Eastwood’s Artistry: More Than An Empty Chair

Sara Vaux, Northwestern professor and expert in all things Clint

(This article was featured in our print issue, which was published on Nov. 10, 2012.)

Don’t worry- Clint Eastwood saved you a seat in Tampa. His speech at the Republican National Convention in August certainly caused some concerned murmurs among viewers.

As always, Eastwood didn’t hide his entertaining side, as he chatted with an empty chair “filled” by an absent President Obama. His artistry proved to be the main act of his speech.

And his artistry is just what fascinates Sara Vaux, the Director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University. Vaux teaches religion and film and often spotlights the films directed by Eastwood in her classes, having written an entire book on the man’s directing. She thought his speech hit the mark- by missing it completely.

“No, I don’t think he got to the point, but getting to the point is what you do if it’s a canned political analysis. He articulated what he wanted to say… I don’t think he should justify himself. He’s not paid by the party. He’s not paid by any party,” Vaux said of the speech that others have critiqued as “rambling.”

Vaux enjoyed Eastwood’s use of the empty chair as a way of “pulling the audience in dialogue with ideas and people who were not there.”

This attempt falls in line with what Eastwood is all about in his film-directing role. He frames his movies so that the audience is pulled in, and able to grasp the part of the storyline that isn’t so obvious. Vaux explains that he focuses on the people that are never front and center, never the “glamorous or beautiful” ones.


“In his directive style, he focuses on people who are left out of the American mainstream. He studies them [the characters], studies their faces and goes deeply into the problems,” Vaux said. She put much time into studying the artistry and social messages of Eastwood’s films, compiling her findings into a book entitled The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood.

Vaux introduces twelve or so Eastwood-directed movies in detail in her class “Religion and Film.” She looks at how Eastwood’s messages and editing style correlate with those of other cultures, for example how he deals with a revenge plot as opposed to another culture’s insights.

It is easy to catch when Eastwood wants the viewer to really pay attention in his movies. He edits them in a way that dramatically slows down the action when the major characters are introduced.

“Eastwood’s intent is to explore the real substance of what it felt like to live in these places, and what it also felt like to be someone who is caught up in a revenge plot and can’t seem to get out, and has to deal with the human consequences of this,” Vaux explained of the focus on characters who were not living in the glamorized West, but the real, harsh Western towns.

It is clear to Vaux that in his movies, he plays for the underdog, spotlighting the outliers in society.

“Not only is he a much better actor than he is given credit for, but he’s really, in his movies, a social progressive.” But that’s the key word: movies. His conservative leaning, clearly verified by his appearance at the RNC, largely conflicts with the findings of Vaux’s analysis of his movies.

“I said to my friends, he should watch his movies, which would essentially argue for say, health care for everyone, a safety net for everyone, in this great country,” she commented. “It’s a great contradiction, but he’s not alone among artists in holding contradictory positions in his real-time personal self… The arts stand on its own.”

Whatever his beliefs and political standings, Eastwood consistently spotlights invisible people – whether they’re absent Presidents, or Americans outside the mainstream.


featured photo by kivoton

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