Suppose instead Eastwood had been an active opponent of the civil rights of any minority other than people with disabilities. Suppose he’d been sued for race or gender discrimination at his resort instead of disability discrimination. And then suppose he’d made a movie manipulating the audience to sympathize with someone who killed a member of that group. We suspect the reactions of critics across the country would have been – pardon the expression – “critical.”
– Stephen Drake (1)
So it’s one tall glass of whisky, one more drink for old time’s sake, the dog just lays in bed and watches every move you make,
wrap him in his blanket, hold him once more close to you,
Lead him out behind the barn with a borrowed .22.
– Bill Morrissey (2)
When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.
– Peter Singer (3)
The most easily deteriorated of all the moral qualities is the quality called ‘conscience.’ In one state of a man’s mind, his conscience is the severest judge that can pass sentence on him. In another state, he and his conscience are on the best possible terms with each other in the comfortable capacity of accomplices.
– Wilkie Collins (4)
We all know that great movies do not ever win Best Picture. And only hacks win Best Director. So it goes without saying that one should not waste an extra minute thinking about some senior citizen’s bid for relevance in a cosmos filled with such world-withering talents such as Quentin Tarantino, Lars Von Trier and Miike Takeshi. Fortunately, there is no danger of critical thinking in the proximity of a Clint Eastwood movie. It never happens. His champions are dim and slavish; his enemies slavish and dim.
And so I find myself in the tiresome and unenviable position of mounting an auteurist defence of Million Dollar Baby (2004), cut off and surrounded by rat-faced legions of the smugly condescendent, rallied by the stinking zombie corpse of Pauline Kael, in the boggy and much over-run ground of a ratified, take-it-to-the-bank-and-cash-it Oscar triumph. But mine is not to wonder why, et cetera …
Once again, Kael will not go peacefully. This time around, in her vengeful psychotic posthumous rage against Eastwood, the lady has sunk her loathsome but ironic fangs into my favourite stalwart critic: Armond White. Is there an exorcist in the house? Some holy water and three units of whole plasma should do the trick.
This is the sound of White’s glass jaw walking right into Eastwood’s mise en scène:
How people who are emotionally close stumble within their relationships while individually struggling to survive – and face death – is a worthy topic. Getting at these themes through genre short cuts, Eastwood affects a certain mythos that some critics overrate as the essence of American storytelling (and in preference to a low-key, unhyped European film like Son Frère). (5)
A worthy topic, indeed. In his recent review of the film, White uses Patrice Chereau’s Son Frère as a “realist” fetish object to wave over what he mistakes as the mythic, cliché-rich, sentimental bullshit of Million Dollar Baby. But he sees enough to recognize that Baby deals with “serious matters”, even though he has no clear idea what those might be. He can’t even manage to attack the film on anything but vague sociological grounds: “Eastwood seems to disdain the lower class rather than truly empathize with how misfortune hardens people.” (6) Who’s slinging clichés, now? But what really bugs White and Kael is that a rich guy who owns some golf hacienda resort has the gall to make movies about los de abajo. They needn’t have worried. I don’t think Clint’s gunning for Cliff Odets’ job.
Instead of the somnolently old-fashioned, classist and classicist exercise in nostalgic sentiment seen by White and a few hundred other critics caught napping in their ‘corn, I put it out there that Million Dollar Baby is a radical experiment – perhaps the most radical one – in narrative ambiguity in post-John Ford commercial cinema. It also has the virtue of being resonant enough in its images to be psychologically (that is to say, poetically) profound, though the extent of that profundity I will leave it to others to sound.
So, True or False: just under the wire, in 2004, Clint Eastwood came out with this nice little ol’ euthanasia picture about a girl-child boxer (Hilary Swank) and her surrogate pa (Eastwood) that learned us that ultimately “Love means never having to say you’re sorry, preppie.” Now, from reading the sum total of glowing reviews on the picture, the easy money would conclude that the above statement is true. Call me crazy, but I had trouble with the idea that the notorious sentimentalist, Clint Eastwood, had delivered us a Peter Singer update of Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970), where Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) not only has to come to grips with the loss of his mo cuishle, but, after a brief but agonizing agony, opts to help her climb the stairway to heaven. Just didn’t sound like the guy who made Mystic River (2003), White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) or even The Bridges of Madison County (1995) was in the house.
This is not to demean or disparage Love Story, that most excellent film by Arthur Hiller, its spine-chilling Francis Lai score, or its snowball fight in the stadium montage; it brings home the bacon every time. But I hereby wager that Eastwood’s got a slightly different agenda. Could something else be going on here?
Trailer Trash Seeks …
So what can you possibly say about a 33-year-old girl who died?
With her mile-wide smile, Maggie Fitzgerald, fresh from Mayberry RFD, is a blank page waiting for a story. In Hollywood story terms, she is almost all glow and no substance. She’s been given almost zero narrative flesh. She has no life outside of boxing. As a smart cultural critic from the Right, James Bowman, complains:
Quite obviously, Hilary Swank’s character never had a chance. She was conceived, born, brought to adulthood and finally killed off for no other purpose than the evocation of pathos in her sad ending. From her dirt poor beginnings in a Missouri trailer park, the good daughter of a welfare cheat and an absent father, to her job waiting tables for minimum wage to her burning ambition to box to her apparent friendlessness and lack of any romantic interests, Eastwood and his screenwriter, Paul Haggis, have designed her solely to be the sympathetic victim she turns out to be. (7)
All of this is quite true, from the standpoint of conventional narrative. If the film is to be taken literally or politically, it seems, at least on its surface, to be dangerously nihilistic. When the dogmas of realism fail us, we must turn elsewhere. Maggie is obviously a sign of something important. An Oscar, maybe?
