Gran Torino (film)

Image via Wikipedia



“Our temperaments differ in capacity of heat, or we boil at different degrees. One man is brought to the boiling point by the excitement of conversation in the parlor. The waters, of course, are not very deep.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eloquence[1])
What happens when two different forces meet? Do they blend, or do they form a cyclone? Is racism a one-sided blade? When can a person be catalogued as a racist? Are there any grey nuances in the debate about nation(alism) and globalization? Can humour be connected with racism? Where exactly do nations clash? Where do they converge? 

Gran Torino is one of those movies which promote a moral lesson hidden in a story of gangsta wars and western-style violence, a movie that fits like a glove to Clint Eastwood’s style and preferences. The story is about a Korean War veteran, Kowalski, who mingles in the Hmong minority (which becomes a majority in a neighbourhood that has been un-whitened, with Kowalski as a distant memory of what the neighbourhood was decades ago). He befriends a next-door boy, called Thao, and becomes his mentor and master in manning up. The story is basically centred on war: the war against oneself (Kowalski and Korea), the war against the other (all the ethnic groups against each other) and the war against war (gangs versus law abiding citizens who would like to have a future for their children).

According to George Ritzer, such societies as the Hmong, hybrids themselves, are being Americanized not through grobal[3] means, but combining the need to blend in (and therefore to survive in a new, different place) and the ever-growing influence that American culture has all around the world. That is, which he defines as “the propagation of American Ideas, customs, social patterns, industry, and capital around the world.” (85). This process is much more powerful than its competitors (Japanization – which is nevertheless incredibly influential worldwide!) and its contact with the native (in this context the immigrant) leads to birth of “hybrid forms” (85).

These hybrids are of many origins and colours, they meet on common ground (America), speak a common language (mostly gangster slang) and become more American than their actual DNA identity. In other words, these immigrants have adapted and were consequently Americanized within America[4], but nevertheless Americanized, some even before arriving in the Promised Land (Sue tells Kowalski the Hmong were brought in by the Lutherans after being persecuted as traitors[5]):
Moreover, the notion of Americanization is tied to a particular nation – the United States – but it has a differential impact on many specific nations. It can be subsumed under the heading of grobalization because it envisions a growth in American influence in all realms throughout the world. (85)Throughout the movie, Kowalski uses a wide variety of stereotypical racist terms ranging from “zipperhead[7] and generalist slurs to calling the priest a “an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life” (Eastwood, 2008).

Even though Kowalski seems to be open about his racist views, he is angered more when meeting worthless creatures (especially men) who cannot defend themselves or hide their nothingness behind a wall of violence. The joke he tells the others in the bar – “Oh, I’ve got one. A Mexican, a Jew, and a colored guy go into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “Get the f*k out of here.” (Eastwood, 2008) is indeed a sign of him (and his friends) not accepting outsiders in their world. Nevertheless, this could also be a so called empty expression[8], it probably does not mean that if a stranger of different race would enter the bar, he or she would be immediately lynched by the white majority.

In other words, even though at surface the old widower would seem an extreme version of Scrooge combined with patriotic-white-racist-bitterness of a veteran who gloriously “shot men, stabbed them with bayonets, chopped up 17 year olds with shovels.”(Eastwood, 2008) is nothing but mask. Inside, he proves to be a broken man, haunted by the atrocities he has committed and cannot forgive himself until the boy next door fails in stealing his precious vintage (American) vehicle. What some would interpret as malicious is nothing other than a subtle intelligent humour: he plays with words[9], and here lies Eastwood’s genius.

Even more so, a xenophobic narrow-minded bigot would not have even stepped inside a non-white’s pagan house! And Kowalski did just that: he not only visited and enjoyed their cuisine (and actually smiled amongst the “zipperheads,” unlike the way he reacted to his family during the funeral and subsequent reception) and learned their ways from Su and not the other way around (as expected from his exterior image-display):
Sue Lor: All the people in this house are very traditional. Number one: never touch a Hmong person on the head. Not even a child. The Hmong people believe that the soul resides on the head, so don’t do that.
Walt Kowalski: Well… Sounds dumb, but fine.
Sue Lor: Yeah, and a lot of Hmong people consider looking someone in the eye to be very rude! That’s why they look away when you look at them.
Walt Kowalski: Yeah. Anything else?
Sue Lor: Yeah… some Hmong people tend to smile or grin, when they’re yelled at. It’s a cultural thing, it expresses embarrassment or insecurity. It’s not that they’re laughing at you or anything.
Walt Kowalski: Right, you people are nuts. (Eastwood, 2008)As the situation progressively worsens, the only creature with which Kowalski is nice to is his dog, Daisy and the Gran Torino, his most beloved car. A more or less silent character, always following her her master, she will eventually end up living with the next-door “Hmong broads” (Eastwood, 2008). Interestingly enough, these neighbours and the dog are the only ones who are heartbroken when Kowalski is killed. His white-polak sons and their families never understood him and had no emotional connection whatsoever with him, while total (racial) strangers regret his passing the most, and as a result, in his will, he does not leave his Gran Torino to his granddaughter (who thought it was as hers), but he specifically gives to his friend.

Racial and gender differences are not as one would expect in a diasporic traditional community (like Indian or Arab minorities): women are not kept at home to cook and procreate. As Sue tells Kowalski, “Hmong girls over here fit in better. The girls go to college and the boys go to jail.” (Eastwood, 2008) Therefore, unlike closed small-societies forcefully holding their ways, the Hmong are completely integrated in the gang-wars system, alongside the Hispanic and the African-Americans. Thao is expected to become a man by entering the local Hmong gang, and nobody other than Kowalski, in the pure Western-cowboy-style bildungsroman style, teaches him a lesson not only about what being a man means, as Thao learns towards the end, the lesson was also a deep, moral one. Kowalski ended up being the father Sue and Thao never had.

One cannot talk of a nation without at least mapping it in an international context as Ulrich Beck demonstrates in reference to the Hmong. As other borderless nations, their sovereignty is the first thing to be questioned:
Nations only exist in the plural. Internationality makes nationality possible. The field formed by the two concepts – nationality and internationality forms an exclusive, total unity. The national-international exclusionary order is opposed to the conceptual order transnational and cosmopolitan. […] Among innumerable examples are the Hmong, who endeavour to forge and preserve their transnational unity across many countries in the world. (62-3)The movie is not necessarily an overt endeavour to fight racism or gangs per se, but it goes beyond, it reflects what we are afraid most: ourselves. As Kowalski states himself, it is not what he was ordered to do during the war that he so much regrets, but it is what he was not ordered to do. There is something, a monster, inside all of us, a monster which we are so afraid of that we cannot fight it. Instead, we turn against the closest victim: the Other, the Different. Ironically the Other has the same fear. Therefore we get involved in a blind and deaf war against windmills, a circle which cannot be broken…

Works Cited
Gran Torino. dir. Eastwood, Clint. DVD. Warner Bros., 2008. rinner,. Online posting. 27 June 2009. Urban Dictionary. 11 May 2010
Ritzer, George. Globalisation. The Globalization of Nothing. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press, 2004. 71-116
Beck, Ulrich. in Held, D. and McGrew, Anthony (eds.) The Global Transformation Reader Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000. 17-71

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 12 vols. Fireside Edition (Boston and New York, 1909). Vol. 7 Society and Solitude. Chapter:ELOQUENCE. Accessed from on 2010-05-11
[2] Spreading of (American) ways globally, namely what Ritzer calls McDonaldization and Americanization.
[3] Similar to globalization, but the global power (enterprise, company) does not impose its policies and habits per se, but it adapts it to the local customs in order to make its products comprehensible for the natives.
[4] What is striking about globalization, especially with the USA as point of origin, is that the USA theoretically is the land of freedom and democracy, but practically it does almost nothing to protect the immigrant’s identity. As the external policies, inside the borders you must become American, or otherwise vanish from public existence. This is mainly due to ignorance of the Outside (and the Other) and a consequence of the idea that the US is not only the centre of the world, but it is the world.
[5] The Hmong minority helped the Americans in Vietnam, but, after the US Army’s withdrawal, they were left alone and unprotected against the Communist forces.
[6] Rude way of calling a person of East Asian descent, most likely coined by US soldiers during the Korean War. In the Urban Dictionary, an open-source Wiki (users can add/edit content) Dictionary where contemporary language is being defined by those who actually use this kind of terminology, one of the users, called rinner, defines zipperhead in direct connection with Gran Torino, as“Clint Eastwood’s favorite racial slur in Gran Torino”. (2)
[7] Interestingly enough, he does not limit his strong linguistic blows to the now dominant minorities: he talks the same way with his fellow Caucasian companions (his conversations with the Italian barber are a vivid proof of this fact). Such insults are a vital component of the “manning up” process which he passes on to Thao towards the end of his life.
[8] As reference to Mandarin Chinese grammar: words in Mandarin can be full (with meaning outside the sentence and context) and empty (words that only have meaning within the sentence and have the role of grammatical markers, also called particles they are used to differentiate time, syntactic function etc.). In the context of this essay, Kowalski’s empty joke is just a rhetorical device to stir up the atmosphere when the Padre comes to the bar trying to convince him to go to confession.
[9] From calling Su Dragon Lady, to affectionately nickname Thao as Toad or Yuan as Yum Yum. It is a way of naming the Other distorting the original as to giving it a new identity shared only by yourself and that particular person, which is no insult whatsoever.
‘Till the next time, may the Schwartz be with y’all!

Here’s a trailer of the movie:

YouTube Preview Image


Enhanced by Zemanta
Be Sociable, Share!