Eastwood Critics Round Table Video #2: Gran Torino

WARNING - possible spoilers contained within video. The second installment of the video series I produced based on a roundtable conversation with several film critics on the films of Clint Eastwood. Today's is on <i>Gran Torino</i>.  Unfortunately YouTube and Warner Brothers have blocked embedding on this video - so you'll have to click here to view it. In that case you'd might as well rate it or leave a comment on the clip's YouTube page, or leave a comment here.

I'd also like to include some comments to the video that someone left me on Facebook, which I haven't had the opportunity respond to yet until now:

"While I appreciate the critical take on Gran Torino as *racist*, I do think that overlooks a level of complexity built into the film.  Perhaps it is yet further playing into stereotypes of Asians as model minorities, etc., and the minority that it is still safe to mock, but I do think that misses the mark.  There's likely a reason that Eastwood/screenwriter chose the Hmong community, as opposed to say a Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese community, given that the Hmong in Americans have faced greater levels of poverty and have not fit so neatly into the model minority category.

It also seems to me that this film cannot simply be dismissed as racist and focused entirely on a white, authoritarian savior.  This is the only major American film I've seen this year that gives a complex treatment to the lives of relatively poor Asian-Americans.  The final scene, in my opinion, with Thao driving the Gran Torino with Daisy by his side. is one of the most compelling visions of what it might mean to "become American" that I've seen in years.  Thao takes his place behind the old American vehicle, with an American dog at his side, driving into the sunset.

Walt comes to play a part in Thao's family reluctantly, and perhaps, in a perfect world, we wouldn't need the white central character to draw mainstream audiences into this kind of story.  (I guess we could refer to Slumdog at this point.)  But it strikes me as moving, and extraordinary -- and not in a condescending or racist way -- that Eastwood decided to take on this story, about this community, at this late, perhaps final stage in his career.  The entire film seemed to me to be trying to show how America is changing today, in the way it has always changed (as Kowalski became American, as his Irish and Italian friends became American).  The message of the film seemed to present a bracing, generous, and inclusive view of what it means to be American -- a view that seemed fresh and welcome in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

I agree that the ending was somewhat fairy tale and pat, but I didn't find it off-putting.  I agree that it was Eastwood playing through characters he's played before, and the archetypes those characters built on, but there was an interesting renunciation of violence (in the film's own martyred vision) by Walt after a lifetime of being haunted by his own violence in Korea.  (The parallels to Eastwood's own film career and the roles he's played in the past are unavoidable.)

The greatest weaknesses of the movie were probably its reliance on Walt's spoken commentary to tell us what he was thinking, and the somewhat uneven performances from the largely amateur cast.

In any event, I did feel that this was a great American movie, and, as many have said, the first movie of the Obama generation. By that I mean that this is a film that changes the mainstream Hollywood view, and mainstream America's view, of what it means to be American."

I certainly appreciate - and agree in part - with this response, and I've taken into consideration to what extent the film is not racist but about racism, depicting racism as a sort of rite of passage for how American men come to estabish a unique, somewhat perverse rapport with each other, a tradition into which the Hmong kid gets initiated. This certainly speaks true of my own life experience, especially when I was a kid doing blue collar summer jobs.  I agree that the film's meditations on violence - and the Eastwood character's ultimate act - makes for a poetic rebuttal against how Eastwood's screen persona has traded in violence for most of his career, and if you consider that this may be Eastwood's final film, the effect is incredibly moving. 

It's interesting that the Asian American community, from what I've been able to gather at least among friends, has for the most part embraced this film as a fair and honest depiction of racism towards Asians in America, and one that gives sufficient prominence to its Asian characters and culture.  All the same, I stand by my complaint that the film ultimately disempowers the Asian characters for the sake of emphasizing the Eastwood character's melodramatic sacrifice. It's a post-colonial trope that is already looking stale in the 21st century.  In that sense, I don't think it's so much the first movie of the Obama generation as the last movie of the McCain generation - it's told more from a McCain than an Obama point of view.  A truly Obama movie would tell the story from the Hmong kids' point of view, not from the creaky old racist man on his last legs. Hopefully the last shot of the Hmong kids riding Eastwood's car has a symbolic resonance to it - that minorities will have more opportunities to drive Hollywood movies in the near future.

And even if Gran Torino is ultimately more of a McCain movie than an Obama movie, I still prefer its wacky, brutal but unexpectedly self-deprecating honesty over the square seriousness we're seeing in decidedly Obama-era cinema: Rachel Getting Married, Wendy and Lucy and Milk, films that, while well-meaning and competently executed, have almost nothing in them that challenges their own safe liberal worldview.