Sunday, January 25, 2009

My Town Monday, Detroit: Gran Torino

Detroiter, Julie Harris reading on New York subway. (1951)







Gran Torino
is set in Detroit and was filmed here but it doesn't reflect the real Detroit in its racial makeup. Although the Detroit Metro area is racially and ethnically diverse, Detroit proper is not. I don't know if that's important in terms of the story however. The original story was set in Minneapolis, where there is a huge Hmong population within the city limits. The Hmong stand in for any group living in poverty in the inner city.

In Gran Torino's Detroit, a group of Hmong have taken up residence in Korean Vet, Walt Kowalski's, neighborhood and his negative and positive interactions with these people frame the story. I'm not going to review this movie in terms of plot or merit. It has a coherent and interesting plot and it's well done. Eastwood creates a memorable character although at a cost.

What concerned me about the movie was the way that the audience reacted to Walt's racism. I am not saying that men like Walt don't exist or that movies should not be made about them, but I am saying this movie raised the hair on my neck many times and had a curious attitude toward its protagonist and his idea of manhood.

In the end, of course, Walt "does the right thing." But along the way, we get to hear him sling his racial slurs in almost every scene. The huge audience I saw it with laughed every time he spewed his venom. They admired Walt in the way they admire Lou Dobbs or Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly for not abiding by our notion of what's acceptable language. For "shocking" us repeatedly.

The audience in a inner ring Detroit suburb was all white. Does that tell you anything?Once Eastood had established Walt's racism, was it really necessary such language to continue? Although it was true to his character was it true to the final message of the movie. I think not.

I liked the movie at points for trying to deal with a hard subject matter, but in its creation of a racist, it appealed to a lot of racists.

And the great Travis Erwin is back shepherding MTM this week. Check out the other posts.

23 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

It's unfortunate if some took it as support for their own racism. I haven't seen the movie but the impression I've gotten is that he learns to see his neighbors as human beings. I do plan to watch it so I'll see what I think.

Lisa said...

Wow. That's kind of bizarre, isn't it? I don't think I'd have anticipated that kind of reaction. I wonder if the fact that Clint Eastwood always plays some kind of a tough guy hero allowed those who identify with that to feel comfortable letting their racism out into the open...or I wonder if it's possible that some people who wouldn't tend toward racism got caught up in the moment and the Clint Eastwoodness of it and were ready to back his character no matter what? I really wonder if this demonstrates a hold that popular culture has on people that is much stronger than I'd have imagined.

Sepiru Chris said...

I hadn't heard of this movie yet, and your experience sounds very disconcerting.

I had a similar reaction to watching Borat in North America.

People laughed at the racism, applauding it; most seemed to miss the message.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't think Eastwood's intention was to titilate racists but because the language is in almost every scene, it has the that effect. Yes, Borat was a similar experience. Great analogy, Chris.

Travis Erwin said...

The reaction you witnessed seems odd especially given that a friend of mone went to the movie here in Amarillo and said the audience gasped several times. I would have thought your area would be more racially sensitive than mine.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wonder if it had something to do with it being set here?

George said...

The audience I saw GRAN TORINO with groaned several times during the movie when Eastwood's character would make some outrageous racial remark. Walt Kowalski is a dinosaur who holds some racial prejudices, yet he is an honorable man. I thought one of the most touching moments in the film was when Walt goes to Confession. Eastwood's intent was to show an old, flawed man could still change and Do The Right Thing. Which gives us hope that today's world can change for the better.

debra said...

I've not seen the movie. I did have the same reaction to Borat that Chris describes. It seems to me that the repetition of such comments can desensitize the viewer so that you almost don't hear them any more. I tend to walk out when I've reached my offensive quota.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I was expecting Walt to come out with some huge sin since his wife had asked for his confession so what a nice surprise that he was just an ordinary man with ordinary sins. Perhaps Detroit is the most racist city-some suggest that. He is honorable but his idea of manhood would lead someone to fighting not prevent it.

Jenn Jilks said...

