Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dude, Counter-Dude: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

This point-counterpoint on Million Dollar Baby is the first entry in a proposed series of opinion-exchanges between myself and A.A. Dowd of Wild Lines. Expect ad hominem attacks, Simpsons references and rampant polysyllabism; inevitably, I will resort to footnotes. This debut took a good two months for us to finish, so there's no telling when the next entry is gonna come along. For now, I won the coin toss and elected to receive.

A.A. Dowd, taking the position in defense of Million Dollar Baby:

Million Dollar Baby is the type of movie Clint Eastwood was born to make. Take that as praise or as ammunition for the case against, but don’t take it lightly. Eastwood, who never met a dead genre he wouldn’t or couldn’t revive, does not sample from the collective cinematic past. He just seems to occupy it. He does not filter his archaic preoccupations through winking irony or fussy fanboy affectation, á la Brian DePalma or Quentin Tarantino. He pays his respects not by meticulously mimicking his heroes, but by making the kind of movies they did. He does not riff. He is no postmodernist. He is a prolific, sturdy craftsman, the sort that would have thrived back when the studio system was still firing on all cylinders. His aw-shucks sincerity and no-nonsense conviction—old-fashioned virtues oft mistaken for flaws—align him with the great working-class poets of Hollywood, the Sam Fullers and Howard Hawkses.

A bona fide 40s or 50s style boxing melodrama, Million Dollar Baby would feel right at home among the rough-and-tumble ring pictures of Mark Robson (Champion and The Harder They Fall) or Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Set-Up). It walks and talks, it moves, like a lost genre classic. Most of the elements are there, unfiltered and irony-free. The young and hungry fighter, all guts and heart and foolhardy conviction, claws his (her) way up the ranks. An old trainer spars vicariously with his own deferred dreams. The fights get longer, tougher, bloodier. The ringsides get noisier, smokier. Greedy managers and seedy promoters scramble for a piece of the action. The fighters collapse into their respective corners, battered and bruised but begging to get back in there. There is a big fight, and a nasty, cheap-shot cartoon contender.

Cliché? Inherently so, but there is poetry in these stock movements and players. Corny? Only in the way of all great melodrama. Eastwood assembles these spare parts, the gears and pistons of a faded B-movie machine, and invests them with a breadth of emotion uncommon to most contemporary models. Clint’s ethos stretch way back, to the first wave of studio boxing pictures. If Abraham Polonsky’s 1947 Body and Soul jettisoned the nobility of the genre by steeping it in the greed and exploitation of the fight circuit, Clint relocates it in a familiar (but achingly heartfelt) fighter-trainer, father-daughter relationship. The film colors this central conflict in an earnestness that went out of vogue not long after Eastwood started his acting career; to snicker at Frankie and Maggie’s blossoming kinship—the way she wears his defenses down, working her way into his affections, respect conflating with platonic love—is to approach it through a distinctly modern lens. Million Dollar Baby rewards a willful suspension—not just of disbelief, but of the sleek and well-taught cynicism of the post-modern movie.

Todd Detmold, taking the position against the film:

The last of several bear traps laid out for me in the opening paragraphs above is the suggestion that Million Dollar Baby operates on a level so pure and old-fashioned that only a stone-hearted cynic would manage to go unmoved by the thing. And I will happily admit that there are moments – isolated moments – that I didn’t anticipate finding in this film, colored as it was by that first screening, back in the theater in 2004. I snickered through it then, but of course I was at the height of my collegiate superiority, so obviously I would be too cynical to enjoy this. These moments are the ones of quiet: when late at night in a dim and run down gymnasium that effectively houses the souls of our characters, those very same characters shut up and the film becomes transiently beautiful.

I can’t pretend to have seen the majority of Eastwood’s films, but I can stitch together a passing notion of how he operates. He’s well-known for his ‘one take’ ethos. He doesn’t direct a movie so much as put the actors here and the camera there and then move on to the next scene – its only through an instinct weaned upon five decades in the craft that he manages to make those long gauzy nights as poignant as they are. It’s inadvertent pathos by way of antipathy. In my estimation, an Eastwood film is only going to be so good as its script. One can easily credit Unforgiven to David Peoples.

