Sunday, September 26, 2010
Lessons in love from a Wall Street felon
LaBeouf delivers on his end of the deal, and the three meet (the two men pretending it's for the first time) at a restaurant Gekko and his daughter used to frequent when she was a child. Gekko proceeds to praise his daughter on the website she's founded, and offers potentially provocative opinions that it's obvious he thinks she's likely to disagree with but which he also believes will nevertheless demonstrate his engagement and desire for honest exchange. His daughter strikes a conciliatory note, but at the very moment she does so, a successful figure from Gekko's previous life walks by his table, and Gekko simply can't help himself: He stands up to glad-hand him. This figure is as distantly civil as he can get away with, and as he walks away, you find yourself in the odd position of pitying Gekko, not simply because of the cringe-inducing brush-off he's just received, but because his irresistible urge -- his irresistible demon -- is leading him to sabotage the only authentic relationship in his life. His daughter, unsurprisingly, leaves the restaurant in disgust, to be chased by LaBeouf. Thankfully, she's still unaware of the faustian bargain he's struck, though it's no great plot revelation to say this won't be true for long.
I don't think I've ever made quite as colossal an error as Gekko did there, but I recognized myself at that moment, my own itches, professional and otherwise, similarly compelling. One of the good things about the sequel, which is zestfully made if a bit rambling in its structure, is that Gekko's ambiguities are never fully resolved. Later in the movie, he commits an even more selfish act in ways that nevertheless appear to redound the the benefit of all involved. This doesn't necessarily absolve him, but it also makes it harder to condemn him for the essence of a character that may not finally be a matter of choice.
A movie like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps reminds one that love is very often a matter of despite rather than because, particularly in the case of parents and children. I didn't expect to learn a lesson in humility -- humility about the finite patience of loved ones, the price of compulsions, or the limits of one's ability to change -- from Gordon Gekko. But perhaps taking lessons where you find them is part of what humility means.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Darkness at the center of town
In Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, Jefferson Cowie evokes a lost world in all its vitality
The following review was posted earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network site.
The decade of the seventies has become a historiographic cottage industry. For a long time, about the only study out there was Peter Carroll's It Seemed Like Nothing Happened; first published in 1982, it has held up surprisingly well. The consensus on the standard treatment now seems to be Boston University historian Bruce Schulman's 2001 book The Seventies; David Frum gave the decade a puckish -- and pointedly neocon -- reading in How We Got Here in 2000. More recent treatments have tended to focus on aspects of the period, like the Ford and Carter presidencies. In 1973 Nervous Breakdown (2006) Andreas Killen made a compelling case for that year as a synechdoche for the seventies as a whole. And Natasha Zaretsky rendered a compelling gender reading of the period in No Direction Home: The American Family and Fear of National Decline.
Labor historian Jefferson Cowie, who teaches at the school of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell, follows the recent tendency to render portraits of the decade through a particular lens. In Stayin' Alive, that lens is both specific and yet capacious: that of the American working class. Working-class culture figures prominently in all the above-mentioned works, but Cowie's focus on it gives his book an energy and coherence that will likely make it among the more useful and durable treatments of the period.
Cowie's take on the seventies is tragic: He posits a decade which opened with sense of possibility, only to end in a sense of division and evisceration in which "working people would possess less place and meaningful identity within civic life than any time since the industrial revolution." To build his case, he constructs a framework of notable symmetry and sturdiness, in eight chapters divided into two parts. In the first four, he develops a line of thinking he first unveiled in an essay for Beth Bailey's anthology America in the Seventies, in which sometimes perplexing cross-currents led people like Dewey Burton, the much-interviewed Everyman of the time, to ricochet between George Wallace and George McGovern before finally settling on Ronald Reagan a decade later. Cowie asserts that the Democratic Party of 1968 was essentially a labor party, albeit a divided one. He offers analyses of events like the 1972 strike at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, which was a much a labor action about deadening work conditions as it was pay, and depicts the literally deadly internecine warfare among the United Mine Workers of America as a struggle for the soul of the labor movement.
