Wednesday, September 1, 2010

(Alternative) family man

The following post is part of a work in progress on the career of Clint Eastwood. It focuses on Eastwood's portrayal of gender. --JC

Long before he fell under the critical gaze of academic feminists, Clint Eastwood was teaching millions of American boys how to be men. Of course, much of what made Eastwood such a compelling figure was inimitable: we're not all blessed with his chiseled good looks, his outsized stature, or his unique walk, the impact of each in their way comparable to that of John Wayne in his heyday. But the even temper, the evident mastery, above all the disciplined of minimalism in his speech: these could be emulated.  Neither prince nor pauper, here was a man whose appeal cut across all kinds of demographic lines. Even now, almost a half-century later, Eastwood's grace is stunning, and exerts a magnetic pull even on those who have presumably long since worked out their notion of manhood as well as they're going to.

Such distinctive features notwithstanding, Eastwood is decidedly a man of his time, which is to say that he's a man who came of age before feminism and who has struggled to come to terms with it ever since. In his early interviews, he would refer to women as "chicks," and he has a well-established reputation as a serial adulterer who routinely bedded his co-stars. He's been married twice, and has at least seven children by five different women. While none of this is prima facie proof of sexism, it does the suggest the behavior of a traditional alpha male who puts his own gratification before the interests of people he sees as equals. One need not accept every interpretation of events offered by a critical biographer like Patrick McGilligan, or the embittered memoir of former paramour Sondra Locke, to suspect that Eastwood has been less than a model man.
At the same time, there has been growing recognition, one that has quickened in recent years, that Eastwood has shown an unusual and growing sensitivity to issues of gender in his work, and has, especially recently, made real efforts to integrate a female point of view into his work. Though Eastwood cultivates an aw-shucks response to this attention -- "All along, I thought I was just giving women good roles to play," he said in a 1989 interview -- his cinematic record suggests that it's here more than anyone else that Eastwood's art has undergone the most obvious change.

I'm less interested in any possible hypocrisy here than I am in calling attention to the tensions between art and life and the frictions between what is and what we'd like to be (or once was). Eastwood, like all of us, has dealt with these issues in other ways, too. The most obvious example has been his quest for control over the terms of his career and his repeated insistence that he is not an Andrew Sarris-styled auteur whose vision dictates the outcome of a particular movie. "There's no such thing as 'auteur' in my mind," he said in an interview for a cineaste magazine in 1980. "It's an ensemble. Somebody leads the ensemble, there's a lieutenant to the platoon or something, but that doesn't mean all the other people aren't being innovative. Rather than just having them pick up a brick and laying it in, they're all being creative with the design in a certain way. As long as that doesn't deviate too far, that's great, because I turn down as many suggestions as I accept, but I do take some good ones." Eastwood's military metaphor is skillfully deployed here, and does make sense. His career has been marked by teamwork and a set of collaborators he has tended to work with time and again. He's managed to combine the best aspects of the studio system with the kind of collaborative autonomy one associates with his perhaps unlikely peer, Woody Allen, who's also known for working fast, cheap, and effectively. But in a highly vertical art like feature film production, Eastwood surely more a commanding general than a platoon leader, even if his leadership style is, by most accounts, quietly authoritative. His production company, Malpaso, is, relatively speaking, a small farm amid some very large studio plantations. But it nevertheless illustrates that even in a self-styled Jeffersonian community, not all men are equal. Perhaps in the end it's the tension, more than the ideal or the outcome, that's the most interesting and maybe even honorable.

In terms of his portrayal of women, however, one could say there's not much tension in Eastwood's early work, because essentially there aren't any. You can't get through an analysis of A Fistful of Dollars without some account of his character's brief interaction with Marisol. But that exchange is really only in the movie to demonstrate that the apparently amoral protagonist of the film does have heart, even if he refuses to have a cause. Women are beside the point in all the Leone movies, is which to reconstruct a version of manhood that can exist independently of shopworn ideals, one that largely rests on a notion of stoic competence. And while there's a little more room for them in major Eastwood works like Hang 'em High or High Plains Drifter, his characters arrive, and leave, alone, autonomy being the essence of their characters. Dirty Harry, a widower, has an occasional tryst with an Asian woman in Magnum Force, but he never forms a permanent attachment.

