Home » Hilary Swank in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby: “Flicker, flicker, flicker blam. Pow, Pow.”

Hilary Swank in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby: “Flicker, flicker, flicker blam. Pow, Pow.”

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Due to the recent “Spoiler” controversy here on Blogcritics, let me state clearly: This review is for people who have already seen the movie, or for people who don’t care about knowing what happens in the movie before seeing it (though it’s hard for me to believe anyone could be surprised by what happens in it).

* * *

Hilary Swank is so good as Maggie the ill-fated girl boxer in director Clint Eastwood’s drawn-out and implacably lugubrious Million Dollar Baby that I’ve given her an award in a new category for the most winning performance in the movie I’m least likely to watch again. Playing a first-round-knockout phenomenon, Swank has the basic handicap of moving without the stiff-necked, futile-to-resist propulsion of the women boxers you see on TV (Lucia Rijker, for instance, who plays Maggie’s most fearsome opponent) or even some of the brawlers on Jerry Springer. Neither does she intuitively combine athleticism, power, and strategy like a champion in order to psych out her opponents, dominate them, literally knock them flat. So it doesn’t seem right when Maggie says that boxing is the only thing that makes her feel good.

This lack of single-mindedness, the fact that Swank can come across as determined while remaining open to the world, is a big plus for the movie, however. Swank convinces us of a peculiar combination in Maggie, a white trash starveling who’s come to L.A. and trained herself onto the women’s undercards of men’s bouts: she feels she has nothing to lose and yet isn’t at all downhearted. Filming Maggie’s story, Eastwood overemphasizes and plays out as slowly as imaginable his notions of American innocence and hope, but Swank makes those notions so particular and so genuine the clichés turn back into meaningful beliefs. (When Maggie’s told she’ll never make it as a boxer, the way she hollers, “Don’t say that if it ain’t true!” could be any American minority’s defiance of a discriminatorily low evaluation. It’s the core demand of meritocracy.) I never once believed the story, or accepted the inevitability of the “tragic” downturn it takes, but I loved the way Swank gives her unaffected all to it.

Swank may not swagger like a pro boxer, but she manages to be engaging without going all girlie on us (just as in her glimmering headlong performance in Boys Don’t Cry, an infinitely finer movie than Million Dollar Baby in every conceivable way). She’s an elfin tomboy fantasist in a line stretching back to the silent stars Mary Pickford and Bebe Daniels, and only Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding has been better at it than Swank. (Harris, of course, had the considerable advantage of Carson McCullers’s text.) With Swank, everything radiates from that wide, big-toothed, open smile. She could sit for an illustration of Tom Sawyer, though her specialty is American innocence not in our shared “memories” of the past but in the unlikeliest corners of the present.

In Boys Don’t Cry Swank’s cross-dressing protagonist is blind to the likely consequences of her masquerade; in Million Dollar Baby the actress seems blind to the predictable cheesiness of the story. Can she really be the utterly guileless performer she appears to be? It’s instructive to see her as the aristocratic adventuress in the 18th-century potboiler The Affair of the Necklace. The movie is romance claptrap on the order of the plush costume soap operas of the ’40s starring dress-up dolls like Joan Fontaine, Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard, Linda Darnell, but Swank’s acting as the “headstrong,” conspiratorial protagonist is lean, focused, and precise. She’s badly miscast not because she’s too modern or her accent is terrible, though both are true, but because she doesn’t understand that in this kind of historical fashion show anything more than flouncing and posing and flirting will most likely backfire. The text is irredeemable and the greater risk lies in taking it too seriously. (Not a risk that her co-stars Adrien Brody, Joely Richardson, and Christopher Walken run.) Unless an actress is capable of feline high style (like Ingrid Bergman’s in Saratoga Trunk), her loftiest aim should be to float on the surface of the unending stream of rose-scented bilge water. Swank’s honest mistake is in trying to be worthy of a project that’s beneath her–she’s discordant in no small part because of her virtue as an actress.