But it’s not quite that simple. Clint Eastwood, who for the bulk of his career has been dismissed as mere symbol, understands better than most what it means to be a physical presence. It still seems quite subversive to show a potent female body in possession of physical rather than erotic force. And, more daring yet, to contrast it to the wizened Fondaesque lines of Eastwood’s famous face and (impotent) body. Maggie Fitzgerald is, first of all, a physical body, and it gets to shine a while in the sun, and then it gets the full-blown tragic treatment reserved for male athletes in “sports weepies” – we get to experience the full voyeuristic thrill of its gradual destruction. This carries an unusual psychological charge. Never in the history of cinema has a female body stood so much in place of the physical body of the spectator.
The boxer’s body is an expressionist canvas of scar tissue, dead nerves and broken blood vessels. In the ring, innocence quickly gives way to experience. “Always protect yourself” is Frankie’s mantra as a trainer. He repeats it once too often, and it begs the question, “From whom?” But Maggie’s confidence in Frankie is complete. In his capable hands there is no need to worry.
There is also something unusually deep and astute about Jerry Boyd’s decision (the real name of F. X. Toole, the author of Rope Burns) to overlay the traditional training of a young boxer with the mythic drama of Pygmalion and Galatea – a shapeless block of marble brought to life by the power of art, which holds a tremendous seductive allure over its maker. Again and again, we hear cranky Frankie complain that his “creature” has a life of its own. “Woman won’t do a thing I tell her.” And The Galatea of the Ozarks has her own version of the same call and response: “I always hear your voice, boss.” It is not an idle choice, or a weakness, to make Maggie such a tabula rasa. Bear with me a while.
Grumpy, Lovable Loser
Frankie Dunn is the Broadway Danny Rose of the boxing game. Soon after we first encounter Frankie, is been abandoned by his most promising fighter, Big Willie (Mike Colter), who goes on to take what he has learned and apply it with lucrative precision in the big time. It’s clear to all concerned that Frankie is too cautious, too overprotective, tentative, and too invested in his fighters to ever “make his own luck”, as the rather terrifying saying goes.
All this because Frankie is in perpetual thrall to his “bad” conscience, to which he has a tortured masochistic relation. He is oppressed by it, but strangely passive in its presence. He chooses to enact his guilt in pointless rituals that carry no risk of sincere atonement. He appears to be one of those obsessives of whom Lacan once remarked:
directors of conscience will tell you that the bane of their existences are obsessional and overly scrupulous persons; they don’t really know how to deal with them: the more they try to calm them down, the worse it gets; the more they try to explain and give them reasons, the more people come to them with absurd questions [...] (8)
Frankie’s best friend, Scrap Dupree (Morgan Freeman), a broke-down ex-fighter blinded in one eye, delivers a key and resonant line for both of them, when he tells him that “conscience got the better of you”. And somehow it keeps doing it again and again.
Frankie carries a double wound; events in his life have permanently estranged him from women, and from a vital part of himself. His domain is a gym, the ironically titled Hit Pit, a brutal and airless hyper-masculine world that is about a single sinister duality: Winning and Losing. That is to say, the American Dream. There is a sign on the wall of the Hit Pit that mocks at Frankie relentlessly: “Winners are simply willing to do what losers won’t.” He is doomed to relive this drama over and over. As a prisoner of this particular mythic space, Frankie is, as corollary, a frighteningly hardcore misogynist. Most of the time, Eastwood lightly and deftly plays this stuff for laughs. But in a few scenes he lets the mask drop. And let’s not forget this theme is part of that old, old story.
When Pygmalion saw these women, living such wicked lives, he was revolted by the many faults which nature has implanted in the female sex, and long lived a bachelor existence, without any wife to share his home. But meanwhile, with marvelous artistry, he skillfully carved a snowy ivory statue. He made it lovelier than any woman born, and he fell in love with his own creation. The statue had all the appearance of a real girl, so that it seemed to be alive, to want to move, did not modesty forbid. So cleverly did his art conceal its art.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses (9)
Tragedy of Errors
Million Dollar Baby is two stories in one. The dominant story corresponds, in Jung’s language, to the Persona. It is designed for public consumption and carries the universal certificate. It bears the “ideological” content of the character’s life. The other one, the grown-ups’ story, concerns Frankie’s much-repressed shadow.
The “personal”, or what I’ll call the A Story, as Chris Fujiwara so eloquently describes it, is this one:
Million Dollar Baby is Frankie’s tragedy: the story of a man who against his better judgment and inclination gets involved with another human being and ends up paying for it. (As Joseph Conrad wrote: “I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.”) (10)
If we were to meet Frankie on the street, and demand he explain himself, that is the account he would probably give. This is, no doubt, a highly romantic articulation of the story, but there is certainly some truth in it. But what is the nature of this tie? How did it come to be formed?
