Saturday, January 10, 2009

Utterly Offensive: Gran Torino


Gook. Zipperhead. Dragon lady. These are among the many – and I mean many – slurs that pop up in Gran Torino with the frequency that Asians eat dogs (another Gran Torino slur). They are delivered almost exclusively by Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski, who is one of the last Caucasians still living in a modest Michigan neighborhood that, as Walt might say it, has become overrun by the Hmong. A war veteran with a silver star locked away in his basement, Walt is a proud American with a not so proud past. He’s haunted by his memories of fighting in Korea, and in the faces of his neighbors he sees the dead Korean soldiers that he and his compatriots “stacked like sandbags.” Safe to say, Walt hates his neighbors for not being white. Then again, with his wife now dead, Walt hates just about everyone, including his kids and grandkids.

As Gran Torino begins, Walt is prepared to live out his final years in his perfectly tidy house, behind his perfectly swept front porch and his perfectly manicured lawn, with nothing but his hatred of others and his adeptness with racial slurs to entertain him. Over the course of the film, through an accidental bond with the Hmong kids next door, Walt’s xenophobia will subside, but his penchant for slurs will not. And so when I tell you that Gran Torino is one of the most offensive films this year, I’m of course referring to the saltiness of its dialogue. But only in part. Because as odious and indefensible as Walt’s vernacular is on its own, the most repulsive thing about Gran Torino is its structure, which is thin, repetitive, amateurish and, oh yeah, entirely hypocritical.

Let’s start with the last part first. Gran Torino, based on a screenplay by Nick Schenk, would have you believe that it preaches against racism and treats its minority subjects honorably, but that’s only half right. Yes, through Walt, xenophobia is portrayed as a dead-end existence. Yes, Walt learns, after spending about 30 minutes at his neighbors’ home, that “I have more in common with these gooks than with my own family.” But in the meantime Gran Torino teaches us some other things. It teaches us that slurs are okay, even if you mean them, so long as you’re charming. It teaches us that the Hmong might be good people, but that if they want to get anything done (fix appliances, clean up a yard, end a gang war) they need whitey to help. And it teaches us that Clint Eastwood can get away with bloody well anything.

The honorability of Eastwood the man is hard at work in Gran Torino. We want to like Walt because it’s impossible to dislike Clint. And so when Walt goes into one of his slur-filled rants, which is pretty much the entire film, it’s frighteningly tempting to give him a pass. Because the truth is that before we see Walt, we see Clint – the gentle sparkle in his eyes shining through that trademark squint. We know that Eastwood – whose Letters From Iwo Jima is one of the most respectful depictions of Asians, or of any wartime enemy, to ever come out of Hollywood – isn’t racist, and that takes some of the bite out of Walt’s bark. So does the fact that Walt’s bark is almost never the same. “Gook” and “zipperhead” are favorite terms, but Walt uses at least two dozen slurs in all. At one point, he pops off about five different Asian slurs in 10 seconds. After a while, it starts to feel as if Walt isn’t hateful so much as clever.

Or maybe he’s just colorful. Perhaps Walt uses “gook” the way a Martin Scorsese character would use the word “fuck.” Because “this is the way guys talk.” That’s what Walt says. And to make sure we don’t think Walt is one sick anti-Asian bigot, Gran Torino gives him a few scenes at the barbershop where the “Polack” Walt trades white-guy jabs with his son of a bitch “Wop” barber, played by John Carroll Lynch. The free-flowing exchange of racial epithets creates such a festival of good cheer that eventually Walt brings the impressionable Thao (Bee Vang) along for an education. Because Walt isn’t racist, understand. He’s just old-school. That’s why it’s a shame that Walt is a widower, because otherwise Thao’s next lesson could have been in wife-beating – that’s what guys do, right? Please. The real joke here is any suggestion whatsoever that Walt’s behavior is acceptable because his Hmong neighbors don’t take him seriously, or because he and his barber engage in name-calling as sport.

If this reading of Gran Torino seems too uptight for you, do me a favor: Imagine the same movie, except replace the Hmong neighbors with African-Americans. Now, instead of Walt chuckling while telling his Asian neighbors not to eat his dog, imagine him telling his black neighbors to take a break from eating fried chicken to bojangle for him. Or maybe Walt could refer to them as slave-ship cargo. Or maybe he could just call them “niggers” over and over. Would that be charming? How about this: Instead of being of Polish descent, let’s make Walt a German. His neighbors don’t have to be people of color, they can be Jews. And now Walt can grin while inviting his neighbors over to his place to take a shower. Are you laughing yet? I’m not.

See, the fact that there’s no long ugly history of unrest between whites and Hmong in this country doesn’t make Walt’s behavior good comedy. It makes it good comedy for now – until someone learns from it, emulates it and eventually creates the uncomfortable context that should already be obvious. Gran Torino doesn’t mean to be offensive, nor do the people who laugh at it. When I saw the movie in downtown Washington, DC, in a theater with a racially diverse audience, many howled at the film. But none of them, far as I could tell, was Hmong. It’s always easier to laugh when someone else takes the brunt. And the truth is that with a different cast of racial minorities, or with a different star at its center, Gran Torino would likely inspire picket lines.

But moral and sociological issues aside, Gran Torino is still a film to protest. Because movie fans should be appalled at dialogue that’s more on-the-nose than anything M Night Shyamalan or Paul Haggis has written. We should be annoyed that Sue (Ahney Her) is forced to explain her Hmong culture like she’s reading from Wikipedia. We should be outraged with the way the racially-charged climate of the neighborhood looks as if it was modeled off an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. We should be upset that an experienced filmmaker like Eastwood couldn’t give better direction to Vang, who spends the whole film slump-shouldered, working so hard to be pathetic. We should be disappointed with the triteness of it all, with the way so many scenes feel like a 1980s “Just Say No” commercial. And then we should be honest enough to admit that if this movie were directed by and starring Mel Gibson, it would play a whole lot differently.

70 comments:

soulbrotha said...

THIS is the honest review that I have been waiting to read. And I thank you kindly, dear sir.

Anonymous said...

Did you expect anything less from Mr. Eastwood? He's just true to his character.

Ed Howard said...

Great review that says, a lot more harshly and precisely than I was able to, exactly what's so bizarre about this film.

I should say though, that when I saw the film, the people laughing easily the hardest were the row of Asian guys sitting behind me. Make of that what you will, I guess.

FilmDr said...

A bracing review. You make several excellent points, but I still think you oversimplify the film a little. For one thing, many of the white people in the film (especially Walt's family) are depicted as vulgar, grasping, and spoiled, whereas Walt's self-sufficiency suggests a generational difference between himself and them. The film also makes a clear distinction between gang members of any race in the neighborhood and the Hmong family living next door to Walt. Walt saves two of the family's younger members from gang interference, so that complicates our view of his racism. Lastly, I was struck by Eastwood's willingness to depict himself and his weaknesses in his later 70s. In the context of his work in films such as A Fistful of Dollars, there's something poignant about seeing him still retaining some of his trademark ferocity into an advanced age, especially given the prevalent ageism of most movies.

Jason Bellamy said...

FilmDr: Yes, the film underlines the generational issue, in scenes with Walt and his family and in scenes at the barbershop and the construction site. But "Gran Torino" isn't being released just to people of that generation. It's communicating with all of us. Walt might be an old fart who is better left to his ways. But art is ageless. The depictions of characters in the film enabling Walt's behavior plays true to real life. But that doesn't mean we need to enable the film's contention that slurs don't matter. They do.

Also: I'd be careful of giving too much praise to Walt for his initial intervention. The film makes it pretty clear that Walt acts because the action spills over onto his lawn.

As I said in the review, "Gran Torino" does use Walt as an example of the dead-end nature of xenophobia. But it celebrates his behavior as often as it condemns it.

rich said...

"It teaches us that slurs are okay, even if you mean them, so long as you’re charming."

No, it teaches us that some people who use slurs can be charming despite their reprehensible use of slurs. Life's complicated like that, and people are complicated like that.

Haven't you ever met someone in real life that behaved in one reprehensible way or another, yet still managed to win your affection, or at least partial affection? Many of us have family members like that, for one thing. To use a zeitgeist-y example, Obama spoke of his beloved grandmother making a racist remark during his youth.

