Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A HOMESTEAD BUILT UPON A GRAVEYARD: THE FILMS OF CLINT EASTWOOD


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

**************************************

20 comments:

Damian said...

I just finished watching Matt's video essay and, as usual, I found it to be both illuminating and entertaining. Although, I have yet to see some of the films Matt highlighted (HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and OUTLAW JOSEY WALES), my already substantial curiosity about said films has become even more piqued. Clint Eastwood has long been one of my personal favorite filmmakers and I thoroughly believe he is more than just an aging, Oscar-baiting American director (or a "geriatric Ron Howard" if you will). I think he is an artist of profound depth and a national treasure. In an age where individual movie shots have to be measured by tenths of a second and subtlety has become a major casualty as directors rush through stories before audiences have a chance to ask questions about the ridiculousness of what they're watching, Eastwood stands alone as a breath of fresh air; an oasis of cool, refreshing water in a vast desert of excess and mediocrity.

Perhaps I've mentioned this before (and if I have please forgive me), but a major turning point for me in my opinion on Eastwood came whenI saw TRUE CRIME in the theatre with my father. In the scene where Eastwood talks to Michael Jeter about what he saw the day of the crime, my dad made an observation that has always stuck with me. After Jeter's character goes off on Eastwood's character there is a long silence (something that Eastwood is excellent at using effectively) before a waitress approaches them and, with no clue whatsoever as to what they were just discussing, politely asks for their order. The films then cuts away to another scene and both my dad ad I realized, at the same time I think, that it was an unusual place to "end" the scene. Most filmmakers would've cut away after the "meat" of the scene was finished, after the plot/story demands had been fulfilled and there was nothing more to see, but Eastwood didn't do that. Eastwood allowed his camera to linger and found an ordinary, but still incredibly memorable, moment to include. My dad leaned over to me and whispered: "Wow. He' really mastered the art of the mundane." To this day I can think of no better descriptor for Eastwood's greatness.

J.D. said...

After A PERFECT WORLD (another underrated Eastwood gem), WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART is probably my fave Eastwood-as-director film. In that film, Eastwood seems to be tackling, among many other themes, the nature of obsession with Wilson's Ahab-like persistence to bag a "tusker." I really found the discussions and arguments his character has with Pete Verrill to be endless fascinating and the film is quite interesting on several levels.

Peter Nellhaus said...

You cannot discount the link between Clint Eastwood and classic Hollywood, being Don Siegel. It might be significant that the director Siegel created more montages for is Raoul Walsh.

What is interesting about Eastwood is that his films are classical in a good sense, yet he also takes from Sergio Leone the idea of how does one upset or undermine audience expectations.

It is also important to consider that Eastwood's films are generally speaking, genre films, so that it might be said what he is doing is exploring those films he has loved. What is also interesting about Eastwood is that he makes films that are of interest to him and has been generally successful critically and commercially by following his own instincts.

I am in a minority, but my favorite Eastwood directed film is Bird, where Eastwood allowed himself to structure a film somewhat like an extended musical composition, with repeating cpdas.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I really think you're spot on here, Peter. Eastwood has the lineage of old Hollywood in his artistic DNA-- it's not just a pose or an attempt to connect with films that he has feeling toward but no feel for in terms of creating within the terms of that lineage. His mixing of the Siegel and Leone legacies, in Unforgiven, of course, but in other movies as well, is what keeps him alive artistically, even when his achievements are less than solid (I'm thinking of something like Absolute Power here.) But even an genre exercise like that, muffled as it is sometimes is by Eastwood's resistance to caving in to Hollywood's current notions about accelerated motion and editing, is often made richer by that resistance too. Damian's example of that scene going several beats longer than expected is a great one-- that kind of pacing drives some people nuts-- and I think too of how Eastwood is one of the most effective directors at utilizing the negative space in a frame and making darkness a recurring visual theme. (It was often chalked up as bad cinematography in movies like Bird.)

