Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Clint (re)Considered

In Faculty, Research on September 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm


Eastwood Continues to Fascinate, Thrill, (and Mystify)

by John M. Gourlie (professor of Communications) and Leonard Engel (professor of English)

Contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous claim about there being no second acts in American lives, Clint Eastwood has had a terrific second act; or, more precisely, a series of amazing “second” acts, and they keep coming. He turned eighty-two in May 2012, continues to be as busy as ever, and shows few signs of slowing down. As one concession, though, after directing and starring in the highly successful Gran Torino (2008), he claims he will no longer act, but will concentrate solely on directing, producing, and composing. This concession has already been reversed, however, for he is starring in a baseball film with Justin Timberlake (it’s hard to imagine Clint and Justin Timberlake working together, but stranger things have happened—especially if one considers his recent appearance at the Republican National Convention). The film, Trouble with the Curve is due out on September 21.

Since we completed Clint Eastwood, Actor and Director: New Perspectives (2007), Eastwood has not only starred in and directed Gran Torino (2008), he has directed Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Letters from Iwo Jimo (2006), The Changeling (2008), Invictus (2009), Hereafter (2010), and J. Edgar (2011). Eastwood’s level of accomplishment is stunning for a filmmaker of any age, perhaps even more remarkable for one now in his eighties.

Our second collection, New Essays on Clint Eastwood, again looks at films that range over the course of Eastwood’s career so that we might more fully appreciate and understand Eastwood as he continues to grow into an ever more accomplished storyteller, one who continues to sharpen his skills, deepen his power, and expand the range of his subject matter. While our initial intention for this new book was to focus primarily on Eastwood’s latest films, that impulse was broadened by the continuing enthusiasm of our contributors for Eastwood’s work from its beginnings to its latest manifestations. This broad engagement with Eastwood’s work underscores the degree to which his most recent work grows out of a lifetime of endeavor and accomplishment—all of which remains of interest. While each collection of essays can stand alone, together they form a broad perspective that illuminates the place where Eastwood’s work began, the paths it followed as he grew, and the levels of artistic achievement the later work, in particular, attains. Accordingly, this collection seeks both to expand our understanding of individual films and to deepen our overall appreciation of Eastwood’s artistry as, through the various stages of his career, he becomes an ever greater master of his craft.

From his beginnings in television to his iconic roles in Westerns and detective films, Eastwood has always generated star power as an actor. But his ambitions as a filmmaker grew over the years to encompass roles as director, producer, and eventually composer as well. Likewise, his continuous courage as a storyteller has led him from initially muted, small scale or offbeat productions to the treatment of major human themes on a broad canvas. Along the way, he has explored the dark corners of the psyche (Play Misty for Me and The Beguiled, both 1971); the unusual in subject matter (Any Which Way you Can, 1978; Bronco Billy, 1980); the artistically and personally meaningful (Honkytonk Man, 1982; Bird, 1988; White Hunter Black Heart, 1990); the extreme version of a character (all the western avengers, Tightrope, 1984); tragic family issues (Mystic River, 2003; Million Dollar Baby, 2004; The Changeling, 2008; Gran Torino, 2008); the human sacrifice, national illusions, and nightmare horrors of war (Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, both 2006); the rare miracle of human brotherhood in history (Invictus, 2009); and, surprisingly, the afterlife (Hereafter, 2010). Eastwood’s continuing star power as an actor-director and his financial acumen as a producer have brought him the freedom to extend this exploration throughout an exceptionally long and increasingly magnificent career.

In recent years, age and creative maturity have brought greater depth and power to Eastwood’s work. In major films since Million Dollar Baby—films such as Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino, Invictus, Hereafter and J. Edgar—Eastwood expands his vision as a cinematic storyteller in remarkable ways. As different as certain of these films may be from one another, they share a common theme—the family of man. For example, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima depict the World War II battle for Iwo Jima, first from the perspective of the American marines and then from the perspective of the Japanese defenders. Significantly, the two films convey equal compassion for both sides in the combat. The cumulative effect is to liberate, say, American viewers from their own national outlook, and to invite them to view “the enemy” as equally human and equally worthy—equal members of the same family.

Even 65 years after the Battle of Iwo Jima, this reformulation of American perceptions comes with a jolt, especially to those raised on the understandably nationalistic portrayal of World War II offered by Hollywood at the time and reinforced by most war films since. But both of Eastwood’s Iwo Jima films offer a compassionate portrayal of family. In Letters, it is the straightforward device of Japanese soldiers writing letters from Iwo Jima to be sent to their families on mainland Japan. The film’s story emerges as a flashback from the cache of such letters found undelivered on Iwo Jima years after the battle. In Flags, a complex non-linear narrative unfolds, but it is still based on the search of a son for his father’s hidden past as one participant in the famous photograph of Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima. While the films explore differing conceptions of heroism and honor, they work in tandem to create a vision of shared humanity.  In a combined perspective, the families of each film ultimately assume a role as representative of the “family of mankind.” Given that the basic action of each film consists of American and Japanese soldiers killing each other, Eastwood’s vision of their brotherhood–their belonging to the same family of mankind—is a remarkable achievement.

