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Critic dilemma

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The Critic Dilemma.

I have already committed the mortal sin of movie critiques: expose the ending of a movie while discussing its social impact. So for those individuals who have yet to see Million Dollar Baby, then this is a spoiler alert. Wait until you see the movie before reading this. I will expose the ending in making my point!

Now that is over, back to the Critic’s Dilemma. Million Dollar Baby spends the last quarter of the movie dealing with assisted suicide. It is hard to discuss this movie fully without exposing the ending and many of you raked me over the coals for that. Yet, not to discuss the ending essentially ends the debate about an important social issue. You are left with judging the acting or script writing without examining the artistic intent.

The Critic Dilemma is simple. Expose the ending and you piss off the moviegoer. Fail to expose the ending and you basically leave out one of the central theme of the movie. Some critics did expose the ending basically because they disagreed with the action of Frank Dunn. They wanted the movie to fail at the box office. This was not my intent since I recommended the movie, in spite of my disagreement with the ending. Others fail to expose it because quite frankly, they agreed with the action of Frank Dunn and Clint Eastwood’s viewpoint. They wanted a wider audience to see how deftly Eastwood handled this issue and deftly he did.

I happen to oppose assisted suicide but the purpose of this essay is to examine how Eastwood did handle this issue. While I oppose what the main character Frank Dunn did, this movie is still a great movie and worth watching. Why? Simple, Eastwood did not disparage the opposition viewpoint but respected it.

So how does he do that? Frank Dunn is a devout Catholic who goes to Church every day. He prays and while he likes to tweak his Priest’s nose on occasion, he believes. When Maggie asks him to kill her, he first refuses for it runs against his grain. For him it is a sin.

When he sits down with his Priest, he had made up his mind to follow through Maggie’s request. The discussion with the Priest is poignant and on target. The Priest responses are not those of some fanatic but a defender of 2,000 years of tradition and faith. The Priest makes his Church’s point elegantly and Eastwood does take those ideas seriously.

The Priest warns Dunn that if he does go through with this, he will be lost forever. And on this score, the Priest proves prophetic. Dunn gives up everything including his gym and reconciling with his estranged daughter. We are left with a man who has lost everything.

Eastwood’s point is there is a price to be paid for ones decision in life. When Scrap fought in his 109 fight and continued to fight when it was lost, he paid the price with the lost of one eye. A price paid for a decision made.

The critic dilemma is that you can’t discuss the ending then you must wait until several weeks later to deal with the issue. So how does a critic directly challenge the artist’s worldview if you are not allowed to debate the issues directly? Or is it the critic job to view the political and cultural content of the movie? Should the critic merely concentrate on the quality of the movie and allow the audience debate the content?

Roger Ebert’s points about the quality of the movie is on target but he ignored essentially the last quarter of the movie and a major issue. Ebert’s counterpoint is let the audience see the movie and let the audience decide. Call it the Fox version of “We review and You Decide” of film critique. Ebert’s view of the critic in this case is that the critic needs to step back and allow the debate flow without his or her viewpoint added.

The artists may have many different reasons for the art they produce. Some movie producers use the camera lens to comment on his or her society; others merely produce films to entertain. The critic dilemma is when does the critic comment on the ideas of the artist? Or as my daughter reminds me, when does the critic institute a Spoiler Alert?

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About Tom Donelson

  • CNN did a story tonight on this same issue. They did warn viewers to turn the sound down if they did not want to know. When they showed a clip, I was able to piece things together.

  • Dear Tom,

    You write: “Roger Ebert… ignored essentially the last quarter of the movie and a major issue. Ebert’s counterpoint is let the audience see the movie and let the audience decide. Call it the Fox version of ‘We review and You Decide’ of film critique.”

    True, I did suppress the surprise in my original review, but in a longer article published on Jan 29 I discussed it in full. If it was powerful as a surprise to me, then why should I deny you the opportunity of having the same experience? In my second piece,with spoiler warnings, I went into detail. I think that’s a good way for a critic to handle the problem: Respect the plot secret in the original review, and return to it later for a full discussion with spoiler warnings.

    Roger Ebert

    My second piece is at

  • Nick Jones

    Having not read the original story by F.X. Toole, was the assisted suicide the climax of the story? It would seem then that the scriptwriter and the director were somewhat obligated to respect the author’s intent, despite some conservative critics’ howling about the (Democrat/Left) “Culture of Death” (no, really, that’s what one of the reviews I read said, including The Sea Inside as an example).

  • Here’s the ASIN for free: 0060938382 (Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner). “‘Million $$$ Baby’ is arguably the best story in the book” according to the editorial review on the Amazon page.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Pat, very much appreciate your book (etc) suggestions.

    Thanks Tom, very nice job of turning egg to egg salad regarding the original protests.

    And thanks so much for the visit and the response Roger, and I agree your technique is an excellent way to handle Tom’s dilemma.

  • Yes, I thought Roger Ebert did an excellent job of covering the movie. Thanks for that, sir!

  • Roger Ebert writes Blogcritics — how cool is that?

    Tom, I disagree that Frankie was lost forever. Doing as Maggie wished did not take anything away from him physically that he wasn’t willing to give up, and the last scene indicates he retired to a quieter life. Given his age, his career was near the end anyway, and so it’s hard to argue he suffered more than grief over a painful decision. I didn’t even get the impression that he felt he had violated the laws of God so much as those of the church, which he clearly sees as two different things — he prays to one and questions the other — and even if he did he clearly did so with the best of intentions. As I’ve written elsewhere, I didn’t agree with the decision either, but I tend to think the Lord is less legalistic on these matters than the authority in Rome.

  • LEAH

    I disagree with Robert, I think he lost everything he knew. ie, boxing, Scrap, Maggie, his religion. etc. Although the film does end on a hopeful note, that is he may have gone to find his daughter or start a little shoppy. I don’t think he was happy killing Maggie, like your comment seems to suggest.

  • LEAH

    my bad, I meant Rodney up there^^

  • Wow, Ebert! Is that the biggest celebrity who’s posted/commented on this site? That’s big leagues. Which other celebrities (however minor) have made a guest appearance besides the interviews?

    Now I feel like I should shape up my comments and stop waking up in the middle of the night cracked out on crack crackin wise for you crackers.

    Ebert’s a good dude.

    That is all.

  • Eric Olsen

    they’ve been showing up all over the place, BAB – most recent is the Adam Goldberg/Christina Ricci extravaganza

  • Ooh oooh, I wanna see some of that celebrity drama going on. What is the title of this Christina Ricci/Adam Goldberg topic and where can I find it?

    Thank you, oh captain my captain.

    That is all.

  • Eric Olsen

    we’re keeping that quietly under wraps, but just do a search for Adam

  • Juicy stuff. Too bad I wasn’t around then.

    I think I came across this before but I didn’t read the comments because I didn’t know who Adam Goldberg was until I did a Google search just now. He’s a good, quirky character actor — I think I saw a commercial for some wacky lawyer buddy show he’s doing in the fall for Fox, I think, although there’s a very similar-looking one starring Don Johnson and the kid from Undeclared on the WB as well.

    What about the people who need the juice?

    Please don’t sue, Adam. I’m only quoting the Friends episode where you replaced Joey as Chandler’s roommate.

    That is all.