Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Minimally Grand: Eastwood Enigma



Minimal should be an unusual word to be used in Clint Eastwood’s context. He is a physically big man with a colossal screen presence and epoch defining cultural influence.  With all his towering impact, the word that defines him is Minimal. He is all about ‘giving central satisfaction’ and removing everything else. His minimalism accentuates the force of his personality. He has a lean telegraphic style of delivery that is hallmark of his screen presence and also his directorial output. He goes for core and is ready to drop everything else, not because it will distract (of course it will) but mostly due to the fact that it is none of his business. He stands stark and abundantly clear. Despite bohemian airs of his youth, he is a shrewd and intelligent person. This intelligence is reflected the management of his estate, politics, finances, marriages, family cohesion (anyone else would have been hit much harder with all that philandering) but most importantly, he showed his intelligence in managing his own brand and his own career. 


Even before working with Sergio Leone and Don Siegel for spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry series, Eastwood knew limitations of his acting. He is not as versatile an actor as say Sean Connery or Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman. His range is set and he is unique in that range. To quote Jonathan Heaf of British GQ, “Paul Newman was always too smooth, Marlon Brando too pretty; Steve McQueen too much of a hothead,……there is a stylish nonchalance about Eastwood; he drives home fervour and conviction without so much as flickering a smouldering  cheroot from one corner of his mouth to the other.” More than acting, he is a presence and his air of raw masculinity, menace and authority are the key ingredient of that presence. He has to leverage these factors for any role. Even light heartedness of some of his characters is light heartedness of a suave lumberjack. As a DJ, gasping aging FBI agent, journalist, boxing coach, reluctant western gunslinger he manages to bring full authority of his limited assets very effectively. Every character benefits from the ingredients of his star persona without degenerating into self-caricature. He is clearly a limited actor but he is very resourceful and efficient with his skill set. 

Even his on-screen personality clearly indicates a man with economy of gestures who is fairly unhurried about using the time and resources given to him but he is focused. Being unhurried does not mean that he is not fast. He is very quick because he is not wasting time on distractions and is engaging with the core in a very thorough manner. He is aware when and how to expose the core of a character, issue or a film with minimum movements. He is clean and efficient on screen and as a director, he is famous for wrapping his shots in first takes. Even his sprawling movies spend time on the crux with great discipline. For example Unforgiven was unscrambling futility of violence and the reluctance of the hero to indulge in violence. Invictus is taught in management schools- in chunks, to drive home lessons of leadership and reconciliation. American Sniper is meditative and ruminative about the isolation and moral quandary of a sniper but never meandering- Eastwood stays the course and never meanders. 




His evolution must have taught him about the value of staying on course of unraveling the core of the question at hand.  When everyone else saw a handsome young man with not much of histrionic angularity, Italian second unit director Sergio Leone took the basic underlying structure of Japanese samurai movies and American westerns and created Man With No Name. He made the underlying structure based on glares, gun slinging and tough men overt and dropped the melodrama and other distractions that had crept into the genre. Dialogues were brought down to minimum and establishment of force of the personality was achieved in minimum possible moves. Eastwood with his ‘apprising taciturnity’ and imposing personality fitted the bill. He was learning what worked for him. What worked for him was – if you have good ingredients, don’t mess with them too much.
He was a star after the Italian stint. But it was Dirty Harry series that made him an icon. Don Siegal directed him in Coogan’s Bluff where Eastwood played a Western sheriff from Arizona pursuing a criminal in New York. This brought the man with no name some identity and urban setting. Moral clarity in the face of scums of the earth appealed to Nixen era sensibilities. Stage was set for Dirty Harry – man with strong moral core and was willing to discard tentativeness that liberal sensitivities bring in as check against misuse. However, Callahan (Dirty Harry’s name) was focused on removing bad people and was exquisitely violent. His line “You’ve got to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” became a signature line. Influential critics squirmed at the glorification of violence. But Eastwood as a vehicle of righteous violence was lapped up by the audience. David Denby of New Yorker has described the matter with masterful clarity “That moment—an insolent piece of pop cruelty—put Eastwood, at the not so young age of forty-one, over the top. An actor may work for years without becoming a star, as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart did throughout the nineteen-thirties. Then, suddenly, looks, temperament, and role all come together—as they did for Wayne, in “Stagecoach” (1939), and for Bogart, in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)—and the public sees the actor, sees what it desires. He becomes not only a star but a myth, as Garry Wills defined it in his 1997 book “John Wayne’s America”—something that was true for the people who needed it to be true. What the public needed from Eastwood by the time of “Dirty Harry” was both physical and, in a convoluted way, moral.”  We have seen this in India also around the same time a lanky actor was trying his luck with all sorts of roles but in Zanjeer he found the mould where everything- the mood, the look and the temperament clicked and people wanted the angry young man to be real. But I digress, so back to Eastwood. 


