Thursday, January 15, 2009

More Gran Torino

Let’s talk for just a moment about the Catholic priest in Gran Torino and his relation to Walt and the function of that relation in the movie. For just a moment, because I don’t think it’s worth more than a moment’s discussion.

The priest is a young man, just out of seminary; Janovich is his name. Walt calls him an overeducated virgin. He tells him he knows nothing of life and death, after Janovich tries to instruct Walt on life and death. And Walt is largely right. The Janovich character knows very little.

He does redeem himself, however. He has made a promise to Walt’s dying wife that he will somehow get Walt to confess his sins to him, and Walt hasn’t been to church in decades. He doesn’t have any use for it. Or for confession. So Janovich, in order to have any hope at all of fulfilling his promise, must engage with Walt. He must humble himself to Walt and listen to Walt’s abuse. He must earn Walt’s trust and confidence or at least attempt to do so.

Janovich redeems himself by being willing to learn from Walt. By his persistence in pressing himself upon Walt, even in the face of significant abuse. By his tacit admission that Walt can teach him something.

So Janovich becomes an echo, to some extent, of Thao. He serves as Walt’s apprentice also. Walt helps him understand something about the terror and horror of war and of killing in war and about how killing stays with you. This torment is something that confession will not touch. That preaching about forgiveness is likely not going to touch.

And Walt teaches Janovich something about love. About what real love looks like. A man possessing real love doesn’t stand ineffectually by while those he loves are tormented. A real lover looks for effectiveness. Looks to take action that is effective, that will protect his loved ones.

And of course this is what Walt does. Eastwood’s acting is very good. We can almost see the chained syllogisms locking Walt’s action into place. The Hmong gang will be expecting Walt and Thao. They’ll be ready for them. An assault will not be effective. Walt and/or Thao will be stopped, killed most probably, without achieving the objective—the complete elimination of the gang and the opening of freedom and possibility to Thao and Sue.

Walt is old. He has an ailment that will take his life in the foreseeable future—he repeatedly coughs up blood. His life is coming to an end, anyway. How can he achieve his purpose? Giving his life isn’t all that big a deal, if he can achieve this one thing.

Janovich doesn’t teach Walt. Walt teaches him. Because Walt cares about Janovich, he confesses to him. He enables Janovich to clear his conscience. The confession to Janovich means nothing to Walt spiritually, except that by doing it, he is able to lighten Janovich’s conscience. Enable him to fulfill his promise to Walt’s dying wife.

Janovich doesn’t bring spiritual truth to Walt. Walt brings spiritual truth to Janovich. Walt shows him what real love for his neighbors looks like. Real love isn’t sophomoric eulogies. Real love is real sacrifice for others. Real love is effective action in the world.

And so the theology that this movie preaches is the theology of the supernatural God naturally inhabiting natural man. The idea here is that Walt follows his heart, no matter how foul-mouthed and growly he is. From the beginning of the film, when he helps jumpstart a Hmong’s vehicle, until he lies dead in front of the Hmong gang’s house. And his heart is the more reliable source of spiritual truth than Janovich is. The idea here is that the love that is in Walt’s heart—if left to its own devices—is capable of changing the world.

But as I say. This is all tangential. This relation between Walt and Janovich. Oh, for us bashers of the priestly class it offers a vicarious thrill or two. And it does make some theological and spiritual claims that otherwise would not be there. But this is another subject. This is another matter, really, for another film.

I’ve heard that Eastwood isn’t going to make any more films. It will be sad if that turns out to be true. He has given us some first rate ones in the last decade or so. He has given us stories of what it looks like for a man to live out his love, no matter what, which is of course what we’re all looking for.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Gran Torino

Yuckko-bluckey! I feel like this blog is turning into a movie review column. If so, it’s happening on its own. Completely on its own volition. I have no interest in being a movie reviewer. In fact, I have little interest in the popular imagination, of which movies are, along with music, almost the heart and soul. Ugggh! I have touched pitch, and I am defiled.

But I suppose what makes the pitch tolerable. What makes me come back to this piney woods with my little tree saw over and over. Is that these stories. Stories presented in movies. Just like any stories, but these for the masses. Tell us what is important about ourselves, who we are, where we fit in the scheme of things, what a good life and a not so good life look like, how we might fall short and do better, what right and wrong relation to others looks like, what human purpose and meaning look like, whether there is a god or not, what our relation to God looks like, assuming there is a god, and so on.

