Million Dollar Baby: a film to love and hate

As part of the class I teach on theology and popular culture, we watched Clint Eastwood’s Oscar award-winning 2004 film Million Dollar Baby. Eastwood is a director whose films have gotten better as he aged, and Million Dollar Baby is no exception. Celebrity film critic, Roger Ebert, said of the movie:

Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” is a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true. It tells the story of an aging fight trainer and a hillbilly girl who thinks she can be a boxer. It is narrated by a former boxer who is the trainer’s best friend. But it’s not a boxing movie. It is a movie about a boxer. What else it is, all it is, how deep it goes, what emotional power it contains, I cannot suggest in this review, because I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death. This is the best film of the year.

If you haven’t seen it by now, you might consider watching it before reading on – although I knew the ending before seeing it, and, frankly, I’m glad I did. Sometimes it helps to know what’s coming.

As a movie, it’s certainly of the highest quality. Eastwood elicits mood by careful use of a dark pallet, contrasts in shadow and light, and a pared down soundtrack. It’s unhurried storytelling, but always compelling. As well as directing, Eastwood plays the lead role of Frankie, an ageing boxing coach, and although we’ve seen his ‘grumpy exterior/soft as butter interior’ old man act before, it remains a delight to experience his often-wordless communication; a glance, a raised eyebrow, a grunt, speaking volumes. Hillary Swank deserved her best actress Oscar for paying Maggie, an aspiring boxer fiercely determined to escape her trailer park background.

Boxing is used throughout as a metaphor for life:

“If there’s magic in boxing, it’s the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys, and detached retinas. It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”

“Some people claim to love boxing. They got no idea what it is. Boxing is about respect. Getting it for yourself… and taking it away from the other guy.”

“everything in boxing is backwards, sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back.”

“Anybody can lose one fight. You’ll come back from this. You’ll be champion of the world.”

So says than narrator, Morgan Freeman (who also took home an Oscar for best supporting actor), playing Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris, a retired boxer working in Frankie’s gym as a cleaner.

Taken altogether, Million Dollar Baby is a Hollywood at its best. And at its worst.

I’ll get to my real gripe in a second (and you still have time to pull out if you’re worried about spoilers), but one of the themes the film highlights is the power of individual determination; “some people say the most important thing a fighter can have is heart.” Maggie has heart in spades, a fact that is highlighted by the contrast to her family, who are money grabbing, lazy, pension dependent, white trash. And it is this contrast that is my first problem with the film. While individual virtue is important, Eastwood’s portrayal exemplifies the ideology of Western individualism; Maggie’s lazy-arse family’s poverty is their own doing – they lack heart and so earn the degradations of their parasitic sloth. It is hard to imagine a more cartoonish depiction of welfare recipients. At one point, Maggie gifts her mother a house. Her mother’s response? To complain that the gift will impact her pension! It is Tea Party welfare bashing at its silliest.

The film also imagines itself as an affirmation of female power, but throughout it buys into white male authority and female submissiveness. On the one hand, Maggie is a determined barrier-breaking woman, making her way in the masculine sport of boxing. But that end is achieved by way of a stereotypical patriarchal relationship. When Frankie reluctantly agrees to train her, he says to Maggie, “If I take you on, you don’t question me and I’m going to try and forget that you’re a girl!” Of course, he never forgets, and this daddy/daughter submissive relationship is sustained throughout. More to the point, Maggie is given no meaningful relationship with other female characters. There is no female mentor. What we have is just another movie where a woman’s success comes from her submissive dependence on a strong man.

