The twenty three or so and still coming films of Clint Eastwood as director have singular features that mark them as very different from any contemporary director who turns out Art, not crap. Eastwood films have an unobtrusive camera steel with few tracking shots, fades or any other virtuosics; they are often in a quiet way very beautiful in color and with modest but substantial composition of their visual materials.
Sine most Eastwood films are shot early outdoors they are filmed silently with the sound added later; it gives his movers a kind of editing freedom studio films don?t have. Most of the pithy dialogue in the movies pushes the action along with occasionally laconic but spicy commentary. The power of the films comes from strong plot lines and rounded characters, takes that imply an unspoken inner life, not the rich wit of the dialogue. Eastwood himself says that he begins organizing a new movie around a solid screenplay.
One assumes when he shows up to execute a film he almost certainly is there with a set shooting script shot for shot, not with an idea and a faith in the talent in front of him for improvisation. It gives a workmanlike quality to his films that lard their over the top qualities with a kind of casual smoothness. We don?t notice how original his films are half the time because they are done with such doggedness, discretion and measure.
In Eastwood?s Unforgiven, there is one flamboyantly composed shot in the whole film that would remind one of painting or some of the very obvious imitations of painting of directors like von Stroheim, Murnau, De Mille, Hotcake or Ridley Scott; it has a heard of a corpse in the foreground on the margins of the right of the flat rectangular screen to establish space, moves back into a tavern with carefully placed cowboys to give the illusion of depth to the flatness; it has a kind of chiaroscuro shadow in its background as well as an artistic swagger in the hardedged way the faces of bystanders come out from beneath the large Western hats.
That?s it for homages to European moviemaking and openly virtuosic visual arts. Everything else is spare, simple and efficient.
There are actually remarkable visual values in Unforgiven; they are passed off what a kind of nonchalance that denies them a coarse and extrusive quality that would distract form the monarchial story line and character development. Eastwood certainly captures the harshness, austerity, torrential and aggressive weather of Wyoming along with its barren beauty but the camera never lingers on the geography for a second more than it takes to establish some linear direction to the narrative.
Eastwood certainly has picked up from his days with Sergio Leone the value of strong and larger than life protagonists and antagonists; yet Eastwood unlike Leone gives his very rounded characters in conflict a range of qualities that in the relatively formal and commercial style of his films never pigeonhole them as cartoon gladiatorial bouts between good and evil. There is a dogged competence to any Clint Eastwood movie along with its more subtle felicities that root them in a comfortable commercial arena for the money men that is never going to make those who bankroll his films uneasy.
Movies are a form of performing art in which whoever is in artistic control from the get-go has to decide what he cedes to the guys with the bucks, what he keeps to himself as his franchise in a kind of system of hidden but real checks and balances.
It isn?t an aesthetic tradeoff confined to films either. Most novels in the days when they were serious contenders for the attention of a public that once had a taste for reading has in them sensational and outrageous qualities than enabled their readers, many of them craven and without a ruling huger to take up the risks that would have had to where they to meet with such wild characters and exotic scenes of violence and feral amour in real life, could take up such proclivities invisibly, so to speak, as the reader outside the magic envelope of a piece of fiction.
It was the selling pitch in their day of any Hemingway and Fitzgerald novel though we usually come acrose them if at all nowadays as Art anatomized in a sylvan grove by prefacers, not in a war zone. These old novels were sold to a less audacious public than its raffish characters living in the middle of Prohibition laws that made drinking a glass of wine a crime.
It was illegal and for all I know probably still is to have coitus outside of marriage; many readers of such books mostly married as virgins or as near innocents beyond an encounter with a village punchboard or overripe town whore; they often didn?t have much more erotic range after their wedding.
With such a cautious market, one gave them what they could not dare to hunker for as mortals with the perceived vulnerability of those more focused on sheer survival than the heros and heroines they resonated to in fiction. In novels and films sex whit beautiful strangers or even wives never leads to pregnancy. There is nothing less interesting to read about than a hero or inamorata changing a diaper. In real life consistent amour almost always does lead to such activities.
Very few of us know anything about the reality of cops, criminals, terrorists, cowboy life, or robots but we feel no sense that we are in unknown territory when we take in this constituent fare of the film world. One can be sure that nobody who made the film from the writers to the producers knows anything about them either. It?s all an electronic fantasy, a folie a deux that makes money.
Movies from the first have provided the same refuge for its audiences conched in the shadows. When pornography or graphic sex became de rigueur in 60s and 70s movies it never had to stretch too far form where movies and novels had been in the first place.
