Camp is not dead
GRAN TORINO (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2008, 6)
I don’t have for Clint Eastwood the boundless contempt that I do for Jean-Luc Godard, but I have the same rating problem with GRAN TORINO that I had with SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL last year, namely how does one rate a movie that is terrible by every possible objective standard, but which you yourself had a high ol’ time laughing at.
In fact, I enjoyed GRAN TORINO so much that I nearly did a Mike D’Angelo last night and retitled my blog in its honor. I was told by Craig Lindsey of the Raleigh News-Observer via Twitter that I wasn’t “a part of the crew” until I contributed an alternative title for the film based on its jaw-droppingly awful dialog (plenty of samples coming). I eventually decided on “OVEREDUCATED 27-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN” and decided I’ll renominate my sight that, at least for the temporariliness. But alas, the font size on the WordPress template’s header was too big to make it work.
The problem with GRAN TORINO is very basic. The acting is appallingly bad, from top to bottom; the script is worse. We’re not talking weak — we’re talking jaw-dropping, head-grabbing, “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” bad. It’s the story of a very grumpy old man Walt Kowalski, played by Eastwood. A Korean War veteran and retired Ford factory worker, he can barely tolerate his family (the film begins with his wife’s funeral) and he sees his working-class neighborhood being “taken over” by “Hamung” immigrants, whom he calls by every ethnic slur in the book. Not that he discriminates, mind you; he refers to everybody by such lingo.
What the ethnic-slur dialogue put me in mind of was another camp masterpiece, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Released in the late-60s, just when the restrictions on movie language were ending, it was an utter hoot to watch old-school performers like Susan Hayward and Patty Duke spit out the words “damn” and “fag,” like 5-year-olds who’ve just learned how to say those words and learned what they mean. In GRAN TORINO, there’s a similar dynamic in the script-writing. There are several scenes where Walt interacts with other white working-class ethnics — e.g., an Irish foreman and an Italian barber — and every use of “Polack,” “Mick,” “Wop,” every reference to someone being stupid, drunken or greasy, etc., just lands with the same clunking “thud” of the 5-year-old’s swearing. I understand that in those cases it’s meant to be affectionate ball-busting among friends. But the scriptwriter Nick Schenk (whose earliest credit is writer, producer and supporting-player on the forgotten Comedy Central gem “Let’s Bowl”¹) and story co-writer Dave Johannson (his first credit) may simply be too young to have any exposure to ethnic slurs as anything but unacceptable taboo epithets. They thus fail at making them part of the natural, believable speech of someone who thinks them acceptable, rightly or wrongly, for whatever reason, and in whatever context. For example, here is GRAN TORINO’s idea of white characters engaging in an ethnic joke:
A Mexican, a Jew and a colored guy walk into a bar; the bartender says “get the fuck outta here.”
That’s it. And in the movie, a bunch of old-school white working-class men at the VFW start laughing at it. Really. I can imagine hypersophisticated hipsters laughing at that joke’s deliberate emptiness as a pomo text, but not Pabst-drinking war veterans, no matter how bigoted you think they may be. Ethnic humor, whatever the morals or ethics surrounding it today might be, has a long history and so follows the same comic conventions and rules as every other form of humor, acceptable or unacceptable. The three ethnic characters have to do or say something consistent with (or playing against) their respective stereotypes, no matter how innocuous or pernicious. The words “Mexican,” “Jew” and “colored” have never been funny. The comparison with Archie Bunker is inevitable, but that was written and acted closer to the time when such language was in fact routine and normal. Carroll O’Connor (and his scriptwriters) could make bigoted lines from a bigot (more than) halfway believable. But trapped in an anachronistic awkwardness, GRAN TORINO’s use of that language is like a modern person trying to read Middle English aloud with no training.
