Saturday, December 08, 2012

Mountains Out of Molehills

My partner and I have a recurring joke. Sometimes, when I'm in our living room watching a movie, she'll randomly chime in from somewhere else in the house: "So do you like Steel Magnolias yet?" "No," I'll answer. "The estrogen isn't working," she'll snipe. Hilarious, eh? Here's the thing about switching genders: it doesn't really change one's tastes a whole lot. If you like dumb action films before transitioning, you'll probably still like them afterward. You won't magically start liking chick flicks if you didn't like them to start unless you're hellbent on really "performing" your gender. I still watch a ridiculous number of horror films, after all. I had this go-around with my therapist once. She recommended that I start reading certain types of books to "socialize" me. I was kind of resistant to this idea because the first book she recommended was horrible. I didn't even bother with a second. My preferred beach reading is still hard boiled crime novels.

But that's not to say that there's not an influence. There is, and it's subtle.

One of the bitterly funny things about joining an oppressed minority is that things that didn't bother you before really start to bother you after, whether it's because you shed the blinders of privilege or you feel the pinch of overt aggressions from the dominant culture. It's a hard pill to swallow, sometimes. I didn't grow up as a queer feminist. I was a middle class white kid who barely knew what feminism even was. My awakening came once I discovered to my sorrow that all of that stuff you hear feminists complaining about is very, very real and applied to me directly. I'm not proud of this, but late to the party is better than not showing up at all.

I got to thinking about all of this while watching Clint Eastwood's 1975 mountain climbing thriller, The Eiger Sanction, which, to be charitable, is not among Eastwood's more laudable films. It's a horrible brew of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism, all packaged together in a way that would likely have resonated with a Men's Rights movement, had such a thing existed in 1975. Have you ever visited a comment thread when the topic was feminism? This film seems to have the same spirit of lashing out against the encroaching matriarchy feminism is obviously seeking to foist upon poor, put-upon, disenfranchised menfolk. But I'll get to all of this.

The plot of The Eiger Sanction is pure nonsense and the filmmakers know it. There's a germ warfare Maguffin, but it doesn't really matter what it is. The film is self-aware enough to know that no one cares about Maguffins. The plot is contrived to put Eastwood on the Eiger and to have various action scenes leading up to that sequence. Eastwood plays art professor Jonathan Hemlock, who moonlights as an assassin as a way to fill his art collection with treasures. His employer is a man named Dragon, an albino ex-Nazi now weaving his webs in the American intelligence community. One of Dragon's other operatives has been assassinated. Dragon orders a reprisal and chooses Hemlock as his instrument. There are two targets: The first assassin has gone to ground and Hemlock roots him out. The second assassin is unknown, but he's known to be a member of a climbing expedition taking on the Eiger, a mountain that Hemlock knows well. Dragon sends Jemima Brown to keep an eye on Hemlock and convince him to go through with the second hit. Hemlock, for his part, finds motivation first with the revelation of his old friend as the murdered courier, and with the opportunity to settle an old, old score. He sets out to train with his old buddy, Bowman, who gets him into shape. At Bowman's dude ranch, Hemlock meets his old enemy, Miles, who tries to bargain for his life. Hemlock kills him anyway, then sets out for the Alps, without any idea of who the next target is.

My own relationship with The Eiger Sanction dates back to a late night showing on an independent station out of Denver in, I think, 1982 or so. I was too young for Eastwood films in the 1970s, so I was catching up on them as a teenager. At the time, I lived in Colorado and I was into climbing, so it was a film that hit the sweet spot for me and for years, it was a film for which I had fond memories. In my defense, my experience of the film is colored by the fact that the first print I saw was edited for television, so certain really horrid things were edited out. Principle among these is a rape joke, in which Eastwood's "urbane" Professor Hemlock tells Vonetta McKee's Jemima Brown, "Sometimes people do things they thought they'd never do again. Like rape, for instance. Yeah I thought I'd given up rape but I've changed my mind." The print I saw replaced the word "rape" with "love."

At this point, I hope that those of you who haven't seen the film are saying, "Wait. What the...?" Seriously: "Jemima Brown?" This is a film that trades in obnoxiousness and explains it away with faux coolness. The trouble with ironic racism or ironic sexism--both of which form part of this film's warp and woof--is that irony only goes so far. You're still dealing with racism and sexism. And like Dirty Harry, this film hates everyone. Jemima Brown is only the most prominent of examples. Native Americans get some of it, too, and homosexuals. Here's a funny part about the print I first saw: they replaced the word "rape" but they kept the word "faggot." The joke with that word is a small dog, owned by a flamboyantly gay villain, that likes to hump legs. Again, high-larious. In this context, the naming of a minor, conspicuously buxom female character "Buns" seems almost benign, though the condescension dripping off the male characters toward her, including what would be considered sexual harassment even five years later, leaves a foul taste.

It's a mark of this film's own self-awareness that the names of the characters are so ridiculous. Hemlock? Dragon? Wormwood (the agent whose death is the catalyst of the plot)? Buns? Jemima Brown? In another film, this might be a send-up of spy movie conventions, but here, I suspect that it's calculated to cover the fact that this film is toxic, as if to say, well, this is all in jest. Feminists just don't have any sense of humor (note: we do; this just isn't funny).