Probably her lack of slickness as a performer and her ease in unglamorous roles (here a driven, stringy-haired hillbilly who lives on half-eaten leftovers from the restaurant where she works) have kept her from starring in “lipstick” action blockbusters as Angelina Jolie has done. But this turns out to be a charm for a movie as lumberingly rudimentary as Million Dollar Baby. I would have guessed that Swank’s lack of sophistication would make bad matters worse, that she’d overplay “heartfelt” and make the gum gummier. But her spunkiness as Maggie isn’t annoying precisely because you don’t think of her as being brave, she simply is brave. Her authenticity is everything because hard as he strains Eastwood can’t be anything but inauthentic.

The script, adapted by Paul Haggis from F.X. Toole’s stories collected as Rope Burns, is both too cumbersome for Eastwood to manage effectively and too disjointed to bear the significance he wants it to. It’s also underpopulated considering its length. Counting Maggie, there are really only three characters. Eastwood himself plays Frankie, formerly a number-one cutman (i.e., the guy who stops a fighter’s wounds from bleeding so the fight can continue) who now manages fighters and owns the dank, money-losing gym where Maggie works out. Frankie’s discipline shades into paralysis; his last boxer leaves him to get the title fight Frankie has been telling him he’s not ready for (and that he wins). Maggie nonetheless sees Frankie as the only trainer who can make her a champ, and her persistence and faith overcome his reluctance to work with a girl. Morgan Freeman as Scrap, a fighter Frankie used to train and patch up who lost his eye in a title fight and who is now the janitor at Frankie’s gym, looks on and exerts an improving influence on Frankie.

Scrap is the kind of sidekick who understands the hero better than the hero understands himself. Frankie has estranged his daughter in some unstated way that causes him to write her letters every week that are returned unopened, pray at bedtime, and go to church daily (though he compensates for this weakness by outraging his priest with frivolous theological challenges). (It’s a movie for people who think of “guilt” as a profound “theme”: Frankie feels guilty about his daughter, about Scrap’s lost eye, and later about Maggie’s mishap.) At the end we find out that the entire movie, which Scrap narrates in mournful, spare-but-“rich” prose, is the body of a letter explaining Frankie to his daughter that Scrap has written after the major events of the movie. As a premise this 137-minute letter is almost as preposterous as the 130-minute college application essay in Spanglish. And it makes Scrap no more than an unusually articulate variation of Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, Natty Bumppo’s Chingachgook, Huck’s Jim, and the Lone Ranger’s Tonto. Though unintended, the role of Scrap is an insult to this great actor. If only Eastwood had cast Freeman as Frankie and eliminated Scrap the movie might have had some nuances, certainly some traction.

Eastwood and Freeman do have an easy way with Frankie and Scrap’s low-keyed pugnacious banter as Scrap nudges his boss to do the right thing, but their characters and the nature of their relationship are tired. (The tight-lipped way Frankie denies his pain, which nonetheless shines off him as if it were something holy, is the stuff of formula westerns.) I say they’re tired, but “tired” is actually part of Million Dollar Baby‘s appeal. Superficially, it’s about the relatively recent phenomenon of women’s boxing, but it’s so slow and obvious that it couldn’t disorient the most befuddled member of the audience. I saw it at a Sunday matinee in Times Square with an audience mostly around Eastwood’s age and they seemed to take comfort in the movie’s leisurely deliberateness–for once they weren’t being left in the dust by the latest latest thing. (The movie is paced so that one old guy could repeat the key dialogue to his hard-of-hearing wife without missing the next line.)

Observing an audience respond to this awkward movie made me realize that Eastwood has risen from the mass audience without ceasing to be a member of it. He’s got the love of jazz of a West Coast hipster, and an unusual taste for the “tragic,” but his moviemaking is entirely formulaic (even though he mixes and matches conventions in ways that make no sense). His approach is simple, which is also to say that he fearlessly goes in way over his depth. But because of his interest in bad outcomes, his generosity to his actors, and his monotonously weighty directorial style, he’s now considered not just a crowd-pleaser but a “master” of prestige dramas–of a kind he completely lacks the literary culture to handle in a consistent manner.

