Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tending to the flock

The following is an an installment in my ongoing series of posts on Clint Eastwood, part of a work in progress. It can be read separately or in conjunction with other posts below. -JC

"A guy sits in the audience, he's twenty five years old, and he's scared stiff about what he's going to do with his life," Eastwood told Richard Schickel in a series of conversations that became the core of Schickel's highly regarded 1995 biography. "He wants to have that self-sufficient thing he sees up there on the screen."And then, Schickel reports, "To this thought he appended somewhat surprisingly, somewhat gratuitously, another, darker one: 'But it will never happen that way. Man is always dreaming of being an individual, but man is really a flock animal.'"

There are any number of good reasons to hesitate before challenging the judgment of Richard Schickel, one of the finest film critics and historians of the past-half century. He knows a lot, has had more access to Eastwood than any other writer, and came of age with Eastwood, with whom he shares many influences. But I think he misses something important here. Whatever context or nuance that may suggested otherwise to him at the time, it is not necessarily dark or gratuitous to suggest "man is really a flock animal." Actually, I think such a remark goes to the heart of an important truth about Eastwood. Not the whole truth. But an overlooked one that's important to his appeal and his artistry.

Of course, one of the reasons why this truth is overlooked is precisely because it's not especially obvious. As the above comment makes clear, Eastwood himself understands very well that a major source of his appeal is the way in which he embodies a vision of autonomy that has great allure for what has long been his core audience. Eastwood understands that allure, because he experienced it, and he acted on it professionally even before he acted on it artistically. Once he did act on it artistically, it took awhile for counter-currents to emerge. But not that long. And while the fantasy -- a term Eastwood has used -- of male autonomy would continue to loom large in his work, the overall balance has tilted away from it since the mid-1970s.

But before we get into that, we need to trace how he broke from the pack in the first place. And here we have to return to Eastwood's Rawhide days. By the mid-1960s, Eastwood's development had been marked by a curious combination of drift and focus. An indifferent student who worked odd jobs until well into his twenties, he only began to get serious about the craft of acting long after people his age had finished college (and after he had taken the traditionally adult step of marrying, though it should be said at this point that Eastwood has always taken a fairly indulgent view regarding the rigors of marital monogamy). By the mid-fifties, he was dedicated to an acting career in the face of some adversity, particularly when he got dropped by Universal. Getting cast at Rowdy Yates was a hugely lucky break, one that came about largely because he accepted an invitation to visit a friend at CBS and got seen by the right producer at the right time. But before long, Rawhide --a show which, like most westerns, valorized the big open spaces and personal freedoms central to the appeal of the genre -- had become a gilded cage (Eastwood took to calling his character "Rowdy Yates, idiot of the plains"). The question for Eastwood was whether, and how, to break out.

He was hemmed in on multiple sides. The rigors of his schedule, and the terms This contract with the network, limited his ability to take on other projects, though he did make a few appearances on other TV shows and other venues. There's a story that's a fixture of multiple biographical accounts of Eastwood's life in which he sought, unsuccessfully, to direct episodes of the show. But even as he was chafing against these boundaries, he made the most of the opportunities his job afforded him, and formed relationships that would prove to be consequential later on.

The breakthrough came from an unlikely direction: Italy. Director Sergio Leone, who had worked on a series of American films with major directors like Mervyn Leroy and William Wyler offered Eastwood the lead on a western he was calling The Magnificent Stranger, based on Yojimbo, the 1961 masterpiece directed by Akiro Kurosawa, itself based on the westerns of John Ford (so it is that pop culture influences ping around the globe; Italian "spaghetti westerns" had become a flourishing genre by the early sixties). Leone offered the job to Eastwood because he couldn't afford top-level Hollywood talent. Eastwood accepted it because he could do it on his summer hiatus from Rawhide.

Though this wasn't an especially risky move on Eastwood's part -- if the results proved embarrassing, no one he cared about would be likely to see them -- it was nevertheless a shrewd one. The character he was to play (named Joe, but eventually marketed as "The Man with No Name")  was a far remove from Rowdy Yates: tougher, more worldly, decidedly man, not boy. In a lot of ways, Leone's spaghetti westerns were deeply conventional (they were hardly paragons of racial enlightenment, in their portrayal of Mexicans, for example). But they nevertheless marked a sharp departure from traditional westerns in ways that ranged from the amorality of the characters and filmic conventions like allowing the shooter and victim to be portrayed in the same frame.

Sergio Leone is justly celebrated for injecting new life into the western, particularly, for example, in his use of long shots to situate characters in vast landscapes, and for his dry sense of humor. But Eastwood made important contributions of his own to the movie that became A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, followed by For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Before leaving for Italy and Spain to shoot the first of these movies, he put together the distinctive wardrobe for his character, including the poncho and the signature cigar that would prove iconic. He also convinced Leone to greatly winnow the dialogue an backstory. In what would probe to be a recurrent patten in Eastwood movies, we are introduced to a protagonist who literally comes out of nowhere. Indeed, it is perhaps a counter-current to my entire argument here that Eastwood consistently tried to deny a past at all to many of his protagonists ("it doesn't matter where this guy comes from," he explained). At one point in the movie, his character commits a rare act of kindness in defending a young woman. When she asks why, he replies, "Because I know someone like you once and there was no one there to help."