Nor is the dialog the script’s only problem; the trajectory and ending are too. Regarding the latter, it’s not the reversal of expectations, which is actually not bad and relatively well done, if hammered over the head, but the denouement and motivation, which make no sense (see my comment below, and SPOILER WARNING there). Walt’s decision to become Christ-figure sacrifice (complete with bleeding hands) is so wildly out of wack with what his character had been that it could only appeal to my sense of irony, plus it proves that the rest of the movie wasn’t an intentional parody. We were supposed to take seriously, I think, the whole ebony-and-ivory (OK … I can’t think of a yellow wood) “interracial neighborliness is stronger than blood” moral, and believe that this growling old bigot has his heart softened by the Hmong family next door? To the place and degree Walt takes it at the end? Actually, that’s not even true. The truly dangerous and risky things he does, he does at the start. OK, pulling out the rifle to save the Hmong family’s son from a street gang was motivated by an inter-Hmong struggle entering his home space (and sets up the immortal “really? … they said that?” line … actually more of a growl, “get off my lawn”). But what possible reason was there to save the Hmong daughter from an imminent rape by black gangbangers? Why does Walt so suddenly take a liking to the Hmong son who tries to steal the titular Gran Torino? And don’t tell me “coughing up blood at inopportune moments” is a sign of fatal illness believable in any play/movie set more recently than CAMILLE or LA BOHEME. How can this story be taken seriously by highbrow critics who generally sneer at stuff like DRIVING MISS DAISY (the same story trajectory, but with infinitely better control of tone, nuance and dialogue). By all means, if you think ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE was believable (by the end, Archie not only had Jewish business partners, but was raising an adopted niece as a Jew, had a black housekeeper, a gay waiter, and illegal Hispanic cooks, and was dating a Puerto Rican woman), then you too might find the trajectory of GRAN TORINO believable.
Then there’s Eastwood’s performance, which is easily one of the worst I have ever seen from a professional actor — so stilted and trying so damn hard at the emotional moments, that all you can do is laugh at it. In the first 30 seconds, you see a teen at a funeral with a pierced bellybutton (his granddaughter, it later comes out). Cut to Walt, lip curled and growling “rrrrrrrr.” That growl and sneer continue on the same note throughout the film, Eastwood using them to barrel through the soon-to-be-classic camp lines: “let’s get some good gook food”; “you’re wrong, eggroll”; “I’m closer to these slopes than my own family”; “(rrrrrr) get off my lawn (rrrrrrrrr)”; “you’re just an overeducated 27-year-old virgin (rrrrrrrr) who likes to hold superstitious old ladies hands and promise them eternity” (to a priest²). Eastwood is and always has been a presence, an icon, a muthos. But in the traditional histrionic-stagecraft sense, he cannot act. And his trying to act here, in what are supposed to be key emotional moments, is REEFER MADNESS level bad. Those moments themselves are, predictably though not consistently with Eastwood’s personal public statements, about how awful it is to kill, the trauma of war, and it haunts you all your days, etc., etc.
Not that the other performers are much better — the mostly nonprofessional Hmong actors inhabit the spaces well enough, but when called on to **act**? Ahney Her as daughter Sue comes across as an annoying Tourist Guide To The Ways Of Our People. Bee Vang as son Thao (called “Toad” throughout by Walt) is excessively sullen and bookishly withdrawn until showing unbelievably quickly-learned dexterity at manual labor. Walt’s children and grandchildren are one-note caricatures that look like something Walt would have written himself. Bellybutton … rrrrrrrr … Lions jersey in Church … rrrrrrrr
And yet, and yet … as bad as OVEREDUCATED 27-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN was in every way, I actually did enjoy watching this movie. It helped that Mike primed me for a laugh riot, and that I went in with three beers³ and a shot in me. When the film was over and the credits were rolling (and make sure to stay for them, to hear Eastwood himself singing the theme song; Caruso couldn’t sing like this if he tried), the couple sitting behind me said “that was a funny movie, but it got all sad at the end.” They perhaps didn’t realize they’ve described a very bad movie, albeit also an enjoyable one.
¹ Which may explain something Mike said almost a month ago when he saw it — that huge chunks of GRAN TORINO play like a “Saturday Night Live” parody sketch of a real movie.
² There’s actually an interesting compare-contrast essay to be written about the prominent priests here and in MILLION-DOLLAR BABY, but it’ll have to be written by someone who enjoys the movies.
³ Heinekens. Yes … skipping the easy BLUIE VELVET joke.