As a result, some academic critics have tended to see Eastwood's work as symptomatic of a broader misogyny in American society.  "To young men of the sixties who remained unaffected by any of the protest movements, yet felt anxious about their maleness, the authoritarian Eastwood hero suggested that the traditional superiority of the strong, silent male, could be recovered," Joan Mellen wrote in her 1977 book Big Bad Wolves. She went on to note, in language typical of the time, that Eastwood's allure was so strong that "he even appealed to some women before the women's movement exposed the neurosis of the male so incapable of seeing anyone female as equal to himself or as a human being at all." A generation later, this line of reasoning was still evident in the feminist-theory influenced prose of a male scholar who wrote that "Eastwood's 1960s and 1970s films construct a solipsistic order organized around the phallus, and in the service of an imaginary projection of the self."

Indeed, in the late sixties and early seventies, the gender politics of Eastwood's movies go from bad to worse, perhaps reflecting the same nihilistic turn in his work discernible in his stance toward civilizing institutions (which, it should be noted, have long been coded as "female"). In The Beguiled, the war between the sexes is far more obvious and damaging than the war between the states. In Eastwood's directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, Dave Garver is victimized by a devouring female who wreaks havoc on his life after a one-night stand with a crazed fan of his radio show.  In a way, such a summary is unfair, because part of the plot of the movie is Garver's growing understanding that he wants a committed relationship with the longtime girlfriend he had kept at arm's length. What's most striking about the movie, however, is that there's never any suggestion that Garver has brought chaos upon himself -- and her -- as a result of his freewheeling sexual ways. Garver certainly never apologies. Instead, his ordeal reflects a broader Eastwood theme that violence is a pervasive force in society at large that can be fought but never contained. This makes sense; as feminists have long been apt to point out, it's wrong to blame the victim. But if so, then the Eastwood of the early seventies is a hypocrite. In what is surely the low point in his body of work, the main character of High Plains Drifter rapes a woman who repeatedly insults him near the start of the movie (in what some will perceive as adding insult to injury, this a violation she ends up enjoying). Is the suggestion that this woman had it coming? It may not be clear at first, but as the movie proceeds we come to understand that she is deeply enmeshed in the town's corruption, something that the protagonist (who may be a reincarnated version of a murdered sheriff) seems preternaturally able to perceive. The logical conclusion, then, part of the movie's larger theme of vengeance, is that she does indeed deserve what she gets. "I might do it differently if I were making it now," Eastwood said, somewhat lamely, two decades later. "I might omit that."

Beginning in the mid-seventies, however, we begin to see signs of some active re-evaluation on Eastwood's part. The first sign of this is the third installment of the Dirty Harry saga, The Enforcer (1976), in which Callahan is saddled with a female partner (Tyne Daly) as part of an Affirmative Action initiative by the San Francisco Police Department. Callahan is aggressively scornful of this character, though over the course of the movie she gains his grudging and finally avowed respect for a toughness which, along with a sharp learning curve, makes her a good cop -- and one one saves Callahan's life. The fact that the two partners become friends, not lovers, is also an indication of this respect. Yet by a feminist calculus The Enforcer nevertheless comes up short, partly because Daly's character effectively has to pay for this respect with her life, and, more decisively, that she can only win it on Callahan's terms: a woman will be considered an equal when she's as good as a man is at the things he thinks matter.

