I’ve been writing over at Ricochet about how social class has emerged in the work of the most successful contriver of popular spectacles, Marvel / Disney, who is never suspected of peddling anything but mindless fun. I am not really surprised at this development: Heroes in America tend to emerge in stories about protection–about caring for those in need who are otherwise neglected–& this then lends itself to teach conservatives the future of conservatism. The middle class has no winning arguments, it would seem, but the obvious winning argument is protection.
Let me turn to my new Ricochet post–something I have been considering lately about Mr. Clint Eastwood’s movies. I want to tell you a bit about what to look for in his movies, in case you are & or think you might like to watch them. They are mostly movies for men, but they are not fun. I will add links to my brief notes on these movies to keep this post brief. Then I will show you what I mean about social class in America in his movies.
Mr. Eastwood has spent these two latter decades showing the effects of killing on those who kill. He is concerned with the promise of redemption & this has led him to the theme I keep mentioning: Protection. I first noticed this watching Unforgiven, which was an extraordinary success in 1992, with Americans & critics both. The protagonist once believed the gentleness of a sainted woman could save him; now he thinks redemption is something else–returning to a life in hell for the sake of someone else, someone in need of protection.
I think you can see this in a clear way in American sniper: Chris Kyle is sure he can do his job because he is protecting people. It is strange to think of soldiers as being in need of protection; stranger still to consider, who can deliver them? The Iraqis mean nothing to Kyle except as threats or people who work for the men he is trying to protect, who also deserve protection. Kyle is not interested in meeting new people–his mind is on the people he knows. Unless you think humanity is threatened, & might be swallowed up in chaos, you probably cannot do a job that requires so much killing. Once you do it, however, you cannot stop, it would seem. Sacrifice is inevitable & comes to define life–death can only be deferred.
If you’re beginning to see the political implications of a concern with protecting those in need, you’ll be able to see what’s at stake when a city collapses into crime, as portrayed inDirty Harry. Before law & politics turn into the sort of stuff we see around us, at least for the most part, they have to mean something else. Harry’s famous line–When a naked man is chasing a woman through a dark alley with a butcher knife & a hard on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross–is not just about how police could respond to the Miranda rulings or the social collapse in big cities across the fruited plain, it’s about whether there is anyone who is authorized to act in an emergency. Of course, the plain clothes suggest–every citizen is authorized, but people will not do what they know to be necessary. Why law is necessary, & law enforcement, & Dirty Harry. Also, if you want to know where I learned to pay attention to these details: Harry’s worthy partner is a man called Chico Gonzales, athlete, sociology major, married to a loving woman, but who wants to do justice & treats Harry like a human being. He is, actually, the man who learns that his ugly name is the key to his humanity.
So this is what I’ve been reflecting on, preparing to write on Gran Torino. I think that is Mr. Eastwood’s most serious statement about the relation between damnation & redemption. A man who’s just lost his wife, & who has reason to believe, he has not lived a blessed life, devotes himself to the protection of immigrants produced by America’s catastrophic abandonment of Vietnam. The man’s a Korean War vet & still owns his service weapons. He is not a middle-class American–in fact, he seems to sympathize with the low class, but cannot tolerate arrogant criminals. Perhaps order is more important to him than freedom. The Asian customs of his neighbors annoy him or even make him angry. He thinks, freedom means, you never bow to anyone.–To show respect, then, is to curse people, which is one of the items in his education of the boy to be fit for American life.–But he has met human beings who need someone & make obeisance. His relationship with the two kids he protects is endearing, but it always suggests something more than the succession of the generations: I think Kowalski is learning that he has to die so that they can live. Sacrifice is portrayed as an American possibility–there may also be a suggestion, these immigrants are plagued by old Asian evils without any benefit of new American good things–freedom is not real for them–the evil he has to face has the name family tattooed on his chest.
There is much to be said about social class in this story, including Kowalski’s friends & his rejection of his very white middle-class family. It’s not that the middle class is wrong or they’re bad people. But they just do not seem to be given the chance–Kowalski does not think they can understand him at all. He is closer in spirit to the wretched. Maybe middle class people then connect happiness & prosperity in a way that moves them away from truly understanding how people in the classes below them see things. I have to do some more thinking about this–what first caught my attention is the fact that Kowalski acts because of his manliness. All Americans know or have cause to know some suffer terrible fates. But people have their own lives & problems. Not him. His manliness would be humiliated were he to live as his middle-class kids want. Manliness fulfills itself in rule & a kind of education–of the two kids he protects, the girls is manlier than the boy, because she has Americanized faster–which leads Kowalski to his extraordinary fate. The suggestion seems to be, only a hero would look on the classes below as though they were his to protect. In a way, their humanity depends on him, because they do not otherwise have a chance…
Gran Torino was a remarkable box office success, by the way, rivaled only by Mr. Eastwood’s low-class comedies from ’78 & ’80, the ones with the orangutan: I recommend them heartily. & by his new American sniper movie–he also shows Chris Kyle as not at all a middle class guy, with the unhappy but natural mores & manliness of less healthy, educated, prosperous, & responsible social classes.
(This idea of rule as dedication to the low class is not a new concern: Have you ever seen Heartbreak Ridge? I recommend it–at length–it’s Eastwood’s 1986 story about Grenada. Most of the movie is concerned with low-class America, where prosperity & peace are not taken for granted, & a strange, harsh man takes responsibility for black & Hispanic young men who look more like a disciplinary battalion than Marines.)