I think as we advance as a multi-integrated society, most people learn to be pragmatic on some level about cross-cultural interaction. You bite your tongue a lot, or you make a joke to diffuse the tension, or you fire back. It's a clumsy process, and it's not ideal, but that's how a lot of people behave in reality.

I'm not convinced that the film makes a case for Walt's behavior being acceptable. I think one reason we (and his neighbors after awhile) love Walt and forgive his constant barrage of epithets is due to our suspicion early on that there is a suffering human being underneath with potential to show great compassion under the right circumstances. And he proves us right in the end.

hokahey said...

I'm fine with an analysis of a character who seems racist on the the outside but who is a compassionate individual on the inside who is struggling with demons. But Eastwood didn't portray that convincingly. Another actor could have. De Niro in his younger years could have. Eastwood played the slurs for laughs all the time. I saw the film in a working-class neighborhood south of Boston in a packed theater. They laughed uproariously. There should have been a more serious gravity to it - a subtlety that Eastwood does not have the talent to evoke.

Jason Bellamy said...

Rich: I understand the way you see the film, because I think that's where the film is trying to go.

But Walt doesn't make one or two racist remarks. He's nothing but slurs (which is boring screenwriting if you ask me, but never mind). And here's the catch: At the beginning of the film, he means them. Then we're supposed to believe he doesn't. Just like that. Regardless, all the while, as Hokahey says, Walt's remarks are designed for audience laughs. Heck, even the Hmong laugh at him. If Walt said nothing but "gook" the entire picture, people would groan and get tired of it all. Instead the film asks us to cheer his cleverness. I can't.

Mary J. said...

Thank you for your review. I just can't believe all the acclaim and props the movie is receiving. I actually feel traumatized, not just from viewing the film, but having endured the laughter and ignorance of the audience around me.

It may just be one of the racist movies in the last decade or more.

Daniel Getahun said...

Jason, thanks for the comment on my review. I've admired your thoughtful reviews for some time, and you're right - we're on completely opposite sides on GT.

I concede pretty much all of the points you make about the film's production (including the set, which is a sore point because the movie was supposed to filmed here in MN, where it was also born and bred). I also agree the acting was quite poor, even for non-professional actors.

But the writing was honest - brutally honest, and accurate. I can't claim to speak for the entire state of MN, but Walt Kowalski (yes, to the degree shown by Eastwood) is not a caricature of a racist vet. He's as real as any grizzled Minnesotan I've overheard making such remarks (all of the epithets he uses, and more). Not all Minnesotans are like this, of course, but as I said in my review, many of them admit to identifying with Walt.

I know I'm making it sound like GT can only be truly judged by Minnesotans; that's not what I mean. But there are 50,000 Hmong living here in the Twin Cities and they truly do have a troubled history with Minnesotans, even if it's only two decades old.

Anyway, I don't know if I've made any point here. I'm just saying that from where I sit, in the same city where the story was written and the characters were developed, this almost played like a documentary.

In any case, I fully understand the points made out in your excellent review.

Oh, and a last point about the humor. I think the barbershop scene was the one that crossed the threshold (you're right, including Polish jokes spread the hate around) and made the humor acceptable. Also, I don't think all of the coarse humor was race-based, such as the scene in which Thao meets his boss in the construction trailer.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm happy to have your geographical context shared here.

Similar to what I said to Rich, I think the barbershop and the construction site scenes are supposed to bridge the gap and show that Walt's language isn't as venomous as it seems. But it doesn't work. For me it seems like a pathetic non-apology apology for his behavior.

Now, that doesn't mean that "Gran Torino" can't be truthful. And I want to be clear that I don't think movies have some moral obligation to move us forward as a society. It's nice when they do, but it's not a job requirement. But films should at least be honest about what they are.

To me the smoking gun in the "Gran Torino" slur debate is to imagine the scenarios presented in my review. I think if we heard "nigger" over and over instead of "gook," perhaps not even Eastwood's charm could make it seem acceptable. To me, that proves that something is amiss.

That said, I'll shut up for a while. I'm thankful for the new voices here at The Cooler (both for and against my arguments). I hope folks continue to weigh in here, and come back to join the discussion on future posts.

Daniel Getahun said...

I think the non-apology apology stream running throughout (not only in the barbershop scene) may not work because it's not actually meant to be an apology. I think Schenk was just writing what he sees here, what he knows from having worked construction projects with whites and on a factory shift with Hmong.

Also, and this may be really hard to believe, but I actually think Walt's behavior would be acceptable, by an audience, if he was attacking other ethnic groups instead of the Hmong. It may be an oversimplification to say that racists are racists to everyone (ironically, you could call them indiscriminate), but I don't think that people were laughing so much only because the humor was directed specifically at the Hmong (who they likely know little about anyway). They're just laughing because it's a white guy making jokes at the expense of someone who's not like them.

A huge generalization, but that's what I'm thinking at the time being.

Fox said...

Hey Jason-

Good review. We disagree (what a shock!), but not in all places.

To me, Gran Torino's biggest error is that Eastwood overuses the slurs. I saw it with a sizable audience, and they weren't laughing at first, but by the time that the 43rd slur came around, people were laughing like it was a b-movie comedy.

I don't think Eastwood is a great director and his heavy-handedness has really shown itself in every film since Mystic River, but what I think he gets at in Gran Torino is something we can relate to in a social context. I think the character of Walt is WAY overdone (again, that's Eastwood for ya!) but I think he relates to a person most of us have known in our lives, and it confronts the notion that bigoted, racist people, may not be bad people.

I think you're absolutely right about some of the goofiness and forced readings of Sue teaching Walt about the Hmong people etc. But, again, I expect this from Eastwood. I think he's always tried way too hard. And to be honest, I'd rather watch more films of his like Blood Work than anything he's done since Mystic River and on.

Phil Gartland said...

I think you're right on with this review. It felt like I was the only one at the theater who wasn't laughing.

What really disturbed me was his representation of the black youths. There was no need to play into the black rapist stereotype that has been repeated for hundreds of years.

The overall problem was that the movie did not deal with race in any significant way. Despite the constant slurs, there was no message behind them. It is the anti-Do the Right Thing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review. I just watched the first hour of this movie tonight and walked out. I felt uncomfortable from the beginning. Which is really a credit to the audience I was sitting with, who laughed through the entire film, beginning with the the Hmong baptism ceremony and it just got worse from there.

I would like to put out there that this movie tells the story of what all white people are afraid of, what the news tells us is happening - that our safe haven, our white country is being "invaded" by foreigners. By Hispanic and Asian gangs, by the black over-sexualized kids on the corner, by the Asian family next door that just doesn't seem to care about their lawn, that tries to steal our cars, etc. This is why I feel like the entirely white audience that surrounded me was able to laugh so easily, to bond so quickly to a man that is able to say aloud things that we can no longer easily say. What we saw in this movie, or rather what this movie methodically produced for us, was walking, talking stereotypes. Unproblematized stereotypes. I am afraid when I sit in an audience that finds a Chinese doctor's name so funny. I am concerned when my "peers", when people that I walk past every single day can so deeply laugh at hate. There was violence in this film - laughing at racial slurs and derogatory comments is violence.

Rich said...

I think there's a lot of reductionism in the discussion of Walt's character (which I regard as emotionally complex), but I'm also feeling there's a kind of reductionism of audience reaction.

There seems to be this impression that audience members are simply laughing at Walt's creative use of slurs. I believe that's only part of it. Context is the key in each scene. If the rest of the movie didn't exist, and we simply placed a camera in front of Eastwood conjuring Walt's persona, hurling slur after creative slur at us, I believe the number of audience members laughing would be close to zero.

As everyone knows, analyzing humor usually destroys it, but here I go anyway. While acknowledging that individual members of an audience rarely share the same funny bone, I think the humorous scenes in Gran Torino which involve slur usage evoke laughter for complex reasons. Take the scene where Walt is first invited into his neighbors' house. There's a gathering of family members and friends from the local Hmong community, none of whom seemed depicted solely as stereotypes, yet here we have Walt making one ignorant stereotypical comment after another, stumbling to make sense of people he clearly doesn't understand. The joke's on Walt in this scene. As a viewer, it was often embarrassing to watch, but also funny because it turned Walt's bigotry into something ridiculous.

