Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gran Torino

A post at The Devil's Harlot reminded me of my mixed feelings about Gran Torino, the most recent Clint Eastwood late-career Oscar grab to hit the DVD rental bins.

Though Eastwood is a powerful screen presence -- the sort of actor who sucks in the viewer's attention regardless of what his character is doing or saying -- his cranky-white-old-school-racist schtick in this film crossed to the wrong side of the cartoonish line at times.

I've been around my share of Old Coots with hearts o' gold, and it actually doesn't take long before they stop using words like "slopes," "gooks," and "coons." They may never stop thinking it (who knows?), and they may remain forever willing to use them in a sort of jesting or campy fashion (as in the film's scenes with the barber, where the men more or less consciously enact self-parodies), but by the time Old Coots actually begin forming bonds with, let alone firing weapons on behalf of rather than toward the previously-scorned, this kind of talk stops, and without commentary, fanfare, or -- it must be said -- weepy apology.

Roger Ebert's take comes close to the mark:

"Gran Torino" is about two things, I believe. It's about the belated flowering of a man's better nature. And it's about Americans of different races growing more open to one another in the new century. This doesn't involve some kind of grand transformation. It involves starting to see the "gooks" next door as people you love. And it helps if you live in the kind of neighborhood where they are next door.
I certainly agree that the film tracks the central character's unlikely embrace of racial diversity -- or some of that diversity -- in the world changing rapidly around him, but I am not sure "belated flowering" captures the nature of the transformation.

It is a tale of self-overcoming and second chances seized: one suspects the Old Coot's wife, whose funeral opens the film, had served as a protective buffer between Old Coot and his duties and pains. She seems to have taken care of everything not directly involved in working at the Ford plant, amassing an impressive tool collection, maintaining house and lawn, and restoring a 1972 Gran Torino. Not on the honey-do list: noticing the extent to which society was changing, actively caring for his children, and grappling with his wartime experiences.

The film charts the Old Coot's second fatherhood and adulthood, and arguably his first true coming of age. Despite himself, he learns, adjusts, compromises, passes tests of courage dated after 1953, emotionally invests himself in the fate of others, and above all, sacrifices.

As to that final sacrifice, while I would like to live in a world in which such a feat of martyrdom could work out as shown, we do not live in that world. We live in a world in which that plan would fail three times before it got its Korean War-issue combat boots on, although it would realistically terminate with the violent death of Old Coot.

Lastly and most importantly, my biggest disappointment with the film: though it starred Clint Eastwood, it featured not one single hilariously flatulent, punch-throwing orangutan.

I demand a refund.

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