In The Gauntlet, released the following year, one can discern further realignment in Eastwood's gender politics.This is another detective movie, though Eastwood's (alcoholic) character is far less competent than Dirty Harry; indeed, he's sent by his boss to escort police witness (Sondra Locke) from Las Vegas to Phoenix precisely because he's considered not too bright. Indeed, in the story that follows Locke's character is sharper in figuring out what's going on than her putative protector, and it's to Eastwood's credit that he would venture out from the protective persona of the invincible characters he had rode to stardom over the course of the preceding decade. But the most memorable moment in The Gauntlet -- perhaps one of the more striking moments in film history -- occurs when Eastwood's character is in danger of being overwhelmed by a group of armed adversaries, and Locke's character prevents this by baiting them into attempting to gang-rape her. This courageous stratagem is a remarkable act of toughness, a willingness to risk what has sometimes been considered a fate worse than death in trying to prevail in a desperate struggle. There is a sense in which this toughness is defined in a specifically female way, though it is perhaps still in terms of a traditionally male measure of physicality. Locke, who would prove to be a versatile performer in a half-dozen Eastwood movies, would again demonstrate a form of feminism-by-male logic in the fourth Dirty Harry movie, Sudden Impact (1984), in which she avenges her sister's and her own rape by serially murdering her adversaries by shooting them in the genitals. (It's enough to soften Harry Callahan's hard heart -- and lead him to temporarily suspend his commitment to the rule of law.)

In some important sense, however, these shifts in the way Eastwood depicts women and heterosexual relationships is less important than the way in which he is actively reconsidering the sense of isolation on the part of his characters and his tentative move toward engaging the concepts of connection and family. Perhaps not surprisingly, some early moves in this direction are at least as often in terms of mens' relationships with each other as they are with women. Even in this regard, Eastwood's characters had a long way to go. After collaborating with Lee Van Cleef's character in A Few Dollars More, Eastwood's protagonist -- we can't quite tell whether he's the same person or not -- kills him without compunction in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Feminists have long argued that the strong silent male archetype carries with it more than a hint of homophobia, a notion which finds credence in Magnum Force, in which Callahan compliments his soon-to-be adversaries, who might be gay, at a firing range by saying, "If everybody could shoot like that, I wouldn't care if the whole damn department was queer." (It's possible to interpret this as a statement of tolerance, but again, as with his partner in The Enforcer, it's strictly on his terms.) Rewritten script notwithstanding, one of the things that makes Thunderbolt and Lightfoot striking is that it shows an Eastwood character -- with great difficulty -- forming an emotional bond with another person (though one has to wonder whether anyone could resist the charm of  the young Jeff Bridges, who steals the movie).

The key turning point in terms of Eastwood's stance toward personal connection, one that intersects with his stance toward his stance toward more impersonal institutions, is The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). As many observers of Eastwood's career have noted, this project originated with a problematic source. The 1973 novel on which it is based, Gone to Texas, was written by Forrest Carter, a.k.a. Asa Carter, who in writing this book (and the subsequent The Education of Little Tree three years later) was trying to erase his segregationist past as a speechwriter for George Wallace, the governor of Alabama whose famous slogan -- "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" -- was written by Carter. Eastwood made the movie unaware of Carter's background, though the DNA of his ideology is not far from the surface. He describes Josey Wales as "free, unfettered by law an the irritating hypocrisy of organized society." Later, he finds common cause with the Comanche chief Ten Bears by noting that "Guv'mints lie ... promise ... back-stab ... eat in yore lodge and rape yore women and kill when you sleep on their promises.  Guv'mints don't live together .. men live together." In the world of the book, libertarian ideology transcends race.

Or so the book would have us believe. But the preoccupations of the novel, and subsequent movie, are much closer to home -- or, more accurately, a literal and figurative quest that explores what a home actually means. At the start of the story, Josey Wales is a farmer in Civil War Missouri. His family is attacked by the Union-backed militia, the so-called Red-Legs, who kill his wife and son and burn down his house. Quietly seething and hell-bent on revenge, he joins a Confederate militia and becomes a minor legend. But when the war ends, his compatriots have nowhere to go and decide to surrender. Josey and a young colleague do not -- and thus are among those not subsequently massacred by the mendacious Yankees. His former leader feels compelled to cooperate with the Federals who want Wales as a fugitive; the core question in the movie is whether Wales will find his way to freedom.

