Eastwood looks to eternity

On Saturday, I watched "Dirty Harry" for the first time. This was the beginning of an expedition through Clint Eastwood's big-bark-and-all-bite police series. It followed through the "Dollar" spaghetti Western series in the spring. And I have to say, there is so, so much more to Eastwood than just "Unforgiven," which, of course, was great.

It's not the memorable quotes, though those are fun. It's the surprisingly deep messages that come through many of his films. (I understand that he directed none of the "Dollar" films and only "Sudden Impact" from the "Dirty Harry" line.) It sounds like his latest, "Hereafter," which screened last week at the Toronto Film Festival, has taken that to an extreme.

The Los Angeles Times explains:

This is his sixth film in less than four years, the production spanned four countries and it represents Eastwood's biggest foray into digital visual effects; it also happens to be a startling tale about the afterlife that is spiritual instead of merely supernatural. None of these things suggests that Eastwood will switch to autopilot as he moves into the twilight.

"At the age I am now, I just don't have any interest in going back and doing the same sort of thing over and over, that's one of the reasons I moved away from westerns," said Eastwood, who started his career as a later-model John Wayne and will finish it as something close to a modern John Ford. "The question about what happens after we die is something that we all ask and when I read the script by Peter Morgan it was so intelligent and I knew right away that I wanted to do it."

"Hereafter," which opens wide on Oct. 22, is a cinematic triptych with the separate stories of battered souls searching for answers about the afterlife -- there's a reluctant Bay Area psychic ( Matt Damon), a London youngster (Frankie McLaren) grieving the death of his twin brother and a French journalist (Belgium-born actress Cecile de France) who was caught up in a tsunami, killed by the raging water and then revived after a strange, spectral experience.

This is obviously no light subject matter for Eastwood. Hard to believe, but the Man With No Name is 80. And he's been looking rather weathered since the early 1980s. And Los Angeles Times entertainment writer Geoff Boucher captures that.

But how does he measure up on explaining the "spiritual instead of merely supernatural?" Poorly. But it's not Boucher's fault. It's Eastwood's.

He calls the film a spiritual chick flick. Matt Damon refers to it as Eastwood's French film -- a description so ironic that I can't quite get my head around it and I worry it will be worse than "Space Cowboys."

Here's what Eastwood told Boucher about why the film's character abandon religion as a path to eternity:

"It's a spiritual story but there are no real religious connotations to it," Eastwood said. "The [major religions] are kind of unsatisfying to the kid in our story because he's looking for something that can answer his questions. He wants a straight answer and he can't seem to find anything from people who turn out to be either psychics looking for a fast buck or people just talking ... you don't really see movies like this these days that have a spiritual aspect or a romantic aspect. And it is romantic. These days you have a lot of movies about people jumping on each other in the sack but we don't have that. This is more about attraction."

Well, now I'm a bit unsatisfied. This is, of course, how Hollywood deals with the hereafter: in vague generalities about spirituality.

For one, I would have liked some explanation of why this kid was unsatisfied with major religions, which I imagine that appears in the movie. This quote also awkwardly suggests, even if unintentionally, that leaders of major religions -- whatever those might be -- are either con men or blowhards.

Because life does often imitate art, Eastwood comes off in Boucher's piece as a gruff but sentimental aging workhorse. He's not Walt Kowalski but neither is he a "greeting-card messenger" or "adamant apostle." And he's not sure what he believes:

"People ask me what I believe," Eastwood said as he watched sheep meander across the rustic hotel's pasture. "I say, 'I don't know yet.' I'm not closed off to it. There are points in my life when I thought I knew all the answers and other times when I was sure I didn't know any of them. Right now, well, I'm waiting to see. Aren't we all?"

Come on, Harry, take it easy.

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