Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Million Dollar Baby d. Clint Eastwood, s.w. Paul Haggis

The first sign was the swearing priest. Sure, I imagine the majority of priests/pastors/etc. curse/have cursed, but to feature this so prominently is to beg agape jaws. Movies are not real life; a character is not a person. A character is, on the basic level, a cipher. The priest's name isn't Father O'Brien or James Duffy or any such thing - the priest's name is priest. We only know him by his work, by his action constricted to the narrative space. People don't work like this, characters do. But the priest is a sort of representative for all priests. So, when this particular priest - signifier for the general priest - calls Clint Eastwood's character a "fucking pagan," warning lights should go off. Do priests talk like this? Ignoring plausibility, this is just sloppy, sensationalist writing. Screenwriter Paul Haggis clearly wants to "get you," to make you squirm, to make you say, "Yeah, I hadn't thought about it like that. Thanks, Paul - you're a smart guy." The problem is that it isn't like that. And it shouldn't be like that.

This is the general problem with the entire film.

Before going on, I feel like I should warn you. I'm going to talk about plot - explicitly. I do not, however, consider this a spoiler. I think of it as a favor. You're on the tasty end of a favor. After reading this, hopefully, you will not see Million Dollar Baby; forewarned, you'll simply pass it by at the video store, at the second-run theater, at Netflix and, instead, pick up something, again hopefully, better.

For a good understanding of what's wrong - and right - with the first 1:30:00 of the film, go here. For an understanding of what is wrong with the last forty minutes of the film - almost never right - stay where you're at.

The twist is that the wunderkind boxer, Maggie (Hillary Swank), becomes a quadriplegic. Like Dan says in the review linked above - btw: you should really read it; in fact, I'm going to assume you've done so - her character is muddled to begin with. She is simply too likable to be taken seriously as the knockout machine she is. Same goes for the film: it is simply too likable as a boxing picture to become this garbled, platforming, social injustice mess. Not to say that it's a great film to begin with, but at least it wouldn't be reprehensible. All the important moments in the film call attention to themselves; rather than work fluidly with the vehicle of the film, the tenor advertises itself much too loudly, making what might work as subtlety become absolutely amateur. Simply put: the twist is in no way earned.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood; it's a pun, get it?) reads Yeats because, I don't know, literary allusions are cool? Really, he seems to read it only so that a) an endearing (sarcastic) Gaelic nickname can be rationally affixed to Maggie's boxing persona, which leads to a1) where the name is revealed to mean "my darling, my blood" and b) an equally endearing (ibid.) moment can occur between Frankie and Maggie when he reads her the first stanza from Yeats' poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." There are plenty of moments like these, where moments from early in the film return, laden with pathos and meaning. Each moment isn't a problem in and of itself, but when they're stacked neatly on top of each other, designed to evoke emotion (just add Kleenex!), the worst type of hack screenwriting is in play. Haggis places the characters in a conversation, contrived, wherein Maggie tells Frankie a story about her father killing their pet dog when the dog's legs wouldn't work anymore. The story returns, neatly apropos for Maggie's situation. "Frankie," she pleads, "do with me what my daddy did with my dog." Are we really to believe that everything falls so neatly in line? The problem isn't with believability, it's with the hamfisted, easy contrivances that populate the screenplay.

Then Maggie's backwoods family shows up to visit her in the hospital. First, they check into their hotel and peruse the sites (Disneyland, Universal Studios, and other So-Cal amusements, I imagine). What they don't do is see Maggie first thing. They wait six days. Haggis makes this very clear. Very very clear. When they do visit, they operate within stock trailer-trash archetypes: obese mother; young, child-bearing daughter in too-short shorts; fresh outta' prison brother; slimy lawyer in tow. They want not to say hello, not to wish Maggie well, but to get her to sign - with PEN IN MOUTH (I shit you not) - a legal document that gives all her fight money to her family. "Mommy, did you see my fight?" Maggie asks. "Did I do good?" Her mom replies, "You lost." Families operate like this, says Haggis. But these aren't families - these are ridiculous parodies and exaggerations supposedly ciphering for families.

Frankie, although better written than Maggie, isn't free of these terrible machinations, either. In fact, they tend to work doubletime, commenting on both him and his ingenue. Every day, for 23 years, he attends the church where the aforementioned pastor preaches. We're led to believe Frankie is in the midst of some distended crisis of faith. But what is it? Does it have to do with the box of letters labeled "return to sender," one of which he receives each week from his estranged daughter? Probably. I assume it must be; we're given no other reason. (I'm going to sidestep, for space's sake, the whole distortion of religion that takes place here.) And does "my darling, my blood" mean that Maggie is like his new daughter, replacing his lost one? Still, more hackneyed plot contrivances are laid thick: we find out that Maggie, just to make her more pitiful, was born premature and never got an education. We learn that Morgan Freeman's narration is actually A LETTER (again, I shit you not) to FRANKIE'S DAUGHTER (how could I make this up?) (Aside: Freeman's performance is the sole consistent highlight in the film - had Mark Wahlberg and Jude Law and Clive Owen not performed in '04, Freeman would have definitely deserved that Oscar.) Why write a letter? Because Frankie, following his touching (ibid.) euthanizing of Maggie, is AWOL. And maybe this is just the thing - killing a girl - that will bring father and daughter together again.