Because of Maggie’s great desire, Frankie allows himself to believe in luck. He dresses her in emerald green, a hue which soon delivers some wicked irony. We are invited to see this version as a folie à deux, the madness of a shared dream. This is Maggie’s only shot at a title fight, and Frankie’s last one. O Fortuna! We are left in a hospital room, with two people who took a foolhardy risk together, because they truly had no choice. They are in a daze. Fate has ruled against them. What further choice do they have? It’s “liebestod time” for these star-crossed lovers!
When Maggie asks Frankie to be the one who takes her life, she is appealing to him as creator. He made her what she was. Now that she can barely hear the voice of the crowds chanting the name he gave her, she wants out. Take up again thy heavy chisel, maestro.
The A Story concludes by offering a more conventional resolution that has the hero do the “right” thing but suffering a “tragic” fate-worse-than-death for killing the person who means the most to him. Shades of Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945). Again the same dubious ethical gymnastics that allowed the Hays Board to let Edward G. Robinson’s mousy killer get away with his crime of passion. Here is the voice of state morality, disguised as a crime reporter for the Evening Globe lecturing the unbelieving killer cashier:
Laugh all you want. No one escapes punishment. I figure we all have a little courtroom right in here. (Taps his chest.) Judge, Jury, and Executioner. Murder never solves anything. The problem just moves in here. Where it can never get out. Right here in solitary. (Taps his chest again.) So what? So you go on right on punishing yourself. You can’t get away with it. Never. I’d rather have the judge gimme the works, than have to do it to myself. (11)
This is the same Dostoevskian tone as the warning Frankie receives from his much put-upon spiritual director, Father Horvak (Brian O’Byrne). By killing her, he is committing spiritual suicide. And we are free to accept this as the outcome of the film, and go about our lives. But, if we do, we shall miss a great deal of Eastwood’s conclusions concerning the nature of conscience and the soul.
Strange Interlude: Follow the Money
I’ve suggested that Million Dollar Baby moves in real time, between two blurred but narratively distinct versions of an essentially ambiguous story. The technique is age-old, and it’s based on the binary-information-collecting structure of our brains. There is the familiar example of the beautiful young woman in the dress, which becomes the old crone with the big hair, The synthesizing symbol that draws in two stubborn opposites. The Surrealists had an iteration of it which Salvador Dali called creative paranoia. Once you have sensed “the trick”, you lose a degree of control over which version of “the truth” appears to you. There is a pleasant buzz of vertigo. How is it that the audience does not hurl its popcorn or worse at the screen? Most of them are re-editing the film for comfort as they go, in the Steenbeck of their minds. How’s that for interactivity?
Filmmakers employ the psychology of the everyday in order to aid spectators in comprehending a narrative. Filmmakers also employ this psychology against spectators when it is important that something not be seen or fully understood during the telling of a story (e.g., to create mystery or surprise), or when the spectator must understand in a new way (e.g., in a metaphorical way or through a sudden revelation), or when something disturbing or traumatic must be reconfigured by the text or repressed. As spectators, we make mistakes in making inferences because we are systematic in drawing inferences and authors count on that.
– Edward Branigan (12)
What’s being repressed by the audience in Million Dollar Baby? In a word: Money. Which is rather strange in a film whose title is Million Dollar Baby. But money is everywhere in this story, if you care to notice, and it’s the key to moving between the two versions of the disturbing tale of Frankie and Maggie.
Cosmic Comedy: Fun with Fritz Lang
Two-thirds into Million Dollar Baby, seemingly without warning, a horrific accident of tragic senselessness is presented. During the title fight, after the bell, Maggie, having taken back her own punch, and turned to go back to her corner, takes a blindside blow from her vicious opponent, which hurls her back towards the cornerpost. Her neck breaks against a piece of equipment, carelessly misplaced.
She wakes up in bed, paralysed from the neck down. Her body, once the robust athletic image of health, now requires a machine to keep it alive. Eastwood makes it doubly shocking by means of how he transitions from the ring to the bed. The first shot is banal, a visual cliché. It is the lights of the ring spinning in darkness. A voice tells her to breathe. We are suspended in hope. And then he shows her on the bed, a slow push into her face as she realizes what has happened. Horrified, she says, “Oh, God.” Eastwood cuts 30 degrees to the side, backs away, revealing the air tubes and the machine that is her new life. Fade to Black.
After a few brutal months of rehab at the Waugh-ishly named Serenity Glen, her family finally comes to visit her, having spent a nice week at Disneyland at Maggie’s expense, visiting “Mickey … and Daffy”, as Frankie caustically puts it. But it hasn’t been all fun and games. They’ve found a lawyer, and they push their way in, the villainous redneck horde. Frankie grudgingly lets them have a visit, simmering out in the hall. But when he catches a stray phrase, “just some kind of legal thing”, he is in the room like a shot, with a corrupt, squirrelly energy. As with the other moments in the film when Frankie “drops a tell” – that is, exposes his inner conflict – it is nothing to write home about, just a subtle indication to unsettle us.
Frankie’s odd behaviour in this scene has the strange effect of undermining nearly all the narrative that has gone before. It forces you to rewind the mental film and question what you’ve seen and heard. This is the moment when the Shadow Film suddenly forces itself in. This is the opening scene of Frankie’s shadow story, and it reverberates both backwards and forwards in the story.
