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NOTES ON GRAN TORINO

GENRE: FEATURE FILM/ ACTION/DRAMA/NEO-WESTERN

General Points:

Feature films are dependent on the narrative and utilize the conventions
of the narrative with film language to construct the movie.

Feature films are born out a specific culture and reflect, reinforce or
challenge the values and attitudes of that culture.

Films make use of familiar plotline, common ideas, and indirectly or


directly reference other texts or rework a text for a contemporary
audience.
There is a saying there is no such thing as a new plot.

A romantic comedy utilizes a stereotypical plotline with hero/heroine


presented with a choice between the unsuitable partner and a suitable
one. The cad is sophisticated, charming and seductive while the suitable
partner appears boring or conservative. Before true love is found he/she
must overcome many obstacles.

Influence on the construction of Gran Torino The Western.

The Western is an important genre since it is associated with the


formation of American society. The western reflects the defeat of the
barbarian; the construction of a new society; the establishment of civil
society; the formation of a justice or law system and the rejection of
anarchy. However, it also hails the hero who is able to overcome
obstacles and carve out a new life from a harsh landscape. The ordinary
man is able to achieve extraordinary feats.

The cowboy of the Western is defined as rugged, individualist, self-reliant,


determined, ambitious, fearless, stoic, resilient and above all noble. He
defeats evil restores good and always saves the day.

Part of the Western plotline is the stand offs where the hero confronts the
bad guy and the townsfolk witness his battle with evil. It is an essential
element of the plotline. The climatic ending restores justice and civil
society is once more safe from the rogue element. There is usually a
damsel in distress or his victory often gains him the love of a good
woman. The emphasis is on the good woman since her purity or moral
righteousness is essential. The cowboy might visit the bar or saloon with
the resident prostitute or entertainer, but it is the girl next door, who is
pure, who wins his heart.
The sheriff or the outsider who comes to town to save the day is also part
of the Western plotline.
Eastwood has absorbed this genre and reworked it for a contemporary
audience and situation. Kowalski is the cowboy of old who sits on the
porch to protect his property; he saves the neighbourhood from the
villainous gang of Hmongs. He defends his property with his gun; He
defends the girl (Sue) from the gang of African Americans. But when she
is raped he seeks vengeance to restore civil harmony to his world. Unlike
the Western movie the hero does not ride away to save another day.
Instead his death is viewed as a necessary sacrifice. He is a Christ like
figure whose love for his fellow man has overcome his racism.

Overview of the text.

The general context to the movie is Americas involvement in the Korean War of
the 1950s. This forms the basis for the character of Walt Kowalski. It is used as a
justification for the characters racist and violent tendencies. His nature and life
have been affected by the violence of war. He has killed Koreans and their deaths
haunt him. It has defined his family relationships and is used to excuse his racist
attitude to his Hmong neighbours. He views them as the enemy because they are
Asian and remind him of Koreans. The insults vary from swamp rats, zipper
heads to gooks. Walt doesnt recognise the difference and like all racists one
ethnic group look pretty much like the next one.

The violence of the past is part of Walts psyche. He is aggressive, has a gun at the
ready and his language has violent connotations. The filmmaker excuses this
character flaw or implies that Walts view of life is not all his responsibility. The
soldiers of Walts generation have not been accorded the luxury of counselling
for post-traumatic stress syndrome. They are expected to forget their war
experiences and return to civilian life untouched by their actions. Walt is proud
of his ability to survive and just get on with his life. However, he does finally
acknowledge that his shutting out of his emotions may have affected his
relationship with his sons.

Walt is a patriotic veteran who espouses the traditional values of American


society.
These values include:
Love of country

Pride in nationhood

A sense of white superiority or that American democracy is the ideology


of choice. (Rejection of communism where ownership is shared and the
state controls all)

Democracy but in America the belief is that the government should not
interfere no welfare state as such.
Traditional masculinity manual labour, physical strength, standing up
for yourself, the ability to defend what is yours car and woman.

One other key value is the right to bear arms to protect your home and
family. This is a fundamental belief that is an integral part of American
culture.

Walt embodies this as he sits on his porch, surveying his neat well-tended
lawn and challenges any person who dares to set foot on his property.
The flag that hangs to the side of the porch reinforces Walts view that he
is a proud American. The symbolism of the Gran Torino adds to the sense
that Walt embodies the past it is an iconic car produced in America and
made by American labour. It represents a time when the best cars were
American made and the country was associated with wealth, freedom and
the American dream of success.

Character construction

( Take note this is the meaning of the text or an overview only. The booklet with
the still frame images should help you step out the film codes.)

Walt
The opening of the movie depicts Walt as a grumpy old man. The loss of his wife
serves to distance him further from his sons and grandchildren. He appears
isolated and happy to be alone. Walt deliberately distances himself from his
neighbours and is viewed muttering racial remarks under his breath. He
considers that the neighbourhood has gone to the dogs, and been taken over by
his enemy. He is resentful of change and clings to the past. The isolation is
reflected in his rejection not only of his family but in the priest who tries to offer
support. They have little in common. Walt has no need for prayers or the
trappings of the Catholic Church. He is rude and belligerent.

