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Eastwood: Go Ahead, Punk; Go Ahead, Clint

by Greg Wahl--page 4

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Eastwood attempts an even more completely "new" vision and political self-examination in another self-produced and directed project, an adaptation of Robert Waller's 1991 popular romance novel The Bridges of Madison County. The book provides an excellent opportunity for this because of its highly visual narrative, which depends largely upon the almost cinematic point of view of the main character. Fortuitously, the main character is a fiftyish beatnik National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid, a man who looks at the world and a lonely Iowa housewife named Francesca Johnson down the barrel of his camera lens, philosophizing all the while upon the nature of art in a mass-mediated world. Despite this artsy bent, Kincaid is no coffeehouse weenie: as he shoots the bridges of the book's title (he calls it "making pictures,") he exhibits "a power of some kind": "He imposed his will on the scene, countering changes in light with different lenses, different films, a filter occasionally. He didn't just fight back, he dominated, using skill and intellect." (83-4) Kincaid, like Eastwood, must always temper this artistic power with an awareness of the compromising commercial nature of his work. For instance, on a shoot in which a stroke of good fortune sends a team of horses into his viewfinder, the opportunistic photographer says he "knew when the good ones came by and could already see what the final print would look like as he worked....The one with the farmer and horses might even be a cover shot; that's why he had left the space at the top of the frame, room for type, for a logo." (73-74).

Like the aging Eastwood, the aging Kincaid can still get the girl, and the same dynamic of artistic and commercial power carries over to the description of his sexual prowess. After an encounter in which Robert "did nothing to dominate her yet dominated her completely," Francesca tells him, "Robert, you're so powerful it's frightening," (105-6) and then later, "you own me" (113). Ultimately, this masculine sexual power is conflated with Kincaid's mass-mediated/artistic point of view. In a four-page description of the lone piece of evidence of their affair, a Kincaid photograph of Francesca, much detail is devoted to how he had managed to frame her sexuality: "...her body was full and warm, filling out the jeans just about right....Her nipples were clearly outlined where they pressed against the cotton T-shirt," etc. (24-6). Her sexuality can only be retold as the object of his particular mass-mediated gaze.

He noticed all of her . . . He could have walked out on this earlier, could still walk. Rationality shrieked at him. "Let it go, Kincaid, get back on the road. Shoot the bridges, go to India. Stop in Bangkok on the way and look up the silk merchant's daughter who knows every ecstatic secret the old ways can teach. Swim naked with her at dawn in jungle pools and listen to her scream as you turn her inside out at twilight. Let go of this"—the voice was hissing now—"it's outrunning you."

   But the slow street tango had begun. Somewhere it played; he could hear it, an old accordion. It was far back, or far ahead, he couldn't be sure. Yet it moved toward him steadily. And the sound of it blurred his criteria and funneled his own alternatives toward unity. Inexorably it did that, until there was nowhere left to go, except toward Francesca Johnson

from The Bridges of Madison County

So for a self-reflexive filmmaker, one who uses his work to examine the politics of both his own mediated model of manhood and the implications of his medium, The Bridges of Madison County was a natural. Not only does it allow space for a narcissistic examination of the main character's manly sensitivity, but it was phenomenally popular among women. Waller himself became a celebrity for a brief period of time, appearing on an Oprah Winfrey show next to the actual covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa. On the show, Oprah and a largely female audience listened to a denim-jacketed Waller, looking a lot like the description of Robert Kincaid in the novel (and a little like Clint Eastwood) play his folk ballads on acoustic guitar. The women also repeatedly asked him if he was married. To Eastwood, this must have looked like the ultimate vehicle for a cleaned-up, aging movie star looking to transform himself into something like Cary Grant--dashing, respectable, tough, smart, sexy.

In the movie itself, it is Eastwood's portrayal of Kincaid that is framed in the most interesting way. Throughout the movie, we watch Meryl Streep's Francesca watch him--through windows, through the slats in the covered bridges, as he drives, as he peels carrots, as he sleeps, as he stands in the rain, as he drives away.

The Bridges of Madison County

View an animated GIF of Francesa watching Kincaid from The Bridges of Madison County (11 frames, 53KB).

Similarly, the dialogue mostly gives Eastwood's Kincaid the chance to perform for Francesca across her kitchen table, and as he begins to talk about his philosophies of life and "making pictures," it is difficult not to see Eastwood through his character. Whereas Dirty Harry never changes, Kincaid states that "most people are afraid of change, but if you look at it like it's something you can always count on, then it can be a comfort." Whereas Will Munny has always been lucky killing folks, Kincaid thinks his "old dreams were good dreams. They didn't work out, but I'm glad I had 'em."

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