The last shot finds Frankie eating lemon pie in a joint near Maggie's hometown, a place he considered buying earlier in the film. What's he thinking? I imagine that, if Paul Haggis is the one piloting Frankie's thoughts, he's thinking about how appropriate and perfect this pie-eating is - it's about the past, it's about the present, it's about the future. It's about Maggie; it's about Frankie. What he's not thinking about is how ridiculously contrived it is.

Final aside: Paul Haggis is the worst screenwriter working in Hollywood today. I imagine you could find others with less imagination, but none match Haggis in his ability to dupe otherwise smart people into mistaking a terrible hack-job for a piece of art. Proof? The last two Oscars. Thankfully, he now does double-duty, directing his own horrid scripts. No need, any longer, to bring another down with you, right Paul?


Blogger RW said...

It seems to me weird the amount of hostility this film has churned up in both you and CineMe. (Especially in CineMe, whose passing reference to the odious Dogville indicates to me he that he is a sucker for emotional manipulation so long as it is dressed up in the form of an "allegory.") The criticisms don't connect with me much; what I loved about the film was its sparingness and simplicity. It was basic in very much the way a boxing match is basic and it delivers an emotional punch for the same reason. No question it trafficked in certain boxing-movie cliches, but to me they came off less as cliches than traditional storytelling techniques, and the movie itself as one that carried the kind of storytelling dynamism of solid Hollywood moviemaking.

I don't get your dislike of Haggis, either, here or in Crash -- there aren't that many movies that zero in so forcefully on the kind of private racial antagonism people have toward each other, fewer still that do it so effectively.

24 March, 2006 20:26  
Blogger Michael K. said...

I get what you're saying, but I completely disagree.

The problem with Million Dollar Baby is that it is decidedly not a boxing movie. The boxing part is a ruse for...something. I don't know what. Some type of trite diatribe about the nature of families? I simply don't see the sparingness and simplicity; what I see is contrivance and convolution. What of the daughter? What of his "faith crisis?"

As for Crash, go here.
Basically, it's the same problem. Whatever good things are to be said in M$B & Crash, they're undermined by disgusting plot machinations, smug & verbose posturing, and a general lack of faith in and contempt for the audience.

And for Dogville: Jesus - the allegory was the least interesting part of that film. What of the complicity of the audience? Like when Grace gets revenge on the Dogvillians (YES!) and then orders the death of a baby (NO!). Actually, I think a comparison to Crash would be more apropos, but what von Trier is intimating is inside every person and behind many of the actions that form our society seems a little more plausible. Not to mention, healthy.

24 March, 2006 23:24  
Blogger RW said...

I loved the daughter angle -- mainly in that we had no idea what went wrong between Eastwood and his daughter, except that it was something huge, and you got the impression he was trying to correct whatever went wrong with Hillary Swank.

When I say spareness what I mean is that the movie is very uncomplicated in its way; it 's a story boiled down to the bone, so that the struggles in it are elemental, basic, just as they are in boxing. I never had a problem buying the story, so I can't agree on contrivance. It seemed to me to fit squarely within a kind of solid Hollywood tradition, as if the struggles were part of some basic template to the sports movie -- achieving your dream through prolonged struggle.

As for Crash, I saw it rather late in the game -- the weekend of the Oscars -- and I was rather shocked once I caught up on all the criticisms. I found the dialogue incredibly bracing, and I genuinely thought it illumined the basic prejudices and hatreds people carry with them. I suppose, thinking back on it, I could spot manipulation, but to me it never seemed like manipulation -- it neever really seemed to me, for example, that Matt Dillon's feeling up Thandie Newton was there for the sole purpose of jacking up audience outrage. I didn't think of it as button-pushing -- same goes for the other scenes. And it may be this is entirely subjective -- there are movies where you get involved in the story and find yourself disliking this or that character and there are movies where you imagine going up to the writer or director and throwing a drink in his face.

Like, for example, Dogville. It is curious to me why you find Crash and Million Dollar Baby manipulative, and yet you don't see the manipulativeness of Dogville so much as you see the "complicity of the audience," which von Trier regards with rank smugness. What in the world does he do but drag the audience through one set of tortures after the next? The movie is porn, pure masochistic porn; watching it is like being emotionally gang-raped, and it doesn't stop when Grace gets her revenge, because by that time the whole enterprise looks rigged. The movie wears you out. It pushes you around. It hates you. It tells you how to feel so often, relies on you to feel now this way, now that, that I wound up resisting it. This is partly what makes Von Trier such a pisspoor director; he takes you out of the movie.

