Wednesday, February 2, 2005

MH - This Million Dollar Baby Is As Empty As My Bank Account

I suppose I should post a Spoiler Alert! because we're going to be talking about one of Hollywood's best-kept-secrets - the "surprise ending" of Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. Very well; if you don't want to know what this movie is really about, don't read any more. But I hope you do continue, dear reader, because if you go to this movie based on the ads you've seen or the critical praise that's been heaped on it, you could be in for a rude awakening.

This story isn't particularly new if you've been reading the blogs; Amy Welborn covered it very well at the end of December. I'd thought to right about this earlier, after having seen a story in last week's issue of The Wanderer entitled "Euthanasia Film Billed As Romance," but because there's no link to the story I didn't want to simply retype the article. (There is, however, a link to Joan Swirsky's column which is quoted in the article). What more could I add? However, today NRO featured this brilliant analysis by Frederica Matthews-Green - brilliant not only because of her insightful commentary on the film itself, but because of the issues she raises regarding the cone of silence surrounding the plot twist, and the obligation of film critics (and others) to engage the issues raised in movies:
"The problem is that those unexpected questions touch on some very serious issues: disability, suicide, the loss of fame, depression. If you can't discuss the ending, you can't discuss these issues, or whether Eastwood handles them well. Critical self-censorship means the film's assumptions aren't getting the kind of open debate they deserve."

Indeed; if you go based on the commercials and reviews, you have no idea what the movie's real agenda is. I wasn't interested in seeing it anyway, partly because I don't think much of women's boxing and partly because I thought Eastwood's recent movies tired and worn out, like Eastwood himself as he journeyed into the twilight of his career. But I had wondered why it was so important for this to be the story of a woman boxer. Couldn't it have been done just as easily with a young male fighter? Surely Clint isn't going to try another one of those May-December romances, is he? By now it'd be stretching not only across months, but centuries as well.

Now, of course, it all makes sense - the payoff, so to speak, depends on the male-female dynamics in a way that wouldn't have been convincing otherwise. And here we have the secrecy surrounding the true meaning of the film, a conspiracy joined in by film critics as well, that plays the viewer for a sucker. And it's the most manipulative kind of conspiracy - the makers knowing full well that people might be offended by the film's message, but not until they'd already plunked down some outrageous amount to see what they thought they were going to see.

According to Matthews-Green, "Eastwood claims that it's only a movie: 'I don't advocate. I'm playing a part.' Yet the film doesn't leave room for much ambivalence." And if memory serves me, Clint Eastwood was never one to take a passive attitude toward one of his movies. A star can, of course, play a role without being identified with the message transmitted through that role. But when you add the titles of Producer and Director, as Eastwood does, the idea that he can still be divorced from the message of the movie becomes more and more dubious.

Matthews-Green concludes her piece with a dead-on analysis (no pun intended) of the morality of euthanasia, the meaning of violence, and why the film's message is not only disingeneous but dangerous. I can't do it justice; just read the dang thing!

I loved Clint Eastwood's early movies; his spaghetti westerns have to rank among the most influential of modern film, and I thought Dirty Harry was terrific. The critics weren't always so kind, however, suggesting his movies were nothing more than fascist wet dreams. Over time, Clint's style changed - there was Bird, a movie he directed but didn't appear in, and White Hunter, Black Heart, a movie I (apparently in the minority) really liked. But then there was Unforgiven, a "revisionist" western (which I didn't think was all that much different from a typical Clint western), and his move into "important" films. With it came the praise of the critics, as well as - I thought - a softening, a compromising of the solid Eastwood values we'd come to expect. It was as if John Wayne had decided to become Tom Hanks and make Sleepless at the Alamo or somthing like that.

Now, one would have to think, the transformation is complete. So if Clint wants to push a euthanasia film, fine. Just be honest with the public about the agenda. Honesty was never something Clint Eastwood seemed to have a problem with - until now.

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