Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Clint Eastwood. Good Lord, Clint Eastwood.

I have a problem with Clint Eastwood.
Let me rephrase that. I have a problem with Clint Eastwood as a director this decade.
Perhaps I need to rephrase this one more time. I have a problem with what people are saying about Clint Eastwood as a director this decade.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not here to attempt to take down his older films, many of which are respected classics, like Unforgiven, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bird, Pale Rider, etc. I have no problem with this incarnation of Clint Eastwood. What gets me is what he's been doing lately. More specifically, what gets me is how much people love what he's been doing lately.
For reasons that I can't fathom, the general consensus on the street ('street' here means the cutthroat, hard-knock world of film criticism) is that Eastwood has 'hit his stride' as a film-maker and is churning out unparalleled quantities of the finest movies Hollywood has to offer.
I'm sorry, but no.
I concede that, this decade he has made one flat-out masterpiece. He has also made one very good film, and three interesting near-misses. He has also made three steaming piles of horse crap. How does that record make people think that this is a film-maker in his prime?
Let's break his filmography down a bit.
The masterpiece: Mystic River. Laser-focused, intense, so well-acted it hurts. I have nothing to fault here: Clint Eastwood's signature sparse directorial style, as well as his simple music contributions (Eastwood composes all his own music, doncha know) work perfectly within the confines of the story. Hell, they don't just work: they enhance and elevate the material. This is one of the best films of 2003, and one of Clint's best films in general, including his earlier works.
The very good film: Letters From Iwo Jima. Brave, unsentimental, unflinching. There are a couple tonal missteps and pacing issues, but on the whole, this film is riveting cinema. Kudos, Clint.
The near-misses: Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Changeling. Here's where I start to take offense, because much of what's wrong with each of these films comes from Mr. Eastwood.
Million Dollar Baby. Everyone does seem to be throwing their heart and soul into this, and Clint's style is (mostly) fitting. His film avoids most forms of complexity, however. The main character, Maggie, is completely whitewashed, as is Morgan Freeman's omniscient narrator. Only the lead character, played by Eastwood, is allowed to be interesting. A better script and a sharper, less sentimental eye could have improved this film considerably.
Flags of Our Fathers. Just the opposite of Million Dollar Baby. Flags tries too hard to do to much, and ends up not doing much of anything at all. The battle sequences are astoundingly well-done; I'm surprised that Clint had never done a war film before, because he does it very well. The film flounders, however, when it returns to the home front and attempts to establish a larger social context. Funnily enough, his other Iwo Jima film, Letters From Iwo Jima, came out the same year and was a much better film precisely because he didn't try to do as much. How did he make two films about the same thing and get one of them right for all the reasons that he got the other wrong? Odd.
Changeling. Another valiant attempt, with some memorable scenes, but overall, it's a tonal and pacing mess.
Which helps me segue into Clint Eastwood's main problem: he rushes things. Eastwood is renowned for his 'one take' method, aka he only requires one take of most scenes. This is great for expediency, but it tends to hurt the film. With his style, the films he approaches must be the perfect storm of acting and screenplay elements (see Mystic River) to be effective, because the one take method leaves absolutely no room for error. And, frankly, Eastwood is just not genius enough to never make any errors. No one is, really. That's why most directors don't play so fast and loose with quality.
Which leads us to Space Cowboys, Blood Work, and, especially, Gran Torino. Gran Torino feels like a high-school theater piece. Its only "redeeming" element is its rampant racism and acceptable acting turn from Clint Eastwood. I know the bandying-about of racial slurs really endeared this film to some people, but just because a film is a dictionary of things to call your ethnic neighbors doesn't make it a good film. End of story.
So what am I saying? Currently, Eastwood's next effort, Invictus, is about to hit theaters. Early reviews cite, you guessed it, tonal and pacing errors, as well as a generally rushed feel. But what is Clint doing now? He's working on his next film, Hereafter, which will be released, you guessed it, next year.

Clint: take a little more time. You can make great films when you try hard. So please. Try a little more. I know you're getting on in years (he turned 79 in May), and could be feeling pressured to make as many more movies as you can before the end, but really: We would all prefer one more Eastwood masterpiece that takes three years to make than one mediocre Eastwood film a year. Seriously. We're here for you. We can help. Set down the camera, pick up your red pen, and improve your scripts. Then, take some time with your actors. Rehearse a bit. Play around. Go crazy. Then, take some time in the editing room. Do post-production right. And then take a break. Don't start shooting your next film while you're still editing your last. That way lies disaster. We've seen it. It's called Gran Torino.

Are y'all Eastwood fans? Should he take more time? Is he the genius that everyone says he is? Am I just being overly critical? Speak up, dawgs.


  1. I saw Invictus on Friday. It was so inspirational that I wanted to join every rugby team ever in the spirit of racial equality. But once I got over the powerful urge to tackle people, the film did feel rushed and a bit clumsy. Characters and dynamics were introduced, then totally left hangin', and there was barely a sense of dramatic tension ever. It didn't have a villain, really, other than a general sense of 'adversity.' I know it was based on a true story and thus had to follow events at least a little, but it got to the point where I was certain a little boy was going to shoot the faces off of two security guards chillin' in a parking lot. Everything went a bit too smoothly. Maybe he could have substituted some of the rugby footage (specifically certain five minute long scenes of Matt Damon's face wedged between the asses of two other dudes) for some drama. Fun to watch, though.

  2. Clint Eastwood is great at convincing people that they're having a moving experience while he's counting his money. A lot of his films don't really hold up when you look back at them. I haven't seen Invictus yet, but I plan to blitz the theaters like none other when I get back home!