I think it had as much to say about society as Dancer in the Dark, which is nothing. Von Trier's America isn't America; it's some barbaric, medieval country he dreamed up from reading the newspaper. Those closing credits were so imbecilic -- all those poverty photos while we listen to "Young Americans" (which is also an assortment of images, none of which have much to do with each other). It was almost like von Trier was trying to advertise his disconnectedness with American culture -- sort of like me making a movie about modern-day German life and using music from "Threepenny Opera."

Dogville is so fake it makes Crash look like cinema-verite.

25 March, 2006 06:23  
Blogger Michael K. said...

How much are we to expect Hillary Swank to carry? First, she has be poor. Poor enough to steal other people's refuse to eat. Second, she has to be old. Third, she has to become a world class boxer in a third of the usual prescribed time it takes. Fourth, she has to live out Eastwood's dreams of winning a world title. Fifth, she has to be an unloved daughter. Sixth, she has to stand as some sort of boxing martyr, a quadriplegic cipher. Seventh, she has to be Eastwood's surrogate daughter. These are the contrivances I'm talking about. They're piled, one on top of the other, until we're no longer dealing with a character - we're dealing with a convoluted representative. I would buy it if the point of the film were to have Swank as a sort-of Christ-like representative catch-all, but it's not. And it's not about boxing either. Yeah, I can buy that it fits within the Hollywood mold, but that's not necessarily a good thing, especially when it does so in such a contrived manner.

I found Dogville manipulative as well, but that was part of the point. The film comes from a place where things are precisely fictional, symbolic. All we are dealing with are representations, not real humans. LvT makes no pretense about this. Dogville demands manipulation because the viewer must be manipulated to see things not as they are, but as they represent. This isn't Million Dollar Baby's overt M.O., but it uses the same tropes - which are appropriately employed in Dogville - in an amateur and inappropriate way. To have a character like Maggie, who is definitely not a symbol, operate as a symbol is ridiculous.

25 March, 2006 12:00  
Blogger RW said...

What you call contrivances aren't all contrivances. When I think of a contrivance I think of staginess -- events created for no other reason than that other events may occur. There's some of that, I'll agree, particularly the speed with which she becomes world-class. But it hardly skirts credibility for her to be poor (I suspect most boxers start out that way) or almost over the hill or illiterate or to have a crummy family -- nor is it incredible that Eastwood would see in her his own dreams, nor that she would get all but killed in the ring. None of that is hard to believe; really, a lot of the things you ennumerate tend to be consequences of each other, so I don't see them piling one on top of another. I don't recall Hillary Swank being a symbol of anything. I think she's just representative of a broken dream, which is why for me the movie had the kind of dramatic force that it did.

You say it's not about boxing -- what good boxing film is? Raging Bull certainly isn't. It's about marriage and failure and machismo and Martin Scorsese.

The words "Hollywood mold" are yours, not mine. That's not what I meant. I'm thinking more about how this film works very successfully within a kind of dramatic form that Hollywood always does better than anywhere in the world - a movie that finds its source of power in being a lean, basic kind of story. Its strength is that it is pared down to just three people -- one major story and three or four subplots. It works like great rock and roll works. It works like the Ramones work, or Jerry Lee Lewis or Carl Perkins or early Beatles.

The movie that keeps coming to mind is the John Sturges masterpiece, Bad Day at Black Rock. I'm surely the only person in the world who thinks of this movie along with Million Dollar Baby, because storywise they have so little in common -- except that both take a very effective, hard-hitting story played out by a few characters, and both are absolutely riveting.

I reject that dog of a film known as Dogville from tail to snout. I'm intrigued that you defend von Trier's manipulativeness on the basis of its symbolism. Keep in mind that while Kidman was symbolic, and despite the fact that it was performed on an Our Town - like stage, everyone else in it was as real as you or me, so the movie on an emotional level doesn't exactly demand a different approach from the viewer than Million Dollar Baby.

There's something unpleasantly Soviet about your comment that "Dogville demands manipulation because the viewer must be manipulated to see things not as they are, but as they represent." I'm not really sure what kind of difference you're aiming for. What the movie does is puts the audience through a punishing series of events whose supposed artistic end is rendered completely moot by the film's pornographic unpleasantness. I suppose I agree that Dogville is a kind of audience shock movie, but there's no intellectual payoff. There's nothing exhilarating about the movie, nothing full or rounded. It's like a Todd Solondz movie in that way -- it's a work of contempt that more or less exists to torture the audience; it rubs your nose in its filth and tells you it's good for you, it rapes you and tells you you asked for it. The ending is lame -- it doesn't stick in your brain nearly as much as everything that came before it.

25 March, 2006 14:30  
Blogger Michael K. said...

I guess we could go around like this for awhile: it's simply a matter of you and I seeing the same exact thing from two diametrically opposite sides.

25 March, 2006 14:36  
Blogger RW said...

Yeah, these things reach a dead end. Fun while it lasted.

26 March, 2006 06:19  

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