The relationship between filmmaker and audience is a subject that gets little if any attention. I’m not talking about box-office reports, self-righteous critical crusades against pretentiousness and elitism, or theories of spectatorship. I’m talking about filmmakers and how they measure their audience, what role the viewing public plays in their decision-making process. There’s the old auteurist model of Hitchcock and Hawks, forever obsessed with the paying customers and what they could and could not abide, how to lead them in this or that direction. And then there’s Philippe Garrel whose complete output has probably grossed about one percent of the opening weekend take of More American Graffiti, and who is confident that his films will find their audience in the future. There are directors like Michael Bay, who seem to make movies without actually thinking about the audience at all, more or less running past them into a guaranteed saturation-booked bonanza, the finished products themselves demonstrations of commercially tainted skill, ingenuity, and “flamboyance.” And there are thousands of variants in between, subject to ever-changing circumstances, standards of acceptability, degrees of sophistication.
Clint Eastwood has an old-fashioned sense of responsibility to his audience, giving his movies a nice overtone: at times, they have the air of a teenage boy who’s being polite and attentive to the adults at a Sunday gathering, before retreating to his room and burying himself in a book of poetry. Eastwood often feels obliged to cross t’s and dot I’s that other filmmakers leave cryptically unadorned. There’s something quaintly reassuring about a modem American filmmaker who feels obliged to give his characters summarizing speeches (“Sometimes I feel like all three of us got into the car that day,” says Kevin Bacon in the new Mystic River, articulating a point that’s already been made in the larger arc of the action and tone of the movie) or inventing bits of winking business that were a staple of mid-Seventies Quinn Martin Productions on TV. The byplay between Eastwood and James Woods in True Crime (99), for instance, seems like it’s lifted from the Mannix playbook, and the idea of the washed-up, boozed-out, womanizing rogue reporter looking for that last good story is even more of an antique-amazing that it’s part of the same movie as the sober, heartwrenching moments with Isaiah Washington awaiting execution. And then there’s the Perils of Pauline climax: will Steve Everett’s rickety old car make it to the publisher’s house with the exonerating evidence so that a last-minute phone call can be made to the governor for a stay of execution? Fasten your seat belts!
In the same vein, it’s amazing that Mystic River houses both Sean Penn’s intense, operatic performance as the grieving father and Laurence Fishburne’s easy going jokey detective, partner (or should I say “sidekick”?) to Kevin Bacon’s Sean. Nicknamed Whitey. Unforgiven (92) features its fair share of overaged gunslinger gags (such as Eastwood trying to mount his horse as his befuddled son looks on), which are about a million miles from the hard, terse movie that surrounds them, doubtlessly the leanest ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. The same holds true for its still undervalued follow-up, A Perfect World (93). Every scene between the little boy and Kevin Costner, at his driest and least righteous, is a surprise, filled with offhand details and, a strong point for this director, action with a sinuously unwinding rhythmic drive. On the other hand, the exchanges between Eastwood, backed by his team of Texas Rangers, and Laura Dern’s “newfangled” criminal psychologist mostly seem like they were stamped out on an assembly line in a Law Enforcement Banter factory. Similarly, where Jack Green’s camera works wonders in the Costner scenes, those inside the FBI’s trailer wouldn’t seem out of place in a Cannon episode. There’s even a hillbilly variant on the runaway motor home gag from Sullivan’s Travels, already stretched thin enough in the Sturges movie. You can almost picture Eastwood mixing up a smoothie as he relaxes in his trailer, serene in the knowledge that his first AD is getting the shot.
You can read the complete version of this article in the September/October 2003 print edition of Film Comment.