Such interventions notwithstanding, the hallmark of Eastwood's characters in this trilogy is a lack of attachment. In a funny way, the figure he plays is detached even from himself; though he has a different name in each (Joe in Fistful, "Manco" in For a Few Dollars More and "Blondie" in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), he's essentially the same person, notably in that wardrobe. This sense of jarringly loose connection extends to his characters' relationships with other people.  In Fistful, Eastwood's Joe forms an alliance with Col. Douglas Mortimer, the character played by Lee Van Cleef; in the final movie, he kills Van Cleef's "Angel Eyes" (again, different names, essentially same person). In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, "the good" Blondie has a twisted buddy relationship with "the ugly" Tuco (Eli Wallach); united in greed, they abuse each other in a jocular way.

A sense of moral and social isolation is also central to the plot of these movies. In A Fistful of Dollars, Joe positions himself between rival Mexican gangs, neither of whom have redeeming qualities -- not that it matters, as his motivation in outwitting them is strictly financial. In For a Few Dollars More, we come to learn that Van Cleef's character has become a bounty hunter as a matter of personal revenge; Eastwood's character is strictly mercenary (and walks off with all the money).

This sense of radical libertarianism is perhaps most obvious and in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The final installment of Leone's trilogy, it has has an anti-heroic message embedded in an epic sense of scale, one made possible by the surprise success of its predecessors, which gave him major studio funding from United Artists.  Once again we're given a cast of grasping characters who are trying to swindle established authorities and each other. But the backdrop this time is the U.S. Civil War, portrayed as an exercise in brutality that dwarfs anything the characters do to each other. Slavery is never named, much less seen, which is perhaps not entirely surprising given that the setting of the movie is the New Mexico territory( where there was some fighting in the early months of the war). At different points, for purely functional reasons, the three main characters present themselves as Yanks or Rebels as part of an effort to capture a cache of Confederate gold. But insofar as they register any opinion about the war that rages around them, it's to profess amazement -- and disgust. Eastwood's character, witnessing a futile struggle over a largely inconsequential bridge (a big set-piece in this 3-hour film), observes that "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly." At a couple other points, he provides comfort to dying men in the form of whiskey or a cigar, private acts of charity independent of, perhaps even in defiance of, any larger design.

Though each of the films was instantly popular upon release in 1964-66, Leone's trilogy was not widely shown in the United States until 1967; they were first exhibited as part of a triple bill in 1969. It's intriguing to consider this fact in light of what was happening in Hollywood in these pivotal years. This was the moment of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967), and Easy Rider (1969). All of these movies thrilled their young audiences with their avowedly counter-cultural sensibilities. Eastwood's Leone westerns shared the skeptical spirit of these three movies, and indeed had comparable settings, and a comparable unflinching attitude toward violence, as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. (I must say, however, that it's hard to imagine to more different emerging stars than Dustin Hoffman and Clint Eastwood.) In this protean moment,  Eastwood might well have seemed to some hippies as someone over 30 who could be trusted (in cinematic taste, anyway). While a discerning viewer might have discerned too great a sense of engagement with the genre from which they emerged to consider the Leone films truly radical, a few years would pass before Eastwood would be largely considered a man of the Right rather than a man of the Left. In shaking off the dead conventions of the past, the spaghetti westerns gave the history a new sense of possibility. For the counterculture, the past was something one should try (though not necessarily succeed) in leaving behind.

For Eastwood, in any case, the Leone westerns were less important than any statement he may have wished to make -- at this point, he wasn't really in a position to be making statements, nor do his comments then or since suggest he particularly wanted to -- than as a vehicle for professional liberation. One intriguing indication of this is his decision to act in The Witches, an omnibus movie in which he appeared under the direction of Italian legend Vittorio DeSica. In the context of what he would go on to do, Eastwood's appearance in the final installment The Witches is downright bizarre: he plays a sexually repressed businessman (there's an extended fantasy sequence in which his wife imagines Eastwood's character as a gunslinger, and in which he eventually shoots himself in the head and and plunges from a scaffolding in despair in jealousy). Certainly, it was something different; Eastwood also got a Ferrari out of the deal.

By 1968, however, Eastwood was in a position to have a say in what he would do and how he would do it. He declined to appear in another Leone movie, established his own production company, and began looking for scripts. He did not yet have the clout to direct, and Eastwood never wrote his own material. But under the terms of the deal he cut with his old studio, Universal, he did have the power to name his own director and to shape the material to his own satisfaction. It is in this sense that the resulting picture, Hang 'em High, can be said to be the first Clint Eastwood movie.

Still to come: A reading of Hang 'em High and other early Eastwood movies.