But really, what's most important about Eastwood to me is what you say, Peter-- he works in genre and explores the movies he loves. This is the difference between him and a director, from George Lucas on up, who seeks only to replicate the thrills and atmosphere of the films that meant the most to him growing up or in the stages of his becoming an artist in his own right. Eastwood has rarely settled for a situation where something deeper might be dug up, and often this results in apparently contradictory impulses, like the ones Matt examines where revenge is both something to be considered an existential horror and at the same time a key element in what draws an audience to the kinds of pictures Eastwood makes in the first place. He does this by following his own instincts, by having the confidence that he can tell a story at an unhurried pace, packed with the kinds of diversionary details and moments where the characters (and the audience) can breathe that are arrived at through association and collaboration with directors who knew the classical techniques and when they could be shifted or altogether discarded. I cannot wait to get into White Hunter Black Heart again and watch how the ensuing 20 years of my own experience (with film and with life) mixes with and informs Eastwood's ruminations on power and obsession. It might have been seen as borderline arrogance to draw comparisons between the Huston-Eastwood iconography back in 1990, but I suspect the comparison may seem less strained and be even richer now.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

J.D., I love A Perfect World too, and it's been far too long since I've seen it. Thanks for reminding me.

Jason Bellamy said...

I haven't had time to go through all the Eastwood stuff here, and I've just skimmed this conversation, but it's interesting timing because about two weeks ago I watched A Perfect World for the first time since its release. All the Kevin Costner scenes on the road hold up very well. Alas, the subplot, if you can call it that, with Eastwood and Dern is pretty much useless -- if they cut it, you wouldn't miss it -- and this has one of the most unnecessarily prolonged conclusions of any movie I've ever seen (and it's capped off by a gesture that must be the low point of Dern's career -- not her fault).

After that, I came away less fond of the movie than I had remembered it, but I was still grateful for the parts that work well. If I edited the film down only to the Costner-(and kid)-on-the-road scenes, I'd like it quite a bit.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jason: One of the reasons I'm looking forward to seeing A Perfect World again is to look at that whole Eastwood-Dern section with fresh eyes. I don't remember it being useless so much as wobbly in tone, or maybe more accurately inconsistent in its comedic tone with the rather mournful set of the rest of the movie. Eastwood had always shown a penchant for low comedy in his movies, and it most certainly didn't always work (it rarely did, as a matter of fact), so it didn't surprise me too much, only perhaps that it came right after Unforgiven. (I don't remember the gesture in reference to Dern that you mentioned.) If I can get back to it in a timely manner I'll compare notes with you then.

J.D. said...

Jason Bellamy:

I dunno, the whole Eastwood/Dern subplot doesn't bother me so much. I'm sure, the studio probably wanted Eastwood in there and as a compromise he took a smaller role and tried to minimalize his involvement as much as possible. I would say that subplot is there to offer some moments of levity and also provide us with some backstory to Butch and his link with Eastwood's character, which I kinda liked but the moments between him and Dern's character, esp. where she calls him on his sexist remarks could have been handled better. Still, the Costner stuff is so good that I tend to give the other stuff a pass.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

You know, if I have time, I'd like to explore the whole idea that we've now gotten to the point where we overlook the earlier parts of Eastwood's career in favor of the last decade or so, where it might be argued that he's aping the classic styles of the past masters without deeply inhabiting them. I don't feel myself drawn to re-watching a lot of his films from Unforgiven on. I know, sacrilege. But I do find myself interested in the looser, more rambunctious Eastwood as director. The guy who made Breezy, Play Misty For Me, Bronco Billy, Pink Cadillac, The Rookie, the Harry sequels, two flicks with an oranguatan and my all-time favorite Eastwood movie: Heartbreak Ridge. That's the Eastwood that seems to be forgotten in his post-Schickelizing period.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Re your sacrilege, TLRHB, Eastwood doesn’t strike me as the type to ape the directors and styles he admires without the emotional and artistic investment to make them his own. Maybe Unforgiven marks the first time he consciously, or openly, evoked Leone or Siegel, but anyone who thinks Siegel wasn’t at work within the sensibility of the director who made Play Misty for Me, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Firefox or Heartbreak Ridge-- an therefore fueling Eastwood's desire to reach into them with both hands-- probably isn’t paying too close attention. And Leone is a conscious influence in High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider and, improbably, The Gauntlet, which seems to me the point where Siegel first met Leone head on in Eastwood’s work as a director. (With a little dash of Frank Capra thrown in for good measure, eh, Mr. Kenny?)

But I do get a little uncomfortable with what you term the Schickelizing of Eastwood’s later career—I love/grimace at the way that coined phrase seems to imply a protective sheen encasing the post-Unforgiven films as Academy-model classics (a number which does include wet fuses like Absolute Power and The Bridges of Madison County) at the expense of the grittier, nastier, sometimes less assured but not necessarily less reflective earlier movies.

