Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Musing Pictures: Unforgiven

It is interesting to look at "Unforgiven" and to see two sides of Clint Eastwood in deep, internal conflict.

The film hit theaters in 1992, roughly in the middle of his remarkable second career as a director, but before his most critically acclaimed work ("Mystic River", "Million Dollar Baby", "Flags of Our Fathers" and its companion film, "Letters from Iwo Jima")

The film also comes at the end of Eastwood's legendary acting career (though he has played in films since then, none of his performances have the legendary stature of his turns in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" or "Dirty Harry")

As I watched his performance and his direction take hold of one another, it occurred to me that "Unforgiven" gives a fascinating glimpse in to the mind of the actor and of the filmmaker. Particularly, the point of intersection between Eastwood's two roles sheds light on the secrets behind his acting success, and behind his filmmaking prowess.

Although his famous stoic performances seem to be the epitome of flatness, a careful look reveals a very calculated, often masked sense of depth -- there is always more underneath an Eastwood character than the actor overtly displays. This is true of his performance in "Unforgiven", just as much as it's true in his earlier acting work. It is fascinating to note how much this has affected his directorial style, as well -- Eastwood's films tend to focus heavily on their characters. Despite the fights, the shoot-outs, and the action, his films tend to be very mellow, very conversational, drawing us in to a small circle of personalities and quirks that are to become our companions for two hours. As a filmmaker, Eastwood does not rely on his camera (like Spielberg or Hitchcock) or on the structure of his narrative, or on eye-popping content, but rather, on complex characters with numerous hidden layers.

In "Unforgiven", this strategy is at play in both the direction of the film and in the performance of its leading actor. Taking a broader view of Eastwood's work, the strategy appears consistently in all of his major productions, from his stoic but layered performance in the Spaghetti Westerns, to his unraveling of Angelina Jolie's character in "Changeling" (2008)

It's inspiring to me that an artist who sticks his neck out as both an actor and as a director has such a strong vision for what matters in a story that both his performances and his direction clearly reflect that vision. It demonstrates an artistic integrity that is hard to find in most major productions.


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