But you won’t be surprised that it was the film’s portrayal of disability that most annoyed me. And here is the spoiler. In the title fight to which the story arc of the film had been leading, Maggie receives a foul punch that breaks her neck and renders her a C1 ventilated quadriplegic. I find it hard to watch the aftermath of such injuries at the best of times, but Million Dollar Baby buys into all of the worst of Hollywood’s disability tropes. Maggie’s life as a quadriplegic is not worth living. But what most viewers won’t realise is that Eastwood makes her experience of quadriplegia unlivable by depicting her permanently trapped in hospital, decrepit, lonely, bored. She even gets pressure sores on her arms and legs that result in an amputation. No mention is made of the fact that half decent care would have prevented such injuries, nor that rehabilitation could have helped her to get out and about in her wheelchair and make something of her life. Instead, she remains so utterly dependent on Eastwood that she is not even able to kill herself. Her white male saviour thus makes the ultimate sacrifice (of his Catholic ideals) by performing the inevitable euthanasia. And so Million Dollar Baby ends up as just another cripple snuff film.

And the problematic portrayal of disability doesn’t end with Maggie. Danger (played by Jay Baruchel) has an intellectual disability, and is training with a singular purpose of defeating champion boxer Tommy Hearns. What he doesn’t know, and no one tells him, is that Hearns is long since retired. Eastwood tries to present Danger as the embodiment of the films main theme. He may not have the skills of a boxer, but he has limitless heart. But it’s hard to get past the absurdity of a wannabe boxer who never throws a punch. It seems to me that Danger is nothing more than the embodiment of foolish and pitiable disability, put on the big screen for cheap laughs.

There are other talking points in the film. Although we are not told why, Frankie attends his local Catholic church daily, but is clearly struggling in his faith. His priest is a caricatured shallow dogmatist, who gives Eastwood glib responses to his many questions. It’s a shame, because the theological issues at stake are significant; how might notions of forgiveness and grace help Frankie work through his guilt for past mistakes? And how do we understand the (in)action of God in the context of Maggie’s injury? Euthanasia itself is a theological issue that warrants deeper reflection than the priest’s simplistic, “If you do this thing, you’ll be lost.”

Having made these observations, I am still of the view that Million Dollar Baby is well worth seeing. Apart from it being a compelling film, its great strength is that it provides the opportunity to talk about vital issues, many of which remain at the forefront of public debate. Like all good films, its message is ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. In an era of increasingly polarised opinion, films such as this can provide a common ground upon which alternate perspectives can be discussed. And to that end, I turned the conversation over to you.

X-Men Apocalypse: a celebration of mutants, freaks, and crips

I’m certainly not the first disabled person to celebrate the X-Men franchise for its positive representation of disability. The central character, Xavier, is a wheelchair free cripple, and while I might wish that they’d used a disabled actor to play the part, I love that the moral centre of the series is a man whose spinal-cord injury fades into the background. We know he is disabled, but he’s never presented as being “trapped” in a wheelchair. And his message? People may think you’re a freak, and treat you like an outcast, but it doesn’t matter what you look like, what others think of you, we will accept you. Your mutation is not a curse but a gift.

I’ll admit that X-Men Apocalypse is not a plot and character driven masterpiece. And this particular film has its absurdities. Not the superpowered mutations; these are the ‘given’ of the X-Men universe that have to be embraced by anyone hoping to enjoy the films. The problem with this offering in the franchise was that whole cities are turned into rubble (and I’m not giving away any spoilers here, because this was apparent in the trailers, which showed our beloved Opera house disintegrating), but there’s not a dead body to be found. I mean, millions upon millions must have been killed as skyscrapers disintegrate and cities are destroyed, but there is nary a visual clue nor a second of dialogue that faces the horror of what slaughter on an unprecedented scale.

But, hey, this is a film about freaks and action, and I for one can look past the silliness to enjoy the visual effects and cheer the symbolism.

Let’s take the language, mutant. Just as “niggas,” “queers,” and “crips” have taken terms of derision and owned them as labels of pride, so does X-Men transform the disabling slanderer of “mutant” into an identity of power. It makes me want to claim the term for myself. Can I be a bad ass mutant too? What’s my superpower, I wonder? Does the ability to run over tossers with my chair count?