Suppose for the sake of argument that we are watching Million Dollar Baby on a döppelganger of our planet Earth, an exact mirror image on the opposite side of the sun which is ruled by a heartless demigod who has a perverse sense of humour, not unlike that of Fritz Lang or Stanley Kubrick. On this world, the American Dream is the American Nightmare. There, our nightmares are the proper subject of comedy. There the clever prey on the weak, using their secret dreams as collateral for a mad pyramid scheme that leaves no one unscathed. Pure science-fiction, eh? So let’s rewind the film, and revisit the scenes and look where Frankie would prefer we didn’t. Roll ‘em!
When we first encounter Frankie away from the ring, he is on his uncertain knees, praying to God. “… you know what I want, Lord. Not gonna repeat myself.” Huh? What is Frankie’s ultimate desire? It’s banal. He dreams of taking a fighter to the big time. There’s an uneasy sense to his grocery list of a prayer. He might believe in his God, but he doesn’t fear him. Frankie won’t learn that God helps those who help themselves. And Scrap gently mocks him over this: “Sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back, but step back too far and you ain’t fighting at all.” Then Scrap reveals he bought the gym simply because “Frankie wanted some security.” By the looks of the place, the Hit Pit isn’t exactly the place where much security – that revealing euphemism for the green stuff that keeps you from falling all the way down Darwin’s ladder – can be found. And thus Frankie’s a miser who resents Scrap’s generosity with the other fighters.
Scrap encourages Maggie, grooming her for Frankie’s attention. He craftily gives her Frankie’s old speed bag, knowing it will draw him to her. It is powerful medicine. He knows his man well. Scrap lets her use the gym, behind Frankie’s back, past closing time. Just as Scrap expects, Frankie confronts her about the totemic speed bag. Women’s boxing, of course, is just a “freak show”. He wants no part of it. And she’s too old to make it in the game. He hurts her with this. He tries, vainly, to drive her off. He’s got more important stuff to deal with.
Like Business. But when the time is finally right, he can’t even get a 40-60 split for his best fighter. Who, of course, goes on to win the championship – with another manager. Frankie watches helplessly on TV, shadowing Willie’s moves pathetically from the couch. What a haunting and beautiful image this is! The frail, shrunken body on the couch seeming to control (or merely mimic, perhaps) the powerful one in the arena. An icon of desolation.
In a funk, Frankie arrives at the Hit Pit, late in the night. He needs company. When he notices her again, for the first time really, Maggie is different. She is brittle and on edge. He recognizes a desperation in the soul that matches his. He agrees to take her on. But he doesn’t want anything to do with the freak show. Somebody else can manage her. This convenient fiction is maintained through their banter to the big fight. He’s not really her manager. He will train her, but with an exculpatory caveat: “Don’t come crying to me if you get hurt. I don’t want to hear about it.” Fighting is a dangerous game and whatever happens it won’t be Frankie’s fault. But the disclaimer does seem a little odd, almost guilty. Delirious, Maggie gratefully accepts these strange terms.
But then Frankie immediately turns around (after some basic training) and palms her off on Sally Mendoza (Ned Eisenberg), a ruthless manager who just wants her as fodder for his undercards. It’s a passive/aggressive moment. Scrap tries to stop him, but it’s too late. Hmmm. How deep is Frankie’s “investment” in Maggie?
They watch her first fight. Maggie’s getting the worst of it. The fight has been a set up. Prodded by Scrap, he goes down and takes her back from Sally. Their exchange mirrors and foreshadows the later climactic fight with Maggie’s family. Maggie is pulled between two forces who have dubious claims on her. Sally wonders what business this is of his? Maggie instinctively turns to Frankie. The ref forces the issue, asking Frankie: “Is this your fighter?” Frankie can barely say the words; he torturedly spits them out. And Sally pointedly degrades her in farewell: “Can’t fight worth a shit, anyway.” This is the essence of the boxing manager, one who contemptuously exposes the boxer to great danger for position and financial gain. Why should Eastwood show us this?
Because this is the big question that the shadow story hinges on. Is Frankie, as he repeatedly claims, only a cut-man/trainer, or is he a manager? These two “archetypes”, for lack of a better word, happily correspond to the persona, and shadow. If we take Frankie at his word, then he’s a cut-man, fatally out of his depth, and we must believe the A Story. But if we reject his claims, and see him make the same moves, but as a manager, then we start to notice a certain pattern of ruthlessness.
And at this moment, Eastwood as director gives us the first substantial misdirection about how we should read Frankie. Scrap takes Maggie out to dinner and warns her that if she really wants to make it to a title fight, “Frankie won’t take you there.” Scrap also drags out the old cliché which will soon carry a morbid ironic sting. Turns out our Frankie is “a good man to have in a corner”. Scrap is so positive about this, he’s set up a meeting with the biggest manager in the business. He leaves her alone. Maggie’s blind loyalty in this scene is painful to watch. “I ain’t ever gonna leave Mr Dunn.” She will not be paid back in kind. But for now we get the message. Frankie is a great guy, but he’s never gonna change. He just cares too much.
