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The Eastwood Pass

"You're giving him a pass because he's..." "Oh I hate it when X gets a pass from the critics." You've read, or heard, complaints such as this before. Indeed, in this era of enhanced noise-making capabilities and meta-criticism, the disdain of the ostensible critical pass—that is, making allowances for, or going a little easy on, a particular work by a particular director just because you're a fan of that director's prior work—and its concommitant implication of bad critical faith,has become increasingly and dispiritingly common, with even reliably astute critics such as A.O. Scott resorting to it (in his notice on Scorsese's Shutter Island). My friend Joshua Rothkopf's pan of the latest Jacques Rivette film is almost entirely predicated on the don't-trust-those-pernicious-auteurists-who-are-giving-a-pass-to-this-now-feeble-old-master idea. Which gains a new and weird dimension if you follow the gossip on certain esoteric websites and message boards, which spreads the scuttlebutt that this old master is in such poor condition that he in fact did not even direct most of his latest film, and that much of the work on the ground was done by one of Rivette's longtime scenarists, Pascal Bonitzer. "Where's your auteurist credibility now?" one hears in the back of one's mind, drawled in the most Robinsonesque tones of disdain.

And of course the retrospective of films directed by Clint Eastwood currently unspooling at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater brings to mind the counterreactions to the positive reviews of last winter's Invictus, and other Eastwood-directed films of recent years; that certain critics, so thoroughly enamored of Eastwood—not just Eastwood the director, but Eastwood the man, the myth, the legend—are just so thoroughly enamored that they'll ignore his films' many, many, many shortcomings. To this accusation I can only personally respond: Okay, you caught me. Red handed, and dead to rights.

Of course, I do have some qualifications to offer. Followed by justifications. First off, I am not blind to the flaws in Eastwood's films; or, if I am, it's a willful blindness, or a willful suspension of what I'll call, for the nonce, judgment. And, of course, my ideas of the flaws in Eastwood's films may be different from yours. I do not believe, for instance, that 1971's Play Misty For Me is an ideological construction of deplorable misogyny, but I do object to Eastwood's use of the zoom lens in some of the picture's more intense scenes (and example of a resolution of such a shot is the illustration for this article). On the other hand, the homosexual villain portrayed by Jack Cassidy in 1975's The Eiger Sanction is a distasteful and hateful caricature, only slightly ameliorated by the ridiculous relish with which Cassidy attacks the role. I have no idea why Eastwood cast Warren Clarke, who everybody knew as "Dim" from A Clockwork Orange, to play a Soviet in Firefox (1982). Maybe 'cause Nadsat is derived from Russian? That John Huston impersonation in White Hunter, Black Heart is a little forced. And don't even bring up the monkey movies; Lincoln Center isn't. More seriously, yes, those who get on Million Dollar Baby's case for having its entire scenario play out in a terrifically implausible media vacuum, but on the other hand, as John Wayne didn't say in Stagecoach, there are some things that a man has to run away from, and Eastwood knew that he could not have contrived the heart-stopping moment he engineered for the film's climax had he enabled Hilary Swank's character to Google "macushla."

So no, his films are not without flaws, and I imagine I could enumerate them all day. But I still take him very seriously as a director. (I'm reminded, if I may, of a funny story; around spring 1981, standing outside Cinema Village, waiting to go into a rep screening of The Shining and The Killing ["a very instructive double bill," one patron commented while exiting] with some friends and listening to a couple of eager cinema beavers discussing Eastwood's directorial career and making a remark about Eastwood only finding his "water level" as a director with The Outlaw Josey Wales or  some such. One of my friends drolly imagined recasting that scene out of Annie Hall with Eastwood, in his Dirty Harry persona, appearing from behind the line and drawing a bead on one of these guys with his Magnum, and saying "What do you know about my filmmaking...punk?"...Maybe you hadda be there...) And it is largely because I enjoy his directorial, or some might say storytelling, "company." Which might be another way of saying that one enjoys his "personality," as it were? Is, in fact, Eastwood the director I would most like to have a beer with, if I still drank beer, and is that a sufficient critical defense?

Maybe. But I can also cite some textual defenses. I esteem Eastwood as a director as much for what he doesn't do as for what he does do. A good example for me is the identification-of-the-body scene early on in 2003's Mystic River. The wrenching moment when Sean Penn's neighborhood badass kingpin has to face up to the fact that the daughter he was supposed to be able to protect has fallen prey to a deranged murderer. You know how this scene would have gone in any number of Hollywood iterations of it: a low-angle shot of Penn's character walking through the corridor of the hospital in slow-motion, haloed by the flourescent lights, followed shortly thereafter by a shot of him screaming "Nooooooo!!!" also in slow-motion, maybe with the sound dropping out and all, just so the audience could get a good look at Penn's intense face...

