Monday, September 13, 2010


The following piece is the last of a series of posts on the career of Clint Eastwood (see other posts below). It looks at Clint Eastwood's 1992 film Unforgiven and its successors through Gran Torino (2008). As always, feedback is welcome. I hope in the coming days to post drafts of material on other actors and their visions of American history. (In he coming days I will be shifting my gaze back to someone I've thought and written about before, Daniel Day-Lewis.)  --JC

For someone who remembers the movie from the time its release, it's a little startling to consider that Unforgiven is already two decades old: there is now an entire generation of people that were born after its release in 1992. Part of one's surprise in this recognition  is the seemingly inevitable acceleration of time as one ages. But part, too, is that even for someone only peripherally aware of him, Unforgiven marked a new chapter not only in Eastwood's career, but in his reputation. Though, as we've seen, critical favor was starting to shift in his direction years earlier, Unforgiven marked Eastwood entry into mass consciousness as a major artist: Hwon an Academy Award for best director, and took home a Best Picture Oscar as the producer of the movie. So it's remarkable to consider that since then he's had a whole other career's worth of output, making well over a dozen movies of notable variety as he has gradually phased out his work as an actor and began focusing more on directing. Unforgiven still seems like a recent movie, even though it really isn't.

And, some would say, Unforgiven is seems like a revisionist western, even though it isn't. Part of the issue is what one means by "revisionist"; as far as I can tell the term has been applied to movies as far back as The Searchers in 1956. It typically appears to mean a film that challenges the genre conventions of the western, but those conventions are nothing if not elastic, and at the same time, there are certain boundaries that are never crossed (I can't think of one, for example, where everyone dies, for example or one which is set in Rhode Island). There was much talk at the time and since of Eastwood's spaghetti westerns being "revisionist" in their relatively casual, amoral air about violence,considered so different than that of the "classic" westerns of the fifties, though Eastwood's characters were never wholly without redeeming value (the same could be said about the characters in another "revisionist" filmmaker, Sam Peckinpah).

In a very real sense, Unforgiven does indeed revise the terms of the western as Eastwood himself practiced it in the seventies. One important reason is that we see, in a string of pointed scenes that succeed in making us squirm, just how messy violence can be logistically no less than morally. In this regard, one can say that Eastwood directly addresses the criticism of Pauline Kael and at least implicitly concedes that she was right. But to use the same word to describe movies like A Fistful of Dollars and Unforgiven, which would appear to have diametrically opposite positions in the way they depict gunslinging, is confusing at best. It becomes even more so when one considers that Eastwood dedicates the movie to the then-recently deceased Leone and Don Siegel, mentors whose ethos he appears to have rejected.

Actually, Unforgiven is notable at least as much for the sense of continuity it shows in Eastwood's thinking as it is a radical departure. Take, for example, its stance -- or, more accurately, the ambiguity of its stance -- toward vigilantism, an issue that has preoccupied him since Hang 'em High. In that movie, Eastwood's character is a victim of those who take the law into their own hands, and while he seeks vengeance, he does so by donning a badge, even though the system he represents is itself unjust. In High Plains Drifter, it's the state that is the victim, both in the sense that townspeople have been illegally mining on federal property, and that the sheriff of the town is killed when he tries to do something about it. Eastwood's character comes to the town to avenge the murder, but it's never really clear who it is that metes out the extralegal justice -- whether is it the brother of the sheriff, the reincarnated spirit of the sheriff, or an retributive angel (or, more accurately devil) whose code transcends human law. Whatever the intentions or satisfactions in the supernatural dimensions of the movie, in which we see the sheriff murdered in flashback, its ambiguity in this count represents the kind of fudging one sometimes seen by instinctive libertarians who nevertheless hesitate before unambiguously putting their own notion of justice before law.

A comparable sense of ambiguity on this count characterizes Unforgiven as well. The plot, set mostly in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming in 1881, is set in motion at the start of the movie when a prostitute with the tellingly biblical name of Delilah (Anna Thomson) diminishes the manhood of a customer by laughing at his small penis, getting her face disfigured with a knife as a result. When the sheriff of Big Whiskey, "Little Bill Daggett" (Gene Hackman) reacts with indifference, the prostitutes of the town pool their resources to put a $1000 bounty on the head of the perpetrator and his confederates. A young-would be gunfighter calling himself "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett) responds to this call, and seeks to recruit the once legendary outlaw William Munny (Eastwood), a grieving widower with two children and a failing pig farm. Munny resists the Schofield Kid's entreaties -- he says his wife has reformed him of his drunken and murderous ways -- but in good western fashion he changes his mind. He in turn then recruits his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), whose Indian wife disapproves. In the meantime, another bounty hunter named English Bob (Richard Harris) arrives in town, a biographer (Saul Rubinek) in tow. Little Bill savagely (and symbolically) dispatches with English Bob on the Fourth of July, leading the biographer -- clearly a stand-in for the feckless mythologizing that has characterized the history of the west -- to transfer his allegiances.

