Tuesday, February 08, 2005

THE FINE ART OF SPILLING BEANS


DISCLAIMER—PLEASE READ:
If you are among the many who have yet to see Million Dollar Baby and still intend to, I respectfully suggest that you forego reading the following article until you’ve seen the movie. In it I discuss the arguments posed in a recent Los Angeles Times piece that examines the critical response to the movie, and I was unable to do so without exposing elements of the plot of the film that most (but not all, as it turns out) would agree should be kept under wraps and reserved for the film to reveal. I also regret that the Los Angeles Times Web site requires that you be a seven-day-a-week subscriber to the print edition in order to access their online content free of charge. I would love for you to be able to read the article in question for yourself, so I have provided a link to the Times article under the assumption that it will not cost you to read it. Or perhaps you’ll be able to find a copy of Saturday’s Calendar still laying about the house and take in the foundation for my rant the old-fashioned way. Whether you are familiar with the original article or not, I have tried to accurately convey the gist of its argument without excessive quotation, and I trust that, for the sake of the effectiveness of my own counterargument, I have succeeded. (I also refer you to Patrick Goldstein’s article in today’s edition of the Los Angeles Times Calendar which takes on the conservative critics of Million Dollar Baby.)



By now you’ve doubtless either read or heard of complaints about Million Dollar Baby voiced by representatives of organizations like the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, as well as from esteemed film critics like Michael Medved, Rush Limbaugh and Debbie Schlussel. The gist of the complaints are grounded in fears that Clint Eastwood’s film perpetuates a prevailing notion, among the injured as well as those not affected, that spinal-cord injury is a fate worse than death, exactly what Marcie Roth, executive director of the NSCIA, says her group works so hard to dispel. It’s easy to sympathize with Roth’s concerns while at the same time disagreeing on whether or not the film endorses such a conclusion or merely addresses the subject of euthanasia as it is encountered by specific characters within the context of a specific story, and whether or not one has, by using euthanasia as a story element, an obligation to present it in the one light acceptable to those, like Roth, who work tirelessly to improve conditions for the disabled.

Schlussel, on the other hand, rather more sensitively predicts that Million Dollar Baby will reign supreme at the Academy Awards on February 27 “because it’s Hollywood’s best political propaganda of the year… it supports killing the handicapped, literally putting their lights out.” The myopic views of Schlussel and pals are typically reductive, conveniently boiling what most, even those who have objections to the story’s third act, have experienced as a nuanced and powerful piece of storytelling down to an easily digestible nugget, a simple piece of propaganda and nothing more, making it all the more easy to dismiss or, more pointedly, to attack and use to make their own political hay. Eastwood is not asking viewers to agree with his character Frankie Dunn’s decision to aid in an act of euthanasia, and he leaves it open to the discussion of audiences whether the priest who advises him that he will become forever lost if he goes through with it is correct, or whether by disappearing to the diner he has found a way to maintain his connection to Maggie (Hilary Swank), the boxer he has trained and who he has helped to die, and begin to find some redemption after all. But this kind of ambiguity drives black-and-white “thinkers” like Schlussel bats. She’d rather misrepresent the film’s intent and portray it as a single-minded, Nazi-like clarion call for the elimination of an entire class of disabled people. Ultimately, though, loudmouths like Schlussel don’t matter. These talk-radio and Internet voices raging against the indignities foisted upon quadriplegics by Eastwood and his film aren’t likely to carry their torches past Oscar night, regardless of whether the film wins or loses, because the moment and the momentum will have passed—Million Dollar Baby and the Oscar race will have ceased to be the hot story, and the outrage of these AM-radio geniuses will have moved on to other high-profile straw men to be used to heighten their own media presence.