Importantly, the film resists the temptation to turn mutants into bland inspirations. There is something profoundly insightful in the fact that the mutants, who have all experienced horrible discrimination (a term too soft to capture what they have endured), respond in a variety of ways. Xavier may be the moral ideal, responding to hate with love, sympathy, and hope, but we understand the rage of Magneto, and can’t be sure that if we were in his place we would not respond as he did. I read a story recently by a paraplegic in New York who, after repeatedly being ignored and abused by taxi drivers who couldn’t be bothered dealing with his wheelchair, got into the habit of using a Swiss Army knife to puncture the tires of the cabbies who mistreated him (in Ruth O’Brien, Voices from the Edge). I’d like to think I’d respond as Xavier (or Jesus) would, but I’m not sure. In X-Men, Mutants and cripples are as strong, weak, moral, flawed, determined, and uncertain as the rest of us.

Finally, X-Men Apocalypse raises questions about gods and their actions, and while it doesn’t dig deep, it did get me thinking. If Apocalypse (the character) is the god of devastating authority and power, is Xavier a Christ figure, an alternate view of divine-like power, capable of knowing and controlling thought, but choosing to limit himself, to respond to evil with love and self-sacrifice, and embraces the outcast? I’m probably trying too hard, looking for metaphor when I should just be enjoying the action.

I think I’m right, though, in my judgement that the message of X-Men Apocalypse (and of all the films in the franchise) is:

be a mutant and be proud, develop your “gift” and use it – hopefully for good.

It’s a reminder worth the price of a ticket.

Why I hate Jojo Moye’s Me Before You

me before you

It’s hard for me to convey how much I hate Jojo Moyes’ supposedly romantic novel Me Before You, and dread the movie that is due out later this year. It is the story of a romance between a wealthy play boy become quadriplegic and his carer, although it’s a romance with a twist.

Spoiler alert: I need to discuss the ending to explain my hatred, so stop now if you (God forbid) want to read it yourself. But I begrudge anyone spending money that might find its way into the author’s pocket.

Okay, where was I. To borrow Moyes own summary, “the book is about a quadriplegic who wants to die.” Actually, the book is about a quadriplegic who wants to die, and at the end of the book chooses to do so – despite the fact that he found love and had a loving and supporting family, and so had an amazing opportunity to live a full and flourishing life. He was, after all, as rich as is a bottle of fine whiskey, and could have afforded any number of compensations to manage life with a disability– unlike most quadriplegics who are poor, but still choose to live.

So let’s not beat around the bush. This is a book celebrating suicide. Worse, it’s a book that presumes that suicide is the only rational response to the experience of living with quadriplegia.

In an interview about the book (available here), Moyes was asked whether she knew a quadriplegic before she wrote the book. She replied:

“not quadriplegics. The thing that really informed it was a member of my family who suffers from a progressive disease. I have been involved in feeding her, taking her out, and that kind of thing. Part of what inspired Me Before You was just questions I had in my head about quality of life.”

Bloody hell. Moyes (when you read that name, say it with venom) writes a book about quadriplegics and she hasn’t met one. Had she done so she would have discovered a community of people that have the courage to choose to live.

Now, before you get on your high horse and remind me that some people do choose to die, and that’s their right, let me say that I understand that quadriplegia is downright hard to live with, and many people have it much harder than I do. And the person that chooses suicide has my compassion and support.

But I’m not going to celebrate that choice. And I’m not going to allow someone who has never met a quadriplegic to continue the myth that those of us with the injury would be better off dead.

Right, breath slowly, relax. I’m feeling a bit worked up.

I guess if you are looking for a tear-jerking romance that will get you thinking, you might enjoy this book. If you do read it, I hope that you notice that it reinforces the stereotype that women need a man to tell them what to do, and that you understand that our play boy hero is really a privileged white guy who just can’t come to terms with the fact that life is fragile and difficult but that if you fight the good fight and persevere it’s worth it in the end.

Film Review: The Sessions

The Sessions is a magnificent film, although my attempt to describe it to others has met with underwhelming response. My son, Jeremy, went as far as to comment, “where do you find these weird films, dad?”