A good deal happens after all this, but the main point for the moment is that nobody in this story comes out ahead. While the government, in the form of Little Bill (played by Hackman in a wonderfully disorienting combination of cheerful menace) is guilty of gross negligence in addressing the womens' grievance, their extralegal solution proves no better. There has been a good deal of debate about whether the climactic shootout at the end of the movie actually affirms or subverts the iconoclasm of the movie. It's hard not to experience both a sense of visceral satisfaction when Munny finally returns to form when after the violence gets personal, even as it's hard to ignore the nagging ambiguities in the brutality with which he acts, in what can literally and figuratively be considered overkill.

What may finally be most striking about Unforgiven, at least in terms of the way it suggests an ongoing affirmation and development of a what I'm calling a Jeffersonian vision of American history, is the way it deals with questions of gender and family. There's no ideological breakthrough on the order of Tightrope here. But there are some developments worth talking about, not only on their own terms but also for their wider implications.

Take, for instance, the role the prostitute in the movie -- who for the first time in an Eastwood film show a   gender solidarity you don't often see in Hollywood. As noted, their attempt to act collectively proves problematic. And they arguably overreact when they start hurling horseshit when the perpetrators of the crime of Delilah bring the Little Bill-mandated payment that will go to their john (one man, who tried to prevent her slashing, tries to make amends to her in a way that Delilah's facial expression suggests she would just as soon accept and put the whole sordid affair behind them). But the movie never fails to take the women's grievances seriously, and does not resort to the kind of gratuitous contrast of "good" girls against their bad ones typical of westerns.The only other woman we see in the film is a housewife, but she's Native American; married to a black man, this cinematic decision effectively upends the racially coded gender assumptions common to the western tradition. Actually, the matter-of-fact handling of this interracial sexual relationship, combined with the muted way Ned Logan's friendship with Munny  is never explicitly addressed is itself a form of intellectual provocation. To what degree is Logan's later whipping, by Little Bill whose sadism has already been demonstrated, a specifically racist act? 

A similar set of provocations characterize the movie's depiction of masculinity. From the start, we repeatedly see Munny show incompetence; an embarrassingly awkward farmer, he can no longer shoot straight, either. In what may well be a first, we have two cowboys talk about masturbation, with Munny saying (to a black man, no less) that his sex drive is largely gone. Upon his arrival in Big Whiskey, Munny falls ill, and his feverishness renders him helpless when Little Bill kicks him around. Neither Munny nor Logan prove to be particularly good gunmen; their inability to hit their first target directly prolongs his agony (in a tragicomic moment, an exasperated Munny tells the victim's friends to answer his cries for water; he promises not to shoot them). And Schofield, who commits the second execution, does so when his victim is unarmed in an outhouse, later failing to maintain his bravado and emotionally crumpling with remorse. Munny eventually gets his mojo back. But his doing so never entirely erases our memories of these earlier moments.

Perhaps the most striking  fact about Munny, though, is that his story both begins and ends with him as a single father. Westerns typically pay lip service to domesticity, though their heroes never embrace it. Here we this situation inverted: Munny clearly hates his job, whose drudgery we experience, and is just as clearly committed to it. One blanches early in the movie when he tells his young children that he'll be leaving for a couple weeks, check with the neighbor if there's a problem. But there's never any doubt about his ultimate fidelity to his wife's memory and the lives they made, even if he will yield momentarily to murderous impulses that got unleashed in part over concern for their (economic) welfare. Insofar as there's any hope here, it's that a father's love will prove redemptive for the next generation.

Indeed, it's this dynamic -- of a man's growing sense of his vulnerability, coupled with a growing awareness of others and their challenges-- that characterizes Eastwood's post-Unforgiven work. His frame of reference widens dramatically; we have a string of movies, like In the Line of Fire (1993) and Absolute Power (1997) with settings or scenes in Washington DC (talk about big government), and he even crosses the ocean for Invictus. But the hugest leap in imagination is psychic.

