One other highlight of the L.A. trip was attending a screening of GRAN TORINO, Clint Eastwood’s latest, on the Warner Brothers lot. Though I’ve been on the lot once before, this was the first screening I’ve ever attended there, and though it’s not like Clint himself was there, it was still a cool experience to be on the famed lot to see a movie there. Granted, if you live in L.A. then it’s probably a common thing, but it was a new experience for me and I’m still a little jazzed by it. What also made the experience fun was seeing GRAN TORINO with my friend Devin Faraci of CHUD.com, and it was especially nice that we both liked the picture – me perhaps a bit more than him – and to see a bit of our conversation afterwards show up in Devin’s review of the movie. We both couldn’t help but remark that others in the online film community, particularly those who are in their twenties, are passing off the film and Eastwood’s performance as camp when it seems pretty obvious to me that they’re just not getting it. First off, there’s a lot of intentional comedy to be found in GRAN TORINO, mostly in it opening third, and some of it is really quite wonderful.
Just as Eastwood’s reputation as an actor took a little too long to get recognized, it’s also time that we acknowledge that he’s a wonderfully dry comedian, albeit when the material’s right, which it is here. The opening suggests that the film will be a bit more broad than it ends up as (though it’s not really a problem), so bits like Clint’s scowls and “Get off my lawn” are, rest assured, there for your enjoyment. But I’m also seeing that these younger viewers aren’t getting the film’s message of intolerance, either, and though it’s something that I don’t agree with, I sort of understand it. Some seem to think that the film itself is racist because it wallows in stereotypes and expects us to sympathize with a racist, but once again, that’s not quite right. To start, Clint Kowalski isn’t a racist – he’s prejudiced. That may not seem like too much of a difference, but having grown up among many Irish-Americans who believe that no race or nationality is above the Irish, I understand this character a little bit better than I’d like to. The most telling scene that proves this comes in the film’s second half, where Kowalski takes his Hmong neighbor to the local barbershop to “man up” and trade quips with the Italian-American barber, who jokes with Kowalski about his being Polish while Kowalski mocks the barber for being Italian. It’s all a back-and-forth; rude, yes, but by no means insulting because it’s just all in fun, and if you’ve proven you can take it then you’re OK and you’re part of the group. We used to do this all the time at the old HQ 10, everyone joking on the others nationalities, race or character traits, and it does a lot more to diffuse any possible racial tensions than it does anything else. Clint’s Kowalski is from an older time when certain people “knew their place” and can’t adjust to the changing world and his changing neighborhood. But once he’s able to get people to meet with them on his level, then they’re OK, and one of the joys of GRAN TORINO, for me was watching this character finally learn that he’s never really understood others like he thought he did, and with the shame he feels, there’s also a sense of peace that comes with it. He’s realizing that it never is too late to learn.
This element is another of GRAN TORINO’s joys, its position as a “twilight” movie and as a story of people in the later days of their lives. I groused about this some months back, but it’s obvious that only a talent of Eastwood’s caliber could get this picture made – without studio interference – and it’s nice to see a story about the aged that’s not GRUMPY OLD MEN, THE BUCKET LIST or some such nonsense. Of course, there’s much talk about how this may be Clint’s swan song as an actor - which would be unfortunate, since he so good – but if it is, it’s a fitting coda to such an incredible, iconic career. It’s especially fascinating that it’s Eastwood himself doing this with a story that smartly encompasses so much near-mythic work that came before it. You see traits and elements of so much of Eastwood’s work – from DIRTY HARRY to UNFORGIVEN to A PERFECT WORLD – that it could only have been Eastwood to play this role. And as I think about the film more, I’m finding interesting comparisons to another finale for a film legend, John Wayne in Don Siegel’s THE SHOOTIST. The similarities are numerous: Older man, unable to adapt to a changing world, is looking to leave his violent past behind him and takes a young man under his wing in his final days, but finds himself drawn into one last confrontation. Siegel’s film likewise played to Wayne’s legend with the knowledge that it would probably be the actor’s swan song, but both films are also statements from these men about their lives and careers, but while Wayne pretty much stayed the course and played the same role that Duke Wayne was famous for, Eastwood’s is a bit of a reactionary piece about some of the roles he’s played and the choices he’s taken in his career. It’s funny that this was once rumored to be another DIRTY HARRY movie, because it’s almost an apology to the part that cemented his legend. It seems like Harry’s legacy troubles him, as it personifies itself in the Hmong gangsters who threaten his neighbors, and in Walt Kowalski, a man who has known violence his whole life and can be quick to act on it, but can no longer live with it. One can’t help but think that is Eastwood himself, and if this really is it for him as an actor, it’s doubtful he could have gone out on a piece as soulful as this.