Eastwood's character is above it all, quick with the sardonic wisecrack at the expense of most of the characters with whom he comes in contact. He's packaged as the white male who's "cool" with the radical social changes of the day, but not really. Women, to Hemlock, are scammers at best--witness the girl in Hemlock's art history class who tries to offer herself to him in exchange for a grade--but more likely are treacherous (Jemima Brown) or flat out crazy bitches (George, the Native American girl charged with getting Hemlock in shape for the climb). Hemlock is coded as cool by his disdain for authority, but that disdain was evolving into a libertarian kind of disdain for the social contract itself. Hemlock's dislike of Dragon is simultaneously a dislike of governments themselves, as evidenced by his assertion that the "other side" isn't any different from "our side." "If our side has people like Dragon, how bad can the other side be?" he opines at one point. Hemlock is instead a radical individual whose actions are wholly selfish and utterly amoral. The principal stick that Dragon uses to motivate him, it should be noted, is not patriotism, but taxation. Ayn Rand would have recognized him. He also represents a kind of cultural elitism, which seems ironic when weighed against this film's audience. Hemlock is a highbrow, but he has no patience for the hoi poloi. He has an amazing art collection, but he hordes it for himself because his students, standing in for the world at large, just won't appreciate it. My own take on Hemlock is that he's the embattled white male adjusting to a world where he perceives his privilege under siege by women, blacks, gays, the disabled, Europeans, the government, you name it. He's forced to swallow it, but he seethes resentment with every opinion he offers.

Thirty years later, Eastwood's character in Gran Torino finds the director rehashing these resentments, which is disappointing. It's hard to divorce Eastwood from this stuff personally. I admire Eastwood, but I won't make excuses for this shit. It's reactionary and it's not going to wear well in the future, I hope. But it might. I mean, when I was still in possession of white male privilege, I was mostly unconscious of all of this, or, at the very least indifferent. This doesn't speak well of the person I used to be as a callow teenager, but in my own defense, when I saw this film uncut on cable a year or two later, I was uncomfortable with the rape joke and the coding of the gay villain, but I think I was more at home with what was happening to my own evolving identity by that time. In any case, I imagine that the kinds of viewers who populate comment threads on Reddit (to name one example) or call in to Rush Limbaugh (to name another) are exactly the kinds of people who don't see this shit as a problem, who would, in fact, champion Hemlock as a strike back against those who would take their privileges away from them. These are the same viewers who made Gran Torino one of Eastwood's biggest hits (it's currently at #122 on the IMDb top 250), so obviously, this kind of lashing out still has an audience. The Eiger Sanction, it should be noted, was a failure in its day, but that's the seventies for you, I guess.

Visually, this is one of Eastwood's better movies. Oh, his interiors are still grotty, low-light compositions, but the climbing scenes? Those are amazing. If you can put up with the ridiculous plot and the toxic cultural attitudes, they're worth watching. The footage in Monument Valley, in which Hemlock and George Kennedy's Ben Bowman climb the The Totem Pole is vertiginous and magnificent. (Eastwood and company were, in fact, the last climbers permitted to go up The Totem Pole). Eastwood's use of location in this part of the film shows him making a study of John Ford, which is a surprise given that Eastwood's Western films are relatively free of Ford's influence. The footage on the Eiger is equally spectacular, and the way the footage in the Monument Valley and The Alps are filmed could be seen as a strong rebuke to special effects. They come at a cost, of course, given that a stuntman was killed during production and cameraman George Stanley was gravely injured (Stanley never forgave Eastwood for his improvisational filming style, which he blamed for the various accidents on this film, and never worked with him again). Eastwood himself did all of his own stunts which is an insane show of macho bravado that pays dividends in some of the shots of Hemlock dangling from the Eiger or working his way up the Totem pole. That shit is all real. I can only imagine what this film might have looked like on a a big screen, or in later years, on an IMAX. Amazing, I would bet. Also of note is John Williams's utterly un-John Williams-ish score, a light jazz-inflected affair that the composer tailored to Eastwood's off-screen passion for jazz. So this is a film that has a seductive surface. It's fun to watch even if the plot makes one gag. Underneath that veneer of polish, though roils a heart full of maggots.


Anonymous said...

Huh?! Eastwood's character in Gran Torino wasn't kinda racist because the writing was, he was kinda racist because the character was a bitter Korean vet loner living in a bad neighbourhood with a gang of Asian crooks. Gran Torino is not racist, and audiences aren't stupid sheeple for liking/loving it. Audiences aren't THAT stupidphwait, The Blind Side won oscars!...Yeah, some audiences are pretty stupid sometimes! haha! But I still don't think Gran Torino was racist, not at all.

Laura said...

Jemima Brown?!

Jemima Brown.


My head hurts now. Good night.

Seriously, I'm so sick of this Clint Eastwood/white loner/vigilante hero bullshit he's been peddling since the '70s. Enough. No one's going to take your (and yes, as a white girl, my) precious privilege away, dear heart. Even with that empty chair still in office. Hey, people still make rape jokes, after all! It's still a free country, Clint! Don't worry!

Ugh. Even though I do earnestly try to keep an artist's personal beliefs to the side when watching their output, it's sort of self-defeating when dealing with Eastwood's work. Beautifully shot and rendered, sure, but when the messages are as vacuous as that? Not worth it.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Laura. Yeah. It's kind of obnoxious. I like Eastwood better when his interests are more metaphysical (in, say, Josey Wales or Unforgiven or Letters from Iwo Jima, all of which are legitimately great movies). But his mid seventies-early eighties output, Josey Wales aside, is almost all junk.

shelly said...

"Yeah anonymous, on the surface "Gran Torino" is an anti racist film, about a Korean War vet who changes his harsh ways, but a "white savior" narrative still equals racist in my book. It basically *is* "The Blind Side"

Mykal said...

Vulvania: What with the physical and mental ordeals of this film, you make it sound like Eastwood's Fitzcarraldo. I think I'll give it a try (again). As for Eastwood the racist, I don't know. I decided some time ago to love his Westerns and forget the rest.