Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 18, 2005 12:26 am 
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Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2003 1:50 pm
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Location: California/NYC
A style pared down to essentials

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."

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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