April 21, 2010

Gran Torino

An Englishman's home was his castle, for Walt Kowalski (an American) the outer border of his castle is his lawn. He greets any attempt at incursion with a threatening stare and a raised shot gun. Kowalski sits on his front porch every day, can of beer in one hand, and gun lying over his lap supported by the other. An ex-soldier he looks out on a changing world, changing for the worse he thinks. His family are all fat wimps, investment bankers and girls desperate for ipods. His neighbours are gooks and chinks (his language not mine!), all the Americans have moved out of his community. Like a Daily Mail reader with a gun, he sits there scowling at the universe which has moved beyond him. And all the time he feels pestered, in particular by a Catholic priest. His wife told said priest to save his soul, but Walt thinks that with his gun and his beer and his sacred lawn there ain't much soul to save- all that he needs help with is the scars from the wars he served the US in, and those scars are not going to be healed by a priest with all the experiences of a 13 year old straight from seminary. Gran Torino is a story about an image, and that's the image, Walt (played by Clint Eastwood) sitting on his porch, gun in his hand, beer in his hand and watching his Gran Torino and his lawn.

So what happens? The dynamic part in this film is not some liberal dream- Walt doesn't decide he has fallen in love with his neighbours, nor is this a tale of religious redemption. Racial and religious softening do happen though but they happen within Walt's character, not against it. On the first hand, Walt's lawn and Gran Torino are challenged by a group of Asian youths who decide to steal his car, they recruit the unwilling Thao who lives next door. Walt disrupts this activity, takes on the youths, stops Thao stealing his car. He then is asked by Thao's sister Sue whether Thao can become his servant for a month, to expunge the disgrace of the theft. Walt recognises the values of this request and accedes to it, setting Thao to work on his own and then his neighbour's houses as a builder. Slowly a relationship between Thao, Sue and Walt develops: the relationship is built upon Walt's grudging kindness and their willingness to respond. Walt is still a racist- he still calls Sue dragonlady and Thao a gook- but he likes this dragon lady and values this gook. This is a fable about how racism can be overcome and it is not by losing racist attitudes, but by liking through the racist attitudes.

The trajectory of Walt's religious views is similar. Again experience comes to certify that the great lesson of Christianity, to turn the other cheek, is true. Walt begins this film as a pagan war god. When Sue is attacked by some black kids and her white boyfriend can't handle it, there is Walt scowling in the car threatening to shoot the kids' brains out with a very plausible sneer. The gang that persecutes Thao are humiliated once and again by Walt's ability to cow them with a glance and threaten violence they find shockingly plausible. And yet, what Walt does is merely fuel a cycle of violence that comes back. In the age old conflict, Gran Torino is a film in which the men of the long robe victor over the men of the sword: the priest is ultimately right about revenge and the story of the film proves to Walt that this is so. Christianity here is the revolutionary force that it was when it emerged: a creed which advocates non-violence and forgiveness even in the worst circumstances and in that sense the end of Gran Torino is truly Christian.

There is a last set of ideas that the film plays with and those are about masculinity. Throughout the film, Walt plays the role of an assertor of a particular type of masculinity and by the end of the film he has everyone's respect. That masculinity is assertive, hostile and defensive. It is shaped by war. It is both barbaric and heroic. His sons have become true Reagen Americans, softer, concerned with respectability and wealth. Thao's decision between Walt's masculinity and that of the gang that torment the community is an easy one- it is the decision between constructive and unconstructive heroism. The film has two messages about this decision: the first is that Walt's masculinity is the only one that offers Thao a route out of the problems that he confronts. A young boy with an immigrant heritage pestered by gangs needs strength and the ferocity to take those gangs on, he needs bravery and skills. Equally though Walt's masculinity is inadequate: one of the funniest scenes in the film has Walt teaching Thao how men speak to each other, it is a foreign language for Thao and for most men. Ultimately Walt's masculinity is that of the hero, the uncivilised and damaged hero, it is enough to get out of the world of the slum but not neccessarily enough to enter into or create civilisation.

We have three strands- race, religion and masculinity- all coming together into this film. Within each notice the opposition between Walt's protective figure with his beer and his gun and the reality of urban civilisation. The world we have created was created by people like Walt, fought for by people like Walt, but cannot be lived in by people like Walt. The lesson of Gran Torino is ultimately the lesson of There will be blood, the world of Walt is fading, that of religion and liberalism supplants it and the gods of the copybook headings for a while withdraw to their caves.