In political terms, many observers have noted the obsessively Machiavellian tenor of Richard Nixon's presidency in its attempt to co-opt the Wallace vote. But Cowie traces, with quality research and rich detail, both that administration's difficulties in dealing with labor leaders like George Meany, even as the Nixonites captured, with surgical skill, the language and symbolism of the working class without ever actually addressing its material concerns. In the second half of the book, Cowie argues that new institutions like the Business Roundtable did address such material concerns -- by attacking them directly. They were aided by the indifference and hostility of politicians like Jimmy Carter, who while nominally sympathetic to labor as a Democrat, in effect functioned as the first post-New Deal president.
Cowie shows at least as much facility with cultural history as he does labor and political history. He offers nuanced readings of figures like Merle Haggard, whose background and musical complexities were obscured by the success of truculent anthems such as "Okie from Muskcogee," and suggests that there was less richness than is sometimes supposed in the work of widely hailed independent films like Taxi Driver. Perhaps not surprisingly, country rockers like Crosby Stills Nash and Young are exposed as elitists, even as other figures of their ilk, like Jackson Browne, get surprisingly positive appraisals. Bruce Springsteen, of course, looms large here, though Cowie compellingly suggests how cramped his portrait of working-class life has tended to be, more an ordeal to be endured rather than a vibrant culture it own right. At the same time, Cowie traces the emergence of demographic transformations of the working class that would lead to new subcultures like those of disco, feminist manifestos like 9 to 5, and punk rock (there's a wonderfully nuanced analysis of the Akron-based band Devo).
There is, perhaps, a forgivably romantic air about Stayin' Alive. Although Cowie scrupulously careful in noting the limits of the McGovern campaign, for example, the gestalt of the book seems to suggest that it had more possibilities than it probably did. Similarly, while Cowie rightly notes a sense of ferment in the racial and gender dimensions of the labor movement, and duly notes the growth of unionization in the public sector, he tends to stint the tectonic plates of the international economy. We do hear a lot about oil shocks; we hear less about the rise of Japan and the tremendous cost pressures it exerted on the auto industry. Such developments cannot single-handedly explain labor's demise, of course; nations like Germany responded to such challenges without dismantling the welfare state. But then Germany never really had a Jacksonian political culture in which a libertarian strain was bred even into the working class. It might have skipped a generation or two after FDR, but it was always there, ready to emerge when the environment was right.
Regardless of what one thinks about the character of the seventies working class, or whether its "end" was inevitable, Cowie foregrounds, with laudable care and clarity, a set of people who too quickly recede in critiques of the New Class, accounts of the rise "Atari Democrats" like Gary Hart, or the emergence of feminism, developments which pointed toward the future more than the past. As Cowie well knows, class struggle did not end circa 1979. But a particular kind of class struggle did, and its contours are worth noting and remembering so that its successes and failures may yet furnish object examples in the battles still to come.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
The following review was recently posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.
It's a truism that has now vexed generations of historians: that in the United States, the people who have tended to have the most egalitarian class politics have also tended to be the most racist, while those with the most pluralistic vision have tended to be the most elitist. In American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), Edmund Morgan found the locus of this contradiction in the colonial slaveholding south. In The Rise and Fall of the White Republic (1990) Alexander Saxton found it in the culture of the nineteenth century urban working class (as did labor historian David Roediger, who collaborated on a recent second edition of Saxton's book). In a sweeping reinterpretation of American history from the seventeenth century to the present, Cornell University Law professor Aziz Rana locates this American dilemma on the (shifting) western frontier in an ideology he calls "settlerism." Not surprisingly, Rana laments it. But he appears to be even unhappier with what's replaced it.