And I credit Million Dollar Baby to the inimitable Paul Haggis. There’s an atmosphere to the film, sure, but Haggis’ story is one of cringe-inducing types and blunt didactic moralizing; a film hoisted on the shoulders of a central actress infusing her stereotype with some humanity only through juxtaposition to the even-worse stereotypes populating the film around her. In a city of ciphers, at least mo cuishle comes with a gender swap.

It’s bad enough the thing stops being the happy-sappy boxing melodrama described above and morphs suddenly into a Lifetime original movie (Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep: The Maggie Fitzgerald Story); it has to include in its box of hammers-as-art an unsympathetic family of fat rednecks, a pair of unsympathetically mean ethnic boxers, a comic-relief twig who’s so unsympathetically stupid to think he can be a boxer… and to top it all off, a badly overcooked paternal surrogacy.

Watching the movie, you think to yourself, “I get it, I get it. Stop, I get it already.” Maggie’s paralysis is plenty pitiful without the bedsores, the clogged arteries and gross bruising, the amputation and the self-glossectomy. She turns into Sideshow Bob walking into six, seven, eight, nine rakes. From the repetition of misery comes levity. What a joke.

A.A. Dowd's rebuttal:

Where exactly in the oeuvre of David “Leviathan” Peoples—author of space age and post-apocalyptic fantasies, mostly—does one detect the quiet grace and desperado gravity of Unforgiven? You’re telling me you attribute that new classic more to a sci-fi scribe-for-hire than to, say, a filmmaker who has dabbled in all shades and shapes of the American oater? A digressive question, perhaps, but one that hints at the fallacy of merely thinking of Eastwood as some sort of anonymous journeyman whose efforts assure nothing more or less than a 1:1 success rate of execution. Hell, I’ve played that card before, too, usually when deriding one of the man’s actual follies, á la fatally stupid junk like Gran Torino. Truth is, Old Squints has fucked up good material before—see Changeling, a wicked-interesting true story that required the razor wit of a Curtis Hanson, not Clint’s usual Old Hollywood fairy dust. But he’s also done tough, lean, classically cathartic wonders with some pretty blasé blueprints.

Case in point: the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, which is nearly (if not quite) as hoary as you’ve made it out to be. Most of those garish caricatures you checked off come courtesy of hacky Haggis, who plucked them wholesale from F.X. Toole’s ringside and warped them into his usual rouge’s gallery of unreal mouthpieces. They stick out like anachronistic sore thumbs against the director’s dignified digs: the awful scenes with Maggie’s redneck family stink of a finger-wagging class condescension, and Morgan Freeman’s running voice-over makes constantly—and, at times, somewhat oppressively—explicit what might have been better left as subtext. (I think of Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink, chastising the titular scribe for his pretensions, screaming “There's plenty of poetry inside that ring, Fink.”)

Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Jay “Danger” Baruchel, and the trailer trash cavalry may have wandered in from one of Haggis’s loony race screeds, but Frankie, Maggie and Eddie sure didn’t. To appreciate Eastwood’s achievement is to distinguish the stereotypes from the affectionate archetypes, the writer’s contributions from the director’s, the fatty appendages from the meat at the center—in other words, to understand how Eastwood has transcended the limitations of his material and made the film his own. The pathos are anything but inadvertent. They're intrinsically linked to what we know about this genre and, especially, this filmmaker.

Certainly, he’s done more this time than put actors here and a camera there. This is one of Eastwood’s most visually dynamic movies. His characters dance in and out of shadows, his camera roving seductively through authentically run-down interiors. And his fight scenes have the sweat, swing and swagger of the genre’s best. With Million Dollar Baby, Clint buries his reputation for meat-and-potato inexpressiveness. More than that, though, he uses the supposed Lifetime movie of a third act to tear down the walls of genre tradition and reveal something deeper, stronger, and more profound behind them. (Like Raging Bull or Fat City, it’s a boxing movie that eventually becomes something much, much more.) Yes, Maggie goes through a hell of an ordeal. These slings and arrows and agonies are to establish a hopeless, no-way-out scenario for her…and to force Frankie to make the kind of sacrifice Eastwood’s iconic tough guys never had to. It’s a genuinely profound subversion of Clint’s masculine killer’s code, “murder” as both an act of devastating self-destruction and selfless love—the empathetic opposite of vigilante justice. Take it from someone who has seen the majority of the guy’s films: Clint’s never been this vulnerable, before or since. Levity my ass.

