Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Critics Ignored, Caught Up, and Then Took Credit

New York Times

How Clint Eastwood Is Still Misunderstood

By Lars Trodson

Sometimes I get the feeling -- even if it’s the New York Times -- that reporters get about five minutes with their subjects. That was the sinking feeling I got when I read the “profile” of Clint Eastwood in last Sunday’s (Dec. 14) NYT’s Arts & Leisure section. It was written by Bruce Headlam, who wastes no time in larding the piece with unnecessary and cringe-inducing information because, as I said, I think he got five minutes with his subject.

The first paragraph:

“Being introduced to Clint Eastwood is something like seeing a California redwood for the first time. The difference is that this redwood, at the age of 78, reaches out to shake your hand with a firmness that still intimidates no matter how much time you spent preparing your grip (for the record: three days).”

Actually, the difference between Clint Eastwood and a redwood is that Eastwood is not a tree. But anyway, what a simp this writer is -- pumping his fists for three days hoping that Eastwood wouldn’t put the death grip on him. Oy.

Newspapers aren’t necessarily tanking just because the economy is bad. It’s flaccid prose like this that’s killing the medium.

But there’s more. The second graph of the piece starts like this: “He arrived at the interview at the Mission Ranch restaurant here as if he owned the place, and it didn’t make any difference that, in this case, he does.”

I have to say this, but even I think I could walk into a restaurant acting like I owned the place if I owned the place.

Are there no editors any more?

But the real grievance here is that while Clint Eastwood has had one of the most interesting and moving careers ever in the history in Hollywood, we get the Wikipedia version of his career. That’s fine for Wikipedia, but not for, as Dustin Hoffman once said in “All the President’s Men”, “the goddamn New York Times.” What we get in the NYT piece instead is a thumbnail rehash of a career trajectory that even the most casual viewer of “Access Hollywood” or reader of “People” magazine will have heard about before.

And that's the frustrating problem with newspapers: they are rarely ahead of the curve anymore. Here's what we get from the NYT about Eastwood's career: “Starting in the mid-1980s he began to change some minds by pushing the boundaries of his cowboys-and-cops image with films like ‘Honkytonk Man’ and ‘Tightrope.’” Wow wow wow.

The offense is not just the lazy prose, though; it’s that a writer for the New York Times, in a Sunday edition piece, didn’t even bother to pierce the cliches surrounding Eastwood’s career. Eastwood, after all, is now the owner of one of the most significant, impressive and moving careers in all of Hollywood’s history. But what the New York Times decided to give us was dreck. I don’t like dreck with my Sunday morning tea.

Let’s acknowledge this: Eastwood has always had a restless, boundless artistic temperament. Do you think that Sergio Leone, in his attempt to redefine what western’s could achieve, would have picked an empty-headed dolt? It is no accident, that of the untold numbers of spaghetti westerns made from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s there may be cult favorites -- but the classics belong to Eastwood. "Zapata", anyone?

If you believe even superficially that the Leone pictures are meditations on violence, then it is easy to see what led Eastwood to direct, as his first feature, case, “Play Misty for Me” (1971). If not an attempt to flesh out an idea that violence is the by-product of madness, then what is this picture? It certainly has its trendy violence, but it was no shoot-em-up, as he could have easily done. His character is a late night jazz DJ, for goodness sake.

There are real attempts at character development - including a sympathetic portrait by Jessica Walter of a woman who is demented and pathetic. It’s not a great film - but I hate to diminish it even in that way. It is safe to say that “Play Misty For Me” does signal that Eastwood was interested in the ramifications, and the complexity, of violence long before “Unforgiven.” He looks at this theme again in "The Outlaw Josey Wales" -- a film that I have not seen in the 30 years since its release, but I can still see scenes vividly in my mind.

Eastwood's career is old-fashioned in one respect: he emerged as a director in a time when your shortcomings were up there on the screen for all to see. Technology and a crew of 300 people can mask any director's inability get shot coverage the lead actor to cry, but 35 years ago, if you missed the shot or your actor couldn't cut it, you simply had to sigh and learn and move ahead.

That is what Eastwood did, and so we get the interesting failures. I remember distinctly that critical reception for “Tightrope” and “Honkytonk Man” and “Bronco Billy” was grudging. I can't sit through "White Hunter, Black Heart" or "Bird" -- but it is imperative for an artist to learn to grow.

Eastwood’s career certainly needed a jolt in the early 1990s. His career by this time had already been through it all -- huge hits, critical successes, audience adulation, phrases that had entered the lexicon and utter indifference. But no career can swoon forever and the decade previous to “Unforgiven” was distinctly undistinguished. It was 10 years of directing films called “The Rookie” (with Charlie Sheen), “Sudden Impact” and “Heartbreak Ridge.” The acting side was probably a little worse. So “Unforgiven” was just as much a reaction to market forces as it was a man who knew he had to muster all his artistic sensibilities - and all that he had learned -- to the forefront if he was going to be allowed to continue.

But Eastwood could make "Unforgiven" precisely because he had been allowed to make mistakes. He could also make it because he's obviously smart, and obviously different from the character so many of his movies have him out to be.

I remember quite distinctly a Merv Griffin show from the early 1970s when Eastwood was a guest along with the Maharishi Yogi, who was promoting (I think that is the right word) transcendental meditation, or TM. The Maharishi was decked out in a throne of flowers - as I recall - and when Eastwood came out he was handed one of those flowers.

He made a comment -- and I am going on memory here -- that maybe audiences would react differently to his movies if he took a flower out of his jacket instead of a gun. He mimed taking a flower out of a holster. This was right around the “Dirty Harry” era, and audiences back them were sophisticated enough to realize there was a difference between an artist and his art. So the audience laughed, and they got it.

So it must amuse Eastwood to read critics who believe he came into his own as an artist with "Unforgiven" only because that was when the critics themselves really began to notice he had matured.

Maybe critics today only need five minutes with their subjects. Why would you need more if you know all you're going to do is rehash the same old stories anyway?