Rana begins his study by challenging the premises of American exceptionalism by arguing that in many respects the United States was a fairly typical empire from the beginning -- except for the fact that it tended to expel or exclude conquered people rather than directly subjugate them. (Yet even this was not unique; he notes a similar pattern can be discerned in the development of South Africa.) What did set the United States apart was its ability to successfully gain autonomy from the imperial metropole -- an aspiration that crystallized when Great Britain sought to reorganize a sprawling empire after 1763 by homogenizing privilege and limiting expansion in ways that colonial setters considered antithetical to their errand in the wilderness.
It is this dynamic of local autonomy and imperial expansion --the two faces of the title -- that Rana says historians like Gordon Wood overlook: the democratization of American society he and others have traced overlook its dependence on the exploitation of Others. Settlerism relied on the fuel of (white) immigration to sustain it, which is why certain kinds of Europeans enjoyed surprising rights like suffrage even before they became citizens, and why non-Europeans have had a devilishly difficult time procuring them. With rare exceptions like Orestes Brownson, or the workingmens' parties of New York and Philadelphia, this freedom was understood in negative rather than positive terms: central government was the problem, not the solution. So it was that Jefferson rather than Hamilton, dominated early American politics, and the farmer trumped the merchant in the collective imagination. Abraham Lincoln? A big government guy itching to seize billions of dollars worth of property and destroy centuries of freedom (i.e. the right to own other people).
The irony, as Rana and others have noted, is that what would become a characteristically Jacksonian approach to freedom jealously checked government power but left Americans defenseless against the depredations of corporate power. This new form of tyranny cloaked itself in a free labor ideology presented as the logical heir of Jeffersonian yeomanry. After the Civil War, populist leaders like Tom Watson and labor organizers like Eugene Debs challenged this substitution by arguing for a modified form of producerism that emphasized meaningful work, not mindless drudgery. In a departure from the earlier generation of continental expansionists, many of these people began to also challenge imperial expansion overseas, for reasons that ranged from moral principle to racism. And as the frontier closed, they began to lose their enthusiasm for immigration.
But the charms of empire proved too great to resist. Meanwhile, in the decades after 1896, progressive elites decided that the best way to combat corporate power lay erecting a government apparatus that promoted the common good as something to be delivered via administrative expertise. By the time of the New Deal, "freedom no longer amounted to collective control over the basic sites of decision making; rather, it comprised security from economic want." The presidency was increasingly seen as the barometer of popular will, which justified its ever-growing power. Yet as we all know, that power has also become increasingly less accountable. It has typically been exercised in foreign adventures that are embarked upon in the name of preserving freedom, but which end up actually sacrificing it, both in terms of local power and human life.
Rana renders this story in a sturdily constructed narrative girded by illustrations from an array of Supreme Court cases, some well-known, others obscure, and still others, like the Dred Scott case, analyzed in a fresh light. He identifies a strand running from Thomas Skidmore through Randolph Bourne to Martin Luther King that he believes offers an alternative America of universal egalitarianism, one that emphasizes the distribution of freedom and power broadly. It does not rely, as the Civil Rights movement increasingly has, by defining social progress in terms of creating opportunities for minorities to join elites, rather than challenging the premise of elitism itself. Rana places his future hopes, as improbable as he knows they are, on immigrant protest against second-class citizenship.
This strikes me as an intelligent, honest, and decent critique of American society. I do have reservations. As a matter of style, I wish Rana would wean himself of his tendency to use the phrase "in other words," which is at best tedious and at worst engenders suspicions of rhetorical legerdemain. I think he creates a misleading impression that late nineteenth century farmers and labor ever achieved much resembling real symbiosis in their challenge to industrial capitalism (he fails to note mutual suspicion, and antithetical interests, like food pricing, that characterized their relationship), and I think he underestimates the degree to which managerial elites of the New Deal order were challenged in the decades since (Ronald Reagan isn't even in the index!).
My biggest concern, though, is that there's an oddly abstract air to this lament for a vanishing, albeit flawed, American freedom. Actually, I don't really know what freedom finally means to Rana. I might have a better sense if he actually took us to what he regarded as an effective New England town meeting, or visited a western town in which a real-life Jimmy Stewart was hard at work, so that we could see just what it was that he values. (T. H. Breen does this brilliantly in his new book American Insurgents, American Patriots, in which he peoples his analysis with individuals who took liberty into their own hands and made a new nation.)
