Thursday December 03, 2009
Thus Spaketh Clint
Interesting video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz on the revenge motif in Clint Eastwood's films. But how true is it? Is Eastwood's ambivalent attitude about revenge artistic or simply ambivalent and contradictory? A key line for me is near the end:
Many Eastwood movies have a self-critical aspect, a sense that Eastwood (as actor, director, or both) is examining dark impulses within himself (and humankind) and finding them troubling, pathetic, repulsive. It's the sentiment of a moral, humane, internally consistent filmmaker. Eastwood is all three—when Eastwood the icon isn't undercutting Eastwood the artist.
That's a helluva caveat. Too often in his career, Eastwood the icon undercuts any artistry. Even in “Unforgiven,” one of his best films, the last scene is iconic and thrilling rather than—as it should be—horrifying. We're rooting on William Munny. We want him to kill. He's justified, because the people he kills are scum—bullies and toadies—and because they've lynched his partner Ned. If there had been collateral damage in the carnage, maybe we'd feel different about the scene. If he'd killed a prostitute by mistake or the parasitic scribe on purpose. Instead he's just a guy out for revenge—his and ours. He's Popeye, but with whiskey rather than spinach, with shotguns rather than fists.
Munny's actually part of a cycle of revenge in the film in which a group of people are labeled pejoratively (“whores,” “assassins”), which then gives the labeler the right to do whatever he wants to them (cut them up, kill them). Munny does the same to the people in the town. He labels them, they who have labeled him and Ned “assassins,” and kills them, and shouts drunkenly at them. But we don't see him as part of the cycle; we see him as the final word in this cycle. He ends it, and ends the movie. Instead of another ring in the cycle, he's its final authority, its Old Testament God. Thus Spaketh Clint.
And that's the problem. In the real world there is no final authority, but our stories, Clint's stories, which have been absorbed by our culture, lead us to believe there is. We think with one big shotgun blast we can end the cycle of revenge. But it's a cycle and cycles return. Always.