But Eastwood plays the scene absolutely straight, almost to the point of banality, standard camera setups, no slow or stuttered motion, and it's the quiet of it, the eerie matter-of-factness, that makes it so wrenching. One might say that as a director he has very conventional ways of being unconventional. Or you could just say that when it counts the most, Eastwood gives it to you straight. In a piece originally published in Positif, later reprinted in the invaluable Projections 8 1/2, Eastwood waxes slightly peevish about In The Line Of Fire director Wolfgang Petersen, recalling how thrown off the director was by having to rearrange an Eastwood entrance so that a bruise on the side of Eastwood's head wouldn't be visible in the shot. Petersen had the shot arranges just so, and re-imagining it was rather arduous for him. Had Eastwood's old mentor Don Siegel been behind the camera, Eastwood argued, the problem would have been fixed within a few minutes. I recalled this while recently watching Eastwood's underrated 1997 thriller Absolute Power, particularly the opening scenes, in which Eastwood's character, an aging cat burglar, inadvertently becomes witness to a homicide involving the President of the United States. Almost entirely dialogue-free, it's very simple champ-contrechamp stuff (sorry, the French really does sound better than "shot/reverse shot"), but almost breathtaking in its directness. Yes, maybe it is a little highfalutin to call Eastwood the last serious man in Hollywood, or the last classicist. But it's not too far to go to say at his best, Eastwood simply does not do cinematic bullshit. (And no, he's not always at his best, and yes, Jeffrey Donovan's tooth-sucking baddie in Changeling does skate pretty close to the BS border...)

As for his last release, Invictus, whose box-office failure gave its detractors a nice unearned smug chuckle, here too is a pertinent example of Eastwood benignly confounding audience expectations. Rather than a triumph-of-the-human-spirit "sports" movie, the director serves up a narrative about practical/pragmatic politics and the iconography/semiotics of sports and its relation to national/nationalistic pride and/or fellow feeling, and is overall so smart about it that its occasional lapses into sentimentality (the Robben Island scene), which would not seem entirely egregious in the more expected version of this film, come off as a bit sloppy and ill-advised. As long as Eastwood continues to disarm in this particular way, applying a scrupulous, searching but never ostentatious intelligence to whatever theme that's piqued his interest, he will have his pass with me. So there. And now, my question for the detractors: Would you be so inclined to call him "sloppy" or "indifferent" if you were in fact completely unaware of the brisk efficiency of his working methods? And if so, what textual evidence would you cite in that case?

***

"The Complete Clint Eastwood" runs through July 27 at New York's Walter Reade Theater.

