Sam B. Girgus, professor of English at Vanderbilt University, argues that five movies directed by Clint Eastwood — “Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River,” “Flag of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” — are masterpieces that “engage the ethical and moral crises of our times” and “project the challenges and paradoxes of the search for individual and national regeneration” because “his work over time dramatizes the search for meaning in America.”
I am not competent to judge the quality of his scholarship, but judging from the blurbs for his book, Mr. Girgus is held in high esteem by his colleagues. So for all I know, his claims about Mr. Eastwood’s films may be true (although I doubt it). Since he writes much of the book in the strange jargon of academics (Academese?), it is often hard to know exactly what he is talking about.
This is too bad because in those sections of the book in which he offers his own analysis of scenes in the films, Mr. Girgus has much to offer to those who enjoy Mr. Eastwood’s films, and who think, as I do, that some of his work is worthy of scholarly study. His extended examination of a sequence in “Mystic River,” in which the character played by Sean Penn discovers his daughter has been murdered, demonstrates the author’s understanding of the technical skills of editing, pacing, camera movement and placement that can transform cinematic cliches into fresh insights. If the entire book offered these scholarly gems, I would gladly recommend it.
However, too much of the book bogs down in academic-speak: Mr. Eastwood’s films “suggest the infinite in the human that exceeds knowledge and certainty, but still demands absolute responsibility in intersubjective relationships.” The films “look toward Emmanuel Levinas’ anarchic ethical time before synchronic time ‘to a past that was never present,’ a time of a ‘deference of the immemorial to the unforeseeable,’ a paradox that ‘inscribes the glory of the Infinite.’”
There’s more. About “Unforgiven,” Mr. Girgus writes, “Eastwood films a story of death and defecation. He proffers a disturbing religious and psychoanalytical portrait of life as [a four-letter word for excrement] and money as the epitomization of death in life.” “Mystic River” “insinuates a deific power of witnessing that propounds the promise of an ethical vision of transcendent responsibility to the other.”
I have seen each of the movies discussed (although I confess I somehow missed the defecation motif in “Unforgiven”), but although I enjoyed watching them, I do not think they can carry the burden of the grandiose claims made in this book. “Unforgiven” is, to the author, about a “search for redemption” and “the sublimation and repression that dominate civilization.”
In my non-scholarly view, the movie was a search for an Academy Award, a pretentious bore in which Mr. Eastwood’s all-too-obvious desire to subvert his usual screen persona just never came off. I think Mr. Eastwood was close to his best as an actor, and lean and crisp as a director, in “Million Dollar Baby,” despite the politically correct assisted suicide at the end, but Mr. Girgus‘ claim that “Eastwood comes closer than in any of his other movies to imagining the possibility of transcendence in the ethical and human responsibility to the other” is way over the top, even if we grant that Mr. Eastwood has ever been engaged in such “imagining.” The book is marred by a desire to find profundity in movies that, in the author’s viewpoint, symbolize certain intellectually fashionable philosophical or psychoanalytical theories, but as Sigmund Freud (the theorist’s theorist) once wrote: “Sometimes, a cigar is only a cigar.” Yes, any good movie is going to make us think of ideas and theories that are not explicit in the screenwriting or the direction, but scholarship should be about the movie itself. “Clint Eastwood’s America” is not about Mr. Eastwood’s films as much as it is about the dogmatic theories, fads and ideological fashions of academics.
In graduate school, I had the honor of being taught by Gilbert Seldes who, for all practical purposes, created serious film criticism in the United States. Mr. Seldes thought that movies should be judged on their own terms, and not as a form of narrative less important than books and plays. Such an idea is commonplace today, but academia, at its doctrinaire worst, has done to movies what it previously did to books, and that is to use criticism as a means through which scholars show off their quasi-religious adherence to whatever theory or ideological construct is currently held to be sacrosanct.
The intended audience for this book is composed mostly of other scholars of film and students who have to be indoctrinated into the mysteries of current film theory. Fair enough, but the rest of us can benefit by scholarly exegesis that is accessible, sensible and does not require a degree in the higher hermeneutics.
It is my sincere hope that Mr. Girgus and his distinguished colleagues will throw off the shackles of ideological theorizing and begin analyzing movies for what they are — a popular form of entertainment (a word I do not recall seeing in this book) — and not for the sake of fitting them into whatever critical fashion is now being worshipped.
William F. Gavin is the author of “Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric” (Michigan State University Press, 2011).