making amends

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There is only one scene that is too tidy in Gran Torino. It seems unlikely to me that after committing murder, gang members would hang around waiting for arrest by the police. But this is part of what gives the film its essential Americanness: in the midst of tragedy, the glimmer of a happy ending.
Gran Torino is a study in control, depicting the redemption of an old man who – as a young man – lost self-possession at a crucial moment and did a terrible thing. All the characters cope with the consequences of history in contemporary U.S. society, from the mass displacement of the Hmong because of allying militarily with America against communism in the 1960s to the showmanship of angry young disenfranchised men playing it cool and dangerous on the street. The verbal aggression is shocking, especially the “man talk” of white men that is typically protected from such blatant public display. Parallels with ways of talking that are stereotypically associated with racial minority groups are not difficult to draw. Racial and ethnic labels can – and are – used to express affection just as readily as disdain.
Using anti-politically correct language is not an automatic barrier to developing relationships of trust and respect across cultural difference. Not surprisingly, young people are most adept at recognizing and codeswitching among distinct forms of address. For immigrants, this is well-documented: bilingual children interpret for their parents and grandparents, bridging differences of language while undergoing irrevocable transformations in identity. The little girl who interprets her grandfather’s request to remove a wasp’s nest is no different from the hearing children of deaf parents, except that her family has no recourse to professional interpretation services. The home maintenance scene is innocent enough, unless one knows the range of situations children can be forced to handle.
Adults cope as best they can, relying on traditional rituals of communication that may or may not translate across contexts and perceptions. Cultures are in contact and conflict: the contrast between the Kowalski’s midwestern family dynamics and those of the Hmong family is stark. Despite, for instance, Walt’s grotesque violation of cultural norms, family members and friends trust a teenage girl’s intuition about inviting this crotchety mean old man for food and beer at a social/ceremonial event. Sue explains some of the cultural differences to Walt, whereas his own son fails to recognize his father’s call for help. Walt’s personal style of complaining about everything is mirrored in his son, and his self-centeredness is mirrored in his granddaughter. She has her eye on inheriting some of his belongings, and he has his eye on the physical decline of neighbor’s houses spoiling his view from the front porch.
Annoyed as he is by feeling imposed upon by his Hmong neighbors, Walt finds a use for the regard he has unexpectedly earned. Grudgingly, but not unwisely, he also allows himself to change, to grow into the opportunities that the situation affords. Circumstances unfold, as they always do, along a mix of predictable and unpredictable contours. In the end, Walt generates the only possible peaceful outcome. He is able to do this not because he is skillful at anticipating or manipulating the passions of others, but because he understands intimately – from the inside out – that fear and threat combine explosively under certain conditions.
The story is a compelling achievement on many levels. As contemporary film, it captures all the volatility of race-based nationalism within increasingly transnational societies. Xenophobia is hardly unique to the United States, and the random violence that once seemed particular to the States is spreading even to Belgium. As a potentially culminating work of art, Clint Eastwood does not offer a one-size-fits-all solution, but he does illustrate a complex set of realistic models from which we can glean inspiration.

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