2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino: the death of America’s hero
by Robert Alpert
Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino is a meditation on time, its elegiac tone reflecting upon U.S. mythology and Eastwood's film life. The movie expresses Eastwood’s pained sense of loss everywhere around him, to which he has himself contributed. It is appropriate that Eastwood's craggy, low key voice sings over of the end credits, mourning the temporary comfort of the Gran Torino which represented, in Eastwood's view, the "best" of the United States but a United States which could not prevent the loneliness inevitably suffered by its own heroes. It is telling that the U.S. flag, which is so often associated with Eastwood’s Walter Kowalski, prominently flying from his porch and reflected behind him as he constantly sits on that porch, is last associated with him as an emblem sewn into his coffin.
The plot of Gran Torino is reminiscent of many of Eastwood’s movies. The most obvious parallel is to Unforgiven. Both movies begin with the death of the Eastwood character’s wife and end with a confrontation with evil of overwhelming odds. Bill Munny’s quiet remark in the Unforgiven to The Schofield Kid about the effect of killing finds its parallel in Gran Torino in Eastwood’s confession of how killing the enemy in the Korean War has never left him. The hero worship of Walter by his neighbors reminds us of Dirty Harry, and that Walter brandishes his pistol, first imaginary and then real, is surely intended to refer to Dirty Harry’s 44 Magnum. The scene in which Eastwood shaves and dons a hand-tailored suit is reminiscent of the many, fetish-like scenes in which the invincible Man with No Name prepares for his final showdown, though in Gran Torino Walter’s suit is the one in which he will be buried.
No other actor today is so associated with a history of film icons, the early ones created not by Eastwood but by his mentors, Don Siegel in the case of Dirty Harry and Sergio Leone in the case of the Man with No Name. Eastwood, as the director, brings to Eastwood, the actor, a self-consciousness of the distance between himself as film icon and as an actor portraying that icon. Don Siegel depicted Eastwood as a San Francisco cop who voiced the frustrations of many in such lines as “Do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” but Eastwood, the actor, now 78 years old, self-consciously mouths the line “Ever notice how you come across somebody you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.” Gran Torino is an acknowledgement that these icons are part of a mythology which has self-destructed, disappeared in the same way that the U.S. mythic frontier did. In that respect Gran Torino mourns a past both historic and imaginary.
Eastwood has always been understood as an actor who embodies what is stereotypically macho – little emotion and few words, action-oriented and professional. The title of the movie, Gran Torino, tells us all. It was an ordinary car but viewed as a "muscle car" for men. That Eastwood as Walter Kowalski installed the steering wheel column in his own Gran Torino conveys the identity between the man and his car. That Walter pointedly leaves in his will the Gran Torino to Thao Lor (Bee Vang), his surrogate son, rather than to his granddaughter Ashley (Dreama Walker), represents the passage of the rite of American masculinity to the next generation of males. Indeed, the movie’s story shows the progressive development of Thao into his assumption of that role - from our first view of him washing dishes to his unsuccessful initiation into the gang by his failed theft of Walter’s Gran Torino to his washing of the car during his week of redemptive tasks to Walter's offer to allow him to drive the car for his first date (dinner and a movie!) with Youa (Choua Kue). Eastwood seems to express a continued belief in the macho male. His movie seemingly shows the development of Thao from “pussy” kid – Walter’s repeated epithet for Thao - to his being “manned up” – so that he can become a construction worker. From that perspective it is appropriate that in this fairy tale Walter’s other nickname for Thao is “toad.”
Yet for all the film’s apparent reiteration of this mythology, Eastwood, the director, calls into question its basis in reality and value. No scene better illustrates Eastwood's understanding of the artifice and falseness of his film image than the lengthy, humorous scene in which Walter explains to Thao how he should speak with his barber buddy Martin (John Lynch). The irony of the scene is that Thao succeeds in bettering both – and thereby unmanning them — by his story of his sore ass caused by his too many construction buddies (a joke at Walter’s expense on the eroticism of male bonding) and his later suckering of Tim Kennedy (William Hill), the construction foreman, into hiring him through his made up story of his non-existent car. Indeed, while Walter helps Thao find a job in construction, Thao seeks only to match what Walter’s son has achieved, namely a job in sales, a job which surely will result in economic benefit but also an uprooting from the neighborhood in the same way that Walter’s son’s success benefited him and his family but estranged son from father. Walter judges his son harshly for selling foreign cars and never buying American. It is surely ironic, though, that the mixed race gang, which is comprised of the children of the newest generation of immigrants, pointedly drives a foreign car. Walter passes on the Gran Torino to his adopted son, also of that generation, but Eastwood leaves us with no doubt that salvation is not to be found in the Gran Torino, the end credits playing over a highway filled with one foreign car after the next going down the highway.