If, in fact, Rivette is directing by proxy, couldn’t that be seen as greater evidence of his auteur status? You’re right about that scene in “Mystic River” (one of Eastwood’s most ham-handed, in my opinion). But it has to be subdued because the “Noooooooo!!!” scene happens with the discovery of the body, and Eastwood and Penn throw everything they have at it, including a crane shot. There’s just no place left for the movie or Sean Penn’s performance to go from the “IS ZAT MY DAUGHTA IN DERE!?!?!?” x 27 breakdown/blowup.
When you praise Mystic River for its restraint, you do mean the same movie that featured Penn screaming “is that my daughter in there” followed by a slow pan to the trees and a blast of Portentous Music as the tree-limbs blow in the wind? Personal taste and all, but geez, I’ll happily take sound dropping out over that faux-Williams heavy score nonsense. I’m baffled as to why Eastwood is praised for his restraint when he’s making these incredibly leaden, manipulative melodramas, heavy on narrative coincidence and no-interpretation-allowed music. As for whether I’d call him sloppy without knowledge of his working methods: No, I would never call him that. Just boring, impersonal, and painfully unwilling to trust the viewer’s intelligence. I don’t mind being manipulated, but I hate being bullied, and Eastwood never made a movie that let me come to my own conclusions. Plus, I’ve never forgiven Mystic River for blowing whatever good will it built up with that incredibly stupid “Oh no, Tim Robbins killed a totally different child molester who just happened to be around on the same night!”
Shoot—-hadn’t seen Emerson’s comment, or I wouldn’t have been so redundant. Sorry!
“My friend Joshua Rothkopf’s pan of the latest Jacques Rivette film is almost entirely predicated on the don’t-trust-those-pernicious-auteurists-who-are-giving-a-pass-to-this-now-feeble-old-master idea. Which gains a new and weird dimension if you follow the gossip on certain esoteric websites and message boards, which spreads the scuttlebutt that this old master is in such poor condition that he in fact did not even direct most of his latest film, and that much of the work on the ground was done by one of Rivette’s longtime scenarists, Pascal Bonitzer. “Where’s your auteurist credibility now?” one hears in the back of one’s mind, drawled in the most Robinsonesque tones of disdain."
Rivette, of course, doesn’t forget about the monkey movies: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/16/rivette.html (Sorry if I spelled out a joke you were keeping subtle, Glenn.)
“Changeling” by Clint Eastwood turns my stomach. I can understand repulsion as a means of art, but the film is ridiculous. Talk about stereotypes, there is not one redeemable male character in the whole film. Even the one or two on her side are seen as weak and helpless. Every man is bad bad bad and I’m sorry a misandrist picture is just as “un” entertaining as a misogynist film. You can’t even enjoy the victory at the end when everything goes all happily ever after. You have seen too much and there is no pay off and it takes what can only be described as a “How stupid people were back then” approach to story telling. It’s sick how the cinematography is so perfect and the music is so great. The film makes you think all that work was wasted and the production should have gone to a better script. “Changeling” should be shot out of a cannon into the Sierra mountains. It was two hours of my life I wish I could get back. I never watched “Million Dollar Baby” and I will tell you why. I watched the first five seconds of the trailer and I said aloud to my mom “Woman boxer? She probably wants to be a boxer and someone makes it hard for her. When she starts boxing she probably gets in over her head and she gets put on life support and then the old dude pulls the plug.” My jaw dropped to the floor at the end of the trailer. My jaw stayed there when I heard there was an Oscar nod. I about had an aneurism when the sorry thing won. “The Aviator” should have won as it was probably one of Martin Scorsese’s best if only because it proved Marty could go outside of his usual violent street or De Niro films and pull out a convincing biopic beyond his style and for the lack of better word did not “suck.” I didn’t give the movie a chance simply because it was a tired tale and I wasn’t going to be sucked in just because it was Eastwood behind the camera. You need more than a history to pull me in and you damn well better be showing me something worth showing someone else. There is a disconnect that I have started to notice. The old guys won’t give the young guys a chance. I mean Spielberg and Scorsese were not always the top masters in the world you know. Coppola has always maintained a certain amount of respect for the up and coming acts and maybe its because he remembers his glory days with Corman. What have we got left but surrogate assistant directors that direct Spielberg films when Spielberg is busy and Christopher Nolan? There simply aren’t many younger “dudes.” Rodriguez and Tarantino have been getting drunk spending way too much time with each other and Tarantino films are starting to look more like Rodriguez films. If you ask me and no one is. I’d kill for a David Lynch movie right now. If you have two brain cells and pay attention to the movie without any distractions you can get the gist of what is going on and you know there is a certain amount of thought and care in each frame that makes it wholly unique and like Kubrick, Lynch doesn’t pull out a cruddy blockbuster flick constantly just to keep up his production company as if anyone really cared about another Amblin logo on a two season TV show that could have been produced for the Sci Fi channel via a first rate Canadian studio. Even if you argue Lynch doesn’t make any sense well give me the surreal and idiosyncratic world of a madman than the continious stream of familliar garbage from the mainstream. Give me “The Exterminating Angel” and “Sling Blade” or give me death! Don’t worry. I’m not completely deluded. I know Lynch’s “Dune” was shit.
Mac
Three cheers for mediocrity!
I wouldn’t say Gran Torino or Letters from Iwo Jima are mediocre at all.
I loved Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima, and Gran Torino. Each movie touched me, and my family members, in different ways.
If great critics like Olaf Moller, Christoph Huber, and Kent Jones can write intelligently about and get behind Eastwood, then there is something of value there. He’s never been to everyone’s tastes, but it seems like a lot of the negative criticism floating about is more a result of critics not understanding what Eastwood is doing in the first place. Of course, I’d rather read something substantial (be it positive or negative) rather than something like “three cheers for mediocrity”, the most banal example of criticism: the sound byte.
@That Fuzzy Bastard: From your first comment, you do know that Tim Robbins killed the ONLY child molester going around that night that we know about, right? Because Sean Penn’s daughter was killed by a couple of teenage boys who were jealous of her. So is it really THAT coincidental that both these things happened on the same night? Pretty coincidental, sure, but no more weird than things that happen every day.
awful… Fassbinder did one or two takes and his work borders if not enters into sheer brilliance… Eastwood just came up in the too-cool-for-school film world and is squeezing the lemon to an uninteresting and saccharine pulp

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