympathy for his no-goodnik kids (whose contempt for their father struck me as pretty justified). Changeling, Mystic River, and oh that fucking Million Dollar Baby---however offhand their creation might have been, they have not a single moment where I feel like the viewer is allowed to look around, or breathe, or think.

The only Eastwood movie I like, actually, is Bridges of Madison County, which is a genuinely enjoyable romance. Perhaps because Eastwood has little interest or respect for the book, and no Big Message to present, he can just make a movie about people doing things, and I can watch it without the director growling in my ear "Y'got it? Y'got it!" That, to me, is the white elephantitis at work in Eastwood. Not that he wants to make movies about big subjects---Last Year At Marienbad has no shortage of ambition!---but that it presents its big subjects as dioramas of virtue and vice, where even the blocking is drained of any potential to surprise, much less shake up, anything an middle-of-the-road Academy-voter brings into the theater. I can understand liking both Coffin Joe and Clint, but when people insist that Invictus is better than Paul Haggis' Crash, that's what I don't get at all.


Have to agree with Oates re: Josey Wales, if not THE best then certainly up there.

And Siren, there's a difference between Hitchcock's (or Preminger's) tongue-in-cheek brand of showmanship and what Eastwood was doing in those commercials. For one, those were trailers conceived by those directors and used as lead trailers. The Mystic River spots were follow-up ads that were released in the heat of awards season as some kind of defense against the Return of the King juggernaut. Whether you find it sad or desperate or not, the only other ones I remember using the same approach were Ron Howard and Darabont (and/or Jim Carrey) for The Majestic. Great company. And those guys didn't feel the need to whine about some fantasy film stepping on their prestige territory, something I'd love to hear you explain away or rationalize.


(and when I mentioned Ron Howard I was referring to ads for Cinderella Man, IIRC)

Glenn Kenny

Wow, you guys have long memories, and hold a grudge.I wasd not aware that Clint had committed an award-begging infraction of Chill Willsean proportions! I'll have to do some rethinking, of something or other.

The Siren

Lazarus: Never saw the Mystic River trailer that so offended you. I was pointing out that using a name director in a trailer did not, and does not, strike me as ironclad evidence of much of anything beyond the desire to sell tickets. Your investment here seems much stronger than mine, so I'll go do something else now, I think.

Glenn Kenny

My mother-in-law hates the Rolling Stones because they jammed her up in the revolving door in the lobby of a St. Louis hotel for something like ten seconds in the early '70s.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Siren, you did notice that they're not talking about a trailer designed to sell tickets for the movie, right? They're talking about an ad aimed at Academy voters, trying to convince them that they should vote for Clint because his movie is virtuously "about people", rather than more of that dumb kid fantasy stuff that the unwashed masses were seeing. It's as though he was trying to convince Academy voters to be dragged towards him, like they were on a hook. That had been baited. With gruel-tasting Oscar bait. Nothing in particular against Clint taking to the airwaves to insist that voters give him an Oscar to prove their moral virtue---if we held directors' self-regard against them, we'd have nobody left---but it does remind us that it's not just paranoid fantasy to suggest that Clint really, really wants more Oscars.


Y'know, I remember rather a few 'prestige' pictures using the Cast 'n' Director Explain It All For You model of TV ad. Can't name 'em all but it wasn't just Clint & Ron, I know that. In any case, they vex the hell out of me.

As to Eastwood's post UNFORGIVEN output, I liked some more than others but they're all interesting in my book. And I gotta say, as a military history geek, I was stunned to find FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS the movie far more nuanced and uninterested in playing the Greatest Generation card than the book, which I felt (with all due respect to the author and his father) was one long "My dad was the best dad and I'm sorry we didn't always see eye-to-eye and he was right to hate the J*ps 'cause LOOK WHAT THEY DID TO HIS BUDDY" screed.

Glenn Kenny

Forget it guys, she's gone. She's past even the point of caring about the names of the members of U2, if you know what I'm saying and I think you do. Like Kangaroo Jack, she's got the money, and she's not giving it back.

Tom Carson

Disagreeing with the Siren always makes me unhappy, but I use "Oscar bait" as a category all the time. It's useful shorthand for a kind of movie that's self-important but anodyne. Then again, the only Eastwood movie I think fits the shoe is Invictus, and I definitely don't think J. Edgar does. GK and I are more or less on the same page on Clint's latest, which I gather means we're Old.

David Ehrenstein

"The oputlaw Josie Wales" it shoudl be noted was begun by Phil Kaufman. But Clint, who was producing as wel as starritng fired Kaufman and took over the project.

They may be bonr on the same day but Clint and Rainer have nohting in common otherwise. Clint has had a fairly settled life -- the only real distubance to it being Sandra Locke. RWF was manipulative drig-addicted bisexual wwho used to order Irm Herman to work the street to get enough money to finish the film they were making. (He enevr did this to Hanna Schygulla who he treated like a star even before she became one.

It's pretty clear Clint learned a ton about masculinity from The Lady Chablis. His direction of her (and everyone else) in his grievously underrated adaptation of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is a wonder. And what wit to cast Jude Law as a troublesome white trash hustler. La Spacey, needless to say, played himself.


Chill Wills should have won for best supporting actor.

Brian Dauth

David: it is the movies of Fassbinder and Eastwood which I find to have commonalities and intersections -- their lives are their own affair. Both men are concerned with queering cinematic text and form, and creating spaces of aesthetic engagement that extend laterally, eschewing the more traditional vertical/hierarchical approach. They make their first feature-length films within two years of each other, and while Fassbinder explores 1970’s West Germany, Clint does the same for America. Both also use their own bodies in their films as locations of desire, defilement, and defeat.

warren oates

I'd say firing counts as a serious disagreement?

So much love above for UNFORGIVEN, which is not so much Oscar bait as the Western for people who don't really like Westerns. The most overrated of all Eastwood's pictures. Suffers from an overcooked script in the way that too many of his others are half-baked. Seems to have mistaken monologues for action in the push/pull of dramatic showing and expositional telling. Definitely ignores the lessons of better de-mythologizing predecessors like THE GUNFIGHTER, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE and, duh, THE WILD BUNCH and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. I get that critics with intelligence and taste like Glenn and filmmaking peers like Johnnie To dig Eastwoods' movies. I just don't get what they get. For me, it's the underrated HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, the masterpiece JOSEY WALES and the nearly great IWO JIMA and that's it.

Gordon Cameron

There are few things I love in movies as much as a good monologue. UNFORGIVEN is by far my favorite Eastwood pic, and probably the only one I can say I actually love, though admittedly I haven't seen JOSEY WALES. Peoples's script, to these eyes/ears, is cooked more or less just right...


I share The Siren's antipathy for the term "Oscar-bait", not just for the reasons she described (and as far as those ads are concerned, Eastwood was declaring his antipathy for special-effects driven pictures and wanting to make more "adult", character driven films way back in the 80's. Are you going to tar PALE RIDER with the same brush you're tagging MYSTIC RIVER and MILLION DOLLAR BABY with?), and I have along the lines, I have a question I've asked in other places but which no one has given me a satisfactory answer to; why are pictures that apparently scream "Oscar-bait" to be mocked and/or looked on as lower than pond scum, while pictures that give off the attitude of "we're only in this for the money" either get a pass or an "eh, what can you do?" shrug?

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