Grand Gran

5 02 2009


The reason Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) has a forest green 1972 Ford Gran Torino under a tarp in his garage, in Eastwood’s stunning Gran Torino, is perhaps easier to understand than to say.  He worked for fifty-one years on the assembly line in Dearborn, and installed the drive shaft in that car.  He has been tinkering with it–and with other mechanical devices–almost obsessively, for a long time, too.  He believes in the American Way, which is to say, the big money that founded the big businesses that kept America dominant during the Korean War and the 1950s but that also underpinned the structure of post-agrarian American society since the late nineteenth century.  That means ingenuity, forthrightness, practicality, emotional reserve, respect for tradition are all central to his–for him–coherent and complete system of beliefs.  He has no time to waste with the frivolities of the Church, though he is a Catholic; or with civility to uintelligible strangers who now inhabit the Detroit neighborhood where he has lived his life; or with being cute to his aggressive and self-centered children and oblivious grandchildren.  Leave Walt alone and he’ll leave you; don’t trespass on his property; don’t treat him like he doesn’t exist; and don’t preach to him about how nice it is to be nice.  He’s not nice, he probably never was particularly nice, he doesn’t value people who are nice, and time is flying.

Walt, in fact, has just buried his wife.  And he has been coughing up blood.  He doesn’t want to go to confession–as the young priest his wife confided in has been urging him to do.  For Walt, the priest is a 2y-year-old virgin who preaches about the beauties of death to old women.

Next door are some Hmong immigrants, some grandparents and teenaged children with a solo mother.  Having fled from persecution in Vietnam, they are trying to make a life in the United States.  The kids speak fluent English, and are trying to grow up.  But they are also being tormented by a street gang, who want to seduce the brother into violence and ultimately rape the sister and shoot up the Hmong house in a drive-by.  This is all fairly conventional fare, with a satisfying liberal ending in which Walt, having slowy and begrudgingly befriended the two kids, finally acts with heroism and courage to save their futures.  The priest comes to learn there is more to life and death than sententiously sermonizing about them.

But none of these quirks of plot come close to conveying the density of feeling and intelligence that Eastwood has injected into all the characterizations and, most especially, his vision of the film’s world.  Racist Walt is imprisoned by his own racism, for example: Thao, the teenaged boy (Bee Vang), goaded by the gang, tries the initiation rite of stealing the Gran Torino but Walt comes at him with a double-barreled shotgun.  The kid flees, and now Walt, aware that his sentimental icon is someone else’s target, must barricade the garage windows and door with steel grilles.  In another scene, he is at first bemused but finally won over by the Vietnamese family’s sumptuous cooking.  He sits in the kitchen, surrounded by delighted old women, chewing on honeyed chicken as though he hasn’t eaten for years.  In yet another scene, as he confronts the priest about justice and mortality while the two chug Budweisers in his living room and he makes plans to avenge the rape of Sue (Ahney Her), Eastwood’s camera shows the character calmly seated next to a wide swath of shadow; but the shadow area in the room has actually not been fully lit at all, so that on film it comes out as a pure and unadulterated black, a black to end blackness, an unearthly blackness, the blackness of The Void.  At this moment, we come to know by seeing, not merely by calculating, that Walt is a man who is living at the edge of mortality, whose every gesture, every feeling, every expression has been a direct address to the truths of limited life, limited time, limited ability.  This old man is actually old–no mere trivial reconstruction of the character from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

At film’s end, Walt gives Thao his precious car.  The American future, this gesture seems to say, is no longer White, no longer middle American, no longer merely urban and industrialist, but, for all that, bright with promise and the same hope for the future that has always made America enviable as a myth, if not a place.  Walt has a foul mouth, and a cluttered consciousness.  He is a Yahoo, and a control freak.  But underneath all this facade we find something far more vital, more endearing, and more crucial:  he knows right from wrong; he understands what it is to respect another person; he cringes in pain, still, from the killing he perpetrated in the Korean War, to such a degree that he seems plagued by ghosts; and he knows that the young must be loved.  More than that, when the chips fall, he is a man who can be counted on to come through with whatever it takes.  If John Wayne comes to mind, it’s because of the inherent dignity and uprightness (often misread as uptightness or conservatism) of his characters’ values.  But Wayne was a reactor, not a thinker as Eastwood is.

Why, in the end, must the Gran Torino be green?  Because green is the color of hope.