|Screening Room Jan/Feb|
By Frank Pittman
Tell Me a Story
As Hollywood goes postmodern, has narrative become passe?
If you're like me, you've noticed that movies don't make as much sense as they used to. Of course, I may be going to too many of the wrong movies, but these days, I often find myself sitting helplessly in the dark, bombarded with ear-splitting noises, bizarre images that make my eyeballs ache, and random bits of interaction that stretch my ability to put them together, like scattered dreams at the moment of awakening.
Nevertheless, I suspect that there's still an audience somewhere out there with an old-fashioned appetite for narrative coherence—an audience that wants a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; a story that inspires, instructs, and offers insights into the human condition. In the old Hollywood tradition, if you can remember back that far, filmmakers like Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock specialized in tightly constructed tales of good guys and bad guys, love and hate, and gunfights at the O.K. Corral. These days, most of the responsibility for carrying on that tradition appears to have fallen on the aging shoulders of Clint Eastwood, a remarkably energetic septuagenarian, who manages to offer many of the joys of traditional movie storytelling while winning awards for his films and drawing moviegoers to the multiplex.
Lean, tall, and handsome, with a stride as assertively masculine as John Wayne's, Eastwood came to fame in the 1960s as the laconic "Man With No Name" in spaghetti westerns, and then as the remorselessly brutal Dirty Harry, the upholder of law and order in a world on the edge of anarchy. But as he moved toward middle age, his movies took a surprisingly serious turn, zeroing in on the emotional consequence of violence, especially for its perpetrators.
His films typically hark back to classic storytelling conventions, based on a deep identification with central characters, played by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Gene Hackman, and Eastwood himself, who find themselves making wrenching choices they'd never dreamed they'd face. In another late-career twist, this weathered oak of a macho hero has even shown himself able to peer with sensitivity into the heart of his female heroines: Meryl Streep, deciding not to leave her family and go off with a passing stranger in The Bridges of Madison County, and Hilary Swank, choosing to die, rather than to live out her life as a helpless quadriplegic in Million Dollar Baby.