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Clint, Spike etc.

One of the better moments in Oscar history came in 1993 when Barbra Streisand stepped to the podium to present the award for best director. The theme for that year’s ceremony was “The Year of the Woman” and Streisand was introduced as the “woman who directed The Prince of Tides.” Before opening the envelope, she said she looked forward to the day when such distinctions (‘woman director’) would not be necessary. And then, tentatively, she read Clint Eastwood’s name. The still formidable sixty-two year old star accepted the award gracefully and with his trademark squint. “Seein’ as it’s the year of the woman and all,” he said, “I’d like to thank some of the gals who worked on the film.” Clint’s film “Unforgiven” also won in the categories of editing, supporting actor, and best picture and, had there been a category for “Most Effective Use of the Word ‘Gal,’ ” he would have taken that too.

I received the Dirty Harry Collector’s Edition box set for my birthday last weekend and watched them in sequence. The original film can’t be properly evaluated without taking the setting and time in to consideration — San Francisco in 1971. Despite its somewhat effete reputation, San Francisco’s roots are in the Gold Rush and Barbary Coast. By ’71 the Summer of Love had taken on a darker incarnation. Speed and pushers usurped grass and dealers. A decidedly un-flowery vibe pervaded the Haight with the return of war-hardened Vietnam vets. The Zodiac killer was the Chronicle’s favorite new pen pal. And in stepped Clint with wrap around Ray Bans, elbow-patched sports jacket and a big gun. A very big gun.

The term “fascist” was bandied about in reference to the first Dirty Harry film, but “unapologetic” might be a better choice. Harry Callahan offered a mythologized version of the American Hero, and one subconsciously embraced by varied persuasions. What some took as a regressed, archaic version of suppressed male fantasy was actually an emerging archetype. Eastwood never had to speak more than a few lines to define a part; his mere presence did the talking. Whether best attributed to luck, timing or talent, it’s hard to deny that the man has possessed vision and star power.

The climax to the original film was shot across the bay from San Francisco, in Marin County. If you freeze the frame in one of the shots of Highway 101, you can make out my parents’ home in the distance, tucked into the dry, summer-brown grass hills of California. Nordstroms had yet to lay claim to valuable Marin real estate and the climactic shoot-out scenes utilize the old Hutchinson Quarry in Greenbrae. This was my backyard. My older brother’s friends bragged of being there when Clint jumped from the train trestle to the top of the speeding school bus. Some even exaggerated braving the murky waters of the quarry lake to retrieve the SFPD badge that he chucks away in a final show of contempt for The System.

It probably isn’t difficult to anticipate my take in regard to the recent exchange of words between Eastwood and director Spike Lee. For those unfamiliar, Lee criticized the lack of black actors in Clint’s two Iwo Jima film, Eastwood suggested that Lee ‘shut his face’ and Spike intoned that Clint retains a “plantation mentality.” This seems less a black and white thing than a generational divide. There are plenty of less accomplished directors more deserving of Spike’s words. Calling Clint “old man” was as classless and ill-placed as any racial epithet. “Shut your face” isn’t the most subtle response, but it wasn’t racially-fueled either. Clint’s twenty-six years on Lee perhaps allow for not mincing his words.

As to racial representation, there are a few Italian Americans who would have preferred exclusion from Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” to Danny Aiello’s portrayal of a Brooklyn pizza parlor owner. Even as a caricature devised to make a point it lacks subtlety. The vision of Black America eighteen years earlier in Dirty Harry was indeed retrograde, but so is much of the film’s 1971 subtext. Even as a ‘fascist’ statement the film seems dated and Harry is referred to as a ‘neanderthal’ and dinosaur.’ And yet the film still holds up. Acknowledgement is due for Eastwood’s consistency and body of work, if not for the sheer number of years he’s been at it. He’s come a long way from Dirty Harry to “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers.” Spike might consider giving it a few more years on the trail before weighing in the next time.

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