But the road to freedom, as it turns out, is littered with baggage. Wales loses his young compatriot early on, but wanders into Cherokee territory and befriends an old man named Lone Watie (apparently related to Stand Watie, a Cherokee chief and Confederate general). Watie decides to travel with Wales, and the two in turn encounter an abused Navajo woman a trading post, who joins them. Later in the story, they encounter an old woman and her granddaughter (played by Locke; the two characters fall in love) and subsequently rescue them when they are captured by Comanches. The old woman is trying to find her way to the farm, a dead Union veteran, left to the family.  Comic relief is supplied by a dog, who insists on following them, when Wales spits in his face in exasperation.

The problem for these people is that the old woman's farm lies squarely in Comanche territory. This is what prompts Wales, in an act of sheer bravery, to ride alone right into their camp, where he presents himself to the aforementioned Ten Bears as a fellow victim of government oppression, asking simply, but not humbly, for a life of co-existence -- and an acknowledgment in the form of annual tribute that the territory in question is indeed Comanche. Ten Bears, impressed with the courage and honesty of this pale face, grants his wish, and the two exchange a blood bond. But Wales remains a fugitive, and the army inevitably closes in. In a somewhat unexpected ending (one whose outcome is facilitated by nearby townspeople) Wales is allowed to settle down and start his life anew.

"The irony is that Josey Wales inherits a family," Eastwood later explained. "After he's fled from everything he was tied to because everything he loved was destroyed, he finds himself picking up these outcasts along the way: the Indian, the grandmother and her granddaughter, some Mexicans and even a dog. And soon this heterogeneous group becomes a kind of community." Later in the same interview, he noted, "You can only do so much with the lone hero. If you give him some family ties, you give him a new dimension."

The Outlaw Josey Wales was a landmark for Eastwood. For the rest of his career, he would return again and again to the problem of broken families and the attempt -- sometimes successful, sometimes not, to reconstruct alternative ones. (Interestingly, Eastwood has never told a story about an intact nuclear family, and here won't can't help but wonder in passing about the relationship between this fact and his own somewhat checkered family life.) Though the line was not always straight -- the spare, even severe, but gripping prison break movie Escape from Alcatraz (1979) comes to mind as something of a departure in this respect as well as in others -- but it is probably the dominant motif in Eastwood's work to this day.

One can certainly see it at work in one of Eastwood's most personal projects, Bronco Billy (1980). This willfully sentimental movie focuses on a set of willfully naive characters who work for an old-fashioned traveling Wild West show that winds its way to contemporary Idaho. This is where Locke, this time playing a pampered socialite fleeing the prospect of a loveless marriage that will allow her to inherit a fortune, comes into the picture. Like the audience watching the film, she can't quite believe these people are for real. And they're not. The troupe is a collection of ex-cons and alcoholics; Eastwood's Billy is a former shoe salesman from New Jersey who served time for killing  his wife when she slept with his best friend (funny how the friend escaped his wrath). Despite mishaps and misunderstandings that lead them at one point to attempt a comically absurd train robbery, all these people hang together.

You get the idea: families come in all shapes and sizes. In Eastwood's world, however, they tend to be patriarchal: in one way or another, he's the father figure. This is true even when the man in question is a shambling wreck and by any conventional standards a poor role model, as is Eastwood's character in HonkyTonk Man (1982), his paean to country music set in the thirties. In this road movie, he plays a consumptive alcoholic making his way from rural Oklahoma to Nashville for an audition at the Grand Ole Opry. Along the way, his sheltered nephew -- and the not so sheltered young woman who joins them -- experience the world and carry on his legacy. In Pale Rider (1985), a movie modeled on the classic 1953 western Shane, Eastwood plays another one of his mystical characters in the vein of High Plains Drifter, the so-called "Preacher" who appears out of nowhere to help a town challenge the depredations of a greedy mining corporation. The twist this time is that the child who looks up to him is a girl, not a boy, and that he intervenes more directly, though unknowingly, to buck of the confidence of her father, who doubts his nerve and ability. In a somewhat less impressive display of masculine supremacy, the Preacher also avails himself of the man's fiance so that she can have a single night of passion she's unlikely to enjoy in a life with this reliable, if unexciting man. 