Far more complex is the scene where Walt confronts the three African American kids assaulting Sue Lor and her white friend. Walt pulls up in his truck and says something like, "What are you spooks doing?" This elicited laughter from the audience at the screening I attended. Were they laughing simply because they found racism funny in this instance? Perhaps some were, but I believe most were laughing because of the absurdity of Walt, who seems like a dinosaur in this scene, attempting to sound threatening with the use of an archaic slur. Eastwood then goes on to clown on himself (the actor, not Walt the character) by making a tongue-in-cheek Dirty Harry-esque zinger that additionally seems outdated and out of place. The audience laughs again. The complexity of the scene results from Walt's simultaneous depiction as ridiculous, despicable, and heroic.

Anyway, I would write more, but I have to go to work. I'm enjoying the discussion!

Daniel Getahun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Getahun said...

Great discussion so far.

Regarding the ignorance of Hmong and Sue's explanation. I think it's worth mentioning that Fletch (whom we all know, and I don't think would mind me sharing) commented on one of my posts about Minnesota and Gran Torino several weeks ago that he had never seen or heard the word "Hmong" before. I'm not surprised, since I don't think there are many in Arizona. People may also be unaware of the Karen people from Burma. Anyway, the point is that Sue's oral history was for the audience (many of whom may have been scratching their head) as much as it was for Walt.

Anonymous, I have to say while I sympathize with your emotional reaction to this film, simply walking out of the theater in disgust is not going to make you feel much better when you come across those same people in the audience in your every day life. I hope there is not an assumption that people who were laughing in the theater would not laugh just as much around the watercooler at their workplace. In or out of the theater, you're exactly right that people want to "bond so quickly to a man that is able to say aloud things that we can no longer easily say."

And Rich, I completely agree with your analysis of the humor. Half of the time the joke's on Walt. Those are the moments when I was laughing - hard, at the man's painful comeuppance due to his ignorance.

Jason Bellamy said...

I don't want to slow the conversation here in the least -- and I'll jump in again later. Meantime, I've posted my original review of Eastwood's "Flags Of Our Fathers." It's a smaller point there, but it has a few similar race snags. Tomorrow I'll post my review of "Letters From Iwo Jima," to complete the pair, which assures us (if anyone was starting to doubt) that Eastwood isn't racist (something I was careful to note in my "Gran Torino" review).

Anonymous said...

I think some really important points are being brought up here, particularly pertaining to humor and what is deemed funny, acceptable to laugh at, etc. There is power in laughter, power in the ability to feel safe enough to laugh publicly and I think this is an undeniable aspect to this film. I disagree that the laughter I heard around me pertained only to laughing at Clint Eastwood's character as though he is archaic and comical. Yes, there was definitely some laughter at his old grumpiness, however, the laughter that I heard and that I felt in the theatre occurred in scenes even without Clint Eastwood in them. Right from the start, with the baptism scene that occurs in the neighbours house. And while I feel like the watercooler, and all places outside of the theatre are also saturated with racism, I think that a movie theatre is in many ways an ideal place. It is dark, there is some anonymity and especially there quickly came to be a sense of community. People bonded through their laughter at Asian people, at the black men on the street corner, etc.

Also, I am questioning why it is so important to "prove" that Clint Eastwood isn't a racist man? Why? He directed this movie. He acted in it. He is not a stupid man. I am not trying to throw around the label racist to provoke here, I am merely questioning why it is necessary to try and problematize this perspective.

Perhaps this movie is a "snapshot" of "real" life, an hour and forty-five minute shot of what is going on in the world. However, it did not problematize this. And that is a problem for me. And I didn't need to sit in the theatre longer to find that out.

Fox said...

Anon-

This may be just piggy-backing on what Rich & Daniel said very well already, but...

First, I think Gran Torino is a character study of Walt, not a broad brush stroke of white fears or paranoia. Through this character study I think the film says some very relevant things about racial-anxities in our culture, but not just from a white perspective.

...The Mexicans tell the Hmong gang to go back to their country; the grandmother next door wonders why Walt "still lives in this neigborhood"; the black guys mock the white kid; Sue mocks the black kids; etc. ...

Now, I agree that some of this is handled sloppily. For example, the "Pollak"/"Wop" barber shop scene is over-the-top cringe-worthy, and when Walt calls the Irish construction guy a "Mick", it seems like Eastwood is just trying to be an equal opportunity offender.

What I like about Gran Torino is Walt's character, and his relationship to Sue and Thao. Through this relationship I think this argues that bigots aren't necessarily as one-dimensional as we like to think they are.

So, I think it would be unfair to make a negative blanket statement about an audience for laughing at this movie. Some may see Gran Torino as black (no pun intended) comedy, and, for sure, once the slurs keep coming after the 30 minute mark, they start to become ridiclous, approaching b-movie goofiness. I think it's more likely that people laughed for these reasons other than for a "hey, let's laugh at the minorities" type of gang-bang.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jumping back in …

Anon (the latest one): In my case, I pointed out that I don’t think Eastwood is racist to try and make sure the conversation can stay focused on the character and the film. That said …

I’m not saying it’s irrelevant or uninteresting, but let me suggest that we all try to move away from describing or interpreting the laughter (or lack thereof) from the audience members around us. If everyone responded to the movie by booing and walking out, that would tell us something. But laughter can safely and perhaps accurately be read so many different ways that it’s a dead end of sorts. (Many people laugh when they’re uncomfortable, for example.)

Now, I’d like to discuss the scene that Rich mentions, when Walt confronts the black men. In that case, I agree with you: the joke is on Walt. Potentially. Yes, he looks like a “dinosaur,” attempting to sound threatening and not doing a good job, throwing in a Dirty Harry zinger that doesn’t work. I think Eastwood’s best acting moment is in this scene, when he goes to spit tobacco like a tough guy and comes off looking like someone who is having his first chew. Very much by design.

But when I said “potentially” before, perhaps it's too much by design. Because it could be read that Walt is trying to play the fool. The guy pulls out his finger for a gun, remember. And Walt has showed no problem previously in sticking a weapon in someone’s face. Perhaps here Walt jumps to the conclusion that the black men must be armed, and he figures it’s safer to try and avoid further confrontation by disarming them with an intentionally faux-intimidating character act.

But that second interpretation aside, if I concede for you that in those scenes or others Walt is the butt of the joke, let me offer for you the scene downstairs when Walt rattles off about five different slurs in as many seconds. (The scene where he’s talking to Thao about how the three guys on the couch are getting all the time with the beautiful girl.) Unquestionably, at least in my mind, that scene is about Walt’s cleverness. For me, it’s kind of the smoking gun in that respect.

Also, to further explore Walt’s general character, let me paste a comment I left at Daniel’s blog:

If I were to introduce the character of Walt as 'sold' by the film, it would go something like: "I'd like to introduce you to Walt. He can't complete a sentence without using a racial slur. And that's bad. But he's a good guy. You can learn a lot from him."

So, let me ask folks: Is that a fair introduction? If not, why? If so, isn’t the contradiction telling? (Let me be clear: This isn’t a trap. I’m not poised to strike with an answer. I’d love to hear what people think.)

Keep it up, everyone.

Fox said...

Anon-

Further...

I'm not doing this to provoke either, but could you give us your reasons for why you think Eastwood is a "racist"?

Jason Bellamy said...

Whoa, whoa. Let's refocus.

Fox, that's a fair follow-up question. And if Anon wants to reply, I'll allow the response. (I'd at least request that Anon post by some kind of handle.)

But I'd prefer, unless anyone has significant evidence otherwise, that we give Eastwood the benefit of the doubt here, and the benefit of his reputation, and assume he's not a racist.

Let's talk about the film. The discussion of that has been too interesting to have this comments section drift somewhere else that's sure to be far more unpleasant.

Fair enough?

Tara said...

