Sunday, March 25, 2012


“But as you know, when we like something, we like it… that’s all.” – Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood is a bit of an oddity. Somehow that Nameless Gunslinger and Inspector Harry Callahan had become a filmmaker of grocery-store paperbacks: a Meryl Streep romance, a quirky court-room drama, over-long liberal-humanist war films, Angelina Jolie looking sour for two hours, a movie about Nelson Mandela that avoids all of Africa's social realities, and now a queer J. Edgar Hoover story. The diversity and range is immense. In his twilight years at the respectful age of eighty-one, it seems like Eastwood is out of step with contemporary trends. Even in France the publisher Capricci recently put out the book Clint Fucking Eastwood, which argues his decline as a filmmaker since the mid-nineties.

This might be accurate for some people but I don't think that it is the best way to approach Eastwood's oeuvre.

I will try to argue for an appreciation for Eastwood: he's a charming man and one of action. His brand of individualism is quintessentially American, which includes a faith in humanity - one just needs to remember the beginning of Hang 'Em High where he stops to pick up a calf that couldn't make it across a river. Whether it should be viewed as a nomadic pioneering spirit or a vein of sublime narcissism, in his films the society is viewed as a corrupt place while the main character - usually played by himself - is put in a situation to fix it by acting out and doing what's right. His films demystify legends as he shows them off as mere ordinary people. Eastwood has had a long and industrious career, so to share some rudimentary biographical information: he was born Clinton Eastwood Jr. in 1930 during the Great Depression (a subject of some of his films) and fought in the Korean War before returning to Hollywood to take acting classes before getting his first big break on the television series Rawhide. This was a time when the classic studio system era was ending so his career trajectory explored new territory: first television, and then Eastwood went to Europe to film the spaghetti westerns, and when he returned to Hollywood he continued to make films in the system (Where Eagles Dare, some Orangutang films) while also starting to work with an early mentor Don Siegel and also paving his own path as a director and by starting his own production company.

To discuss his style of film-making, in his most recent efforts, I would say it is of a gut-reaction simplicity and assurance. While some argue that the quality of his films depend too much on the screenplay, the other side of the coin, is that, like Alain Resnais, Eastwood picks and chooses his screenplay as a camouflage to explore new territory and subjects that interested him. Eastwood's films have a particular atmosphere - a seriousness that allows room for humor - and are filmed with a simplicity, an expressionist use of lighting and a freshness of performances that comes from a loose sense of improvisation on his sets. The Cahiers guys write about his approach, “We have the impression that you like to combine two styles: one form really established, that you have refined over the years with your team, as well as some liberties that you manage on set... In the last 10 years [1990-2000], you were able to affirm a veritable style, which has since simplified and refined: you pay so much attention to lighting, a real poetics of lighting. Absolute Power is a perfect example.” Similar to the greatest films, say, like Le diable probablement or Once upon a time in Anatolia, one gets a sense that Eastwood is trying to get at the ideas behind the subjects of the films; like the social criticism and historical revisionism in his recent period films, the peaceful anti-revenge angle of Invictus, and the Dickensian inter-connectivity of Hereafter. Eastwood's productivity of almost a new film each year (that might only be matched by Woody Allen) makes his body of work even more relevant to today's concerns and denser in associations. As well his engagement with new digital technologies and special effects is especially interesting.