(Part Two after the break)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I have to set Breezy aside because it’s the one Eastwood movie I haven’t seen. But right now, at 9:33 pm on Wednesday, December 2, I would step up to the plate without hesitation for Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy, Firefox, Bird, White Hunter Black Heart and The Rookie, the last being Eastwood’s final purely rowdy and careless (in the good sense) effort before his Oscar coronation.

Of his post Unforgiven work, I think True Crime, Blood Work and especially Space Cowboys are all reputable, if not in and of themselves perfect, examples of Eastwood’s not having let go of his instincts as an everyman entertainer. (Space Cowboys is a terrific movie, almost without reservation.)

I long for another look at Honkytonk Man, because it seems to fit so squarely with the same sensibility that produced Bronco Billy, yet it’s a movie by which I was never myself moved. And, frankly, if someone as intelligent as you holds Heartbreak Ridge in such high esteem, TLRHB, then it’s time for me to take another look. I pretty much hated it when it first came out, and I remember Pauline Kael getting off a couple of good knocks on the script (she was never receptive of Eastwood) which I certainly enjoyed. But this movie seems to be a real dividing line amongst Eastwood’s fan base, and I really do think I’d like to see it again through grownup eyes.

However, I need no further encounters with Sudden Impact orThe Eiger Sanction, both of which I’ve seen in the last four or five years, both of which I consider the absolute nadir of Eastwood’s career as a director and star. Sudden Impact is interesting in the landscape of Eastwood’s career as a whole, as Matt’s piece ably points out, but as a piece of action filmmaking it’s routine at best, negligent of character, ugly and patently absurd at worst. But The Eiger Sanction, despite some good stunt work, achieves true rancidity in terms of its ugly stereotyping, shoddy storytelling gaps and the star at a smug, self-conscious low point.

But Eastwood was terrific starring in everything from Where Eagles Dare, Kelly’s Heroes and Two Mules for Sister Sara right up through The Beguiled, the first three Dirty Harry movies, Coogan’s Bluff, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Escape from Alcatraz, In the Line of Fire and even Tightrope, which is a movie hobbled in many ways but worth a look for the manner in which Eastwood seemed to be hanging himself out there and turning his star person inside-out, looking for corrosion and perversions on the flip side.

I don’t recall Pink Cadillac with much fondness, which probably means I should see it again, but I’m really eager to see the two monkey movies, Every Which Any Which Way You Can But Loose, again to see just how easygoing the number-one star of the ‘70s could take it as he began easing into a decade in which that star would begin to wane.

All of which is a long way around saying that to ignore those formative movies Eastwood directed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the ones he starred in and may have directed by proxy (Buddy Van Horn and James Fargo were Eastwood stunt coordinators who assumed directorial credit of the monkey movies, Tightrope, Pink Cadillac, The Enforcer and The Dead Pool) is to discount much of what got him to the point where he felt he could, and had to make a movie like Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby (flawed but pretty goddamned wonderful to this jaundiced eye) or a iconic swansong like Gran Torino. We should be interested in the pre-1990 period as well, and I think we should also be grateful that while it still needs more attention it has not yet been Schickelized.

Okay, I’m off to rent White Hunter Black Heart and Heartbreak Ridge.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

I love an argument. I didn't mean to say Siegel wasn't at work in his earlier films. I think I was talking more along the lines of Ford and Leone, which you see in his classic approach. But, eh, I don't know, sometimes it seems like he's too consciously trying for an effect in his late period that his earlier movies achieved without the same effort. But, to be fair, there has always been a calm pace to his movies, even the early ones. The later ones just seem to have the gloss of "Important Cinema" on them.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I get ya. I think I probably jumped the gun there. And I definitely see the gloss of "Important Cinema" on a waxwork like Changeling. I don't see it, however, on something like Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby or Gran Torino, at least not in the Richard Attenborough/Sydney Pollack Oscar-bait sense. Those movies earned their degrees, I think.

But what about Heartbreak Ridge? What do you love about that movie?

le0pard13 said...

This is a marvelous discourse of a favorite actor and director of mine. All of you make valid points with regards to the films cited. And, I think he's still a relevant filmmaker. I've always had the sense that he's pretty comfortable with himself and makes movies he would enjoy (and at his own pacing). I'm partial to The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven westerns, especially for their contrasts in character, mood, and Eastwood's growth as a director.