It tells the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 39-year-old polio victim who spends most of his life in an iron lung – a machine that looks something like a diving compression chamber, without which he can breathe for only a few hours at a time. Because of the severity of his disability, with its impact upon the function and shape of his body (as he says, “someone who was not an attendant, nurse, or doctor would be horrified at seeing my pale, thin body with its bent spine, bent neck, washboard ribcage, and hipbones protruding like outriggers” – see note 1), Mark has not experienced sexual intimacy. And so he hires a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who helps him work through his fear and experience the joys and frustrations of sex.

So, a disabled man has sex. How do you make a quality movie on the basis of such a premise? For a start, you give a naked Helen Hunt plenty of screen time! This 49-year-old star has a beautiful figure – but the film manages to reveal the natural beauty of her body and her character without the sensationalism or gratuity of so much of the Hollywood portrayal of sex. Perhaps this is because her nudity is set alongside that of Mark, although this implies a “beauty and the beast” motif which the film also manages to avoid. In fact, it somehow evinces the beauty and strangeness of all bodies, along with the exquisite joy and disappointments of sex. In doing so, the film explores a vital element of what it is to be human; the challenge of living within the limits of our broken and finite bodies, and the longing for a connection with others that is both psychological and physical.

Elly and I watched The Sessions together. Its themes were probably too close to home, yet in some weird way, I suspect every person will be able to recognise something of their own problems and insecurities in this story – while also being reminded of the blessings and opportunities of their own life.

The Sessions – a triumphant tearjerker, 4.5/5 stars.

PS: the film also explores O’Brien’s Catholic faith, and his friendship with his parish priest. The potency of this relationship perhaps arises from their shared virginity, and also from their honest wrestling with the grace and vicious humour of God in the face of the problem of pain.

 

Note 1: the film is based on an article written by Mark O’Brien, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”, the Sun, May 1990. It is available at the following link, http://longform.org/author/mark-obrien/ – in my view, best read after seeing the film

The Intouchables: film review

**POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT** (although the film itself gives away its end in the beginning, concerning itself with character over suspense)

First, a little pedantry; the term “Intouchables” is not a spelling error but the French equivalent of “Untouchables” [and yes, it is a foreign subtitled movie given limited distribution in Australia]. In the context of this film the title seems to intend a double meaning. The lead character, Philippe, is a C3/4 quadriplegic with no movement from the neck down and, consequently, no capacity to reach out and touch. More importantly, both Philippe and his carer Driss are outcasts; the latter a poor black, paroled (and despised) migrant, the former a pitiable paralytic – each in their own way untouchable.

The plot is a simple one. The wealthy Philippe hires Driss as a personal carer, notwithstanding the fact that he is patently unsuited to the task. To say nothing of his criminal background, he has no training or experience in the field and, as soon becomes obvious, his knowledge of spinal-cord injury (SCI) is laughingly basic [Is there really anyone in the world who does not know that paralytics normally have no/little feeling? That notwithstanding the absence of pain it is a bad idea to pour scalding hot tea onto a persons’ legs?]. He is hired on the sole basis that, from the very beginning, he responds to Philippe without pity, even without compassion. He jokes, teases, challenges and questions Philippe in a refreshingly unselfconscious way, no topic out of bounds (even quadriplegic erotica).

At one level, Intouchables follows a predictable and stereotyped pattern; wealthy white man is brought together with poor black man, cultures clash, white man introduces high culture to unsophisticated black man, black man introduces funky dance and lawless joy to stuck up white man, both transformed. As is typical, it also ignores the obscenity of the white man’s wealth in the face of the black man’s poverty (and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, without owning up to the fact that disability and poverty often go hand in hand).

And yet, at another level – and this is what counts – the film is sheer delight. What it has going for it is a number of rich characters, as well as insight into the unique world of quadriplegia from the perspective of both the person with an SCI and his carers. Obviously, the story resonates with the experiences of my wife and I, leaving us grateful that my injury was not as severe as that suffered by Philippe (there is almost always someone worse off than yourself!). But if the response of other patrons in the cinema was anything to go by, its appeal is universal and its story inspirational. And as much as I hate that overused word, the film’s encouragement comes not from the heroic character of either Philippe or Driss, but from the affirmation that friendship is what really matters in life.

