Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Now Playing: Million Dollar Baby (denouement)

Quite a few critics have put spoiler alerts in mid-review - Warning! If you don't want to know how this movie ends, stop reading now! - but I have no such qualms since Mr. Eastwood has done the spoiling for us. What his character (Frankie Dunn) does is to hit the 'off' button to a quadriplegic young woman's ventilator, and then inject something (adrenalin, I think) into her IV, sending her off into a sleep from which there is no waking. You might think turning off the ventilator would have done the trick, but I guess Frankie didn't want to watch her eyes bulge and her face turn purple in her convulsive effort to suck air. As would be obvious to anyone who has any understanding of what it means to live and die with dignity, he does this because he loves her. So now you know the ending. Wasn't that painless?

It is reported that viewers were moved, to the degree that many wept, filing from the theater in silence most reverent, and in reverie most reflective because appropriate to the film's poignance, a state of self-congratulatory melancholy that follows upon the knowledge that one has responded as one ought: We have seen compassion, and it has set us free...

People don't like to be told that their emotional response to a movie, a book, whatever, is counterfeit, that it has been elicited from them by a manipulative charlatan, that their critical standards are so poor that they love sentimentality more than substance. Should I, in my own home, offer the gentle opinion that such-and-such snatch of dialogue seems forced, an artificial attempt to create conflict, the looks shot my way by the females of the family could turn blood to ice. Often they dispense with the looks and go straight to the "Shutup!" I understand. No one wants to sit in a theater and play the part of critic. He wants to be left alone to enjoy the movie.

So do I. I'm as capable of it as the next man...until something goes wrong and the radar goes up, as it did even before Hilary Swank's head hit the stool. Even as she was falling in slow motion the thought came to me, "This doesn't fit. I'm being messed with."

And so the film's devoteés will ask: What's wrong with this moment? Why doesn't it fit?

Because it is the catalyst for all that follows; it is what some writers (including Aristotle, its originator) call the Peripety, or, in the words of Caroline Gordon, that "event which is at once perfectly probable and yet unforeseeable, which precipitates or gives its final direction to the action." In short, without it, Frankie doesn't get to kill anyone. It was certainly unforeseeable, but its probability depends on a sense of 'rightness', of its fitting in with a previously established pattern, offering us, in other words, a sense of spiritual logic. The film started out as a story about a young woman who needed a father's love, and especially about an old man who needed to give it. We are to follow his soul's progress. How does what follows that neck-breaking moment further that progress?

Well, comes the protest, it shows Frankie's courage, his compassion, his love. What he did for Maggie (Swank's character) was an act of love. He was able to see the truth when the hard-hearted dogmas of his Church didn't want him to.

Yes, the truth is a wonderful thing, especially when it isn't a lie, and this film is full of them, none greater than Frankie's final act. Why? Because it wasn't necessary. When the idiot priest tells him that if he does this thing he will be lost forever, he may be telling the truth, for Frankie indeed kills Maggie. The lie resides in what he does not tell him: that no Catholic doctrine obliges Maggie to persist in living at the mercy of a machine. She could have asked to have it removed. If the doctors had demurred, Frankie could have mounted a fight on her behalf, thereby keeping his promise "never" to leave her. But none of this happens because Frankie is, at bottom, the same character Eastwood always plays - the "courageous" loner who takes the law into his own hands.

On the Bill O'Reilly Catholic Hour the other night, neither he nor his guests - one a critic from the Chri-Sci Monitor, the other Michael Medved - saw this simple point: that the premise for Frankie's act is a lie.

There is more evidence of mendacity. Frankie is a daily Mass goer who enjoys badgering the priest with questions about impenetrable mysteries like the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception. These are clearly the questions of a man in the grip of doubt, not difficulty; the priest knows it and one day turns upon Frankie, calling him a "f---ing pagan." Some Christian types have understandably objected to this moment, putting an obscenity into the mouth of a man of the cloth, but, though I do not recommend it as a pastoral tactic, I must say I rather enjoyed it. After 23 years Frankie probably had it coming, and no truer words are spoken throughout the film. Toward the end, when Frankie seeks the priest's counsel as to how he ought to proceed in the face of Maggie's affliction, the priest speaketh once more, to the effect that he's seen Frankie at Mass every day for twenty-three years, and though he does not know what's hidden in Frankie's past, he does know that the only people who come to church that often are those that can't forgive themselves for some transgression.

Now this last as it applies to Frankie may be true, but as it applies in general to the many faithful who seek from the Lord their daily bread, it is another lie, and indeed a defamation of Catholic piety. But there is a further problem: if Frankie attends daily, is he also a communicant? If so, does he make occasional confession? We don't know. We never see Frankie in church; we see him only on his way out. If he does make confession, how is it that the priest does not know of this sin for which he cannot find forgiveness?

