Saturday, January 31, 2009

Vintage Cars and Historic Theology

I will say at the start that I do not think Gran Torino is Clint Eastwood's best film. It is not even the best of the ones I have seen, and I have not seen all of them. His turn in The Outlaw Josie Wales is a favorite of mine, but Unforgiven is, I believe, his most profound work--a midrash on the doctrines of justice, sin (original and actual), redemption, even the communion of the saints.

That said, I found Gran Torino both compelling and theologically interesting. Eastwood's character is Walt Kowalski, a Korean war vet and Ford Motor Company retiree who in many way is still fighting those wars (he hates his Hmong neighbors; he loathes his son's affiliation with Toyota). He is "not at peace," as the tiny Hmong shaman rightly observes. Walt's regard for the foreign priest is as jaundiced, if more bemused, as his attitude toward the Church. If Walt ever had more than nominal regard for matters of faith he has long since given-up even that. His wife's funeral, which opens the movie, finds him a stranger in a strange land, alone in the midst, as estranged from his own sons and their rude and presumptuous children as he is from any of the few church members who have gathered. He is especially contemptuous of Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), growling at the young priest, “I think you're an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life.”

The test of wills between the young priest (who promised Walt's wife he would check-in on Walt and try to get Walt to go to confession) and the grizzled old man that Kowalski has become comprises one major sub-plot in the movie. Another is the silent and in that way hilarious stand-off between Walt and the old Hmong woman who lives next door; each disdainfully eyes the other porch-to-porch. If by the end, the young father has learned from Walt something about death, for his part Walt turns to the priest for something like friendship and for absolution. That unforeseen eventuality is as surprising as Walt's learning from his heretofore-hated neighbors that life does not consist in mowing the grass, fixing things, drinking beer and waxing the Gran Torino that he helped build while he was still on the assembly line ("I mounted the drive shaft in that car").

Everyone wants Walt's car--his unappreciative granddaughter, who has no use for Walt himself but brazenly asks for the car when he, "you know, die(s)"; a Hmong gang; his young neighbor Thao. The fate of the car will mirror Walt's own.

The Gran Torino is Walt's "immortality symbol"--a kind of religious relic, a symbol and sacrament of a former time when, to Walt's mind, life obviously made more sense. All the homes in his neighborhood save his, where people like him used to live, are run-down and inhabited by folks "he used to kill and stack like wood." Only later does he realize that the Hmong were actually allies of American forces. The old Hmong woman wonders why he, like his kind, doesn't just move. She seems not to understand that his home, where he made what passed for a good life with his wife and sons, is his castle, his fortress. Maintaining this property, like maintaining his car, is his last defense against change. He will not, it turns out, be saved by his work--at least not this kind of work.

Walt is sick, and unto death it seems--another parable.

Begrudgingly and unwillingly, Walt becomes guardian angel to his neighbors. At first he is simply, and literally, defending his own "turf." He remains an old soldier almost to the end, still lighting cigarettes with a First Calvary lighter he "got back in 51," taking up his rifle when he can and wielding a pipe wrench or his fists and boot when the rifle is not available. His most ominous threat, however, comes in the form of his finger! It is strength and weaponry that has saved him thus far; the salvation he ultimately both experiences and provides is effected by laying all his weapons down--except perhaps that of prayer. With his last breath he begins to recite the Rosary.

There is much plot I have not mentioned, many levels of meaning to be discerned. What finally interests me is how Catholic the movie is--and not just in its context and trappings. I will say that his eventual confession to Fr. Janovich (where he confesses three sins: a stolen kiss in 1968, not paying taxes on a boat and motor he sold ("just as good as theft") and not being close to his boys) is beautifully linked, both temporally and visually, to the "confession" Walt makes to Thao after he locks Thao in the basement to keep him safe. Even more is the way in which the movies maintains that life, real life, comes only through sacrifice and death. All the resurrection we see--whether in the Hmong community, in Thao and his family, or in Walt himself--is occasioned by surrender. Even before Walt dies cruciform in a Hmong yard, he has sacrificed much in the way of prejudice, habit and behavior. His self-surrender for a few becomes efficacious for the many as by his willing death he takes on, and defeats, the "principalities and powers" at work in the neighborhood--and especially in the form of the gang.

If you have a "Faith and Film" series during Lent, this is a good one--if you can deal with the harsh language that is absolutely crucial to setting the table of Walt's (and others') prejudice.


Chuck Warnock said...

Tom, I saw your Chili's post in a couple of places, so congratulations on that! I linked to your Gran Torino review on -- I like what you're doing. Good writing and good content. I'll be back, actually I'm following your blog now, which is a nice feature of blogger. -Chuck

foxofbama said...

Enjoyed your review of Gran Torino.
Would love to see your take on The Reader and other assorted "Holocaust" movies in the recent spate with reference to Susan Jacoby's take in recent effort at Newsweek Religion blog.
If you could also work Nell Painter's essay The Shoah and Southern History in your Musings, then I will do what I can to see that Bishop Willimon takes a look. picked up your Gran Torino piece. As for Eastwood Movies, I often wonder if I woulda had the integrity of his character in Unforgiven when the scarred whore offers a free one.
And Doubt, how did you come down on Doubt.

Tom Steagald said...

can't find the link...

I will see what I can do about the Painter essay. I know Will, however. He blurbed my last book.