And so I come to Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s latest film. A 2008 release. Which helps us understand something about Walt, the main character, a retired Ford assembly plant worker. A man who growls routinely at his children, his grandchildren, and the world, at the world his Detroit neighborhood has turned into, as it has been occupied by the Hmong, a people who have immigrated to the U.S. from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, following the Vietnam war, escaping the communists who liked murdering them for helping the Americans.

The movie opens in grief, at a funeral for Walt’s wife who has just died. A funeral at which his grandchildren dishonor him and his wife. A funeral at which a shallow eulogy is preached, and Walt’s sons attend because they must. Not because of love for their father or their mother.

The movie is often funny because Walt is funny. His sour, mean-spirited demeanor is out of proportion. He is really much more tender-hearted than he’d like others to believe.

The progress of the movie moves along three lines, really. The discovery on our part of the depth of Walt’s sons’ and their families’ selfishness and self-centeredness. The discovery on Walt’s part of the humanity of the Hmong people living around him, and his progressive involvement in the lives of two of them—Thao, a teenage boy, and his sister, Sue, a single young woman—who live next door to Walt with their grandmother. And Walt’s discovery of the possibility of undoing, in a sense, two wrongs he has committed—the unnecessary killing of a young North Korean soldier in the Korean War, and the withholding of his affection from his two sons as they were growing up.

This latter movement or theme—the possibility of redeeming one’s past misdeeds through right relation and right action in the present—gets worked out in his relationship with Thao and Sue, two young people who find themselves put upon, bullied, and tormented by a Hmong gang that terrorizes the neighborhood. Walt steps in to protect them by a mistake at first—by protecting his property rights against the gang.

But this quickly moves into his functioning as a mentor or grandfather-like figure to Thao, showing him how to perform domestic maintenance, instructing him (as best he can) in what it means to be a man, and getting Thao his first job through a friend in the construction business. He helps Thao learn and adopt manly responsibilities, as Sue instructs Walt in what it means to be a member of the Hmong community.

Soon, Walt is integrated into the life of his community again. His new community of Hmong people. So as the movie progresses, we see Walt show the love toward Thao that he seems to have withheld from his sons and that his grandsons and granddaughter clearly do not deserve or welcome. We see him nurture an Asian teenager, in contrast to his daily memory of killing an Asian teenager in the Korean war.

Then of course, there is the 1972 Gran Torino, on which Walt personally installed the steering column and which he keeps carefully garaged and waxed, only to be driven on special occasions. It is the emblem to Walt of what has been good in his life and the good of his work. Thao enters into Walt’s life through his attempt to steal Walt’s Gran Torino as a forced initiation into the Hmong gang that has made Thao’s life difficult. And it is because of this mistake, this sin of attempted theft, that Thao and Walt begin their relationship. It is to make amends that Thao begins an apprenticeship to Walt and is able to move forward successfully toward manhood.

Just as Thao is subordinated to Walt, so is Walt subordinated, in a sense, to Thao and Sue. He becomes their protector, with his Army-issue M1 rifle and his .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol. Their aged soldier. And as the Hmong gang continues to escalate their bullying of Thao and Sue, so does Walt escalate the threat of violence and then actual violence toward the gang.

Finally, after the gang shoots up Thao’s and Sue’s house, wounding Thao, and after the gang rapes Sue, Walt understands what must be done. He understands that, short of moving away, Thao and Sue will continue to be victims of the Hmong gang. Thao may be coerced into becoming a member of the gang after all. Sue may never be allowed to move on with her life. She will always be sexually threatened.

Something must be done. The gang must somehow be eliminated. Must somehow be eradicated. Excised.

At this point, the movie shifts into overdrive. It moves from humorous comedy, interspersed with the threat of death and destruction, into high, humorless comedy, with redeeming death at its center. The Hmong gang must be dealt with. They must be dealt with effectively. So Walt confronts them in such a way that he is killed and they are arrested, to be imprisoned long enough to enable Thao and Sue to grow up and move on into adulthood.

So the progress of the movie is from bigotry to altruism, from hatred to love, from alienation to integration and affirmation. From isolation and death to the reaffirmation of life. From sin to redemption. Polish Walt—the offspring of immigrants—saves the children of other immigrants. And he leaves to Thao, his adopted grandson, his Gran Torino, the symbol to Walt of all that has been good in his life here, in the land of the free. In America.

