Thursday, February 5, 2009

Gran Torino

I am reluctant to attend films that people say, "You really have to see this movie." In fact, I don't like to sit in theaters at all these days: they are over-priced and terribly loud.  They even have crummy commercials.  Further, there is always someone in the seats who distracts me by talking or rattling a bag of candy in my ear.

I was told that I had to see Gran Torino so that some friends, my wife and I cold discuss it on Friday at breakfast.  [groan]  Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski would audibly groan in a similar fashion throughout the film when confronted by circumstances he deemed idiotic.  

A movie with a 70's automobile as the title and Clint Eastwood as the star: groan.

"There's lot of bad language," I was warned.  Groan.

I was in the middle of a bathroom remodelling project when my wife said, "Let's see Gran Torino this afternoon at 12:50."  Groan.  My first reaction was, "You go and tell me about it!" I've done a lot of that during my life, categorizing movie theaters and Brussels sprouts in the same category.  Yet, I had been told that I must see it; in fact the 'must-see' people were older and more liberal than I, which made me a bit curious about seeing it.  "OK, we'll go!" I declared to my wife.  "It's senior-price day," she muttered as a final seal of the deal.

What I recalled from the talk about the movie was that Eastwood played a grumpy, bigoted guy living in a 'changing'  old section of town and that he was none-too happy with his new Asian neighbors. Interestingly, that town was Detroit, or Highland Park, an old village eaten up by the city of Detroit. Ford's Highland Park Assembly Plant employed many people who lived here until it closed in 1960.  I lived in Detroit while attending college in the 60's so i was very familiar with the setting.

In the opening scene, some Asians are speaking their native language and I turned to my wife and said, "They are speaking Hmong."  They were.  I knew Hmong from working in the Refugee Resettlement Program in the late 70's.  These hill people from central Laos cooperated with the CIA during the Vietnam War in the disruption of VietCong supply lines and in giving refuge to American pilots who were shot down while on missions over Laos and Vietnam .  After we pulled out of the war, the Hmong were left to be slaughtered by the communist Pathet Lao because they had aided the United States.  I know these people; I've eaten with them; I've laughed and cried with them.  I've attended their weddings and funerals.  I've been to Hmong homes in Highland Park, and now I sat watching this film with introspective eyes. 

Walt Kowalski is a hard-ass guy who, since his wife's death, has lost faith in just about everything, including his Catholic religion.  His sons and their kids are mostly disassociated with Walt and do not share the same 'values' as he.  The Korean War, in which Walt served, scarred him for life.  His 30-year assembly plant job sapped his creativity and curiosity.  His beer-drinking and cigarettes were his mode of blunting the memories. His gun, used in Korea, was his equalizer. His vocabulary was peppered with racist epithets which shielded his insecurity; gooks and zipperheads were among his favorites.

Somehow I bonded with Walt, despite our disparate personal histories. Why?  Today I am sorting it all out.  Perhaps later I'll come to some sense of it all.  Not now.

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