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Gran Torino – stereotypes, old, Asian, ethnic meet Dirty Harry

Feeling Lucky?

Feeling Lucky?

Gran Torino – Clint Eastwood

Dirty Harry got to be old. And mean. I guess we expected that. Curmudgeonly, cranky, rollie-smoking, beer-drinking – a can and by-the-neck man, nary a glass in sight – ex-Korean War vet Walt Kowalski isn’t actually cop Harry Callaghan, just a kind of alter ego ‘with-no-name’ grown old, prejudices intact: justice comes from the barrel of a gun, wielded by a hard-talkin’ beer-drinkin’ real man, one of the few in town who isn’t a pussy; and the law and due process can’t handle increasingly bitter social conflicts centred on inter-racial hatreds. Punks just come multi-coloured these days. And the vocabulary of bigotry has been enriched with some new epithets.

Vengeance is the most powerful plot driver in movies: stronger even than sex and certainly more than love. And nobody does vengeance better than Clint except perhaps Lee Marvin in Point Blank. I can buy into this stuff on an escapist basis but when it is used as a vehicle to explore in a vague, muddled way, serious issues of racism and ethnicity things get ugly, or sentimental, or both. Gran Torino is at times both. But dismiss the Western Union message with the contempt reserved for it by Sam Goldwyn and there are some great lines and good moments in GT.

Clint Eastwood is one of those great actors, and he is a great cinematic actor, who can’t play outside their range. His laudable desire to make movies with a bit of social, political or moral meat to them in recent years has led him to push at that envelope. He was comfortably within it to great effect with Million Dollar Baby, but for me all the wires get crossed in Gran Torino. Like Angelina Jolie in Changeling he can’t play down. Can’t play ordinary. He just isn’t the life-long Ford assembly-line worker that Walt Kowalski is supposed to be.

As an honest fictional story of a guy surrounded by punks who exacts a poetic final revenge we could leave our scruples at the door and just enjoy the ride. But Gran Torino wears its message on its sleeve: it demands we think of this as a modern parable of racial tensions and conflict with the archetypal American chronology – the latest immigrants versus the oldest, fighting for their bit of turf. Moral sentiments engaged we can’t ignore them; and for such an artistically honest film-maker both the tone and thought in Gran Torino at times sucks.

Walt Kowalski has just buried his much loved, life-long wife. At the wake his assumed-for-the-day social graces wear increasingly thin especially towards his son and daughter-in-law with their whining airhead teenage daughter. Our sympathies are with Walt here as, with Mom gone the children are already planning to clean up as soon as Walt is considerate enough, sooner rather than later, to drop of the perch too. Mitch and Karen want to cash-in on the house while their dumb-ass daughter Dreama (!) wants his vintage, mint-condition Ford Gran Torino car without having a scintilla of an idea why it is precious to her grandfather.

At the wake we are introduced to the best thread in the story. Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) hovering in that irreducibly ill-at-ease way that Priests do at wakes – ‘c’mon Father your bit’s over, now let us get down to some serious drinking without you making us feel guilty. We’ll take the lesson of our mortality and try to be better Christians – but starting tomorrow, not today’. Janovich doesn’t just look young, he looks as if he’s the hymn-book monitor at high school. With impressive sang froid he informs Walt – “call me Mr Kowalski” that Mrs Kowalski made him promise to get Walt to go to confession, “because he needs to”. Clint is at his best in response – volcanic contemptuous rage just, but only just, contained and channelled into a considered response heavy with irony and sarcasm “I confess that I have no urge to confess and if I did I would not confess to a boy just out of the Seminary.”

As Walt escapes to his assiduously mown little lawn he sees another celebration is going on at his Asian neighbours’ next door, where an endless stream of people are bringing food and presents to celebrate a new birth. Walt, as his original white neighbours have moved to another part of town, has been left behind like a gnarled piece of ethnic driftwood on the shore of a one-time blue-collar white neighbourhood now largely demographically Asian. The old Asian woman next door castigates him in her language for not having gone too. Understanding not a word, Walt gets her meaning, his spit of contempt being countered by a three times bigger spit in response from the old women. Lot’s of spitting in GT. It’s not exactly duel for two guitars but it’s a great visual joke.

When Walt in defence of his highly symbolic, much-mowed lawn rescues his diffident 16 year-old neighbour Thao – or ‘Toad’ as he calls him – from the clutches of an Asian gang trying to recruit him, Walt to his chagrin becomes a hero in the Asian community which apparently means being constantly showered with food, plants and flowers most of which he consigns to the dustbin. Walt becomes embroiled in the battle for Thao’s future and learns from his nicely played, laid-back, gently mocking sister, Sue (Ahney Her) that they are ethnic Hmong/Mong people, indigenous to the hills of South East Asia and allowed in to the US because of their support during the Vietnam war. Nick Schenk’s uneven screenplay has Walt conduct this relationship in language peppered with every patronising, racist epithet imaginable from ‘gooks’ and ‘fish-heads’ to ‘zip-heads’. Eastwood tries to defuse the racist contempt and discrimination in these terms by having Walt talk in just the same insulting way to everyone, including his ‘Dago’ barber etc. It doesn’t work. His efforts to claim that these remarks are the normal non-racist lingua-Americana for the mutual joshing of blue-collar pals; simply reinforces the impression not that he isn’t really racist about anybody, but that he is racist about everyone and that the Asians should feel grateful for the acceptance implied in insulting them equally.

The clue to the implicit hypocrisy here comes in one telling scene. When Walt has to rescue Sue from an African American gang’s territory, the only epithet he uses throughout is the anodyne ‘spooks’. Now we all know exactly what word a real Walt would not only use but relish here. No one, but no one, except an African American uses the ‘N’ word nowadays in a mainstream Hollywood movie; certainly not other than in a ‘jokey’ context. So even in his bigotry, Walt is apparently discriminatory: anything goes for Asians; but tone it down for the African Americans. That’s Eastwood’s commercial instinct not Kowalski’s true voice.

Thao and Walt of course bond and he helps him out with tools and a job. In a nicely observed scene Walt takes Thao to his Italian barber and tries to teach the young man how to ‘talk like a man’ i.e. swear a lot and indulge in the curious white, working class convention in the US and UK, of using gruff insults as a way to express affection and friendship for another man while purging it of any real feeling that might carry the wrong, for them horrific implication. Thao of course fails to understand the distinction between the words and the cultural context of their use. This is both funny and revealing.

Father Janovich is clinging on tenaciously as only a priest trying to retrieve a lost sheep can and after Walt has again solved a problem with direct, gun-totin’ action, asks why he didn’t call the police. In the best line in the movie, much trailed in the advanced publicity, Walt replies “well Father, I prayed to God that someone would come, but didn’t get an answer.” Walt 1 – Janovich 0. This all unwinds in a fairly predictable way with a poetic-justice ending visually contrived and sentimental in tone.

The serious message Eastwood is trying to address here is a worthwhile one. But it needs a more rigorously thoughtful script and less stereotypical characters to bring it off. Even Clint’s Walt is stereotypical ‘old’; clichés of oldness being his defining characteristics and it grates. I think his attempt to leach the racism out of the mere words of bigotry is sincere and that any patronising racist attitudes remaining are unwitting. But they are there and as the most widespread kind of racist feelings, they are by far the hardest to get rid of. It is hard to believe that the Hmong/Mong communities will not feel patronised at the way they are portrayed here.

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