Thursday, October 30, 2008

How do film buffs/film snobs read Eastwood?

I wrote this on a message board for classic film lovers and got some interesting responses. This is my initial message:

"My guess, right off the bat, is that those high brow viewers might not be big fans of Eastwood, because his films rely more on emotionally rich stories and characters than a sort of film making style that can be dissected, analyzed and torn apart. I find Eastwood's films, except for Unforgiven and Letters, to not be something that an astute film buff and your average viewer could see two different films out of.

If a film buff saw Chinatown, Midnight Cowboy, Lawrence of Arabia, Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, Mullholland Drive, Man Who Wasn't There, Third Man, The Prestige (with it's art imitating life themes), etc., they would come away with a greater appreciation of the film than an average viewer because the films work on multiple levels, they're brilliant in subtext and in text.

I feel like Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River are simply effectively told stories that connect equally to your average viewer and someone looking for rich symbolism and mise-en-scene and everything else.

Do you think this is a valid theory?"

There are those who didn't like Eastwood's styles much and seemed to break down his style as amounting to "just not very good."


"If you're saying you think film elitists would look down upon Eastwood films because they rely on heavy handed emotional manipulation, laboured moralising and rather standard filmmaking techniques, you'd probably be right. Then again, I don't think you need to be a "snob" to see that much"

"His narrative technique hasn't really changed and his films often feel over-simplified. He tends to use first take, shoots first draft, and so his films often feel like they need to be re-edited or should have been re-written a couple of times before entering production. Some would praise his simplicity, which strikes you on the first viewing, but when you re-watch his movies you notice how little there is behind what is being told"

"I'm a buff though not a snob. I have mixed feelings on his films. I haven't seen all of them but of what I've seen, Letters From Iwo Jima works on every level and its just a pretty brilliant war film. Flags of Our Fathers, not so much, though it does feature a great performance from Adam Beach. The 2nd half of the film though is just completely misjudged. Million Dollar Baby worked for me initially but on rewatch not so much. Well acted and a decent story but a lot of the stylistic touches are off putting to say the least. His direction is by far the film's biggest problem. Mystic River I found to be absolute drivel. And Unforgiven, though certainly a well made western is far from great."

There were also some interesting comments that compared Eastwood's style to that of the Golden Age directors and mentioned Welles was even a fan of him:
"He's a good director; Times when he hits greatness. What more do you want?
The Golden age had lots of directors who were his equal. They served the story first and personal agendas second. A lot of great films resulted.
Eastwood said that Orson Welles told him that if someone else had directed Josey Wales it would have been hailed a masterpiece."

Along with another story:
"I saw Welles once (well, more than once) on the Merv Griffin show and on one occasion Merv asked him about some current releases - this was in the summer of 1982.

Welles got to Firefox and pretty much dismissed it, but added that Outlaw Josey Wales was one of the best films he had ever seen that was directed by an actor. He added that it was difficult to do both at the same time. It's my favorite of all of his films."

There are some who defend Clint on all levels as well and maintain that he has the critical respectability of his peers:
"Actually Clint Eastwood is internationally respected and feted as one of America's most interesting and talented directors active today, especially in the mainstream. His unpretentious approach to storytelling and character and his fast and economical way of working and also his total lack of sentimentality is prized worldwide.

In France, Eastwood is seen as an auteur and his films get good coverage in Cahiers du Cinema, Positif and also Sight and Sound magazine in the UK.....

Well you are wrong on both counts. Thinking that these films are "easy" or something. They aren't. Especially the harsh masterpiece that is Mystic River, one of the greatest American films of this decade.

Eastwood is a very talented film-maker, a rare(and welcome) minimalist in American cinema. My favourites include Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart, Unforgiven and among his earlier stuff The Outlaw Josey Wales."

And this message board response couldn't deny the one thing Eastwood has going for him: No other filmmaker has had as much praise from the critics of his era this decade. Scorsese might come close:
"No other director or actor has had anything remotely resembling his career trajectory. From television player to movie star to director to auteur to great humanist filmmaker, & at the top of his game in both roles even as he nears 80. He also of course was responsible for ensuring that his actors dominated the Oscars two years in a row what with Sean Penn & Tim Robbins winning for Mystic River & Morgan Freeman & Hilary Swank winning the following year (& Eastwood nominated for his performance too) for Million Dollar Baby. No other director has won Best Picture & Best Director twice since at least as far back as the 1970's. That in itself shows how much the film community regard Eastwood as the greatest living director.

Granted, not every movie is a knockout & Eastwood's notorious impatience has resulted in scripts going into production before they're ready. And yet .. any filmmaker with a body of work as large or larger than Eastwood's is going to suffer from poor scripts/ movies at some point. It's inevitable. What's more important is that in nearly 40 years of directing Eastwood has amassed at least half a dozen great movies, a string of near great ones & a varied oeuvre that encompasses an unexpectedly wide range of genres including, remarkably, arthouse pics. Moreover he was producing strong work right from the start. Play Misty For Me still holds up, likewise his second feature High Plains Drifter, & then came his first masterpiece The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976. The following year The Gauntlet showed that Eastwood was capable of handling action setpieces on a much larger scale than anything he'd done before. Over the years he's shown a fascination with dismantling his screen persona, taking it off into darker areas (Tightrope), or satirizing it(Bronco Billy) or brutally pulling it down altogether (White Hunter Black Heart). And Eastwood's output this decade has resulted in a succession of varied, powerful & resonant work at a level no other contemporary American filmmaker has matched & that is remarkable, not least given the man is well into his 70's.