It is not that I am calling Clint Eastwood racist, or not racist. Rather, I noticed a theme throughout several of the postings that seemed to find the need to defend Eastwood's status as racist or not racist throughout. I think it is something that should not be overlooked. I am questioning why it is even being brought up in the first place. I do not know Clint Eastwood personally, I have no idea what sort of ideas he expresses on a daily basis, how he interacts with people, etc. I do however know that he has directed and starred in this movie, in a movie that does not problematize a very racist perspective. Instead of the fears and concerns of this word, I think it would be incredibly valuable to consider what this word means, what the definition of racism is. I think that most of us would find ourselves within this category (including myself). Therefore I am not someone to throw around the term as I think it is highly counterproductive to actually fighting against racism. Instead I would say that this film is a racist body of work, that reinforces problematic ideas, highlights a very offensive perspective and I think perpetuates a community atmosphere for hate - without problematizing it. Thank you for giving me the space to address this.

Jason Bellamy said...

No problem, Tara. And thanks for posting by name.

Now, Tara has brought us back:

We're moving away from the counter productive issue of Eastwood himself and we're focusing on the film. Tara calls the film "racist." A few comments ago I issued a question I'd love to see folks take a crack at.

This should give us ample material for more discussion on the film itself.

Thanks!

Rich said...

If I were to introduce the character of Walt as 'sold' by the film, it would go something like: "I'd like to introduce you to Walt. He can't complete a sentence without using a racial slur. And that's bad. But he's a good guy. You can learn a lot from him."

So, let me ask folks: Is that a fair introduction? If not, why? If so, isn’t the contradiction telling?


It's a fair introduction (from a certain point of view), and there is a definite contradiction. What's left out, however, is background, explanation, a complex psychological profile -- essentially the things we discover in the film. Inserting some of this stuff into the introduction might change it to something like this:

"I'd like to introduce you to Walt. He's tortured by his experiences in the Korean War and feels alienated from his family and emasculated by social change that left him behind. His seething rage manifests itself in the form of his inability to complete a sentence without using a racial slur. But he's capable of being a good guy. You could learn a lot from listening to him relate his experiences, as well as by observing his mistakes."

Now this new introduction leaves out something else that is important, something else we discover in the film: Walt's redemption.

The film is a redemption story -- a story about washing oneself free of one's sins (hence the priest's presence). Walt gives in to the demands of the priest by going to confession, but we don't get the sense that he's being entirely upfront in the process. How he truly redeems himself as a human being (and in the eyes of the audience that knew he had it in him from the beginning) is through the selfless act he performs at the end of the movie (which isn't exactly believable, but still beautiful as an artistic gesture). Any reservations we had about Walt's character (his bigotry, his violence) fade away in this single act: we forgive him. And our forgiveness of Walt makes us better human beings, too.

Fox said...

If I were to introduce the character of Walt as 'sold' by the film, it would go something like: "I'd like to introduce you to Walt. He can't complete a sentence without using a racial slur. And that's bad. But he's a good guy. You can learn a lot from him."

So, let me ask folks: Is that a fair introduction? If not, why?


I think it's fair... up to the "you can learn a lot from him". I don't get that from Gran Torino. I don't see Walt as a martyred figure, or as a hero of any sort.

Jason, I think you feel differently (and correct me if I'm wrong about this) b/c you saw Gran Torino as sort of a "white man saving the day" type of movie.

And even though Rich and I seem to be on the same side of liking this movie, I disagree with him that Walt is redeemed. I don't think Walt really changes that much during the film. He's still using slurs up until the end, and I think, had he survived, that he would have continued too for the remainder of his life. That's just who Walt is. The fact that he reveals layers of complexity and, yes, goodness, through his relationships with Sue and Thao is what I think makes this movie appealing.

Had Walt resurfaced as a transformed man, shouting down his barber after learning tolerance and tact from Sue and Thao, then I think the film would have been as phony as, say, Crash.

Rich said...

Fox: Given Eastwood's penchant for ambiguity, I don't think Walt's redemptive arc (had he lived) would, or could, ever follow the Crash-style trajectory you imagine. Eastwood's protagonists are consistently flawed and damaged, always haunted by their pasts -- rarely capable of fully escaping them.

As a nearly perfect counterpoint to Walt, take Unforgiven's Bill Munny (the title Unforgiven is also revealing here). Munny is established early on as a character attempting to make a clean break with his violent past. Yet we find he can't escape it at the end. His final act reaffirms the degradation of his soul caused by a lifetime of violent gunplay.

***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***

And that's why Walt's redemption takes the form of death at the end of Gran Torino. There's no other way out. I used the phrase "washing oneself of one's sins" because Walt, in his speech to Thao, insists that he's going it alone because he's already "spoiled" (if he lived, he wouldn't miraculously transform into a pleasant, tolerant person).

Yet the circle of violence ends with Walt's refusal to engage in gunplay. Eastwood clearly does see Walt as a martyr because after his death, we get a slow motion tracking shot over Walt in a crucifixion pose (say what you will about the heavy-handedness of this image). Walt's final act, selfless sacrifice after a life that left him "spoiled," redeems him.

Jason Bellamy said...

I’m glad I waited to reply when I did, because the juxtaposition of the comments from Rich and Fox might be telling in that both of you agree that my introduction of Walt is fair but limited, and yet both of you disagree on whether Walt actually changes during the film in order to be redeemed.

Fox, if I understand correctly, you’re arguing that Walt is a good guy all along, and that his use of slurs is unfashionable but no more indicative of anything than, say, Raymond’s constant “People’s Court” references in “Rain Man.” The slurs are something Walt learned and something he does, but they are not who he is. And I assume you’d argue that his disdain for others – from his white family to the Hmong next door – is essentially in the same ballpark. Thus, however imperfect Walt is in the beginning, he’s just as imperfect in the end. However good he is in the beginning, he’s just as good in the end.

Well, maybe. Perhaps many of us are thrusting a transformation-of-character theme onto the film that isn’t there, because story arcs are so frequently about transformation. Perhaps instead “Gran Torino” simply reveals his character. Maybe it’s trying to tell me, for example, that I’m jumping to an incorrect conclusion about Walt when I hear him using slurs, just like he at least seems to be jumping to the wrong conclusion about everyone around him.

As you can see, I’m trying to understand this film on a different level. But it takes a lot of heavy lifting for me to do this. To settle here, I’ve got to overlook some scenes that would seem to directly contradict this reading. (Also: Fox, you’ll have to explain to me how you don’t see Walt as a kind of hero. The dude sacrifices himself with the intent to and the result of saving the neighborhood from its gang. I don’t see another way of reading that other than heroic.)

But let me now loop this back to Rich’s comment. I think you make a terrific argument for the film (as does Fox, from a different angle). But, frankly, I think your analysis has a greater artfulness, thoughtfulness and depth than I see in this film. And that's part of my argument in my review. It’s not that I don’t see what “Gran Torino” is trying to achieve. I think I know all the ways I could turn a blind eye to its contradictions and blunders. But in the end, I don’t think this film provides the “complex psychological profile” that you see. Obviously at some point we agree to disagree. You can’t undo what you see. I can’t undo what I see (and don’t see).

I’ve said all this and haven’t even touched on the “Crash” comparison, which was only a matter of time. But before we go there, let me pose another question that we have kind of danced around already.

As I said previously, I don’t want to interpret audience responses. But what if the majority of the people who saw this movie said that they were laughing with Walt and not at him. Would that be the wrong way to read this film and this character? And, if so, is that the fault solely of the audience? Or is the filmmaker in any way responsible for the misunderstood response, and to what degree? (Obviously this is a question that could be applied to many films, not just this one.)

Thoughts anyone?

Jason Bellamy said...

Rich: Good thoughts just now. Your latest comment slipped in before mine.

Crispy said...

This is the same sort of issue I had with Tropic Thunder and it's use of the word "retard". I said the same thing when reviewing that movie -- replace the word with "nigger" or "kike" and it's not funny anymore, is it?

Or course that movie and it's actors defended the use of the word, and said that it was just funny. It's been nominated (and won) several awards.

I guess it's okay to disparage a race or the disabled as long as you "don't really mean it" or if it's "really funny".

Thanks for the review. I think I'll go ahead and pass on this one.

Jason Bellamy said...

Crispy: You'd think that this debate would be close to the retard/Simple Jack dust-up, but I don't think it is much. For what it's worth, I thought Tropic Thunder was terrific. The backlash against it came mostly from folks who hadn't seen it and assumed the worst. I'm not saying one couldn't be offended by "Tropic Thunder," but in my mind that movie's message is clear ... and the joke is pointed right at Hollywood, which, just to state the obvious, doesn't mean that some people won't misunderstand it or won't misuse it. And that would get us back to question I posed in my previous comment -- so there's similarity there.