Certainly more perplexing than the NSCIA’s concerns, at least to my mind, was the argument forwarded in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section this past Saturday, February 5, by journalist Tim Rutten in his regular column “Regarding Media.” In an article entitled "Why the Million Dollar Secret?” Rutten defends the movie as a work of art, but from that defense springs a complaint most unique among the cacophony of awards-season carping about the film. The writer somewhat perversely suggests that film critics who have gone out of their way to preserve the secrecy of the film’s plot developments from readers interested in seeing the film, but not interested in having those secrets revealed to them beforehand, are guilty of a kind of artistic dereliction of duty. Rutten discounts such reticence to give away too much as being more in tune with commerce than with art, then follows with a rather strange assertion. He acknowledges that giving away the plot of a thriller such as The Sixth Sense, or even “entertainments” like The Crying Game or The Third Man (!) would be “churlish,” but that serious films with “genuinely important themes” occupy what he terms “an entirely different aesthetic space” and should be treated with the same gravity as a great novel or important painting. “To presume otherwise is to relegate film to a lesser art,” asserts Rutten, “and film criticism to a lesser genre.”

First, the reality is that it is not the exclusive domain of film critics to consider Carol Reed’s The Third Man not only ‘an entertainment’ but indeed a bona fide classic and, yes, a work of art. I’d wager that you wouldn’t even have to hunt that rigorously to find a reputable writer or two who might even make the art case for The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense. Rutten’s insistence on a separation between “entertainment” and “art” smacks of the kind of snobbery that critics like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael were railing against 45 years ago, and it accounts for the loftiness of the “entirely different aesthetic space” that he insists serious films “with genuinely important themes” occupy. Furthermore, to disagree with this vague thumbnail encapsulation of his critical theory, much less press the writer on exactly how that aesthetic space differs from the presumably run-of-the-mill aesthetic of an ‘entertainment’ like, say, Psycho, is to bestow on film the status of a lesser art (like what, needlepoint?) and film criticism to a lesser genre (like what, copywriting for the Recycler?) Having now degraded two separate and honorable arts, I suppose we needn’t continue this argument, then, because the writer and this reader are obviously operating within entirely different aesthetic spaces.

But I’m afraid I must insist. To make his point, Rutten draws an analogy between a film reviewer’s hesitance to reveal too much plot and a newspaper art critic sent to review an important new painting who comes back with a report couched in language describing the work as a masterpiece built around a vital moral issue, but sidestepping the nature of that issue or the aesthetic value of its imagery based on a fear of coloring the reader’s experience of the painting. The argument sounds pretty convincing, unless you’re aware of some pretty fundamental differences in the way appreciators of fine art approach and experience nonlinear works, like sculpture or paintings, as opposed to works of narrative fiction or nonfiction, like those found in literature and film. Rutten relies on the reader finding his theoretical juxtaposition clever enough that it would never occur to her or him to consider the pleasures one takes in viewing, for example, the Mona Lisa. Those pleasures are rooted, among many other things, in art history and our own imaginings of what circumstances might inform that famous smile, and are independent of the kinds of pleasures inherent in being drawn into and surprised by narrative developments and techniques of filmed storytelling and the associations it makes with the real world, as well as with all of the other arts.

In other words, different types of art are experienced in entirely different ways. But could someone who maintains that critics must approach films of thematic import and inflated intent with entirely different aesthetic criteria than those which seek merely to entertain ever fully understand this simple tenet? Rutten’s downright odd assertions about film critics and Million Dollar Baby truly make me wonder.

Another element that may account for Rutten’s arguments is that he seems to define a work of art by its simple tackling of these kinds of moral issues as central themes, an approach that grounds him solidly in the camp of the sort of critic who would insist that Gandhi is a better film than E.T.- The Extra-Terrestrial because the real-life Gandhi was about nonviolent resistance, whereas E.T. was just a made-up alien who wanted to go home. And there is hardly a more notorious instance of lofty “quality” reigning supreme than Ordinary People’s 1980 coronation as Oscar’s Best Picture over competition like Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, two films that have, in the years since that award was handed out, proven much more resonant and respected by general audiences and lovers of film than Robert Redford’s rather crude familial drama.