So what we rediscover here is that love entails sacrifice. Sometimes it requires death to be fully lived out. The death of the lover himself. So that those he loves may live and may do so freely. May do so fully.

It is fitting that this movie take place in Detroit. And that Walt is a retired autoworker. The subtext here is the open road. It is freedom from oppression. It is freedom from tyranny. It is freedom to love. And the automobile is the emblem of this. It can take us wherever our heart leads us. And Walt’s Gran Torino will take Thao into the heart of adulthood, into the possibility of love, however delightful and dangerous and possibly fatal this will be.

I like this movie. It has its flaws, but I won’t go into them. Oh, I will say that one of its imperfections is a gratuitous visual effect at Walt’s death. Walt laid out dead from the Hmong gang’s bullets on the ground like Christ nailed to the cross: arms cruciform to the line of trunk and legs. Oh, Clint. We are dumb, but we aren’t that dumb. Please give us a little respect.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Little Miss Sunshine

Have you seen the movie, Little Miss Sunshine? Oh, you should, if you haven’t. Congratulations, if you have. It’s in color. And it’s executed in a modern or post modern sort of an acting style. Cinematic style. Released in 2006. It trades on the idiom of familial ambiguity and brokenness and heterogeneity.

It uses divorce and homosexuality as cultural markers. It is current, in other words. It is not old-fashioned. It is not melodramatic. It may be a bit pedantic. A bit homiletic. But because we are not in church when we watch it—at least most of us aren’t—and there is no churchy idiom pushed, we don’t think of it immediately as Scriptural or religious or Jesusy or anything like that.

Oh, and it isn’t pretentious. It doesn’t seem to puff itself up. It’s quotidian. It feels almost disposable. The subject is modest—a family’s trip to a beauty pageant of sorts—the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant, two states to the left. There’s physical humor and a dirty old man, which both camouflage the homiletics. Both send us in the other direction. So misdirection is also one of its techniques.

It opens on a family assembling for dinner, a dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken and frozen popsicles. The exposition is admirably and economically done in the dialog and the visual effects in the preceding scene and in this one.

Turns out the mother—Sheryl—is overworked, underappreciated, and irritated with her husband—Richard—for not bringing home a paycheck for an extended period of time while he has worked on a self-help manuscript and motivational spiel that are both based on the profound philosophical idea that the world is divided into winners and losers. Further, he has worked out a formula so that anyone who studies his several step program can turn himself or herself into—wonder of wonders—a winner!

At the table also is Sheryl’s homosexual brother, Frank, who considers himself the world’s foremost Proust scholar. The number one expert on Proust. He has just tried to kill himself because the successful rival for Frank’s lover’s affections—the number two Proust scholar in the world, according to Frank—has just received a prestigious award that should have been Frank's. According to Frank.

Then there is Dwayne, Sheryl’s teenage son by a previous marriage, who is reading Nietzsche and who hasn’t spoken for seven or eight months because he hates his family and wants to be an Air Force fighter pilot. He will not speak until he has achieved a significant milestone in becoming an Air Force fighter pilot.

Then there is Edwin, Richard’s foul-mouthed father, who has just been kicked out of an old folks home for irremediably snorting heroin. And finally there is Olive, Sheryl’s and Richard’s (approximately) eight year old daughter, who is a bit on the wide side and wears glasses that make her look a like a midget clown. And who has just found out that she has won a spot in the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant to be held shortly in California, two states to the left.

The family reluctantly piles into a decrepit Volkswagen minibus, the sort of vehicle that was popular back in the late 1960s (and that is, itself, almost familial to many of us in the vicinity of 60) and that shortly develops a clutch problem that requires just about everyone to push the vehicle to get it going. Everyone is irritated with everyone else, except Olive, who is quite pleased to be on her way to nirvana or heaven or someplace quite close to these, a place of beauty and fame and happiness. But as the trip unfolds, it turns out that everyone, except Olive, falls short of perfection. Edwin falls so far short, that he ends up dead from a heroin overdose.

Through a series of personal growth moments in which everyone, except Olive, comes to terms with his or her own imperfections, this unpretentious American westwarding road trip proves both actual and metaphorical as well as moral and funny. At the beauty pageant itself, perfection is what almost everyone—little girls and parents—is striving for. But Olive’s routine—choreographed and designed by the now dead Edwin—turns out to be more burlesque than perfect. Olive is joined by her family onstage as the audience of parents and the pageant’s organizers and operators makes outraged noises and gestures. It is a lovely and humorous moment.

