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Gran Torino: A Film about Racism, Cultural Mixing, Friendship, and a Really Sweet Car

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageClint Eastwood doesn't give an award-worthy performance, but is nevertheless  indispensable in his latest film.  This and other thoughts from Staff Writer Big Ross on Gran Torino.

Walking out of the theater after seeing Gran Torino and all the way home I struggled to organize my thoughts regarding this film.  I knew that I had enjoyed it, that I found it an all-around satisfying movie-going experience, but faced with the task of writing a review of Gran Torino, I found my head a jumbled mess of seemingly unrelated thoughts and ponderings that I wasn't (and still am not) sure how to assimilate into a cohesive review.  So bear with me as I submit to you the miscellaneous musings currently making the rounds in my head regarding Clint Eastwood's latest work.

 

Thought #1 – This film would not work without Clint Eastwood

 

And by that I do not mean it wouldn't work without him as the director, though he does a fine job by my non-professional estimation.  Rather I mean that I think Eastwood is indispensable in the lead role of Walt Kowalski.  And I find a certain degree of irony in that statement.  If a measure of a great actor is the ability to "disappear" into a role such that audiences forget the actor, the Hollywood celebrity, their body of work and only see the character they are portraying onscreen at that moment, than Eastwood fails miserably in Gran Torino.  And the irony is that's a good thing.  Walt Kowalski is at the center of Gran Torino, a curmudgeonly fossil who fought in the Korean War, worked 40 years at a Ford assembly plant, and when we first meet him at the beginning of the film has lived long enough to bury his wife of many years.  Through the course of the film Walt begrudgingly befriends the Hmong family that lives next door to him, and becomes a sort of patriarch and protector to the local Hmong community, standing up to violent gang members that infest the neighborhood and harass his teenage neighbors Thao and his sister Sue. 

This movie hinges on the idea that Walt, a man in his seventies or eighties, is capable of being intimidating, imposing, and maybe even frightening to a bunch of gun-toting hoodlums.  I can't think of an actor in that age range, despite whatever prodigious talent he might have, who could pull this off.  Except for Clint Eastwood.  And again, it's not because Eastwood disappears into the role of Walt that this works.  It is precisely because he is Clint Eastwood, because when you see him delivering a gravelly-voiced threat to a group of gang members you can't help but be reminded of The Man with No Name trilogy, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The Dead Pool, Heartbreak Ridge, Unforgiven and all the other films in his long career, veritable seminars in bad-assery wherein he usually played the good guy, but never a nice guy, that you totally, absolutely buy into the idea of a frail, old man intimidating a bunch of "young punks."   Make no mistake, there are moments when Eastwood looks every bit his age of 78, but Gran Torino is also filled with scenes which made me want to slap my forehead and say, "Fuck! He's still got it."  And it's a damn good thing, because without Eastwood Gran Torino would sputter, stall, and die.

Thought #2 – Racial Slurs, Themes, The Value of Integration

 

I'm not sure what it says about the level of political correctness in our country when an old man delivers an almost continuous stream of outrageous racial slurs and an audience bursts out laughing in a nervous, sort of "I can't believe he just said that" kind of way, but it happened at the screening I attended.  I can't speak to the racial and ethnic makeup of the audience I saw Gran Torino with, but given the location (a multiplex in a suburb of a Midwestern city) I would have to say it was mostly Caucasian.  Walt Kowalski is a dyed-in-the-wool racist, and many of the slurs he lobs with abandon would make Archie Bunker blush, yet it didn't seem that the audience found any of these particularly offensive, and personally I didn't either.  I don't know why this is.  Maybe it's that Walt Kowalski has the same kind of appeal that Archie Bunker enjoyed.  Maybe it's because the slurs coming out of Walt's mouth are SO outrageous it's hard to take them seriously.  Maybe it's that through the course of the film, even though he doesn't stop using the slurs you witness the affection he has for his Hmong neighbors, and Thao and Sue in particular, and his actions speak louder than his words.  Or maybe it's simply that even though Asian ethnic groups bear the brunt of his verbal "abuse," no race or ethnic group is spared.  Gooks, Chinks, Japs, Crackers, Mics, Jews, Pollacks – all are fair game (though interestingly, the N-word is never uttered).  Is indiscriminate racism okay?  (Side note: my girlfriend is half-Japanese, and I am very interested to see how she would react to the racial slurs in the film and if she would find them more offensive than I.)Or maybe it's because characters on the receiving end of Walt's racist remarks don't get offended, so the audience doesn't either.  Walt trades racial insults in a friendly banter with his barber, and even Thao gets in on the act.  When Walt says something racially insensitive about the Hmong to Sue, she responds with wit and moxey, giving as good as she gets.  Again, I don't really know for sure.

Regardless, for all the racism on display in Gran Torino, it does seem to serve a purpose.  As Eastwood himself said, "If you're going to learn something and progress in the movie as a character, you have to start as something else in order to learn tolerance. And your character obviously is never too old to learn that, so he has to be a certain way."  Kowalski starts the film as a racist, yet he does move toward a more tolerant attitude by the film's end, so as un-PC and offensive as it may be, I can see the value in keeping the language in the film.  But it does more than simply advance plot and develop character.  It contrasts sharply with, and I think reinforces one of the film's themes: the value of racial integration not only for the group doing the integrating but also for the larger culture being integrated into.  Racial integration should be a two-way street.  It's not just about an ethnic group coming into America from a foreign land and assimilating into the American culture, it should be a true mixing or (I'll go ahead and say it) a melting pot of cultures and ideas.  This is of course nothing new, and there's nothing overly radical or profound in such a message in and of itself, yet this message as delivered via the personal journey undertaken by Walt Kowalski feels both riveting and enlightening.   

