Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Missed the Boat Movie Reviews

And now, another exciting installment of SueAndNotU's "Missed the Boat Movie Reviews!" Still catching up on your 2003 Oscar Nominees? Just now renting the Summer Blockbuster of 02? Join my club.

Up this week: Million Dollar Baby

I suppose I should mention that this will have spoilers aplenty, and I don't have any neat "behind the fold" tricks up my sleeve, but really, is there anybody but me who still hasn't seen it? And so: an overlong review of a movie you've all already forgotten.

I'm afraid I must start by disagreeing with those of you dear friends who found this movie cliched. With all due respect. My first thought at the close of the movie was: everyone who thought this was a cliched story was looking at the wrong story. I'm cocky like that.

Yes, there is the tried-and-true story of a plucky young fighter who rises to greatness when she finds somebody who believes in her. But this isn't really the story that we're seeing. It's a backdrop. And Eastwood, he doesn't ever pretend that you might not know the story arc of the boxing bit. It's like a blues song: the chord progression never changes, you know exactly what to expect, but within that strict framework, what can you make happen? What can you show us? How can you surprise us?

And I maintain that the actual story, the story that unfolds against the backdrop of boxing training and competitions, the story of Frankie the unredeemed and Maggie the unwanted is brilliantly rendered. There aren't any cheap shortcuts here. There are no Liv Tylers touching the screen and moaning "Daddy!" designed to make you cry. The emotional impact is absolutely earned.

What would the cliche have looked like? Well, for one thing, Maggie would not have wanted to die. She'd have relied on her inner strength, she would have gone back to college as Frankie suggested, she would have taken that fighter metaphor and turned life into her new title fight. And we'd all have felt much more comfortable and content in our illusion that those we love who are dying or are in pain have solace and faith and strength enough to see them through. But she's had enough, she's watching her body die in front of her eyes, she knows she's only staying alive for Frankie's benefit, and she doesn't desire to live that way.

What would have been another cliche? Frankie's daughter would have returned his letters at the end, right when he needed her to. Or he would have taken his experience with Maggie as a sign that he needed to reconcile with his daughter, and he'd set out to find her, and through this, he'd find a purpose and peace. But Eastwood does not allow Frankie to be redeemed. As the priest warned him: if you do this thing, you will be destroyed. And that's just what happens, Frankie leaves the movie unredeemed, unsanctified, emptied. Just like Maggie, he was allowed a brief window of something like happiness, but that simply ends, and it is not enough to bless the rest of a lifetime: how could it be? Like a characters says in The Hours: "I thought, so, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And, of course, there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment - right then."

At the end, he retreats to that roadside diner with the lemon pie in a conscious echo of the Yeats poem he'd been reading earlier: the Lake Isle of Innisfree. But we shouldn't mistake this for solace or contentment. Frankie has simply checked out of life. In the Yeats poem the Isle of Innisfree is the liminal space between the living and the dead, between reality and a fairy world: it is not a refuge within life, it is a negation of life.

A brief tangent: one thing that's struck me about the reality TV genre is its indulgence of our desire for every scrap of knowledge about people, and our expectation that this will be fulfilled. When a movie ends, we may wonder: what happened to those characters? When reality shows end, we wonder the same, and they indulge us with follow-up specials, and "where are they now?" snippets. When we wonder, "how did she feel when he dumped her?" we're treated to recaps of emotion and thought. Full disclosure. Nothing is withheld from us. Million Dollar Baby does not allow us this invasion. We never learn, for example, what great sin Frankie commited to drive his daughter away, to compel him to church every day for 23 years, the sin that puts that devastating look of stoic despair on his face when he's left Maggie's hospital and he returns home to find another returned letter under the door. He's a private man, and we just don't get to know. I respect this.

There was one part of the movie that I did find overdone, and that was Maggie's hillbilly family. It was not a subtle portrait, and I think it could have achieved the same point with a lighter touch. But I'm willing to forgive a good deal for the memory of Clint Eastwood's face on that doorstep, staring down at that letter, when there are creases on his inner cheek that are so deep and nearly look like the lines you draw under a clown's eyes.

Kriston tells me that there was a mini-scandal from the right when this movie came out because it supportedly supported euthanasia. Good God, once again the benefits of a liberal arts education are necessary. Context, you idiots! The man is destroyed, and this is glorifying euthanasia? How about showing the fucking difficult choices that exist in life and that there are no simple answers? Besides, we had welfare queens and that ought to compensate somewhere. Overall though, I took away a stern message against Botox injections. Did you see Clint Eastwood's face? It was like a painting. Can you imagine if it was all taut and smooth and immobile?

I think this a strange tone to end on—Botox and all—but like Clint Eastwood, my post has failed to find purpose or redemption.


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