Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Stranger in Town

The following is part of an ongoing foray into the Clint Eastwood's version of American history. See also previous posts on the subject below. --J.C.

That Clint Eastwood would choose a western as the first movie over which he would exert substantial control is hardly surprising. Eastwood had come to national attention in a television western; he made his cinematic breakthrough in spaghetti westerns. Both in terms of what worked generally and what worked specifically for him, it would make sense that he build on this success as part of a long-term strategy of achieving professional autonomy. It's also clear, in any case, that Eastwood has always liked westerns, and his movies -- and his interviews-- are filled with allusions that come from the western tradition. One of the great thrills of Eastwood's youth was running into Howard Hawks on Sepulveda Boulevard. The name of Eastwood's character in Hang 'em High, Jed Cooper, is a nod toward Gary Cooper, who starred so memorably in High Noon (a film Eastwood would reference in what proved to be the personally fraught ending of Dirty Harry).

Over the course of his career, Eastwood has appeared in over a dozen movies that can be considered classic westerns, running from his cameo appearance in Star in the Dust (1956) to his culminating statement on the genre, Unforgiven (1992). Along the way, he appeared in many more movies in the last half century in what were contemporary settings, though it takes no great leap of imagination to consider the (urban) Dirty Harry movies as part of what the great film historian Robert Ray would call "disguised westerns," or to understand the appeal of his 2000 movie Space Cowboys in terms of the western baggage that that movies' stars (Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, Donald Sutherland, and Eastwood himself) brought to their roles as astronauts.

Occasionally, Eastwood has also made movies with other historical settings. He's made a couple World War II movies (Where Eagles Dare in 1968 and Kelly's Heroes in 1970), though these were films he acted in he had much in the way of artistic leverage, and it's a little surprising that he hasn't made any since, with the oblique ception of Bird, in which he didn't appear and in which we get a view of the 1940s that is avowedly alternative to traditional wartime story-lines. He's revisited the Great Depression in Honky-Tonk Man (1982), a movie about a country singer Eastwood considers among his best, and in his forgettable caper with Burt Reynolds, City Heat (1984). In his post-acting days, Eastwood seems to have taken an interest in making movies about real people and events, among them the 1920s complex crime/police corruption/family drama The Changeling (2008) and Invictus (2009), a modern-day story in which the life and legend of Nelson Mandela loom large.

One way to reckon what this all might mean is to consider the periods Eastwood hasn't done much with. In this regard, it's interesting for example, how, putting aside his own fleeting appearances in the movies of the time, how little interest he's had in the fifties. The only movie with such a historical backdrop is his thinly veiled biopic of film director John Huston, White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), which almost doesn't count, given that it's mostly set in Africa and explores anti-colonial themes that resonate far beyond its immediate moment. (The critical and commercial failure of the film effectively takes it off the radar in any case.) He's had no interest in the Progressive era; a suspicion that this may have a political dimension is strengthened when one considers how his movies about the thirties really make no reference to the New Deal. Stories about loners and ones about bureaucrats make for an uneasy mix at best.

But the most striking historical absence from Eastwood's body of work is that he hasn't made a single movie with a setting before about 1850 (and that the earliest setting of an Eastwood movie, the gold-rush era of Paint Your Wagon, was made before he was fully in his own professional saddle). That might not seem to mean much. If asked, Eastwood himself would surely say that he has nothing against pre-Civil War U.S. history; it's simply a matter of someone telling a good story that he can get his hands on. (Indeed, knowledgeable observers have emphasized Eastwood's dependence on source material by others, and attributed a decline in the quality and box-office clout of his work in the late eighties and early nineties to a lack of access to such material.) Moreover, it's a widely accepted truism that no one has made a really good feature film about the American Revolution, for example.  Still, one of the the most striking things about Eastwood's career has been his willingness to take on topics and themes, sometimes in the face of studio objections, that he considers important. If he wanted to badly enough, he could have made such a movie by now. The fact that he hasn't isn't a matter of criticism -- he's been under no obligation to do so, after all -- than a reflection of his personal priorities about which versions, which periods, in U.S. history he considers most compelling. In a career of surprising choices, here's one thing that isn't especially so. Which may be a bit surprising.