Ah, well. Such questions are inevitable in the aftermath of a film that offers us what is by now so typical of Hollywood fare that it need not even distress us: religion as window dressing. It is not even certain that we can charge Mr. Eastwood with willful lying, for the movie's besetting sin is ignorance, which, in its invincible form, affords some protection to the soul, but to the teller of the tale affords none; he is accountable for every element set before us, morally culpable for that which he ought to have known.

And where there are not lies born of ignorance, there are matters of credibility. Frankie, whose whole life has been boxing, is a disconcertingly literate fellow who is, for some indiscernible reason, learning Gaelic in his spare time. And, oh yes, who also reads Yeats, but who finds his tongue, in the face of Maggie's paralysis, similarly afflicted.

We meet Maggie's family, a caricature of rednecked, backwoods, trailer-trash evil. Not a trace of subtlety, not a single redeeming characteristic. Even the baby seems evil, because you know that in time it will become so.

Frankie knows where his daughter lives. He writes her a letter a week, only to have each come back marked 'Return to Sender.' Why doesn't he show up unannounced on her doorstep, prepared to humble himself and make amends? Because he's a coward, living by the motto "Always protect yourself," and so he protects himself with distance. When he turns Maggie's ventilator off, he does it again, which might seem to lend credence to the theory that this turn of events is consistent with Frankie's character development, or lack of it, as in the aftermath he simply disappears into the lonely desert of the city night, wandering as the lost soul the priest prophesied he would become.

But that's not the film's intention. It's intention is to have us see this as Frankie's final act of love, the fulfillment of his promise never to leave her. (The infliction of death as the apotheosis of love - it's a theme for our times.) The man of true courage, who knows what love really is, must walk alone, and so - like the mysterious gunman who wields the Lord's vengeance in Pale Rider - he vanishes.

I am not making the case that no book or movie should ever depict a scene in which a man commits, or is tempted to commit, a mercy-killing. I am saying that in this particular film it functions as nothing more than a sentimentality, by which I mean an event calculated by its author to elicit from the viewer an emotional response disproportionate to its dramatic merit. Even those viewers who see virtue in euthanasia should feel cheated by the direction this movie takes. The developing relationship between Frankie and Maggie, at times truly touching, is ripped from us for no good reason. The only vision proffered is one of despair. I am not asking for a happy ending. Frankie is a man who needs redemption, and though he may be irredeemable, Eastwood gives no hint that he knows the meaning of the word (a similar moral incoherence afflicts the ending of his previous entry, Mystic River). What he needs is his daughter's forgiveness, but all the important things - his past, the true nature of his faith, its depths and shallows - remain invisible.

The use of sentimentality to propel a plot is an attempt at the cheap thrill of seduction rather than the hardwork of courtship. The writer who indulges it is attempting to summon your emotional and moral sympathy, and the two always go together. I would ask readers to remember that their emotions are valuable things, anchored in a moral sensibility that ought not be so blithely surrendered to the "artist's" wiles. Story-telling is a moral act, but culpability for one's actions falls upon both teller and hearer. Would you give your heart's consent in the absence of your suitor's good faith?

All the failures mentioned above are made possible by one even more fundamental - a failure of craft. The story is told to us in a resonant, voice-over baritone by Scrap (Morgan Freeman), Frankie's constant friend and colleague at the gym. A writer's authority (and hence our trust) depends on many things, but none more crucial than his choice of point-of-view, which in this case is first person. The story must therefore belong to that person because he is severely limited in his access to the thoughts of others - except that we know it isn't his story; it's Frankie's. Thus, an irreconcilable tension exists between the limited knowledge of the narrator and the omniscience of the camera. Scrap cannot possibly know all the things the camera shows us because, unlike the camera, he wasn't there. This is either cheating on the part of Eastwood, or simple incompetence. So why doesn't Frankie tell us his own story? Probably because Freeman has a better voice. Or, more likely, the director wished to avoid having to tell us what was really in Frankie's heart - about his faith, about what grievous offense he had given his daughter - in short, all that hard work of courtship that would allow him to earn the viewer's consent.

There is much more to go after in this film, but as usual other duties call. It's too much to hope that anyone will keep these things in mind as we hear this travesty that could have been a decent love story hailed over and over as Eastwood's "masterpiece", and as award after award is heaped upon it by the Academy. Somewhere along the line, probably with The Unforgiven, Eastwood fell victim to critical praise, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to him. It almost, but not quite, makes me wish that he'd play "Misty" for me one more time.


thank you, kind sir, for gagging through this drivel so that i don't have to.

