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How Europe Paints Eastwood Red
Another Look at MYSTIC RIVER
dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Brothers
I am told that in Italy many cheer as Eli Wallach makes a cameo appearance in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. I too, while attending the screening that opened this year’s New York Film Festival, wanted to align with my compatriots and betray a gesture of appreciation (for Clint’s presumed homage to his Italian beginnings, which included Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly , with Eli Wallach), but my drive got irremediably mortified upon realizing that the audience would let the brief appearance as a liquor store proprietor go unacknowledged. As I pondered how my Italianness could possibly impregnate the work of this quintessentially American director, last avatar of a national classicism sacrificed to the financial advantages of Hollywood’s transnational designs, Eastwood had cut from Wallach’s cameo to the dark interior of a living room where Tim Robbins’s Dave Boyle was watching John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998). The Italianization of my reception of Mystic River was then complete, as I evidently (though lamentably) began identifying with the rive gauche of Italian (and French) film criticism and its peculiar pledge to elevate precisely these two filmmakers, Eastwood and Carpenter, to poster boys for a leftist re-interpellation of American genre cinema.
Immediately, my evaluation of the film revolved around its belligerent potentials, providing affirmative answers to questions that on the other side of the Atlantic are canonical as much as they are rhetorical: Is it not logical, for us old-fashioned radicals of the Old Continent, reactionary in our condescension towards any postmodern criticism of orthodoxy, to enamor Eastwood’s mastering of the canon? Shall we not bask in a decoupage (to remain Francophilic) that is invisible no matter how consciously parallel the editing, in a narration that is strictly chronological (a rarity nowadays), and in a camera that, while perhaps moving heavenward a bit too often, generally follows character? Shall we not deem this obstinate adherence to the classic norm a more accurate aesthetic embodiment of our static, encamped approach to ideology than, say, that colorful, naively exuberant, incoercible and excessively imaginative divertissement that is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002)? Speaking of which, rigid and unimaginative as we are, should we not prefer the familiarity of Sean Penn’s method acting than Anderson’s defamiliarizing attempt to present Adam Sandler as a serious actor?
When it comes to politicizing Eastwood, the difference between Europe and America is like that between the acritical immobility of an adolescent crush (a camp in which I confess to belong) and the capacity to fluidly develop one’s worldview, normally associated with adulthood. While the American liberal critics began joining the Eastwood camp only when it seemed rationally justified, (namely when Clint arguably went PC de-mythologizing the Western and his own masculine persona in Unforgiven , bashing the FBI and fundamentalist religion in A Perfect World , questioning the fairness of the American judiciary system in True Crime ), Europe had been interpellating Eastwood from the left, thereby squaring off with the American Paulettes, ever since Dirty Harry Callahan. Unpragmatic, in line with a theoretical approach that equated political purity with the ability to arbitrarily attach labels from without, any which way one could, the left-wing of European film criticism did not share the more grounded and antagonistic position of the ACLU. In Europe, Callahan fought on the side of Justice, not on that of the Law. He was a revolutionary, the vanguard loner whom, emerging from the margins, withstood corrupt officialdom, starting with the wasp aristocracy of the San Francisco Police Department. It is commonplace, in Europe, to attribute great importance to Eastwood’s Northern Californian origins, as if this alone aligned his sociopolitical sensibility with that of Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg. Not such a scandalous suggestion, after all, considering that in certain quarters, Heartbreak Ridge (1986) became a tribute to Maurice Bishop, the Marxist Prime Minister of Grenada, whose arrest and execution by the hands of hard-liners provided the US with an excellent excuse to invade the island on October 25, 1983. This list of tendentious interpretations could go on, from deeming the climax of The Gauntlet (1977) a heartfelt homage to the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst led to a similar gunfight with the police in Watts, Los Angeles, to accentuating the anti-CIA sentiment of Eastwood’s Frank Horrigan in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1993 In the Line of Fire (“What are you up to now? Running coke for the contras? Running arms for Iran?”).
Reporting from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Mystic River premiered, an Italian critic wrote an unfavorable review of Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2003) the day before the screening of Eastwood’s film. Halfway through, the review becomes an open love letter to Eastwood in which the writer grieves at the mediocrity of the festival, consoles himself by predicting that Mystic will be a masterpiece before even seeing it, and literally exhorts Clint to bring to Cannes his .44 Magnum to teach the European filmmakers (and his compatriot Gallo) a lesson in cinema. Clearly, that of the European critics for Clint Eastwood is an infatuation that borders on obsession, one whose origins date back, at least in Italy, to long before the Cahiers critics (some 15 years ago) resolved to formalize their allegiance by dedicating to Eastwood a special issue. The European left in particular, at least that which is preoccupied with cinema, has adopted Eastwood unconditionally, or culturally appropriated him, further evidence of the fact that for Europeans, America remains a dreamworld of endless potentials (ultimate Marxist utopia, one would infer from certain interpretations), the place where we return in order to perpetuate an adolescent dream, where without inhibitions and constraints, we can develop a crush and never recover.