Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Nation v. Dirty Harry

Although masquerading as a movie review, Akiva Gottlieb's article in the Nation is nothing more than a diatribe against Clint Eastwood, filled with a priori judgments and inexplicable conclusions. What are we to make of his initial statement that people "have been writing Clint Eastwood's obituary about as long as the man's been making movies"? Which people? What obituaries? Gottlieb must make this completely unsupported statement to justify his conclusion that Eastwood himself encourages these nonexistent obituaries.

Eastwood was born in 1930, making him 37 during the Summer of Love (1967), and a bit long in the tooth to partake in its pleasures. He was certainly influenced by the beats, however, learning to play jazz piano and making a movie about jazz great Charlie Parker. Later he wrote musical scores for his own movies and is currently involved in a project about Dave Brubeck, another Jazz great.

The charge that Eastwood like a male "Athena emerged fully formed from the Nixon-era hive mind" is particularly absurd, unless you ignore his early work. As Rowdy Yates on TV's "Rawhide" Eastwood played a handsome young cowboy with a penchant for getting into trouble. The "Man With No Name" was an iconic western hero based on Toshiro Mifune's samurai warrior in Akira Kurasaki's "Yojimbo". Kurasawa pioneered the idea of having his actors wear "real" clothing; Eastwood bought his outfit in "Fistful of Dollars" in California and took it to Spain with him.

His grubby look in the movie and its two sequels owed more to Kurasawa and Sergio Leone than to Eastwood himself. In private life, he was a ladies' man, with numerous liaisons. His character in "The Beguiled", while still a soldier, was a pacifist who deserted during the Civil War. He was also an attractive young man. Perhaps a little too attractive.

Of course, Gottlieb may be referring only to the Dirty Harry persona that has clung to Eastwood throughout his career, although even then his reference to the Nixon era is inaccurate. The Man with No Name is almost indistinguishable from Dirty Harry. Both are accomplished warriors, both have no respect for authority, and both see themselves as fighting for good. While Gottlieb sees Harry/NoName as a manichaean figure, this is never the case in the movies. Harry is always deeply conflicted, trying to protect ordinary citizens but guilty about people he harms while he pursues his goal.

Since Gottlieb has nothing original to add, he cites Pauline Kael's review of Dirty Harry, published just 38 years ago. Kael accuses the movie of being fascist, but clearly knew nothing about what fascism is. Dirty Harry is the antithesis of fascism, which is characterized by intrusive state control in every aspect of people's lives. Even though he works for the state, Harry is continually at odds with his bosses. He takes his oath to protect and serve literally, but the people he works for are the common people. The enemy he challenges is anyone who abuses power. In The Dead Pool, the enemy is other cops, who have taken the law into their own hands. In the Gauntlet, it is an array of crooks and corrupt politicians. In the Unforgiven, it is the town sheriff and the town businessmen. In each of these cases, Clint is cast as the defender of little people against government run amok.

Thrashing around for someone to smear Eastwood with, Gottlieb runs into Ayn Rand, but once again has insufficient understanding of her subject to make the smear stick. Rand extolled the virtue of the individual, all right, but from the entirely fascist, Nietschean side. For Rand, superior individuals, whom Nietsche dubbed the "Supermen", are laws unto themselves. While this sounds similar to Dirty Harry, the resemblance is superficial. None of Clint's heroes is extraordinary except in their skill with weapons and their dogged determination. They all have working class roots. Cops, bounty hunters, a trucker, a wild-west show promoter, a country singer, a photographer, a secret service detective: None of these bears any resemblance to Rand's heroes: industrialists, a senator, and an architect. Harry is marked, not by his creativity and intelligence, but by his faithfulness to the ideal of justice and his persistence in its pursuit.

Gottlieb cites Harry's most famous line, "Go ahead, make my day", as a suggestion that killing can be fun. This removes the quote both from its context and from its delivery. Eastwood's character does not enjoy killing; the line is delivered with utter sarcasm and world-weariness. Harry does not seek violence; it is continuously thrust upon him. In Tightrope, his policeman persona relieves the stress of his job with sado-masochistic sex; in the Unforgiven, his persona escapes from a violent existence, only to be drawn back into it by poverty and the bonds of friendship.

Nearly all the conclusions of Gottlieb's article are false, clearly snap judgments based on a superficial knowledge of his subject. Others are incomprehensible. He does Eastwood an injustice with his sloppy scholarship and glib aspersions. Reviewing films may not be the most intellectual occupation, but it should at least strive for respectability.

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