But, you may ask, who cares? It's not any of us are counting on Eastwood to teach us American history, after all. Except, of course, that this has been effectively what he has done for millions of Americans. Again: this is not a complaint, and my point is finally less about what's missing than what's present. It's a fact that, proportionally speaking, Clint Eastwood has made a lot of westerns, i.e. films set in the trans-Mississippi west in the last third of the nineteenth century. To a great extent, he's done this because such movies, which had long since crystallized into a discrete artistic genre with their own conventions and traditions, have been very popular with audiences, and this has allowed Eastwood to become rich, famous, and exercise a tremendous amount of clout. But Eastwood also continued to make westerns after their commercial appeal was demonstrably waning. Indeed, some would say that he almost single-handedly kept the genre alive in the 1970s and 80s; Pale Rider in particular was a lonely rider on the cinematic landscape at the time of its release in 1985. That movie and Unforgiven represent willful acts of choice on Eastwood's part that typify the kind of independent judgment he has exercised over the course of his career.

So what do we see when we see an Eastwood western? Naturally, we see wide-open landscapes; indeed, panoramic establishing shots are fixtures of almost all Eastwood movies. (Those occasions where this is not the case, like The Bridges of Madison County, which opens with a shot of a mailbox that sends both a message of domesticity and a virtual connection to a wider world, convey a sense of artistic departure for precisely that reason.) We also see a diversity of characters along a moral spectrum, and a frequent resort to violence on their part, which, committed at a safe distance upon a screen, allows any number of vicarious impulses to get expressed. One thing you don't see a lot of in an Eastwood western is screen time for established figures of authority; indeed, when I began watching these movies I was struck less by a particular stance toward institutional power one way or the other than its utter absence. But that's because I was an relatively inexperienced viewer of westerns. Actually, every observation I make about Eastwood westerns in this paragraph are typical of the genre as a whole -- and features which have made them so attractive to generations of Americans who have not lived these experiences but longed for them as a means of psychic escape or as a source of political alternatives.

After a while, I began to sense what was different, and I began to discern what might be called Eastwood's DNA when it comes to history. And that goes something like this: The typical Eastwood character is a loner in temperament, but not in practice.  He often appears, like the characters of the spaghetti westerns, and Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and High Plains Drifter (1973) out of nowhere. In their actions -- and, in particular, in the lack of a backstory that is very common in Eastwood movies -- they deny history. Yet they become engaged in the life of a community and change it. Even when, as in the case of the High Plains Drifter, the character rides, Shane style, off into the sunset, they typically restore order in the name of established authority (in that movie Eastwood's character avenges the death of a sheriff. Literally or figuratively -- the plot is purposely vague on who this person actually is -- he nevertheless represents social order.

I don't want to go overboard here. I don't mean to suggest that Eastwood's character is a bourgeois banker at heart. Nor do I deny that there are cases, like Pale Rider, where the character disappears into the ether, Shane style, truly with no strings attached (earthly or or otherwise). Moreover, the established authority in this Eastwood movie and many others are very often corrupt, sometimes irredeemably so. But these facts, taken as a whole, never constitute a wholesale -- or, an any case, permanent -- rejection of the need for the social and legal institutions that constitute a tenable society. In this sense, then, Eastwood endorses, with some of the same ambivalence, the now legendary formulation of the great academic historian Frederick Jackson Turner: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development." Free land and free men, yes, but, finally, settlement.

Eastwood summed the matter up in a 1984 interview with film critic David Thomson: "There is a fantasy in this era of bureaucracy, of complicated life, income tax and politicizing everything, that there's a guy [he's speaking of his archetype here] who can do certain things by himself. There will always be that fantasy. Maybe certain groups will try to suppress it or advocate against it. But that fantasy will always exist." Yes, and it will always be a fantasy, one that Eastwood constantly undercuts even as he gratifies it.

