Tag Archives: Unforgiven

Author Interview: Sara Vaux

Due out before the end of the year from Eerdman’s Press is The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood, a major new book on the iconic actor/director with a strong emphasis on his recent work. The book’s author, Sara Vaux, has taught courses on religion, literature and film at the University of Chicago, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, North Park Seminary and, since 1998, Northwestern University where she has graciously hosted me as an occasional guest lecturer. As her pedigree suggests, Vaux, who also authored Finding Meaning at the Movies (Abingdon, 1999), writes about cinema from a serious ethical perspective but in a style that is always as entertaining as it is illuminating.

Eastwood has in my opinion found his ideal critic in Vaux, whose incisive new book should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in the man.

MGS: Your book takes a refreshingly original approach to Eastwood in that you consider him as someone deeply engaged with moral and spiritual issues. Did you always view him this way and, if not, how has your view of him as both actor and filmmaker evolved?

SV: Until I saw Unforgiven when it first appeared in theatres, I only knew Eastwood through snatches of movies I caught while my boys were watching them on TV. The first one I remember is Firefox. When I commented upon the dark screen and the strange persona of the protagonist played by Eastwood, I received a long lecture from my sons about the actor’s contributions to the mythology of the American (male) hero. With Unforgiven, I realized that as a director (and as an actor who plays it low), Eastwood was a sage cultural analyst who was not afraid to challenge myths of a “pure” west for “just” conquerors. He also is not afraid to expose the devastations that ecological disasters and economic greed have visited upon men, women, and children.

MGS: There have been more and more books written about Eastwood in recent years and I know you’ve read them all. What does your book bring to the table that the others might not? Why should an Eastwood fan pick up your book?

SV: Apart from Christopher Frayling, Laurence Knapp, and Kent Jones, American Eastwood analysts have focused largely upon his depiction of the American male, his private life, or the plots of his many movies. French critics, with a broad film background that includes classical American cinema (including westerns), approach his best films from a philosophical and humanistic as well as a cinematic perspective. Michael Henry Wilson’s astute interviews, Noel Simsolo’s art-centered approach, and recently, essays in the French journal NUNC that look at Eastwood as deeply invested in the social, political, and ethical health of American society grasp the foundational agenda of a serious director. My book offers an up-to-date analysis of Eastwood’s most probing movies (although when I finished it, Hereafter was not yet available for study) from an ethical and “religious” perspective little encountered by American audiences.

MGS: One could say that you take the ultimate auteurist approach to Eastwood because you are essentially claiming that his body of work is highly unified even though he’s never had a hand in writing scripts and is notorious for shooting his screenplays without rewrites. What do you see as the essential components unifying Eastwood’s diverse body of work in terms of both form and content?

SV: Every one of the movies I dissect (including the ones included in the chapter on “The Meal”) engages with the social fabric of American society: the (false) myths of cultural superiority that permeate a large portion of Hollywood movies; the marginalization of increasing numbers of non-white, non-rich persons; the moral dilemmas in which everyday people find themselves; and strong storytelling. Eastwood movies use darkness and light to create their emerging meanings—soft darkness for affection; hard darkness or bright light for evil. The stories often unfold at a deliberate pace; the director includes sequences that deepen the human dimension of a character rather than editing to emphasize a character with broad strokes or move the movie along at a breakneck pace. His use of music (particularly his own—think of Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby) subtly creates a meditative mood. I love all of his scores except for the ending of Invictus!

MGS: One of the most compelling aspects of your book is the discussion of the “angel of death” character in Eastwood’s movies, a figure that perhaps finds its most pessimistic expression in Mystic River‘s Jimmy Markum. You show how this character has evolved over the last decade – from Million Dollar Baby‘s Frankie Dunn, who becomes an angel of death but out of love and mercy, to Gran Torino‘s Walt Kowalski, who has the opportunity to become this type of figure but refuses to do so. Do you think it is significant that the “angel of death” has been absent in the post-Gran Torino films?

SV: The Angel of Death, a trope present in any religious or literary system that privileges a “hero” figure, is demolished entirely in Invictus. The hero’s strength arises from his complete transformation from guerrilla fighter into wily spiritual/political figure who appeals to his allies’ and his enemies’ best selves. Great story choice by Eastwood: the “great American hero” with blazing guns attacks the defenders of “God-given white superiority over the land” not by weapons but by the strength of love and non-violence. He’s Walt Kowalski’s reborn sacrificial figure who does not have to die to redeem the community. In Changeling, the spectator longs for Christine’s rescue. True, the fire-breathing preacher does mobilize a rescue team to spring her from the psychiatric hospital, but he himself is an ambiguous figure, and the problems the movie exposes—social corruption and even deeper, the presence of pure evil—transcend narrative resolution.

As for Hereafter, it thoroughly engages evil in many forms through three specific story lines. Transformation, not revenge, lies at the heart of each story trajectory. Whereas I think Eastwood has been influenced by Dickens for decades, this is the first time he’s brought the author’s overarching conversion narrative to the fore.

Let me qualify all of my sweeping terms (evil; hero; conversion) by noting that Eastwood the director stays close to his individual characters—their mystifying, specific, human sufferings and joys. Bridges of Madison County and A Perfect World may offer the best examples of funny, loving, tragic movies full of rich anecdotes. I wish I had time to analyze these (and Honkytonk Man and Bronco Billy) more fully in the book.

