Since May, 2006, I have now posted 1000 times to this blog. It's hard to believe. I'd be the first to admit that the quality of the postings is variable. There are some that are simply announcements or were tossed off quickly just to keep the blog from going stale. However, there are entries I'm proud of, even if they're becoming fewer and farther between.
Where's our Brando?" That discussion was about how characters in animation are conceived and executed. I'm now going to ask, "Where's our Clint Eastwood?"
I mistakenly wrote Eastwood off years ago during his Dirty Harry period. I had no interest in movies about right wing vigilantes. This summer, I have watched a large number of films that Eastwood directed, and I have to say that I was very impressed and embarrassed by my earlier response to him.
What does Eastwood have to do with animation? Unfortunately, nothing. However, Eastwood's strengths as a director point out the shortcomings of animation directors currently working.
Eastwood is tremendously eclectic. He moves between genres but even within genres he's not afraid to take different approaches. The same director made a mid-western romance, The Bridges of Madison County, and a war movie from the Japanese perspective, Letters from Iwo Jima. He's made films set in working class Massachusetts (Mystic River), in post-apartheid South Africa (Invictus), in the boxing world (Million Dollar Baby), in 1920s Los Angeles (Changeling), Savannah (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and the old west (Unforgiven). His film's characters have been country and western singers (Honkytonk Man), jet pilots (Space Cowboys), retired auto workers (Gran Torino), transvestites (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), escaped criminals (A Perfect World), over-hyped war heroes (Flags of our Fathers), film directors (White Hunter, Black Heart) and reluctant psychics (Hereafter).
The range of Eastwood's films and the characters in them is immensely broad and he's sympathetic to characters from all walks of life and in all kinds of circumstances.
While live action films can be made faster than animated features and Eastwood may be an exception even in the live action world, there is nobody directing animated features who comes close to Eastwood's range. He does have the advantage of not having to include children in his audience, even though children sometimes feature prominently in the films. In Hereafter, a young twin has to deal with the death of his brother. In Honkytonk Man, a young boy has to watch his uncle made poor choices and succumb to disease. In A Perfect World, a kidnap victim comes to have feelings for his captor, who seems to understand him better than his own family. Because Eastwood doesn't have to simplify his films to satisfy children, his characters are free to exist ambiguously, having to make choices that are not clearly good or bad, but simply the best they can do under the circumstances. And the endings are free to be downbeat if that's what the story demands.
There's something else interesting. Eastwood isn't a writer. While I am an auteurist from way back, and while I applaud the existence of personal films in animation and live action, Eastwood's approach is to find a script that he finds interesting, rather than create or shape the material from scratch. I think this input from other minds gives Eastwood something to wrestle with, rather than letting him fall into familiar patterns. In animation these days, even if the director hasn't originated the story, the story department is likely made up of people with the same frame of reference as the director. That, plus the economic pressure to hit the family audience and gross hundreds of millions of dollars, reduces animated features to a very narrow area.
There are animated features that have broken the mold, but they tend to come from other cultures: Persepolis (Iran and France), Spirited Away (Japan), Mary and Max (Australia), The Secret of Kells (Ireland) and The Illusionist (France and Scotland). It's wonderful that these films were made and that we've gotten to see them in North America, but it's frustrating that North America is not capable of significant variety in animated features.
I have to admit that live action films and graphic novels hold more interest for me these days, due to their variety of subject matter and point of view, than animated features. Currently, animated features are successful at the box office, so there is no incentive for anyone to rock the boat. Hollywood is famous for riding trends until they die, so until animated features consistently tank at the box office, I don't expect to see a change. However, while the medium may be advancing technically, it is pretty stagnant in other ways and that's a shame.
I wonder if we'll ever reach a point where animation has a Brando directed by an Eastwood?