Friday, August 14, 2009

Gran Torino

I saw the movie Gran Torino on DVD a while back. A few thoughts:

  • Eastwood plays a retired autoworker whose neighborhood in a Detroit suburb that has “turned yellow” with the slow-but-steady influx of S. E. Asian refugee immigrants. These immigrants become easy prey to the Asian youth gangs operating in their midst. Eastwood despises them for their alien ways and their refusal to maintain their houses and lawns to white suburban standards. But when Eastwood, quite unintentionally, protects the son of his next-door neighbors, their overflowing gratitude becomes the basis for mutual acceptance and friendship.

    So what could be more American that making friends with your neighbors?

  • But the movie, with low-key but unmistakable poignancy, presents the other side of this equation. The immigrants bring with them both the criminal gang and the easily exploitable community. Their presence really does provoke white flight. Their culture and language really do impose negative externalities on the native population. There is a term for this that American expatriates learn as they prepare for their life in foreign countries:

    Culture Shock: [T]he anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty, confusion, etc.) felt when people have to operate within a different and unknown cultural or social environment, such as a foreign country. It grows out of the difficulties in assimilating the new culture, causing difficulty in knowing what is appropriate and what is not. This is often combined with a dislike for or even disgust (moral or aesthetical) with certain aspects of the new or different culture.

    Do not pity the expats: they choose to undergo this experience for their own reasons. But Eastwood and his erstwhile white neighbors did not choose it, and I can think of no reason why it should be thrust upon them by their own government.* Yes, Eastwood adapts. But he shouldn't have to.

  • The ending was awful, for two reasons. First, although I’m not an expert on the law, I’m not convinced that the gang’s conviction for murder would be the slam-dunk that the movie wanted us to believe. Eastwood’s character was, in fact, on their property. He did behave provocatively. The Asian gang could testify that Eastwood had confronted them with a firearm before, and if their defense counsel succeeded in locating the members of the Hispanic gang, then it would be easy to establish this behavior as a pattern. So a not-unwarranted claim of self defense would be their obvious course.

    And second . . . what kind of message is this? The argument that Christianity obligates its adherent (such as Eastwood was) to forego private revenge has some theological merit, but Eastwood’s alternative – suicidally baiting the gang into killing him – does not. In the meantime, Eastwood’s neighbors have learned nothing about self-defense, trust in law enforcement, or responsible citizenship.

* The movie tells us we should “blame the Lutherans.” What’s that about?

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