Monday, October 26, 2009

Clint Eastwood And The Myth Of The Last Golden Age

In films like Visions Of Light or A Decade Under The Influence or Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, so many of the people who worked in Hollywood in the 1970s talk about what a special time it was: the Last Golden Age in which after the collapse of the studio system in the late 60s, the money men turned over the reins to the young generation to make whatever personal or crazy films they wanted, which resulted in a rebirth and peak of American cinema. The end of the story is usually glossed over, with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas blamed for inventing the blockbuster and bringing an end to the era with their relentless dumbing down of American culture, or alternately, Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola blamed for going on maniacal ego trips wherein they spend inordinate amounts of money on films that fail to meet anyone's expectations, thus proving that artists can't be trusted with money (never mind how good the films are, and by the way, Heaven's Gate is a truly great film).

The thing is, none of this is really true, most of it is self-aggrandizing reminiscing by the most self-aggrandizing subsection of the most self-aggrandizing generation in American history (that would be Baby Boomer Artists). Personal filmmaking didn't begin with Hal Ashby and Bob Rafelson anymore than the blockbuster began with Star Wars or Jaws. In fact, the kinds of films, and filmmakers, who get praised in these stories are exactly the same kind of middle of the road popular filmmakers that get praised in any other era: the ones who make hits and win awards, and they are deemed to have become failures not when they make bad movies, but when they make movies that fail at the box office. For example, William Friedkin is no more personal or original a filmmaker than, say, Michael Bay, yet he made two films in the early 70s that were commercial and critical hits: The French Connection (which won several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor) and The Exorcist (which was nominated for ten Oscars and won two), thus is he a primary source for these films. When his remake of the classic The Wages Of Fear, Sorcerer, bombed, he became a Hollywood also-ran, a status he's maintained for most of the last 30 years (though he has directed two episodes of CSI, so he's got that going on).

For the most part, the generation of American filmmakers who came of age in the late 60s and 70s either saw their careers derailed by drugs or illness (Ashby died young, Dennis Hopper went crazy), burnt out and became less ambitious (Coppola and Altman, at least until his 90s renaissance) or were exposed as more hype than substance (Friedkin, arguably DePalma). But four have managed to put together careers with the kind of longevity that can compare to the great directors of earlier generations, the ones from true Golden Ages in American film: Chaplin, Lubitsch, Ford, Hawks, Minnelli, etc. Martin Scorsese has been the most celebrated and rightfully so as he's managed the most consistently outstanding output, both critically and popularly. Woody Allen is a special case, who for most of his career has existed largely outside the Hollywood world. Steven Spielberg has been one of the most popular filmmakers of all-time, but has at times suffered critically for the middleness of the brow in his serious films and his sheer laziness in some of his popcorn films (I'm looking at you, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull).

The fourth is one who almost never gets mentioned in these 70s hagiographies, and that is Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has always been more famous as an actor than director, and his performances (The Man With No Name, Dirty Harry) are iconic in American culture. But he got his start directing in 1971, at the height of the studios-throwing-money-at-the-young-and-crazy era and has been consistently making quality movies ever since. Though he started making genre films (Westerns, action movies), they have always been personal ones: one of Eastwood's great themes as an auteur is the varying facets of the American image of masculinity and how it has been manipulated and changed over time. Being one of the most iconic representations of that ideal, his films often function as deconstructions of his own image, especially in three of his Westerns: High Plains Drifter (a replaying of A Fistful Of Dollars as a satanic comedy), The Outlaw Joesy Wales (the Man With No Name as community-builder and peacemaker) and Unforgiven (the apocalyptic End Of The West, with the hero exposed as little more than a murderer for hire). In White Hunter Black Heart, he gave one of his finest performances in a film that mercilessly explored the persona of the ultra-masculine film director (his character is a thinly veiled John Huston). Most recently, in last year's Gran Turino, he attempted a rehabilitation of his Dirty Harry character playing an old man who takes a young Hmong boy under his wing and engages in some good old fashioned vigilantism to protect the kid's family. This is the kind of filmmaking the likes of Lucas, Friedkin or John Milius talks about (and Scorsese and Allen actually made), but Eastwood is rarely acknowledged as this kind of personal filmmaker, at least by the talking heads in these documentaries.

Why is Eastwood overlooked by his generation? Partly because in the 70s he wasn't really a part of the fast-living cocaine Hollywood that most of these guys like to recall (the ones who survived it, at least). In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Eastwood hated most of those guys (can you really see him hanging out with a pot-smoking hippie like Hal Ashby?). Partly because during that decade his filmmaking was restricted to genre films, and in genres that didn't get the kind of lavish critical praise that Friedkin and Coppola's did. Partly because he was so famous as an actor that it overshadowed his directorial work; it wasn't until his acting for other people pretty much stopped in the late 80s that people began to notice his directing (In The Line Of Fire in 1993 only film in the last 20 years that he starred in that was directed by somebody else). Mostly, though, Eastwood isn't included because his story doesn't mesh with the one this generation likes to tell about itself. His ability to keep working within the system gives the lie to their excuse that when the corporations came in, the Golden Age, and with it personal filmmaking in Hollywood came to an end (as does, of course, the careers of auteurs who began their work in the 80s, while these 70s folks were flailing: Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Hal Hartley, John Hughes, Gus Van Sant; and conversely the stories of those established auteurs who couldn't get funding for their films in the 70s: Orson Welles, Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray). What this generation never seemed to understand is that what made the auteurs of earlier and later eras great was not the they were given free reign over vast studio resources and allowed to make whatever films they wanted, it was that they were strong enough artists that they could be given any material, story, actor, crew, and shape it to their own personal vision of what a film should be, how it should look, and what themes it would reflect. They didn't need a vacuum in the wake of systemic collapse in order to get their visions on screen, they were artist enough to make their films regardless of where the money came from. It was the directors who never understood this that burned out and faded away. But this side of the story doesn't get told in these retrospectives: the people who would tell it are too busy working.

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