For freedom is a means, not an end. And so I feel compelled to ask: What does Rana want? He is sorry that Americans have been so ready to settle for mere security, but what else is there? One answer, of course, is the esteem that comes with publishing books with high-profile presses and teaching at an Ivy League university. But of course not all of us are as smart, talented, and lucky as he his. I myself have another answer, which among other ways takes the form of paying absurdly high local taxes for what some administrators would plausibly consider an absurdly inefficient (read: small) school district. That gives me the right to be a helicopter parent and to vote on an annual school budget. On Sundays, I can nod to a couple local policemen from my pew at church, which I hope will make a difference on a future bad day. I'm not sure how many brown neighbors I have (a few), but none of them are cleaning my house or mowing my lawn. (I do both; Rana regrets to observe at one point that one thing feminism has come to mean is a career premised on low-wage help.) No one would call this utopia. But does it count as an authentic form of freedom, albeit underwritten by the prerogatives of empire? (Really: Can freedom ever not be?) I don't imagine it would satisfy Thomas Jefferson -- I've got too much attachment, literally and figuratively, to the city. But how about Aziz Rana? If this isn't good enough, what is?
These are not rhetorical questions. However he might answer them, now or later, I honor Rana on a fine debut -- and provisionally recommend the pleasures, and maybe even the virtues, of settling for suburban living as one face of American freedom.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
All the rage
In Freedom, Jonathan Franzen captures an American obsession that's become a form of addiction
The following review was posted earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network site.
This is a novel that's much easier to admire than it is to like. By just about any meaningful critical criterion -- plot, character, dialogue, description, a sense of place, a sense of history -- Jonathan Franzen has long since proved himself to be a master, and in his latest novel he is at the height of his powers. But as a reading experience, Freedom is as emotionally exhausting as it is impossible to put down.
As with his 2001 novel The Corrections, with which it has strong affinities, Franzen's great subject in Freedom is the tumultuous inner life of the American family, and the indirect but unmistakable way in which that tumult is connected to looming imperial decline. Generationally speaking, the loci of the former were the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom; this time it's the Baby Boom and Generation Y. The core of Freedom is a love triangle formed by the life trajectories of Walter and Patty Bergland (whom we meet indirectly through their former neighbors in St. Paul; this is a story of multiple narrations) and Walter's best friend Richard Katz, a misanthropic rock musician who meets Walter in college and stays in touch in the decades that follow. Along the way we also meet the two Bergland children, in particular Walter and Patty's son Joey, whose iconoclastic rejection of his parents' progressive values -- Patty's permissiveness and Walter's environmentalism -- lead him into a number of unanticipated directions, among them an early marriage and a career as an international arms merchant during the Iraq War. Actually, all the major characters in this book undergo metamorphoses in one form or another; part of the book's excellence is the way in which very smart people all too credibly find themselves in truly ridiculous, if not paradoxical or even hypocritical, situations.
Yet the novel's narrative energy, and its satisfying resolution, may well be among its secondary pleasures. As with the best recent fiction, this is a book in which you really learn things about the way the world works: how companies like Halliburton game the system; how environmentalists drive Faustian bargains with companies like Halliburton; how the indy rock world has adapted to the end of the traditional record business; how Title IX changed the life of female athletes (Patty was a college basketball star); and so on. Franzen's ability to fully imagine the lives of his characters also turns their frequent arguments into lively ping-pong matches of dialogue, in which each side makes compelling points that resist easy villainy or pigeonholing.