I agree with you. There comes a point when such language inures you to its power and negative impact. That is the message of the gratuitous violence in video games directed at 13 - 24 year olds.

Grand Theft Auto features hookers, pimps, and promotes the abuse and killing of same. The language, attitudes and disrespect are thereby modeled.

Thoughtful post.

Barrie said...

I haven't seen this movie yet. But I probably will (with one of my teenagers) and I can see that a little discussion will be in order. Thanks for the heads up.

Barrie said...

Hmmm.....I wonder what the audience reaction here in So Cal will be?

Cormac Brown said...

That's a difficult line to straddle, how can you have your character stay true to his or her nature, without being gratuitous or alienating your audience?

When I view some of Clint's work as adult and with the eyes of this century, I wince sometimes. It sounds like "Gran Torino" played with race, much the same way as "The Enforcer" did with the fairer sex.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am coming around to that conclusion. Why did his character continue to engage in derogatory language even after he was clearly on a trajectory toward helping his neighbors out. Is there anyone so imbued with using these words that they have no others in their vault? I wonder if I'd seen in with an audience like George's who winced rather than laughed if my take would have been different. Not exaggerating, there must have been well over a hundred derogatory terms or names. Even the use of "pussy" whenver anyone didn't live up to his notion of brave behavior was over the top.

r2 said...

I disagree totally. I think the movie kept the character true and the laughter was the result of the audience laughing AT him not WITH him. I think everyone was laughing at how backwards he was. At least that's my view. I do not think it in any way glorified racism.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't think the intention was to glorify racisism but I think the outcome for my audience was that it became a scrambled message.
Yes, this guy is brave but he's also a racist. I don't think you can come away without thinking that. It actually might be saying language doesn't mean anything if the guy's okay, and that's not a good thing to me.

Todd Mason said...

Boston is probably still ahead of Detroit in In Your Face racism and other sorts of Chauvinims, but perhaps things have managed to improve there (I might still hate/fear to be obviously Irish or Italian in the other guys' neighborhood, to note one distinction obvious in Boston in the '70s that was pretty much a dead issue most other places).

I took this film (I still haven't seen it yet) to be a pendant to the Dirty Harry films the way UNFORGIVEN was to the Man with No Name westerns...fair?

Todd Mason said...

And this, of course, is all pretty reminiscent of the discussion of the character of Archie Bunker.

Jeffrey said...

Sorry to admit this, but I haven't seen Dirty Harry movies. I couldn't afford to see movies in the seventies and I've only caught up with some.

Mary said...

Thanks for the heads up.

I felt the same about Ben Stiller's move, Thunder Tropics that continually belittled mentally handicapped folks.

John McFetridge said...

It does seem a lot like the discussions of Archie Bunker, doesn't it?

I haven't seen Gran Torino, but I've seen All in the Family - thirty-five years ago. This just seems like another class in a course I already took years and years ago.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Very interesting discussion. I haven't seen Gran Torino yet, but, like Todd, I wondered if Eastwood's character in this movie might be a much older version of Dirty Harry. I guess a lot depends on one's perspective. My DH and I enjoyed Borat, but my impression was that Cohen made the racists and sexists in the movie look stupid and unattractive, not that he glorified them in any way.

Barbara Martin said...

I haven't yet seen the movie, but I have watched the trailers. The movie is, pure and simple, a Clint Eastwood movie. His character is from another time who has not modified his behaviour of the past. This movie is like an old world meshed into the new world, where old customs clash with the present ones. When his character, Walt Kowalski, was in Korea during the war, this is how the people talked and behaved. No one, at that time, thought anything of it. However, today it's a different situation where political correctness is everywhere.

Why would Walt stop his bad and racist language after a few times? It is ingrained in him, it's part of his character. Besides, from what I gathered in the trailers he doesn't want to stop and he sometimes says things for effect.

Those attending movies today aren't used to hearing racist language spoken so freely from a white man, which is why they are reacting. If the shoe was on the other foot, I don't think there would be such a reaction. Racial diversity works both sides of the street, or ought to.