I will say this though: I argued on a different blog (Daniel's maybe), that I thought part of the problem with the contradictions of Walt's character could be due to Eastwood not wanting to be a total racist asshole in what might be his final role (even if that asshole were to make good in the end). Last night, I saw the same thought put a different way. In the parlance of "Tropic Thunder," Eastwood didn't go full bigot. In this case, I actually think that was a bad thing.

Fox said...

Rich & Jason-

I may not have explained myself correctly, b/c after Rich's latest comment, I think we (me & Rich) agree (maybe!). Let me restate it...

If Eastwood would have survived, I don't think Gran Torino would have gone the route of heavy-handed moralizing as in Crash. Rich, perhaps I wrongly read your thoughts of Walt as "redemptive" to mean he was "transformed" (ie He suddenly grows a tolerant heart of gold), but now I see that you don't mean that.

Now, I know - if I remember correctly - that there are no transformed men in Crash either, but Haggis' film has that "let me sit you on my knee and teach you about the world" grandstanding that annoys the crap out of me. To me, I think Gran Torino avoids that by not apologizing for Walt (Eastwood has fallen into these traps in the past,... specifically when he works with Haggis).

Rich, you make good points on the "martyr" issue. I think you're right about it, it's just hard for me to see Walt as redeemed simply b/c he does what he does. I agree that he sacrifices (martyrs) himself for Thao & Sue, but does he really wash himself of what he was? I don't think so. Maybe I'm just rejecting the idea that it's a story of redemption. Maybe I don't want it to be. Maybe I'm splitting hairs.

Jason-

I don't like thinking of Walt as a "good guy all along" but, rather, not a completely bad guy either. I know that sounds like splitting hairs again, but I think there is a significant difference.

I don't think Walt is a good man (before, or after, his death), but I think he reveals that underneath his faults (racism, deep bitterness & resentment) there still exists good qualities. I like that Gran Torino runs with that complexity b/c I think too often in our culture we dismiss people for their offensive flaws (racism, homophobia, sexism, etc.).

EXAMPLE: I'm disgusted when my grandfather says "ni**er", but I love him for being a nurturing grandparent to me. Further, what does it say about him if he uses that word, and then is genuinely friendly with my black roommate in college? Complexity.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: Excellent. Yeah, I knew what you meant. Not good. Not bad. Just human. And, like I said, maybe I'm jumping to conclusions in thinking that he transforms. Maybe the movie simply reveals. Maybe it's the audience's perception that's transformed and we're the ones (not Walt) who learn not to judge too quickly. But, then again, maybe it is a transformative story with redemption in the end, and you don't want it to be. Obviously, I can read it that way, too.

My point in repeating myself here is to narrow down toward what I think is the ultimate problem with the film: I don't feel complexity to Walt. Not convincing complexity. Though I respect the points you and Rich and others have made here, in the end, I think "Gran Torino" is as simple minded as it often looks at first glance.

I'm not going to go back and repeat my arguments. I'll just say that I wish the movie looked at Walt with a conflicted mix of love and disgust, like Fox can see when looking at his grandfather (just to continue with his example). I still see too much from-the-start celebrating of Walt's faults. But this is certainly a great conversation, and I'm not done tossing it around in my head.

For all the ugly stuff one can find on blogs, it's terrific to see folks come together and be so open-minded and not just respect differing opinions but try to understand them. Well done, all.

RedRobin said...

You are too literal.

Walt is an old man, haunted, isolated from his family, disconnected from the world. He maintains a rigid existence -- tidy house, tidy lawn, pristine car. He hangs on to these things, these old ideals (especially the car) because they represent something he understands -- an America he understands. His racial terms -- his white racial terms emphasize this -- Mick, Wop, Polack, these are all established, white, old guard, American people he fought for in the war. He then worked for Ford -- again an American standard -- for many years. All of this is symbolized by the car, hence the name of the movie.

Then his neighborhood changes. All these Asians come in and the houses deteriorate (a visual representation of the change in the economic status of the neighborhood because of the new people -- true or not). The language changes...everything is different, and Walt tries to stick it out the only way he knows how. He tries to maintain -- his house, his yard, his car. His language.

I am not excusing his racism -- and I will address it momentarily, but the racism in the movie is NOT the same sort of racism that would be present as if Walt were a Nazi and the neighbors were Jews, nor if the neighbors were black and Walt were calling them cargo. The racism in the movie is entirely different. Antisemitism is specific to a people and a history. Racism against Blacks is, especially in the States, specific to a people and a long and brutal history. The movie would be entirely different. These are very poor analogies.

The racism in the movie is not intended to be funny. There are light moments, yes, but these are not driven by racial humor. The light moments are because Walt either has a moment where he realizes he's an idiot, or he's clever in spite of his racism.

Racism is usually bad for two reasons: it presumes a characteristic of a group that is supposed to apply in general, that is, it generalizes something over a group and this is demeaning and belittling. Second, the characteristic that is generalized is one which is taken to be inferior. So calling someone a racial name is a manifestation of this -- you label a person as belonging to a group, and you cite that group as inferior. Walt does this all the time in the movie. The real question is the purpose of this. With the barber or the construction guy, it is to connect with the Wop, or the Mick. It is a way to banter with them. With the Asian people it is a way to distance from them. That is until he saves Sue from the group of boys taunting her.

It is interesting to me that when Walt is referring to a whole group he is particularly harsh -- with the Asians. But when Walt is talking to individuals he engages in a different sort of calling-down. He can distance himself from whole groups of people he doesn't understand through slurs, but he can also connect as well -- as he does with Sue when he drives her home and she won't be cowed by his language. He actually says that he likes her, and he readily accepts what she tells him about her culture.

The important thing to notice here is that the name calling -- his manner of speaking (the use of racial/racist slurs) has a purpose, a use, in the film. It does the work of portraying the degree of relationship between him and others.

When he first starts directing Tao's work he calls him "Toad" all the time, even when he knows the kid's name. Funny how in your diatribe about the movie you didn't pick up on this. He does this to keep a distance between himself and the young man. But you'll notice that this soon stops. By the end of the work period, there is no more "Toad" calling.

It is also important that Walt connects with a young Asian man. He fought in the Korean war. Put it together. Saving Tao from the gang, finishing the gang, particularly after what happened to Sue, is his salvation -- and I use the word 'salvation' on purpose.

One last thing -- yes, he does mention about the dog a lot. Have you heard of teasing? Do you really think that the movie would be racist just for the sake of being racist? The racism has a purpose -- to communicate something about his relationships -- while the larger themes are playing out. This movie is about life and death, about finding peace, about finishing a story, and about how to connect with others. It is about loyalty. The racism is just a vehicle. How did you miss all that?

Sam Juliano said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jason Bellamy said...

RedRobin: Thanks for your thoughts. Some replies, working backward:

The racism has a purpose -- to communicate something about his relationships -- while the larger themes are playing out. This movie is about life and death, about finding peace, about finishing a story, and about how to connect with others. It is about loyalty. The racism is just a vehicle.

I agree with you all the way until the end. The racism absolutely has a purpose. The racism is a vehicle. But the racism in the film isn’t executed in such a way that I think it’s just a vehicle for the qualities you described there, and that’s my frustration with it.

When he first starts directing Tao's work he calls him "Toad" all the time, even when he knows the kid's name.

I absolutely picked up on this. Calling Thao “Toad” because it’s a funny name to him is indicative of Walt’s experiences, which you did a nice job of outlining. But, in this context, it’s also a slur. Toad is hardly a flattering name. Walt could call Thao by his actual name, but that would require effort, and Walt doesn’t feel like going through that effort for a Hmong boy. Note that this is the same man who grumbles when elders aren’t treated with respect, but he won’t grant Thao the same respect. In this case, “Toad” is no different than “Dragon lady,” which is no different than “gook.”

Antisemitism is specific to a people and a history. Racism against Blacks is, especially in the States, specific to a people and a long and brutal history. The movie would be entirely different. These are very poor analogies.