So what's the problem? For lack of a better term, it's Franzen's relentlessness. He bores into these people, anatomizing their pettiness in ways that are real enough -- and recognizable enough -- but that finally feel like a form of aggression that he takes out on them. Take, for example, this quintessential Franzian sentence in which Patty assesses her mother, a small-time Westchester politician: "Paradise for Joyce is an open space where poor children can go and do Arts at state expense." There's something painfully exquisite about this masterpiece of compression: the crudeness of Joyce's verb ("do"), the effortless abstraction of the limousine liberal ("open space," "poor children") and the vindictive quality of her altruism ("state expense"). You laugh out loud when the collegiate Joey muses that "the really attractive girls he'd met in Virginia all seemed to have been sprayed with Teflon, encased in suspicion of his motives." And you nod with grim amusement as you listen to Richard rationalize seducing a fan's girlfriend because "rather than thwarting his father's vicarious ambitions by pursuing entomology or interesting himself in financial derivatives, Zachary dutifully aped Jimi Hendrix. Somewhere there had been a failure of imagination."
But 500+ pages of this can really wear you down. There are few writers who can allow you to really experience what (someone else's) depression feels like, and Franzen's virtuosity in evoking this in multiple characters is admirable, enervating, and addictive. It's hard not to get halfway through this book without sensing that writing is above all else a therapeutic act for Franzen, even as he's one of the very few people who can actually succeed artistically in doing this -- and even as one of the things that you suspect most depresses him are people that read Jonathan Franzen novels (because their motives, like this one being the Big Novel of Fall 2010, are suspect). You end up feeling weirdly implicated.
That said, Franzen does have a larger point to make here, a point of real historical, political, and psychological importance. It's right there in the title: freedom, a term which pops up with subtle regularity. "It's all circling around the problem of personal liberties," Walter says at one point. "People came to this country for either money or freedom [money of course is another form of freedom]. If you don't have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily." Walter is making a critique of working-class libertarianism here -- his elitism is something he has an increasingly difficult time hiding or resisting -- but the point applies to Americans generally. Our love of freedom, a love unmoored from any larger goal or value, is killing us.
Freedom is not exactly a fun book, readable as it is. But it's an important one, if for no other reason as a vivid document of our time. It shows us a republic that's dying from within, and how, amid very considerable difficulties, a decent life may yet be lived within it. And how the antidote for freedom is love.
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.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Airport reading this time will be the big novel of fall, 2010: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, the follow-up to his widely hailed 2001 novel The Corrections. This is another family saga, this time set in Minneapolis. Only a few pages into it, the narrative hums, whooshing you along, like an American car built in the glory days of Detroit. A full review is slated for later this month.
Shalom to all who are observing the New Year. These goyim will have one last interlude before the school year finally gets underway in earnest.
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
Posted by Jim Cullen at Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Labels: " "Magnum Force, " "The Beguiled, " Eastwood and American history, " Ethical Culture Fieldston School, " Jim Cullen, "Dirty Harry, "Hang 'em High, "High Plains Drifter", Clint Eastwood
Sunday, September 5, 2010
But Labor Day simply isn't what it only recently used to be. College students, of course, have long been going back to school in August. But more and more primary and secondary school students are, too. Even those who aren't have sports -- and sports has become a Major Commitment in the lives of adolescents. Long gone are the days of common three-letter athletes and walk-on tryouts. Summer now ends with more of a whimper than a bang, no longer primo real estate in the economy of the season.
For those of us who perform paid labor in schools, Labor Day weekend is a hurry-up-and-wait moment. Seized with a sense that he'll never have a free moment again, Jim is currently trying to get a running start on non-immediate school-year reading, which means trudging through William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and August Wilson's Fences, three literary works slated to be part of his team-taught interdisciplinary course built around the theme of freedom (these texts are to be part of a unit on freedom vs. equality this winter). Once school starts, it's hard to read books like that. But not as hard, perhaps, as one fears. Sometimes it's a relief just to get back to work.
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
(Alternative) family man
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 , 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.
Posted by Jim Cullen at Wednesday, September 01, 2010
Labels: " "High Plains Drifter, " "The Enforcer", " "The Outlaw Josey Wales, " Dirty Harry, " Ethical Culture Fieldston School, " Jim Cullen, "Hang 'em High, "Magnum Force, Clint Eastwood
Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)