Four stars.

Inception – Film of the decade?

One of the interesting things to contemplate in the study of film is the creative contributions of the various participants.  Who exactly is the author of a film?  The screenwriter? The Director? The Actor? The Editor? Inception, however, contains the input of a true Auteur.  Perhaps the best filmmaker going around today, Christopher Nolan writes, directs and produces this stunningly brilliant film, one that caps a filmography that includes The Prestige, Dark Knight and Memento (a must see thriller whose plot runs in reverse).

For all its complexity, Inception is essentially a ‘con’ film; think Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting.  It tells the story of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team, whose job it is to ‘extract’ ideas and secrets from people while they dream.  A criminal unable to return to his home and children, Cobb is invited to perform one last ‘job’ on the promise that, if successful, his record will be expunged and he will be allowed to return home.  This time, however, his team is asked to perform an ‘inception’ – to implant an idea into the mind of the mark. Sounds simple enough, but the genius of the film is to carry forward its plot while characters move in and out of the ‘the real’ world and the dream world.  In this way, the film adds to the typical ‘con’ movie a matrix-like twisting of reality.  Audiences are glued to the screen by the thrill of plot, the beauty and interplay of the setting (the dream world is effected by what is going on in the real), the pace of the action and in the sheer joy of trying to work out what on earth (or in the mind) is happening.

Inception ticks most of the boxes that are characteristic of the really great films.  At a time when almost everything has been done before, it is a uniquely surprising movie.  I for one, am bored stiff of action films, with their car chases and gunfights that all look the same.  Inception has both, but it adds the surprise of multi-layered action that defies of the laws of physics, of car chases that have anti-gravity impacts, of gunfights in which death may be to wake from a dream or to lose grip on reality.  The action is beautifully and cleverly shot, but its special effects do not overwhelm either the story or the development of character. Inception presents the audience with interesting and ambiguous people.  DiCaprio excels as Cobb and manages to elicit sympathy, notwithstanding the fact that he is a deeply broken and immoral person. The combination of twisting plot, strange setting,  and brain bending actions means that this is a film that sticks in the mind, invites conversation and, even more unusually, invites a second (and third) viewing.  And while the cinema is normally a passive experience, Inception asks audiences to use their brains in the effort to make sense of the story and follow the plot.

If the film has a weakness it is that the intelligence of the narrative leaves the false impression that its meaning is profound.  It does raise questions about the nature of reality, inviting a postmodern exploration into the construction and pliability of truth.  But these are themes that have been explored better and in more depth elsewhere (eg. Blade Runner, Matrix).  I suspect, however, that to think the film has philosophical and theological significance is to miss the point.  It is a simple crime drama, and its capacity to make you think is tied into the twists and turns of the story.

From my perspective, this is the film of the year (even of the decade thus far).  Thank you Mr Nolan, for reminding us of what movies can be.

Godfather Part III

It is easy for those of us watching the Godfather series on DVD to forget that Part III was released almost two decades after the phenomenally successful Parts I & II (in 1990).  Apart from Hollywoood’s usual goal of wringing every last cent from a successful film franchise, the third film intends to be both a celebration of the earlier films and a wrap up of the life of ‘the Godfather’, Michael Corleone.  It is generally considered to be the poor cousin of its predecessors and, indeed, it lacks something of their originality, complexity and compelling tension.  It also falls short in terms of the depth of the caste.  Gone are Brando and DeNiro (with Vito Corleone dead) and Robert Duval’s Tom Hagin is replaced with a forgetable lawyer. All that is left of the original is Pacino and Keaton, who are both excellent, but whose relationship is difficult to fathom.  Apart from Andy Garcia, who plays Sonny’s son Vincent (the next generation Godfather), the remainder of the supporting caste are relatively bland, and the movie focuses almost exclusively on the Pacino’s Michael. This is not to say that it is a bad film.  Apart from the fact that anyone who has seen Parts I & II will be compelled to see the story through to its conclusion, it remains a well scripted character study, and one that takes us thematically forward; moving beyond analysis of the ambiguity of evil to a reflection on the possibility of redemption.