Clint Eastwood stays in this supposed realistic envelope no matter how very subtly polemical or audacious his movies get for good financial reasons. It?s the part of filmmaking he has to cede to his contract with an audience who when they are optimal in size as his backers would prefer don?t ask too many questions about what they really know about cowboys, cops and criminals from observation.
Eastwood wisely doesn?t create movies admired for their flamboyant European-style craft; their virtues are rounded characters set in a previously cartoon genre, strong unwavering plot lines, and a great deal of exploration into the mixture of violence and compassion that is the integral fulcrum of movies like Unforgiven such as John Ford?s similar inquiry in The Searchers.
They?re completely different in visual style but not as remote in substance from Sergio Leone?s great Westerns of the 1960s. In fact I would guess that Eastwood?s career as actor and director was originally a shoot off from Leone?s profit making films, grisly operas whit the incessant music of gunfire that had established Clint Eastwood himself as some kind of reliable financial draw.
Eastwood didn?t make it even as an actor until he lucked out in Italy with Sergio Leone until he was 40 years old. I would guess much of the sense of scrambling and reacting to changes of fortune in his various movies comes from not having had much of a career in his youth, then gradually through improbable turns of quixotic fortune becoming one of the best, more famous and fancily stable one-man film operations in the world.
Unlike somebody who came to their ascent much earlier he has had plenty of time to reflect on ambitions he couldn?t realize, talent he could not manifest, how apparently random the waxwings and falls of his peers in show business were. His mixture of conservative and cautious qualities in his films over decades balanced by their subtle ambition and audacity within a frame of what amounts in the end to many as a machine for investment is reflected in his mix of convention and a hidden strain of esoteric parody.
Like other Eastwood films Unforgiven has almost comic scenes displaying the ineptitude of the Eastwood character, his difficulties with aging, his lack of talent with certain weapons if he?s very good with others, the gritty sense of despair and failure that can come from a rigid and impoverished life of virtue and sobriety.
It may remind one of a similar discourse and plot in Sam Peckinpaugh?s equally darkly tinged The Missouri Breaks in many ways, yet Eastwood?s movie has a dour comic sense of its own. In the grisly Unforgiven Eastwood falls into the mud trying to deal with pigs, falls off a horse twice, gets sick until death from bad weather, is almost kicked to death by a sheriff, is beyond that venomed with guilt at the amount of killing he?s done including murdering women and children.
He has tried to live a better life but his wife had died of smallpox. Fortune pushes him to choices he knows are at best a flimsy justification for doing injury.
There?s a kind of underlying plea for charity for humanity in Unforgiven, an aptly titled film, that in its very quiet way is almost religious. One of the phrases in the film, he?s got it coming is picked up in a peroration by Eastwood as, we?ve all got in coming. Yet every scene until the multiple killing at the denouement is done with such offhand lack of drama that the moral polemic can go right by one.
Eastwood?s career has been the harvest of a series of improbable accidents even more so that other film artists who have gained the clout to make the movies they want after a time establishing their power as a draw. Back in the early 60s Sergio Leone made For A Fistful Of Dollars and its as persuasive sequel For A Few Dollars More in Cinema Citta in Rome as what some in the United States called derisively ?spaghetti Westerns?, not early because they were mostly dubbed in Italian ventures but they didn?t have nay of the measure and discretion of Anglo-Saxon cowboy films.
They were in fact openly operatic and mythical in a way that only George Stevens had touched in Shane and Douglas Fairbanks had explored to the hilt in The Gaucho. Since most films in those days weren?t available as a library of models even to directors it might be safe to say that Leone had seen Stagecoach and Shane but was probably thinking much more of making films with large than life characters and the broad emotional swagger of Verdi operas.
Of course his immediate model was Japanese samurai movies, particularly Kurasawa?s great Seven Samurai. It wouldn?t be unfair to say that a gritty and grisly movie like Unforgiven owes its indirect but real genesis to that Japanese classic film. Kurasawa?s heroic and tragic masterpieces of male character, coming into American ad European art movies houses, had affected many directors in the 60s besides Leone and the probably nascent ideas for directing of Eastwood. Sam Peckinpaugh?s over the top Westerns like The Wild Ones were takes on what Kurasawa and leone had discovered in an American genre dominated by reserve and discretion to balance its harshness and violence.
Once John Wane and Randolph Scott were big draws as the protagonist in such American Westerns in their time Bacchus they were able to suggest companion as well as an easy talent for injury that gave their characters an implied emotional dimension one never saw in the more coarse and sentimental Roy Rogers Westerns.
Leone in this duo of violent films made over what was only hinted at in the American Western without too much over the top graphic visual audacity; for its time its bloody style was stunning. These movers are wonderful mythic and wild battles to the dealt between characters that are more feral demons than men. There are lots of confrontations and duels of a ceremonial yet sanguine character that are, as they say, riveting.