It’s as if Eastwood imagined his way into Million Dollar Baby one scene at a time without developing an overview of what kind of story the scenes add up to. The baggy script includes a number of sub-characters–Maggie’s trailer-trash mother and a hopeless, big talking wienie of a kid from Texas who hangs out at the gym–who provide opportunities for the random melodramatic comeuppance. But the center of the movie is Maggie’s training by Frankie, and it’s a father-daughter heroic romance in a line (highly varied, both in terms of handling and quality) that includes, in whole or in part, Rigoletto, Die Walküre, Washington Square, Major Barbara, The Lady Eve, National Velvet, Hobson’s Choice, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cat Ballou, Paper Moon, Little Voice, and Against the Ropes (in some ways the inverse of Million Dollar Baby). (Swank herself has also been “father’s” resourceful girl in both The Affair of the Necklace and The Core.) The fact that Frankie and Maggie, the trainer and his star athlete, like Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, aren’t biologically related doesn’t matter, in either movie. In Million Dollar Baby it’s made pretty much explicit that Maggie is a surrogate for the daughter who returns Frankie’s letters. What matters is the transmission of heroic values across generations and gender lines.

The father-daughter heroic romance isn’t as common as the father-son heroic romance in the Perceval/Parzival line (which includes the Harry Potter books and movies), for instance, and has a different emphasis. In the father-son romance the question is whether the son will measure up to his father. Technically it’s presented as a question though the audience experiences no real suspense about the outcome. There’s no question, however, about the fitness of a son’s taking up his father’s sword. It’s expected.

By contrast, whether a daughter should take up a “sword” is almost the entire content of the dramatic conflict between Frankie and Maggie, whether a daughter can be a “hero” of the kind Frankie trains. In romance sons experience pressure to match their fathers’ heroic exploits. With daughters the pressure is more likely to be exerted to keep them from trying; in the works above there’s often a sense that the daughter is doing something unexpected, untoward. The daughter’s insistence on her quest, and her seeking of primal attention, can bring out an urgent and unsettling emotional quality different from the kind stirred by conventional father-son romance heroics.

Eastwood directs Million Dollar Baby as if down-market locations were the same as naturalism, the genre that describes in telling detail exactly how things are for the individual characters and why. But the structure of the Maggie-Frankie story is pure romance built around Maggie’s ambition to make something of herself in the ring. In contrast to naturalism, romance projects how things could be, if we were endowed with supernatural power in our quests against the dark forces that we feel surround and imbue our lives. In this way romance speaks to a group’s shared ideas of what constitutes good and evil and what qualities the ideal hero possesses. (As such, it’s the basic material out of which epic, the defining romance of the group, is fashioned.)

But even when romance is presented with the literary means of naturalism, the heroic central figure still embodies the overarching values the group dreams of fantastic heroes arising to defend. This is probably clearest in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout doesn’t take up Atticus’s “sword” (that we know of, by becoming a civil rights lawyer, for instance), but seen through her eyes that sword is about the gleamingest weapon of truth and justice in American movies. When romance intersects with naturalism, the values don’t even have to be as broad-based as the message of tolerance in To Kill a Mockingbird to function. In Hobson’s Choice and Little Voice we cheer simply to see the heroine overthrow the tyranny of her father and mother, respectively.

It even works for the values to be in contest within the romance. Major Barbara, for instance, culminates in a battle of wits between the daughter’s Christian altruism and her father’s perverse, aphoristic militarism. And it’s even okay for the values to fail. Thus, in Die Walküre you feel something dolefully inevitable in the social restrictions on human will that allegorically require the break between the paternal god and his illegitimate warrior daughter. (Because romance is a genre devoted to fantasizing it doesn’t hurt that an accurate paraphrase of the upshot of the father-daughter romance in Die Walküre may be ludicrous: We can’t let our Wish-Maidens fly around on horses defending incest, after all.)

