Thursday, September 9, 2010

Clint Eastwood as Superman? Yeah, No Thanks...

If you've ever wondered what Clint Eastwood might look like in Superman's outfit or James Bond's tuxedo, the LA Times's Hero Complex has an interview you have to read. It's also worth checking out to learn Eastwood's views on the superhero film genre and his childhood love for the Sub-Mariner comics.

I love me some Clint Eastwood. I think along with his iconic status as an actor and persona, he's America's best filmmaker, bar none. Who else would have the physical and intellectual vigor to make not one but two war pictures about the battle for Iwo Jima and the universal regard for and interest in humanity to tell it from both sides with equal care? And I have to admit I get a huge kick out of his earlier flicks, too.

Just last night, I watched both Magnum Force and The Enforcer for the umpteenth time. I love the Dirty Harry series. Sure, I deplore Harry Callahan's fascistic and incredibly inept approach to law enforcement-- I'm reminded of the line from David Fincher's Zodiac where real-life San Francisco homicide inspector Dave Toschi as played by Mark Ruffalo dismisses him with sarcasm, saying, "No need for due process, right?"

The series's uncritical endorsement of police brutality and even institutionalized sexism by way of various strawman scenes makes me uneasy, similar to how I can thrill to the storytelling in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns while understanding and rejecting the stacked-deck nature of his political beliefs.

Sure, Harry protests in Magnum Force he may hate the system but he'll work within it until someone comes up with a better idea. That's disingenuous given his track record, to say the least. It's a clumsy way to make his violent approach to justice seem reasonable compared to Hal Holbrook's even more violent approach. He gets Tyne Daly as a partner in The Enforcer, but not before he humiliates a hatchet-faced caricature of a feminist at a trial board.

Ignoring politics, these movies have a visceral impact. It's cool watching Harry take down murderous cops-- David Soul, Robert Urich and Tim "Otter" Matheson!-- and violent Symbionese Liberation Army types. Looked at from a realistic standpoint and given my admittedly limited knowledge of actual police procedures, even I can tell Harry and his various partners are lousy cops. In Dirty Harry, he stakes out a building where he knows a sniper will be hiding-- and doesn't even bother to establish a perimeter, so the suspect slips away out the back door.

From actor to director, Eastwood has grown as a cinematic storyteller through the years and I've really come to admire his later body of work, starting around the time of Pale Rider. Unforgiven is one of my all-time favorite films and Letters from Iwo Jima is heartbreaking. To me, though, his masterpiece is Million Dollar Baby, my model for what a film should be. The only political statement I came away from that film with was we humans are complex, fascinating creatures and our lives are all too frequently tragic. It's hard to believe Million Dollar Baby was directed by the guy in the sport coat staring from behind a .44 Magnum and asking us if we felt lucky.

Can you imagine that same guy in blue and red tights, cavorting with Lois Lane? Apparently, someone at Warner Bros. could, at least in the late 60s or very early 70s. I really enjoyed reading his views on Christopher Reeve's performance as the Man of Steel: "[He] was excellent," and the recognition of the kind of typecasting he might have faced had he donned the cape himself, obviously different from that of playing a cop or gunfighter. Eastwood did-- and still does with a number of people if his and Martin Scorsese's message boards on IMDB are to be believed-- have to overcome a certain amount of typecasting as he moved into directing. Who expected the guy who helmed the violent revenge pic The Outlaw Josey Wales to take on Charles Parker's story in Bird and do it with grace and sensitivity to both the man's biography and his music?

Ultimately, I tend to agree with Eastwood's views on superhero movies, and I'm glad he-- just as Harry Callahan would have it-- knew his limitations. Taking the Superman role would have been a disaster for him, easily the equal to John Wayne's portrayal of Genghis Khan.

Now what I'm wondering is-- what was it about the Sub-Mariner, an anti-establishment knockabout type at war with land-dwelling humanity-- that appealed to young Eastwood? The Sub-Mariner was a wild man back when Bill Everett first created him. An anti-hero who delighted in destroying Manhattan with tidal waves and sperm whale assaults. Maybe Eastwood just liked the action and mayhem, divorced from subtext or even context in the same way I enjoy the Dirty Harry flicks. I want to think about this and see if I can identify a strain of Sub-Mariner mayhem in Eastwood's filmology.

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