Eastwood?s films compared to Leone?s are throwbacks to the measure and muted charity John Wayne and Randolph Scott made famous. It?s ironic because the Eastwood character in the Leone movers is merciless, opaque and unrelenting.
Leon went on to make three great film epics, Once Upon A Time In the West, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In America. There were like his first films much longer than any normal movie; three hours and over of immersion in their wildness. They covered the Civil war, founding of the America West and 20th century crime operations in epic and thoughtful ways that hadn?t been seen before.
One of them gave Henry Fonda the best role of his life. It was obvious that actors wanted to work with Leone as they wanted to work with Welles; Leone let an actor like Fonda show what he could do. Then abruptly after his five hour long masterpiece, One Upon a Time In America, a film hard to see in its uncut version anywhere, a raffish epic based on Harry Grey?s sensational The Hoods, he stopped making films for reason I don?t know.
Like Leone, Eastwood has always made genre movies that stand a very good chance of being sold as commercial trash to those not interested in the felicities of art films. Half of his output has been Westerns.
Others have been thrillers. Eastwood never restricts his audience to those who want excellence and intelligence in movies. They have powerful plot lines and action aplenty for those who want to take in a movie that way. Eastwood has said that he never wants to go beyond the scope of what he can do. He knows, he says, he can’t play Hamlet. His modesty hides an ambition to take ideas to the end that is much more audacious than he ever lets on publicly.
He really does have quite a rage for one who made a career mostly as a hinterlands hunk. He is a pianist as well as a stunt man. He composed his own music for Mystic River. Yet as a director he never calls attention to himself as let us say David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino do. In fact one hardly notices his direction though it makes its points with flawless intelligence. He says doesn’t make a movie until he has a very good script and the right people to do it with.
One feels that he doesn?t want to put a making of a film into motion until he has the confidence that comes from knowing that with material one has to offer, one can?t fail even if one is less than brilliant.
Unforgiven has all of the qualities one associates with Eastwood films and then much more. It is a Western that attempts to bypass all the restrictions one thinks are built into the genre. There are whores in graphic scenes, talk of masturbation, various graphic sexual asides, gutter language, much grisly material in this film that John Wayne would have found unthinkable in any of his classical Westerns. It?s not as if it all wasn?t there as innuendo in any John Ford movie; it was. Unforgiven, with a great deal of continual expository and almost intellectual talk about illusion and reality throughout the film, puts it all the dirt as well as uncomfortable discourse about the dark side of male genius out on the table.
The very polemical Unforgiven even has a writer in it named Beuachamp discover how much nonsense the Western lore of fancy was as he had heard it from an obnoxious and arrogant gunman named English Bob. Before the film is over Beauchamp get some inkling of what Western life was really like from the more honest antagonist of the film, the sheriff. Then he sees the final gun battle. It a curious way he is the covert central character of this film.
Decades earlier Sergio Leone had hired Eastwood, who had done some major Western television work, as the protagonist for For A Fistful Of Dollars and For A few Dollars More Bacchus he had seen in the tall, lean and athletic Eastwood, as Leone put it, ?an icon?. These two films were able to push the envelope of defining a Western in ways that were startling because Leone himself had sensed Eastwood?s ability to be at once opaque and mythic, yet more human in his dark side than any cowboy hero before him.
As a result Leone changed a genre mostly about manners in which nobody ever sweat, horse never defecated, clothe never got soaked from rain, the characters were usually one dimensional and polite whether good or bad guys. Leone put on more perspiration, carnal hunger, foul talk, swagger and panache in those two movies than the entire history of the Western.
Clint Eastwood we can see now was not only his star but as one can surmise, Leone?s apt pupil. In the many Westerns Eastwood made himself later there is always some astonishing leap into naturalism and feral mythos one associates with Leone. Of course Leone in turn had taken the Japans genre of samurai films after a while and later had created brave American epics which stand with those of John Ford. Eastwood never has had that openended ambition.
Eastwood has certainly often made films that break the rules of the Western and other genres with some flair. Yet the total effect of his films is never one of wild abandonment. The audacities are deftly guised as logical developments of the plot and characters. Nothing in an Eastwood film has the air of an intrepid piece of gratuitous virtuosity.
Yet as one watches many Eastwood films one can see certain patterns that are rather remarkable in themselves as well as popular that are different from any John Ford or Sergio Leone movie. Eastwood?s heros don?t make situations; they react to them. Some dilemma or oppidan comes to them and they take them on with lot of resources as well as familiar corruptions like a good soldier. Almost always they are dwarfed by the greater power for monarchial action of the environment.