So what romance values does Maggie embody in her quest for the title in Million Dollar Baby? Same as in the first Rocky and Flashdance: the importance of getting your shot at glory, even if you fail. Scrap tells Frankie that this is enough, even though he himself lost an eye in the process, but the movie doesn’t coordinate this with the fact that since then Scrap has settled down to life as a janitor in a moldering gym with holes in his socks. Since it’s Morgan Freeman playing him we don’t think Scrap is simply justifying bad choices, even in part, or that he’s not that bright, or talking out his ass. Maggie gets her shot, so why is the picture so determinedly melancholy? Rocky lost the big fight but got Adrian, and yes it’s corny but it makes common sense–You do what you feel you have to in the world but your personal life is where you live. What’s added to the story in Million Dollar Baby by having Maggie fail?

A plausible explanation wouldn’t be enough because it’s not that kind of story. If Million Dollar Baby were a work of naturalism, then what happens to Maggie would have to be representative of the risks that women boxers commonly run just by getting in the ring. But in Maggie’s fatal prizefight the German fighter hits her from behind after the bell has rung, and what happens next is pure accident. This would work as naturalism only if there were something about women’s boxing that made cheating and mishaps more likely (as would be the case if the fights were illegal or unregulated, for instance). And the harm Maggie comes to ought to be connected to Frankie’s specialty as a cutman, as Scrap’s loss of his eye was.

There are a few passages that focus on one or another of the specifics of Maggie’s training, but generally Eastwood is a washout at naturalistic plausibility, perhaps most clearly in his handling of Maggie’s unloving, money-grubbing, welfare-cheat mother and sister. Dickens, if not common experience, will tell you that people who are trying to get their hands on your money tend to speak flatteringly to your face. Eastwood just shoots the script, which has Maggie’s fatass Mom dissing her in the very same conversation in which she’s sticking a pen in her mouth so she can sign over her property.

But while Million Dollar Baby may be drab it isn’t naturalism: we know this when the German boxer enters the ring to Wagnerian dragon’s-lair music. Maggie simply isn’t facing the actual perils of any sport. But since it’s romance, then we should have some sense in romance terms of what Maggie is fighting against and what she’s fighting for. Million Dollar Baby almost crazily tries to hold the ill-assorted gritty details together with depressive grandiosity, and I guess in some inchoate way Eastwood is entertaining epic pretensions. The movie’s general air of doom, something like the end of Beowulf with darkness and cold closing in on the survivors after the hero’s burial, suggests that more than an individual girl has passed from among us, that somehow Maggie’s story is our common story, but it’s unclear on what basis the makers think this to be the case. Sure, she’s fought her way up from nothing and we’re a nation of impoverished class-climbing immigrants, but as American romance that hasn’t come to a bad end at the hands of a cheating German bulldyke. I’m saying stupid things on purpose because the movie is all epic-scaled portentousness with no feeling for what the import of the epic is, or even whose epic it is.

If audiences end up liking Million Dollar Baby it will probably be because of the father-daughter romance, which in my opinion Swank singlehandedly brings into the realm of recognizable experience. But people clearly respond to Eastwood himself, and it will help the movie with most audiences that he approaches every uncoordinated element of the rambling narrative emotionally. If anything drew Eastwood to the material it’s probably the opportunity Frankie and Maggie’s story affords to express his own feelings about ageing. Eastwood must understand in plain terms that he’s too old to play the “knight” himself anymore; the story thus has the appeal for him of transferring his loss of prowess onto Frankie’s girl fighter. Maggie then symbolizes the last flicker of his heroic strength, which is (otherwise unaccountably) snuffed out.

