Monday, August 16, 2010

Shooting Star

The following excerpt is a first draft in an effort to write about the career of Clint Eastwood.  Feedback is welcome. --JC

I'm one of those people -- and I think I can safely extrapolate that there are, by a conservative estimate, tens of millions of us -- who grew up with Clint Eastwood in the background of our lives. I do want to emphasize background. While Eastwood has long enjoyed a durable fan base, he's also been a public figure that we've all known, whether we wanted to or not. To some degree, this is a simple matter of marketing muscle; with his movies regularly advertised in newspapers on on television, his presence has been unavoidable. To some degree, too, Eastwood's choice of roles have made him a kind of cultural shorthand for the perennially popular, if not universally admired, independent gunslinger. Finally, there's Eastwood's sheer longevity, a longevity that has now spanned generations. This was true even 35 years ago, as Eastwood himself slyly indicated in Breezy, a 1974 movie about a May-November romance which he directed but did not have a leading role. At one point, the unlikely couple goes on a date to see High Plains Drifter, a 1973 western starring none other than Clint Eastwood, and one of the few movies at the time that could plausibly bridge what was then a rather large generation gap.

After he knocking around Hollywood for a few years in the mid-1950s, when he appeared in a series of small movie roles, Eastwood first became famous as for his role as Rowdy Yates on the long-running television series Rawhide (1959-65), where he was a largely unremarkable heartthrob of the kind those of us over the age of 25 or so have seen come and go many, many times. Like a handful of such performers (Jodie Foster's childhood apprenticeship in the Disney film factory comes to mind), Eastwood used this relatively shallow, albeit high profile, gig as a personal laboratory.  In the mid-sixties, he used his summers off from Rawhide to go to Europe to make a string of cheap so-called "spaghetti westerns" for the Italian director Sergio Leone. These films, which were not widely seen in the United States until the end of the decade, were the first indication of wider ambition, though few observers at the time considered them more than cartoonish experiments. But Eastwood became a genuine pop culture phenomenon with the release of Dirty Harry (1971), the first of five films (the last was released in 1988) in which he played a strong, silent, and violent San Francisco policeman who practiced rough justice by his own lights. These films made Eastwood a rich and powerful man in Hollywood. He quietly leveraged that power, often extending it by continuing to make crowd-pleasing thrillers -- in 1995, years before his greatest commercial successes, film critic and biographer Richard Schickel estimated that Eastwood had generated $1.5 billion in profits to Warner Brothers, which released most of his movies -- by taking on more personal projects and beginning a second career as a director.

Indeed, for anyone born after 1985 or so, the terms "spaghetti western" or "Dirty Harry" constitute relatively arcane pop culture references -- recognized by some people in that demographic for sure, but hardly household words. And yet these people are no less likely to recognize Eastwood's name than their elders. With the 1992 release of Unforgiven, a movie in which he starred as well as produced and directed, and for which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, Eastwood began one of the most remarkable second leases on life in film history. This run, which included a second Best Picture Oscar for Million Dollar Baby (2004), cannot help but inspire awe (and perhaps a little hope) for anyone with a fear of aging. Eastwood gave a widely acclaimed performance as an irascible racist in Gran Torino in 2008, which he claimed would be his last acting performance. But this fall, at age 80, he will release Hereafter, the 32nd feature film he will have directed.

Over the course of the last half-century, there have been two main narratives in Eastwood's career. For the most part, they are successive and divergent, though not completely so. The first one might be summarized as "Clint Eastwood, action hero." Certainly, such a label would have made sense to the general public at large, whether they were fans or not. That this was never quite the whole story is something some people would have recognized -- Eastwood made a lousy musical, Paint Your Wagon, in 1969 -- even if it remained a useful form of shorthand (indeed, the critical and commercial failure of that film can plausibly be attributed to the degree to which he strayed from his core strength as an action hero).

Critical opinion, which was more important in the 1960s and 70s than it is today, was tepid at best. Eastwood's recent champions have perhaps exaggerated the breadth of the critical disdain he elicited; Vincent Canby of the New York Times considered Eastwood's performance in Paint Your Wagon "amiable," and characterized the movie as a whole as one "that can be enjoyed more than simply tolerated."[Guide,737] But there's no question that Eastwood had plenty of vitriol hurled in his direction, most prominently by Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, whose contempt borders on shocking. "Clint Eastwood isn't offensive; he isn't an actor, so one can't call him offensive," Kael said of the second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, in 1974. "He'd have to do something before we could consider him bad at it." Besides objecting to what she considered Eastwood's wooden acting style (a self-conscious minimalism that has aged well in terms of critical opinion), Kael hated what she considered the moral indifference she saw running through all of Eastwood's work, an indifference that she considered symptomatic of Hollywood movies of the time. "At an action film now, it just doesn't make much difference whether a good or bad guy dies, or a radiant young girl or a double dealing chippie," she wrote. Kael made a distinction between the kind of cold-blooded violence she saw in Eastwood's work and the no less graphic realism in the films of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, whose work she lionized. Yet many subsequent observers have questioned the legitimacy of assertion. [PK, "Killing Time," 1/14/74, p.83)