Finally, the audience relaxes, some boxing scenes at last. The DVD release of Raging Bull (1980), presumably timed to remind the johnny mnemonics over at the Academy of why Scorsese is such a “great” director (despite having delivered a cinematic Spruce Goose in the form of The Aviator (13)), predictably poisoned the well with the usual Miramax sulphur. People dutifully complained of the visual monotony of Eastwood’s boxing scenes. “Why, heck, this ain’t no Raging Bull.” Seems some people can’t ever seem to get enough fog-machines, slo-mo flashbulbs and Trooper Thorne’s (John Wayne’s) flashback from The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952.) But Clint’s not after eye candy. Million Dollar Baby‘s montage fight scenes are a blaze of one-round crapshoots which culminate in the title fight. Maggie’s been getting by with quick and sloppy knockout punches. And she and Frankie both know it. And the montage shows another disturbing but important (and quickly repressed) visual detail. By the time you’ve watched Frankie place and replace that corner stool after every round with eerie, speedy precision, no less than ten times, you know something weird is happening.
The boxing truth of the movie is that you’re either a “cut man” – that is, a healer and protector – or you’re a manager. When Frankie blurs that line, you know somebody’s gonna get hurt. Putting a fighter in the ring when they aren’t ready is beyond reckless. Frankie Dunn knows this down deep in his old bones, but this time life has pushed him way past caring.
After a few wins, Frankie asks her, “What are you doing with your money?”, and tells her to take her savings and buy a house. He notably insists on this point. He gives her autobiography, framed as advice: “Wait too long, you end up with nothing.” In this same scene, he sneaks a look at her chequebook. He notes with interest the frugal amounts and the extra money sent to her mother back home in Theodosia. Then, suddenly, Frankie has moved her up in class. Bigger purses and bigger, better fighters. Scrap disingenuously suggests this “might have been a mistake”. A bad, dangerous idea, maybe. But a mistake, not at all.
He and Maggie have an interesting exchange over dinner. Maggie asks about the last fighter. Frankie, a little coldly, rattles off her serious injuries. “Concussion and a busted eardrum.” Maggie wants to send her something, make a gesture. Frankie tells her she can send the victim her check if she feels so strongly about it. Ouch. Doesn’t quite sound like Mister “I-Really-Care-About-Fighters” showed up tonight. This is the voice of the shadow.
Later she asks if they can go visit her family. He seems uneasy and reluctant to do this. She tells him that she’s done what she told him. She bought a house. But for her mom. There is a strangled expression on his face when he says, nearly choking on the words, “You’re a good daughter.” It’s almost as if the more she tries to pull him close, the more distant and conflicted he becomes. They take a trip together, to the place where Maggie came from. Frankie gets to see the sweetness of the world outside the ring and the Hit Pit.
Frankie meets the family, but Eastwood always triangulates the compositions so that Frankie is always lurking, ominous, in the background. The Mother (Margo Martindale) is suspicious of him: “Is that man hittin’ you?” Frankie, why, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. We might not notice that these cretinous hillbillies, who are the only figures in the entire film who resist and refuse to take Frankie at face value, are canny enough to understand immediately that Frankie is doing the same thing as they are: living off Maggie.
Darkness falls over Frankie’s face as they drive back and Maggie makes her most naked try at connecting. “I got nobody but you, Frankie.” It’s the only time she calls him Frankie, not “Boss” or Mr Dunn. And Frankie’s reply is chilling in its delivery: “At least you’ve got me. Until we get you a manager.” Not exactly a testament of unconditional love, is it? His face moves in and out of shadow as he drives the car. We understand what Maggie does not. Frankie believes she has no real chance of winning the fight, that she will lose her title shot, and he will eventually send her back to where she comes from. None the wiser. But it doesn’t quite go according to plan.
Because the Shadow at last makes an appearance in person during the culminating fight. For me, the most beautiful and poignant images in Million Dollar Baby are the series of kabuki faces Eastwood pulls during the fatal fight. There’s a nakedness of expression, a mix of hatred, fear and rage that you almost never see in movies. It’s a Sam Fuller style “war-face”. That shit arrives from a real dark place. They let us know the Shadow is present. The thing that draws these faces from Frankie is the sexualised presence (the only sexual presence in a dementedly asexual film) of Billie the Blue Bear (Lucia Rijker). Frankie gets Maggie to keep “jabbing her in the tits” and to drive hard blows into “her skinny ass”. When Maggie drops her to the canvas, with a strong punch, Frankie hisses: “Stay down, bitch.”
It’s not enough for the Blue Bear to be defeated, she must be destroyed. Frankie seems to think his life depends on it. Even Scrap, watching back at the Hit Pit, and insulated by the RGB particles of his screen, recoils like a child when she takes the stage. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. Frankie’s been trying to “keep it down”, to run from his dark side, for most of his life. It won’t stay down, and there’s no more room to run.
When the Blue Bear throws her killer punch, Frankie is oddly late on the draw. Just a minute before, he’s told his cornerman to get out of his way, grabbing the stool from him. He’ll take care of it. The stool arrives on its side and, when Frankie lunges for it, all he manages to do is slide it perfectly into place so that it does the most damage. Ah, the Luck of the Irish.
