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The Eastwood Myth


I can’t discuss his take on Letters From Iwo Jima, which I haven’t seen, but I think Charles Taylor has a good take on Clint Eastwood here. I didn’t know that A.O. Scott — who I think is an excellent critic — had argued that with the passing of Altman Eastwood was America’s greatest filmmaker, but as I’ve argued before I think that’s crazy. More controversially, I pretty much agree with his take on Unforgiven too:

That’s a depressing prospect: It’s as if, with Altman’s maverick crapshoot approach to filmmaking out of the way, American movies can return to the static genre familiarity that his films made look unutterably square.

Eastwood’s films — in which well-worn genre conventions are rendered with the slow, heavy solemnity that is often taken as a signal that art is being committed — offer the comfort of seeing B-movie tropes become respectable objects of critical contemplation. For all the talk of Eastwood’s originality, nearly everything he has gotten credit for as a director has been done before, and done better, by other filmmakers — filmmakers who may have won some critical favor in retrospect, but who have never managed the transition to respectability that Eastwood has.

The moral complications that his Unforgiven supposedly injected into Westerns, for instance, were present in the 1950s Westerns directed by Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher (to say nothing of the later work of Sam Peckinpah). Eastwood’s lumbering, inflated Million Dollar Baby couldn’t match the sweat-and-liniment haze of small-time boxing captured so indelibly by Robert Wise in his 1949 film, The Set-Up. And you can find some of what Eastwood is getting at in his currently playing Flags of Our Fathers (the movie that, along with Letters From Iwo Jima, comprises his World War II diptych) in Mann’s Men in War (1957) and in Samuel Fuller’s grungy combat films like Fixed Bayonets! (1951)

Right. It’s certainly not that Eastwood lacks talent, and Mystic River proves that solemn and middlebrow can be perfectly effective if executed well. Unforgiven is a good picture, a very well- turned and entertaining genre piece, but claims about its originality are indeed absurd. Gender switch or no gender switch, however, the sheer density of cliches in Million Dollar Baby becomes intolerable, especially given how leaden and pretentious it is. But it’s not just that his best movies aren’t nearly as good as Scorsese’s best, say, it’s that he’s made movies that Joel Schumacher would be reluctant to sign for — not only is Absolute Power risibly bad, it doesn’t fail in the interesting way one might expect from our Greatest Living Filmmaker. I don’t really understand the magnitude of the praise being heaped on him.

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