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Gran Torino Redeeming the American Icon

January 24, 2009 Leave a comment

dirty_harryClint Eastwood, like John Wayne, embodied the American icon. From the mysterious cowboys to the gun-toting Dirty Harry, many of his characters embodied traits that Americans readily identify: loners, anti-establishment, rebels, smart, pragmatic and intentional or unintentional redeemers of the downcast. In his recent, Gran Torino, Eastwood plays yet another loner, Walt Kowalski.

At the beginning of the film, his wife just died and he obviously has no relation with his children. Mr. Kowalski, as he prefers to be called, relates better to his dog than to other humans. He lives in a neighborhood that has gradually become home to a predominant minority Hmong population. His unflinching expletives and racial comments seem funny because they are so over the top, much like a Don Rickles performance.

Early in the film Kowalski gets caught up in a conflict with a gang that is harassing his neighbor. And in strange twist of events, this supposed racist becomes a savior for the Hmong family. Up to this point, Eastwood is playing the icon exactly according to the American mythic narrative.

We as a nation would just as soon keep to ourselves. We get in wars only when forced. We don’t want to be a part of some big global cooperative. We’d prefer to go it alone. And yet, we dream that we are really the world’s savior. Whether our mythic values are truly lived or not, Americans consistently reflect variations in our icons.

But then something odd happens. Kowalski is changed by the Hmong family. A Hmong shaman speaks the same words of wisdom that Kowalski’s priest has been trying to teach him. On multiple levels the family enters his life and begins to soften his heart and teach him how to life. Since he knows a lot more about dying.

Spoiler alert: As Walt softens, he can finally enter into relationship with other people including his priest. He is becoming more human. As he begins to live, he offers something Dirty Harry was incapable of offering. He loves. In his love, he is willing to die for the relationship, so that the Hmong family can really be helped instead of a temporary fix through an act of violence and vengeance.

In one act of sacrifice, Walt becomes father to the Hmong boy, judge to the gang, healer to the Hmong family and possibly even a prophet to his own family. Eastwood connects with the American icon but then challenges us to enter into relationship and to learn that sacrifice may open doors that power and violence cannot.

As I dream of what America could be, I am going to keep thinking about Walt Kowalski and the power of modeling the cross, laying down my life on behalf of those I love. And if I follow the rhythm of the gospel, this means loving my enemies as well as my friends.

Schastlivy Vmeste – Sitcoms Russian style

September 10, 2007 2 comments

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NY Times writes about the latest TV sensation in Russia:

Moored to his living room couch is a shoe salesman who is more interested in watching sports than conjugal relations. His wife has shocking hair and an even more shocking mouth. A couple of ne’er-do-well teenagers round out this bawdy, bickering bunch.

Sound familiar? It should, it’s the “authorized” Russion version of “Married with Children.” It’s great to know that America is still making a “postive” impact in the world.

Potatoes and Peace!

May 16, 2007 Leave a comment

During the middle of the Cold War, as America and the Soviet Union raided their children’s future to fund a space program, Welsh poet Bobi Jones wrote a plea for peace with the potato as a love messenger. Could the poor potato bring that love message to our warring world?

Sending a Potato as a Love-Messenger to the Spacemen of America and Russia

Will you go for me to the moon-struck men?
Oh political matter, will you go?
(Stars and moon are political matters now:
A potato’s a political matter in our enlightened age.)
I’d like to see you go because you know what it is
To be in hot water, old friend of peas,
Fellow union-member with meat. You know
The slums of the earth, and on your crooked back
Is found the mark of toil; through your pits
You’ve heard the simple cursing of the unchosen people
Of worms and the beetles (neighbor of beans).
I’ll send you, because you’re a fist, and your smile
Is almost kind; and tell them
(The interworldists who are worse than the almost unmentionable internationalists)
Of solid lands, stupid potato
Of good leaves, of deep soil with roots, of fat ants
That lick a hollow through your side. I know
That will be a void of meaning, but at least
It will be a void fit for them to fly through
On a new course. So they will sing to hear you,
And you know how a seed can grow
When the forests have doffed their shadows
And when the mornings come to ride their big-bellied colts.
You needn’t insist you can’t possibly go
Because you’re so fatigued: ask someone to fling you.

(from Bobi Jones, Selected Poems, Christopher Davies Ltd: Swansea, Wales, 1987.)

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