Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ode to Clint

There's a place where over educated 27 year old virgins and Hmong (the Hmong is a people group comprising people from China, Laos, and Thailand) gangbangers converge. Where a grumpy recently widowed veteran and an Asian immigrant trade chicken dumplings for tools. It isn't quite common to find a movie that beautifully and almost quite perfectly captures the essence of what it is to be American today. But far beyond that, there's also the beauty in capturing what it means to be human, to empathize, to show tremendous courage, qualities which we are made to believe are fast vanishing from our world. Hence, to visit that bygone era we go to the movies for there we hope to find dramatized the world as it should be or as it could be. Tonight, I went for more than that. I went out of respect for a man who has brought to the silver screen some movies that have changed the way I view motion pictures. I respect actors but I respect directors even more. For they have the responsibility of setting the tone for how the movie comes across. No one has done this more beautifully in the last few years than Clint Eastwood. I know there have been several great directors over the past few years but Mr. Eastwood's movies have had the greatest impact on me. First it was Mystic River, then Letters from Iwo Jima and tonight Gran Torino which arguably is the best movie I have seen in a long while.

I saw Mystic River almost four years after a college professor recommended it. If you haven't seen Mystic River then you perhaps may not understand why I think it's one of the finest movies ever. Set in Boston, the movie begins with three young boys trying to etch their names onto a freshly laid cement side walk. The first two finish without any incidence but as the last young man tries to he is stopped midway. He is abducted, molested and returned back to his neighborhood to fight the demons that never stop tormenting him. The three friends are brought together again by a murder that impacts them all. The acting in Mystic River is phenomenal but so also is Mr. Eastwood's performance as director. The scenes in the movie are woven into a fabric that tells a story that is compelling but also well connected. What's interesting about the movie is its ability to capture the city, weaving elements from the distinct accents to the actual Mystic River that the movie derives its title from. The movie is beautifully made. No scenes are wasted. It is compelling and very engaging, testament to a great director. Interpretation in a city such as Boston is easy, but creating a war movie is a different ball game as can be observed in Letters from Iwo Jima, but Mr. Eastwood pulls it off well.

Letters from Iwo Jima was poignant and very significant. It was significant because at the time we were and still remain a nation at war. War creates two kinds of people; us and them. This war was not any different. As Americans battled Japanese soldiers there was little room to see any common ties, all that existed beyond the front lines was the threat of danger the enemy presented. And just like any other war the goal was to destroy the enemy. The goal remained the same until a young American soldier is captured by a Japanese general. The general spares the life of this young man. However he later dies from the injuries he sustained. When he is searched the Japanese soldier find a letter written to him from his mother and realize that mother is the same in every language. I say this not so much in reference to the word mother but rather to the sentiment this word evokes. The love of a mother is universal and this movie builds on this theme in a subtle manner. It invites the viewers to consider for a second the enemy in a war. It makes the argument that the Iraqi and Afghan soldiers are just as human as Americans. They have mothers, sisters, wives, and cousins. Whether we agree with their cause or not they are fighting in a war to defend their country just like Americans. Mr. Eastwood's ability to show the human side of a war makes Letters from Iwo Jima the best war movie ever made. It's unlike other war movies because it's not just about a bunch or grenades and gun fire. It's about the beauty of being human in an environment where the essence of such is all but thwarted. This is what makes Mr. Eastwood one of the finest directors of our time.

I heard about Gran Torino three days before I saw it. Gran Torino seemed like an unlikely movie to watch on Christmas Day. A more obvious choice would have been some of the light hearted fodder about a dog and his master or an old man who becomes an infant. Set in Detroit, the movie manages to weave together as its themes the failing auto industry, immigration, gangs, friendship, courage, and death. If movie going America wanted a slice of patriotic pie a huge chunk was served by Mr. Eastwood. Scenes of a city on the verge of a breakdown were well woven with personal triumph and tragedy. In the movie, widower Mr. Walt Kowalski forms a friendhip with his young Hmong neighbor after the young man attempts to steal his Gran Torino as part of a gang initiaiton. The robbery is foiled, the Hmong family is humiliated and their young son is forced to work for Mr. Kowalski as his punishment. Mr. Kowalski is constantly irritated by his "Chinese" neighbors and wonders what they are doing in his neighborhood. It's ironical that Walt cannot stand his annoying neighbors forgetting that the name Kowalski doesn't hint at Irish or English ancestry. However, a few dumplings and beers later Mr. Kowalski is willing to let his guard down and show his human side. He mentors the young Hmong man, Tao and teaches him true courage, the kind that doesn't come from stealing or initiation to a gang. Gran Torino will resound with all Americans in a personal way. For new Americans it details the struggle most immigrant families are all too familiar with. For seasoned Americans - for we truly are all immigrants- its evokes the nostalgia of great American cities. With all the bad press the city of Detroit has suffered, first with Kwame Kilpatrick and then with the auto industry, Gran Torino is patriotism at its best.

Mr. Eastwood's movies have a common thread, they challenge us to embrace our humanity. But also, his movies inspire, evoke memories and importantly are just plain great movies. From Mystic River to Iwo Jima, Flags of our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby and now Gran Torino Mr. Eastwood has served up some of the greatest movies of this decade and has set the tone for what a great movie should aspire to be.

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