Posted by smockmomma email at February 14, 2005 04:38 PM
Ditto smock. I think I'll pass on this one.

Posted by TSO email at February 15, 2005 12:52 PM
Hi All,

I think the movie "Million Dollar Baby" portrayed the importance and feasbility of growing toward our dreams as we all approach death. The transition of Clint Eastwood from the beginning to the end of the movie represented how men are fortunately being pressured toward more "feminine" values in society.

The movie was about the relationship between man and woman, but it also symbolized the relationship between feminine and masculine. The final scene, where he euthanizes her, represented his last rebellious transition (in the context of religion) from the traditional male to the more modern (empathizingly emotive) male. It was beautiful.

Isn't it interesting how Clint attended Catholic mass for over 20 years, but he only truly found himself by empathizing and caring for a woman?

Forget about the bible, that old and irrelevant book, and find peace in deep empathy and compassion. Forget about religion, seek inner truth and spirituality.


Posted by Christopher email at February 21, 2005 01:04 PM
So murder is a "feminine value." I guess you found that "inner truth" by looking, well, inward, to your "inner spirituality." To vary a phrase, the kingdom of hell is within you.

Posted by William Luse email at February 22, 2005 01:16 AM

Great review. Spot on. There are so many lies in Hollywood movies - basic, absolute, fundamental lies about reality and human morality (or ethics) which get an incredible pass because, as you note, they somehow make people 'feel' good; a sentimentality in conclusion.

You nailed it pretty well in exposing the basic lie of Eastwood et al.

I would love for you to apply your literary acumen to one of my stories at Sunny Days - The White Wall (my last and favorite tale of heaven and being).

This is simply first class analysis of some ugly facts of demented artists.

Posted by mark butterworth email at February 23, 2005 01:42 AM
Thanks much, Mark. I'll give that story of yours a look when I get a minute, but I promise to be kinder than I was to Eastwood.

Posted by William Luse email at February 23, 2005 04:39 AM
Rather than comment, a reader sent this via email, so I'm putting it in here for her:

And I felt so strongly about it that I had to send this to you and say thanks for making sense.

Peg Yeats
And my response is "Thanks, Peg." (Don't be so shy.)

Posted by William Luse email at February 27, 2005 04:38 AM
You nailed the sentimentality issue and the unnecessary twist in "Baby." I'm puzzling over the ending. I could not see why Frank would return to the cafe after assisting Maggie's suicide. Probably not to be near her grieving family, eh? Then, I remembered I could not tell it was Frank at the counter. Maybe, too many tears. However, if it was not Frank, why show the picture? Then I remembered that earlier at the cafe, Frank tasted the lemon pie and when Maggie asked if it was good, he said "Now, I can die and go to heaven." High praise for lemon pie, but likely not just a throw-away line to further endear "sensitive" Frank. Also, the priest told Frank, if you do this you'll not be able to "live" with yourself. And, if I remember correctly, Frank took two vials of adrenalin to the hospital in his case. Could it be that the movie was about murder/suicide rather than "assisted suicide?" I'd really like to check out these facts and wouldn't mind paying the ticket price, but I'd have to sit through the sentimental abuse to get to the last few minutes. It was rather long, wasn't it?

Posted by jim wheeler email at February 27, 2005 06:05 PM
Actually, the 'sentimental abuse' is more tolerable than the last few minutes. At least with sentiment you know what you're getting.

Frank took two vials of adrenalin to the hospital in his case. Could it be that the movie was about murder/suicide rather than "assisted suicide?" Could be, but he's already committed spiritual suicide, so the physcial act would be redundant. And figuring this out won't redeem the film.

Posted by William Luse email at February 27, 2005 06:28 PM
I am sure the concluding cafe scene, part of the Morgan Freeman voice over, was a metaphor for the Eastwood character being finally at peace and there probably is a tie-in with the earlier scene about the lemon pie and dying and going to heaven. Morgan Freeman's character did say he never knew what happened to the Eastwood character who, I believe, put TWO syringes in his bag.

The conclusion was unsatisfactory in many ways and they could have used some advice from people who are experienced with vents and bed sores as well.

Posted by Allan email at March 6, 2005 11:05 AM


Anonymous said...

I recently saw the film again, and was delighted I fugured out the tie in with the line "now I can die and go to heaven," and the end of the film.

Miriam Godenius

Anonymous said...

And what was that tie-in?

Mir said...

I thought the tie in with the statement "now i can die and go to heaven" was that after he finished Maggie off, now he can die and go to heaven. By going back to the resturant, that phrase comes back to the movie viewer.