What should we make of the inability to connect or relate the two movements of the film, the so-called “Rocky” part, and the “Downer” last third? Critics speak derisively of the “abrupt, manipulative” turn the film takes into “unearned” territory. They are hopelessly stuck in a realist frame, way past the point where the film has clearly indicated a psychic landscape. Is there any point in rescuing them? Realism is its own psychosis. And, in fact, how the audience responds to a shattering rupture like this one is a good sign of both the integrity of the mythic structure and their own mental health. And it is crucial that Frankie not be able to decode the meaning of his actions – at least not yet. They must remain subterranean and mysterious.
The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner contradiction, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposite halves.
– C. G. Jung (14)
And what exactly is it that “inner situation” of which Frankie is so dimly aware? Maybe his contradictory impulse to both risk and protect Maggie, which represents his ambivalent, unacknowledged rage towards his daughter, has brought the shadow into existence. Maggie has taken the blow meant for another.
The film is playing a fairly unique double game. On the top level, as director, Eastwood is undermining the “ideology” of the story, by making it structurally ambiguous (is it a liebestod love story or a murder mystery?), the strategic use of Preston Sturges-style narratage, and by his specific choices within the mise en scène. This is the bread and butter stuff of the auteurist mystique.
But less familiar is what is happening on the performance level. At the same time, Eastwood as actor is doing a parallel subversion of the character’s ideology by showing us, in brief, almost subliminal, strokes the “naked” drives underneath. This is one of the great advantages of a gestural acting style. The more rigid the character, the more you can notice the cracks in the foundation. And because this is a Hollywood film, the two levels of écriture are probably inseparable, because in dramas of identification the personal ideology of the protagonist tends to dominate the film’s presumed ideological content. From the double vantage of director and protagonist, Eastwood can use this effect contrapuntally.
Scrap of Conscience
Just after he learns of Maggie’s quadriplegia, Frankie turns on Scrap without warning and desperately tries to shift his guilty burden onto him. “This is your fault. Her in there like that. You kept after me till I trained her. I know I shouldn’t. Not a girl. Everything told me not to. Everything but you.”
But before we can properly appreciate the full human comedy of the shadow story, we need to get one thing straight: Scrap, does not, strictly speaking, exist in it. He is Frankie’s conscience. What is a conscience? The part of the psyche that mediates between the anarchic drives of the ego and the rules laid down by society and by parental authority. But this is not all it does; conscience is a kind of totalitarian chronicler of one’s life history, too. Conscience understands in its bones that who controls the past, controls the future. Million Dollar Baby gives us conscience itself as an unreliable narrator. It might just be genius to use wise, honest Morgan Freeman to embody that old hustler, conscience. It puts a lot of cheap credit in your account. It’s the old F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1976) trick. For the next hour, everything you will see and hear will be absolutely true.
Whenever Frankie requires some prodding into action, wise counsel, manipulative goading, or some canny rationalization to keep him afloat, Scrap is at his side as judge and accomplice. And just as important are the moments where Scrap is not there to see. But even then, he’s gonna tell us the story as if he werethere. Because he knows Frankie so well. After all, he made him what he is today. Scrap is a sort of cut-man, too. Of the soul. His job is to patch up the wounded man, and keep sending him out on the hurt-slick killing floor.
If you’re headed for a title fight, it’s best your conscience doesn’t go with you. You never know what it might see to torture you with later. After this outburst in the hospital, Frankie’s conscience smells blood. It thinks Frankie is in his grip forever.
In the meantime, things get worse, not better. Maggie’s body begins to fail in a dramatic way. There is no serenity in this glen. It’s everyone’s nightmare vision of hospital care: stigmatic lesions, humiliations and amputations. Frankie’s Langian agony begins. Instead of the freedom and monetary reward he expected, Frankie now finds himself in an ever-deepening position of guilty moral dependence (much as he has been in with respect to Scrap and his lost daughter). This is his predicament. He’s caught in moral quicksand. And this stranger on the bed threatens to eat up the rest of his soul, his life and his savings. Goodbye, Frankie, we think.
But Frankie has a surprise move left. As he keeps vigil with Maggie, and with her family safely out of the way, a different solution occurs to him. Turns out Frankie can throw a pretty mean combination, too. And no one is better at delivering verbal violence than Clint Eastwood. First, lean in and whisper some Yeats, in that weird smokehouse whisper of yours. Something about a cabin made of wattles, where peace can be found at last. Make ‘em think you’re talking about yourself, which you are, of course. Your peace, her death. “Do you feel lucky, well … do ya, punk?”
But Maggie seems to be on to him. “You gonna build a cabin, boss?”
And then comes the good-night hook. Tell her about that swell community college, and tell her you’ll even get her one of those nice wheelchairs that you work by sucking on a straw. Even the Papal Nuncio would be speed-dialling Kevorkian with that happy image jammed like an ice-pick in their brain.
So it’s no surprise, then, that Maggie’s immediate preference is to be terminated. Shocked and unmasked, Frankie begs off, “Please don’t ask me that.” It was your idea, boss. The persona starts to crumble. Frankie begs to be spared this act. His priest, as tepid and automatic as Frankie’s own Catholicism, warns him; if he does this thing, he will be lost forever. “Leave it to God.” But Frankie doesn’t leave it to God. He comes one night and, under Scrap’s watchful good eye, switches off the dread machines, and injects her with adrenaline, the same salve he’s used so many times before to stop the flow of life’s blood.
