In the many weeks after Clint Eastwood’s fantastic display at the Republican National Convention, chair-joke hilarity has been in wide circulation. The example Eastwood and his chair have set will go down in history as one of the great moments of televised bedlam, and as time goes by, there will continue to be speculation as to just how premeditated it all was.
All of which is simply a roundabout way of asking: why haven’t the men in white jackets come for Clint yet?
I have a feeling it’s because there are certain people, for whatever reason, the media likes to protect insofar as it can. Eastwood is not only a part of this group but perhaps its most integral member, second only to Woody Allen. Other notables include Roman Polanski, the ghost of Norman Mailer, and Mel Gibson, whom the men in white coats might have actually taken long ago and substituted with a doppleganger whose hair implants were designed to look like hair that looked like hair implants. No one has been able to tell the difference.
All these people, incidentally, also fall under the heading of what a Salon writer in a recent article calls (referring to Eastwood) “iconic male badass[es] of all time”, though never quite in the same way that Eastwood is. They each represent different facets of this, with the shared trait of all having, despite much controversy, ultimately gotten away with something, be it an attitude, offensive kind of behavior, or unacceptable opinion.
The Salon piece, in reminding us of Eastwood’s eternal place in badass male iconography, is part of this blind spot. For to title a piece “After the chair: Clint Eastwood’s Tormented Legacy” is to place Eastwood’s perfectly average senility within the context of tragedy, using the language of tragedy to bear it out. I find it hard to believe that Clint Eastwood is truly tormented–torment, which implies a special kind of intelligent or moral suffering, requires a certain presence of mind that I’m not sure the aged Clint possesses. The only thing that’s actually tragic about Clint’s case is that, like most artists, he’s grown out of the thing he started out representing. More tragic is the fact that it’s suddenly enough to use the phrase ‘the chair’ and have people know exactly what you’re referring to, as if Eastwood’s rant is a kind of a historic event like Stonewall or Watergate, as opposed to one episode probably out of many in which a senile Clint Eastwood has started having conversations with inanimate objects.
So why do we care so much about legitimizing this instance? Perhaps because:
“..to play a doddering old fool in public, in a vain and vague attempt to bolster a guy who is not just the most vapid, empty-suited loser in American political history but also an obvious representative of all the institutional bogosity that Clint Eastwood has always despised, on-screen and off – that’s just a bitter reminder of what time and tide will do to us all, no matter how badass we may be.”
It’s a bitter reminder of this, yes, and also of the fact that we really don’t have the healthiest relationship to aging in this country. We never have, and as we inch closer to complete environmental destruction, it’s unlikely we’re going to develop one. As a group of people more than usually into youth and beauty, we somehow haven’t, as a culture, gotten far with processing the inevitable but stinging fact of our own mortality. It still grieves us to think of it, and of the five stages of that grief, we haven’t really moved past denial. I could cite the plastic surgery industry and the film industry, obviously, but I think where it’s most in evidence is our relationship to aging artists, or those we perceive as ‘national treasures’, those whom we must situate within a decline and fall trajectory lest we think of them simply as people who have outlived their talent. These are people who are supposed to somehow summarize the essence of this country for people who, miraculously, have never seen a Western and consequently don’t know what it’s all supposed to be about. Which is, to wit: iconic male badassness. Someone like Clint Eastwood, who simply refuses to stop working and fade into the distance, reminds us of just how the mighty must fall. If he would only retire, we wouldn’t have to watch him slide further and further into Charleton Heston territory. But since an equally important American custom is to keep working until you basically drop dead on your feet, part of the also American idea that you’re only as good as your last project, we probably wouldn’t be all that content to let certain people drop out of the spotlight, either.
So what to do with people like this? The Woody Allens and Clint Eastwoods who have long since ceased producing great work and seem to be slipping into a place of self-justified moral chaos? Lord knows this country is full of them. Maybe the most painless thing for all of us is to just let them fade out. What if we stopped giving Allen these purely honorary Oscar nominations? What if the Republicans decided that star power was maybe not the most important thing in picking convention speakers? What if it was the dawn of a new and exciting age where we felt no compulsion to care about artists that continue to disappoint us?
Personally I have no idea what would happen if we were to adopt any kind of a healthy or non-contradictory attitude to old age, the past, and artistry in general. However we might start by admitting that Clint’s pill box runneth over and leave it at that.