“America has been discovered before, but it has always been hushed up.”
Discovery of America, as is to be expected, is done by non-Americans, not to say strangers, or, worse yet, foreigners. Overwhelming evidence indicates that Americans have their country discovered for them by non-Americans.
All you need is to look up the most significant American film-makers: Elia Kazan, Frank Capra, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk, and Milos Forman, to be convinced of this obvious truth. None of them were American born, and only Kazan grew up in America.
America is not just a locale, a country, and belatedly – regrettably – a system, or, to be more accurate, a political racket. America is an idea, an ideal, a spirit, which, unfortunately, is little in evidence lately. A romantic view of America is not necessarily in Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but, rather, in his “It Happened One Night.” In a little over a quarter of a century the wonderful life had mutated into “The Imitation of Life”, whose director, found it to be too much, and left America. Milos Forman arrived and gave us an Oscar winning view of America pretty much the way many people experience it – as a lunatic asylum (“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”)
As the sun was setting on Hollywood’s Golden Age, foretold by Billy Wilder in “Sunset Boulevard,” the idea of America was alive and well, in the mind and eyes of another non-American film director. Sergio Leone, Italian director, physically large, artistically a giant, discovered for us Clint Eastwood, just like Kazan discovered Warren Beaty, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Nataly Wood, and Eli Wallach, the unforgettable Tuco from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Mr. Eastwood, the Man With No Name, is a personification of the stock idea from the Westerns, and the embodiment of the image in the camera-pliable aesthetics. Peter Bogdanovich, of the Paper Moon, may have been the most articulate exponent of John Ford’s greatness as a director, who made, almost exclusively, Westerns. John Wayne was Ford’s man, just as Monument Valley was Ford Country. However, the quintessential manliness of a Westerner, is personified by Gary Cooper in “The Westerner,” by William Wyler. It is Gary Cooper, whose handsome looks were unmatched in the cattle kingdom (Alastair Cook), along with Randolph Scott, who comes to mind as one thinks of the Wild West. There is something so un-wild, rough tenderness, eloquent silence, rugged, shy boldness about these men. Michael Caine admits to having received valuable advice from John Wayne, who told him: “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t talk too much.” Clint Eastwood is a man of few words. While running for the mayoral office of the Carmel by the Sea, CA, in a public debate with his opponent, whose PR handler kept butting in, Mr. Eastwood could not bear it any longer and snapped, as if under Mr. Leone’s direction: Why don’t you shut your face, and let her talk?
B. Traven and Karl May, the former possibly and the latter assuredly a German, wrote about the American West well before they saw it. Sergio Leone finished the trilogy of the Spaghetti Westerns before setting a foot in America to shoot the Monument Valley (the Ford Country) scenes for the Once Upon A Time In The West. The man who never visited America discovered, for us, the American Icon, Clint Eastwood. The French Academy of Letters recognized Mr. Eastwood and his contribution to “the seventh art,” in large measure based on his Spaghetti Trilogy.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, on the Lake Michigan shores, Mr. Eastwood presents us with that, other, America which Mr. Leone would probably recommend that Mr. Eastwood use for target practice, the extreme case America that made Mr. Sirk return to Europe. As the Man With No Name Mr. Eastwood was, like Sartre’s Che Guevarra, complete human being, whose story and life ran parallel to the story of the world around him. He’s a nobleman, almost a drifter, a man who has nothing to lose, consequently winning our admiration. We all, in a way, want to be the Men With No Name, men of few words, men of principles and towering magnanimity.
On Lake Michigan, an old assembly line worker befriends a marginal Hmong youth, precariously perched on the borderline of gang-violence and American slum dwelling.
Just like Blondie from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, Walt Kowalsky from Gran Torino, is not a black and white, a cut and dry presentation of good and evil. His curmudgeonly bigotry is more than a presentation technique designed to emphasize the greatness of the spirit, triumph of the virtue, the work ethic. He, in fact, is an embittered old man, a bigot. Walt calls his barber “a fat Italian prick,” just like inner city kids call each other “Nigger.” Explanation to Walt’s rapport with his barber lies in the line from The Good Shepherd:
Joseph Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?
Edward Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.
On some level, in an abstract sense, Mr. Eastwood is just visiting.
WASP is everything we love to hate about America. And Mr. Kowalsky’s got only one of the W-A-S-P letters, “W” for Walt, since he can’t make any personal claim about being white, the accident of birth. Walt Kowalsky, of Polish extraction, a Catholic, has toiled all his life in the WASP dominated world, WASP shaped Weltanschauung, only to see it dilapidate into an uninhabitable battle-ground of the gangs whose members barely speak English. Mr. Eastwood plays himself, the young Man With No Name, by pulling a cigarette and asking: Light!?
You would have to be largely unfamiliar with, For A Few Dollars More, not to know that that’s where it came from. But you would be a lot higher thought of if you knew that it was, originally, lifted from Sterling Hayden (with Joan Crawford) in Johnny Guitar. Francois Truffaut said of it: “It is dreamed, a fairy tale, a hallucinatory Western…Johnny Guitar is the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream. The cowboys vanish and die with the grace of ballerinas.”
Walt Kowalsky’s friend Thao discovers America. But that is one of those discoveries that should be hushed up. In his last will he bequeathed his Gran Torino to Thao on the condition that it shall not be turned into a garish spectacle that egalitarianism seems to have put on steroids.
The moment that the banally overused phrase of the American Dream is realized, it’s no longer a dream. Dreams are children of Spirit, for the Spirit gives life and the letter (of the law) kills (2 Cor. 3:6). The WASP America is the one that, when the going gets tough, seeks refuge and comfort in the saying “for it is written,” a harbinger of the current answer in the form of a question: is it constitutional? A whiskey without ice is unthinkable, “if not outright unconstitutional” (Glenda Jackson in Hopscotch.) Judge Alex Kozinsky, an immigrant, cannot afford, professionally, to ignore the letter. However, as another notable non-American who has discovered America for us, he has written a lengthy, serious legal opinion composed entirely of Hollywood produced titles. It is comforting to see that the letter did not prevail over the Spirit.
As someone who grew up somewhere else I do not claim to have discovered America, except for myself. Often I liken myself to the eccentric Anthony Blanche, from The Brideshead Revisited, who, arriving quite late to the opening night of the friend’s paintings exhibit, takes the artist under the arm, and, affecting a stutter, says:
C-c-come, m-my deah, l-let me explain them to you.