Beginning in the 1980s, however, a gradual wave of revisionism began to build in Eastwood's favor. A new narrative, which might be termed "Clint Eastwood, major artist," took shape. The Museum of Modern Art hosted a one-day retrospective of his work in 1980, and some feminists began taking note of the strong female figures in some of his movies (often played by his paramour of the time, Sandra Locke). I myself distinctly remember with surprise that Eastwood directed Bird, a biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker, in 1988, and took note of the respectful reviews the film generated (not that it led to to go see it, as I was neither a big jazz nor a big Eastwood fan). The turning point for me, as indeed it was for a great many people, was Unforgiven, which I finally went to go see at the end of 1992, months after its release, because the buzz around it was simply too great to ignore. Unforgiven was widely considered a "revisionist" western, a term that probably gets bandied about too much. The first of Eastwood's spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), was also considered revisionist. But the term means pretty much diametrically opposing things in the two films. Fistful was revisionist in its relative amorality, and willingness to depict violence with greater frequency and ferocity than mainstream Hollywood far like The Magnificent Seven (1960), which was beautiful, clean, and unconsciously racist (not that Fistful was any better in its representation of Mexicans). Unforgiven, by contrast, ruthlessly undercut traditional notions of western heroism, and depicted the often excruciating messiness and moral ambiguity in the deaths of its characters. It's a movie that seems to directly address, and incorporate Kael's criticism. Eastwood has called Unforgiven his last western, and it does seem to be a summary statement.

Indeed, while the first storyline of "Clint Eastwood, action hero" continued to linger in the popular imagination long after critical opinion began to shift, many of those who adopted the "Clint Eastwood, major artist" narrative believed that Eastwood had shifted from one to the other. Sometimes this shift was understood in political terms. Both in the tough stance on urban crime that marks the Dirty Harry movies, and in Eastwood's avowed Republicanism -- he voted for Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon twice -- he was considered the property of the Right. Yet by the 1990s, Eastwood was attacked by conservative critics for his portrayal of an ineffective sheriff in A Perfect World (1993) and a sympathetic stance toward euthanasia in Million Dollar Baby nine years later. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Gran Torino are downright multicultural in their attempt to represent an Asian point of view. And, notwithstanding Spike Lee's criticism for the lack of black characters in Eastwood's movie about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers (2006), any fair reading of Eastwood's career would have to acknowledge bona fide diversity in his treatment of African American characters as an actor and director, particularly in the string of films that runs from Bird to Invictus (2009).

Actually, this perceived notion of a change is initially what attracted me to Clint Eastwood. I sensed a trajectory there that I could trace, an implicit story I could make explicit by charting the way American history was narrated in his movies. And there is change, most obviously in the distinction between his first westerns and his last one, as I've noted, as well as an evolution in his characters' stance on gender, for example. But after an immersion in his body of work, the thing I find surprising is the strong degree of continuity in his historical vision, not the degree of change. From beginning to end, both in terms of the order in which he made his movies and the chronology in which their settings can be arranged, a strong sense of rugged individualism runs through Eastwood's work. In and of itself, that's hardly surprising or even all that interesting, given the centrality of this trope in the western tradition. That centrality was always contested: You always had your Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart to go along with your John Wayne. But the ambivalence about that individualism, that nagging persistence, even need, for social connection and social order: that's not something people tend to associate, much less profess to want, from a Clint Eastwood movie.

Indeed, if I was making this assertion in the last quarter of the 20th century instead of the first quarter of the 21st, it might well seem myopic: a serious reader would not deny the observations I plan to make so much as think that I'm overlooking the context of, say, the Dirty Harry movies, in which Eastwood's Nixonian hardhat anti-authoritarianism was far more obvious that what would seem to be gestures at best toward institutional loyalty. But in retrospect, Eastwood's characters come off more strongly than they did at the time as team players. Kael's complaints notwithstanding, they seem literally and figuratively more human than successors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the moral indifference about violence she criticized at the time seems downright mild when compared with movies like those of Quentin Tarantino. Part of the reason why, of course, is that the political climate of the nation as a whole moved a good deal further to the Right than it already perceptibly had at the moment Eastwood emerged as a movie star. In the end, I do think Eastwood's success is a reflection of the truth that the essence of his art is conservative, and as such reflected the spirit of his age. The question is what kind of conservative. The answer, I think is best apprehended through the lens of history.

Next: Eastwood as a child of the 1930 with a not-quite Baby Boomer sensibility