MGS: Also speaking of the recent films, from Mystic River through Letters from Iwo Jima it seemed like Eastwood could do no wrong as far as critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were concerned. By contrast, the last four movies have been met with indifference or damned with faint praise. To what do you attribute this change?

SV: So sad to see critics’ misunderstandings of powerful storytelling. The films’ reputation is growing among cinephiles in Europe—I have not read Japanese criticism yet. Curiously, too, as I travel around, I’ve spoken with dozens of French and American cinema-lovers who had seen Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, or Hereafter on DVD and found them deeply moving, even brilliant.

What can I say about critics who may only watch the beginning of a movie and assume that’s the whole tale? Or who are moving on to consider the next best thing? In addition, if you’re looking for a Spaghetti Western or Dirty Harry, you won’t comprehend any of the four recent movies.

MGS: A lot of the readers of this blog are students who are probably more familiar with Eastwood as an actor than as a director. What movies would you recommend they watch in order to deepen their appreciation of his filmmaking artistry?

SV: Unforgiven first. The Outlaw Josey Wales. Million Dollar Baby. Gran Torino. Letters From Iwo Jima. Changeling. A Perfect World (my students’ favorite). I love them all!

MGS: Hey Sara, what’s your favorite Clint Eastwood movie?

SV: Unforgiven…..then Bird and Invictus.

The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood can be pre-ordered from amazon.com here.


Deserve’s Got Nothing to Do With It

This Sunday night I will, as is my custom, watch the Academy Awards ceremony live on television. This is a ritual that some of my more serious-minded cinephile friends don’t understand. The Oscars, I tell them, are a night of good trashy fun, which is more than what I feel most Hollywood movies these days are capable of providing. And the Oscars do have a long and colorful history, stretching all the way back to 1927, which makes them more meaningful and interesting than any other awards show. The winners, of course, are chosen more for political reasons than anything else; for instance, if Annette Bening wins Best Actress for The Kids Are All Right, as some pundits are predicting, it will be less for her fine performance (the best thing about that overrated film) than because she’s been nominated several times before and hasn’t yet won. As Clint Eastwood said in the multiple Oscar-winning Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

But while I don’t believe the Oscars represent any legitimate measure of artistic validation for the winners (have you seen Cimarron lately? Or for that matter Dances with Wolves?), there have been rare occasions when the Best Picture winners truly were the best American films released during a given calendar year. It has become common for movie buffs to make lists of “alternative Oscars” – titles frequently trotted out include such perennial hindsight favorites as Sunrise (1927), City Lights (1931), Citizen Kane (1941), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Searchers (1956), Vertigo (1958), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Goodfellas (1990). It is less common to hear discussion about how Oscar sometimes gets it right. So below is a list of what I consider the top ten best Best Picture winners. In other words, these are films that I believe really did deserve the honor:

10. All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930)

He may have wound down his career by indifferently presiding over Rat Pack vehicles but Lewis Milestone also made two of the best American movies of the early sound era – the Al Jolson-starring musical Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and this powerful anti-war film based on the celebrated novel by Erich Maria Remarque. The battle scenes are astonishing, even by today’s standards, and the movie’s final symbolic image (a soldier cut down by sniper fire while reaching out to touch a butterfly) captures the futility of war better than most entire war films.

9. The Apartment (Wilder, 1960)

Billy Wilder’s last great movie is this acerbic comedy about a lowly office worker who unexpectedly finds himself climbing the corporate ladder after letting his superiors use his apartment to conduct their extramarital affairs. The witty screenplay, courtesy of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, is chockfull of memorable lines, which are delivered by a pitch-perfect cast including Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. “Shut up and deal.”

8. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga is the rarest of feats, a great work of art that is also a cultural phenomenon. Transcending the pulp novel on which it’s based (and which Coppola was initially ashamed to adapt), every aspect of this movie is the stuff of legend: iconic performances by a heavyweight cast of Method actors, hauntingly beautiful Nina Rota score, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ innovative use of “Rembrandt lighting,” and a plot that achieves the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. A lot of people prefer the sequel but not me.

7. An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951)

Some of the greatest tunes from the Gershwin songbook are strung together to form the backbone of this original MGM movie musical, one of the high water marks of the entire genre; Gene Kelly is the titular character, an American expatriate painter caught between the wealthy, older benefactress who loves him and the young ingenue with whom he is smitten. Vincente Minnelli’s direction is a model of colorful, expressive, intelligent mise-en-scene, nowhere more apparent than in the justifiably famous ballet sequence climax. The dancing of course is phenomenal.

6. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

5. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 1950)

Writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz crafted the ultimate backstabbing, backstage drama with this tale of the rivalry between aging Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis in her finest performance) and devious young upstart Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). As with The Apartment, the real star here is the razor-sharp wit of Mankiewicz’s brilliant screenplay, one of the greatest ever written: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

4. Going My Way (McCarey, 1944)

Sentimental without being mawkish, this beautiful film tells the story of a youthful, liberal priest, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), who is transferred to an inner-city parish where his methods conflict with those of curmudgeonly Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). Directed with a deft touch by the great Leo McCarey, who proves that Bing Crosby, a million miles away from the persona of his Road pictures, really could act. And if the scene where Fitzgibbon is reunited with his old Irish mother doesn’t make you cry, then I don’t want to know you.

3. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.


Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

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22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

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21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

ToSleepwithAnger

19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

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17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

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Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

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7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

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Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.


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