Todd Detmold's rebuttal:
Q: Where in the oeuvre of David Peoples do I detect the quiet grace and desperado gravity of Unforgiven?

A: Unforgiven1.
Given our Kael v. Sarris discussions leading up to this point-counterpoint, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you’re falling into exactly the same trap where Pauline found Andrew. You can lord it above me all you like that you’ve seen more Eastwood movies than me; if I’m required to plod through the entire Dirty Harry series just to figure out what makes Million Dollar Baby worthy of my time, we’ve got a problem.

This is one of the dangers of auteur theory. As soon as a director makes a couple good movies or establishes a persona (and this is even easier for a man who was an actor first), we can judge everything else by those unrelated premises. We end up taking the film not on what it is but on what it is not. Shooting the movie beautifully2 doesn’t make it not a poorly-disguised lecture on the pros and cons of euthanasia, nor does Eastwood being vulnerable.

If we must play this game, let’s bring it back to Unforgiven once more (which is, by the way, a pretty damn well-written film). You want to see Eastwood playing a variation on a theme? A sensitive tough guy? You really can’t do much better than this. If Million Dollar Baby is a career benchmark because of its subversion of the Eastwood archetype, what, I ask, does that make Unforgiven? Eastwood has been an old man for a while now, and he had been playing with the same themes in Unforgiven twelve years prior when he rehashed them in Million Dollar Baby. It’s been a good twenty years since Eastwood lost the ability to make a movie where he isn’t an old man. Every role he plays will inadvertently be a commentary on his former self.

Even if we are impressed with Clint’s vulnerability as he opens up to his surrogate daughter, that arc is more than complete by the time she hits the stool. To suggest that the third act somehow transcends the script is dismissive of the deliberate narrative structure. Haggis goes so far out of his way to clumsily weave in Frank’s absent daughter and Maggie’s absent father – as well as, let’s not forget, the anecdote about putting the dog to sleep – there’s no way not to read the film as a harsh and cloying morality tale.

You admit the script is hoary, you admit that the ensemble is composed of stereotypes3. In your opening you say Eastwood doesn’t riff; rather he occupies a classical stage. Yet in your rebuttal you claim he’s futzing with archetypes and ‘tearing down the walls of the genre’. You say he’s a sturdy craftsman who would’ve owned the classical studio system, but then he’s transcending the limitations of his material and making it his own. Which is it, man? If Eastwood really wanted to subvert Haggis’ script and lift it from the muck, he would've had Frank unplug Maggie in the ambulance back from Vegas and saved us all the trouble.

1. You can call him David “Leviathan” Peoples or you can call him David “Twelve Monkeys” Peoples or David “Blade Runner” Peoples. Put your snark aside: surely the man deserves some credit for Unforgiven, no? [back]

2. And there’s something else Eastwood doesn’t deserve all the credit for. [back]

3. Except for the leads: they’re archetypes, allegedly, not stereotypes, and only because of the overly-explicit dignity of age and the twist of gender. If Eastwood is so good at infusing Haggis’ terrible writing with a lot of sincere humanity, why couldn’t he do anything with the other ten major characters? [back]

A.A. Dowd's closing statement:

Before we start willy-nilly evoking the spirit of dearly departed Pauline, let’s get something straight: Kael may have railed and raged against the act of appraising a work chiefly by gleaning the name on the signature line, but she would never, ever deny the importance that a little cinematic context plays in grasping her medium of choice. Nobody who loved Brian DePalma as much as she did possibly could. Kael recognized, as all critics should, that movies play on shared histories, many of them the kind that flicker in the dark and burn their way onto our synapses. Context is what separates Jonathon Rosenbaum from Peter Travers; that tabula rasa school of film criticism is the last refuge of those who don't know their backlots from their badlands.

