Wednesday, March 09, 2005

I love Nat Hentoff and always have. He’s the kind of public intellectual they don’t make anymore: deeply cultured, constantly interested in life, and unpredictable. You can’t tell how he’s going to think about anything. You can point to any ten of his positions and figure him for a conservative; point to another ten and he’s liberal. He’s also a jazz expert, and he writes the most shit-free liner notes in the recording industry. I like Stanley Crouch for all these same reasons.

That said, I think he’s wrong, wrong, wrong about Million Dollar Baby. So is Michael Medved, who has been leading the charge against it since it arrived. So is The Weekly Standard. So, in another, far more subjective context, is Blogcritics’ Alan Dale, whose numbingly tendentious appraisal drove me stark raving batshit. (See our extended tete-a-tete in the comments section, where I consistently find new ways to repeat myself and Alan’s twittering academic mumble continues unabated. a recent web search reminds me I've had problems with his pinched-nerve aesthetics before.)

First, a very brief recap. Million Dollar Baby is about a dirt-poor, barely literate girl named Maggie (Hillary Swank) who wants to be a boxer, and starts working out at a gym managed by Frankie (Clint Eastwood). Frankie, who has managed many boxers and has seen the toll it takes on the best (such as the gym’s janitor, Scrap, played by Morgan Freeman, who also narrates) keeps telling her no, although anyone can see he’ll eventually relent. The story follows very much the standard routine of lots of boxing films, as well as many cop films: naive but determined youth vs. wise but crusty old veteran.  (Think of Rocky and Burgess Meredith.) Actually, Maggie isn’t that young; she’s past 30, and the fact that she’s aging is part of why Frankie doesn’t see the point in training her. He can’t, however, help but admire her pluck and ultimately takes her on.

Maggie proves to be quite the killer in the ring, ultimately working her way up to a million-dollar prize fight against a notoriously dirty German fighter. The German proves as good as her reputation, and sucker-punches Maggie between rounds. Maggie slips and falls, hitting her head on a chair on the way down, and suffers a spinal-cord injury that will leave her paralyzed for life.

The by now paternalistic Frankie plans on looking after her, and even gets some school catalogues for life - asks Frankie to help her commit suicide. A devout but questioning Catholic, Frankie consults his priest, who naturally advises against it, warning Frankie he’ll lose his soul. Frankie prays for guidance - and does as Maggie wishes.

The film critic Andrew Sarris called this one of the most depressing endings he had seen in a long time, which impresses me, given his long history of viewing; it tells me that he's not jaded, and that he can still feel deeply about each new movie he sees. (I'm equally impressed when Harold Bloom writes that Esther Summerson in Dickens' Bleak House continues to move him to tears.)

I, however, didn't look at it quite the same way -- neither did I feel manipulated into thinking the movie was some kind of plea for assisted suicide. Instead, I saw it as having to do rather strictly with this particular individual in a notoriously brutal sport where the risks are exceedingly high and the rewards are few and far between. She's a woman with nothing; she comes from a home of two-bit welfare cheats who have never supported her and whose interest in her success is strictly financial, and she doesn't see herself as good for anything but taking the one chance boxing offers. With that gone, she's as good as dead -- like Samson without his hair. Her power is gone. Death is her only way out.

Is it a limited view of life? Certainly. If I saw the movie again, I feel sure I'd want to almost stop time when Frankie comes in with the catalogues, and advise her to remake her life before she says what she does. In her reduced condition, Maggie is no worse off, probably, than Stephen Hawking -- a living testament to the sheer power of the mind. But the distinction between the two means everything; Maggie is not a person with interior resources. She has only the body she trained to tip tip shape, and that -- in one cruel blow -- has been taken away.

I don't see it as a message movie about the necessity of assisted suicide, so much as a somewhat grim, pessimistic -- and very effectively rendered -- story that reduces life to a very basic level, much as it is with many people with limited means who see athletics (or anything) as a way out. It's a movie about someone who gambles heavily, wins, and loses. It's a fatalistic sort of enterprise, in the end, as Mystic River was and as a lot of Clint Eastwood's movies are.

You can, at the risk of sounding a little heavy-handed, call it a film about the human condition. But I don't think you can really see it as a plea for quadriplegics to roll off the nearest bridge.
Not all quadriplegics, by the way, see it that way either --
even ones in the same condition.


Speaking of Medved, the Guardian hands his ass to him. I sympathize with the writer, as I too spent many hours reading Golden Turkeys, and rather identified at some uncomfortable level with the smarmy pair of bastards who wrote it. I once even called Medved, on my own dime, to interview him for a newspaper column about a new addition to the lot of the Truly Terrible: John Derek's masterpiece, Bolero -- to date the only film I've ever seen where the audience cheered when the projector jammed. Medved was as smug and charming and quotable as I expected him to be, and I have been rather saddened to watch his transformation into a self-righteous culture warrior.


Have I died and gone to heaven? Is this a film geek's dream? The folks at the Criterion Collection, who besides releasing glorious DVDs have a really smart website, offer not one, but five excellent defenses of voice-over narration.

Of course, most of us may not have have ever considered whether it needs defending, but it's a real sticking point with film students and people who read Robert McKee's book on screenwriting, and you could even say it first came out in the open as some pansy-ass aesthetic issue with Adaptation, Spike Jonze' film of Charlie Kaufman's semi-pseudo-autobiographical script, where McKee is a character. The famous money quote:

"And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character."