Eastwood never has simple good and evil characters; his tales are always about epipial who are scrambling to stay afloat in motile geographies rather than strong heros who are acting out of some fixed nature. In what seems superficially like a movie about manhood and heroism like Unforgiven for example, evens are continually coming up both the Eastwood character, aptly named Will Munney, and the antagonist, equally properly named Little Bill, the sheriff of a town called Big Whiskey, one played superbly by Gene Hackman.
These not overly substantial improvisors don?t set anything into motion. The events that do are rather accidental as the ones in Sophocles? dramas or those in Camus?s The Stranger. A drunken cowboy cuts up a whore for offending him, a hunger for revenge in the whores attracts a few hired killers from other states, the assassins themselves often discover they have no heart for killing, the denominate is at once partly heroic and a series of mishaps.
Most importantly the hero is ashamed of his exploits as a killer and aims through most of the film to avoid taking up violence again beyond this supposedly just act. He is corrupted easily enough by money. One can’t say he is all that resolute in his ethics nor skilled at the tools of gunslinging and viciousness unless he is drunk.
Unforgiven is a very uncomfortable look into the male psyche, its foolish heroic fevers, vanity, losses, attempts at recovery and more bouts of peacock folly. At bottom Unforgiven is an implied sermon that asks charity for those who need a lot of it. If we think of the Eastwood films we can spy this same run of inquiries into the male spirit and its weaknesses. In the kaleidoscopic angles on masculine intent and vanity, one of the characters, English Bob, played to a turn by Richard Harris, reflects that a sense of awe at the specter of nobility would deter anyone from acting violently toward an English leader; Americans treat their leaders and others as candidates floor assassination because in world of republican equality they don?t respect their supposed champions.
Unforgiven shows that almost everything Bob says on all subjects is perfumed Old World illusion of an odious sort. The writer, Beauchamp, who has attempted to find reality through this snob has been cozened by Bob?s gift for monarchical rhetoric much as the young killer has been duped by the romance to the jejune and innocent of being a legendary gunslinging killer. In the action, the sheriff of Big Whiskey, Little Bill, disarms and almost kicked Bob to death with fair ease; he isn?t awed at all by Bob?s claim to be a Duke.
This pointed and extended satire is part of the polemical machine that pushes this film toward some gritty Sophoclean truth. I think rather ironically Eastwood, who started as an icon, as Sergio Leone says, developed into a master of exploring male folly and vice. One of the more amusing elements in Unforgiven is the contrast between the bragging youngster killer in the film and the sense of folly and vanity in the autumnal decline of the aging gunslinging assassins played by Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. The compassion the overripe killers have in them is earned by their understanding of their own limitations.
It?s curious that the Western, most notable to many for its depiction of heros of sterling qualities untainted by any noxious dark side, has been in films the arena for a very different kind of discourse. Maurice Zolotow in his excellent book on John Wayne noted that Wayne?s films no matter who directed them were continually about almost unbearable loess, not brassy triumph of a gunslinger over evil forces.
It?s very true about Wayne films but nobody said so but Zolotow. Obviously Wayne?s films were made to be perceived one way by the general public, another by the cognoscenti if any existed. One might say as much about any of Eastwood?s films including the Leone ones, certainly the earnest but very flawed character with a dark and past hardly to his credit Eastwood plays in movie after movie in various guises from Play Misty For Me to Unforgiven.
The bond most powerful in Unforgiven is between Eastwood and Freeman; they share a knowledge of their fallibility and fragility the young killer doesn’t know. It?s another angle on illusion and reality in the brilliant David Peebles script. The antagonists, the sheriff as played whit sager and gusto by Gene Hackman, has many admirable and honest qualities including a disdain of violent killers and a sense of oblation to bring peace and order to a community; yet he doesn?t realize even at the end of the movie when Eastwood dispatches him that he is in the hands of more powerful forces than his ability to structure reality as a carpenter or a sheriff.
He says as he is dying: I don?t deserve this as if there were some palpable relation between intent and industry and one?s achievement. His last words to the Eastwood anti-hero are: see you in hell. The anti-hero, names Will Munney as if he were aprt of an Everyman parable, embracing the main action out of will and a simple hunger for cash, agrees with him. Even if that is were they meet again, it will be one more twist in a fortune neither one is fully responsible for.
Yet if one reflects on the inner qualities of movies that never leave an umbilicus beyond the seemingly banal if they stray remotely at times from the coarse genres of cartoon violence that senses in the Odyssey that at best a human being is somewhere in the middle between forces much stronger than he is, pushed around by mysterious and implacable fortune, lucky with all his resources and weaknesses to survive since they are not even half divine like heros but tough and grizzled men.