So this post modern travelog takes the Hoover family from dislike, irritation, judgment, striving, dysfunction, disorder, and unhappiness, to love, acceptance, purpose, order, and joy through several individual discoveries along the way. Each of them discovers that while perfection is not likely, imperfection is infinitely better. Because imperfection of course requires and implies love.

Now this isn’t what I would call great cinematic art. But it is modestly fine. And while. As I say. It is a bit homiletic. It is nevertheless true. It takes us on something of a journey also and discovers something in us that is beyond selfishness, despair, and death. That may actually be the infinite promise of love.

At the end, the family is restored. Right relationship is discovered and established and affirmed. And everyone has a rousing good time thumbing their noses at the stuck-up worshippers of perfection: the little girl contestants with their capped teeth, perfect hair, sprayed on tans, and highly practiced and skilled song and dance routines, along with all of those who are their teachers.

The ending reestablishes God’s own order. God’s own irreverence for the ideas and practices and dysfunctions of the world. The ambitious, achievement-oriented world. It reaffirms God’s own idea. That love—and nothing else—has the capacity to lift us out of our selfishness and our sin and our death. That love vanquishes perfection always.

And so, one might almost think of this loony family as God’s own disciples traveling out to the hinterlands to present the uninformed with the Good News. The Good News of salvation through love. And in fact, at the little “Miss Sunshine Pageant,” at least two people are converted. Or if not converted, they do at least cheer Olive and her family on. Just as we gratefully and thankfully do also.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Getting and Spending

So what can I tell you about. I don’t even know the guy’s name. Let’s call him Cash. Cash Money. I actually know somebody named Cash, and I actually know someone named Money. So putting them together in an amalgam name seems. Oh, I don’t know. Fitting. Fun.

So what can I tell you about Jack’s friend, Cash? Nothing really. No more than I’ve told you already. Did he serve Mammon? Which did he actually worship, God or Mammon? I don’t know. Did he feel impoverished as he went about his life? Crabbed? Miserly? Pained with self-denial? I don’t know. Did he withhold his love from others or did he lavish it upon them? Did he allow or encourage others to love him? I don’t know.

Jack was appalled, once he learned of the man’s wealth. A wealth that was carefully hoarded. Assiduously husbanded. Completely obscured. Jack says we should enjoy our wealth. Oh, not spend it all upon ourselves. But at least spend some of it on ourselves. Enjoy ourselves a little is what he asks. Why not enjoy ourselves as we are serving God? Why not take a little pleasure along the way? Why not spread the wealth a little as we go? Why save everything for the end? It’s almost like Cash was trying to buy his way into heaven.

This is what Jack thinks. These are some of Jack’s questions and concerns. But I don’t know. I do know that the engine of the economy needs fuel. Needs a little fuel from all of us to do its work. To do its life-saving, life-enhancing work. I do know that Greed is a tricky son-of-a-gun. That Greed motivates us much more than we understand. That Greed is used to standing on his head and does some of his best work in that position. That Greed dresses up in an array of costumes. That Greed in fact is almost always found in costume, wearing a mask that makes him look like someone else.

But never mind. Let’s set Cash’s extreme behavior aside for the moment and focus on what getting and spending is. We spend ourselves in getting our money, spend our time, our lives, our effort, our work, our very lives in making this value. We exchange ourselves—our work, the time allocated to us here on earth to do that work—for a value we can, if we wish, transfer to others. We can exchange ourselves and our time on earth for the improvement or the comfort or to relieve the suffering of someone else. Or we can exchange ourselves to purchase goods and services that provide comfort or enhance the value of our own non-work experience.

And this is true whether we purchase goods or services with this value or we merely hand off the value in the form of money to someone else. So getting and spending are sort of the Yin and Yang of the same thing. The left and right hands of the same organism. Or activity. Or dynamic. Or put more precisely or more vaguely or both, perhaps, creating monitory value and spending it are the inflows and outflows of. Of what? Greed? Love? Providence?

We are all economic engines, taking in fuel, putting out work. Putting out work that takes us or someone else somewhere. We are all travelers. We can enable others to travel also. Travel further and perhaps less miserably, more comfortably, than they otherwise would. But what is all this traveling for?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Tower

Where my friend Jack used to work before the flood. The flood that destroyed. Oh. Most of our downtown here. Late last spring. Fifteen thousand put out of their homes. Their homes destroyed. People who could least afford to lose their homes and most of their worldly goods. Hundreds of businesses closed, many forever. Billions in value wiped out in a few days. The flood submerging. Burying. Drowning. Value that took tens of thousands of people decades to create. Canceled in a few days.

