Saturday, June 20, 2009

Really Behind The Movies--"Gran Torino"

Watching Clint Eastwood gives me hope for my older years. Eastwood wrote, directed and produced the 2008 film "Gran Torino." I hope that my creativity, talent and work ethic is lived out like Eastwood when I am in my late 70's. I can't remember dialogue so well crafted throughout a two-hour film. Usually during that length of film, there is some drag in conversation. If anything, Eastwood's character and his gigantic lexicon of head-shaking racist titles for his Detroit neighborhood neighbors offers enough anticipation for the next scene. However, there is much more to this story.

One thing should be said about this film that will probably not be said in any review--and it's actually something I have some authority to address. Gran Torino offers one of the best portrayals of a clergy person I have seen on television or film, if not the best. The Roman Catholic parish priest in this neighborhood is a strong, but young presence. He attempts to show that he is worthy of his charge, while revealing his inexperience even more (been there, done that). Though the priest shows great courage with his persistence in talking to Eastwood's character, and even though the cantankerous man calls him "over-educated" and doesn't want him to come around anymore (despite the priest's promise to his Eastwood's deceased wife), the priest persists. This persistence is also linked to his work with local Hmong gangs that are gaining a foothold in Eastwood's neighborhood, with whom he continues to interact. The priest seems to have the sense that he has a vigilante on his hands, but he is realistic regarding what can be done about the escalating racially charged violence in the neighborhood. The priest balances his understanding of the pastoral office, while also showing a believable humanity that I can't recall ever seeing.

In the end, what I appreciate about the priest in this film is that he bucks about every image of clergy on television, whether real or fictitious. Televangelists may attempt to craft an authentic image, but it appears to be a public relations campaign or a dramatic script. They may attempt to be more authentic because they wear jeans, or employ images from popular culture. For actors playing clergy, they're too one dimensional or predictable, they're monolithic--overfocused on being cool, moral, or they look like a lovable loser-- a buffoon. There's also the actor playing a clergy person who has lost their faith, and we watch their fall from vocation. The priest in Gran Torino changes and learns. He has gifts and deficits. He is courageous and fearful. He is idealistic yet realistic. He is a peacemaker, but also resonates with vengeance. Though my experiences as a clergy person don't mirror the priest in Gran Torino, the character is depicted in a way I was taught creates a story; the character changes. Change is important to me, because if change in people isn't possible, I should pack up all of my stuff and find another line of work. I believe transformation is possible. I believe Jesus is the best way that transformation is possible. I have learned not to be surprised by people's actions, but I try to learn the best way to redirect energy, with hope for transformation--I know there will be pain and suffering along the way.

The other angle I appreciated in Gran Torino is in its depiction of violence. The story of people and relationships woven with violence in Gran Torino serves as a reminder that violence is not a simple topic as pacifists or the NRA crowd would like the public to believe. I can't say anymore about this point without a spoiler for those whom have not seen this film. The topic of violence is presented with realism and care. Though the film is violent at times, it is not gratuitous.

In the end, I have also gained an appreciation for what I have seen as a clergy person. I have seen cultures, people and relationships I would have not otherwise seen. In some ways I see less than say a barber, bartender, or cosmetologist sees or hears. People try to put their best foot forward with us. Inevitably, a clergy person ends up in the cross hairs of life. Often times, I don't have the courage to be in the cross hairs. Sometimes God puts me there. The viewer of Gran Torino finds themselves in the cross hairs of life--I believe it is a film to be deeply appreciated, if not for the angles on which I have focused, but also for many more that can be discovered.

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