No, you don’t have to have seen the lion’s share of Eastwood’s work to form an opinion on Million Dollar Baby. But is it so out-there to suggest that a familiarity with his oeuvre could actually benefit one’s understanding of the film? Certainly it might help one see the difference between what Clint The Actor is doing in Baby and what he's doing in Unforgiven. The latter is about violence as inescapable burden––you live by the sword, you die by the sword, and once stoked, that bloodlust hardwires itself into your moral makeup. The former is about the price that comes with strict adherence to rigid masculine codes. Unforgiven takes the Eastwood ethos to their logical endpoint: terrible triumph, but triumph nonetheless. Million Dollar Baby cracks them wide open, re-examines them, and ends up wondering aloud what the hell they're worth. It's summary vs. subversion, lionization vs. critique––how flatly reductive to dismiss them both as mere "sensitive tough guy" routines. (And by the way: how can you know what exactly Clint's doing a "commentary" on, or how well he's doing it, if you haven't seen these iconic back-works? Cultural osmosis? Or are you basing your conclusions on a familiarity with the McGarnagle character from The Simpsons?)

Certainly it takes some kind of willful distortion of screen content to see in the film's backstretch any kind of rhetorical debate on the morality of euthanasia. Beyond one brief conversation with the priest, when does Eastwood toss out talking points? It’s never about whether or not it’s wrong for Frankie to pull that plug. It’s about can he do it. It's about will he. To call the film's dramatic arc complete at the 90 minute mark is to suggest that our man gains absolution the minute he fully accepts his role as surrogate father figure. The real spiritual test, of course, comes later––will Frankie strip his own soul bare to set Maggie's free? Call it cheap or maudlin if you must, but I'm at a loss as to how this protracted internal struggle could be read as superfluous. Did you just shut down when the breathing tube showed up? Did your critical faculties go numb the minute Maggie's body did?

You see contradiction in my various defenses of the film. What I'm trying to convey––perhaps clumsily, but with enthusiasm––is the way great genre cinema can both adhere to template and locate a profound emotional truth at its center. Eastwood earns comparison to his Golden Age heroes by refusing to condescend his material, while simultaneously finding ways to gently bend it into something personal, something reflective of his own concerns. (Fuck it, maybe I am an autuerist.) At the very least, Million Dollar Baby offers one hell of a transgressive first: Hollywood's last standing cowboy, the faded face of masculinity incarnate, weeping openly (and convincingly!) into the camera. Not even David "Unforgiven" Peoples could write that out of the old man.

Todd Detmold's closing statement:

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this has devolved into a battle of Million Dollar Baby vs. Unforgiven. I'd say both films are both about masculine codes and violence as burden.

Deep down though, it's starting to feel like writer vs. director. We write off David Peoples based on Leviathan, but we forgive Eastwood misstep after misstep. Why? I'd propose it's solely because we're so familiar with him. Eastwood is a living, breathing (barely, it sometimes seems) icon: this is how I'm able to laugh at McGarnagle without watching all fifty-something of the man's films4.

He's also a hyphenate, and I think it's risky to elide Eastwood the actor and Eastwood the director. Isn't Gran Torino also about cycles of violence? Isn't Space Cowboys also about aging masculinity? In fact, one of Eastwood's great shortcomings as an actor is that he's always Clint Eastwood. There's nothing he could ever do about it, but at the same time it makes for a cheap subversion of "the Eastwood archetype" if you've got Clint Eastwood.

To me, the sins of Paul Haggis drag Million Dollar Baby down from any heights Eastwood could ever hope to hoist it to, whereas my opposition seems to feel no amount of terrible writing and clumsy moralizing could bog down Eastwood's careful genre exercise.

But here's my last word: the dramatic arc of Million Dollar Baby is complete when Frank gives Maggie her mo cuishle cloak. He keeps the meaning from her (and the audience)5 so to jerk some tears in the final minutes, but what of anybody watching who speaks Irish? Whether we can recognize it or not at the time (and, like McGarnagle, you don't even need to know what it means to know what it means), this is the moment where Frank has accepted her as his daughter.