Eastwood sustains this vision of mankind’s brotherhood in Invictus.  Like Flags and Letters, Invictus also breaks the mold of the small scale productions typical of Eastwood’s earlier filmmaking. All three films are epic in scale. All three films address history.  All three films portray actual people enacting actual events. In Invictus, Nelson Mandela, newly elected President of South Africa, asks Francois Pienaar, the captain of the national rugby team, the Springboks, to win the World Cup as a means of uniting black and white South Africans in a common cause. That the Springboks, a former emblem of white supremacy, gain the support of the black population, that in the moment of their victory they unleash an all-consuming joy powerful enough to unite warring races, that Mandela’s improbable strategy gives birth to the modern nation of South Africa constitute a miracle as soaring and as transfixing as the moment when the Boeing 747 roars over the stadium at 200 feet.

That Eastwood, who gained fame as the loner—the man with no name, has become a director capable of making Invictus is perhaps also a miracle of some order, one of exceptional artistic growth in a career spanning over forty years as a director and fifty-five years as an actor.  With extraordinary dedication and unyeilding ambition to expand and deepen his capabilities as a storyteller, Eastwood continues to make exceptional film after exceptional film.

While Gran Torino is not in the mold of epic history, it nonetheless exhibits a mythic dimension that expands it beyond the confines of its smaller scale production. Making use of the character of the priest and of religious iconography, Eastwood renders the story of Walt Kowalski’s growing engagement with his Hmong neighbors in Detroit into a myth for modern times. In bequeathing his Gran Torino to Thao at the end of the film, Walt fully acknowledges the Hmong teenager as his true son and heir, just as he has increasingly accepted the Hmong family next door as his adopted family. This storyline of multicultural unity assumes mythic proportions in Walt’s sacrificial death. As he is gunned down by a Hmong gang, he falls in a posture of crucifixion. In the funeral sermons at the beginning and end of the film, the priest places Walt’s life in the context of the meaning of life and death. Such elements suggest that in Gran Torino,Eastwood is offering a story of mythic reach in its endeavor to express our fundamental values as a nation and as human beings.

Perhaps no single film like Gran Torino—nor even a series of films like Flags, Letters, Invictus, and Hereafter—can by themselves establish a mythic narrative capable of assuming the role that the whole genre of the Western has played as our national myth. Yet Eastwood is offering us a vision. In Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, he offers us an emotional intensity that moves the very heart’s core more deeply into compassion for human suffering and human failing. In Flags, Letters, and Invictus, he addresses world history with an underlying vision of human brotherhood that transcends warring nations and racial hatred. In Gran Torino, he formulates a mythic narrative of multicultural unity.  In Hereafter, he examines the very mysteries of the afterlife itself—the shared destiny of all humankind.  Most recently, in J. Edgar, he explores obsession and power in the person of J. Edgar Hoover, all but Director for Life of the FBI and a national figure emblematic of Twentieth Century America. Taken together, these films trace the path whereby Eastwood has transformed his treatment of the family as an emotional and dramatic center into a lens capable of projecting an image of the family of mankind and its most profound values onto the canvas of history and into the realms of myth.

As unlikely as it might have seemed at the time, say, of High Plains Drifter, Eastwood’s films have now reached a pitch where they portray an artist’s vision of life, its tragedies, and finally—however obscured, denied, or beset—its ultimate value. And, looking back, we can see throughout the many films of Eastwood’s career a developing sensibility that has so grown in power and capacity that it unfolds an artistic vision worthy of his maturity.

As the writers in this collection explore Eastwood’s films anew, a common thread is their respect for Eastwood’s sustained commitment to cinematic storytelling. In its own way, each essay examines certain films of Eastwood’s career, and, collectively, they illuminate his achievements as a filmmaker. In examining his Westerns and detective films, these essays suggest how Eastwood put his individual stamp on those particular genres. And in examining his more recent films, the essays suggest how he has used family, history, and myth to transcend generic conventions and to project a hard won vision of humanity united beyond the chasms of its ethnic, racial, and national conflicts. In light of the artistic vision of Eastwood’s maturity, the essays seek to extend and enrich our understanding of his achievements by illuminating the pathways he took. Cumulatively, they remind us of his lifelong devotion to perfecting his artistry and his powers as a storyteller. Like Yeats, it is as though Eastwood’s soul increasingly found the way to sing more loudly, whatever the tatters of mortal dress, to us his audience—we lords and ladies of Byzantium—of what matters, “of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

[Editor’s note—this essay is an excerpt from the Introduction to  New Essays on Clint Eastwood, edited by John M. Gourlie and Leonard Engel, recently published by University of Utah press]

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