So what are we to make of these signs: The Innocent Child, The Battered Conscience? And the most complex and duplicitous sign of all: the cut-man or healer, who turns angel of death.
Conscience: Use and Operation
The words of a madman. Let’s attend …
In order to determine [...] the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people, or a culture is. I mean that force of growing in a different way out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of one’s self. There are people who possess so little of this force that they bleed to death incurably from a single experience, a single pain, often even from a single tender injustice, as from a really small bloody scratch. On the other hand, there are people whom the wildest and most horrific accidents in life and even actions of their own wickedness injure so little that right in the middle of these experiences or shortly after they bring the issue to a reasonable state of well being with a sort of quiet conscience.
– Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life (15)
Using Nietzsche’s categories, what sort of person would we suppose Maggie to be? And Frankie? The world seems turned upside down. A paradoxical sort of mystery: a young body with an emaciated spirit, an old one with a suddenly vibrant, forceful one.
I’ll let the legit Jungians decide if Maggie is one of those cinematic incarnations of the Anima. The question isn’t particularly interesting. She probably meets the minimum requirements. But Million Dollar Baby certainly becomes more interesting if we treat her as such. Somehow Maggie teases out and brings together both the extremes of savage nihilism and misogynist rage in Frankie, but also the tenderness and love. Certainly, the shadow film gives us a startling lesson in Nietzsche’s plastic force, by contrasting Maggie’s decision to make that “single experience” of the championship define her life and thus her death. Frankie, on the other hand, absorbs what should be a killing blow, and not only, the shadow film suggests, lives on, but thrives. Why does this happen? Is this some convenient travesty of characterization?
Frankie at last recognizes his murderous impulse. When he opts to finish the job that his shadow began, he is consciously taking the rap. Because Million Dollar Baby is a structural fake-out, à la Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), which makes us think that Maggie is the protagonist for as long as possible, should we feel manipulated? In a way, Frankie doesn’t know he’s the protagonist either – until he recognizes his shadow, and what it has done. He arrives at his protagonism. It’s a gimmick-free version of the Borgesian detective story in Memento (Christopher Nolan,1999). Search for a killer, someone to blame, and it turns out to be you. Frankie tries to confess: “I killed her.” He says this, let’s remember, before he really does. But his conscience, along with the unthinking audience, absolves him.
Don’t say that. If Maggie died today, I bet her last thought would be I did all right. (Beat.) I could rest with that.
This is the moment of psychological truth. Frankie can accept the bullshit that his conscience is feeding him at the moment, and be trapped by the lie and the consequences for the rest of his life. Or he can take the impossible path and follow through the deadly logic of his desire. One is reminded of another similar mythic battle between persona and shadow.
At the apex of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), there’s a scene where Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) has a tortured burst of scrupulosity. He feels that he cannot “in good conscience” represent the people of Shinbone because he has betrayed his own principles of the rule of law; having been reduced to talking with a gun, he is nothing more than another gunslinger. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the witness to this self-flagellation, sets him straight. Stoddard didn’t kill Valance (Lee Marvin), the town’s scourge, Doniphon, did, shooting him out of (where else?) the shadows and thus saving the life of the hopelessly outgunned Stoddard.
Falsely buoyed by Doniphon’s re-telling, Stoddard accepts the nomination, gets elected and steals the girl. He builds a successful career and fortune upon the uneasy fundament of a lie. Meanwhile, killing off his döppelgangerhas doomed Doniphon. He becomes a ghost who is gradually consumed by living the other half of the lie. Killing Valance is revealed as a suicidal act, paving the way for the inevitable aseptic civilization that will render violent men like him meaningless.
Stoddard attempts to set the story straight at long last, having arrived to pay tribute to the town drunk, the late Tom Doniphon. When questioned by the press, baffled by the presence of the Senator at the pauper’s grave, Stoddard narrates the story that makes up the bulk of the film, but is surprised when the editor refuses the truth and prefers to, as he puts it, “print the legend”. Stoddard too quickly acquiesces to the mythomaniacal demands of history, and locks himself forever back in the gilded cage of his own persona. “Nothing’s too good for the man who ‘shot’ Liberty Valance.” That careless phrase turns Stoddard into a ghost before our eyes.
Something strange happens at the end of the shadow film of Million Dollar Baby. You could almost call it a miracle. Frankie is allowed to escape the Hit Pit and its relentless win-lose dualism. He gets to enjoy the monetary rewards of the journey, for many years to come, and escapes prosecution. In the final shot of the film, we hear the chink of fork on plate and we think we know that Frankie is in his self-described version of heaven, eating lemon pie. (16)
Scrap, still stuck back in the unforgiving world of the Hit Pit, doubts this is possible. His narration turns out to be a long letter to Frankie’s daughter.
I don’t think he had anything left in his heart. I just hope he found someplace set in the pines where he could find a little peace. But that’s probably wishful thinking. No matter where he is, I thought you should know …
And then comes this icy phrase, an eerie summation of the elusive Frankie Dunn: “… what kind of a man your father really was”. This is a statement that clarifies nothing. The “was” turns Frankie into a ghost, a mythic figure. Is this transformation meant to be valediction or a malediction? Is conscience speaking as judge, or accomplice?
