Thursday Twinbill: “Up” and “Gran Torino”


You in the suit! Yes, you! Take a bath, hippie! ~Carl Fredericksen, Up

Get me another beer, Dragon Lady! This one’s running on empty. ~Walt Kowalski, Gran Torino

I’ve decided to start a new weekly theme here at P&Q: every Thursday, I’ll be going back through my vast archive of movies and picking out two that may seem like strange bedfellows, but which actually go well together. Think of it as a cinematic version of one of my favorite meals (chicken curry and cranberry sauce.) For this inaugural edition, I’ve chosen two films that continue to rise in my personal top 100: 2008’s Gran Torino and the 2009 Pixar offering Up.

 

I can see Clint Eastwood's house from here

Without getting too mushy-gushy and personal, I was deeply moved by both films. One of my deepest and most abiding fears is that I’ll grow old, embittered, without friends, forced to live at the mercy of anonymous do-gooders who want to shuffle me off to some retirement home in the name of “progress.” I worry about that eventuality a lot more than I worry about being confronted by a jihadi terrorist, or perhaps being forced to speak in public wearing only my underwear. As humans, if we’re not worried about dying, something is probably wrong.

Up and Gran Torino use mortality as their driving themes, but these are also two films about life. At the start of each, we meet a “grumpy old man” at the end of his life and newly widowed after a long marriage. Carl Fredericksen (voice of Ed Asner) is a retired balloon salesman who always dreamed of taking an adventure vacation to South America, but never got the chance. Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski is just as grumpy, but, unlike Carl, he’s the kind of guy who’ll shoot intruders first and ask questions later. There’s grumpy, and then there’s a sullen snarl, which the 78-year-old Eastwood plays to great effect. These are the kinds of guys who, like my late ex-police chief grandfather, want to die in their own house, on their own terms. Shuffling around linoleum hallways and eating stewed prunes is no life for them.

I told you, I don't want any Girl Scout cookies!

The homes are deeply symbolic. A man’s home is his castle…for Carl and Walt, their homes are impregnable fortresses in an encroaching urban jungle. Carl’s gingerbread Victorian is being torn down to build a high-rise, so he flies it away like a colossal Macy’s parade balloon. Walt, on the other hand, lashes out with fear-based aggression, overt racism, and feral snarling, all because a Hmong Asian family moves in next door. I have to think of my grandfather again (who, as it turns out, also harbored misunderstood racist feelings.) Men of his generation, World War II and Korea, didn’t talk about their problems or express “healing feelings.” They stoically endured whatever life threw at them. When it was time to die, it was time to die. Tough guys finish first.

Walt and Carl are each lucky enough to get a second chance in the form of a neighborhood Asian kid (if you like, think of it as the Short Round sidekick syndrome, if you’ve ever seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) Walt becomes the unlikely mentor to Thao, the intellectual, shy teenager next door, and eventually his friend. Carl is saddled with Russell, an over-enthusiastic Boy Scout trying to get a “Helping the Elderly” merit badge as his last requirement. The “mismatched buddies” trope is an old one in Hollywood…one that can still work if it’s acted and scripted right. Gran Torino teeters more on the edge of hackneyed than does Up when it comes to banter between the old man and the young, Millenial Generation kid (best shown in a scene in which Walt shows Thao how to “act like a real man” by throwing out a litany of insults and ethnic slurs.) We all know how that partnership eventually winds up. The old guy/woman passes on his/her knowledge grudgingly and leaves a legacy just in time for the credits to roll. And naturally, the old guys wind up being father figures to the kids who conveniently have absentee or lousy real fathers.

When I grow up, I wanna be just like you

The best kinds of movies, for me, are the ones that can make you laugh, cry, and squirm with unease within the span of two hours. The ones that balance life and death, joy and melancholy, good and evil. In the case of Gran Torino, the Circle of Life makes a complete rotation: it literally opens and closes with a funeral (first Walt’s wife’s, than his own.) He may be a mean old bastard at the beginning, but by the time he’s dead, the audience, like Thao, has started to warm up to him a bit.

Thankfully Carl doesn’t take the six-feet-under route at the end of Up (although this movie proves, if nothing else, that death can be handled with dignity and poignancy in an animated film.) He does symbolically pass on the torch to Russell in a touching scene at the coda.

The main thing I take away from this Twinbill pairing is the ability to let things go whether we’re 80 or 8. We humans have no control over when or how we will die. We can live healthy, safe, sane lives and get crushed by a falling Steinway. The more we lock ourselves behind stone walls and hang onto our “toys,” the more bitter we become.

Carl and Walt do wind up giving up the relics of their past. For Carl, it’s his childhood hero Charles Muntz, who ends up an evil, Nazi war criminal-style recluse with killer talking dogs (yeah, we all know one of those) down in the Southern Hemisphere. And Walt, it turns out, is redeemed after his death: he bequeaths his beloved ’72 Gran Torino to Thao, with the provision the young man doesn’t do anything stupid to the car. Thao also gets Walt’s Silver Star from Korea. Not bad, considering Walt literally wants to shoot him in the first act.

It's called "Tool Time," kid

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried openly while watching both these flicks. A good movie with a good message does that to me. I think part of it was me missing my late granddad (it’s been five years, and I miss him now more than ever. He was the same kind of crusty but lovable older guy you’ve seen in a hundred movies.)

There will be other movies about old men and young men “odd couples” bonding. It’s a theme as old as Gilgamesh and Beowulf. If you haven’t seen either Up or Gran Torino yet, add them to your Netflix queue. Just be sure to have a box of Kleenex handy.

And one other thing…if your grandparents or great-grandparents are still living, call them or stop by and visit. They won’t be around forever. And they’ll enjoy your company. Just ignore their gruffness and love them for who they are.

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on March 24, 2011.

One Response to “Thursday Twinbill: “Up” and “Gran Torino””

  1. I know what I will be watching tonight!
    LOL

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