The Interaction Between the Environment and the Influence of Social Interactions in Romulus, My Father and Gran Torino

Romulus, My Father and Gran Torino

Experiences that promote belonging in one’s life are fluid and change with the influence of the environment and people we interact with. Raimond Gaita’s memoir of the migrant experience Romulus, My Father (1998) explores the significance of family ties, particularly within a foreign setting. Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film Gran Torino deals with a man who is unable to let go of past mono-cultural America and the adverse affect his prejudice has on personal relationships. Both texts portray belonging as the interplay between the environment and the influence of social interactions.

By refusing to let go of past cultural ideals, individuals reject opportunities to integrate into new environments. In the memoir, the clash between the influence of Romulus’ Romanian culture and the pressure to be accepted into 1950’s Australia is explored. Romulus, still deeply attached to his cultural roots, views Australia through “European eyes” and only sees the “barren landscape”. “Barren” has connotations of emptiness and thus is a metaphor for Romulus’ sense of isolation in his foreign setting. Christina, Romulus’ tumultuous wife, has a similar outlook as the “red gum”, a uniquely Australian tree, becomes a symbol for her “desolation”, thus representing her inability to adjust to Australian customs. The two individuals’ failure to interact with their new environment results in their feeling of being “Othered” in the community. In contrast, extensive visual sensory imagery represents Raimond’s complete acceptance of Australia’s “unique beauty”. Raimond has adjusted to his new environment by widening his Romanian perspective to accept the Australian way of life, allowing himself a sense of belonging to place. Despite the positive influence of integrating into local community, the motif of foreign language used to highlight Raimond’s gradual loss of cultural heritage as he “forgets his first Romanian word”. Thus, the memoir expresses that whilst embracement of change is essential to belonging in a new environment, sacrifice of previous roots is inevitable.

The impact of generational barriers results in a lack of understanding and acceptance between individuals from different social contexts, limiting interactions which can promote a sense of familial belonging. In Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski, due to his traumatic experience in the Korean War, strongly believes in patriotism and apparently bitter towards the rapidly diluting monoculturalism of America. Walt’s dismissive attitude towards foreign ethnicity is evident through his sarcastic tone “would I kill ya to buy America?” in regards to his son’s Japanese car. A close up shot of the Toyota logo contrasts with Walt’s prized, all-American Ford Gran Torino, a symbol for traditional America. Multiple long shots with diagetic sounds of Walt polishing his car represent his obsessive efforts to keep it in mint condition, a metaphor for his battle against societal change. His refusal for compromise results in a lack of familial connection in his life. Walt’s grudging remark about his “spoilt rotten family” alludes to the materialistic values of modern America, which directly contrasts with his own traditional values of honestly and a lack of self indulgence. By continuously comparing the past with present, Walt widens the generational gap between him and his family, building an unwavering intolerance which results in a limitation of interactions that promote belonging. Family ties can enrich our sense of belonging by providing individual identity and basis on how to interact with others.

In Romulus My Father, Romulus offers Raimond a stable family environment, allowing him to experience the emotional security of a steady relationship. Romulus’ sense of care is expressed through the accumulation of parental duties “he washed my clothes, made my meals”. Through his actions, Romulus gives Raimond an external connection allowing him to feel loved and thus, enriching his sense of familial belonging. The hyphenisation in “[Romulus’] desire -need- for Raimond to grow up decently” stresses the word “need”, offering an urgent tone the express great paternal commitment in their relationship. This notion of filial bonds is also evident in Gran Torino, through the interactions between Thao, a Hmong boy with a migrant background, and Walt. Walt refers to Thao with the colloquial reference “the pussy boy I’m trying to man up”, when introducing him to his Italian barber friend. Despite the derogatory terminology, the jargon suggests underlying affection. Romulus and Walt become role models and symbolize the need for at least one strong relationship to aid one’s search in identity, especially when feeling displaced in society.

When there is a lack of social and moral understanding between family members, this sense of understanding can be provided by others. In Gran Torino, Walt is unable to relate to his immediate family due to a difference in values. The opening scene is set at a funeral, symbolizing loss and is a symbol for Walt’s lack of connections. The nonchalant attitudes of his family are portrayed through their inappropriately vivid colour palette and juxtaposes with Walt’s grim facial expression, further illuminating their lack of common ground. Due to their differences, the Kowalski family is unable to accept and influence each other to promote belonging. On the surface, Walt’s language seems to isolate him from the Hmong neighbours due to the blatantly racist attitude evident in his offense slang “goddamn gooks”. Walt’s racism works as a barrier from possible connections within his community as he purposely withdraws from the multicultural society.

However, he reveals his respect for the Hmongs by contrasting their “hard working values” with his own “spoilt-rotten” family, foreshadowing his inevitable acceptance of the migrant family. This hyperbolic reference to the people he should be connected with expresses Walt’s sense of dislocation in his environment. Walt’s changing attitudes is further highlighted through the change of camera angles. Prior to his acceptance of the Hmongs, low camera angles represented his sense of individual superiority. However, a high angle shot with shadowed lighting following his relationship with Thao expresses Walt’s willing loss of pride and power as he sacrifices his life to ensure the safety of “new friends”. His selfless nature is comparable to the triple utterance of Romulus’ values “loyalty, trust and mutual respect”. Experiences which influences belonging in our lives are not only found in family but can be found in the community through compromise and understanding of others.

Individual’s experience’s in life mould identities which allow strong bonds with others and the places we live in. The interplay between environment and situations forced between family and the community is evident in both Raimond Gaita’s memoir Romulus My Father and Clint Eastwood’s film Gran Torino. Both texts successfully explore the powerful influence external forces have on one’s sense of belonging.

“Remittance Man” paragraph.

Superficial relationships in society and with its individuals can limit a deeper sense of belonging, resulting in the need to discover personal interactions elsewhere. In poem

“Remittance Man”, Wright emphasises the idea the not belonging to original communities can be beneficial through the unnamed man’s search for new experiences and his eventual discovery of spiritual connections in Australia. The triple utterance of negative descriptions in the opening line “spendthrift, disinherited and graceless” alludes to the man’s poor reputation and his absence of strong connections with his family. The symbolic “pheasant- shooting” and “the aunts in the close” represent the typical social claustrophobia of the early 20th century English upper class individuals which restricted further interactions with the world around them. The optimistic attitude “took to the life dropped easily out of knowledge” suggests that the man’s banishment from England is his “track to escape” from the suffocating rules and regulations of the tense society. Dissimilar to Romulus’ unwillingness to embrace the Australian environment with its “skeletal trees”, the accumulation of sensory imagery and synaesthesia “blue blowing smoke…red blowing dust…swinging shadow trees” highlight the remittance man’s belonging to the Australian environment, a metaphor for his newfound sense of place and spiritual relationship with his new home. The negative connotations in the anonymous description of the “pale stalk of a wench” juxtaposes with the use of proper noun and intimate tone in “black Mary’s eyes”, contrasting the previous isolated relationships with the intimate romance the man has found in Australia. The hyperbolic personification of Australia “closed its magnificence finally around his bones” offers a mood of finality and accomplishment, validating Australia.

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