Frankie’s estranged daughter, Katy, is what the French boys call “the structuring absence”. She is the repressed, off-stage presence that makes the drama function as poetry – that is, on the psychological level.
Murder, then, but as therapy. In psychological terms, Million Dollar Baby is a myth of rebirth. What Frankie has done is projected his lost daughter onto the tabula rasa that was Maggie, and made her a totem for his real one, exploited her, and even loved her successfully, according to his terms, and then killed her off, which pays unexpected and significant benefits in the matter of his conscience. Killing Maggie allows him to evade the trap set by his “bad” conscience. Non Habeas Corpus. Scrap bears witness, but will never have the opportunity to reproach.
Jung considered integration of the Shadow to be kid’s stuff in comparison to integration of the fleeting, confounding anima. And our conventional wisdom says a man who kills (or even tries to kill) an anima figure is surely doomed. It is the sign of a shattered soul. That is the lesson of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) and In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950). How can it be that Frankie is redeemed? Is the Shadow Film ultimately a dark comedy?
Perhaps the answer lies in this strange, koan-like formula, this phrase that Frankie utters as he kills her: “My darling, my blood.” It is the thing he has delayed uttering – in an almost sadistic manner – until the last moment. On the one hand, this lets us know that Frankie recognizes the projection of daughter onto boxer as such. But it may also represent the successful integration of the anima into the self. The external and personal “my darling” becomes internal, “my blood”. The local and possessive “my daughter”, “my fighter” and “my anima” become the opening of soul to universe. A defiant second birth, in the face of the mature consciousness of death. Not unlike Clint Eastwood’s own wintry renaissance, perhaps.
Eyes of Freeman
One last image. Morgan Freeman’s eyes. The unreliable witness. This beautiful poetic image of a battered dysfunctional conscience. One eye blind, dead and milky, one eye live and ever-watching. Scrap’s home, now and forever, is the darkness of the Hit Pit. He once said to Maggie: “I am home.” At the end, Scrap is paired off with the idiot prince of boxing, the Hit Pit’s mascot, Danger (Jay Baruchel), who asks him the eternal question: “Think I’m a-ready for a fight?” Nothing ever changes at the Hit Pit. It is perfect that the half-blind Scrap narrates Million Dollar Baby. One story for each eye. The A Story for the blind eye, the Shadow Story for the eye of witness.
This is the perfect mirror of Eastwood’s mise en scène. He wants to lull you into blindness and make you see at the same time. Teasing us with the last shot of the film, Eastwood says, in effect: the window is grimy, are you sure you trust what you see? Which makes us ask: how free is our ‘freedom of attention’ in this Clint Eastwood film? We’ve been taken by a deft dialectical manipulation for the sake of a paradoxical freedom to decide the story we wish to have. We, not the editor of the Shinbone Star, decide whether to print the legend, or the whole story.
There you have it. For your consideration, an impossible conjunction which I’m sure has never been and may never be applied again, and that you are free to reject: Clint Eastwood, psychologist.
- Stephen Drake, “Million Dollar Bigots”, from Not Dead Yet, a disabled rights advocacy site.
- Bill Morrissey, These Cold Fingers, a song on Standing Eight (Rounder Records, 1989).
- Peter Singer, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”, The New York Times Magazine, 5 September 1999, p. 63.
- Wilkie Collins, The Haunted Hotel (New York: Dover, 1982), pp. 10–11.
- Armond White, “The Rocky Road”, New York Press.
- Armond White, “The Rocky Road”.
- James Bowman, diary entry, 14 February 2005, James Bowman.net. Accessed at http://www.jamesbowman.net/diaryDetail.asp?hpID=110.
- Jacques Lacan, from an interview posted at http://www.trialectics.com/Psychoanalysis/Lacan-Interview.htm.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated and with an introduction by Mary N. Innes (New York: Penguin Books, 1955), pp. 231–2.
- Chris Fujiwara, “The Germ of Corruption”, Boston Phoenix.
- Dialogue from Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang’s re-make of Renoir’s La Chienne (itself adapted from the play of Georges de la Fouchardière), screenplay by Dudley Nichols.
- Edward Branigan, “Nearly True: Forking Plots, Forking Interpretations – A Response to David Bordwell’s ‘Film Futures’”, in SubStance 97, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2002, p. 106.
- (Solid applause fading.) Thanks for the informative three-hour lecture on the producer as auteur, Professor Scorsese. That Howard Hughes was quite a fellow, wasn’t he? Rather daring to posit Hughes as the spiritual forefather of the big, bad, really expensive movies that Tinseltown likes to make. Brilliant!! But, do you really think the Academy likes to have its face rubbed in self-referential existential angst at Oscar time? … As long as it’s glossy? Hah-hah. That’s a good one, Professor. What a genius, Ladies and Gentlemen. A genius. But there’s one little oversight. Didn’t you read the fine print? Mephistopheles owns your ass, now!! You’ll only make vapid, shitty movies like this one for the rest of YOUR MISERABLE LIFE!!! (A thundering storm of applause.)
- C. G. Jung, Aion, Collected Works, Vol. IX Part II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 71.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”, translated by Ian C. Johnston, originally 1873.
- Heaven is “Ira’s Roadside Diner”, that is, I.R.A., Individual Retirement Account. A bitter joke?