But I suspect Gandhi and Ordinary People are exactly the kinds of films to which Rutten refers when he trots out that “entirely different aesthetic space for serious films” horse, and if he deigns to place Million Dollar Baby in a category with those movies, then I think he seriously misjudges the film’s true worth as art as well as its audiences response to it. Is Million Dollar Baby simply a movie of morality, implying the delivery of a lesson of some kind as its primary objective, its raison d’etre, or is it a movie of characters, of a crisis of faith, of the possibility, but not the guarantee, of redemption? And is the assisted suicide central to the story, as Rutten maintains, or only to its resolution? What is thematically central to the story is the relationship between these three people, which makes Frankie’s ultimate decision painful and dramatically powerful. But the movie is not a polemic, and, as I said earlier, it does not insist that we agree with Frankie’s decision, or the conclusions drawn by Scrap (Morgan Freeman) about what kind of a man Frankie is as he describes him in a letter to Frankie’s estranged daughter Katy, or even to what degree Frankie is either damned or redeemed by that decision. Rutten makes the same mistake as the right-wing agenda thumpers when he decides that euthanasia is the film’s lofty theme. Of course, euthanasia is no more the “theme” of Eastwood’s film than the decision of Ethan Edwards to kill or not kill his own niece, who had been kidnapped and then assimilated into a violent Indian tribe, was the “theme” of The Searchers. It is, as Eastwood has asserted, the crossroads that his character, Frankie Dunn, finds himself at when Maggie asks him, the only person she feels close to in the world, to help her die, and what makes the necessity of the decision so emotionally harrowing is the groundwork of character that has been laid so artfully, so purposefully, so sensitively throughout the body of the film, a groundwork notably lacking, aside from a story told by Maggie that prefigures the “dark turn” of the plot that has so offended Medved and company, in portents and imagery relating to euthanasia.

A question I wish Rutten had elaborated on, one to which he alludes in his article but never directly addresses, would be exactly what he feels the function of a work of film art is. Given his complaint that no critic felt obliged to point out that the year’s two most provocative films, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 were essentially shut out of the Oscar party because they were propaganda and not art (a questionable assertion that makes me wonder if he read any of the many top ten lists published at year’s end by most film critics), he obviously doesn’t believe film need be instructional or propagandistic in order to qualify as art. But it seems that he thinks film critics must function at this level in order to honor their profession and the art they serve, and that consideration of sensitivity to what readers might value in that art should be superseded by a critical imperative that reduces the film writer to an extension of the lofty themes of the art work, in essence one who leads the flock to the trough and says, “There’s your dinner, this is what it is, now eat!" And he states that the real problem with revealing too much is that people will then be less likely to go out and see the movie, thus reducing criticism to a method of getting people in theater seats and not about getting ideas about specific films “into their heads.”

But surely Rutten believes that dissection of those ideas without regard to giving away too much is just another way of engaging a potential audience’s interest in the film in question (if not, then isn’t the practice of film criticism consigned to a peculiarly masturbatory vacuum?), and therefore similarly traffics in the methods of commerce to which he seems so adamantly against. The simple fact is, most people would probably prefer not to read a film review before seeing a film for the simple reason that, despite what Rutten stubbornly refuses to believe, they hold high value on preserving the experiencing of seeing a film with as few preconceived notions about it in their heads as possible, and that includes information about the film’s plot as well as an individual critic’s analysis and summation of its themes and assessment of how successfully they were employed. In reality, given the saturation of current pop culture with gossipy entertainment magazines dissecting every element of popular films, it’s very difficult for the average viewer not to pick up, through a kind of cultural osmosis, on information he or she would just as soon not know, which is why most audiences who have the desire but have yet to see Million Dollar Baby are probably aware if not of the specifics of the movie’s “dark turn,” then at least that there’s a point in the movie where the carpet is going to get pulled from underneath them. And even just that vague awareness is enough to provide distraction from the natural flow of the narrative and potentially curdle its effectiveness. I labeled Rutten’s argument as a perverse one earlier in this piece, and I did so partly because I think that, deep down, anyone who would suggest full disclosure when talking about narrative art to an audience unfamiliar with the work in question either just doesn’t understand the basic appeal of that art, or holds the indulgence in it with enough contempt that the act of “spoiling” becomes a pleasure of its own.

And finally, while we’re on the subject of divulging too much, I wonder why it is that, in the midst of an article devoted to denigrating critics who refrain from revealing too much of the film’s plot, Rutten at one point suddenly and mysteriously gets all shy himself when describing Million Dollar Baby’s crucial “dark turn” and decides to sidestep identifying exactly which character winds up quadriplegic and which one is asked to assist in her death. It’s a curious and inconsistent blip in Rutten’s argumentative technique that makes me wonder if he doesn’t secretly side with those who have fallen so short of their potential as critics after all and that his whole strange premise is the crux of an April Fool’s joke carried out about two months too early.

