Double Feature

The fragility of innocence in Clint Eastwood's Changeling and Gran Torino
by Chris Fujiwara  posted December 1, 2009
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This article is part of a series on Clint Eastwood, the 2009 honoree of the Musuem of the Moving Image's Annual Salute.

Released only two months apart, Clint Eastwood's Changeling (October 2008) and Gran Torino (December 2008) were, for a while, twin films, in theaters simultaneously in many parts of the world. People marveled at the productivity of the director (then 78) and measured these twin works against each other, saying that Gran Torino made up triumphantly for the routineness of Changeling, or (the minority opinion, I believe) that Changeling, more subversive and less pretentious, was the superior work. Before time gets too deep into its inevitable process of driving the films apart, it might be worth recalling what, beyond the coincidence of their schedules, links Changeling and Gran Torino.

At first glance, the films are so little alike as to seem throwbacks to the era of the double feature. Gran Torino is the A picture, a character study dealing in social consciousness and the moral grandiose. Changeling, though longer, would be the second feature, with its B-movie-like overplottedness and grunginess. Gran Torino, unmistakably in the line of Eastwood's more ambitious projects, reworks familiar themes and settings to create a disturbing image of contemporary America in a way that can easily be accepted by audiences and mainstream critics. Meanwhile, if the abuse of power Changeling documents is something from the dark side of 20th-century U.S. history, the women's insane asylum where Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) gets locked up for part of the movie comes as an unexpected reversion to one of the most disreputable exploitation genres, the women-in-prison film.

The contrast between the two films is similar to that between Eastwood's previous paired works, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima (both 2006). In its brisk telling of a complicated real-life story, Changeling has some of the dry, schematic quality that lingers in the mind from Flags of Our Fathers: the sense that situations and developments, even the most important ones, are being summarized and highlighted with no claim to cover them in anything like their fullness, as if Eastwood had assumed in advance the limitations of a fast-moving journalist/chronicler always at a necessary distance from the mess of his material. These are films with lots of spaces that are left unfilled. On the other hand, in Gran Torino, as in Iwo Jima, the audience is with the main character every step of the way; these films evoke the density and obstinacy of lived experience.

Yet, even in Gran Torino, there is another kind of space left unfilled, which is not narrative space but the illuminated space of the screen, a space that, more and more in Eastwood's films, fills up with darkness. His films accumulate these absences, which register the need to finish each film and move on to the next. In Gran Torino, the blackness that swallows up much of the room where Walt (Eastwood) sits brooding after the attack on Sue (Ahney Her) suggests the inaccessibility that has swallowed much of Walt's own fragmented being. As an Eastwood film goes on, it loses parts of itself (as characters die and spaces darken) and becomes less and less able to articulate a worldview with any clarity. When, at the end, the conventional expectations of narrative closure promote the sense that something has finally been gained (hope, for Christine in Changeling; and for Walt, a hero's apotheosis), Eastwood opposes a neat recounting. In Changeling, Christine's two last encounters with the killer (Jason Butler Harner)—first when he invites her to visit him in prison, then at his execution—give nothing like closure but bring new disturbances, late-film enigmas that will not be resolved. Seemingly more classical, the final sequences of Gran Torino are paradoxical in their own Eastwoodian way, the images—Walt's impossible and illogical stand against the gang, the mundaneness of the return of the relatives, the overclarity and overlength of the final shot of the car driving along the lake—merely hinting at narrative satisfactions that fail to materialize.

Like Changeling, Gran Torino is resolute and awkward in its old-fashionedness. The portrayal of Walt's racism is reminiscent of how the matter was handled in American cinema of the 1970s (e.g., Dirty Harry [1971]) and before. Walt himself is an old-fashioned character, not just in his attitudes but in the way his presence brings the past into the film: Eastwood's past, the past of genres, the past of America. The liberal-reformist aspect of Changeling, the false patriotic rhetoric that Flags of Our Fathers exposes, the revivals of genre in numerous Eastwood westerns and detective films—all these enable Eastwood to question the meaning of the past, as he, his characters, and his audience have made it or taken it up ready-made.

The problem in Eastwood's films is never, or rarely, one of remembering: memories exist and take tangible form, though they may be locked away, buried, and suppressed for a while (both The Bridges of Madison County [1995] and Letters From Iwo Jima effortlessly exhume memories that come alive for the audience). The problem is rather that the past lives uncomfortably in the present, making intransigent and inconvenient demands. The tribal society of Mystic River (2003) and Walt's racism in Gran Torino are such uncomfortable, embarrassing throwbacks. Eastwood works like the reformist figures in Changeling, bursting in where he is neither expected nor wanted, throwing light on the dirty secrets of his country's history, but he also works like Walt at the end of Gran Torino, assuming the hero's role—the function of bringing justice—in a manner that appears willfully perverse and absurd, while leaving the dark parts of the past in the dark (Walt's confession to the young priest [Christopher Carley] pointedly omits his Korean War experiences).

The violence of America and the fragility of innocence obsess Eastwood. In both Changeling and Gran Torino, innocence belongs to someone (Sue in Gran Torino, Walter [Gattlin Griffith] in Changeling) who tries to mask it behind a tough pose of premature adulthood—the protection it must wear (in the end futilely) in the fallen world the films depict. Through these figures, Eastwood shows that there are two levels of human efficacy: a social one where people charm and repel one another in games of oneupmanship and trust-building, and a private one ruled by chaos, where everyone is alone and only the essential qualities of a person matter. One of the purposes of Eastwood's cinema is to let the audience glimpse this private level. But Eastwood's other purpose is to stage around human solitude a ritual that leaves intact the myths of sacrifice and renewal—the business of Blood Work (to name a neglected 2002 effort by the director-star) that lets the so-called American community (of which Eastwood continues to be a symbol, despite everything) carry on. If Eastwood makes dual films, maybe it's because he distrusts his own taste for ritual, and because the logic of solitude is still stronger in him than the logic of reaffirmation. In their rivalry of genres and narrative styles, Changeling and Gran Torino embody a duality that may be the key to Eastwood: a struggle that seems to tear down what he builds up. 


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Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie in his film Changeling
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Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

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