Besides being the first film over which he exercised decisive power, Hang 'em High is significant in the way in which it lays down a durable pattern of tracks along the lines I'm describing. After a moment of pastoralism in which Eastwood's Jed Cooper leads his cattle with a gentle but firm hand, he is accosted by an angry posse that incorrectly considers him a poacher. After briefly deliberating, they decide to lynch him. This opening sequence encapsulates much of the entire plot of the 1943 film The Ox-Bow Incident, a childhood favorite of Eastwood's  that was directed by William Wellman (he would land a small role in Wellman's final movie, Lafayette Escadrille, in 1957). But while that The Ox-Bow Incident portrays a severe miscarriage of justice resulting from the absence of effective legal authority, Hang 'em High uses its parallel episode as a point of departure for a journey  in a more complex and ambiguous direction.

The first sign of this is the unlikely means of Cooper's rescue: The rope he's been left swinging on is cut loose by a marshal's bullet: the forces of law and order contravene the act of a mob. He will also bring Cooper to town in his paddywagon, where investigation into the matter will demonstrate that Cooper is innocent of theft and he will be released by Adam Fenton (Pat Hingle), known in the Oklahoma county in which the movie is set as a hanging judge. Cooper thirsts for revenge -- this primal instinct is the fuel for the rest of the movie -- a desire the judge understands and will literally sanction by hiring Cooper as a second marshal and insisting that any vengeance he wreaks be conducted under official auspices But as we come to see the particular brand of frontier justice adanced is neither entirely fair or benevolent; the same marshal who saved Cooper will soon thereafter will shoot a crazed prisoner (a still-young Dennis Hopper) under questionable circumstances.

As the story proceeds with Cooper systematically tracking down his assailants, we begin to understand the judge's motive is, at least in part, political: tapping Cooper's power evident and ability in apprehending fugitives will advance the judge's agenda to demonstrate that Oklahoma is ready for statehood, with all the power and privilege such a status will record the territory (and, presumably, the judge himself). Cooper and the judge end up on a collision course when two adolescents who actually were involved in the cattle rustling referenced at the start of the movie are sentenced to death, a ruling Cooper objects to, and seeks to overturn because of extenuating circumstances in the case. His disgust deepens when one of the men involved in his lynching (one we saw who had reservations) confesses and apologizes, which is good enough for Cooper but not the judge. Cooper threatens to quit unless this assailant is pardoned. He is -- and Cooper rides off, leaving his love interests and the town behind, but still wearing the badge he will use in tracking down two remaining adversaries.

Hang 'em High is a movie with a number of narrative loose ends and interpretive ambiguities (Variety called it "an episodic, rambling tale which glorifies personal justice"), and it is certainly far from an unambiguous endorsement of state power. But as a practical matter, Cooper's badge legitimates that quest for personal justice, and it also gives him (limited) power to moderate it from within. The decision to keep the badge is a conscious one, and a concluding one, which gives it decisive weight in the moral calculus of the movie. Jed Cooper is no starry-eyed idealist. But he finally decides that working within a system is ultimately less problematic than resorting to the same vigilantism endangered him in the first place.

This skeptical, at times bordering on hostile, decision to forge alliances, cooperate, and even defer to larger institutional forces is a pattern one sees in Eastwood's movies of the time. The armed forces of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes are laced with venality and double-dealing (the sardonic mood of the latter prefigures that of M*A*S*H two years later) but there's never any doubt who the real (Nazi) enemy is. In Two Mules for Sister Sara, Eastwood's character is a mercenary operating for Mexican nationalists against French imperialists. At the start of the movie he impulsively allows himself to get involved with a woman he incorrectly thinks is a nun. But he grudgingly respects her "vocation" and her (genuine) commitment to the nationalist cause, and allows himself to take direction from a headstrong rebel leader. His stance is reminiscent of Rick Blaine in Casablanca, who sticks his neck out for nobody but nevertheless finds himself allied, however profitably, with the forces of light against the forces of darkness. In Coogan's Bluff (1969),  a fish-out-of-water story about an Arizona lawman who comes to New York City to apprehend a fugitive, Eastwood's protagonist butts heads with the NYPD detective played by Lee J. Cobb. Eastwood's Coogan will ultimately have to make a citizen's arrest in the quest to get his man, but the story will end with him on terms of mutual respect with his adversarial police ally. (The movie will also be the first of a number that show Eastwood on the far side of a generational hippie divide; a club and song called the "Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel" is a priceless piece of hippie camp.)