As I said earlier, Walt Kowalski is a fossil.  He's a man trapped in the 1950's and the Korean War.  He disapproves of his sons, one of which has the audacity to sell foreign-manufactured cars.  He disapproves of his grandchildren, and by extension the youth of America as a whole for their disrespect for tradition and the values he was raised with, for their immodesty, their materialism, their feeling of entitlement, their foul language, their glorification of violence.  After the death of his wife, Walt is a man largely without purpose, alone except for his dog and his cherished 1972 Gran Torino.  At the start of the film his neighbors Thao and Sue have recently lost their father, and their extended family has lost its patriarch.  As these neighbors from very different worlds and backgrounds come together, they realize despite differences they share a respect for tradition, and Walt steps in (and is gratefully accepted) as a patriarch for the Hmong community, and a father-figure for Thao.  This dynamic is perhaps best exemplified by a scene in which Walt, sitting on his porch reading the morning paper, notices that an old (white) woman who lives across the street has dropped a heavy bag while unloading groceries from her car.  Three white, American boys walk right by her oblivious, one even mocks her by pantomiming humping her, and they laugh and go on their way.  Issuing a disgusted "kids these days" and about to get up and help her, Walt sees Thao hurry to the old woman's aid, displaying an act of kindness and respect.

In this way I think Gran Torino in part can be viewed as a critique of modern American culture.  All of the values that have been lost by Americans in today's modern society, or more accurately, discarded or forgotten, are alive and well and held very dear by various Asian cultures such as the Hmong community in the film.  Though never explicitly stated, one can surmise that Walt's racism stems in large part from a feeling of superiority over other non-white races (at one point he refers to the Hmong as "barbarians").  As we witness him abandon his racist attitudes, become more tolerant, accept and be accepted as the foster-patriarch of his neighbors, it's symbolic of a larger rejection of modern American values in favor of those deemed "old-fashioned" and "out of touch" by many Americans today.

Can I confess that I'm not sure I'm making any sense here?  There are multiple themes and messages in Gran Torino, not all of them (as I'm about to discuss) shoved down the throats of viewers.  I feel I haven't done justice to the theme of cultural mixing and generational differences that I picked up on in the film, and I haven't even touched on other themes present such as life and death, what it means to be a man, and the simple theme of the power of friendship.  Fuck.  I feel like there's a lot in here ripe for discussion; hopefully some of that can come out in the forums.

Thought #3 – The Creative Team Responsible for Gran Torino Do Not Appear to Know the Meaning of Subtlety

 

My main complaint with this film is one that I might not otherwise be critical of, much less notice, were it not for my ongoing education on what constitutes great cinema here at CC2k.  I believe our own Lance Carmichael has criticized films such as Iron Man and The Dark Knight for being heavy-handed and overly explicit in their issuing of theme, so much so that they tend to beat you over the head with it.  I was half-surprised, half-disappointed to see that an "art film" released with every intent of garnering award nominations was equally heavy-handed.  Should I have been surprised?  I guess I would expect such a thing in a summer blockbuster aimed at the near-ADHD-stricken 15-20 year old demographic, but not in a film like Gran Torino.  Yet concepts such as characterization and theme are delivered to the audience with all the subtlety of a foul-tempered drill sergeant giving his opinion of new recruits.  

There is one scene I want to single out to make my point, which is actually the opening scene that takes place in a Catholic church, and sets the stage for more throughout the film.  Walt is standing at the side of the closed casket of his recently deceased wife, receiving mourners and family members prior to the funeral service.  As he stands there, a dour look on his face, his four grandchildren file into the church and up the center aisle, each pausing to genuflect before entering a pew, as is customary.  One makes short work of it, hurriedly entering the pew to sit down.  The next gives a half-hearted attempt, barely bending at the knee.  The third, his teenage granddaughter, makes a passable attempt but is wearing a short skirt and a top that shows her bare midriff, pierced navel and all.  The fourth and last enters, genuflects deeply and pauses on bended knee, making a pronounced sign of the cross, yet we hear him mutter that old mocking phrase, "spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch" as he does so.  With each display the camera cuts from the grandchild to Walt, and as he witnesses each he scowls, growls (yes actually growls) and seethes, barely able to contain his disapproval and reproach.  And as all this is going on, the camera also cuts to Walt's two sons, exchanging muttered lamentations of how old, how out of touch, how sour and overly disciplined their father is.  Within the first five minutes it was absolutely, 100% without a shred of doubt established that Walt Kowalski was the most curmudgeonly of curmudgeons, and I'm sure there wasn't a single viewer in that packed theater who wasn't crystal clear on the subject.  Sheesh!
 

Final Thoughts:

 

I began this motley review by saying that I enjoyed this film.  And I did.  There's an ad on television right now for Gran Torino, the type that delivers a bunch of rapid-fire soundbites of critics gushing praise for a film, and one of the soundbites describes it as "Prime Vintage Eastwood."  I'm not sure I know what that means.  What is "Vintage Eastwood"?  His spaghetti Western days?  His Dirty Harry days?  Sure it sounds good, but what does it tell me about this film?  I would advise you to go in expecting more Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River than Fist Full of Dollars or Sudden Impact.  If you enjoy the more recent films in Eastwood's resume I think you'll enjoy Gran Torino.  And if you haven't watched Eastwood onscreen since his days sporting a poncho and a couple of six guns, I wouldn't worry about his advanced age.  He still manages to give a lesson on being a bad ass to all the "punks" in Hollywood.

Author: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

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