The movie charts Walts growth as a person. The Hmong family become his
surrogate family. Through his relationship with Thao and Sue he redeems
himself. He makes amends for his failings as a father, as a human being and for
the war. Walts first encounter with Thao is inauspicious. Thao tries to steal his
prized possession The Gran Torino- and is confronted by a gun toting Walt.
Walt is prepared to defend what is his he epitomises the right to bear arms. His
gun rests under his pillow and he is always prepared to use it. Walt never shirks
from a fight and appears to embrace violence as a natural way of life. His very
nature is violent. Walts gun is a part of him. It is symbolic of his aggression and
propensity to violence.

On the surface, Walt and Thao have little in common. One is young, nerdy and
from a different culture while the other is old, aggressive and traditional. But the
reality is they both have to learn from their mistakes and find a place to belong.
Walt must reconcile himself with his past and Thao must find his voice in a world
dominated by the gang.
Thao like Walt must redeem himself and his family force him to repay Walt. This
begins Thaos journey to manhood and Walts journey to goodness. Walt
becomes a mentor a father figure to the nerdy, bookish young man who is
lost in an alien gang culture environment. Walt is viewed fixing machines, within
the backdrop of his garage surrounded by tools, he wields tools and his
mentoring is physical. Walt does not express himself emotionally. There are no
heart to heart talks. The skills he imparts are practical and yet the audience is
aware that the boy is slowly becoming a man. His love advice is old fashioned
and he jokes as a bloke. Thaos success is down to Walt. He has found his voice
and the courage to ask a girl for a date. Walt has the young people around for a
barbecue. He is viewed for the first time as opening the doors of his home to
outsiders.

But, at no point, does Walt change his tone or his language. It is one of the
criticisms of the movie that its jokey approach to racism could be seen as
an acceptance or a dismissal of the embedded racism within Walt and the
wider society. His racism is dismissed as being old fashioned and almost
part of being old.

Walt is captured within a mans world of the bar where he meets his friends. It is
an all male domain. The barber- shop, then the building site and then the tool
shop. His world is physical and practical. This reflects the traditional view of
American manhood.

When confronted with the gang either at home or on the street it is the gun and
the verbal insult that is part of his response. He taunts the African American gang
who try to assault Sue. The young man who accompanies her is viewed as
impotent. It is the old veteran or the old man who rescues the young girl and
protects her innocence. He is the saviour or the knight in shining armour,
although it is a truck rather than a horse that got him there.

Thao also needs to be rescued. He is fatherless and Walt becomes his father and
his champion. He confronts the gang and makes them feel powerless. But their
retribution is swift and cruel. The gang rape Sue and rob her of her dignity, both
Thao and Walt are left powerless. Walt recognises that to redeem himself and
ensure the safety of Thao and his sister the ultimate sacrifice is required.
Vengeance is not enough he must find redemption but the redemption is
again through violence. Walts death is viewed as noble, a fitting end for his past
wrongs. His cross like image replicates Christ on the cross. It is an act of love
from a father figure for his surrogate son. Walt dies with the lighter in his hand
rather than a gun. It is show down of the old Western with a twist. What remains
the same is the outcome evil is defeated good triumphs. Not only that but law is
restored and the police get their man. America or this little part is once more a
safe place to live.
It is notable that while Thaos future is secure and Walt is restored to the hands
of the Church and God he still remains distant from his natural family. The Gran
Torino the symbol of American capitalism/ democracy and culture is given to
Thao. This could be viewed as Walt embracing change, acceptance of different
cultures and the rejection of greed as epitomised by his own family. He has the
last laugh on his son who wanted to put him in old persons home. Eastwood
could be also reminding the audience that the older generation deserve our
respect. Thao symbolically drives the car into the horizon with the dog at his
side. His future is secure and there are endless possibilities.

Alternative view of ending


The criticism of the movie is that its challenge to racism is doing is very
superficial. The hero is still the white man rather than the young Hmong. The
white man is still the more powerful one in the relationship and even at the end
it is Walt who directs the action and seeks revenge for the wrong committed
against Sue. Thao does not gain control of the situation. He may gain more
confidence, but an old man manages to lock him in the basement and trick him
out of seeking his revenge. Walts actions may be noble and sincere; but does this
reinforce the traditional view that the white man is the saviour and the other is
either impotent or the aggressor.

Think To Kill a Mocking Bird Atticus the white man is the would be saviour
and the Black man cant look after himself.

The ending:
The audience of mainstream America is left feeling good about themselves.
Justice is restored and the bad guy defeated. The old order is restored. The
traditional patriarchal power structure is endorsed. Thaos journey to manhood
is through physical action and even Walts journey to redemption is through his
physical death. Sue may have been independent and feisty but she is soon
punished for her transgressions. She is missing at the end of the movie. The
woman disappears once more into the background. Thaos world and Walts both
share a patriarchal structure. When Walt assumes the role of father and
protector of the neighbourhood the power is vested once more in the man. The
women cannot control the community and their only power is in the kitchen.
Those who enjoy action movies are left with the satisfaction of a good old shoot
out and those who enjoy melodrama are also satisfied with the intense emotional
build up. The final moment of triumph or Walts last laugh is handing his prized
Gran Torino to Thao and denying his greedy family the pleasure of his car. Old
people everywhere would be cheering Respct!