Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gran Torino

Gran Torino (2008; dir. Clint Eastwood) is the name of a machismo automobile popular during the 60s and 70s. Large, obnoxious, and gas guzzling, it is the prized possession of Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) in the movie named for the car. Gran Torino is a moving character study, even if in some ways it doesn’t quite make sense. We meet Kowalski in the film’s opening scene. His wife has just died, and at the funeral he barely manages to summon enough interest to greet well wishers and mourners. Clearly upset at his wife’s death, but congenitally antisocial, he can’t accept the sympathies others try to offer. Kowalski is a manly man. He is passive and stolid and shows little emotion, other than disgust and disdain for the modern world that has moved on without him. He is a senior citizen version of the main character in the Dirty Harry films of the 70s and 1980s. He is particularly upset over the changes taking place in his neighborhood. No longer solidly white and middle class, it has from his perspective deteriorated over the years, and different ethnic groups are moving in. A family of Hmong Asians move in next door to his house. He sneers at them in disgust as he pushes his mower back and forth across his small and well manicured lawn. His objections to their presence, the challenges they encounter, form the dramatic core of the film.

In many ways this is a typical Clint Eastwood vehicle, wherein injustices and crimes lead to an act of cathartic and climactic retribution. The way the central character rises to that moment of retribution, the way in which it differs from what one would normally expect, is the way in which the film measures the man. Gran Torino operates in the same territory as The Unforgiven (1992), the Eastwood film that overturns all previous Eastwood films while at the same time delivering the violence and mayhem that satisfy audience expectations. As satisfying as The Unforgiven was, as good a film as it is, it suffers from moral incoherence as a result—the man who has renounced violence returns to violence in order to punish those who use violence against him and his friends. Once vengeance is his, he returns to his complacent, domestic life as a dry goods store owner. The Unforgiven is Eastwood’s pronouncement on the flaws of violent retribution and his defense of its occasional necessity.

Gran Torino offers a more morally coherent pronouncement on violence, on the Eastwood persona in general. It is warm and compassionate, despite its conclusion. It has many moments of humor. It dramatizes an old bigot’s gradual transformation to appreciation of and friendship with people of another culture. One might find fault for the ease and speed with which the transformation occurs—food has a lot to do with it, as does the winsome attractiveness of the young woman who befriends Kowalski, as does the bumbling and ambitious naiveté of the young man whom he takes under his wing.

In the end, Walt Kowalski’s final gesture allows a full measure of vengeance that is totally satisfying yet wholly within the confines of law and civilized order. It is also one of the few moments in cinema when an actor/director manages to extinguish in a convincingly permanent way the persona that has been the hallmark of his career in film.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins

Immediacy and vivid descriptions are the strengths of Dexter Filkins’ series of articles about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, collected in his book The Forever War (Knopf, 2008). Filkins doesn’t dwell much on the political aspects of these conflicts and instead simply describes them. What he describes brings the political context out. A main point of his book is his refutation of the notion that American intrusion in Iraq and Afghanistan was welcomed by the people living there, that American intervention will have a lasting beneficial impact. Even the Iraqis friendly to American forces did not like the American presence. Filkins does take issue with the characters and strategies of several commanding officers, but mostly he focuses on the soldiers themselves. As a reporter for the New York Times he was assigned to various units which he followed to the front lines, right into the middle of ongoing battles. Descriptive power is the great strength of this book—few writers have described the Iraqi and Afghani wars with such graphic immediacy. Filkins doesn’t flinch from what he sees, doesn’t resort to indirection. He notes at one point that after a car bombing it is not unusual to see a human spine in the wreckage. He put himself at significant risk. In one of the most harrowing episodes, he describes how he and a cameraman ask several servicemen to take them into a building to view the body of a supposedly dead sniper. When they enter the building, two of the servicemen are shot and killed, either by the sniper or a compatriot. Filkins feels guilt for the deaths of these men, but does not dwell on his feelings. There is a minor-key element of self-promotion in these articles. Filkins on occasion notes his own bravado, or recklessness, though for the most part he does not make himself a major issue. At the end of the book, acknowledging various people who supported and assisted him, he remarks that his work in these two wars cost him a relationship with someone he loved.

Friday, September 18, 2009


The 1935 romantic musical comedy Mississippi (dir. Wesley Ruggles, A. Edward Sutherland) is primarily a vehicle for singer Bing Crosby and comedian W. C. Fields, who play lead roles. Rodgers and Hart provided most of the music, though Stephen Foster’s “Swanee” River is a recurrent theme. This film could have been a Broadway musical, but I don’t believe it was.

