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Thread: A Style Pared Down To Essentials -- A Review

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    A Style Pared Down To Essentials -- A Review

    Clint Eastwood: Million Dollar Baby

    A style pared down to essentials

    by Chris Knipp



    Years ago I crossed the country to visit a woman who was my correspondent for 45 years. She and her husband had then been "retired" (both in fact busy with professional work) for close to twenty years. "When you get older," Dorothy said, "you give up things." A simple message from a complex woman: and that's all I remember from the visit. As I get older it makes more and more sense.

    You age, you pare down. This is a logical way to approach Clint Eastwood's simple, unoriginal, but somehow extraordinarily satisfying new movie, Million Dollar Baby, which stars himself, Morgan Freeman, and the talented youngster, Hillary Swank. Even determined detractors like Michael Atkinson admit, "saying it's an old man's movie is a serious compliment." Eastwood may take easy refuge in genre again here after going for a bit of a ramble in Mystic River, but his feet are on strong, solid ground. You leave the theater feeling you got what you paid for: no additives, no preservatives, no junk.

    You get two beat-up old men and a desperate, hungry young woman who meet in a smelly boxing gym in downtown L.A. called the Hit Pit to enact the well-worn theme of the underdog who comes up through pluck and hard work to win fame and learn how ephemeral success and life itself can be.

    Million Dollar Baby is based on a story by a seventy-year-old fight trainer in a book called Rope Burns, and it has an old man's appreciation of youth -- youth's hunger, energy, spirit; its ability to grow and endure physical challenge. The conservative Eastwood has a profoundly pessimistic philosophy, but in his elegiac view of things now past, there is poetry. His Frankie Dunn studies Gaelic, a language that speaks to the deepest roots of a man of the Irish persuasion. He reads Yeats, and the whole film has the melancholy of an Anglo- Saxon lament. We don't know much about Frankie except that he has an absent daughter who never answers his weekly letters and has attended mass every day for 23 years, which his priest says is a sure sign he's full of guilt. Some of it comes from fights he mismanaged. Eddie Dupris, or "Scrap" (Morgan Freeman), Frankie's longtime friend and cohort, who narrates in a craggy Shawshankian voice, is a classic beat-up fighter who went one fight too many and lost an eye but still haunts the gym -- in fact sleeps there on a cot in a tiny room hiding behind a rough curtain. Eddie and Frankie are foils. Eddie is generous and sweet, Frankie tough and guarded.

    Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), a hillbilly girl, over the hill for a beginning fighter because she's 31, who's grown up knowing only one thing, that "she's trash." In the well worn (but still serviceable) plotline, the hungry pupil must win the teacher's respect. Like the Karate Kid, she's got to struggle against her sensei's contempt. It takes Eddie's push to make Frankie take Maggie on. At first he stonewalls. "I'm tough," she pleads. "Girly," he quips, "tough ain't enough." He's also pushed toward her by losing a heavyweight contender he's been handling to another trainer with better connections and more of a drive toward the championship. And then the honing down and building up begin. Frankie makes Maggie into the best woman boxer in the world.

    This is an archetypal narrative -- and a well-worn milieu; but Eastwood believes in it. For him, it's inhabited by the kind of people you really can find in any boxing gym. The space is lively when the camera enters it, but we only see a couple of supporting players up close -- a cruel and shallow young black sparring partner and a simple-minded and deluded would-be featherweight, Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel, in a nervous, attention-getting performance), who have a brutal, bloody encounter when Danger finally decides to stop dancing and boasting and enter a ring.

    Maggie's trailer park family comes on the scene when she's a success, to grab it, and it's ugly to watch. It's been pointed out that conservative Clint chose to paint grim views of family life here -- it's all estrangement, betrayal and greed. There's nothing pretty about fighting as seen here either.

    Minimalism isn't easy to accomplish, or describe. Cliché is easy to mock. Why the movie works so well when the training begins and the fights take place and the girl becomes a champion, and then hits a roadblock and the trainer makes his hardest decision is hard to explain. Let me try, though. The two aging stars are famous, but they're really old, and because they're old, they don't muck up their performances with tricks. Eastwood looks strong and trim for 74, but he still has a lot of years in his face; ditto the younger Freeman. Hillary Swank, who is the exact age of her character, showed in Boys Don't Cry how hard she can work to prepare for a role and how well she succeeds when she does. She got an Oscar for it. That hunger, like her character's, pays off here. The fight sequences are good. For Swank training for the role meant training for a fight. She gives her lines what they need: sincerity, not spin.

    The ending is a shocker. But it's inevitable too in this movie's tough world, and it helps to mitigate the sweet rancid smell of success the conventional rise to championship creates, with its stereotyped villain opponents.

    Sure, the dialogue and voiceover telegraph their meanings bluntly. But it's all done with conviction and honesty. Eastwood hasn't tried to do anything fancy but he's stayed true to his tale. The result is one of the year's best American movies. The wise Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in his capsule: " As grim as The Set-Up (1948) and Fat City (1972), as dark and moody as The Hustler and Bird, this may break your heart."

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    Million Dollar Baby is required viewing for filmmakers interested in stirring the emotions of audiences without mawkish manipulation. It's not as easy as Eastwood and his team make it seem. Complaints about Maggie's relatives being caricatures are valid albeit minor. I do wish the writer and director had toned it down, perhaps by having sis show a bit of pride in Maggie's accomplishments or reducing the degree of her brother's outward hostility. But the film gets just about everything else right. Rosenbaum summarizes neatly what Million Dollar Baby is all about in the quote below:

    "In a bleak world, where neither family nor religious faith offers lasting respite, MDB offers redemption that derives from the informal and nameless relationships people create on their own rather than inherit from family, church or society.
    Maggie glimpses and waves at a little girl we never see again. Later we see Maggie and Frankie enjoying lemon pie at a roadside joint. Such moments offer all the transcendence we need. In a context so close to despair, small but considered acts of kindness and fleeting moments of happiness carry the force of epiphanies."

