The difference between criticism and journalism showed was revealed under a particularly bright light in a February 5 column by the Los Angeles Times’s Tim Rutten. Rutten writes under the heading “Regarding Media,” and while many sins are committed in the daily press under the guise of journalistic dissection, Rutten is not one of the offenders. Maybe that’s why I felt so personally disappointed by this column.
The gist of it was that, in general at least, movie critics had evaded their intellectual responsibility by omitting from their reviews of Million Dollar Baby that Eastwood’s movie “is a quietly confrontational exploration of one of this era’s most delicate, complex and contentious issues…assisted suicide.”
Moreover, Rutten writes he’s ascertained from a number of critics he doesn’t say how many or who they are that the reason they didn’t bring up assisted suicide is that it gives away too much plot material and that this would bring down the wrath of readers and editors upon them. This, he says, is a resort to the language of commerce and a line of thinking that relegates “film to a lesser art and film criticism to a lesser genre.”
I have enough respect for Rutten that I hope I haven’t misstated his argument; I don’t think I have. I do think, though, that he’s got it exactly backwards. To say that Million Dollar Baby is a movie about assisted suicide is to reduce criticism to mere journalism a buyer’s guide and thus to the language of commerce. And it’s to reduce film to the status of a newspaper in general and an op-ed piece specifically.
A successful work of art isn’t merely a discourse on a single social topic, even when as in the case of a political work such as The Battle of Algiers it appears to be exactly that. Million Dollar Baby is a spontaneous event that occurs and reoccurs every time an individual watches it because, rather than engage an issue, it plumbs the nature of human experience. By its very nature, that experience is evanescent. The miracle of movies is, unlike every other art form, it catches that evanescence and allows us to revisit it, to see ourselves and others in its various shapes and forms.
So while, yes, there is an assisted suicide in Million Dollar Baby, it isn’t in the cemented shape of an argument or statement or even a scenario. Rather, it exists as part of a play of emotions and ideas that come together and vanish as two characters which in Eastwood’s masterly hands amount to two momentarily existent human beings. There is no trace of a generalization or application of assisted suicide outside of the movie’s particulars.
Suicide arises in the final third of Million Dollar Baby (look for a full review of the movie, sans spoilers, here) when its heroine, boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), is paralyzed from the neck down after taking an illegal blow during a bout. Her irascible old trainer, Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), has stood by her through a dispiriting round of unsuccessful treatment and therapy until she makes the ultimate plea: As she is physically unable to kill herself, will he end her life for her?
Frankie, though he may have half-expected the request (one of Eastwood’s great talents is the suggestiveness of his acting and direction) is horrified by it. He consults his priest, who tells him that if he were to agree to Maggie’s plea, he would be committing the gravest of sins, not performing an act of mercy.
This is a crucial scene and, perhaps, open to misinterpretation. The misinterpretation may occur when viewers believe that Frankie is wrestling with religious convention or moral conviction over what he should do. But there’s nothing in the film to indicate that. Quite the contrary; the evidence points in quite another, far more personal direction.
From early in the film, we know that Frankie has been estranged from his daughter for many, many years. She lives in some other city and has cut all her ties with her father. So every night, Frankie gets down on his knees by his bedside and prays to god, in a highly personal way, to look after his daughter. His daily attendance at mass is an extension of his nightly prayers. For 23 years, he has augmented his personal relationship with a ritualized and sacramental relationship to seek the forgiveness that resulted in his loss of his daughter.
The appearance of the 31-year-old Maggie in the elderly Frankie’s life has been an unexpected boon, almost a surrogate daughter. The entire middle third of the film (and it is a middle third, not a second act), is given over to the friendship between the old man and young woman, each of whom has found a new purpose and joy through and in the other.
Now Frankie is being asked by the person who has, in a very real way, saved his life, to not only end hers, but to, in a way, end his own. Joy and purpose will cease and become only painful memories. He will be alone in a way he has never been before. Worse, he will have to confront the world without the religious solace he once had. The god he worshipped will no longer tolerate him; both he an Maggie will have committed the sin of suicide. Additionally, Frankie won’t be able to pray for his daughter anymore, since god’s ears will be deaf.
Nevertheless, Frankie places his relationship to Maggie above all us and grants her her wish. In an eloquent final shot, we see that the grizzled trainer has gone off alone, to spend the rest of his life with strangers as he waits for his own end. Million Dollar Baby confirms Eastwood’s stature as the most eloquent, and most persistent, existentialist around.
So to say that critics should extract a lesson about assisted suicide from such profound, but emotionally specific material, sounds, to say the least, reductive. That should be left to the radio talk show crowd who, I understand from Maureen Dowd’s February 6 New York Times column, are chewing it over real good.
Perhaps one more example, lifted from Rutten’s column, will further nail things down. He compares critics’ not mentioning plots twists to an art critic writing that a painting is a masterpiece with “a vital moral issue which is depicted in a shocking image” and then refusing the discuss the first or describe the latter.
First of all, note the impulse to describe the painting as a piece of news with easily identifiable traits: It has A moral issue and a SHOCKING image. But, one may ask, what painting can be described that way?
Let’s look at Géricault’s 1819 masterpiece, The Raft of the “Medusa”, which was based on an actual incident. After the restoration of the French monarchy in 1813, an inept crew of officers crashed a boat off the African coast and set 149 members of the crew adrift on a raft. Drowning, murder, and, supposedly even cannibalism followed. Géricault’s painting caused a huge scandal, not just for its subject matter the people in charge at the time of the disaster were still in charge but because of his Romantic realist style.
Géricault’s painting shocked audiences then, and moves us still now, not because it illustrates an historical tragedy, but because of the way he marshaled form and color in the service of frantic hope and bottomless despair. The Raft of the “Medusa” is a masterpiece not because it has A MORAL ISSUE or is a SHOCKING IMAGE. It’s a masterpiece because it transcends those terms. We get over those feelings when we look at it now and gaze into the depth of human experience. And when we want to know something about a political issue, then we read the newspaper.