Fields plays Commodore Jackson, captain of a riverboat headed to an engagement party to provide entertainment. Tom Grayson (Crosby) is engaged to Elvira, whose younger sister Lucy is secretly in love with Tom. An old beau of Elvira’s arrives during the party and is angered when he learns that she is engaged to another man. Tom refuses his challenge to a duel, and Elvira and her father order Tom to leave the plantation—they are dishonored and humiliated by his cowardice. Tom leaves, but before he goes Lucy declares her love. Tom becomes a singer for the river boat and, after he kills a man in a fight, Fields builds a reputation around him as the “Singing Killer.” Lucy and Tom are briefly reunited, but when she learns that he is the “Singing Killer” reputed to have murdered her cousin, she leaves him. Tom hears she is engaged and goes to her plantation to confront her family and win her back. The movie ends with their embrace on board the riverboat.

Fields as the riverboat captain incorporates his own blowhard persona with that of the Mike Fink tradition of swashbuckling river boatmen from 19th century Southern humor and Mark Twain. He often tells of his exploits killing Indians with a Bowie knife or a revolver. Several scenes are devoted to the Fields shtick, where he does a typical Fields routine. The opening scene is a good example. He offers comic relief, though the tone of the film hardly calls for comic relief. Whereas Crosby’s character is at the center off the film, Fields’ character, who takes up much screen time, is not essential to the basic romantic plot.

Crosby is the romantic relief, the straight man to Fields. I was amused that while others in the film may recognize Fields for the charlatan he is Crosby’s character never seems to see through him and in fact helps rescue him from at least one tight spot where in a poker game he manages to deal straight aces to every player involved.

The film reminds me of a typical Elvis Presley movie whose plot is designed to allow as many opportunities for singing by the lead actor as possible. Though there is more of a plot in this film, the kinship between Elvis and cinematic forebear is clear enough.

As with Jezebel (1938), affairs of honor are important. Grayson, raised by Quakers in Philadelphia, doesn’t understand the Southern code of honor and is at heart a relaxed, peaceful man. He declines a challenge at the Rumford plantation house because he says he doesn’t understand the point of killing a man who has done him no wrong and whom he doesn’t even know. Although the film seems to support his rejection and doesn’t suggest that he is a coward, Tom still must develop the physical prowess and self-assurance that will enable him to win over Lucy and her family at the end of the film. He kills a man who is trying to hill him on the riverboat, acquires a reputation as a killer (concocted by Fields), defends Fields from angry gamblers, and in fact becomes the kind of man he was initially accused of not being. This is an irony in the film, though I don’t think the film intends it to be.

The patriarch of the plantation is General Rumford, the old blowhard who strictly defends the Southern code of honor.

Elvira Rumford is the Southern belle who hopes her engagement to Tom will not make her former beaus forget her. She rejects Tom as soon as it becomes clear that he will not answer the challenge. Her attitude towards firmer beaus suggests Julie Marsden from Jezebel and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind (1939). The film implies deceptiveness in her manner, a lack of integrity.

The plantation is a place of elegance and beauty. The film seems unaware of basic facts about 19th century Southern plantation life; for example, a young woman wouldn’t be allowed to be in the presence of a suitor without another person, a chaperone, nearby. There is pretence of Southern accent among the characters, but for the most part they act like characters out of any 1930s romantic comedy movie. Crosby certainly embodies his usual persona, hand in pocket, care what may, relaxed and ready for whatever happens.

We never hear the word “slave” in Mississippi, but slaves are present throughout, always in servile roles, usually comic ones. A trunk full of young black children sing at several points in the film. Everyone listens appreciatively—there is no racist talk, though Fields calls them pickaninnies. In one scene Tom and Lucy are talking and a house servant standing nearby nods with understanding, as if he overhears what is passing between them. When Lucy receives a proposal, one of the slaves sends a written message (in dialect, but still readable) to Tom telling him that he had better come. For the most part, the African Americans are treated as stereotypes, but not as caricatures, with the exception of one bug-eyed character who is driving a carriage and who shuffles and drawls like Step-n-fetchit. No plot line depends on the presence or treatment of slaves. The film offers no social commentary, overt or implied, on their condition.

As in Jezebel, a Northerner’s ignorance about Southern codes of conduct leads to difficulty, though in Jezebel people talk about the Northerners while in Mississippi their ignorance becomes a key element in the plot.

The film brims over with Southern types: loudmouth, braggart riverboat captains, bug-eyes slaves, evil gamblers, men ready to take offence at any insult implied or overt. The presence of the frontier is often in evidence in this film. Fields’ lies suggest its presence in the recent past, and the violence that pervades the film suggests the Southern frontier as portrayed by Twain and other humorists of the 19th century.

The film is based on Booth Tarkington story “Magnolia.”