Friday, 10 July 2009

Don't Forget the Subtext: New Imperalism in Gran Torino.

I want to start by saying that I thought this was a "good" movie. I mean that in the sense that it ticked a lot of filmic boxes; convincing characters, strong performances, insightful cinematography, seamless editing, well executed direction, all in all a well observed film that shows a bitter, bigoted old man coming to terms with himself and his surroundings. But, and I know, seems like there's always a 'but' with me, BUT, what about the stuff that sits beneath the surface? What of that permeable thing called subtext?

The subtext in this film has been bothering me because I actually think it's counter-intuitive to the surface message and therefore pretty dangerous stuff. Now before you all start bombarding me with retorts that say the film is about race and transcending age-old prejudices- yes, I know that. And for those of you who want to tell me that the central character is xenophobic only so that the relationship between him and his neighbours can be even more uplifting- yes, I know that too. However, this is just the surface stuff - stuff I'm not going to discuss in any great detail - so let's get past what it looks like the film is trying to do, and move along to what it's actually doing through that all-important subtext which I think we should all be both wary and aware of. 

What I'm talking about is not a clear cut white supremist viewpoint, for all intents and purposes that kind of DW Griffith-esque mode of filmmaking has disappeared from our screens. What I'm talking about is more contemporary; a myriad of offensive and ignorant assumptions that work towards promoting an oppressive world view. So, taking in stride cinematic changes brought about by colonialism and postcolonialismGran Torino (2008) correlates clearly with a model for New Imperialism. Actor, director, producer, short lived Mayor of Carmel, Clint Eastwood is a pretty darn good example of New Imperialism in all its vast and growing glory, so why not go ahead and make a film about it starring yourself as the New Imperialist force? (Clearly Clint's 'tour de force', so to speak). 

So let's recap; Walt Kowalski, xenophobe, bigot, and recently widowed Korean war vet, lives alone except for the company of his Labrador Daisy in a small Michigan neighbourhood. One of the many things that bothers Walt in his old age is that the previously white middle-class community to which he once belonged is fast becoming a poor Asian immigrant area (my distinction between 'community' and 'area' here is not merely incidental). His disdain for others, but particularly those of an Other race, situates him in a dangerous position as the viewers' point of identification is most oft aligned with its protagonist and certainly in this film that is an uncomfortable position to embody for what it implicitly assumes; a) that the viewer is a white heteronormative male (or if they aren't, that they should in any case be able to identify with this criteria in the first instance) and b) that white is not a race but a point of neutral reference from which every Other is raced (for a more detailed understanding of this theory please see Richard Dyer's excellent book, White: Essays on Race and Culture (1997)). And so the dodgy cinematic message begins to permeate the spectator. Brilliant. 

So Walt's new next-door neighbours belong to the local Hmong community and, at this point in the film anyway, the family unit of the Hmong culture is actually shown in a positive light; i.e. in contrast to Walt's estranged, alienated family devoid of communication and/or emotion, the Lor family love and respect one another, sharing their lives, enhancing joys and halving burdens. However, the community at large is still shown under a negative shadow; poor and condemned to poverty due to their own gang activity and plight upon their own neighbourhood and community, unwilling to 'integrate' (i really dislike this term and use it grudgingly only because it is relevant to the message this film communicates) into the culture and way of the pre-existent (Western) society surrounding them, strange in their custom- strange in the sense of both foreign and odd, and finally as failed on their own terms because the male of the house is not strong, and this, in their own culture is portrayed as very important. - Hopefully from my emphasis on 'own' you can also see the very BNP-esque 'us' and 'them' dynamic that the film establishes early on. 

So, stereotypes successfully set up, time for the plot to shift into gear, in a manner of speaking. Thao, the failed male specimen of the Hmong family in question, is, typically, shy, feeble, awkward, uncool and unable to get a girl. His cousin - which we are to presume is meant literally, although at times feels like a blanket term for everyone in the film belonging to the Hmong community - wishes to initiate him into their gang, which involves stealing Kowalski's most prized possession: a mint condition 1972 Gran Torino. The fact that the car is circa 1972 and kept in 'original mint condition' is actually of great significance, that being the year Richard Nixon was re-elected to the presidency by a landslide vote; it was a time of Nixon, Kissinger and Watergate. Although it represents too the slow and final withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam it is the year before the Paris Peace Accord and the end to the Vietnam War. Furthermore, it was also the year of what's commonly known as the 'Christmas Bombings' (aka Operation Linebacker II against North Vietnam), the largest US Air Strikes since WWII. The car represents Walt's nostalgia for what he sees as a 'better time', although that time is marked by death and scandal. Thao tries to steal the car, something I suggest could be read as an act of exposure, and for that he is punished. 

So, the poor kid now has to work for Kowalski, pretty much taking on the role of slave, in order to compensate for trying to remove the fetishised past from under his nose (I use the term fetishised because the automobile is such a great example of Marx's theorising of Commodity Fetishism). At this stage we shift up another gear and the film plows into its New Imperialist agenda with extreme horse power. Kowalski doesn't really like the kid but slowly warms to him and takes pleasure in setting him to work, instilling a 'good work ethic', some semblance of responsibility and skill into the young lad. Literally providing him with the tools to do so, Kowalski is like the white man who saves the savage from his own sinful ways - i.e. if he had not been taken under Walt's wing, Thao would by now be a fully fledged gang member because, as the film is certain to point out, this is the only path for him if he chooses the Hmong immigrant way. Well, thank god for the white man then. Kowalski, the heteronormative, patriotic, flag-on-the-front-porch, nostalgia-wielding father figure eventually arranges everything so that Thao can have a 'better life'; confidence, trade skill, job, girlfriend and eventually iconic car in tow. But really, all that Kowalski has handed him is the road to contemporary capitalist exploitation. Well done Walt, the path of New Imperialism is a brave and noble one. No wait, it's oppressive, only like the Gran Torino, the labour, alienation and exploitation that it harbours is seamless and invisible. 

Kowalski 'nobly' dies in a martyred scene that supposedly saves the Lor family from their evil cousin and his gang who are finally incarcerated for their crimes. But does condemning half a community to prison and the other half to hard labour really speak to us as an act of emancipation? I don't think so. This film is exemplary in its explication of American New Imperialism and it offers little more than a half-arsed effort at excusing US involvement in the Vietnam War and extolling the supposed anti-communist motives for getting involved in the Korean one. His attempt to 'move on' from his past does not help us to remember that war which is to some degree forgotten. And just as Kowalski finally confesses his sins to a priest, he, and his actions are absolved. But essentially, the reality of what remains is that a new form of oppression merely replaces the old, and in its wake is no less relentless than the last.