Eastwood in France
Recently at Cahiers du Cinema, in their January 2012 issue (N.674), the event is C. Eastwood – Investigation. The well-illustrated feature includes a review of J.Edgar and an essay on Malpaso Productions, both by Stéphane Delorme, and a piece on Leonardo DiCaprio by Cyril Béghin (“DiCaprio is with Matt Damon one of the rare actors that still physically integrates himself in face of the digital malleability: never does a movie deform him through pixels, instead, and still today, it is through make-up, a method that is as old as Hoover."); and there is an interview with Eastwood and his director of photography Tom Stern (who is vocal about filming with an informed blackness), editor Joel Cox (who discusses speed, instinct, observations etc) and producer Robert Lorenz. On Eastwood, Delorme classifies his late period as the following: “the moment of the strongest crystallization of his directing abilities was around 1992-95, with the perfect triangle Unforgiven, A Perfect World, On the Bridge of Madison County... Then there are the darker films of the 2000’s: Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima.” And on Changeling, Invictus, and Hereafter: “in terms of the image the filmmaker has become more blurry, fuzzy, if only in trying to engage in a purely melodramatic way.”

Since the 80's Cahiers has had a strong and durable relationship with Eastwood’s films and a major investment towards him occurred at the time of the release of Space Cowboys in September 2000 (N.549). Il Etait une fois Eastwood, is the the title of the issue, and the centerpiece is an interview between Eastwood and the Cahiers writers Nicolas Saada and Serge Toubiana. What is included in this feature are a few introductory text, a twenty-two page illustrated interview, a review of Space Cowboys by Oliver Joyard (“Eastwood forgets a priori what constitutes the story. He stops filming the elderly, but instead focuses on men at work, that are occupied with assuring their survival to realize their dreams, seeing the planet from the stars.”), and a discussion with a few of Eastwood's collaborators (it’s interesting to note the differences between both Eastwood issues, to see who changed in the Malpaso staff). Eastwood comes off as very candid in the interview, discussing a variety of subjects at length, always saying jokes, and he is similar to John Ford as he resists over-intellectualizing his work and process. Some interesting answers by Eastwood include his remarks on Don Siegel and filming Coogan’s Bluff which “Isn’t necessarily my best film that I acted in, far from it, but all the while it was an agreeable experience which we built upon in Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled.” And, “If my acting style stuck, from a few certain films that made me famous, it’s because sometimes you can do a lot without saying much and instead say a lot by doing these little things.”

Now onto J.Edgar: a mythological biopic on the man that created the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ruled it from from 1924 to 1972. The story centers around Hoover and the Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and their secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). The film looks at how Hoover's policies where shaped by an early political attack which led to a new police procedural system that included fingerprint investigation and more registering of information. Like Land of the Pharoahs for Hawks (an individualistic late film in career built on so many groups), J.Edgar seems atypical for Eastwood, as a director of so many anti-authoritarian figures now in J.Edgar Eastwood seems to be glorifying, or at least identifying, a man that has build an institution. And in this institution this man, Hoover, has been able to implement his vision for over forty years and where he was able to look out of his window towards a changing world to different times with new presidents and all. As well there is a reflexivity in the myth-making process as you see Hoover take charge of dictating his own biography.

Here I want to bring up both the Cahiers and the Positif review of J.Edgar to expand on the film and the differences in how the magazines judge movies.

One thing in J.Edgar that Cahiers narrows in on is the mother figure in the film. In a brief survey of Eastwood's films (Bronco Billy, Perfect World, Bridges) one can spot many mother figures, who are complex in their own way, but are important as providers of a moral center for their children. While in J.Edgar the mother figure is almost domineering as she guides her son on the right path. Delorme writes about how these intimate conversations in her room are the reverse-shot of the powerful man he presents himself in his office, “like the secret explanation of exterior wrong doing, everything outside of this room... This room, similar to the one in Psycho, is his confidential report, with the mother tucked away like a file in a drawer.” This reference to Hitchcock's film maudit seems especially appropriately for Eastwood and this film. As they are both about guilt-ridden sons. Hoover is shown as faithful son riddled by his insecurities, partly, caused by his domineering mother - he even throws on one of her dresses in an intense moment of despair after her death - and this personal malaise and paranoia would seep into the larger culture. Just as Hitchcock was able to create some of his darkest images in Psycho, like the rain crashing on the windshield when Marion Crane is driving out of town, the room full of taxidermy birds, or the skeleton mother revealed by a swinging lamp; Eastwood is also able to create some unparalleled images of sadness, misery and power in his oeuvre. As well there have been other references to Psycho in Eastwood's other films like how in Bronco Billy there is this rich blonde (Sandra Locke) who gets "killed" at this roadside motel and there is even a comedic cameo by Anthony Perkins at the motel in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (a Malpaso Productions). The references to Psycho illustrates Cahiers interest in characters who deviate from the norm, a film remembered by images, and the feelings - maybe that of horror - that one can experience watching a movie.