I've heard or read this thought parroted several times since, and three lines always immediately soar to mind.

"What I do for a living may not be very reputable.    But I am.    In this town I'm the leper with the most fingers. " -- The Two Jakes, screenplay by Robert Towne.

"I went to call the cops, but I knew she'd be dead before they got there and I'd be free. Bannister's note to the DA would fix it. I'd be innocent officially, but that's a big word, innocent. Stupid's more like it. Well, everybody is somebody's fool. The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old, so I guess I'll concentrate on that. Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die, trying." -- The Lady from Shanghai, screenplay by Orson Welles.

"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." -- Mean Streets, screenplay by Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin.

All great lines, all voice-over, all perfectly memorable, and all achieving emotional effects you couldn't possibly get through just dialogue. These are the kinds of eloquent thoughts and reflections that come to life in a character's head, not when he's having a beer with a friend or laying in bed with his wife. They would sound too "written," too literary that way -- and even if they weren't, they have more resonance when spoken over a scene rather than within it.

Far from being a cheap way out, voice-overs can be an extremely effective, illuminating tool -- and as Sarah Kozloff's essay shows, it's has a creative history -- and a controversy -- almost as long as the medium itself.

So why are we still debating the legitimacy of voice-over? Like the technique itself, the criticisms against voice-over narration go back as far as the medium, stemming from fiercely held beliefs about cinema’s unique characteristics—its “specificity”—and its relationship with its audience.

The reason has always been the same:

A fallback charge against voice-over narration is that using it is insulting to the audience. Voice-over narration is suspect because it is a means of “telling” rather than “showing.” “Telling” is judged as a mark of laziness and/or condescension.

I don't know much at all about film theory -- I don't really have the patience it takes to read it, any more than I have the patience to read Alan Dale -- but Kozloff knows it, and she points out something that almost goes to the core of any kind of prose or storytelling:

Contemporary documentary theorists such as Jeffrey Youdelman and Bill Nichols ... argue that in many circumstances narration is a more forthright, honest approach to the subject matter than pretending that the represented scenes speak for themselves or that editing is noncoercive. In this line of argument, they echo the thinking of literary theorist Wayne Booth, who wrote in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), “Since Flaubert, many authors and critics have been convinced that ‘objective’ or ‘impersonal’ or ‘dramatic’ modes of narration are naturally superior to any mode that allows for direct appearance by the author or his reliable spokesman. Sometimes . . . the complex issues involved in this shift have been reduced to a convenient distinction between ‘showing,’ which is artistic, and ‘telling,’ which is inartistic.” Booth brilliantly demonstrated, however, that reducing overt marks of narration or hiding the author’s hand are just variant rhetorical strategies: “Showing” is just as manipulative as “telling.” Ernest Hemingway is guiding his readers just as much as George Eliot—only more surreptitiously.

Consider something else, too -- if voice-over is such a sin, what about long monologues in Bergman's films? Ingrid Thulin in Winter Light and Bibi Andersson in Persona both deliver absorbing narrative speeches full of event and detail, so perfectly captivating that you can visualize the stories as they are being told -- that, too, is cinema, and of a very high order.

Kozloff and the other essayists frequently cite famous modern uses of voice-over in Terence Malick's Badlands and the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona -- and something suddenly occurred to me.

First of all, I loathe Badlands as I do most of Malick's suffocatingly artsy work, and Michael Atkinson's description of Sissy Spacek's narration cuts no ice with me whatsoever: a "disaffected, twangy, living-deadpan reading, which suggests depths of severe emotional disconnection and mutant perspective that we otherwise hardly see in this superbly opaque character’s actions." No, for me, Pauline Kael was the one who had it down cold: Spacek’s character narrates “in her corrupted-by-pop, fifteen-year-old baton twirler’s notion of a literary attitude. The whole movie is filtered through the callowness of her childish Southwestern voice and her soap-operatic confessional phrasing.”

That "notion of a literary attitude" is the very same thing we hear in the somber voice of Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, only there it was played for laughs.

Were the Coens mocking Malick in their subtle way? I'd have to see the movie again to be sure, but damn, how could they not be?

Atkinson likes the numbing voice-over of , too, where "the voice-over weft Malick built for the present version is virtually a movie all by itself, a Tarkovskyian metaphysical brood that transforms a war movie into a transcendental meditation on innocence, experience, life, death, civilization, and nature." Know what? It's also boring as shit. I felt almost as if I was watching Field of Dreams again -- or Badlands.

Malick's ideal of narration is Spacek! His idea of eloquence is "soap-operatic confessional phrasing”!

The examples used by Adrian Martin in her essay indirectly brought to mind another possible connection: Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The voice of one almost certainly informed the voice of the other -- and correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't Paul Schrader some kind of a Bresson theorist, or am I just imagining that?

Also, Chris Chang makes me want to see Hiroshima, Mon Amour again, and Paul Arthur makes me want to see The Age of Innocence for the first time.

Robert McKee and his little rules -- they'refor amateurs.


Queenie said...

Gosh you know a lot about film. I enjoy your inputs into Blog Critics. Enjoy being the blog of the day

RW said...

Thanks -- I didn't know until you told me!