Everything after this is first a victory lap for their success (as boxer/manager and as father/daughter) followed by the overextended paralysis sequence. The connection between Maggie and Frank's real daughter remains hazily drawn and Frank ends up served with the same amount of nothing he began with. Frank's story is about accepting his fatherhood, and for the entire final act of the film he gets beaten down for it through contrived circumstance. I get beaten down, too, and I resent this when it's not earned. Anybody can tear a tongue out, but Paul Haggis can't make it mean something, even with Clint on both sides of the camera.

4. There's a middle ground, by the way, between having seen all and having seen none. Also, The Simpsons isn't Family Guy: you don't need to get the reference to get the joke. [back]

5. "My blood", in case anybody's gotten this far without knowing the film too closely. [back]


  1. I haven't even seen this movie but your debate is a really great read. Well done!

  2. Thanks, Amy. Alex has requested that commenters call a "winner", so at the risk of ending up sucker-punched and paralyzed, any of you readers out there can bring it on.

  3. Whoever wins, we lose.

  4. Bravo to both of you! I declare Alex the winner! There is a little nepotism going on here, I know. But when it gets down to it, there is no in-between. You either liked the film or not and I liked it!

  5. Since you've opened up voting: my nod goes to Todd, because after reading this, I have no desire to see the movie.

  6. I've suffered through the movie, so my sympathies were with Todd from the get go. Much as it pains me to pass up an opportunity to mock him, I have to give him my vote.

    Alex's arguments are certainly enthusiastic and extremely well-composed, but ultimately not persuasive. I'm very impressed at the breadth of his knowledge of boxing movie genre conventions, but knowing where Haggis and Eastwood resurrected this nightmare from does not explain sufficiently why they bothered.

    I can only hope the next Dude, Counter Dude gives Alex a more worthy object for his intelligent criticism. If I have to keep voting for Todd, I'm going to lose all my hater cred.

  7. Nepotism, maybe, but I vote for Todd as well. If you can't imagine an argument in favor of the film which doesn't involve giving it an historical (Eastwood) context, then I don't think it's a very good movie. Which is not to say that I don't think contextual film criticism is interesting and important - but a good movie should stand on its own, and I don't believe this one does.

    This does make me want to see it again, however, since I don't remember (for example) anything interesting about the cinematography. But dancing shadows do not a movie make.

  8. "But dancing shadows do not a movie make."

    Sure they do! Film is a visual medium. The interplay of images, the way light and dark are juxtaposed within the frame--this is what great filmmaking is all about. To quote a friend, admonishing me recently for my inability to appreciate the genius of the ROLLERBALL remake, narrative is just another aspect of mise en scene. Movies can (and constantly do) transcend the limitations of their stories. Yes, even narrative ones.

    So, in short: yes, dancing shadows do a movie make.

  9. Also: http://www.laweekly.com/2009-10-08/film-tv/american-radical-ken-jacobs-nervous-magic-lantern/

  10. I can't argue with film being a visual medium, of course - but not in lieu of story. One can aid the other, and the best ones do, but I'm pretty uninterested in a film which offers only compelling visuals. Some people might be, and I know you weren't saying this is all Eastwood offers here, but I disagree with you on whether the rest of the elements add up to something all that interesting.

  11. I'm going to have to side with Alex on this debate (as I'm sure both Todd and Alex are already aware of). Even outside of the context of Eastwood's oeuvre, I feel as though there's a great deal of simple and emotionally transparent sincerity that Eastwood brings to life in the film, something that one doesn't encounter very often. And that's coming from someone who can be a real cynical prick quite a bit of the time. Sure, the film's got its flaws, but watching this film I very rarely felt as though Eastwood was going for cheap and easy tugs of audience heart-strings. The beauty of this argument is that it can just go on and on and on as this cycle of disagreement, and ultimately it all boils down to personal taste.

    Just thought I'd chime in my two cents.

  12. Alex wins.

    But just because he's right about Million Dollar Baby being a good movie.