I find it fascinating that some people have this attitude - which is essentially Pauline Kael's attitude - that Eastwood is not a 'proper' director & therefore can't be taken seriously. This condescension is endlessly amusing. The Outlaw Josey Wales, way back in 1976, with its striking tracking shots in which characters appear to literally slide off the screen during moments of intense emotion, was a quite wonderful bit of work & a film that was highly praised - as most here will know - by none other than Orson Welles, who called it one of the great westerns that belonged up there alongside the best works of Ford & Hawks. Bird in 1988 was another bravura directorial piece in which the shadowy lighting & what has since become Eastwood's trademark rueful, melancholy feel were unmistakable. And Million Dollar Baby, with its characters bisected by pools of light in otherwise complete darkness, was not only thematically apt but direction so discreet that, as one critic noted, watching the movie you were barely even aware of the camera. That approach to me is exactly what narrative storytelling should be. After all that classical style didn't exactly hurt the great movies of the 1930's & 40's & yet it's important to note Eastwood isn't trying to slavishly imitate those old movies. He may be working in the classical style, a style that drives younger viewers weened on the juiced up editing style of a Scorsese, to distraction but there's nothing old fashioned about his fearlessness in tackling dark & disturbing material."

As what might happen when describing Eastwood's films this decade, people are bound to compare him to the other guy who has pulled off 3 nominations and one win in the directing department, Martin Scorsese. Comparing Scorsese and Eastwood could bestbe done with Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby because the similar boxing themes:
"Yep, better written, acted, directed, scored, etc. Raging Bull is thematically muddled, poorly written & repetitive. Scorsese has no interest in explaining LaMotta's motivations to the audience & ends up with a boorish, alienating thug the viewer can't wait to see the back of. In its musical scoring of the boxing scenes the film is downright pretentious & the ending with its quote from scripture, implying that LaMotta has seen the error of his ways, is downright laughable. We've just spent two hours in the company of a thug who has done precisely the opposite! As one critic memorably wrote, the film is a celluloid bimbo because Scorsese has no interest in explaining the character. The technique is what RB is overly celebrated for & wrongly so IMO.

Million Dollar Baby far surpasses Scorsese's movie in that it does actually have a narratively sound, thematically coherent (about how we choose to live life), script. Coming on as a familiar boxing yarn it's really a sensitive father-daughter love story that turns brutally dark in its third act & climaxes with the father having literally sacrificed his soul. For this reason, as well as Eastwood's beautiful direction, & the three powerhouse performances that are at the centre of the film (including Eastwood himself who gives a career best turn) & infinitely more empathic than the repulsive LaMotta, the film actually surpasses Eastwood's other Best Picture winner Unforgiven as his best work. It's a brutally tough work of art & one of the all time great Oscar winners."

Because there is so much attention bestowed upon Scorsese, I'm going to have to include one more pro-Eastwood side of the argument here:
"When you have to dredge up pablum like Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore as proof of Scorsese's ability to flesh out character then you're really scraping the bottom of the Ragu sauce!

Look, at the top of his game, Scorsese is brilliant! Taxi Driver is a bonafide masterpiece. The Last Waltz may well be the greatest concert film ever made. But oh my God are you going to defend the cardboard cut outs of The Aviator and the cliched stereotypes of Gangs Of New York as proof of Scorsese's genius, too? The only thing great about Raging Bull is Robert DeNiro's ferocious and justifiably lauded performance. As cinema, Raging Bull is about as audacious as Lady Sings The Blues or any other biopic. Scorsese is successful with a certain type of character which is why his most successful work like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino is populated with them. He does one thing and he does one thing well though it's getting so old hat that I could only take 36 minutes of The Departed before said, "Oh, God, not again!" and turned it off. When Scorsese attempts to deviate from the tried and true with stuff like Age Of Innocence, New York New York, Last Temptation Of Christ, he stumbles. He's out of his element.

And don't get me started with Scorsese's inability to portray female characters (even he admits he's not very good at it) and rarely are women at the fore of Scorsese's world. Whereas Eastwood has been great at it at the very beginning from Jessica Walter's psychotic in Play Misty For Me, Sondra Locke's vengeful rape victim in Sudden Impact, Meryl Streep's Italian housewife in Bridges Of Madison County, Hilary Swank's struggling boxer in Million Dollar Baby or, if the early reviews are any indication, Angelina Jolie as the distraught mother in Changeling. Whereas Scorsese struggles whenever he leaves the "crime" environment, Eastwood is a chameleon able to shift gears easily."

One response suggested Eastwood might benefit from a historic flip:
"My point is that in the long run ultimately what we think of Eastwood today while it might be of curiosity to moviegoers in 2108 is unimportant. In 2008, is it important that in 1956 a big bloated elephant like Giant was lavished with Oscar nominations when Ford's The Searchers was totally ignored by the Academy? Not really. What is important is that posterity has rectified The Searchers standing over 1956 sensibilities. Who knows what the future will bring. In 2108, contemporary critics and film buffs may consider Adam Sandler to be the one of the great comics of his generation and "misunderstood" by contemporary audiences of his day. In that respect, the general contemptuous regard in which Sandler is held today may be an interesting footnote but unimportant to 2108 audiences and critics."

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