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Masterful look at Eastwood's career

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Go ahead, let Clint make your night.

Eastwood that is, tonight on PBS as "American Masters," Emmy winner the past two years as best non-fiction series on television, kicks off its 15th season with "Clint Eastwood: Out of the Shadows."

No one on television does biography and popular culture like "American Masters," and Eastwood gets the full treatment. That's one of the earmarks of this splendid series: It treats popular artists such as Eastwood and Paul Simon as seriously as it does Leonard Bernstein or Martha Graham.

What that means is that the body of work and its influence comes first; the life of the man or woman who made the work is explored primarily in relation to the oeuvre, not for tabloid titillation. This is biography for the thinking person.

The journey this 90-minute film travels is deftly mapped at the start by narrator Morgan Freeman,

"Eastwood discovered his artistry as his audience did -- gradually, over time," Freeman says.

"He invented a new kind of movie hero and then, as he matured, sharply criticized it. He has never limited himself to one genre of filmmaking, moving freely between mass market entertainment and small personal projects. Eastwood is an elusive artist and intensely private man who reveals himself only through his work. Today, he remains a complex, contradictory and essential figure in American culture."

As Freeman speaks, the screen fills with quick cuts of movie posters for Eastwood's films -- each of them tight shots of the iconic face from his days as a television star on "Rawhide" in the 1950s, through the Italian westerns of Sergio Leone in the '60s, the urban frontier films featuring Dirty Harry in the '70s, and the personal projects he directed like "Bronco Billy" in 1980 and "Unforgiven," which won four Oscars in 1993.

The film does an especially nice job with the years of "gradual discovery" -- the decidedly non-artistic period when Eastwood was starting out at Universal as a contract player in such movies as "Francis in the Army." The 1951 film starred Francis, the Talking Mule, not Eastwood.

As scene after scene from really awful-looking B-movies flashes across the television screen, Eastwood says with some understatement, "The movies I was in at that time weren't exactly high-grade pictures of the day, but they were experience."

American Masters does have an extended interview with Eastwood, though he isn't given to opening the valves of self-revelation real wide. Freeman's warning about Eastwood revealing himself mainly in his work is apt.

But the film manages to even use Eastwood's reticence as context for understanding the artist. In explaining the roots of Eastwood's artistry, Freeman says that while Eastwood learned the craft of movie-making during the 1950s working at Universal, the great passion of his life was jazz. That's where the art came from in those early years.

"From jazz soloists like Lester Young, Eastwood learned the lesson of impassivity -- of keeping your cool while pouring out your heart," Freeman says. "Chet Baker made detachment seems sexy and glamorous. Eastwood watched, and, when the time came, remembered."

The time came when Leone cast him in "A Fistful of Dollars." "American Masters" has a wonderful interview with Leone in which he explains how he wanted James Coburn for the film but couldn't afford him, so he settled for Eastwood because of Eastwood's "indolent way of moving ... like a cat."

Indolent body language, and the cool, impassive detachment of the be-bop musician as he blows bad and sometimes good guys into the afterlife -- that's the essential Eastwood persona, whether he's telling the undertaker in "Fistful of Dollars" to "make that four coffins," or pointing Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum at someone and saying, "Well, do ya feel lucky, punk?"

A biography often succeeds or fails based on the quality of the sources interviewed, and boy, does this film have experts.

In one stretch alone, we have (virtually in a row): Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter William Goldman, author Richard Slotkin ("Gunfighter Nation"), Forest Whitaker (who played Charlie Parker in Eastwood's 1988 film "Bird"), New York Times critic Janet Maslin, and actress Meryl Streep. They are all interviews done for the film, not clips from an archive.

In the final analysis, "Out of the Shadows" is not in a league with the great "American Masters" portraits like those of Bernstein or James Baldwin. It will not change the way you see the world or transport you to another realm as you watch.

But B-level "American Masters" is still better than A-level biography anywhere else on television.

Tonight's TV

What: "Clint Eastwood: Out of the Shadows."

When: 8 p.m.

Where: WETA (Channel 26).

In brief: Explains how jazz and westerns made Eastwood an American master.

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