    Otherwise, the concept that Todd hints at but refuses to embrace full-hog, that a piece of art can only be appreciated on its own merits and without the creator's biography as a guide, is a good one. Of course art is not made in a vacuum and film is a medium where history and tradition matter and blah, blah, blah but that doesn't mean a film shouldnt be able to stand on its own without any of that.

    you can write a really interesting essay, or attempt to understand a movie by using the director's biography and ideology as an insight into the film, but art is not about what the director meant, or about what she has done in the past, it is about what the actual creation means to the viewer.

    too often film buffs insist that the only way to appreciate film is through an encyclopedic knowledge of the form, and while that may enhance the film buff's enjoyment of movies, it does not in any way affect the value of any particular movie for the audience. a director, or writer does not own the piece of art once it has been created and he/she cannot tell us how it should make us feel. and her biography cant either. today the common theory is a biographical one, that we can understand all forms of art through an understanding of the art's creator but that is false. a close reading of the film regardless of eastwood's mythology and history is a more valuable one. and in that strict sense this movie fucking rules.

    also, todd, the suggestion that either of you are past your "collegiate superiority" phase is hilarious.

    the real winner is the readers! -p. traverse.

  13. So, here's something that I thought I'd like to mention about Todd's alleged claim that one shouldn't necessarily need the background of having seen every Dirty Harry film to appreciate a more contemporary Eastwood film: Dear Todd, correct me if I'm wrong, but did you not use this very blog for an extended period of time to engage in your personal revisitation of the work of James Cameron? While I'm not saying that auteur theory is absolutely mandatory in the exploration of the work of a director, it does appear a bit hypocritical for you to lambast a reading of Million Dollar Baby through that lens.

    The Ouevre v. Individual Work problem rears its ugly head in our debates hilariously often (i.e. Public Enemies) and I'm not sure that there's a good answer to how to view works, with special emphasis on works from directors like Clint Eastwood, where the critical community seems to make it imperative that one views the work as such *cough Gran Torino*. Just sayin'.

  14. Also, "revisitation," it turns out, is not a word. I've failed as this.

  15. I appreciate your point, Ezekiel, but I wonder if you can find an instance in my CINEMA OF CAPS LOCK project (for which there remains one more forthcoming entry) where I pulled the Auteurist card in the same manner Alex does here. I *think* I took them all on their own terms.

    It's inevitably fascinating to draw lines between the individual works of a given artist, but I don't think any of Cameron's movies succeed based on previous knowledge or borrowed themes. In fact, maybe Cameron's greatest flaw is his relentless desire to remake the same Vietnam War-inspired, nature v. technology film over and over again (more on this later). The exception, as always, is PIRANHA II, which works *only* through the lens of his other work and which is admittedly a pretty terrible movie.

    It's also, by the way, fallacious to imply (and maybe this wasn't your intent) that I've been slathering praise over his entire body of work.

    And *also*, it's worth noting that Cameron writes all his own films. Eastwood does not. This is a crucial distinction when we're talking about the authorship of a film, and I don't think anybody on this board, Alex included, is interested in defending Paul Haggis.

  16. BUT PAUL HAGGIS WROTE CASINO ROYALE! Umm, I never implied that you've been slathering praise all over the work of Cameron. I was simply stating that you've been re-examining his ouevre and taking note of various thematic and narrative patterns that exist within his work:
    "In fact, maybe Cameron's greatest flaw is his relentless desire to remake the same Vietnam War-inspired, nature v. technology film over and over again"
    (AUTEURIST FILM THEORY). No, I don't think anyone's got much interest in defending Paul Haggis. Just wanted to point this out, that's all.

    Also, Million Dollar Baby's awesome and you're wrong.

  17. Really enjoyable debate. To me, an engaging discussion, a back-and-forth of ideas, is central to great criticism. I feel like invoking the climax of The Irresponsible Captain Tylor and congratulating both sides on their respective victories!

  18. The final paragraph of Todd's rebuttal sums up my feelings about Alex's argument. Even were we to allow Eastwood's entire oeuvre to illuminate this film, it seems we get little more enlightenment than a deeper understanding of the old man and his past (while he remains surrounded by stereotypes and stale sentiment.) And in that case, the ostensible worth of the film is an entirely post-modern comment on Clint Eastwood's masculine persona.

    Todd wins!