Friday, January 30, 2009

Gran Torino by Clint Eastwood

After watching Gran Torino, it is interesting to reflect that the appeal of this ostensibly multicultural awareness-raising film paradoxically lies in its celebration of its American-ist (and not just American) protagonist. He, who is more or less a God, whose acceptance and rejection matter to people around him.

We like Walt Kowalski because he is a fully formed character, with quirks and flaws. And in this film, only he has an ego, a self. Just as in a war film, only an American soldier has a soul, others just have bodies.

In Gran Torino, while others are driven by forces beyond their control, Walt Kowalski makes choices. This pursuit of creating one's own destiny is quintessentially American. I submit that Walt Kowalksi is an embodiment of wish-fulfillment of most Americans. That it is their passionate identification with Walt Kowalski - the greater man amongst men, the lone wolf surrounded by pack animals, the giver of aid, the resolver of conflicts - which has made this film a success at the box office.

I have friends who laugh at Westerns as infantile films. They don't realize that the Western is a cinema of archetypes. That when it depicts the protagonist making life and death decisions and not being beholden to anyone, when it shows the various shades of masculinity and femininity and situations which are easy to comprehend, it appeals to something primeval in us (especially since an urban life denies us clear contrasts and connections with nature and other humans).

The joy of watching a Western is to slip back into a world where we are masters of our own destiny, where simple emotions like courage, faith, skill, honesty and obligation blend with the earth's elements and animals to create a mood of a myth, a moral tale, a tale of angels, gods, immoral devils, virgins and "fallen" women.

Clint Eastwood might have started acting in urban tales since his Dirty Harry days, but he has remained a Western hero, a male archetype. Alone, without commitments, answerable only to himself, rejecting authority in man and God, adept at using tools and weapons, egoistic and rude, having an inexplicable pride in his existence, un-apologetic, ... The other men in his films are either immoral, or not men enough.

Gran Torino is no exception. Here the recipients of his grace are Asian immigrants. He doesn't need them, they need him. He can protect himself, but they need his help to protect themselves.

Eastwood's directorial efforts have a signature: the celebration of the physical and the mundane. The food, the tobacco, the car and the house, the beer and the bar, the body, the shave, and the worn shirt. He almost lovingly shows himself enjoying his den and his possessions. Unconnected with the plot, he describes his life to us. We find it pleasurable because his lifestyle is within our reach, even if his mythic stature may not be. When we see an echo of our common vices and habits in him, we see at least a part of ourselves in his self. He is us, a much better version of us, but he is us.

The car, the Gran Torino, is a fatherly gift to a deserving son. In no uncertain terms, he passes on not just his possessions but also his sublime and well-intentioned misogyny to his adopted son. He teaches him to cuss, to spit, to make the move, to work with his hands.

Make no mistake, this film is a Western in a suburban setting. Clint Eastwood remains unapologetic, and unforgiven for his delightful and proud tales.


Anonymous said...

million dollar baby seemed to me to have not much of the masculinity you mention.

Harmanjit Singh said...

he was a loner in MDB, having his own den, with a male friend (look ma, no women!), and tutoring the cubs to fight, a lion in winter, so to speak.

Masculinity seemed to be all around. the woman protagonist was more a man than a woman, if you look at her rejection of relationships.