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.