Why? “Gook” is a very specific term meant for a very specific people that came about at a time in our country when many whites didn’t think so fondly of Asians. Why is racism against “gooks” different from racism against “niggers.” I don’t think it is. The difference, as you identified, is that “nigger” is perhaps the most red-flagged no-no word for whites in the dictionary. That doesn’t mean that if “gook” is only sixth on the list that the usage of “gook” isn’t analogous to “nigger.” If you think that racism against Asians is somehow less severe than racism against African-Americans, I absolutely disagree.

The racism in the movie is not intended to be funny. There are light moments, yes, but these are not driven by racial humor. The light moments are because Walt either has a moment where he realizes he's an idiot, or he's clever in spite of his racism.

On this, I most definitely disagree. Here’s what Walt says to Thao in the basement: “You know you’re letting Click-clack, Ding-dong and Charlie Chan just walk out with miss What’s Her Face?”

Let's look at that: At least three of those nicknames are slurs in this context. I would like to know if anyone, anyone at all, thinks that this line isn’t meant to be humorous. I would like to know if anyone, anyone at all, thinks that in this instance that the joke is on Walt. To say yes would be to argue that the humor is found in his idiocy (laughing at him) and not in his cleverness in being able to thread together three different, somewhat creative slurs in five seconds (laughing with him).

If my review isn’t clear enough, it’s my fault, so let me restate: I have no problem with the portrayal of a character who is either “a racist” or who merely “says racist things” (presuming for the sake of argument that there’s a difference). I don’t think that because Walt says racist things that he’s a terrible human being. I don’t think that Walt, or people like him, are incapable of change. I think that “Gran Torino” uses Walt to illustrate that racism (at any level) is a dead-end existence.

BUT: I think the movie also asks us to laugh WITH Walt. I think some of the racist statements are absolutely designed for laughs. I think this is a contradiction, and I think that if “nigger” was the word being tossed around instead of “gook” that contradiction would be much more apparent.

Wulf said...

Thanks for the review. But I have to wonder if you might be missing the point of the characters be Polish and Asian instead of German and Jew. You know, because German and Jewish people actually have a history that would intrude upon the characters and their story. There is no Polish-Hmong genocidal backdrop, so these characters can actually be people instead of stereotypes.

Maybe I'm missing it. I'll keep your post in mind the next time I see it, Jason.

Jason Bellamy said...

Wulf: Well, in part I direct you to my lengthy comment just before this one. Additionally though, I'd say that Walt ain't Polish. He's American. Yes, he's Polish in respect to his Italian barber. Because otherwise they'd have to keep calling one another "cracker."

So, to your point: Yes, there's a sad history between white Americans and Asians. That's why I think the comparison is in the same ballpark. But in terms of operating outside of a stereotype, yes, I see what you're saying. But I also think that's what's deceptive about it. In the end it's racism. It's all the same.

Thanks for the comment.

Sam Juliano said...

I would like to make a formal request that yesterday's submission (written by me) be removed from your site.

Thank You, Sam Juliano

Jason Bellamy said...

Sure, Sam. Done.

Sam Juliano said...

much appreciated.

M.Chavez said...

I don't mean to come off as flip, but this seems like such a needless point of debate. Decades ago Archie Bunker was the lovable racist with a heart of gold, so in my mind Eastwood's character is just a dusting off of an old pop-culture archetype. My only criticisms are with the (admittedly) amateurish Hmong actors and pedestrian script. On a 1-10 scale I'd give it a 6. A popcorn movie that may prompt some discussion afterwards and, for me at least, a look at wikipedia for the hmong culture. I had no idea!

Jason Bellamy said...

M.Chavez: I see your point, but some things to think about …

1) The key words in your sentence about Archie Bunker are “decades ago.” If Wikipedia can be trusted, the Archie Bunker character was introduced in 1971. It’s worth noting that only five years before that, syndicated reruns of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” were still on the air. Times change.

2) Archie was a character developed over multiple episodes. Walt is a character for less than two hours. That’s significant because …

3) If Eastwood is “dusting off an old pop-culture archetype,” and I don’t disagree that he is, that doesn’t mean, in my mind, that he can do a mediocre job of it and depend on the audience to fill in the gaps. Really, this is at the heart of my argument: there’s what Eastwood is trying to do with Walt, and there’s what Eastwood does with Walt. I’m arguing that they are two different things. Lesser directors would be held accountable for such discrepancies. Eastwood should be held accountable, too.

That’s my view. But I sincerely appreciate your arguments here. In addition to the comments above, I’ve received several e-mails from folks complimenting the discussion here – a discussion that belongs equally to everyone who has commented.

Rich said...

On this, I most definitely disagree. Here’s what Walt says to Thao in the basement: “You know you’re letting Click-clack, Ding-dong and Charlie Chan just walk out with miss What’s Her Face?”

Let's look at that: At least three of those nicknames are slurs in this context. I would like to know if anyone, anyone at all, thinks that this line isn’t meant to be humorous. I would like to know if anyone, anyone at all, thinks that in this instance that the joke is on Walt.


I'll begin with a quote from Eastwood in a recent New York Times article:

“A lot of people are bored of all the political correctness. You’re showing a guy from a different generation. Show the way he talks. The country has come a long way in race relations, but the pendulum swings so far back. Everyone wants to be so sensitive.”

The humor in the scene comes from Walt's audacity. The slurs spewing forth from his mouth don't register as overly offensive (to this viewer) for two reasons: 1) prior scenes have already established Walt as a somewhat decent guy underneath the bigotry and 2) his words feel like they are from another era and are clearly inapplicable to the realistically portrayed, non-stereotypes populating the gathering.

There's a kid with dyed, spiky hair, who probably hangs out at Hot Topic on the weekends, sitting on the couch. He doesn't look much different than Walt's own daughter who wore a pretty outrageous get-up (oh, kids these days!) to the funeral at the beginning of the film. And Walt's gonna call a kid like this "Charlie Chan?" Again, Walt's bigotry is turned into something ridiculous.

To hear this guy lecturing Thao the way he does is certainly incongruous with what we believe is reality. Yet, despite the obvious cultural gap between Walt and Thao, there's a familiar cross-cultural dynamic at work here (the old crank lecturing the inexperienced youth) that instinctively makes us laugh. I think that's the key.

coffee said...

Clint Eastwood used his outward crankiness to come across as tough and yet also heroic at the same time, well done i'd say

Mark said...

First, Anon/Tara: "Problematize"? I just looked it up to make sure, and I see that yes, officially, it is a word. But come on! Not in my Wop neighborhood.

Jason, I haven't stopped by The Cooler in a while -- I'm sorry to have been missing out -- but I'm glad to be catching up now with such a raucous discussion and a sharp review. Well done, everyone.

I agree with your generally negative review of this film, Jason. I've loved Clint's movies for decades and really appreciate much of his work as a director, so I was surprised by how little I cared for this one. A lot of my reaction, like yours, was driven by the racism.

But I also think the problems run far deeper than the off-putting language. A film about a racist old man confronting (or not) his demons and finding redemption (or not) could be good, even if it made me squirm. I haven't minded a number of other movies with foul characters. In "Gran Torino," though, everything felt stale and formula to me. For all its color the writing didn't sing. The characters didn't engage. The direction -- from framing the performances to framing the shots -- felt perfunctory and obvious, ham-handed. (Sloppy too; I saw a boom mic in two shots.)

The word in your review that really resonated with me, Jason, and that I used to describe the movie to friends, was "trite."

It feels to me like the hype GT is generating comes from two impulses: celebrating the re-emergence of a Dirty Harry-style character (updated only subtly for our time); and giving Clint a lifetime-achievement kind of valedictory standing O.

Sadly, he's had a couple of those already that were much more deserving. I wish he had let "Iwo Jima" be his Ted Williams moment.

In any event, it's cool to see such a great community of film lovers developing here. Thank you, everyone. I won't wait so long between visits ...

Fletch said...

I don't think there's much I can add to this conversation, but I did want to say this:

"That’s why it’s a shame that Walt is a widower, because otherwise Thao’s next lesson could have been in wife-beating – that’s what guys do, right? Please."

Hilarious line, Jason. And excellent review.

dan said...

