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Dirty Harry, The Mule, and Pauline Kael

I just got done watching Clint Eastwood’s latest, “The Mule,” and enjoyed it thoroughly. Enjoyed it thoroughly for many of the same reasons I enjoy Eastwood (and by extension, the character he plays.) He’s flawed, but he keeps going. There is no way to watch an 88 year-old American film icon on screen minus the autobiographical overtones. At minimum, he will be portraying every one of those 88 years, and that puts him in select company. There’s a scene where, as an inconspicuous drug runner for the Mexican cartel, he comes across a group of lesbian motorcyclists having engine trouble. He calls them “gals” or similar and they correct him .. “Hey man, we’re Dykes on Bikes!” It feels like something lifted straight out of “Every Which Way But Loose” or the 1978 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. Having noted that he once had the same motorcycle and the problem is likely with the starter, he bids them adieu with a cheerful “Bye, Dykes!”

Reading a few online reviews for the film, I wasn’t surprised to see it being called “lazy” and “racist.” The “lazy” part seems most ironic, given Clint’s age and what passes for film criticism these days. (Granted several of these self-appointed critics were merely holders of a Twitter account.) But the “racist” part (and by extension the ubiquitous “homophobic”) is curious and only applicable if you assume Eastwood only ever plays Eastwood. Even by that definition, you’d have to presume to know his intentions as an actor and director (not to mention one in his late eighties with a huge body of work behind him.) He’s portraying a dinosaur in this film — a flawed but well-intentioned dinosaur — so even if there is an autobiographical element it isn’t being applied with malice or a lack of self-awareness. There’s nothing particularly damning about him using their preferred nomenclature with his parting line (“Bye, Dykes!”) .. in fact, he’s merely calling them what they’ve asked to be called. The scene feels flawed merely because it’s so ‘retro’ and out of step with anything that might pass for current times.

There’s a similar scene that’s been criticized involving a family of black motorists whom he calls “negroes” and then cheerfully replies “no shit?’ when informed that they prefer ‘black’ or just ‘people.’ The point here isn’t that he should be allowed to call people whatever pleases him, but rather that he’s out of step and means no harm. As with the lesbian scene, its greatest flaw is using a rather dated reference in a supposedly ‘modern’ movie. It would be a stretch to claim that Eastwood is doing this purposefully and self-consciously to make a point (autobiographically or otherwise.) In any case that’s another essay and, instead, I’d like to use the idea as a segue into talking about Pauline Kael.

Kael was the preeminent film critic of her time and at the peak of her powers when Eastwood starred in perhaps his most iconic role, as Detective Harry Callahan in the Don Siegel film “Dirty Harry.” Kael was the first (or at least the most noted) to apply the tag “fascist” to the film. She branded the work as “deeply immoral” while conceding that “it would be stupid to deny that ‘Dirty Harry’ is a stunningly well-made genre piece.” She goes on to make a very particular distinction between “turning an audience on” and “art.” : “Turning on an audience is a function of motor excitation that is not identical with art (though there is an overlap); if it were, the greatest artists would be those who gave us heart attacks ..” It’s a fantastic piece of writing, unlike most anything you’d find today, and the scope of her criticism is both broad yet specific and compelling. It was perhaps the beginning of a more colloquial understanding of “fascism” as the word has come to be applied in this country, and there’s definitely a specific argument to be made there. But far more interesting is her nuanced take on what defines ‘art.’ I won’t touch that, at least not for now.

Kael was from San Francisco, my current home city and that of Detective Harry Callahan. “I grew up in San Francisco,” she writes, “and one of the soundest pieces of folk wisdom my mother ever gave me was ‘if you’re ever in trouble, don’t go to the cops.‘ ” As with a lot of good folk-wisdom, it only works on a specific level. There is a certain kind of trouble for which the only person you’d be able to turn to is a cop. And, by vocational necessity, this dictates many of the flawed attributes Kael’s mother seemed to be implying. Does she have a point? Of course she does. Does it cover everything? Certainly not. San Francisco is perhaps the American epicenter for the loose application of “fascist” and distrust of cops. (Though the city is changing so rapidly at present this may be a dated stereotype.) It’s also the epicenter for human feces on sidewalks and in public spaces. Make of this what you will.

I’m too lazy to get into these broader arguments here (which is all the more reason for my being impressed with Clint Eastwood still going at 88.) I’ve been churning out these mostly spontaneous and lightly-researched pieces on this blog for many years, and the best I can claim is that my stance on most of these matters hasn’t changed much in that time. I’ve always liked Clint Eastwood, San Francisco, good writing, and a reasonably conservative bent on most things. Whether this qualifies me as “fascist” or not I’m uncertain. But at least it isn’t something that’s crept upon me in old age. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to bid farewell to a group of lesbian motorcyclists.

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