A few days ago I saw the new Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino which is ably reviewed by our own Peter Suderman here. Lots of critics have charged the movie, and Eastwood’s directorial efforts generally, with a kind of bleak nihilism that finds hope only in the heroic but feckless struggle against the meaninglessness of life. Whether that holds true for Eastwood’s previous movies is a matter for another post (and another blogger) but with respect to Gran Torino it seems to miss the mark.
The primary struggle in the movie is between tradition and culture, on the one hand, and the rootlessness often promoted by American liberalism, on the other. Eastwood’s character, Walt, finds himself completely dislocated, living in a neighborhood suddenly unrecognizable to him, populated with people that are not only strangers to him but culturally unfamiliar. He is largely estranged from his family– his sons are depicted as basically decent people but Walt is clearly incapable of connecting to them, partly because of his own austere traditionalism and his sons’ embracing of modernity and partly because of the emotional toll war took on him. Traditional culture is never given an unambiguous three cheers in the movie–one disadvantage of taking seriously the particularity of cultures and their competing claims to embodying the truth is that different cultures inevitably clash; Walt benefited from a tradition that provided him with a cetain work ethic and moral compass but it also debilitated him.
The central point of comparision in the movie is between his grandkids and the the two sets of young Asian teenagers who live in his deteriorating neighborhood. His own grandkids are depicted somewhat heavy-handedly–they are incapable of respect for others, reject Walt as an ancient relic, and seem lost in the fashionable, technology driven consumerism that dominates the day. In a sense, they’re a much softer, more banal version of the gangster teens who terrorize Walt’s neighborhood–also rootless and directionless, also driven by the most crass of desires, also living a kind of self-encapsulated nihilistic nightmare. In their case, however, deprived of the comforts that come with material success, their nihilism is often of a brutal and violent variety.
The third set of teens, also Asians, are caught somewhere between their very traditional culture and the liberalism that tolerates its exercise but also encourages the conditions that prove inhospitable to its flourishing. Walt befriends two of them despite the awkwardness created by the strangeness of the culture in is eyes. They are both more modern and more Amercanized than their parents but respect the tradition their parents impart; they seem able to weather the tumult and danger of their neighborhood only because of the moral grounding it provides. They are the central protagonists of the movie, even more so than Walt, precisely because their lives are exemplars of the struggle between their inherited tradition the reflexive iconoclasm of modernity.
One interesting proposition the movie seems to endorse is that there’s a way in which modern liberalism can save itself through its own tolerance and prosperity–as long as we continue to attract more tradition bearing immigrants to our country with the allure of economic opportunity we can counterbalance our own rootless tendencies. This is an imperfect solution, of course, and the movie suggests that this merely postpones the issue to the next generation who face the perils of our cultural cynicism all over again. Nevertheless, Gran Torino manages to capture a central paradox of American life: its openness to cultural diversity and its general dismissal of the importance of culture.