Do you mind if we continue with the Shakespearean theme we've been touching on in the last few weeks?
Because today we're going to consider the artistic leave-taking of one of our most prolific and honored performers, and if there are a few things about the situation that form some haunting parallels with what was going on in London four hundred years ago, then there you are.
What I'm talking about, of course, is Clint Eastwood's “Gran Torino,” which he says will be his last performance as an actor.
First of all, how can Eastwood possibly be 78? Well, since his first appearance was as the First Saxon in “Lady Godiva” in 1955, I guess I shouldn't be that surprised. (Do you have a DVD of that? Can I borrow it?)
We've talked about my other Eastwood conundrum before, with recent reference to last year's “Changeling.” How is it that a terse, laconic, sometimes brutal action star, whose characters frequently personify vicious vigilante justice, could become one of our most evocative, thoughtful, and thought-provoking directors?
Well, I don't know for sure, because I don't know Mr. Eastwood personally, but I don't think it has anything to do with his getting soft, or even mellow, in his old age.
His character in “Gran Torino,” retired auto worker Walt Kowalski, is probably the nephew of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Walt is an inarticulate, bitter, bigoted Korean War vet who stands by his wife's casket and growls – I mean literally growls – when his granddaughter shows up for the funeral with a jewel in her navel.
In the movie's first fifteen minutes Walt snarls at and insults his two grown sons and their families, and the dumpling-faced young priest who begins the funeral homily by saying, unforgivably, “What is this thing we call life?”
Walt, of course, knows all about life, and death, and he doesn't like either one. He'd rather end his days sitting on his porch in Detroit drinking beer with his aging yellow lab, except that his neighborhood, by his lights, is going to hell because of the influx of Hmong refugees, who don't keep up their property to his meticulous standards. This climaxes when the neighbor Hmong boy tries to steal Walt's pride and joy, a classic, cherry Gran Torino that Walt actually put together on the assembly line in 1968.
The neighbor boy, Thao, is an open-faced and innocent youth, played by the open-faced and charming Bee Vang. (All of the Hmong are played by Hmong who are not professional actors, and who give relaxed and unaffected, and very effective, performances.)
Thao has been strong-armed into the theft attempt by a gang of young Hmong thugs, who see violence and crime as the only way to success in America. (Cue the “West Side Story” soundtrack, subliminally.) Because Walt faces down the gang and doesn't turn Thao in, he becomes a hero to the local Hmong community, who place gifts of flowers and food on his front steps, which discomfits him mightily.
He's even more discomfited by Thao's sister Sue, a sassy, articulate, liberated Hmong college student who takes it upon herself to introduce Walt to her culture, and it's a treat to watch him go from refusing the ethnic dishes to eagerly scarfing them.
Thao's mother insists that her son make amends by doing chores for Walt, a situation both males hate, but which grows, predictably, into mutual respect, with a very funny scene where Polish Walt takes the Hmong kid to his Italian barber for a lesson in racial slurs.
The food, and the friendship (or at least the proximity) expand Walt's grudging consciousness. He begins to see his neighbors not as invaders, whom he calls Gooks and Swamp Rats (“We're from the mountains,” Sue tries to explain), but as part of humanity. This is so difficult for him that he frequently backslides into colorful epithets; but as Terry Pratchett says, the leopard cannot change his shorts.
At least not abruptly. When it becomes clear that the adolescent gang will permanently disrupt his new friends' lives, Walt engineers a solution that will be surprising only to those who know Eastwood as Dirty Harry, but a solution that remains resolutely in character.
In Shakespeare's last play, “The Tempest,” a wizard of great power finds all the people who did him wrong shipwrecked on his island. After leading them through tests and trials, the wizard, Prospero, forgives his enemies, and marries his daughter to the son of his old adversary.
This is not a brand new theme for Shakespeare. He had been wrestling with reconciliation, and compassion and forgiveness throughout “The Winter's Tale” and “Cymbeline” and “Pericles,” those late plays that often (sometimes with the help of Thomas Middleton) have become problems for modern directors.
Those plays are astonishing stories, where fantastical events revolve on incomprehensible plot points; but the ultimate result is that all's well that ends well.
Eastwood, disdaining Shakespeare's fantasy, arrives at the same conclusion with a plot that is simple enough for Sophocles, with a recognition scene in the confessional that tells you all you need to know, but that doesn't limit the power of the big finish.
What's my point, if the movie's more like Sophocles than Shakespeare? Here we go:
“The Tempest”may be Shakespeare's farewell to the theater, with Will himself as Prospero, drowning his books and retiring to Stratford; but the themes of compassion and forgiveness are more important than the plot, and more resonant than magical, and more universal than specific.
In “Gran Torino” Eastwood's intent goes beyond his own character and his own performance. We should step outside the film and see the movie as a statement, as “The Tempest” was a statement: as a reconciliation. This may be where Eastwood confronts his history of brutal showmanship, and shows us how ordinary people can be turned into growling bigots, and then, by human grace, back into people again.