Before going further, I need to make some caveats and clarifications. First, I want to make clear that at least to some degree, I'm reading against the grain of these movies, where the iconoclasm and independence of these characters was surely seen as the most obvious, relevant, and attractive things about them. British critic Christopher Frayling, who surely knows as much about Eastwood in particular and the western in general as anyone, has asserted that "Eastwood preferred to believe that he who travels alone travels furthest, and his terms were strictly cash. The hero with no answers." And yet as Frayling also understands, this was never the whole story. Indeed, it's possible to take what I've been saying and turn it inside out -- that to say far from unusual, my emphasis on the sense of institutional commitment on the part of Eastwood characters is hardly surprising, because it's the norm: for whom, other than a few characters in avowedly revisionist Sergio Leone movies, isn't this the case?

Take, for example John, Wayne. Wayne is often held up as a foil for Eastwood, sometimes by Eastwood himself. "I do all the stuff Wayne would never do," Eastwood has famously said. "I play bigger-than-life characters, but I'll shoot a guy in the back. I go by the expediency of the moment." Eastwood also noted that Wayne sent him a letter objecting to High Plains Drifter, because he felt the fecklessness of the community it depicts did not reflect American values. Richard Schickel adds that "the West has always been a location for Clint, not a passion. He has never identified the region or its people as the font of American virtues, as he has never seen himself as their personification as Wayne did." All true (with the possible exception that it's hard to see who someone with a vast body of work in a genre would not see his characters collectively as a kind of personification). But for all their obvious differences, Eastwood and Wayne typically portrayed people on the margins who nevertheless got involved with people in the middle of things -- sometimes reluctantly, sometimes temporarily, but almost always in the service of social good, variously construed. (No one got shot in the back who didn't deserve to.)

There are, however, two distinctions between them worth noting. The first has been one of tone or affect rather than content: Wayne's characters have a sense of longing, loss or fatalism, while Eastwood's typically project a sense of self-containment that make his interventions all the more striking, even thrilling, not only when juxtaposed against Wayne, but in the history of the movies as a whole. The second is one of context: the locus of Wayne's career was a period of institutional confidence, perhaps the greatest in American history. World War II, the Cold War, and postwar prosperity gave the United States a sense of power and purpose that Wayne took to heart like few other actors in U.S. history. He embodied a sense of fallibility about American experience, but not about American ideals and the need for them to be expressed in social organizations. Eastwood, by contrast, came of age professionally at precisely the moment when institutionalism in American life -- whether expressed in terms of families, churches, government or the military -- were under active question and even under siege.  They could not be credibly affirmed without taking this skepticism into account, which he did with unusual skill.

Which brings me to my second clarification. We sometimes think about institutional commitment in terms of the political spectrum -- the right avoids it, the left embraces it -- but it's never been that simple. Actually, American partisan politics has always been over the configuration of institutional commitment. The Right likes liberty when it comes to things like the market, but values solidarity when it comes to things like collective defense. The left values solidarity when it comes to social welfare, but privileges autonomy when it comes to matters like personal expression. A big part of Eastwood's success, particularly in the early going, is the way in which he sidestepped, even blurred, such distinctions. As Robert Mazzocco has noted in a often cited essay he wrote for the New York Review of Books in 1982, many of Eastwood's epigrammatic lines, like "There are two kinds of people in this world: those with a loaded gun and those who dig" (from The Good the Bad and the Ugly) work as well for the Social Darwinist as they do the Marxist.

