Friday, December 26, 2008

Vintage Cars

There's something so damned familiar about "Gran Torino" - and that seems to be the main source of pleasure in it. Not least of which we get to see Clint Eastwood in the not-too-subtle familiar mode of his heyday, the laconic aging hardass that won him an Oscar for "Unforgiven" and that stretches all the way back to the "Dirty Harry" era.

Eastwood has struggled with this persona his entire career. The spaghetti westerns in the '60s were themselves responses against what was considered a used-up and tired genre, given new life (he claims by his own hand) by the world-weary "Squint." When he began directing himself, the films he seemed to have his heart in were closer to Bertrand Tavernier than to Don Siegel. But Eastwood knew to remain a good studio asset, and mixed the personal films with the action ones over the years.

In retrospect it seems that Eastwood has always been conscious of his legacy as time passes. The "Dirty Harry" films get more progressive in theme as they go along (even as the filmmaking technique regresses (but a meta-nod to "The Dead Pool," which seems to be about being Clint Eastwood)). He made sure to be in charge of his own fate, and tried constantly to retool his persona rather than retread it (vide "Tightrope" or "Every Which Way You Can"). There was a bad fallow middle period during the 1990s (from "The Rookie" to about "Blood Work") in which his own worst impulses resulted in flaccid and sloppy films having little to do with his previous urgency as an icon. But he began to return to (or develop a refined) form with "Mystic River," then "Million Dollar Baby," and finally the 2 Iwo Jima films of 2006.

I don't consider any of these particularly great, but they are well-regarded. He has outlasted his critics, and keeps doing what he knows how to do. Now it seems there is always a Clint Eastwood film around Christmas time (2 this year), and they're never the big, grand epics other directors strive for. Even "Sands..." a war picture, didn't feel epic. Eastwood's technique is disarmingly simple, and practically nonchalant. His blocking and direction of actors often seems rushed and uninvolved.

Yet sometimes it's perfect for his theme. I think "Mystic River"'s award-winning performances stood out exactly because the film surrounding them was so slipshod. But the overly-relaxed "Honkytonk Man" and "Bronco Billy" (neither of which delivers on any kind of '70s-style Eastwood-esque "moments") are brilliant examples of restraint and sensitivity.

These smaller productions also means he can make more films. Such previous prolific stalwarts as Coppola and Gilliam struggle to get each film funded and finished (and that's without any stars dying). Even Brett Ratner, god help us, has priced himself out of regular commissions now that he got himself attached to X-Men-sized projects.

Eastwood apparently isn't interested in going that route. He might not be capable of it. As a wise man once said, the man knows his limitations.

There's a humility to Eastwood's direction that is unassuming, undemanding, and seems stuck in the past. It would be easy to catch "Gran Torino" on cable in a year and not be entirely sure it was 1, 5 or 20 years old. By not being of the moment, it approaches a kind of timelessness.

Eastwood is working with similar material here as in "Unforgiven," the out-of-time warrior unable to find his place in a changing world. The sense of outrage has been replaced by one of stubborn inevitability. Is Eastwood considering his own mortality, one film at a time?

Our knowledge of his previous career only helps. And with the resonances to other roles, from the haunted agent in "In The Line Of Fire" to the widower in "Bridges of Madison County," "Gran Torino" feels solid as a well-kept automobile.

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