Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Schizo-Subjectivity in Gran Torino

I am creating this blog in light of my desire to earn a PhD related to film (not necessarily in 'Film Studies,' but at least in something where I can work with films as source texts). My favorite teachers and writers in the past have been rather prolific when it comes to talking about films, and I hope to develop this quality here - or fail publicly trying.

while I have a wide variety of interests when it comes to 'thinking about things,' from cyberculture stuff to continental philosophy (see review of Dorsality by David Wills), I am really interested in how different subjectivities and epistemologies are established through cultural artifacts - I suppose cyberculture studies and continental philosophy make sense in light of this. I am particularly interested in the way subjectivities emerge from complex social systems and institutions, probably stemming from my reading of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. If readers continue to follow this blog, they will notice that Deleuze and Guattari's concepts have informed my thinking a great deal. But enough background info on my life, and on to what you folks came to read about - my thoughts on Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino (2008). Blogs sure are awkward.

The reason I find Gran Torino so interesting is that the film's protagonist, Walt Kowalksi played by Clint Eastwood, is so amusing because he seems to be the regimented, stratisfied subject Deleuze and Guattari discuss as a result of the time he has spent in the military. When I saw this film in the theaters, the audience laughed uproarously at Walt's overt racism - the kind of stuff I wouldn't laugh at if I met this fellow in real life, but did watching his reactions in the film. A lot could be said about the difference in response between reality and the viewing of a film, but that isn't exactly what I'm interested in here. Instead, I'm interested in how Walt's particular subject position describes something much more akin to the schizo-subject of of Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia rather than the stratified subject, which may come as a little bit unexpected.

To try and make things a bit less abstract here, I want to explain this concept of stratification, or the stratified subject. Part of Deleuze and Guattari's overall argument in Capitalism and Schizophrenia is that certain forces created by late-capitalism free the subject from traditional institutions that create subjecthood such as the nuclear family, the government, and religion. Therefore, those who rigidly think and act according to the philosophies of the nuclear family, a government, or a religion constitute the 'stratified subject.' A subject held 'in place' as the result of adherence to a particular epistemology.

Walt might generally be thought of as this 'stratified subject,' as it is made clear in the film by his values, which seem to be based on his time spent in the military (forgive my poor examples, as I am running off memory since the DVD won't be released until June). The film opens with the death of his wife, which results in his family and folks involved in his life to show up to his house for the funeral. His response to these people is shown clearly by the permanent grimace painted on his face throughout the film, made even more poignant by the eyeline matches to various things that disgust him - such as his granddaughter's bellybutton ring, the attending priest's youth, and the foreign neighbors next door. Each of these initial disgusts points to his old-fashioned, hierarchical whiteness, made laughauble (literally, out loud, not figuratively) by Eastwood's ability to portray this particular subject extremely well.

What I believe makes this film particularly interesting, however, is the way in which this seemingly stratified - old whitey - subjectivity seems to be the very destratifying schizo-subjectivity itself. While yes, Walt clearly has strong and regimented values, they are not in line with the nuclear family, government, and religion triad that Deleuze and Guattari might suggest cement someone in a popular subjectivity. Walt seems to hold only disdain for his nuclear family who wants to put him in an assisted living apartment (nursing home), the priest in his early 20's who knows nothing of "life and death," and he comes to appreciate the neighbors who, early on in the film, he identifies as 'asian-something' rather than Hmong. Indeed, while Walt's experience in the Korean War seems to have created his subjectivity, it is more of a schizo-subjectivity that the film leads on to in the beginning.

Walt's participation in the war is a theme that is returned to throughout the film: when neighbor Thao learns of his experience and guns, Thao's desire to use this military experience to avenge his sister's rape, and the 1st calvary lighter - a memento from the war - that ultimately constructs the pivotal moment of the conclusion. It seems fair enough to argue that Walt's status as a veteran informs his actions throughout the film. The question then becomes: what sort of comment is the film making about this schizo-subjectivity that has emerged from Walt's experience in the war?


There is a sort of suture that happens between viewers and the neighbor Thao after his sister's rape. Thao wants a violent resolution - he wants Walt to use his guns and knowledge of warfare to help him kill the gang that is causing the trouble. At this point, the film leads you to believe this is the way the narrative will proceed. Walt tells Thao that they have to be patient, and that they have to know when to attack the gang. At this point, I was ready for a conclusion akin to The Outlaw of Josey Wales (1976) - an epic tale of revenge. This time through, however, the war veteran operates under a very different, modern context. Walt, by the end of the film, understands this above all else, perhaps as a result of his experiences with the Hmong neighbors.

His particular schizo-subjectivity (it is of course, one unique subjectivity among many) has no place in this context and, as a result, Walt ends up sacrificing himself for his neighbors. He shows up at the gang's lair, and once he has all of the gang members' guns trained on him he pulls out his 1st calvary lighter, which provokes them into shooting him. It is almost as if the 1st calvary lighter is a manifestation of his subjectivity - extinguished, because it is no longer useful in this context. His sacrifice is all Walt can do to tie back into the modern social order, by initiating the arrest of the gang members and thereby avenging Thao's sister and protecting Thao.

The message is clear though: this schizo-subjectivity does not belong. Its ways of existing, warfare in this case, is not allowed in this particular social situation. The message is rather poignant in terms of current affairs in the world, and the results of war itself. I do not think most people would disagree that war changes people, but this film shows that, beyond the obvious, the modes of production desirable to warfare are not desirable in a civilian context, even when the desire warrants it (as does Thao's, and the viewer's if they feel sutured to this particular moment of vengeance in the film). In the end, we seem to have a story similar to the cautionary tale in chapter 6 of A Thousand Plateaus - the schizo-position of the new subject will be freed from the confines of psycho-restrictive social institutions, but it may also lead to terrible ends. Or, in the case of Gran Torino, a beautiful film with a rather sad ending.

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