How A Lawless Man Became an American: Clint Eastwood at Film Society

For A Few Dollars More (Leone, 1965), Courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center

There’s a moment in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino in which the actor and director finally reveals the chiseled 1972 titular vehicle in the film. Eastwood’s character Walt remarks he put together the lavish muscle car together himself. It’s hard not to think of the car not only as a metaphor for Walt, but for Eastwood himself. Built tough and rough, shiny on the outside and hardened on every edge, full of might and capable of anything on a long winded road, and yet the car seems to be destined for greater things and a larger freedom that seems impossible. Damn that car is American.

Although Clint Eastwood’s career may have begun in Europe, he is one of those actors and directors that truly makes American movies that shout “America” from the first word. And while New York moviegoers might be used to the Film Society at Lincoln Center featuring films from the Chinese Communist era or the Hungarian New Wave,for July, they’re bringing it back home with “The Complete Clint Eastwood,” a retrospective of every single one of his films as an actor and a director.

The Bridges of Madison County (Eastwood, 1995), Courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Eastwood ironically started his career not in America, but on the sun burnt plains of Southern Spain with the Italian director Sergio Leone, creating the now epic Man With No Name Trilogy. While the films are more known today for their dazzling camera work in which Leone builds and creates tension, influencing numerous directors like Quentin Tarantino, its Eastwood’s nameless character that centers the film. His persona is not in the tradition of tough but sensitive guy John Wayne, or even the dark Jimmy Stewart performances from his Anthony Mann Westerns. He has the same presence but his morality is absent. In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (July 22nd) a character tells him, “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.”

That quote rings out the standards in which Eastwood’s films has appeared, in which people are put in ugly positions, and the only way to win is to cheat a little. In the trilogy, Eastwood is not the center of American amorality and greed. Coming more from a tradition of noir heroes, Eastwood says little with his mouth, usually filling it with a cigar instead. His squinted eyes suggest a type of misguided disgust for the dying country around him, a new  breed of American justice, so appropriately seen in For a Few Dollars More (July 15th). While Leone is behind the camera capturing it all, it is Eastwood and his character that seems to suggest this new wave of American-ness, based on a shift in culture that, along with the other rebels of the day like Bonnie and Clyde, Benjamin Braddock, and Captain America, suggest that the standard route to the American dream is dead.

Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971), Courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center

However, of these characters, what happens? Bonnie and Clyde are ambushed. Captain America tells us “we blew it” before getting hit with a shotgun And Benjamin becomes just like his parents. Where does the Man with No Name Go? Because he is not a dreamer like the others, and only out for his small but direct goals, he comes back to America and becomes a hero in Dirty Harry (July 15th). Watching this 1971 Don Siegel classic, it’s impossible to see countless detective films and televisions shows with an amoral cop willing to break the rules to win the day. However, Dirty Harry remains a classic because of how willing he is to break the rules. Just like the Man With No Name, Eastwood works for himself and only himself, but instead of greed, the aim is justice, by any means necessary.

As Eastwood has thus moved from in the actor’s chair to behind it, this idea of ambiguous justice and determination of dreams has continued to mark his career as that of a truly American zeitgeist. Eastwood’s characters, whether it’s Francesca (Meryl Streep)and her dreams of a soul mate in The Bridges of Madison County (July 21st), Frank Morris (Eastwood) and his desire of freedom in Escape from Alcatraz (July 22nd), or Jimmy (Sean Penn) in his search for real justice in Mystic River (July 23rd), are searching for something more than the sum of their lives. This American feeling of the lack of satisfaction with the current system and place of the individual has threaded Eastwood’s long career, and it’s the inherent feelings that have also dominated the personas of his characters, who behind their tough shell exterior, are always stuck in an existential crisis of societal placement. Its tough not to choke up at Eastwood’s Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby (July 25th) when Maggie, played by Hillary Swank, tells Eastwood’s character Frankie, “Don’t let me lie here ’till I can’t hear those people chanting no more.” She’s attempting to be something more than she is—a legend instead of a tragedy. So when Bill Munny returns back to the town at the end of Unforgiven (July 18th and 19th) for revenge, the code of the Western is thrown out in exchange for cold-blooded justice.

Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood, 2004), Courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Clint Eastwood’s career, which now seems to be dominated by his directorial work, has grounded itself in these specifically American values that are not at the core of society, but developed in the frustrations of the 1960s and the view that American is a flawed country. When the heroes return from Iwo Jima in the flawed Flags of Our Fathers (July 24th and 26th) they know the classical values they have lived upon are a lie, as evidenced by the horror in the humanity of the film’s companion piece Letters From Iwo Jima (July 24th and 26th). Instead, only a new breed of American ideals can evolve, one that breaks society’s laws to recapture justice, and reclaim the idealness of the American truth. So whether its for a little more money, to take down the bad guy, fight to reclaim one’s son, or simply dream of bigger things, Eastwood’s career as both an actor and director has truly ushered in what that 1972 Gran Torino (July 27th) represents: a bold and muscular car for a generation that won’t take kindly to weakness.

“The Complete Clint Eastwood” continues through till July 27th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Current Columbia students can buy tickets for $8 for screenings, and $6 for matinee screenings.

*****

Peter Labuza, CC’11

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