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Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino

I saw Clint Eastwood’s new film, Gran Torino a couple of days ago. Despite his sometimes deep conservatism, some of Eastwood’s earlier films are exceptional, especially Unforgiven, which has a claim to the best western of all time, and Mystic River. It seems to me that in his later years (once he was past his terrible Dirty Harry movies and the appalling precursor to Fatal Attraction, Play Misty for Me) his films have been quite intelligent meditations of the law and violence. Gran Torino follows the same path (a grumpy old republican widower starts to defend his asian neighbours from a “gangsta” gang – just what is permissible when the law breaks down or is non-existent?). Again, the politics are pretty conservative (there isn’t much analysis of why there are gangs in the first place, the gang is treated as unremittingly bad etc), and his analysis of race relations treads a fine line (as an aside I believe Spike Lee and Eastwood recently fought a running battle about Eastwood’s exclusion of African Americans from his war films) but it’s on the level of filmmaking that the picture falls down. The script just isn’t good enough for Eastwood’s direction (usually so sure) to save the film from mediocrity. It’s not the worst film out there (I had the excruciating experience of watching the Sex and the City movie lately – but let’s not get started on that one…), but probably one for video.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Every few months I try to walk in off the street & see the next movie starting, whatever it might be. Usually I’m bitterly disappointed. Last week I came up against Eastwood’s ‘Changeling’. Though based on a true story, and of course not a Western, the same fascination with law (particularly the breakdown of it) and violence is present.

    Incidentally Rjurik, I also recently saw (cringed through) the Sex and the City movie in the context of an article I’m writing about cross-cultural casting. Did you find anything odd about the doting Jewish husband, the mute Chinese adopted kid (was she real or a cardboard prop – I’m still trying to figure that one out), or the small town African American personal assistant who moves to the ‘big city’ looking for ‘love’ (as if it were a kind of upward mobility) spends her hard-earned dosh on rental designer gear then returns home to the ‘hood where she grew up to happily marry her high school boyfriend?

  2. No, the best western of all time is Red River. 1948, John Wayne and the gorgeous Montgomery Clift. Or possibly The Searchers (which is more good-weird).

  3. Yeah, well, my comment should be read in the context of hardly having seen any westerns. But I do have a question for Rjurik (or anyone else). It’s ages since I saw Unforgiven but I remember thinking that it was a tremendously progressive movie, recasting the Wild West as a grotesquely predatory free market. But now I wonder if in fact it was one of those conservative romantic critiques: a bit like Cormac McCarthy, whose clearly massively opposed to the status quo but from an almost biblically conservative position, in which secular modernity represents a fall from an earlier more organic society. As I said, it’s ages since I saw Unforgiven, but it’s easier to imagine Clint as a conservative critic of modernity than a radical one.

  4. Jeff, as far as Unforgiven goes, I think it inhabits the space where it might be EITHER a left-critique or a right-critique. It certainly is a critique of commodification – something radical leftisits and conservatives share. And it’s certainly (like Cormac McCarthy) a film in which definitively NOT everything is right in the world, and things aren’t going to be fixed with a tinker here or there.

    Maxine: yes, the race relations in Sex and the City mirrored the gender relations (we all just want to get married and accumulate goods, luxurious apartments etc…) It’s funny, because although I think the series (from the little I saw of it (via a housemate, I swear!) was much more progressively ambivalent in its gender relations (women’s sexuality presented, for example as something natural and normal, Miranda’s character much more the independent woman), this seemed to me a regression of appalling proportions.

  5. Dirty Harry is of course a western, and a fine film, whatever it’s significant political shortcomings. Taxi Driver is similarly a western of sorts. Both are vigilante fantasies with psychopaths a their very centre.

    Westerns that I rate are The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, McCabe & Mrs Miller, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Unforgiven & Geronimo:an American legend. If you want to see a really different western, with gender reversals, check out Johnny Guitar.

    I think Eastwood is a good and consistent film maker, but what makes Unforgiven a great film is the combination of Eastwood’s matter of fact ‘classical’ direction style, good acting and a brilliant script. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are very interesting films too. Flags explores some similar themes to Unforgiven – namely the tensions between myth making and hero making on the one hand and the gritty reality of violence. I don’t think anyone could mistake Eastwood for a leftist, but his better films really do open up a space to explore important issues.

    I heard a review of Gran Torino on Radio National which made me think ‘it sounds interesting, but simplistic and flawed’. But then David Stratton gives it five stars…

  6. OK, this is probably a really obvious question for people who know things about film. When The Proposition came out, there was a certain hoopla about it being an Australian Western. My question, then: is there a genuine Australian Western tradition? If not, why not? On the surface, you’d expect that there would be, wouldn’t you? Both frontier societies, with film industries developing about the same time? Why aren’t there Australian equivalent of ‘cowboy and Indian’ movies?

  7. Excellent question and I can’t think of an obvious answer. Some random thoughts.

    There is the Ned Kelly movie, which illustrates the early film industry was attracted to such topics. In the 50s there was Jedda, and I’m sure you’d find no shortage of films set in the bush or with a bush theme from the first half of the century. Of course later there were things like the Man from Snowy River.

    The American Western developed out of a pulp novel tradition. I’m too ignorant to know whether there was such a thing here – all that comes to mind is Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson etc.

    The Hollywood production system encouraged the development of genre films, and the American film industry was able to dominate most national cinemas, including Australia’s, by the 1930s. After WWII this was even more marked. Cowboys and Indians it is, whether in Australia, England, Italy or elsewhere.

    America has been much more open than Australia about is dispossession of the native population, romanticising the warfare, rather than denying it. Australia in the 19th Century saw itself very much as part of he British Empire, where as the US saw itself as as a modernising nation, bringing the way of the future. There was the pretense that Aboriginal people were protected by the law in Australia, not sure that there was as much of this in the US. Many Western’s don’t feature native american’s much a all. Law and order is often a more dominant theme.

  8. Does that mean that the revisionist Western might be a viable form for progressive films about indigenous issues in Australia? (I didn’t actually see The Proposition).

  9. Another harebrained and ill-thought question: is it possible that the western remains an American genre because of the Civil War? Not simply because, historically, the Civil War created the milieu of armed men wandering the frontier (there was recently an interesting book about Jesse James that located his outlawry in the context of a murderous war-time militia that never really disbanded) but also because, culturally, the internal rifts created by the Civil War can be resolved in the Western by displaying North-South tension into law versus order (or white versus Native American). Hey, I said it was half-baked — but could there be something in it?

  10. The Proposition and The Tracker are both considered by some to be Australian westerns – The Tracker the more progressive of the two. But in answer to your question Jeff, yes there was some hoopla about The Proposition as an Australian western, because, amongst other things, it recasts Australian colonisation in the context of a “frontier”.

  11. Howdy Partners, what’s up?

    You should check out John Bud Carlos’ Western ‘The Red White & Black’ in all it’s late sixties blaxploitation B-grade brilliance. Shoot, now that’s what I call a Western, brother.

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