UPDATED 12/4 10:36 a.m. Part two of Matt Zoller Seitz's "Kingdom of the Blind," a video essay on Eastwood and the motif of revenge in his films, has been added to this post and can be seen directly below after part 1.
As film critics such as Todd McCarthy (Variety), David Ansen (Newsweek) and Glenn Kenny (Some Came Running) begin to weigh in on Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Invictus, which opens on December 11, the Museum of the Moving Image begins its 25th annual salute by selecting Eastwood as its 2009 honoree. On this occasion, the Moving Image Source website has published three rich and fascinating examinations of Eastwood that are well worth your time in considering (and reconsidering) the director’s career, similarities between two late films, and a cogent, passionate revisiting of one of the filmmaker’s most underrated movies.
Esteemed film writer Chris Fujiwara starts out the Eastwood retrospective with his own “Double Feature,” a closer look at the connective tissue between two of Eastwood’s most recent and ostensibly dissimilar features:
“Released only two months apart, Clint Eastwood's Changeling (October 2008) and Gran Torino (December 2008) were, for a while, twin films, in theaters simultaneously in many parts of the world. People marveled at the productivity of the director (then 78) and measured these twin works against each other, saying that Gran Torino made up triumphantly for the routineness of Changeling, or (the minority opinion, I believe) that Changeling, more subversive and less pretentious, was the superior work. Before time gets too deep into its inevitable process of driving the films apart, it might be worth recalling what, beyond the coincidence of their schedules, links Changeling and Gran Torino… The violence of America and the fragility of innocence obsess Eastwood. In both Changeling and Gran Torino, innocence belongs to someone (Sue in Gran Torino, Walter [Gattlin Griffith] in Changeling) who tries to mask it behind a tough pose of premature adulthood—the protection it must wear (in the end futilely) in the fallen world the films depict. Through these figures, Eastwood shows that there are two levels of human efficacy: a social one where people charm and repel one another in games of oneupmanship and trust-building, and a private one ruled by chaos, where everyone is alone and only the essential qualities of a person matter.”
Secondly, Jonathan Rosenbaum, late of the Chicago Reader and current master of his own blog domain, weighs in on one of Eastwood’s most neglected and criminally underrated movies, White Hunter Black Heart and builds an auteurist case for the rediscovery of this brutal, introspective gem:
“The critique offered in this underrated and frequently misunderstood Eastwood film goes beyond egocentric notions of masculinity to encompass certain forms of American arrogance and imperialism, even though the ostensible target is a famous all-American liberal, filmmaker John Huston. Peter Viertel's 1953 novel of the same title is a transparent roman à clef about his own experience of working with Huston as a screenwriter on The African Queen—a job that for Huston was mainly an excuse to indulge in his obsession with becoming a big-game hunter and bagging an elephant on location, before shooting on the film even started… Adapting White Hunter, Black Heart for the screen had been a long-term project. Ray Bradbury, who also worked for Huston (on the 1956 Moby Dick), was commissioned to write an early screenplay in 1959, and the one that Eastwood used three decades later credits Viertel himself and directors James Bridges (Urban Cowboy) and Burt Kennedy (Welcome to Hard Times), in that order. It's an unusually faithful adaptation, and the fact that Eastwood cast himself as John Wilson appears to be the source of most of the problems many have had with the film. For me, it's one of the chief sources of its brilliance.”
Finally, and most tantalizingly, Matt Zoller Seitz unveils yet another of his peerless video essays, this one examining the importance of the theme of revenge and the various shades of it found in the films of Clint Eastwood. Matt’s essay ”Kingdom of the Blind” is printed in full, accompanied by the video work, part one of which was posted today, part two of which will be available tomorrow. The video compliments Seitz’s piercing thoughts on the meaning of revenge for both Eastwood the actor icon and Eastwood the director:
“Clint Eastwood's long career as both actor and director is a homestead built atop a graveyard…. All Eastwood films that deal with vengeance are torn between two impulses: to show that, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”; and to feed the nonrational, lurid, savage craving for revenge—a craving experienced by both the wronged character who seeks it and the moviegoer who lives vicariously through the avenger… Some treat revenge lightly, ritualistically—as a mere ingredient, something one expects to see in westerns and thrillers, Eastwood's signature genres. Others treat it more seriously—as a response to evil that creates more evil; as an extralegal means of seeking justice that society botched or denied; as the result of unseen cosmic forces passing judgment on humankind; as a traumatized person's desperate attempt to regain authority over a life that's spun out of control; and as metaphysical narcotic—an activity that momentarily lets emotionally numb, spiritually dead people feel alive.”
Part 1 of Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay Kingdom of the Blind
What I hope we can do here is use these three (soon to be four) pieces of film criticism as a jumping-off place for our own thoughts about Eastwood’s work, the difficulties as well as the pleasures that come with it. I am most interested in thinking further about White Hunter Black Heart, because it has always been a movie that I’ve found fascinating, and one which I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years. I’ll be spending some time tracking it down and rewatching it, with some thoughts of my own to come afterward. But I also want to get a sense of what the thinking is about Eastwood as a filmmaker, as an artist, in the twilight days of his career. Is that self-critical, self-examining quality he often brings to that “homestead built upon a graveyard” enough to enlighten the aspect of audience pandering of which his earlier films were often accused? How does Eastwood’s relatively conservative, classical approach function for you as members of his audience, as considerate consumers of films who are well aware of the different variables, styles and sensibilities that make up world cinema as we know it in the age of Netflix? Is Eastwood relevant, or is he just the most recent and most unlikely exemplar of a long tradition of Oscar-bait filmmaking? If you’ve spent any time reading this blog you probably have a pretty good idea what my answers to these kinds of questions might be. I’m much more interested, however, in the discussion based on what you’re thinking about Clint Eastwood as the Invictus release date draws near and the possibility of yet another year-end Eastwood film landing on multiple ten-best lists becomes more and more distinct.
Part 2 of Matt Zoller Seitz's Kingdom of the Blind