Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Clint Eastwood The Director

As you may already know Clint Eastwood’s war drama American Sniper has earned six Oscar nominations, including the Best Picture and Best Actor categories.  Eastwood, a San Francisco native who grew up in Piedmont and Oakland, has long starred in and directed films that pose difficult moral questions.

Critics are divided about American Sniper and a twitter war is on. Rogen Seth has likened the film to "Nation's Pride" about the Nazi sniper in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Michael Moore’s tweet is even more acerbic: My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren't heroes. And invaders r worse. This tweet earned a response from Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House: Michael Moore should spend a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram. Then he might appreciate American Sniper.

While some have praised the movie for various reasons, others have reacted to it in the fashion of the earlier critique surrounding Zero Dark Thirty which the critics believed seemed to have justified the use of torture. Eastwood’s American Sniper focuses on the concept of war brought home as the soldiers, even the best of them, return, they are victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome which can lead to a wrecked family life.

The film's critics argue that while the movie presents the U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in heroic light, it never questions the morality of our occupation of Iraq, not to mention the racism Chris Kyle exhibits in his memoir which the movie is based on. Laura Miller, writing about Kyle's book, points out that,
It is both cruel and perverse to reproach soldiers for killing the enemy when that’s what they’re sent to war to do, and when they do so in defense of their own lives and the lives of their comrades. Nevertheless, you can expect soldiers to kill and still recoil when they kill blithely and eagerly. In 'American Sniper,' Kyle describes killing as “fun” and something he “loved” to do.
In our collection there are some very good books about the Western actor turned acclaimed director. Sara Anson Vaux’s The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood is a good starting point to explore the sources that anchor his moral vision and what they are. The following quotation gives a good summation of Eastwood's outlook:
He decided instead to celebrate the journeys of the losers, the immigrants, outcasts, and vagrants who made the winding journeys, those whose poverty or race or country of origin increasingly had excluded them from a so-called successful American life.
This poses the question whether Eastwood is cautioning us that the conditions of modern American warfare are turning our returning soldiers into new outcasts?

Here is a reading list for those interested in further exploring Eastwood's complex body of work.

The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood by Sara Anson Vaux (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2012).

Clint Eastwood: Interviews / edited by Robert E. Kapsis and Kathie Coblentz (University Press of Mississippi, c1999).

Clint Eastwood: A Biography by Richard Schickel (Knopf, 1996).  [Overdrive Ebook]

American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood by Marc Eliot (Harmony Books, 2009).  [Overdrive Ebook] [CD audiobook] [Overdrive audiobook] [Hoopla audiobook]

Clint Eastwood: Evolution of a Filmmaker by John H. Foote (Praeger, 2009).

Clint Eastwood, Actor and Director: New Perspectives (University of Utah Press, 2007).

Clint Eastwood's America by Sam B. Girgus (Polity, 2014).


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How To Read Oceanic Art

One of the pleasures of being a San Franciscan is ability to visit local museums that allow us to view great art from around the world.  One of the strengths of our DeYoung Museum is their collection of Oceanic Art.  In addition to Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art, the DeYoung has many excellent works from Australia, New Zealand and many South Pacific Islands.

While these artworks make strong statements by themselves, it is difficult for cultural outsiders to understand their significance.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has published a new title, How To Read Oceanic Art that helps to explain the mystery and power behind these creations.

How to Read Oceanic Art opens with introduction discussing the background of the artwork, discussing the regions, religions and spiritual practices, uses of decoration and the depictions of humans and animals.  It also looks at the role of the artist in these societies and considers the impact of the contact of these cultures with the West.  The book then looks at 42 individual works of separated into six regions: New Guinea, Australia, Island Melanesia, Island Southeast Asia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The above image of a Female Figure made from a sperm whale's ivory tooth on the Ha'apai Islands, Tonga in the 19th century is used to engage with the now almost trivialized notion of the "tiki."  The book's author notes that tiki has been used through many parts of the region to refer to images with human features.  He describes the significance of the over-sized head -- another common feature of Polynesian art -- as reflecting the seat of a person's mana or power.  From these he concludes that the figure is a representation of a "powerful female deity" and goes on to describe the ritual use of such an object.

With this book in hand you will gain a new appreciation of the art you view on your next visit to the DeYoung.

How to Read Oceanic Art by Eric Kjellgren (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014.)