Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with Milwaukee Film, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects, including comicwonder.com.
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com. This week, Metcalf weighs in on Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino."
GRAN TORINO (2008)
This is the latest, and by some accounts on the great rumor mill that runs Hollywood, the last film by Clint Eastwood. There is an old canard in the design trade, which I think applies to any creative act -- form follows function. In other words, you don't decide what you want something to look like and then fill it up, you pursue the function, or the content, and what it looks like will rise up out of that.
Gran Torino is a case in point.
It is about a working-class guy, now retired and living in a decidedly working-class neighborhood in a working-class city, Detroit. It is produced and directed by Eastwood, who has proved himself over time to be clearly a working-class kind of hero, and a very workmanlike director. Ergo, what you get is a working-class film, or in some parlance, a pedestrian film. Now, putting a word like "pedestrian" on it would be, at some tea parties, a putdown. I don't intend it that way.
I admire Eastwood's bricks-and-mortar way of building a film. The architecture is simple and he doesn't care if it shows. The films he makes are like brick row houses in the Polish neighborhoods of Hamtramck: they are solid, will last a couple of generations at least, keep you warm through a long hard winter and are cool enough in summer not to need air conditioning, which we can't afford anyway. Each one looks like the one next door, but what matters about a house like this is who lives in it -- not what color it's painted -- because the people inside are your neighbors.
Someone I had a conversation with once upon a time worked with Eastwood as a director. He said that he argued with Eastwood, because Clint wrapped a scene they were shooting before my friend thought they had gotten a good take. Eastwood stopped for a minute to explain that they were making a film, which was a little like putting up a wall. If one of the bricks in that wall was a little off-color or out of alignment, it didn't really matter because the other bricks would hold it all up and the one wouldn't be noticed.
Obviously, he's not the obsessive-compulsive, egocentric-auteur type of director. And no one will ever mistake him for a great artist of the cinema. Probably. But if you look at "Unforgiven," at the craft of the filmmaking, the acting within the frame, and the level of introspection and self-analysis in the story, you have to acknowledge that that film, at least, is more than a simple entertainment. "Flags of Our Fathers" has great ambition, but fails because the director, Eastwood, is looking outward, away from himself, at the "bigger picture," and that is against his taciturn, inward-turning, self-reflective nature.
One of the images I will always have of Eastwood is of him running when he is in training in "Every Which Way But Loose," or the other one, "Every Which Way You Can." He runs like a man wearing heavy work boots. He runs like a man who does not thrill to running, a man for whom it is work, for whom there may even be some physical pain involved, but he continues doing it because he must, because it is his job, and because his will is strong.
"Gran Torino" is like him running. It is clunky, workmanlike, his boots are too heavy, and much of the acting, from the man himself and especially from the supporting cast, many of whom are new to the job, looks like it is painful, and not in an empathetic way.
But the story is inspired. The reason for being there is important, and no one else in Hollywood would bother to tell the story of an irascible old bigot of a bachelor living in the midst of a Hmong neighborhood in a working-class city in America and learning to care for them and to not hate without thinking and to sacrifice.
No one in Hollywood would do that, would tell that story about themselves. But Eastwood does. And he does it with clear-sighted vision. And that's why he's Clint to his friends.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.