Set in 1979, as Corleone nears retirement, the film narrates his struggle to leave his family with the legacy of a respectable and legal business empire.  On the surface the Godfather has accomplished the American dream, living in opulence and receiving the adulation of his society and the church.  The problem, however, is that the past is not so easy to leave behind – as Michael observes, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in”.  Evil has a way of embedding itself, of working its way into the connections of family and visiting its punishments ‘to the third and fourth generation’ (Deut. 5:9).  Thus, notwithstanding his wealth and power, Michael has become a tragic figure.  His mafia ‘colleagues’, friends and enemies alike, will not let him escape.  More significantly, his family life is in crises. In his own mind, everything he has done has been for his wife and children.  But his ex-wife ‘dreads’ him.  His son wants nothing to do with him – “I will
always be your son, but I will never have anything to do with your business”.  The only bright spot is the love of his daughter, but he finds himself forced to lie to and manipulate her – for her own protection.    Reflecting on his life at the funeral of a friend, he notes

  • You were so loved, Don Tommasino. Why was I so feared, and you so loved? What was it? I was no less honorable. I wanted to do good. What betrayed me? My mind? My heart? Why do I condemn myself so? I swear, on the lives of my children: Give me a chance to redeem myself, and I will sin, no more.”

This longing for redemption starts with a $700 million gift to the Catholic church, but he soon discovers, not only that the “higher I go, the crookeder it becomes” (a sad indictment on a church corrupted by wealth and power), but that salvation cannot be purchased, that nothing he can give is sufficient to redeem and protect either himself or his family.  The subsequent exchange between the Godfather and Cardinal Lamberto (the one righteous priest in the film) is worth recording in full:

  • Cardinal Lamberto: Would you like to make your confession? Michael Corleone: Your eminence, I… it’s been so long… 30 years. I’d use up too much of your time. Cardinal Lamberto: I always have time to save souls. Michael Corleone: Well… I am beyond redemption. Cardinal Lamberto: I hear my own priests’ confessions here. The urge to confess can be overwhelming. Michael Corleone: What is the point of confessing if I do not repent? Cardinal Lamberto: I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose, eh? Michael Corleone: I… I betrayed my wife. Cardinal Lamberto: Go on, my son. Michael Corleone: I betrayed myself. I killed men, and ordered men to be killed. Cardinal Lamberto: Go on, my son, go on. Michael Corleone: I… ah, it’s useless. Cardinal Lamberto: Go on, my son. Michael Corleone: [choking up] I ordered the death of my brother. He injured me. [sobbing] I killed my father’s son. I killed my father’s son! Cardinal Lamberto: Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed, but I know you do not believe that. You will not change.

As a Christian viewer, you would like to believe that there is some sort of healing in this confession.  Protestants might reject the ‘catholic’ nature of the confession, and decry the fact that the priest does not offer grace freely – that he expects something from Corleone.  But surely it is right that confession without change (without repentence) accomplishes nothing.  Too often we pedal what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’ – grace without price.  But while redemption is freely and graciously available to all, it has to be appropriated, as Bonhoeffer goes on to note, grace is costly – what cost God the life of the son cannot be cheap for us.  Likewise, notwithstanding his confession, Corleone fails to repent – to change, and so he misses out on the redemption that is in fact available to him.

Thus, the film moves relentlessly toward what is one of the saddest conclusions of a Hollywood film ever.  More then the dramatic and brilliantly acted climactic penultimate scene (which i shall not spoil) is the tragedy of Corleone, finally an old man, dying alone on a chair in the dirt of sicily.  Whatever the flaws of this film, for Christian audiences it stands as a profound reminder of the need for redemption and the true significance of the gospel.

See my earlier reviews: Godfather Part I and Godfather Part II