A fistful of hollers

Jan 14, 2009 at 6:00 am

Cary Stemle, my friend and former editor, posted something intriguing on his Facebook page last week: a brief, glowing endorsement of the new Clint Eastwood tough-guy flick, “Gran Torino.”

My impression of Eastwood’s acting is not subtle: Dude needs to hang it up, posthaste. He’s aged out of the silver screen, has no range beyond minor self-effacement, and his shtick — I’ll kick your ass so you never have the opportunity to kick mine — represents much of what is wrong about the American attitude in the Bush era. Eastwood was pre-preemptive warfare.

Add that to the “GT” trailer, which explains the film as the ruminations of an overly aggressive, aged white man who alternately assaults and protects various ethnic minorities while clinging to a past represented by a Ford muscle car that can be read as a proxy for the strategic mistakes made by a company sprinting toward bankruptcy and imperiling all that surrounds it. The movie seems like a snoozer. 

There is an age gap of about 20 years between Stemle and me, which means there is also an admitted culture contrast. Still, I was surprised to read his Facebook endorsement. We have never agreed on much in terms of popular culture, but we are simpatico on most social and political issues, and this seemed like a no-brainer: Reinforcing so many cultural stereotypes in one vanity project is just not cool. I posted a quippy comment on his wall, then returned to watching football and being right, generally, about all things.

But I felt a nag. I value Stemle’s judgment more than most, and I became curious. 

So on Sunday, I abandoned my plan to stay home with the NFL playoffs and a pot of chili and saw “Gran Torino,” against what I’ve always considered to be my better judgment.

As is often the case with bad advertising, “GT” quite differed from my expectations. (Or does that make it good advertising? Maybe another time.) The film casts its hero as a racist, sexist groaner whose biggest laughs came when he joked on an ethnic minority. He’s the same ol’ cowboy vigilante, but his lessons here about age, law and justice — I’ll leave it for those who haven’t seen the movie — are a little less straightforward than the shoot ’em up schlock we’re used to. Bully for us.

I wasn’t shocked that my fellow moviegoers chortled and guffawed at every — yes, every — racist joke. That’s likely the product of living in a society that chooses to ignore racism rather than confront it. The result is sometimes that attempts at understanding come out sideways, like laughing when Clint Eastwood calls a Hmong teenager “slope” or “egg roll.” Is it funny because he’s old and out of touch, or are you sympathizing? Not sure.

That’s what this movie — which debuted at No. 1 in the United States and Canada last weekend, with a $29 million draw (tells you something about what those audiences thought they saw in the trailer) — is all about: After a lifetime of character blindness, Eastwood is forced to re-imagine the mythologies he developed about the Far East while fighting in the Korean War. Meanwhile, the thing he’s confronting in his front yard — snarl, and protecting the neighbors who have provoked his newfound permissiveness from, snarl — is a Detroit gang, some of whose members are of the same southeast Asian Hmong tribe as his neighbors.

Race relations are complicated, you see.

But what good is a film that confronts racism if the racist is also the hero?

We face some version of this question every day, rarely with much forethought. Humans have never been too good at collectively addressing deep questions of identity; though I haven’t been alive forever, I’m not sure there is much precedent for a vigilante succeeding in the long-term. Even George W. Bush is going away in a few days. Eastwood’s character — Walt Kowolski, a Polish guy whose idea of “man talk” is insulting everyone around him, epithets welcome — never makes amends, but he finds peace in committing a selfless act that the viewer is expected to take as atonement, or perhaps heroism.

I suspect films like “GT” succeed because our country’s narrative is, generally, that despite our shortcomings, we have the power and understanding to be heroic, even though vigilantism is pretty much bunk.

Thus, the film’s central question: How far should we go to accept redemption?