While at Positif, Franck Garbarz reviews J.Edgar and Michael Henry Wilson keeps up his rapport with Eastwood. In Garbarz interesting review, he discusses the other Hoover films by Larry Cohen, Rick Pamplin, and Oliver Stone; finds parallels with J.Edgar and Citizen Kane: a man who builds his own myth and who alters the American psyche through his empire, a man who collects and builds up an inexhaustible archive; and Garbarz has a spot-on conclusion, in describing the scene, between Edgar and Helen Gandy in the Library of Congress, while the Goldberg Variations is playing: “In this moment here, the palette, quasi-monochrome brightens suddenly. As if we could be believe in a form of relief and carefreeness. That, evidently, does not last long.”

That Positif compares J.Edgar to Citizen Kane while Cahiers compares it to Psycho says something about both magazines. It is relevant to show how Cahiers stands behind their cinema maudit while Positif's plane is more willfully artistic, Cahiers is more interested in intense images while Positif revels in a literary analysis, and that even though they are both auteurist publications it shows how both magazines have a different frame of reference.

"In my experience, I am always stupefied when I meet these guys that work in cinema and who don't know anything about it. We encounter both extremities. There are guys that are genuinely passionate about the history of cinema, like Martin Scorsese, who would be able to tell you what film George Marshall directed in 1938. And there are some people who are responsible for the studios, here, who wouldn't even know the name George Marshall. For myself, I was always a fan of Destry Rides Again." - Clint Eastwood

Eastwood - Cinephile
While reading the previously mentioned interviews, as well as Eastwood by Eastwood, it's interesting just to hear Eastwood talk about movies: to hear what actors, films and directors that he likes. As well to hear what are the little-known projects that he has been associated with or worked on. The discovery of many of these titles expands ones knowledge on the history of cinema and Eastwood's relationship to it.

Eastwood acted in William A. Wellman's Lafayette Escadrille (1958) and in Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). He has brief cameo in the friendly ghost movie Casper and David Gordon Green recently filmed him in the Super Bowl commercial Halftime in America. He admires the old actors Steve McQueen, Joel McCrea, Henry Fonda and James Cagney. Movies that Eastwood really likes includes Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. and Double Indemnity, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, David Lynch’s The Straight Story, Howard Hawks' Sergeant York, the early Warner Bros gangster films, and, with his favorites being The Ox-Bow Incident, Paths of Glory, and White Heat. Other directors that he likes are Anthony Mann, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah and, who he even made a film White Hunter Black Heart based on, John Huston. On the films that have most marked Eastwood: "when I was a kid, and that I have the best memories of, were films that were modest. I adored Red River and The Searchers, but also Out of the Past, and films of that caliber that remained marginal.”

Of special importance to Eastwood was his early working relationship with Sergio Leone, who he talks about: “He admired a lot John Ford which shows in his long shots, he understood the importance of the landscape. And Leone's films with all of their violence are a real departure of the what was being made in Hollywood under the Hays Code" And, "I understood that Leone wasn’t making an epic western à la John Ford, because it wasn’t his temperament. Instead Leone focusing on parody, which interested me a lot. It suited perfectly the spirit of the times, or at least the 60s.” And on the rhythm, mood and music in Leone's films: “Leone has been one of the first to get it. He understood that and had an interesting way to increase the tensions before confrontations. The confrontations were fine, but the way to increase the tension was extraordinary. This had to do with the waiting… and the music by Morricone, of course. While we wait and we look at the faces…. Don Siegel proceeded in a similar way. He would tighten the frames right before the action and then would multiply them afterwards.”
"Clint Eastwood is an auteur: this has been said, here and elsewhere, always with good reason. But he is an auteur because he was able to create a system of production, unique in what it does, where experience and competence always contributes to his formidable institution of cinema." - Nicolas Saada

