Thursday, August 27, 2009

Changing Opinions

I'm scouring the blog backlog, posting up pieces left abandoned. Not sure why this one never went up. It was written the day Changeling was released.

Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie on the set of Changeling

What is there in Changeling? The sound of Jolie's roller skates. The color of her wallpaper and the strange way her mouth contorts. The point at which the movie becomes a horror film, something like Don Siegel's The Beguiled, in which a group of Southern belles chopped Eastwood's leg off. A sympathy, which, unlike empathy, requires effort and is therefore more admirable. A cynicism towards cynics. A worldliness that isn't weary. A newfound delicacy. There are a million little things, and a million ways to look at them, and a million reasons to admire the film.

There is, though, a certain tendency amongst contemporary cinephiles to look at the films Clint Eastwood's made in the last two decades as being rejections of the screen persona associated with him for so long. Every film is an anti-Dirty Harry. Like every assumption -- every system -- it's both fairly misleading and fairly accurate. A system is just that: one way of looking at something, like a colored filter that brings out certain tones while muting others. Of course without the colored filter we would not have noticed certain highlights. Systems are necessary and should be changed frequently, forgotten, returned to, abandoned again. A critic should be able to write a hundred different essays about the same film, just as a filmmaker should be able to make a hundred films from the same set-up. This is does not invalidate criticism; it reaffirms it as a vital act. If there was only one correct answer, there would be no reason to ask questions, just as if there was a clear right and wrong there'd be no reason for morality or ethics.

Once we thought cinema was a window. Then people started saying it was a mirror, and we spent a long time arguing which one of the two it was. A few years ago, Pedro Costa called it was a door and that it was up to filmmakers to leave it open, closed or slightly ajar. So what's the right answer? Yes. An infinite yes that affirms these and all possible postulations. As all long as there's politics, all movies will be political. As long as there's sex, all films will be erotic. As long as there's money, all movies will be about economics. Or, I stand corrected: as long as people think about money, which means as long as culture exists in any form, because once an idea surfaces, you can never get rid of it. There will always be poetry even if we stop writing poems. Ideas are like styrofoam at the city dump; they may get mixed in with junk, but it'll take them a million years to disintegrate.

So, if we arbitrarily follow this tendency, what do we make of Changeling? If any film is anti-Dirty Harry, it's this one. The first Eastwood film with a female protagonist (the subject of Million Dollar Baby is Eastwood, though Hilary Swank forms its center), and a film where "the limp-wristed liberals" become the heroes and the vigilante cops become a menace. The Dirty Harry films had a macho distance, an ascetic rejection of the worldly: windows were to be smashed through, cars to be crashed. The camera, like Eastwood's Detective Callahan, had equal contempt for lowlifes and possessions, coldly watching as homes were destroyed. The soundtrack took delight in the sound of buildings exploding and glass smashing (the "Buddy Van Horn touch").

But here we have Changeling, a film of delicacy and sympathy, the image lingering over details of homes, clothing, cars as if to remind us (and, with the frequent scenes of Angelina Jolie's character at work, it does) that these things cost money, and that most people don't have very much. Everyday ephemera that would have been treated mockingly in one of his late 1970s action movies (even a masterpiece like The Gauntlet) is treated with sincerity and care. A gentle hand.

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