To me, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is just routine Hollywood product but with a much higher-than-usual schmaltz content. It’s not even worth a review. Quite obviously, Hilary Swank’s character never had a chance. She was conceived, born, brought to adulthood and finally killed off for no other purpose than the evocation of pathos in her sad ending. From her dirt poor beginnings in a Missouri trailer park, the good daughter of a welfare cheat and an absent father, to her job waiting tables for minimum wage to her burning ambition to box to her apparent friendlessness and lack of any romantic interests, Eastwood and his screenwriter, Paul Haggis, have designed her solely to be the sympathetic victim she turns out to be. We know from the start how it’s going to come out because everything is created so as to make it come out the way it does. Meanwhile Eastwood himself is so taken up with his own posturings as “The Unforgiven” — haven’t we seen that somewhere before? — and the romantic pose of the Byronic hero, in love with the idea of his own damnation, that he can’t see how obvious it is that his picture is rigged, like a rigged fight.
In fact this is the very definition, in my book, of movie fakery. Pathos must be earned. The characters have to persuade us that they are real human beings first and not strike us, as these characters do, as having been invented only for the sake of their pathos. And, of course, to make a political point. Let’s not forget that. As is usual in the movies these days, the presence of a Catholic priest is a sure tip-off to its political message. And if, in this movie, Father Horvak (Brian O’Byrne) is not quite the lurid caricature that we find again and again in movies from El Crimen del Padre Amaro to The Magdalene Sisters to Bad Education, he is no less political in his purpose. The movie puts him there with his fussy, humorless, faintly ridiculous ways, to be the voice of traditional morality, advising Eastwood’s fight trainer that if he grants his now crippled protÃ©gÃ©’s wish to end her life he will be lost forever. Naturally the priest fails to recognize that, to this guy, that is an irresistible invitation. Like many another anti-clerical before him, Eastwood wears the assurance of his eternal damnation as a badge of honor.
Yet the extraordinary thing about the critical commentary on the film, including Eastwood’s own, has been the denial that the movie has any political point at all. A.O. Scott of the New York Times, who called it “the best movie released by a major Hollywood studio this year,” went on to praise it in particular as “a work of utter mastery that at the same time has nothing in particular to prove.” Nothing to prove! It has nothing but something to prove, and something that Hollywood proves so routinely that it has by now become rather a bore for me, at least, to see proved again — namely that our lives are our own to do with as we please. God and any of God’s putative “laws” don’t come into it. Clint Eastwood’s libertarianism becomes cosmic in its dimensions, an existential demonstration of human freedom as the only response to our loneliness in the universe. It is a venerable movie theme, to be sure, and the very foundation of the noir cinema of the 1940s, where it also had a strongly political dimension — although then it was more Marxist than libertarian, and not marred by the cheap sentimentalism of Clint’s essay in the form.
AND YET HERE IS Frank Rich, also writing in the New York Times: “What really makes these critics” — by which he means Michael Medved and others — “hate Million Dollar Baby is not its supposedly radical politics, which are nonexistent, but its lack of sentimentality.” I confess that when I read these words, I was gobsmacked. Sure Frank Rich is an unreflecting, knee-jerk leftie, but he’s not insane, is he? Of course we can understand why the politics hardly count as radical anymore to him. They’ve been around so long and are so much taken for granted in the circles he moves in that they don’t even look like politics anymore, just common sense to all but the fanatics, as he sees them, of the right. But “lack of sentimentality” is so obviously, so overwhelmingly false that there must be something else going on here. Rich is himself a critic, and for him to say there’s no sentimentality in Million Dollar Baby is equivalent to his saying there’s no sentimentality in — oh, I don’t know, Forrest Gump. It suggests he doesn’t know his business.
But the denial of any political content is a long-standing strategy of the cultural left in America, one going back to the days of McCarthyism when committed and believing Communist screenwriters were hauled before Congress to justify themselves and claimed, in the words of their apologist, the late Arthur Miller, that “they wrote not propaganda but entertainment, some of it of a mildly liberal cast, but most of it mindless.” Miller, of course, backed up such a preposterous claim by writing The Crucible — a play which is still being read and performed in American schools by your children and mine, and treated with the same reverence that Miller himself was in a spate of recent obituaries and encomia — in order to pretend that there were no more Communists in America in 1953 than there had been witches in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Ever since then, it has become customary to greet any criticism of leftist politics in the movies or other works of drama or fiction with similar charges of right-wing paranoia.