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    The best interpretation of Maggie's hillbilly familiy is that they don't know how to deal with a successful relation, and that mean spirited is exactly how they all seem in that mode of being united to exploit the success. I don't object to their treatment. It's part of the paring down, the simplification of the technique Eastwood uses. He hasn't time for bleeding heart liberalism. Some people, sometimes, are just plain bad. We sure like to quote Rosenbaum, don't we? The observations you add from him are astute. There are, of course, noted critics who hate this movie.

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    The best interpretation of Maggie's hillbilly familiy is that they don't know how to deal with a successful relation, and that mean spirited is exactly how they all seem in that mode of being united to exploit the success. I don't object to their treatment. It's part of the pared down style. Eastwood hasn't time for bleeding heart liberalism. Some people, sometimes, are just plain bad. We sure like to quote Rosenbaum, don't we? The observations you add from him are astute. There are, of course, noted critics who hate this movie.

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    intelligent, handsome movie

    Just got back from Million Dollar Baby.

    It's emotional alright. I heard a few sniffles behind me.
    Clint is definitely a world-class director and he deserved all the accolades. It's a deeply human movie, and he makes sure you feel SOMETHING.

    I was put off a bit by Hilary Swank, even though she shows her acting chops (and won an oscar for it).
    The whole "How am I doin', Boss?" stuff got old quick.
    Her family WERE stereotypes, weren't they?
    I hated ever last lazy hillbilly one of 'em.

    The cinematography was excellent and the lighting was particularly evocative. The acting was just about perfect all around. How can anyone "hate" this movie? It's fine quality from a certified industry legend, and it's wonderful to see Clint in the "twilight" years making awesome cinema.

    Don't get me started on Morgan Freeman- I could listen to him read the yellow pages.




    Good show, Clint.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    It's so nice to have you back again with your good humor and positivity, and I know you have deep knowledge behind it. I agree that it seems meanspirited to find fault with Clint's directing, especially here, and you pointed out valid questions about the movie--Hilary Swank and the hillbillies. We have hashed over the hillbilly matter a bit in the thread. I still think Hilary Swank has done nothing up to her wonderful job in Boys Don't Cry and in fact her roles since then have been a considerable disappointment to me, though I admit I have not seen the necklace costume drama.

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    Thanks Chris- I agree about Swank's output post-Boys Don't Cry. I would be so jealous of her if I was an actress (or would I hate her?) because she came out of nowhere and won an oscar and then did it again with MDB.

    Such is the industry...

    Some other scenes I loved in Clint's pic:

    - the scene where he's bugging Morgan about his socks. Comedic timing par excellence!

    - Get a job, PUNK

    - Clint: "Why don't you go back to Disneyland. You missed a few rides".


    And "Danger": Clint! What a shameless movie device throwing him in there. You had a heavy-duty movie and you put that goof in there for comic relief. That character would last about a minute in a gym like the Hit Pit. He would have been thrown out immediately (especially if he's annoying boxers in training and not paying any dues).

    Still love the movie though...(don't hit me!)
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    (Johann writes:)
    That character would last about a minute in a gym like the Hit Pit. He would have been thrown out immediately (especially if he's annoying boxers in training and not paying any dues).
    Maybe you're right Johann, but this isn't a documentary, and it's to show this ain't just any old gym, it has a heart -- and it's really hard up. I never know what people mean when they say of a movie "this wouldn't happen in real life." Isn't real life stranger than anything you could imagine?

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    Real life sure is stranger than anything else but when I use "that would never happen in real life" it usually comes from watching a movie that holds true to what it's telling me for some time and then goes off on a tangent that "could only happen in the movies".

    Danger was so out of place (I mean we're talking Dorothy in OZ here) that it's a shameless comedic touch from Eastwood. It's funny, right from the get-go, but it's something that I see through (as a person who's logged a lot of movie-watching hours)

    Maybe I'm being petty..
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Are you being petty? I don't know; you tell me. Many viewers and writers have made similar comments. Obviously Danger is a pretty wild character, but if Clint is to be criticized for that, I would do so on artistic rather than "realistic" grounds. I agree with Vladimir Nabokov when he says reality is a word that must always be written within inverted commas. When asked in the Paris Review interview about a critic who said his worlds do not break apart like those of "everyday reality," he replied "Whose 'reality'? 'Everyday' where? I suspect you have invented that expert on 'everyday reality'. Neither exists."

    You cannot simultaneously say that life is utterly strange and that movies go off on tangents "that would only happen" there. "This is real," "this is just a movie," are naive or jaded responses that tell more about the naive or jaded viewer -- and even that, only at a certain moment -- than about movies, or "reality."

    http://www.parisreview.com/media/4310_NABOKOV.pdf

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    Why are you dragging me down this path?

    All I'm saying is some movie devices are blatant and that some clash with what reality would probably dictate.

    Even though we agree that reality is stranger than fiction, one can make probable assumptions about how "real life" would play out.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    I'm not leading you anywhere. I'm expressing my view of this issue, which is partly philosophical, partly critical. "Realism" is a moot point. When you say this character is a "blatant" device you're on the right track. But one can NOT "make probable assumptions about how 'real life' would play out."

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    Sure you can.
    Especially when you know all the characters, the settings and the story.

    But notice I said "probable assumptions"- it's never absolute. You can make a probable assumpion of what would, could or will happen given what you know about what you're watching.

    You may be wrong, and that'll change everything. (But then that might be another reason to say Only in the movies!)
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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