Eastwood, through his doubling of events and characters, creates a sense of both inevitability and circularity to what we watch. The first scene at Walter’s home begins with Walter commenting that the large crowd came not to mourn his wife’s death but rather for the food he has set out, and it ends with the stream of guests leaving his home. The camera pans over to the house next door where the guests are streaming in with their food offerings to celebrate the birth of a new baby. These are the new immigrants who have come to replace the white Europeans who have fled the neighborhood, leaving behind only Walter and a few others of his generation who congregate at the local bar. The comic irony is that Walter’s double is Thao’s grandmother, who also sits on her porch and who can out spit him. Both are simply old, as Walter later observes in leaving his dog Daisy with her. While Eastwood shows Walter pummeling one of the gang members and threatening to wreak more violence if the gang does not leave Thao alone, he follows that scene with Walter out of breath as he enters his own home so that we fear for his safety. The film enables Walter to relive his life through his new family, but the film ends both unexpectedly and unpleasantly. History repeats itself, and Walter's country does not improve itself.
Eastwood sympathizes more with these newest immigrants, symbolized by the difference in the two scenes of confession – one to the baby-faced priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Corley), and the other to Thao in which Walter acknowledges killing, unordered, a kid Thao’s age who simply wanted to live. Nevertheless, Eastwood understands that these immigrants will wind up in the same place as the prior generation. He self-consciously brackets his story through the use of untrained actors as well as through the clear, crisp lighting which encapsulates the idea of a working class neighborhood, complete with separate backyards and porches. Walter is himself perfectly framed on his porch, dog next to him, a U.S. flag waving in the wind, and Gran Torino in the driveway. This is a fable, an enactment of the American dream, Eastwood tells us. Thao helps Walter carry the freezer up the basement stairs, a symbol of the developing emotional connection between Walter and Thao, but Eastwood ends the scene with Thao’s family buying the freezer for twenty-five dollars. They, too, will acquire the material goods, a freezer in this instance, and later, if successful, tools and a car, which Walter’s sons, the inheritors of the American dream, already possess in abundance.
Thus, there is a circularity to Eastwood’s film. We first visit Walter’s basement at the funeral luncheon when his grandchildren wide-eyed and excitedly open his trunk and spy his medal; and we later revisit the basement when Walter opens that same trunk to show that same medal to Thao, only to tell of the horrors that it has inflicted on Walter’s entire life. There is the myth of heroism embodied in a Silver Star and then there is the reality of that medal. Eastwood spins his tale so as to tell us that this is what a 50s neighborhood in Detroit looked like when he raised his sons and this is what it still looks like today but with a new generation of U.S. immigrants. It is funny and sad, sweet and bitter, that Walter rises to heroism by declaring to the mixed race gang: “Stay off my lawn,” a variation on the Westerner’s threat of the 50s to “stay off my land.” These new immigrants, like Walter, believe in the American myth of Bronco Billy, the individual who can be whomever he wants, needs only a small plot of land and a family, and which in the 50s took the form of separate neighborhoods of single family homes. In contrast to the father of Thao and Sue, Walter is American old school and hence is revered as a hero by these newest immigrants. The American pragmatist, he fixes things as well as finishes things. He spends a lifetime accumulating the tools in his garage, material goods, naming them and knowing how they work and in the film’s most awkward moment fixes the broken leg on the washing machine in the Lor’s basement. The members of the younger generation in the meantime flirt with one another nearby, uncomprehending of the icon before them and, ironically enough, ignorant of its meaning for them.
Eastwood mocks Walter’s image of himself, including his professionalism, and as such his own film image. While Walter reacts violently to his son’s suggestion of a home in a retirement community, Eastwood later shows Walter sitting alone in the dark, watching baseball on his television set, and helplessly pulling out his gun the night the gang attacks his neighbors. Walter chastises Father Janovich for his bitter and sweet speech but what does he substitute? He has only the bitterness of killing for his country, for which he was awarded a medal and now bleeds internally, and the sweetness – Walter’s term — of the Gran Torino, a material object which disappears during the end credits. The rage he feels for receiving that medal finds its most explicit, albeit misplaced, outlet in his smashing of his kitchen cabinets and the bloodying of his hands. Revenge is its own end, resolving nothing, Eastwood tells us. In retrospect, recalling Walter’s coughing at his wife’s funeral, we realize that Walter was already dying. There is no glory in dying; rather, each of us dies alone, regardless of how we die, Eastwood also tells us.
There is despair at the center of Eastwood’s recent films. Characters inevitably sit alone in mostly dark space, conjuring up the loneliness of a Hopper painting. In Gran Torino Walter sits alone in his poorly lit kitchen thinking about what he will do to exact revenge and then finds peace only in his acceptance of dying, a decision which represents a reversal of what we anticipate, namely a violent reprisal on the gang for the violence it had exacted on the Lor family. It isn’t fair, says Father Janovich, but it never is, Eastwood responds. It is the same observation which Bill Munny made to The Schofield Kid. Thus, we expect the myth to play out and prevail, but instead Eastwood brings us down to the reality of an individual alone and mortal. Instead of the myth which is beyond time, Eastwood gives us only time which washes over all of us, including him, as well as our possessions, including the Gran Torino. Eastwood has himself come full circle in acknowledging the failure of his own mythology.
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