One realm where this is obvious has been the one we've been discussing, gender. In The Bridges of Madison County (1995), director Eastwood used Richard La Gravenese's adaptation of James Robert Waller's 1992 novel, shifting the point-of-view from the man (Eastwood) to the woman (Meryl Streep) with whom he had a four-day affair. In a pointed reversal of the Eastwood tradition, the real story is not that of the drifter who comes and goes, but rather woman with a strong sense of duty who leaves a vibrant legacy in the form of children who ponder her choices and who are influenced by them. In The Changeling, a movie Eastwood directed but did not appear, Angelina Jolie endures the disappearance of her child as well a grotesque involuntary commitment to a mental institution. The movie honors her strength, not so much in the literal way of Sondra Locke's willingness to risk rape in The Gauntlet, but rather in her emotional resilience and the courageousness of her undying hope that her boy will return to her.

A similar focus on the fate of children, this time surrogate fathers and sons, is apparent in A Perfect World (1993). Here an escaped convict (Kevin Costner) shows increasingly paternal concern for the boy he has taken hostage, while the Texas Ranger (Eastwood) shows increasingly paternal concern or the convict he's chasing, influenced in part by he insights of a female FBI profiler played by Laura Dern.  Set in the days before the Kennedy assassination, the fallibility of Eastwood's character is symbolically consonant with the imminent puncturing of masculine confidence and competence so vividly embodied by the assassinated president. (Presidential assassinations have become something of a cinematic motif for Eastwood; Unforgiven is set at the time of the assassination of James Garfield in 1881 and Eastwood plays a fictional Secret Service Agent who failed to protect JFK in In the Line of Fire. If nothing else all these cases suggest the vulnerability even of those who seem to be the ultimate personification of patriarchal power.)

In no movie Eastwood has ever made has a man's paternal love been more heartrendingly fervent than Million Dollar Baby (2004), in which Eastwood plays a crusty trainer who reluctantly takes on a female boxer played by Hilary Swank. Estranged from his own daughter, who refuses to communicate with him, Eastwood's character fills a paternal void for Swank. When she is catastrophically injured, he faces an excruciating moral dilemma, one made more acute by his Catholic faith. In what can be interpreted as an avowed sacrifice of  his soul, he honors her wishes (once again demonstrating Eastwood's skepticism about institutions, this time religious ones, which have never fared particularly well under him). It's worth noting that even at this late date, Eastwood does hang on to vestiges of his receding masculine virility. 

A similar pattern is at work in Eastwood's handling of race. Race relations were important to the makeup of Eastwood protagonists, since their aura of mastery required a sense of ease in dealing with minorities. In the early going, racial depictions were not entirely under his control. In his memoir, Don Siegel, who directed Two Mules for Sister Sara, reports his desire to use American character actors for an opening scene on locations in Mexico in which Shirley Maclaine's character is raped, because he wanted to avoid the kind of racial stereotyping. But he was overruled by the producer, who wanted cheaper labor. This would eventually cease to be a problem for Eastwood and his collaborators, though, as noted, even in Dirty Harry executives were impatient about the scene in which Harry is treated by a black doctor (and, in a nod toward his working class values, declines further treatment than allow his slacks to be torn). One subplot of The Enforcer concerns Harry Callahan's relations with a black separatist leader that he regards as more trustworthy than his superiors in the SFPD. "You're on the wrong side, the militant tells him . . . you go out there and put your ass on the line for a bunch of dudes who won't even let you in the front door any more than they would me." Harry's answer: "I'm not doing it for them." When asked who he is doing it for, Callahan responds "You wouldn't believe me if I told you" -- the implication being that this ofay fights to protect a social order on behalf of all races. We've already seen how the ex-Confederate Josey Wales feels a tribal kinship with Ten Bears in their shared hatred of the federal government; a similar hard-bitten moment of solidarity occurs in Escape from Alcatraz when Eastwood's character responds to a taunting question from a black inmate as to why he won't sit on his turf. "I just hate niggers," is the reply, as he sits down.

In the post-Unforgiven era, these racial circles radiate outward, and Eastwood's characters become less central in them. In True Crime (1999), he plays a crusading reporter who fights to save an African American inmate condemned to death, but it the movie increasingly focuses on the it's the black man's family; by the end, Eastwood's character, though decent, is a diminished figure. In Blood Work (2002), Eastwood plays an FBI agent who gets a heart transplant from a murdered Mexican woman, and subsequently begins a relationship with the woman's sister and her surviving son while tracking down the killer (all the while squabbling with a Mexican policeman who detests him, suggesting a sense of intra-racial diversity in a story about a man who is literally racially integrated). In 2006 Eastwood directed Flags of Our Fathers, a movie about the Battle of Iwo Jima and the false mythology the army manufactured around it -- and then followed it up less than two months later with Letters from Iwo Jima, a (better) film that looked at the same campaign from a Japanese point of view, featuring a marvelous performance from Ken Wantanabe as the tragically dutiful Gen. Nagaru Kuribayshi. He even finds room in the otherwise forgettable adaptation of John Berendt's bestselling 1994 true-crime book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) for an African American transvestite whose wit, and good looks, are undeniable.