Rutten, the savvy media critic, ends his diatribe by asserting that somewhere in the midst of all this hemming and hawing over what serves a reader best in film criticism is “a misperception of responsibility and a fundamental mistrust of the readers masquerading as sensitivity.” Oh, what I wouldn’t give to know what the hell he’s talking about here. But unfortunately, the meat of his big finish is left twisting on the hook—no space left to waste hanging around to elaborate on that one, I suppose. Just what is this “mistrust of readers” that he alludes to? Exactly how would a critic go about mistrusting his readers? Perhaps by not expecting them to understand anything that isn’t spelled out for them by arrogant writers who assume they need the big themes of their movie art reiterated and spoon-fed to them rather than artfully approached through suggestion, allusion and the pleasures of language? If anything, the critic risks cultivating a mistrust in his readers if he can’t be expected to write honestly and with some measure of style about a film while at the same time preserving that aspect of the film-going experience that his audience, despite Rutten’s insistence to the contrary, are likely to value very highly in an age when every secret of every film’s production is fodder for tabloid TV shows. It seems to me fundamentally silly and, I’ll say it again, downright perverse not to salute writers who respect the experience of a work of art like Million Dollar Baby enough to encourage people to see it, or even discourage attendance by talking about its failings, without potentially undermining that experience for an audience. Mainstream film criticism has enough problems being perceived as irrelevant in an industry where publicists, junkets and entertainment beat reporters passing for film “reviewers” constantly blur the line between a studio’s marketing department and the independent voices who still believe that eloquently, evocative, critical writing still matters. I’m not sure what Rutten is ultimately calling for in his article, but it sounds disturbingly like film criticism as class syllabus to me—everything proceeding per the outline, lots of one-sided discussion, everyone finally coming to the same conclusions as proscribed by the professor. Why the Million Dollar secret? The mere posing of the question indicates that the teacher of this particular class might be putting too much stock in his skewed notions of art and its analysis, and not enough in the intuitive common sense of his students.

UPDATE 2/9/05: Film critic Henry Sheehan has checked in on the Tim Rutten/Million Dollar Baby article. You can read Sheehan's observations here.

5 comments:

Thom McGregor said...

Whew! That one definitely belongs in the "Film Comment" category-- very articulate, intelligent and kind of like homework to get through. But I agree with you wholeheartedly-- I knew there was some kind of twist in the movie at about 2/3rds the way through, even though I barely read any reviews of the film, and I felt nervous throughout the first 2/3rds of it! I kept thinking... who's gonna die? What could be the twist? It wasn't even a twist, just a hard left turn. But I kept worrying about it, and I'm sure it interfered with my enjoyment of the movie. And then I thought about it so much, I actually figured it out before it happened. It was kind of exhausting, really. Anyway, top drawer, Professor Coz!

Anonymous said...

I wish I could figure out how to make this blog-comment machine let me add a pseudonym; I'm either my own whole name or Anonymous...anyway, it's Bruce, and Bravo! Well-argued and convincing. A+. I liked Ordinary People, though. Can't you just hear Lillian Gish's voice saying over and over in a loop as she called out the Best Picture winner that year, "Ordinary People, Ordinary...Ordinary People...Or-or-or-ORdinary People." (you had to be there, if you didn't go to college with me, Dennis and Ron).

stooge1970 said...

All right, that's it! No more blogs on Million Dollar Baby, baby! Talk about random drug testing in professional bowling, female arm wrestling, anything!
I can't take it anymore! iNo mas, por favor!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Great idea! Random drug testing of professional bowlers who have named "Million Dollar Baby" best movie of the year! We'll dig deep into the implication that those bowlers who endorse Eastwood's movie must be Kervorkian sympathizers who are rattling on crack. Now, how about that big "Aviator" piece on your site? Come on, man! Represent!

Cruzbomb said...

You have made some very strong points here, but just remember, a true work of art is someone living their life to the fullest. Talent is just an extension of that. Your work of art, my fine-feathered friend, would be your life. Your writing is the beautiful extension of what you have created.