I'm also with J.D. in appreciation of White Hunter, Black Heart. For one, it came out at a time audiences still wanted to see the actor in the BAD ASS role (and hence, we also got The Rookie the same year). However, he made it knowing it'd be overlooked because his character (and theme) would likely turn off many, but it was picture worth making and learning from. His patience paid off, too. That film is more popular now with his fans and critics than when it debuted.

I also think that True Crime and Absolute Power are equally underrated, and entertaining for different reasons. I guess I'm also biased by Eastwood's comfort in using his age, and later senior citizen status, with his characters (since the early 90's) in film with aplomb. Few others do that these days. Which reminds me, I need to re-watch some of the Eastwood directed films folks are referencing here. There's a lot of good to great things there, and it's as good an excuse as any to watch Clint again. Thanks, Dennis, for bringing up this thread.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

I think it's part of a long string of Eastwood roles where he is the outsider, the man who doesn't fit in to the structure, but it isn't played for violence or Biblical revenge. I think it successfully mixes drama, romance, politically incorrect barracks comedy (Eastwood's Gunny Highway vs. Lee Ermey's Gunny Hartman would be an interesting mano a mano) and a sort of mild Republicanism in its political bent that is miles away from the right-wing conservatism that rules the party today. Plus, it's Clint Eastwood invades...Panama! And it's got Mario Van Peebles as a wannabe rock star!

The whole thing's predictable as the day is long, but sort of bull loony, which is what I enjoy about it. It's Eastwood's funniest role, the badass Marine instructor who can scare the shit out of the plebes but sits out in his truck reading Cosmo to figure out how to talk to ex-love Marsha Mason. Mason and Eastwood have the kind of easy, unforced romantic charm in this film that was overpraised when it was Eastwood and Meryl Streep in Bridges of Madison County. just watch the final scene of the movie: It's classic, relaxed Eastwood pacing.

And, as in all great Eastwood movies, it's Clint vs. The Powers That Be. In this case, you could interchange the names Gunny Highway and Harry Callahan as he gets chewed out by the Military Bureaucrat:

"I don't know what strings you pulled to get back into this division but I can assure you that I don't like it. This is the new Marine Corps. The new breed. Characters like you are an anachronism. You should be sealed in a case that reads break glass only in the event of war. Got no tolerance for you old timers who think that you know it better and can have it all your own way."

Anyway, I find it hard not to love a movie that has Clint The Anachronism spitting out these lines in that gravelly, terse way of his:

"Be advised. I'm mean, nasty and tired. I eat concertina wire and piss napalm and I can put a round in a flea's ass at 200 meters. So why don't you go hump somebody else's leg, mutt face, before I push yours in."

See, I hope this Clint Eastwood isn't forgotten as he becomes, well, cinematically invictus. Recon!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Oh, I bet for every guy who claims he has no use for the '70s and '80s Eastwood, there's at least two who wouldn't trade that era for four more Oscars.

And personally, I think I'm ready to deal with the "sort of mild Republicanism in its political bent that is miles away from the right-wing conservatism that rules the party today" in a way I know I wasn't back in 1985. Maybe it's that distance that will be the key for me.

At any rate, just like Chris Stangl did for me recently in introducing me to Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, you have official elevated the anticipation level of seeing the movie 100% and at the same time made remembering Heartbreak Ridge much more fun for me than when I saw it as a know-it-all 25-year-old. Thanks, TLRHB! Netflix swears I'll have it in hand by tomorrow.

Rick Olson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Olson said...

Oh, I bet for every guy who claims he has no use for the '70s and '80s Eastwood, there's at least two who wouldn't trade that era for four more Oscars.

I'm one who still loves that period of Eastwood ... "The Outlaw Josie Wales," "High Plains Drifter," "Pale Rider" are such classic westerns. On the other hand, I never liked the "Every Which Way but Looses" very much. Too much idiotic pandering to the Bubba crowd for me.

I think one of the things about Eastwood that I've always loved is what has been already mentioned several times here: his exploration (and often subversion) of whatever genre he's operating in. Nothing demonstrates that more than "Gran Torino" which, though not an unqualified success, undermined audience expectations wonderfully, and played expertly with his own badass image.

I am also very fond of his classical style, and leisurely, stolid pacing. It seems almost always well-suited to the subject matter. I think of the gorgeous chiaroscuro in "Million Dollar Baby" and how it perfectly reflected and reinforced Eastwood's character's introspection and dissatisfaction with his world.

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