Gran Torino opens inside a shadowy church. It’s the kind of place inspired by the soaring gothic cathedrals of Europe. It has vaulted ceilings, niches, an endless symmetry of archways, and stained glass windows depicting scenes of sainthood and martyrdom. Inside, every tentative footstep or stray whisper bounces off the high ceilings and amplifies to a thunder-clap of Catholic guilt.
Well, that’s how it was for me anyhow. I know that church. The one in which Clint Eastwood’s character stands next to his wife’s casket as he scowls at his family.
Fifteen years ago I was the one sitting on those punishing wooden pews, alongside my family, facing my father’s casket.
I haven’t been back to the church of my baptism, of my youth, of my own departure from my family’s faith since that sweltering August morning in 1995. So it came as a shock to rent this movie, which I knew was made in Detroit, and to see this opening scene, which brought forth a strong physical memory of that day.
This movie robbed me of a good night’s sleep. I didn’t even think I’d like it.
“Mom, did you see ‘Gran Torino’ when it came out?” I blurt over the phone the next day.
“Oh, it was violent.”
“Yeah. Do you remember the funeral scene? At your church? Wasn’t that weird?”
“I don’t know about weird,” she says.
“Well, you know, dad’s funeral. It was eerie to see it replayed in a movie.”
“It wasn’t his funeral.”
“I know, but still …”
“Oh,” she says, her voice trailing off. Conversation over.
Am I just morbid? How could she NOT make the connection?
I felt bad then, digging up a long-buried memory. She goes there every Sunday. A decade and a half of memories have wiped away that morning awash in the blues, purples and reds of filtered sunlight and propelled by thunderous organ hymns. That morning is the only recent memory I have of the place.
This movie stirred a long-buried pot of memories.
Walt Kowalski reminds me of my grandparents, who often spewed bigoted slurs and who were pulled kicking and screaming from their spotless Detroit homes long after the neighborhood deteriorated.
Kowalski’s disconnect from his children and their offspring also sounded familiar notes in my extended family.
There is a divide between the orderly grid of the old city center, the reach-across-the-driveway-to-knock-on-your -neighbor’s-window closeness, and the labyrinthine subdivisions of suburban McMansions. It goes beyond economics. I understand those neighborhoods. I cannot fathom the sterility of some suburbs.
As the mother of an Asian daughter, it pained me to see such hateful racism in this movie, although I’ve been watching the black/white one play out all my life. I’d almost forgotten the horror of what happened to Vincent Chin. It saddened me at the time but not in the way it would today. I look into almond-shaped eyes and see family.
As a Detroiter who has dreamed of leaving this Rustbelt Utopia for years, Gran Torino made me realize that no matter where I bury new roots, I’ll have the grit of Detroit in my soul. No matter how free thinking I think I am, how open-minded, how much of a tabula rasa I think I can create for myself, after 45 years, some things are engrained.