I went to see this movie without reading any reviews and am glad I did. After seeing the movie I searched reviews to see what others thought. The reviews are predictable. As far as the movie goes, it was pretty good. The acting was average and the story line was also. It seems like most of the comments here try to make a case for or against racism as the film's focus. Did you folks see the same movie?

From my standpoint the movie is about action not words, individualism, loyalty, character, integrity, honor, self sacrifice, and absolutely most importantly, earned respect. These messages are best spelled out in the line "I have more in common with these gooks than with my own spoiled, rotten family."

The film depicts a truth that people gravitate to their own kind regardless of race, nationality, color, or anything else. Like minded people find each other and get along. People of vastly different character do not develop strong bonds. The film even brings this out with the violent rejection of the Hmong gang to their own people.

This blog misses a good deal of the film's messages because everyone wants to focus on the racism of an angry white guy while ignoring the same behavior by Blacks, Asians, women, and Mexicans. Don’t you think that is odd? Here are some obvious things that these reviewers notice and miss in no particular order:

- They notice "A war veteran with a silver star locked away in his basement, Walt is a proud American with a not so proud past. He’s haunted by his memories of fighting in Korea, and in the faces of his neighbors he sees the dead Korean soldiers that he and his compatriots “stacked like sandbags.” but they miss that he is not embarrassed or ashamed of his past. He simply has memories of the terrible things that go on in war, things done by all sides. There is no need for redemption of the past. This is proved in his confession with the priest. His ending actions are about giving a kindred spirit a chance in life since he knows he is on the way out. Did you forget about the hospital papers?

-They notice an angry white guy who can't stand his children or grandchildren as depicted from the very beginning in a funeral scene but they miss the fact that they are disrespecting their "mother/grandmother”, not Walt. They miss the other scenes which show the sons to be typical middle America consumers but with little character. The movie portrays life as pretty good for one of them but gained by questionable ethics.

-They see xenophobia, a man that hates just about everyone. They miss that his friends are of other nationalities. They miss the obvious; he can’t stand half-assed people, period. If Walt was simply a racist, he wouldn’t have a problem with the white kid in the scene with the black kids. However, the film portrays the kid as a fake who tries to create bonds and his ultimate rejection. It again proves Walt’s character is against dumbass behavior. Another proof is his admiration of Toad who helps the lady who drops her groceries when other kids don't.

-They see a perfectly tidy house, behind his perfectly swept front porch and his perfectly manicured lawn, and mock or put down the character's work ethic. How curious. They miss that the kid has no skills or direction but has the same work ethic and values.

-They see an angry white guy who uses racial slurs but they miss the parts where Black guys throw racial slurs, Mexicans throw racial slurs, Asians throw racial slurs, old ladies throw racial slurs, Irishmen throw racial slurs, and Poles throws racial slurs. As a matter of fact, the only ones that don't throw slurs are the brother and sister.

-They see guns, but only as a angry old white guy's weapon of destruction. They miss Mexicans with guns and Asians with guns. They miss angry young men who use their guns while missing the part about who doesn't use his gun.

-They see a troubled neighborhood but they don't see bullies who don't go away just because you stand up to them. They see an angry white guy who takes the law into his own hands but miss the part where he says "he fixes things" and means it. The fact is that in real life cops don't mess in these areas of life because thugs shoot back. They play with radar guns instead. The storyline doesn't bring this message out because it is generally understood.

-They completely miss the lines “We fought on your side and when America quit, the communists started killing the Hmong so we came over here.” Never have I heard a statement so clear of what America did in Vietnam. We didn't lose, we didn't win either, we quit! Those who cause politics to enter war take no responsibility for its outcome. I've always felt that the "Killing fields" fall on the backs of the 60's activists. The same will be true in the Middle East when we quit and leave them hanging. (last part is my opinion. BTW, no, I am not old enough to have fought in Vietnam.)

-They see a funeral in the end but they don't see that it is about honor and who it is that shows respect to Walt.

Finally I offer a much better review, far more eloquent than I could ever state from Paulette Chu Miniter. Her review stating "As the daughter of Vietnamese refugee..." http://www.feer.com/authors-corner/2009/january/Gran-Torino-and-the-Drive-Toward-Liberty is a much better review in my opinion.

Jason Bellamy said...

Dan: Thanks for the comment. I'm happy to have your lengthy argument stand as a dissenting opinion.

That said: I think you see the film as what it wants to be. I don't think that Eastwood is racist nor that the film intends to be. My argument is that the things you have identified that the film aims to be about are not what it's about in terms of what actually happens on screen. I am not blind to many of your observations. I think you too casually dismiss that a large majority of this film, in practice, is nothing more than an attempt for laughs through the use of slurs. You cannot dismiss what is on the screen just because it conflicts with the deeper message you think the film is aiming to explore. That contradiction is significant.

A few specific replies:

"everyone wants to focus on the racism of an angry white guy while ignoring the same behavior by Blacks, Asians, women, and Mexicans"

Sorry, but this film isn't about Blacks, Asians, women and Mexicans. It's about Walt. He's white. That's why the focus is on him.

They miss that his friends are of other nationalities.

Please. Walt's other friends are both white. Don't tell me that there's this large friction between whites of Polish, Irish and Italian descent in this country that in any way compares to the friction between different skin colors. All you have done here is prove my point: Gran Torino tries to justify Walt's behavior by suggesting that it's "just what guys do," and showing him react this way among friends.

"he can’t stand half-assed people, period. If Walt was simply a racist, he wouldn’t have a problem with the white kid in the scene with the black kids. However, the film portrays the kid as a fake who tries to create bonds and his ultimate rejection.

The first sentence is entirely true. The second, not so much. You think if a white person hated blacks that he'd be fond of a white person who, in his mind, adopted a "black" cultural persona? I think not. As for the last sentence: Yes, Walt sees the light about Thao. And that's great. But why did Walt doubt Thao in the first place? His skin color. He doesn't expect to share anything in common with these people because of their skin color.

They miss angry young men who use their guns while missing the part about who doesn't use his gun.

Nowhere above do I condemn Walt for violence and imply gang violence is OK. Though now that you mention it: Why is it acceptable that Walt can stick a gun in someone's face (regardless of whether he pulls the trigger) and others cannot? And please don't ignore the fact that in the end it takes a white man to settle the score with the Hmong gang.

Never have I heard a statement so clear of what America did in Vietnam.

Yes. America "quit." I'm not going to get into politics here and argue whether that was the right decision or not. But let's remember that "quit" isn't a nasty four-letter word. See also: "I quit drinking." "I quit smoking." "I quit lying." "I quit sending troops off to die in a war that couldn't be 'won.'" "I quit pretending that 'Gran Torino' is little more than an effort to make whites feel better about their mistreatment (past or present) of minorities." Etc.

Her review stating "As the daughter of Vietnamese refugee..."

Thanks for the link to the review. And, again, thanks for the points you have left here. If the film actually looked like what you have described, it would have been less offensive.

As for this white guy of British and German descent, I remain offended by Gran Torino.

dan said...

Reasonable rebuttals. However, I still stand that the racist language is secondary to the message that "like finds like," regardless of race, sex, religion, etc. Without an extremely strong contrast, you couldn't get that message across. With no contrast, it would come across like some afterschool special. I think of the Simpsons with an outrageous foreground sketch while the background message is about love, family, marriage. They may be in the background, but those messages are the point. If you are a Simpsons fan then you know what I mean. Not everybody gets it.

Nice to interact with you, dan

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, Dan. I think your comparison to "The Simpsons" is a smart one. True enough, any single-episode sampling of that show might suggests a different underlying message that it delivers bit by bit, yet effectively. Good argument.

Again, I just don't think "Gran Torino" works. I think the fact that the film isn't bold enough to have him say "nigger" (he says "spook" instead), shows that. If he had black neighbors next door, I think audiences would be rolling their eyes and shifting uncomfortably in their seats. "Gran Torino" tries to pass itself off as slur clever, or slur lite. But a slur is a slur is a slur.

Anyway, thanks again for stopping by and adding to the discussion.

Rich said...

Hey, Jason. Nice to see the discussion still going. Thought I'd drop by again.

I disagree with your persistent assertion that "a slur is a slur is a slur." Maybe in the absolute sense, you are correct, but not in the real world. Every individual slur has its own history and thus evokes emotion accordingly.