The Social Darwinist and the Marxist may be polar opposites, but they both attacked the middle, which amid the social divisions of the Vietnam era, was not holding. Which is my final clarification/caveat. Insofar as the argument I'm making has any legitimacy, this is the period where it can be most successfully refuted. In the unusually productive year of 1971, Eastwood released three movies that go furthest of any in which he has made in reflecting the bitter, even nihilistic spirit of an age was among the most anti-institutional in American history.

In the case of The Beguiled, his second collaboration with Don Siegel (the first was Coogan's Bluff), this nihilism was retroactively projected back into the past. Eastwood plays John McBurney, an injured Civil War soldier rescued by a child and brought to a remote all-girl boarding school in rural Louisiana (the gloomy cypress trees, framed by longtime Eastwood cinematographer Bruce Surtees, convey a sense of humid entrapment from the very beginning). The residents of the school, no less than McBurney himself, greet this turn of events as promising a sense of liberation, sexual and otherwise, from their stultifying environment. But their interactions prove increasingly toxic -- literally so, for McBurney, in one of the few films where an Eastwood character dies. Nothing about this world affirms the value of cooperation, much less solidarity. As with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the social and political questions of the Civil War are marginal, if not irrelevant. McBurney tries to use emancipation as the functional equivalent of a pickup line with a slave at the school, who essentially responds by saying that she'd rather stick with the devils she knows, an expression of skepticism consonant with the disillusioned spirit of the Civil Rights movement of the early 1970s. But the smaller social world of the school itself is no more fruitful. The lessons we see the girls learning at the start of the movie are seem comically irrelevant to the maelstrom raging around them, and we gradually become aware of festering secrets and resentments that the visitor's arrival brings to the surface. Eastwood and Siegel systematically worked to the make the material darker; in writing about making the movie two decades later, Siegel explained that they were striving for the mood of Ambrose Bierce. Eastwood later complained that the lack of box office success in the film was attributable to poor marketing, but it seems at least as likely that the movie, however successfully in capturing the mood of its time, was not especially entertaining for precisely that reason.

The second Eastwood movie to be released in 1971, Play Misty for Me, marked his directorial debut. There's plenty to be said into this foray into the horror genre in terms of Eastwood's gender politics; for the moment the key point is that Eastwood's protagonist, a disk jockey named Dave Garver, is entirely on his own in grappling with the stalker who takes over his life. He not only lacks friends with whom he can talk about it, but finds the police impotent to prevent her from ravaging his life -- or that of the girlfriend with whom is he grappling with long-term commitment. Eastwood's character lives (and almost dies) solely on his own wits.

But the film that most obviously challenges the legitimacy of public institutions in American life is the third Eastwood movie of 1971, Dirty Harry, again directed by Siegel with substantial input from Eastwood. This is an important movie in the Eastwood canon, principally because it launched him into a rarefied firmament of stardom. Eastwood's character Harry Callahan became an iconic figure, and Eastwood himself a household name. The movie is also important because in a series of ways that were obvious at the time, the cinematic coding of the movie leans Right. That Callahan is a renegade cop in liberal in San Francisco, ground zero of the counterculture, is one indication of this. As Mazzocco notes, "A Dirty Harry in the Los Angeles police department would be redundant. Such a character can only truly function if set against a presumably "permissive" milieu like San Francisco where as a colleague explains, 'a hood can get a cop but let a cop get a hood -- it's murder.'" So it is both that Callahan's serial killer antagonist has the decidedly New Age name of "Scorpio," and that in the most celebrated scene in the movie, Eastwood utters his most famous line from the point of view of a robber -- "'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?" -- to a black man.  In the law-and-order mentality of the Nixon era, where "urban crime" was synonymous with "black crime," the resonances were both obvious and visceral.

Eastwood and Siegel, unconvincingly, tried to disavow such political valences, a stance that seems naive if it isn't mendacious. It's certainly true that they did try to hedge their ideological bets by having one scene where Eastwood banters comfortably with an African American doctor (a moment Siegel had to fight the studio to keep in the movie), and a subplot in which his genial racism toward his new Puerto Rican partner proves misplaced when that partner saves his life. (He later gets killed, and the mortality rate of Harry's partners becomes a silent joke in the series.) And a perspective on crime that focuses on the cost to the victims, most of whom, as we know, are minorities, is not a simple matter of retrograde hard-hat conservatism.

And yet in an important respect, Eastwood was accurate in a meaningful way when he described the essence of the film as an allegory of the autonomous individual forced to function "in a world of bureaucratic corruption and ineffectiveness." Nowhere is Eastwood's indictment of the civilizing institutions in American life more obvious, and even radical. This indictment climaxes at the end of the movie, where Eastwood's character commits an act -- throwing his badge off the Golden Gate Bridge -- that gave the actor a good deal of trouble. Don Siegel described, in screenplay form, his argument with Eastwood over the ending ("he kept kicking the carpet like a stallion kicking turds"):

EASTWOOD: Don, I can't quit.

ME [i.e. Siegel]: You mean by walking off he picture? If you do, I can always get Sinatra. [Siegel is joking here in willfully misunderstanding Eastwood as well as alluding to the fact that at one point Frank Sinatra had contemplated starring in the movie]

EASTWOOD: I'm quitting  my job when I throw away my badge at the end of the film.

ME: You're not quitting. You're rejecting the bureaucracy of the police department, which is characterized by adherence to strict rules and a hierarchy of authority.

EASTWOOD (kicking the carpet again): I still feel like I'm quitting by throwing away my badge.

ME: You're wrong, Clint. You're rejecting the stupidity of a system of administration, marked by officialdom and red tape.

Siegel is clearly trying to reassure Eastwood here, and just as clearly is wrong on the merits of the case he's making. Perhaps that's why he agreed to a script change where, at the last moment, Harry hears police sirens in the distance and pulls back from the brink. When it came to shoot the scene, however, Eastwood changed his mind, and went with the scene as written. As such, the badge tossing, in its willfulness of the actor as well as the characters he plays is the most defiant act in Eastwood's entire body of work, exceeding even the taken-for-granted anarchic spirit of the spaghetti westerns.

And yet there may be less to the act than meets the eye. To understand why, it's useful to point out that the badge toss is an allusion to the ending of High Noon (1952). In that classic western, Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, the longtime marshal of Hadleyville" (a name which alludes to the Mark Twain story "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyville, about yet another feckless community), in New Mexico territory, who plans to retire and marry his Quaker wife, played by Grace Kelly. But at the very moment he's about to leave, the notorious Frank Miller gang arrives in Hadleyville. A sense of duty forces Kane to remain, and he seeks to mobilize the town to respond to the threat. But no one comes forward to help him, forcing him to confront the gang alone. At the end of the movie, he too tosses his badge away.

High Noon was written by Carl Foreman, a blacklisted screenwriter during the McCarthy era, and many people at the time and since have read the film as a parable of liberal fecklessness in the face of cynical conservative character assassination. The Kane/Cooper act of rejecting the municipal compact is so potent precisely because these figures are so strongly associated with notions of the common good. Yet their act is less an indictment of the idea of common good than in this particular community's failure to live up to it. The same idea appears to underline High Plains Drifter. (It's interesting to note that John Wayne, who detested both movies, made Rio Bravo (1959) as an answer to High Noon, conflating the dysfunctional communities of these stories with an rejection of American life generally.)

Whether or not Eastwood actually crosses the line into anti-institutionalism with Dirty Harry -- and whether or not, as some have speculated, Eastwood responded to the politically minded criticism he received from the Left -- his iconic archetype is back on the job in the sequel, Magnum Force (1973). Significantly, the villains this time are not anarchists on the left, but rather authoritarians on the Right, namely a renegade cell of the SF police that wants to become a law unto itself. These people, who begin as great admirers of Harry, feel betrayed by his unwillingness to sanction their activities. As the leader of the renegades tells him, "You've got a chance to join the team, but you'd rather stick with the system." Harry's response: "I hate the goddamned system, but until someone comes along with some changes that make sense I'll stick with it." Through three more movies and another 15 years, no one ever does.

This is, in its way, a remarkable fact. American popular culture in these years was studded with characters, ranging from Robert B. Parker's Spenser to Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, who began their careers as cops, felt too hemmed in by police work, and left the force to work as private detectives. Indeed, the entire genre, dating at least back to Sam Spade, depends on the existence of people who work outside the system, even if they affirm many of its values. But Dirty Harry, in his way as much a rebel as any of these people, nevertheless decides to remain in the fold, even when, as in the case of the otherwise forgettable final installment, The Dead Pool (1988), his celebrity status as a cop creates serious complications in his ability to do his job.

In short, the Clint Eastwood we see at the movies, once he's firmly in the saddle of his career, is a paradox: a loner who's also a team player. It's important to make clear what kind of team player he is, though -- or more accurately, to make clear what kind of team he plays for: small ones. Eastwood may affirm the need for government, but in art no less than life, he has little use for big government, one reason why he was correctly embraced by no less than Ronald Reagan, who appropriated the famous Dirty Harry line "Go ahead, make my day." Like Reagan, Eastwood entered the political realm: He ran for, and won, the mayoralty of his adopted hometown of Carmel, California in 1986-88, on a platform of less regulation. (His campaign generated national attention; cartoonist Garry Trudeau, reflecting the liberal skepticism that surrounded Eastwood at the time, depicted him as a pair of empty cowboy boots).  But Eastwood did not serve more than a single term, and sought no political office since.  This emphasis on the local, on the importance of the west, and of temporary voluntary service makes Eastwood a surprisingly vivid exemplar of a lingering Jeffersonian strand in American political culture.

There's a irony here. A 20th century man whose vision of history literally comes into focus in the second half of the nineteenth century is their heir of a vision of history that figuratively came into focus in the late eighteenth. It was Jefferson more than any other American who codified a philosophic skepticism about the role of government institutions in American life, and of a small-scale, voluntaristic vision of a society grounded in a loose association of autonomous individuals. Though he was no anarchist, Jefferson had great confidence in the power of individuals to read and follow an inner moral compass to do that which they knew was right. And though not a man of the West himself, the region always loomed large in Jefferson's imagination, and he always saw it as the great proving ground of the nation, in which its future would be worked out. In all these foundational ways, Clint Eastwood has brought this vision of American history to life.

Is it realistic vision one? Even in Jefferson's own time, he had his critics (notably Alexander Hamilton), and in a great many respects they proved right. (Among other things, Jefferson never quite worked out, even to his own satisfaction, if or how slavery would fit into this picture.) But the Jeffersonian strand in American political culture has proven remarkably resilient -- incorporated into the worldview of the hippie of the left no less than that of the tax-cutter of the right -- and has proven impervious to the rise of an urban industrial society that was Jefferson's worst nightmare. A prominent figure in an international popular culture and the chief executive of a multi-million dollar production company, Clint Eastwood lives a life far removed from that Jefferson envisaged. And yet it is one he, and his millions of fans, continue to imbibe it in the 21st century. It may be a fantasy, but histories made by others so often do. For a great many people it certainly seems real.

And in at least some respects, it is real. This becomes clear when one shifts one's gaze from the most formal institutions like a government, to the smallest, and arguably most pivotal one: the institution of the family. Very few of Eastwood's movies are explicitly about the role of the government in American life (though this has begun to change in recent years). But movies about family -- and the different ways a family can be defined -- are very much at the center of what he and others have understood his work to mean. More specifically still, domestic politics, in both the national and familial sense of the term, is to a great extent gender politics. Understanding Eastwood's vision of American history is very much a matter of understanding the place of women and the family in society -- and, perhaps, a striking way in which he has extended the Jeffersonian tradition.

Next: Unforgiven and its legacy