Perhaps the final chapter in this pattern -- and the final chapter in Eastwood's acting career -- is his turn in Gran Torino (2008). Here he plays as Walt Kowalski, a bigoted Korean War veteran and widower in Detroit who is dismayed when a Hmong family moves in next door. (Note that Eastwood casts himself as a Pole; up until now, the extent of his thespian ethnicity has been in playing Irish Catholics, which he has done repeatedly, undoubtedly because he could get away with it, and because doing so was helpful in a lifetime during which WASPS like himself ceased to be central in American cultural life.)  As some observers have noted, Kowalski was a little like the man the long since vanished Dirty Harry might have become -- still an impressive physical specimen well into his seventies, but a dinosaur nonetheless. Naturally, an increasingly intimate cultural exchange takes place between Kowalski and his neighbors, and just as naturally, evil forces lurk in the form of gangs who threaten their safety. A well-meaning, but largely ineffectual, young Catholic priest is in the mix, though he's more of a stand-up guy than the clerics of Million Dollar Baby and the more effective, but oddly more oily, Protestant minister played by John Malkovitch in The Changeling. These religious referents are worth making, because Gran Torino, even more so than most Eastwood movies, even the mystical Pale Rider, has a strong spiritual dimension. Eastwood cuts himself a little slack here in that his character has a paternalism that might be hard to take if taken out of context, a context that includes a complex racial consciousness as well as an ending that even more than Unforgiven repudiates shoot first, ask question later that once defined Eastwood's persona.


I've made some effort along the way in this discussion to suggest that for all their obvious differences, Clint Eastwood has a few things in common with Thomas Jefferson. Both men lavished great attention on the West, and saw it as the great proving ground of American society. Both men believed in the efficacy of individual autonomy, and placed most of their confidence and energy on middling men with a stake in their communities, be they farmers or policemen. And both were skeptical of large institutions of any kind, whether religious, commercial, military, or, especially, governmental. And yet this last skepticism was always the source of a tugging ambivalence. Jefferson the revolutionary was also the President of the United States -- and the author of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1797, which asserted a state had the right to nullify laws that were not to its liking. Eastwood's characters insist on the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of justice, but were almost always reluctant to abandon law, no matter how flawed.

If there was one important difference in the historical visions of Eastwood and Jefferson, it's that Jefferson evinced an optimism, a sunny confidence in the perfectability of human beings, that Eastwood lacked for most of his career. Jefferson believed in the future, and the intensity of this faith ultimately mattered more than the contradictions in his thinking, which included a rather jumbled vision of racism in which he allowed for black equality even as he doubled down on his commitment to slavery. Jefferson knew America would change, and he welcomed it. Although he had his fears, fears that cramped that vision amid the sectional tension that clouded the end of his life, it's not hard to imagine him endorsing an egalitarian society were he to be resurrected in the flesh (in a way that never fails to amaze me, he's never actually died in spirit). It's something he did in his own lifetime, and the depth of his enthusiasm was such that he enjoyed tremendous popular support even as remained a Virginia aristocrat, and has been continually invoked in the Age of Jackson, the Age of Roosevelt, and the Age of Reagan.

Eastwood came of age in a moment of doubt and imperial failure. He could never have succeeded as a popular artist had he embraced a version of American life rooted in unambiguous optimism, or depicted it as ever having been the case. Yet in his brighter moments, Eastwood has offered his viewers a sense of hope in the widening array of people who enter the arena of American life. This is not quite a progressive vision, because it's not something that happens as a result of the organized effort of the state, and because tragedy always lurks. Eastwood's people are represented, not entitled, much less collectively organized. Respect is something that must be earned, but available to all.

It is, in short, a democratic vision.  And as with Jefferson, who lived to a ripe old age, Eastwood's will be durable. "The American Dream is, in fact, composed of many dreams -- of which, surely, the dream of an old age rich in competency and usefulness is the last, largest and most difficult to achieve," Richard Schickel wrote of him in 2010. He's come a long way, baby. And watching him do it is an American Dream come true -- in all its technicolor complexity.