Gran Torino & the Great Masculine Tragedy

Last month I spent a lovely evening in the backyard of good friends in Prague. They were hosting a film night on the big screen with popcorn and the whole shebang. It felt just like Austin; the only thing missing were the cacophonous cicadas.

Our friends’ teenage daughter picked the film for the evening–Gran Torino. Which I’d not yet seen but when everyone says *you must*, right down to a Czech teenager, I know I’m missing something.

Gran Torino is set pretty close to where I grew up and the background subject is the ever-fast-changing racial terrain of the ex-Motor City (did I say ex?). I understood all the background jokes. (Yep, you were an eyesore if you dared drive a Toyota in the 80s. I came from a Ford family and a school full of motor company kids.)

The foreground subject is the caustic and closed-off world of Clint Eastwood’s character. Recently widowed and estranged from his children, he cloisters himself in his house as his neighborhood fills with Hmong people and other immigrants. And he’s a Vietnam vet so you can guess what might be going on in his head. Eventually the personal crises and needs of his neighbors force him to become the neighborhood Father.

I loved the spiritual tones of this movie as well. One of the subplots is the underlying tensions between Eastwood’s character and the Church. The fresh-faced young Irish-American priest is concerned for his parish, which includes the whole ‘hood, not just his church. He is seemingly naive, but his obstinate relationship with the backslidden Eastwood starts to unravel a fuller picture of priestliness in both characters. I won’t give away the ending but it’s got its Jesus elements.

So this film is officially up there with my favorites from the last ten years. It stuck with me for days on end; I have a weak spot for movies about aging men at the end of their existential rope. That’s why I love all of Wes Anderson’s movies, because the father-figure, who after one foolish, humiliating stunt after another, alienating his family and friends, being the utter idiot of the world, ends up doing something truly noble and manly at great cost, which redeems him entirely.

This theme has been rampant in the last five years, or maybe I just gravitate toward it. It’s what my friend Hannah called The Masculine Tragedy. It’s the story of a man divided between the false masculine heroic and the True Masculine. (I won’t go into this here, but it’s psychology.)

Think The Wrestler (a great movie, with a mesmerizing Mickey Rourke), think Crazy Heart (Jeff Bridges’s best). George Clooney in Up in the Air touches it. Even the lighthearted animation Up has the same thing going on.

Think about it: a man no longer relevant in his world, his values too out of touch. His house and work encroached by upstarts. The only thing left is a settled life (i.e., retirement, resting home). In all of the movies I mentioned the character is given some kind of goofy brochure pointing out “future options” by a well-meaning doctor, son, or neighborhood friendly guy interested in said character’s job or house.

And there’s the conflict: the man still wants to live. He still wants intimacy. He still wants to fly, defeat his enemies, cross the finish line. And maybe 20 years ago we wouldn’t have cared. These men are broken fathers, terrible fathers, or never want to be fathers. Or they don’t care about kids. I mean, these kind of people are supposed to be the bad guys.

In both Up and Gran Torino the old man has to face his cherished ideals at the end of his life. By doing so, only then can he truly shoot his gun and be a man. Well, I won’t tell ya what happens next, but there’s a reason these movies are a Masculine Tragedy.

Up had a happy ending, but it was wistful and surreal, too. The first third of the movie I wondered aloud that it might be the saddest animated film I ever watched–I started waiting for some kind of Holocaust. This man has lost his wife, his dreams, and now probably his house to the big bad developers. Then he takes off with his house tethered to balloons, which is definitely not cutesy in this movie and even in cartoonland looks really, really dangerous. I mean, this is Walt Disney, right? Little kitties, we’re not in Toto anymore. But even in our fatherless world, at least we’re trying to understand men, at least we’re willing to see what they do with a sword at the end of their lives.