Malpaso Productions
You've probably seen the title before one of Eastwood's films: A Malpaso Productions. The name derives from the Malpaso Creek in Carmel, California (where Eastwood is from, and where he spent one term as the mayor) and the word is Spanish for a "bad step", which is what Eastwood was told when he was first going to film the Dollar Trilogy in Europe, so to spite this producer he gave his company that ironic title. Eastwood talks about the impetus in creating his own production company as a way to protect himself from studio negligence, the harassment from producers and to stay away from a world of eternal discussion. The Malpaso production company is genuinely known for making affordable films, quickly. It was founded in 1967 with the first production being Hang 'Em High, which was Eastwood's first post-Leone film. The Malpaso production company is usually associated with Eastwood as it produces his directorial projects and the films that he acts in. The Malpaso Productions offices and warehouse is in the Warner Bros Studios in Burbank, California. The new Eastwood issue of Cahiers has pictures of it and you can go on a mini-tour of it in Richard Schickel's documentary The Eastwood Factor.

There is an idea that is discussed in relation to cinema of that of a utopia: an ideal place, a visionary system, for artist to make their films. A place without any studio interference, where the goal is to create the film as the director conceives it. One imagines a studio piling together their resources to push the medium to its limits and create vibrant new films. In this utopia one would make movies for themselves and friends, about subjects that interest the creator. The dream would be that all of this would be sustainable within the industry. This idea of an utopia is most often associated with Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studio. Where in the eighties it was a place where art-house directors like Wim Wenders and populist filmmakers like George Lucas would come together. A studio that would be more a labor of love then it would based on capitalistic impulses. This Tucker-like factory is an ideal. It is also a collaborative ideal. So, like, when Coppola would run out of funds when he was filming One From the Heart his crew postponed their pay and kept on working. Since the bust of this utopia Coppola retreated from filmmaking, for a while. Until his resurgence in the late 2000s with his last three great films Youth without Youth, Tetro and now Twixt. These self-financed projects are personal films that he makes for himself - keeping on this utopian dream of a world where the movies are a place of creative self-expression, before being anything else.

This utopia of production is the somewhat what Eastwood seems to be doing at Malpaso. "You can't make a film to fit the presumed tastes of the audiences. You make the film in which you believe," says Eastwood. The collaborative nature is there as many of Malpaso's staff - so, like, Tom Stern, Joel Cox and Robert Lorenz - have a loyalty to the studio and seem to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to it. And it's economic streamlining production avoids the economic faults of other major studio. Through making films Eastwood has even been able to literally integrate his family and other interest, like music, into them. If Eastwood continues to be this prolific in his twilight years, the reason is the efficient production system that he has created and maintained. From Eastwood in the coming years you can expect from him, back in front of the camera, in his producer Robert Lorenz's directorial debut Trouble With the Curve where he plays a blind father to his daughter a baseball player (Amy Adams), and then a remake of A Star is Born featuring Beyoncé.

This model of having a small localized production company seems to be shared amongst the up-and-coming young independent filmmakers: like Josh and Benny Safdie from Red Bucket Films in New York, whose new short-film The Black Balloon is much anticipated; and Antoine Bourges, Kazik Radwanski and Dan Montgomery from Medium Density Fibreboard Films (MDFF) in Toronto, whose new films East Hastings Pharmacy (which is playing at Cinéma du Réel and Images Festival, so far) and Tower should be real event film experiences of the year.

No comments: