Unser Schwerpunktthema in Englisch: “The Ambiguity of Belonging” im Film “Gran Torino”.
Am 8. Mai wird das Englisch-Abitur geschrieben – zum ersten Mal zum neuen Schwerpunktthema. Aus diesem Grund konnte die Kursstufe den amerikanischen Lektor Miguel Prieto-Valle am DHG begrüßen und erfahren, was er zu diesem Thema sagt.
Welcome again – this is how Miguel Prieto-Valle from the D.A.I. (Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut) in Tübingen welcomed our students as it was the second time he visited our school, thanking us at the beginning for this invitation. This time he was going to talk about the new central theme of the English Abitur in Baden-Württemberg “Gran Torino”, a 2008 movie starring Clint Eastwood, who is also the director, marking his 50th anniversary of being in the film industry. The overall topic is called “The Ambiguity of Belonging” and the initial question is therefore also “How do the characters and their relationships in the film explore what it means to belong?”
Not all of us had seen the movie yet, so he apologized for possible spoilers as an important part of the analysis for this film would be to discuss how it ends and how the trajectory of the film changes. He pointed out that the ending of the film is almost the only possible ending and destiny for the main character.
At first, we were shown the movie poster, asking the audience why we generally have movie posters. The obvious answer was quickly given – the movie poster is meant to make us want to see the movie. It is a piece of propaganda for the movie – of course it’s business, but it is also art to give us some kind of insight into the metrics of cinema. The poster is fairly stark although it’s very simple in its composition – there’s just a man, a car and his gun. The colors are basically black. There’s a contrast of light and darkness. Most of us have no positive emotions when being asked what comes to our minds looking at the poster. What is also interesting is that we only have two objects in the poster – a gun and a car which both cross Eastwood’s body, who is this lone figure in the middle. This may be a foreshadowing to the pose he strikes at the end of the film. On the poster, Walt Kowalski is a figure of light emerging from the dark. This also refers to the end of the film where Walt actually mentions the word “light”. A lot of thought and creativity went into the movie poster, into something apparently so simple.
Miguel pointed out that Clint Eastwood has been in the movie business for a long time. However, most of us don’t know any of his old movies, such as “The man without a name” or “Dirty Harry” where he was a law enforcer who breaks the law to get the bad guys to justice. He said that the end justifies the means and often he uses his gun to get it done. One of his newer movies as a director is “American Sniper” (2014), which one of us mentioned.
The movie “Gran Torino” is kind of a culmination of all of his work. The main character Walt Kowalski is a character we know very little about, we don’t really know what makes him tick. He doesn’t want to let people in.
After that we were asked how much we liked the movie and most of us opted for 3-4 fingers shown on a scale of five. 5 would mean “Best film ever. You would recommend everyone to see this film.” 4 would mean “Very good film, you would watch it again if the opportunity arose” and 3 would mean “Good enough. You might watch it on an airplane.” Our speaker’s judgment was also between 3 and 4 as it was not his genre. The white, male hero who comes and saves the day is not really what gets him going. But later on, he was pleasantly surprised about the film and what he was getting out of it. The film, though, was very successful, especially in the Midwest.
After that we watched the trailer of the movie, which, according to Miguel, is a bit misleading as it indicates a different topic. It is an action-packed exciting trailer if you like guns and cars, but in the beginning you might think that it is a film about intergenerational and interracial conflicts with the classic role of the old white guy saving the poor brown people from the violence that is troubling their community, which we see through all the different gang and gun incidents and its actual use of physical violence. He explained that this movie couldn’t really have been done without Clint Eastwood because he is in the American movie tradition, sort of the alpha male, the macho guy who is known for taking a problem into his own hands, using his gun even if it’s not right, which also has symbolic meaning and is very prominent in the film. All in all, the trailer only mentions the themes very superficially.
After dealing with the trailer, we were given closer insight into the main character of “Gran Torino”, Walt Kowalski. As an initial question we were asked: “What do you remember about Walt when we first meet him after his wife’s funeral at the beginning of the film and then at the wake when he is back at his house?” Moritz gave the correct answer. Walt wants to be alone. He has no connections and has no belonging, no sense of people who really matter to him any more now that his wife is gone. He clearly rejects the priest (“I have no desire to go to confession”) and we don’t get to see what we usually happen to see in a funeral setting. When a family member dies, the family comes together, which is a very important thing. None of that happens in the film. Instead, “What do his family members do during the funeral?” His grandson Josh is playing on a walkman and mocks the Catholic ritual of crossing oneself and especially Walt’s granddaughter Ashley is bored and disrespectful. It’s also interesting how men interact with women in the film. “How does Walt interact with Ashley?”, we were asked. One of us mentioned that when Ashley’s parents tell her to help Walt with the chairs, he is unable to accept her help, saying “You might break a fingernail”. This reinforces his idea that he is still in charge and girls should leave that to the tough guy. So, at the beginning Walt belongs to no one any more.
After that, we were divided into three different groups for two minutes and were asked to compare and contrast Walt’s initial interactions with his family, Father Janovich and the barber. As to his family, Trinity mentioned that Walt’s children were trying to send him to a retirement home on his birthday, which was a real insult as if he wasn’t able to care for himself any more. Moritz referred to the scene when Ashley asks her grandfather with shocking explicitness what will happen to the Gran Torino when he dies. To have your family – for better or worse, you’re stuck with them and can’t choose them – is important, but they’re trying to create more distance or finding importance in things that are totally unrelated to human connection – they are about material things or a modern, more free lifestyle with less responsibility.
The next relationship is between Walt and Father Janovich. Lars mentioned that Walt’s wife Dorothy was the only reason for him to go to church. Walt is also very sarcastic about confession, saying “I have no desire to confess”, and he doesn’t want to belong there either. It doesn’t seem that he belongs there or wants to belong despite his Polish background with religious traditions. It’s not his place. Miguel agreed that his wife was probably the only meaningful community Walt had before she died, given that he is retired and that he lives in a neighborhood where all his neighbors have moved out.
The film does a great job with highlighting faces and parts of faces. Father Janovich is shown as a very young, inexperienced, even baby-faced priest. When we listen to his words in the first funeral in the film, his eulogy is very generalized – life is bitter-sweet – death is never nice – he finds meaning in the sermon in the closing funeral in which he appears much worldlier and he has clearly gone through a transformation. “Pay attention to what Father Janovich drinks throughout the film”, Miguel said. It is not a major foreshadowing symbol, but it was intentional, this very clear progression what this Father chooses to drink. One of us added to the discussion that Walt is really judgmental of the priest, calling him an “over-educated 27-year-old virgin”.
One character Walt spends time with willingly is the Italian barber Martin, his maybe only friend we’ve met so far. Stanislav said that there is an exchange of swearwords and racial slurs and insults with the barber. “Right, there is a clear sense of back and forth, a kind of belonging, friendly interaction of racist insults”, Miguel said with a smile. But they are said with such strong, positive emotions that the barber is definitely a person Walt likes.
In the following, Miguel was giving us some insight in the setting of the film and also in Asian/Hmong demographics in the US. The movie is probably meant to take place in the outskirts of Detroit for several reasons. Detroit was the car capital of the USA in the 20th century. It was the fastest growing city in the 1920s and 1930s. Kowalski’s character is a retired auto-worker for Ford, he literally built this Gran Torino. Now, what Detroit has become is the center of the rust-belt. It is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the US with high crime rates, an undesirable place to move to especially for white Americans. In the 70s and 80s manufacturing was sent more and more overseas and the jobs that used to be there are no longer there. There is this “white flight to the suburbs” and we see it very clearly in Walt’s neighborhood. He is the only white person and he thinks all the Chinese are moving in. This is also a great example of Walt’s ignorance. He has no idea that they are Hmong. They are traditional in their home regions in South-East Asia, in Laos and in Vietnam, especially mountainous jungle regions. They are not agricultural, they did not settle. So, they didn’t have one confined geography.
During the Vietnam-War they were a really important ally for the US. The US government was supporting South Vietnam in fighting against the communist government in North Vietnam. As you probably all know, this was the only war the US had lost. When the US retreats out of Vietnam, they leave behind the Hmong, their allies and this leaves the Hmong in a really vulnerable position against the communist government in Vietnam. And, they were not really welcome any more. Therefore, the Hmong started to come over to the US, especially in the 80s and 90s. The largest cities with Hmong populations are Minneapolis – St. Paul and Fresno. “The Hmong community in Detroit is actually very small”, Miguel told us. In Sacramento, where he is from, there is actually the third largest Hmong population in the US. He also taught Hmong students at middle school there and learnt a lot about their identity and their values. Surprisingly, there is no written language for the Hmong until the 1950s. Before that, it was a very strong oral tradition society and it is often the women who are the caretakers, who pass along stories. So Sue, who is the main female speaker in “Gran Torino” serves as a sort of interpreter. American movie audiences had never seen before Hmong actors on the big screen. This is one of the things which make it a “landmark film”. It’s the first time that Hmong actors have a major, leading role in a film that is about their issues, their difficulties and their triumphs. The Hmong we see are in a matriarchal society and in the US this is even more exaggerated. Sue says: “Hmong girls go to college, and the boys go to jail”. Miguel heard that when teaching at middle school that Hmong boys were not school-oriented. We were asked why women are more successful and tend to be the leaders in the Hmong community. Tina suggested that it might be the cultural upbringing, the tradition. Miguel reminded us of the fact that the men had been killed or wounded and that it was mostly women who were fleeing to the US. So, women have to take on a stronger role in keeping families together. It’s not that Hmong girls are smarter, but they cannot rely on the usual support of males.
After that, we watched another clip where we see Phong, the grandmother, complaining that there is no man heading the household. Thao does not count because he washes the dishes and obeys to his sister. Miguel told us “Thao is going out as if he doesn’t really belong to the Hmong community”. The scene where both Walt and Phong spit out almost simultaneously shows their mutual disrespect. American audiences didn’t see this scene subtitled just like Walt Kowalski does not understand anything. This scene was meant to confuse us and be in a position of non-understanding. Miguel pointed out that the main minority group in Detroit are Indian Americans and refers to the black community who appear mainly as thugs.
In a next step, Miguel talked about the symbolic meaning of the “Gran Torino”. It’s one of the most important thrusts in the film, the thing Walt really identifies with. He is trying to hold on to this pristine, perfect, powerful symbol. It’s in mint condition and appeals to everyone else in the film. There is a reason why his grandchildren want it and why the gang members want to steal this car. It’s a timeless classic, a muscle car, the wealth and the can-do of the American promise, of freedom. But Miguel doesn’t think that this is actually what the film is about. How we create this sense of belonging to others, to whom we belong and how in this film is certainly the central idea.
The next scene we were going to treat is the scene “Get off my lawn”. Violence can also create a sense of belonging in the film. There is violence of individuals against individuals. The tensions in Walt’s family are throughout the movie and very consistent. But there is also violence between groups against individuals. The first example is the Mexican gang harassing Thao. Violence tends to progress when you have groups against groups, the gangs against each other. Then you also have individuals against groups. But the only one who can really do that is Walt and he is going to change the flow or cycle of violence because he is the powerful guy. He doesn’t just keep on escalating and making more violence, but in a sense he takes the role of anti-violence, of self-sacrifice and giving to others, in belonging to others.
The next scene Miguel was referring to is the scene where Sue and her white boyfriend Trey face trouble because they are on African-American territory. Miguel calls the black Americans “spooks” or “thugs”. Walt, the hero, rolls up in his white truck, the classic, stereotypical white knight showing up to save the day. How does Walt do that? He does that with some threats, his famous gun or trigger finger before he actually pulls out a real gun. We see symbolism of chivalry in the street sign, the street they are on being called “Charlevoix Street”, relating to knighthood. Walt’s language is very racialized in this scene. Miguel reminded us that Sue’s boyfriend is trying to fit in, asking how he is dressed. His pants are pulled down. The gang clearly rejects him. Even Eastwood comes up with “What’s all that bro’shit?” Miguel called him a “wannabee”, who poses as if he belongs to a group, but still is never accepted. This poser character is actually Eastwood’s real, biological son. He insults him in a really nasty way, calling him clown, insulting his manhood and his sense of self-worth. This is one of the most highlighted scenes of the movie.
After that, Miguel pointed out that although the film was a great commercial success, it was criticized for being racist, xenophobic and also very violent. It is true that all these things are in the film which is a really multi-layered and complex film. There is also the generational conflict. But none of these are responsible for the character development in the film. For Miguel, the real theme is how Walt’s character finds fulfillment. How does he find a sense of purpose and happiness? We have seen at the beginning that he is not happy with his life. He is bitter and mean to people and wants to be alone.
As some of us already began to have concentration problems, Miguel suggested some finger exercises, something new and partly amusing.
The next scene we were drawn our attention to is the scene with the family’s shaman Kor Khue reading Walt’s mind. We see that there is a possibility of transformation in Walt’s character in this scene. At the beginning Sue is approaching Walt. Sue calls him “Wally”, using language no other woman in the film would use interacting with men. Walt is becoming more and more interested in the Hmong neighbors. Sue translates into English what the shaman says: “You’ve been disrespected. You do not live your life. Your food has no flavor. You are scared of your past. You have no happiness. You’re not at peace.” Walt looks like he’s been hit by a truck, absorbing everything. “What would you do if someone told you all these poignant, difficult things to hear?” Miguel asked. For the first time, Walt is willing to listen and trying to connect, putting him literally outside his comfort zone and this is where his possibility for belonging to others, for finding peace, for change, redemption opens up. All his disturbed and disturbing qualities could be interpreted as discontent. Also, his problems as a war veteran and his health problems come up again.
In a next step, Miguel wants to go a bit into gender roles before focusing on the end of the film. First, dealing with the question how Hmong women are portrayed. Whereas the grandmother Phong is the matriarch and wise leader, Sue is the interpreter, the symbol of morality, but also a victim needing saving. Hmong men, except for the group of gangbangers, are absent but missed in the movie: “I wish our father had been more like you”, says Sue, telling Walt that he is the father figure they don’t have. The gang’s leader is Spider, a witless tool of violence. Thao is definitely not the man in the house, the big puncher, the head man in charge.
The next question focuses on Walt and Thao – the odd couple. As a result of his privileged power, Walt can teach Thao how to be a man and earn a respectable living, and be a reliable companion. Walt is the only lead male figure Thao has to look up to. Thao’s own father is probably dead. It is interesting to know that Thao does not only need Walt to be a man, but that also Walt needs Thao as much if not more. In helping Thao Walt finds his meaning and Thao comes into his own manhood.
Miguel pointed out that male friendships in films are interesting, often a source of joking around. Many male friendships don’t necessarily mean a lot, e.g. it’s just one of the guys playing sports with. The men are not shown expressing hope for each other, deep friendship.
Then we discussed the question “Where do you think Thao needed Walt?” and “How and when did Walt need Thao?” with our neighbor for a minute. “Where are examples of their mutual benefit or dependence on each other?” “What’s in your minds about their relationship?” we were asked. Being in a workshop getting things done reminded us of a father-son relationship. “It is a possibility for Walt to show another side”, Chiara mentioned. Walt is clearly concerned for Thao, helping him get a job because it makes him feel needed and that he belongs, which he basically doesn’t have with anyone else, certainly not his real family. They are not interested and don’t want to spend time with him. It is interesting that Thao was the man trying to steal the Gran Torino. So, Walt was very reluctant to allow Thao in and there was probably some distrust there. Walt is also in a vulnerable position because of his health, he doesn’t have community any more and has become a bit of an alcoholic. He is still very haunted by his past, as the shaman says: “You’re not at peace”. He is the only survivor of his regiment from the Korean War. All of his comrades he trusted on most are gone and dead. He might feel guilty. What does his life mean if your family have no meaning for you? If the work you did is no longer needed to be done? He is in a position of feeling as if he is going to be forgotten, of being left behind. He realizes that he can still do good for others, can teach someone else the best of what I have.
The next scene we watched was the scene “How guys talk to each other” at the barber’s shop, in which Walt insults Martin as “a crazy Italian prick” and Martin Walt as “you cheap bastard”. “What are the problems the barber and Walt talk about?” Miguel asked. Is there a pattern? Complaining not connecting with their women, work not being really so fulfilling, the boss making you work extra hours, this playful insulting that focuses on jokes that are sexist, or homophobic or racist in nature. This is what white guys tend to do when they joke with other white guys. But does it work when Thao does it? He basically repeats the formula how guys are supposed to talk to each other, but when he says “Oh, the man is screwing me..” he does it in a way that instead plays on the very familiar stereotype of desexualized Asian men as opposed to black males, the very common fear that the black men are going to take our white women. This is not a fear that we have about Asian males. The joke and the humor this way only work for people in a position of power. The Hmong actors have tried to recreate the scene from the other perspective as a form of satire to point out the power relation. Americans don’t like to talk about race, about our discomfort with prejudice and stereotype.
The next slide was entitled “Walt’s behavior and his values”, dealing with Miguel’s interpretation what matters to Walt. “What do his actions and words show us about what is important to be a man and to be meaningful in your life? What does he gain by connecting with others, by becoming a protector, by stopping this so-called cycle of violence?” Walt gets really bothered by the way that violence, without his interaction, continues to get worse and worse in the film. Violence even escalates within the Hmong family – Hmong members are violating, hurting, shooting up the houses of other Hmong people of their community, literally even in their own families. That’s something that intensely bothers him because he has started to be friends with these people. This is where Miguel started thinking “Is that just another white savior story?” In this context he refers to the Bechdel test, a test to check female presence in films. Very few movies pass this test.
[For further reference: https://feministfrequency.com/video/the-bechdel-test-for-women-in-movies/] The last topic mentioned is “The American dream”, meaning that if you have the opportunity and if you work hard, then you can pull yourself up from a bad position and become successful. For the minority characters in the film, this all too often only happens if you have some connection to the mainstream, to the real power – in this case represented by Walt. “Do we have just another white savior story?” Many of the critiques of that film said that. A group of usually brown people who are very nice, very noble, very smart, but they, for some reason, can’t solve their own problems. This is actually a discredit to film and an oversimplification. However, this film is a little bit different and unique primarily because of the belonging Walt and Thao develop to each other and also Sue and Walt. “It is a white savior film – that is pretty clear”, Miguel said. But it is also an interesting look at what a meaningful life means. How do you become a part of life with others?
One still from the film shows Thao locked in the basement by Walt. “Where have you seen a similar kind of dynamic – of a big guy looking down at a little guy and through this screen?” we were asked. Someone suggested “jail”, but the expected answer should have been “a confession box” – part of the Catholic tradition. The priest looking through the screen gives you the advice you need to redeem yourself from the bad things you have done. Walt thinks that Thao cannot solve his problem with the gang in a productive way. He wants to take a gun to solve the problem in a classic violent way – retaliating with violence. Walt is not sorry about Thao, but he knows what needs to be done. At the end, we will see how a different kind of violence will be used by Walt.
Before showing the last scene of the film, Miguel offered to everybody who didn’t want to see the ending to leave. He reminded us of remembering the lighting and its symbolism in that last scene. We should also pay attention to the music telling us what is going on in Walt’s mind. [First drum sounds indicating that Walt is in “war-mode”, later soft and melancholy music.] Walt, the racist character, is still racist [“swamp rats”] and maybe homophobic [“Defend your boyfriend”].
“Look,who shows up at the very, very end and was absent for the entire film?” Miguel asked. The police! Walt even made a joke about the police not coming even if he prayed. In American society, that is really rare and not at all random that the police are not there. That is a very intentional move on the director’s part and not very realistic. Walt’s self-sacrifice is the only solution the film could have had, knowing that he was going to die. He saw this to break that cycle of violence. Walt is a Christ figure and he wanted his audiences to see that. Walt lies on the ground like Jesus on the cross, thus symbolizing his salvation. The crack in the pavement might also remind us of this society in decay.
Not only the music is an atmospheric marker, but also the lighting. The last and most dramatic scene takes place during the night. Walt’s last words are: “Anybody got a light? No? I got one.” Walt’s lighter is also a token of his guilt that he has been carrying around since his time in the Korean War. So, Walt has finally found his place. The people he found meaning and belonging with, they can have peace. That’s how Walt wraps it up and also Miguel, thanking us for our time.