Physically and from the point of view of style, Eastwood is a worthy vessel of a collective expectations of the entire nation. He stands tall at six feet 3-4 inches with rugged good looks and has maintained his fitness over the years and is considered one of the most agile and sharp octogenarian of our times (he was born in 1930). “He had an animal grace, a big-cat tension as he moved” qualities that have survived. Efficient resource manager that Eastwood is, he puts these attribute to stamp his authority on screen. His authority is tempered with weary worldliness and after Italian sojourn, had a visible and strong moral center. He personified American manhood ideal and a symbol of its individualism for most of the last century. This isolation may be bitter but never as painful as we see in tortured souls of say a Van Gough or a Wallander- the Swedish detective. He goes back to splendid isolation of a monk not of an outcast.  He might be spare in his movement but grace and style never leaves him. His conventional good looks were given makeover of style that became him by Sergio Leone. He rose in the movies that were self-referential- aware of their artifice and partial to magnificent visual backdrop. Lack of style is not his definition of lean, spare telegraphic film making. His focus on the core can be pretty detailed and beautiful. His grimness is not dependent on documentary like realism. 


In this backdrop of a limited but extremely effective props for acting and branding, Eastwood took charge of career and have been doing this for last many decades through his production company to make what Tom Junod of Esquire magazine calls ‘Clint movies’. Unhurried meditation on the subject with which the actor/ director has become comfortable with. He takes his time and jumps into the film making which is fast, efficient and without frills. Many of his films are reputed to have finished before schedule and well within budget. It has been documented that he filmed a shot of A Perfect World with double of Kevin Costner as Costner was taking his own sweet time for coming out for shooting. He exerts an authority on screen as well as sets. 

He was very closely identified with screen  violence. He is a regular fixture in the essays that tackle problematic glorification of violence. However, in later ventures he has dealt with the futility of violence. Much has been written about Unforgiven for its emphasis on messiness and pointlessness of violence. He realized that gory aspects of violence are not good business as they can be copied and lead to gratuitous one-upmanship. He developed a more nuanced understanding of violence and his depiction became more successful in making violence a gruesome reality which never helps anyone and it went more realistic than stylized. Gran Torino and Unforgiven are case in point. 

He has a political stand that is conservative and Republican. He was elected Mayor of Carmel, California. Often politics of his films are criticized. Dirty Harry was panned for its fascistic overtones. His Speech at 2013 Republican Convention where he talked to an empty chair has been termed rambling to classic by the analysts. Fact remains that he has taken stand on political issues and has shown his displeasure with excessive culture of political correctness. Richard Brody of New Yorker is  bang on target when he writes  ‘With  films ripped from the headlines (recent or past), such as “J. Edgar,” “Heartbreak Ridge,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Invictus,” and, “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood has long been a conspicuously political filmmaker—the crucial American political filmmaker after John Ford (and before Spike Lee). But what makes a filmmaker political isn’t the choice of political subjects but, rather, the fullness of political thought, which extends to subjects that, at first glance, don’t seem political at all’. He has recently supported the racist remarks from Donald Trump and called current generation ‘pussy generation’ for what he perceives to be over emphasis on political correctness. Similarly, role of women in his films (rather their insignificance) have been a sore point. However in the 90s he realized this and in the Line of Fire has been acknowledged as an equal and absurdity of gender archetypes were openly mocked at by Clint’s character by caricaturing them. His Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby are sensitive studies in gender and racial relations. It seems he hates to be bogged down by too nuanced interpretation and wants to retain bit of less prickly old days when he was a boy in 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s. He has evolved but he is from old times. 

He has been perhaps the greatest Actor Director, only Woody Allen comes close and Mel Gibson too has a distinguished career as director. However, no one comes close to the length and depth of his career. He has been directing since Play Misty for Me and his latest Sully is getting rave reviews. He has given music score for most of his movies. His company has produced most of them. By any standard he has been one of the most successful single cinematic personality since Charlie Chaplin. His post Unforgiven movies have won awards and critics alike. His directorial output with a body of work like Unforgiven, Invictus, Gran Torino, Herafter, Mystic River, Changling, American Sniper, Letter from Iwo Jima and Sully puts him in the higher reaches of cinematic pantheon.  His assured touch has created works of enduring value. He crafted and succeeded in inventing and reinventing himself. He didn’t allow Eastwood mystique to be a liability but used his strengths to further explore his star persona in the service of his medium. He gave depth to westerns, he created space for righteous stylized violence and later he explored futility of violence (Unforgiven) and revenge (Invictus). Tackled racial relations (Gran Torino) and dealt with strong female roles in Changlings and Million Dollar Baby. He lent his star power to experimentation. All his films, specially later ones take the story of cinema forward but they remain quintessentially ‘Clint Movies’. Lean, minimal and spare thing of unbounded beauty. 

- Dhiraj Singh




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