The Tower. Where my friend Jack used to work as a janitor. A federally subsidized apartment building where the destitute the old the addicted the lame the blind the diseased and the broken made their home. Where my friend Jack’s friend worked as a janitor also until he died, and it turned out he’d. Oh. Man! The guy rented a room all his life. Never married. Rented a room. In someone else’s house. Saved. Invested. And when he died, he left equities valued then. This was in 2007. At three million dollars. Three million dollars!

Imagine what one could do with three million dollars. How many people one could save. Could rescue from starvation. Disease. Death. In say a country like. Oh. Ethiopia, for example. Three million dollars! A lifetime’s wages minus costs. Minimal costs. The necessary costs. Saved all for God. Gave it to the church. His particular church. To do with as it wished. Their responsibility now. What saving they think best to do with it. With the man’s life savings and investings. The man’s worldly goods. Worldly gettings.

And so what does this mean? It means quite plainly that we can all be an Oskar Schindler. We can all be a George Bailey. We can all save hundreds. Thousands. We can all leave a saving legacy, should we choose to. We all make at the least what a janitor makes—anyone reading this. Have at least a janitor’s capacity to save. An ordinary janitor’s capacity to bring salvation to the world.

The Tower. Home of the poor. The oppressed. The diseased. Generator of wealth! Saving wealth. Redeeming value. For the peoples of the world. The dusty, dirty, diseased of the world.

How extraordinary. How apposite! Poverty generative of wealth. Wealth inherent in service to the poor. A treasure. A literal treasure. Lying everywhere around us here. Everywhere we look. Everywhere we may lay our hands. Here in this field. This field we have inherited. This America!

Friday, January 2, 2009

But of Course

But of course these movies are off-putting. Of course they are in black and white, and this bothers people. Some people want to see movies in color, no matter else. So they discount them. They dismiss them. As though this were a reasonable criticism. As though this were a good reason to discard all this heavy lifting that has been done for us. Why not 3-D, I’d want to know? Why not insist a movie be in 3-D to be acceptable? There is no verisimilitude in 2-D. The world is 3-D, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t we insist for a movie to be engaging and moving and thought-provoking and satisfying and interesting that it be 3-D?

But of course It’s a Wonderful Life is constructed in a different idiom. Using a different idiom. A different set if acting rules and linguistic rules and conventions and currencies and cultural markers. Just as Shakespeare does. I don’t know if you have read much Shakespeare or seen much of it performed, but it takes a lot from us for us to get something substantial out of all that gobbledygook. All that vocabulary difference. That acting convention difference. That culture difference. That stage convention difference. And the idiom difference is an impediment. Yes. So?

But of course It’s a Wonderful Life is a tad melodramatic. But so is. Oh. Macbeth for example. If you will disallow all melodrama and any sense of it, you will have a greatly impoverished understanding of human beings and the simulacra they make.

But of course a different idiom requires something of us. Requires more than rolling out of bed. Any understanding of art requires more than rolling out of bed. Throughout the tradition of any art form, the rules will change. The idiom will change. And what we see exhibited in any art form today will seem modern or contemporary or what have you. And everything else will seem old fashioned. Will seem dated. Quaint. A little silly. To us superior moderns. Or post moderns. Or whatever stinking pseudo-honorific we like to apply to ourselves like a medal this particular month or year or decade.

But of course Schindler’s List is a difficult movie to. Oh. Want to return to. Actually want to see again. Because of all the death. Because of all the evil everywhere. It is hard, just as life is often hard. Just as life is often full of death. Full of evil. But listen here, my dear. Get a little backbone, please. Get a little spine. Get out here with the rest of us in the howling and experience this. Understand this. Live fully in this real life that is always full of death and evil. And expect art to contain this too, because it wants. When it is good. To imitate the full tilt boogie actuality of our lives. And to do so faithfully.

But of course these movies are about extraordinary characters. Characters who are not like us, to the extent they are extraordinary. And that is also off-putting. But after all they emerge from the ordinary stuff. Ordinary flesh and blood. That we emerge from. That veils us also from pure being. From the world of pure spirit. And they put one foot in front of the other much as we do. Listening to their hearts and doing more or less what their hearts cajole them into doing. At least some of the time. In the carefully selected scope of what they are made to be. For us.