In between Josey Wales and these movies, Eastwood also played with his masculine image to make a pair of wildly successful ones-- Every Which Way But Loose in 1980 and Any Which Way You Can in 1982 -- in which he plays Philo Beddo, a good ole boy (and I do mean boy). In these lovingly filmed tributes to roadside working-class Americana, Beddo is a California trucker who wins money on the side in pick-up boxing matches. His sidekick in both movies is an Orangutan named Clyde; his love interest is the Locke, a country singer who again is notably more sophisticated than he is. Much in these movies is downright silly, like the enmity of a biker gang that chases Beddo and Clyde through both movies, and indeed Eastwood's house studio, Warner Brothers, was very nervous about their commercial viability. But from a financial point of view, at least, Eastwood's instincts were sound.

It is also true, however, that in these years Eastwood continued to think actively about gender questions and to test new limits. The pivotal movie here is Tightrope (1984), another cop drama, but one with Eastwood's most flawed protagonist to date. This time he plays a divorcee trying to raise two daughters -- this is the first time we really see an Eastwood character as a family man -- who's also trying to solve a serial murder case involving the death of a string of prostitutes. The complication is that this character has many of the kinky sexual predilections of the criminal he's pursuing. Into this situation comes a rape crisis counselor played by Genevieve Bujold with whom Eastwood character, the evocatively named Wes Block, has a series of intellectually as well as sexually provocative exchanges. Many critics, particularly feminist critics, have seen this movie as a decisive departure for Eastwood. Perhaps the most influential, Judith Mayne, notes that Bujold's character "is distinctly 'other' than block, yet she represents a set of values that, however strange or foreign they may seem to him, are values to be contended with." Such a perspective is important in terms of Eastwood's career, but in American cinema general. As Philosopher Drucilla Cornell, in her study of the moral dimensions of Eastwood's masculinity, notes, "Rarely does Hollywood portray sexy, witty feminist, who runs women's self-defense classes, as a desirable sex object expressly because of her strength and because of her feminism."

Eastwood also demonstrated a sense of humor about such issues, and cast them in generational terms in Heartbreak Ridge (1986), in which he plays a decorated Korean War veteran approaching retirement, who returns to his old base on a last tour of duty to whip some recruits into shape on the eve of the invasion of Grenada. The movie unconvincingly inflates an unimpressive chapter of Cold War, and updates a shopworn device by populating replacing what used to be a motley crew of New York Jew, redneck Southerner and Midwestern farmhand with a new demographic set that included Mario Van Peebles (who would go on to direct his own western, Posse [1993], with a largely black cast). But the scenes where Eastwood -- now approaching senior citizenship and starting to look (and sound) like it -- tries to win back the affection of his ex-wife (Marsha Mason) by using language he picks up in women's magazines is priceless.

All this said, there were signs that Eastwood was running out of commercial, artistic, and ideological steam by the end of the eighties. He's simply too old to be credibly paired with Bernadette Peters in Pink Cadillac (1989) -- or, for that matter, as the partner for Charlie Sheen in The Rookie (1990), a movie with an odd moment in that Eastwood's character is raped at knife-point by a female villain played by Sonia Braga (while she does so, an old Eastwood movie plays in the background). This is the kind of moment that arrives sooner or later for a great man movie stars, and had Eastwood's career ended here any fair-minded person would have to say that he had enjoyed an extraordinarily productive, and surprisingly successful, run.

And then came Unforgiven.