Monday, December 22, 2008

Oh, I've got a light . . .

Clint Eastwood is a god among men, man among boys, and, at 78, could still kick just about anyone's butt in 10 seconds flat. Ask most movie buffs who holds the title of greatest living American filmmaker, and most would pick Martin Scorsese. Since the passing of Robert Altman, it's hard to argue with that choice. However, I think Clint's on the shortlist, and, furthermore, might just be knocking on the door.

For the first time since 2004's Million Dollar Baby, Clint found a project he believed in enough to star in it. Previously, he'd said that he was done with acting and even turned down the lead in In the Valley of Elah, a role that Paul Haggis had written especially for him. (not to worry, Haggis had one heck of a backup plan) I went into Gran Torino with mid-level expectations, and came out blown away.

Clint is a rare breed of filmmaker and one that I think deserves to be considered an auteur. This distinction is one that is normally afforded a filmmaker with a well-defined visual and thematic style whose films are clearly recognizable as "theirs." That said, Clint Eastwood is probably not the first person who comes to mind when thinking about who is or isn't an auteur. From a visual standpoint, Clint's films are very naturalistic. I get the feeling that he could care less about impressing the audience with a nifty shot or camera trick. Instead, his focus is always on serving the story, which, I'd argue, is exactly where it should be. It's on these grounds that I really feel that he deserves the "auteur" label. In most cases, his films are small in scope in that they deal with only a few characters who are usually ordinary people. The real riches are in the emotional landscape he chooses to explore. I challenge you to find a Clint Eastwood film that doesn't feel like a Clint Eastwood film.

Gran Torino is no exception. I went into the film not expecting a great movie, and was completely surprised. I'd been interested in seeing it since seeing the first trailer, but felt that the material seemed formulaic and might come across on the corny side. My initial assumptions have some grounds, but, in large part, Gran Torino's strengths wipe out its weaknesses.

The film's single greatest strength is the performance of Clint Eastwood. I think he deserves serious consideration for an Academy Award nomination. It's one of the finer performances I've ever seen him give and one of the year's best. One of the things I like most about the film is the way it doesn't sugarcoat Walt Kowalski, the main character. He's a racist, pure and simple, and, to be honest, isn't a big fan of a lot of white folks either. It's refreshing to find a character like Walt who doesn't get sanitized and made politically correct. Then, when his perspective starts to shift, the changes are natural and feel as though they've been earned. This is unique, because a lot of films err in this area by trying for certain types of character development without building the character enough to sustain those changes. As a result, the changes feel false and clumsily tacked on. A lot of filmmakers would do well to watch this film and take notes . . .

Another of Clint's trademarks comes into play in Gran Torino to great effect: the sucker punch. He's a master of lulling the viewer into thinking that he/she's watching a certain type of film, creating a false sense of security, and then blindsiding him/her with a sudden shift in tone and thematic content. I wouldn't spoil it for the world, but there's a moment in Gran Torino that will almost take your breath away. It's perfectly set up by the film's humor, one of its unexpected strengths. I spent the first hour and a half laughing and enjoying myself (and enjoying my friend's reactions to Walt's behavior. Priceless.) and then after that moment occurs, I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore and the stakes had just gotten monumentally higher.

As most people go through life, they mark different time periods by certain occasions. I've almost always marked my years by movies and I'd have to say that Clint Eastwood's made for some oustanding moments in my cinematic life. With Letters From Iwo Jima, I knew I'd seen one of the greatest films about war that I'd ever seen. With Million Dollar Baby, I knew my life had been changed by one of the greatest films I'd ever seen. Gran Torino doesn't quite get as high up, but I wouldn't worry, 'cause it gets a distinction of its own. It's just one of the year's best films.


Anonymous said...

One of the few directors today who never disappoints. Scorsesce may be ranked higher by some but Eastwood is certainly the greatest living actor/director if not of all time.

Still need to see this but on a non-sequitir, I always used to imagine that his face was the man under the helmet of Boba Fett.

Adam said...

That's an interesting idea. At first, I was ready to respond to your post and say that I didn't think he was the greatest director of all time. Then, I read it closer and realized that you qualified your statement in naming him arguably the greatest actor/director of all time. That makes a lot more sense to me, and I can see a lot of merit for your viewpoint. I've heard it said that, even if he'd never acted, his place in history would be secure because of his work behind the camera.

As for other actor/directors, what about Welles and Redford? Where would you rank them in comparison?

Anonymous said...

Thank you! There seem to be quite a bit of actors turned directors but very few are any good at it or have more than one good film in them. He's always been good but it only seems until recently that he's gotten the accolades he deserves for his behind the camera work.

Both very high, although I consider Welles more of a director than an actor maybe because he revolutionized that profession.

Anonymous said...

Okay, finally saw it and your right it does follow a certain formula but that's not why I saw it and enjoyed it.

The performances are what drove the film for me and the majority of the time when they try to make a film like this the characters ring false or the actors are just phoning it in but that's clearly not the case this time. I also liked how he used unknowns in the cast as well and maybe that's why I bought the characters so much.