I think most people agree that "nigger" represents the most offensive, foulest of the foul slur usage imaginable. But calling someone a "nigger" in a historical vacuum is about as offensive as calling them a "stupid-face." It might still possess a derogatory meaning, but there's no extra baggage.

The reason "nigger" offends is due to history -- because of the institution of slavery and its still-lingering ramifications. It re-opens old wounds and evokes a time when African Americans were considered property, not human beings. The term "cracker" recalls the same period of history, but it's not as offensive because the balance of power in black/white relationships always favored whites -- "crackers" enslaved, "niggers" _were_ slaves. Calling an African American a "nigger" produces rage and resentment. Calling a Caucasian American a "cracker" produces guilt -- maybe. See how historical context matters?

I think the film probably _did_ sidestep the word "nigger" because Clint and his screenwriter smartly recognized that scenes would have played out differently, and they wanted to avoid that. If Walt says "spook," he's ridiculous. (It's okay to laugh.) If he says "nigger," then he's cruel and inhuman. (It's not okay to laugh.) In fact, some scenes _do_ seem crueller and more inhuman than other scenes. And, at least at my screening, the audience wasn't laughing during these scenes.

Rich said...

Haha, you know, thinking about it, nothing illustrates my point better than that great scene from Mean Streets where Joey Clams says to Jimmy, "We're not payin' because this guy's a mook, and we don't pay mooks!" Jimmy looks at his friends and says, "I'm a mook? What's a mook?" His friends shrug, and he turns back to Clams and says with mock-outrage, "You can't call me a mook!"

The scene is hilarious because Jimmy knows he should be offended by something that sounds vaguely like an ethnic slur, but without any sort of historical understanding of the term, he lacks the capacity to be offended yet pretends he's offended anyway. Funny stuff.

Anonymous said...

i cant believe all the people that are "shocked" and "Offended" im not saying all of you are phonies but the matter of fact is that most of you are too willy nilly, hissy sissy, new yorker elitist type of people that feel you should be offended because your a different race and its "bad" to make such jokes, you are the people that will laugh at a black man telling a racist joke but gasp when a white man does it, Eastwoods movie is genius, it shows a retired vet who has seen his neighborhood go to a different culture and he refuses to move or change his own ways, its really funny cause i have seen this exact thing aswell in my own grandmother, i have a few black friends and she asks me constantly if they are good people and law abiding, i know she is not racist but she grew up in a time when school were just starting to become less segregated, and its true the older you get the more steadfast you get in your beleifs this is as some of you have said made in the truest since of real life it doesnt hold back and it doesnt pander to those ridiculous race based groups, its real, its raw, its genius, now a lot of you need to really grow up and a sense of humor along with it

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: I’m not quite sure how taking offense to a film’s contradictions reflects immaturity. Nor do I understand why you believe that having an opinion alternate to yours means that someone is a phony (the term you explicitly said you wouldn’t ascribe to the group before going ahead and doing so implicitly). You’ll also have to explain why depicting the “truest sense of real life” is “really funny.” If this is an accurate, not a cartoonish, depiction, then what is there to laugh about?

You are free to disagree, but I would argue that this film does pander. It panders to those who want to believe that they are above being respectful of others. I do agree with you that Gran Torino accurately reflects sentiments that exist in pockets of the population. Here’s where I disagree: I believe that Gran Torino positions itself as an anti-xenophobia film. Along the way, it creates the bulk of it’s “entertainment” by celebrating the colorfulness of a man’s xenophobia. I find that disingenuous. That’s where I take offense.

Don K Show said...

Get off of your high horse

Voice of Reason said...

I think your review is overwrought hand-wringing. If you are looking for a anti-racial reality, get to the moon or Mars, perhaps.

This is an "honest review" for someone looking down their long enlightened nose at the plebian hardworking character that Walt represents in this movie.

I would rather have a beer with Walt than white wine with you. High horse, indeed. Walt is entitled to have his racial views. He is a veteran of the United States of America. He is, indeed imperfect, but he is a real person with real character (so to speak).

Your contention that the movie propogates the notion that slurs don't matter is mistaken.

Words do not matter. Actions matter. I would rather have Walt as a neighbor than a hand-wringing well-meaning pontificating politically correct whiner. Walt might call me a slur, but he might pull me out of a fire.

You could have saved yourself the "Utterly Offensive" title and just titled your review, "Waaaaaaaahhhh!"

Anonymous said...

im sorry but worst review ever!
movie was classic!

Anonymous said...

worst review ever. how did you get your job?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Michael said...

I'm sorry but you are an over-sensitive, uptight whinger who just spurts his rightiousness to anyone who will listen. I really think it's people like you who blow up racism and make it more than it is. It's just words, it only hurts if you let it hurt. It's not up to you to decide what's right or wrong, especially if the insults arn't directed at you. I'd also like to add the fact that the truth isn't always pretty and clean, it can be unpleasant. If you can't deal with it, ignore it and keep it to yourself. Gran Torino is one of the best movies i have seen and it's because it's not afraid to show what's really happening.

Jason Bellamy said...

If you can't deal with it, ignore it and keep it to yourself.

Michael: Couldn't I say the same thing about your reaction to my review? Just saying. Moving on ...

...the truth isn't always pretty and clean, it can be unpleasant.

I completely agree. I wouldn't disagree for a moment that Gran Torino is loosely representative of the kind of racial conflict that exists in this country. But if the conflict is "unpleasant," then it is. And thus treating it like it's a cartoon, like it's "just words," wouldn't be "showing what's really happening," would it? So, which is it: racial conflict is unpleasant, or it's "just words"? I find it odd that you'd praise the film for demonstrating the unpleasantness of racism and then suggest I'm "over-sensitive" for objecting to the way Gran Tornio presents racism as a harmless joke.

And that leads me here: If you truly believe that belittling an African-American by calling him/her a nigger is "just words," I doubt I'm going to be able to convince you otherwise, so I won't try. What I will say is this: You accused me of spurting my "righteousness," but if words don't matter, then what is Walt Kowalski other than a "righteous" figure -- the guy who saves the day, the guy who fights anyone who violates his moral code?

Walt is allowed to be righteous within the film precisely because it takes the "it only hurts if you let it hurt" mentality to racial insensitivity, which puts the responsibility for racism not on the speaker but on the target. Just because the target might decide not to justify insensitive or hateful behavior by recognizing it, that doesn't erase what it is.

Gran Torino is a billboard for the "just words" mentality. So if that's how you feel about belittling racial slurs, then, yes this film shows what's "really happening."

UK Ian said...

I'm still waiting for someone to review the film.

Anonymous said...

At the end he sticks up for his Hmong neighbors and is killed and in his will, gives his famous car to the Hmong boy. What this movie shows is that this racist man learns from the Hmong race and ends up helping them.

Anonymous said...

this review sucks. the reason he uses those words is because he is trying to show how people can change from being racist, to understanding of different people. it is meant to be offensive.

Poata said...

The tone of this review is so 'holier than thou' that it makes me want to vomit! Are you serious? Have you ever written a script or made a film which at least honestly attempts to show the full range of realistic human emotion and behaviour WITHOUT preaching? I think not! I can imagine that the kind of film you might actually endorse would be along the lines of a 'Reefer Madness' type catechism for racists: didactic, moralistic and totally boring beyond belief. Don't you think we as an audience are sophisticated enough to know that this guy's language and attitudes are outdated and outmoded? Sure the films depiction of Hmong people could have perhaps been better - a little less idealised but this is a film which at least attempts to show real life issues in a way which captures us as an audience and doesn't PREACH the way people like you do!!!

Lindsay C said...

I understand a review is supposed to be an opinion, but in the future it would be much more enjoyable to read your reviews if you were more aware of how your opinion comes off as if you think you are the worlds greatest film critic. Maybe you are not rereading your work, maybe you are not taking enough time to really consider your points, but whatever it is, it is hard to take seriously. I am not saying you are wrong in what you are saying, but your tone is not enjoyable as a reader.

Jason Bellamy said...

Lindsay: I can't tell if your comment is based on this single review or several of them. Either way, fair enough.

Anonymous said...

Why is nigger in quotes?