Of course the left is no longer threatened by McCarthy (though you would never know to hear them tell it), but a similar imposture has become a way of adopting protective coloring for their views in a land mainly populated by religious believers who do not share them, and it allows them at the same time to paint those with whom they disagree as right-wing boobs who don’t understand anything about “art.” It’s only a movie, for heaven’s sake. You must be paranoid to find all this political stuff in it. This was the reaction that greeted Mr. Medved’s book, Hollywood vs. America, again and again when it came out back in 1992, since characterizing him as a right-wing wacko was easier, given the cultural predisposition of our times, than actually answering his arguments. Of course his critics themselves were capable of positively Stakhanovite labors of overweening subtlety and ingenuity when it came to finding the political subtext in Shakespeare and other classic authors who have long been recruited by our university literature departments into the ongoing revolutionary struggle, or when it came to finding “Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism.”
AN EVEN BETTER EXAMPLE than Rich’s of this now-familiar conceit of the poor deluded right-wing paranoiac was provided a week before by his New York Times colleague, Maureen Dowd, who — rather foolishly, I thought — chose Shakespeare as her example. “A friend of mine e-mailed me Friday to see if I wanted to go to the Folger Theater production of Romeo and Juliet,” she wrote. “I e-mailed him back, fretting: Doesn’t that play promote suicide?” Well no, actually, it doesn’t. The fact that there is a suicide in a work of literature no more makes it pro-suicide than the fact that there is a murder makes it pro-murder. All depends on context, and in learning to read complex texts we all must learn to tell from the context which way the author is pointing us. You’d have to be a very poor reader indeed to read Romeo and Juliet as promoting suicide. On the contrary, it treats Romeo’s suicide as yet another of his rash and foolish acts and Juliet’s as, in spite of its pathos, equally regrettable. Indeed, the suicides are what makes the play a tragedy, as they are in the other half-dozen Shakespearean examples she cites as she warms to her task. They leave us with a sense of devastating loss and waste — not with the feeling Eastwood intends to convey, that the characters have behaved admirably.
But Miss Dowd, like him, has a political point to make, and so she pretends to think that the critics of the film’s moral point of view are mere philistines: “I don’t want to get on the wrong side of the Savonarolas,” she says ironically, since of course that’s exactly what she does want. And yet she also wants to oppose them not on moral grounds, which would require making a serious argument, but on that of her own sophistication as compared to the moralizing rubes and hicks who don’t understand “art.” For “Michael Moore and Mel Gibson aside,” she writes, putting on her aesthetician’s hat, “the purpose of art is not always to send messages. More often, it’s just to tell a story, move people and provoke ideas. Mr. Eastwood’s critics don’t even understand what art is.” Ha ha. Good one, Maureen. Right on cue, the right-wing boobs she first invents and then ridicules week after week in her column come on the scene to make the same point, the only point she is able to make anymore, namely that of the incomparable intellectual superiority of herself and her chic and artistic friends to all those who disagree with them, particularly on matters of faith and morals.
In fact, she is the one who appears not to understand art, since it is as stupid to say that Romeo and Juliet promotes suicide as it is to say that Million Dollar Baby does not — at least assisted suicide for the severely disabled. It’s not a point of view with which I agree, but it’s a legitimate point of view. Why doesn’t Maureen Dowd defend it? Why does even Clint Eastwood persist in his denial of the obvious instead of showing the courage of his convictions as the Spaniard Alejandro AmenÃ¡bar does in The Sea Inside, which came out at about the same time and made the same point? I can only conclude that they and others on the cultural left have grown so accustomed to disingenuousness in such matters that they prefer here as in so many other areas — the question of media bias, for instance — to keep up the pretense of their own political non-partisanship for the sake of the imagined extra authority it confers on their obviously partisan views. It’s always easier to remain pleased with oneself for the intelligence of one’s beliefs if one starts from the assumption that only stupid people could believe anything else.
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