Clint Eastwood exists, but he is not God. My quarrel with your skeptical assessment of actor-auteur Clint is certainly not dramatic or emphatic enough to provoke one of Slate’s legendary long-running debates. I agree that the Richard Schickel biography under review was not a particularly balanced or well-judged piece of work. (Although I did find it tolerably readable, a few notches above the norm for celebrity bios.) I also agree that Eastwood is not much of an ironist, either as an actor or a director: If he’s parodying himself, he’s parodying himself all the time, which means, of course, that he’s not actually parodying himself at all. (In the same way, the people who think that Adolf Hitler was a self-parody are off base.)
So where don’t I agree? I somehow felt that in the end you’d shortchanged–by a few dollars, at least–Eastwood’s talent as a director. The nonvisionary TV actors who are usurping director’s chairs in obnoxious numbers may obscure the surprising strength of Eastwood’s achievements. Eastwood is, of course, as responsible as anyone for the baleful phenomenon of the actor-auteur. He probably inspired the mantra, “What I really want is to direct.” Other obnoxious things, indeed, can be laid at his door: the “Dirty Harry” template for the modern Willis/Schwarzenegger action movie, for example, which consists of 1) sleazy urban wackos, many of them racially or sexually differentiated from Eastwood; 2) mayhem visited on those criminals, but only when preceded by 3) pseudo-witty one-liners, on the order of, “Go ahead, make my day.”
But the sins of the children should not be visited on the deadbeat bebop dad. Eastwood’s approach to action must have seemed much more quirky and fresh at the time (I was a Lucas/Spielberg kid, so I wouldn’t know), and “Dirty Harry” holds up surprisingly well: Don Siegel’s direction has a junky resourcefulness and occasional cinematographic grace that looks positively artful next to the sledgehammer touch of a Tony Scott or a Renny Harlin. And Eastwood’s persona is perhaps richer than you’re willing to admit: He has a way of cannily, amusedly absorbing events around him which takes him far above the level of any pumped-up action hero of recent times and closer to the league of supreme character actors like, say, Morgan Freeman (who is God). What other actor has gotten so much mileage out of static diffidence? His boredom is more interesting than others’ attempts to entertain.
You call his movies “dry” and “dodgy.” I’ll agree with that; but is that a bad thing? Most movies these days are wet and in-your-face. Eastwood has shown an intelligently offbeat taste in movie subjects, Bridges of Madison County excepted–and even that movie fits in with the laid-back seriousness of his work, if you forget about the novel on which it was based. More than that, he’s found his own rhythm for the pacing of a movie–slow, lulling, but prone to surprisingly momentous emotional turns. A lot of waiting; attractive but dustily unprettified scenery; characters ambling about here and there; a developing relationship; and then, toward the end, something close to a revelation or epiphany. I’m thinking particularly of the sudden violent relapse of William Munny in Unforgiven, the heartbreaking conclusion of A Perfect World (more than that shouldn’t be said), the wounded homecoming of The Outlaw Josey Wales.
It doesn’t always happen–some of his movies, like Bird, are simply tedious–but it happens often enough that it must be more than an accident. It’s an aesthetic plainly derived from Sergio Leone, who put about 15 minutes of action into three-hour films. Yet it also seems to be inherent in Eastwood’s character–his ability to wait, to do nothing, and yet to hold your attention. The Leone movies remain Eastwood’s best work as an actor, but not necessarily because Leone was the one genius director he ever got to work with. I think it’s that he and Leone together hit upon this peculiar rhythm–supremely languid, half tragic, half comical–and Eastwood has found ways to direct his own movies on the same principle.
Ultimately, this defense of Eastwood is premised not on the pure artistic quality of the movies in isolation–even the best are flawed, occasionally amateurish in technical terms–but on their relative quality. Eastwood is telling stories; he’s going from A to B, fashioning a whole movie that has one definite and startling moment of arrival. Most other directors are spinning flashily in place, working with scripts that have no ending or no point. You seldom leave one of Eastwood’s movies with the all-too-common multiplex refrain, “That had some good stuff, but then it totally fell apart.” Eastwood saves his best for last, in two senses–the final scenes of his movies are always the best, and, from film to film, he’s getting incrementally more interesting. Of what other director can that be said? As Western culture slides toward ruin, Clint has evidently become an artist by standing absolutely still.