February 23, 2009


"Get off my lawn!" is the new "Make my day!"--and old is the new cool, thanks to Clint Eastwood in my favorite movie of 2009.

I can't say enough about this movie, but queen of verbosity that I am, you know I will. Since the Sacrament of Confession figures big into "Gran Torino," I'll start with my own confession: I did not know what a "Gran Torino" was. I thought it was like "Casino Royale," a hotel or something. My brother, a mechanic/technician who owns his own shop, is constantly floored (no pun intended) by my gross ignorance of all things "car." (His first word was "car"--"cah" with the Boston accent.) I once ground up the transmission of a convent van (by jamming the car into reverse while going 45 mph) and called him for advice. When he asked me make and model, seriously, all I could tell him was "green." The weird thing about it is I LOVE 70's muscle cars! I used to drool over them when I lived in SoCal. But I can't tell you the first thing about them. OK, am I absolved?

First of all, the trailer makes this movie look soooo serious and it's HYSTERICALLY funny. I could not stop laughing. That take-you-by-surprise, rolling laughter that keeps coming back in waves as the implications sink in of just HOW funny that scene was. It's "My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding" kind of laughs, evenly spaced out, but constant. Not cheap laughs, but tee hees bubbling right up from the characters we are getting to know like the back of our hand. And yet, the film IS mighty grim. Not as grim as the Holocaust, but think "Life Is Beautiful."

Clint's character, Walt, is a Korean War vet (we don't see that too often). This, too, is personal for me. My brother and I are my father's second family. Our half brother, PFC Jere Eugene Burns, went M.I.A. in Korea, October, 1952. He was 23. My brother was born on his birthday and has "Jere" for his middle name. For a long time—which deeply irked my father—it was simply called "the Korean Conflict."

I think Clint is laughing at himself in this film. Yeah, he's cool—even with his old guy, hiked-up-to-his-ribs pants—and scary (he's got a gun and he's not afraid to use it), but more than anything he's a grumpy old curmudgeon in love with his Pabst, his dog and his car, and would like nothing more than to be left the hell alone, thankyouverymuch. But this man runs deep. He's "the greatest generation" America that lives by a code of honor, decency, hard work and valor that makes his consumeristic, shallow son and his family look like caricatures. But he is also troubled, fighting demons of deeds done in war time, deeds that commanding officers did NOT order.

I really don't want to spoil the film, you just have to see and enjoy it, but the film has many complementary themes. Just as in the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call "the American War"), the U.S. was fighting both for, with and against Koreans in the Korean War. So Walt's relationship with Asians is ambivalent. Wouldntcha know, a Hmong family moves in next door. Still don't know who the Hmong people are? (I didn't either.) You'll know by the end of the movie. And you will also know every possible racial epithet for "Asian." But Walt is an equal opportunity racist. No one, not even his Polish and Irish buddies are spared, and the sheer preponderance of his Archie Bunkeresque ethnic slurs makes them downright empty.

"GT" is a kind of urban Western. An ailing senior citizen standing on his porch--as a gang of young thugs ominously drives by--is this depressed Michigan neighborhood's best hope. "GT" could also be called: "How To BECOME a Guy in 10 Days." Again, see the film.

Some of the dialogue was on the nose, and I didn't believe Clint WASN'T mumbling to us when he was mumbling to his dog. But who cares?? This is a brilliant film, and Clint Eastwood (don't you LOVE that name?) has never been so exposed.

Columbia College in Chicago teaches a course on the films of Clint Eastwood. I am now intrigued by this film legend. I used to watch him in movies on TV as a kid—this impossibly good-looking, impossibly slender, impossibly stiff, monotone actor that always looked like he was trying to remember his lines. But he's been trying to tell us something. Now I want to know exactly what. (I didn't understand "The Unforgiven" at all.)

"Gran Torino" proves my theory right. Hollywood has been watching us (the Catholic Church) for a very long time, and chronicling us rather accurately, especially our foibles. Tell me if the young priest in this movie isn't representative of our new priests? I know this guy! Yes, he's fresh-faced, green and idealistic, but he can't help that, and he's not backing down. He knows who he is, and he will roll up his sleeves, get in there and learn. Hooray for Hollywood! Mini-spoiler: Note how Walt, the old man, calls the younger "Father," or "Padre," and the young man calls Walt "son"—because that IS their relationship and they both understand that.

Do the following lines tickle your funnybone? "Don't call me Wally." "Have a nice day." "I gotta go." "Toad, I need your help." Well, your funnybone will be in traction after hearing these lines delivered by Eastwood's growly, raspy Walt. That's genius writing. We're so deep into the character's world by the middle of the movie that we're in on a very funny joke we wouldn't get at all a half an hour earlier.

Many things "came to me" during the film. It's so contemplative. Four things freaked me out: 1) Can you ever LEARN reverence for human life if you never "got it"? 2) Only myself and another woman my age were laughing our fool heads off. 3) Walt's granddaughter was very, very frightening. 4) Almost the entire audience in my packed theater ran out the door at the end, chatting gaily. How could they??

"GT" is a quintessential "nonviolent action" (aka "pacifist") film. Yes, you heard right. The ending is ingenious. Could this be Clint's reparation film for his bloodier fare? Is this a Eureka! film for him? I don't know. I'll have to take the course at Columbia.

Theology of the Body? Yo. Walt understands that a man is to guard and protect. Walt understands that life isn't cheap. Walt tries to make a man out of Thao (as questionable as that whole business is). Walt knew that the love of a good woman was the best thing that ever happened to him. Walt fights for the honor of a woman. Walt lays down his life for his friends. Walt takes upon himself the evil of the world.

P.S. BIG, FAT, CATACLYSMIC SPOILER ALERT!!!! A film reviewer asks: Did Walt commit indirect suicide at the end? I think not, otherwise, we might be able to make the case that Jesus committed suicide.

March 2009 update: This is proving to be Clint's biggest grossing movie overseas. Why? Besides it being a great film, I'm wondering if it isn't in part because how well it expresses the immigrant experience AND how the American Dream seems to be dying (certainly in Detroit, America's fastest "dwindling" city according to recent stats). Mexican immigration has fallen of 48% because "there is no longer an American Dream."


  1. Also, the movie was shot in Detroit, boosting a sadly financially barren wasteland for a bit. Being a native East side Michigander (though from the sticks, not the city), I was impressed by that.

    Another fun fact: Jamie Cullum sang the title song "Gran Torino," which is lovely.

  2. i love michigan! it's our "territory" here in Chicago. i love to see the gritty side of our great country, too.
    loved the song at the end (that wasn't even nominated for AA), but i confess again, i know as much about jamie cullum as i did what a "gran torino" was.