December 12, 2008

SHARED ENEMIES:

Gran Torino (Review by Brett McCracken, 12/12/08, Christianity Today)

Detroit is on its knees, praying for a few extra years. American auto manufacturing, like Walt Kowalski, is experiencing its cantankerous twilight, shaking its head as new paradigms set up shop and kick the old school callously to the curb. Kowalski represents the vestiges of a bygone era, but he will not go quietly into the night.

The film opens with the funeral of Kowalski's wife in a Catholic church, the young parish priest (Christopher Carley) offering well-intentioned words about life and death while Walt angrily grimaces and grunts at his granddaughter's navel piercing. The only emotion he shows is disgust—with just about everything and everyone around him.

Alone and himself physically ailing, Walt takes pleasure in seemingly very little: his '72 Gran Torino, his dog Daisy, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the occasional expletive-laden conversation with a fellow blue-collar curmudgeon. Everything else irks him, especially the fact that his neighborhood is laden with Hmong, Latino, and African-American residents and gangs. Walt is an old-school racist. He can't go two sentences without using the types of racial slurs that were acceptable in his army days circa 1952.

All of this bodes ill for Walt, considering his next-door neighbors are a Hmong immigrant family. And things look especially dire when Walt catches Thao—the awkward teenaged neighbor boy who Walt calls "Toad"—trying to steal his Gran Torino. Turns out Thao was pressured to steal the car by a local Hmong gang that relentlessly bullies him, though to Walt it makes little difference. He's spitting mad.

Out of this incident, however, and Thao's family's attempts to make up for his shameful behavior, an unlikely bond forms between Walt and his Hmong neighbors. They have a shared enemy, after all: the gangs. From here the story plays out in a somewhat predictable fashion, as Walt's crotchety defenses break down and he learns to love and be loved again. It all escalates to a typically violent, melancholy conclusion, true to Eastwood form. But lest you expect a rousing, heroic bloodbath ending, remember: this is Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby mode. It's not Dirty Harry.

Gran Torino is a Clint Eastwood film in the strictest sense. Unlike his less successful (but no slouch) 2008 effort, Changeling, this is a film that feels utterly personal—a movie that might actually be as much about Clint Eastwood the man/myth/icon as it is about the fictional story he is telling. And if it is indeed his last acting performance on film, it is quite the note to go out on.

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MORE:
Do You Feel Lucky, Monk?: Clint Eastwood: Oscar-winning director, tough-guy icon—and surprisingly accomplished jazz pianist. So how’d he get to Carnegie Hall? (Nick Tosches, December 12, 2008, Vanity Fair)

It’s one of those curiosities of human nature. No matter how much we achieve in this world, no matter how much life brings us, there are always regrets and pangs of failure.

“If I’ve had any regret in life, it was not paying more attention to it and not practice, practice, practice.”

That’s Clint Eastwood talking, and he’s talking about playing the piano. For him, before there were movies, there was the piano.

He was born in San Francisco in 1930. His father was a steelworker and his mother was a factory worker. And there was a piano.
Nick Tosches

If You Knew Sushi, June 2007

Autumn and the Plot Against Me, February 2007

A Jazz Age Autopsy, May 2005

“I started just playing it around the house when I was a little kid. My mother played a little bit. She could read music and stuff. So just bits and pieces. And then I started imitating records and stuff, ’cause she didn’t know how to play any jazz or blues particularly. So I just started getting interested in players who were good at it, and one thing led to another.”

The players who struck him back then were “Fats Waller and Art Tatum and people like that. And then a lot of the blues pianists that later came along. And I listened to some Dixieland piano players, too. You know, James P. Johnson, the people that date back to that era. And then I listened to a lot of the boogie-woogie piano players of the 30s and 40s. Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, stuff like that. And then Oscar Peterson came along. He was just a kid then, or just a very young man, and he started playing out of sight. George Shearing and Oscar Peterson and those guys became very popular in the 40s and 50s, so everybody tried to imitate them.”

It wasn’t until 1955 that Clint made his first film appearance, without credit, as a lab technician in Revenge of the Creature. But in the years before and after that inauspicious beginning, he never thought of turning to the piano for a living, though he probably could have done as well on a stage or in a bar with a piano as he did in that lab coat on a soundstage.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 12, 2008 5:02 PM
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