Eastwood approaches Million Dollar Baby emotionally, but isn’t able to fashion the storytelling effectively to that, or any other, purpose. He has thus taken a romance form and filmed it as though it were naturalism while using it as the vehicle for both an out-of-focus epic vision and a symbolic elegy for his own decline. I found the movie boring moment-to-moment and a real pile-up as a whole, structurally as well as stylistically. But I’ve heard people praise it passionately and there’s certainly nothing else out there in its range that has a hope of entertaining a large American audience. (It does have a wider variety of popular elements than Mystic River, Eastwood’s previous million-hour baby. On the other hand, Million Dollar Baby has even less sex. It’s more chaste than even the holiest of medieval romances with their perilously enticing apparitions.)

Million Dollar Baby is the kind of movie that people can identify with strongly in spite of its manifest deficiencies. In fact, they apparently perceive strengths exactly where I see weaknesses (apart from Swank’s performance); to my mind, for instance, the downward trend in the story enables all kinds of masochistic projection. In my experience of talking about messy, guts-spilling movies like this, fans can be extremely defensive about their reactions. They often respond to negative criticism as if it were critiquing their feelings directly. I don’t think I can dispel the power of Million Dollar Baby over anyone who feels it; a critic like me simply isn’t addressing the faculties that are susceptible to it.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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About Alan Dale

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Apart from being bad html in your title link (nesting two links is a no-no and can cause some browsers to break), this is an excellent review – well-reasoned, cinema ecrire at its best.

    Violence is sex, in many ways – so this film is not as chaste as it seems.

    Eastwood is trained by virtue of all his westerns as a naturalist – but just like the westerns were a sham, a facade of the real West, perhaps he, too is unable to distinguish between realism and naturalism – not the first person to mistake the flicker for the real image.

    Thanks for the review

  • Eric Olsen

    Alan, you are often, though not always (yet another unpredictability), the great contrarian, running a course between entertainment (my primary cinematic interest, usually) and high intellectualism: always turning up the sod most others are content to tread upon.

    Fixed the title, html in title or excerpt can fry, as Aaman mentioned

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Hey Amman,

    Good to know about nested links. Thanks for that. And thanks for the review of the review.

    I agree that violence can be sexual in some ways, but that describes violence in Sam Peckinpah or Brian De Palma movies more than in Million Dollar Baby. Eastwood has always been, to my mind, a very unsexy star. Does anyone think of him as being paired with his female co-stars? But I was actually speaking more literally in my review. Why shouldn’t Maggie have a sex life? Or Scrap? (Yet another wise old neuter role for Morgan Freeman.) Why does nobody even eye anyone else? What world is this taking place in?

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Hey Eric,

    Thanks again for the praise. I don’t WANT to be contrarian. I’d be truly content to enjoy and praise Clint Eastwood “tragedies”–if they weren’t so monotonously serious and slow. Every time, however, the numbness starts in my brain and spreads from there to my butt. Agony.

  • Eric Olsen

    tell it like it is, brother

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    That is one seriously grand review.

    Makes me proud to be a member of this site. :)

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Thanks, RJ. Ordinarily I think it’s the good movies that bring out the best in a critic. So I have to hand it to Eastwood: neither Mystic River nor Million Dollar Baby is ordinary bad. Because they go wrong in so many ways their badness required me to think more intently and precisely, albeit forensically, about genre than almost anything else released in the past couple years.

  • Eric Olsen

    old Clint isn’t exactly jolly in his Golden Years

  • Isaac Abrahamson

    I agree this review is erudite, provocative. Its analysis is interesting and offers useful a fruitful interpretive perspective. I think it may fall a bit into the critical contrarian’s trap: does it fail to perceive the cause of success? Perhaps there are plenty of other critics to offer praise, but Million Dollar Baby seems to work with a vast audience. I suggest its failure within genre expectations contributes to its success. Among other things, it helps inject plausible, familiar character agency (e.g., the haplessly selfish mother’s inability to grovel) into moments that pose an unfamiliar moral or personal test.

    To evaluate Eastwood, I tried to imagine the storyline as factual. Pushing familiar into unlikely, it’s generally plausible but no more likely than the one to 6.5 billion chance we all have. Imagining the “true story” directed by someone else suggests to me an unbearable inspiration- or tear-fest. In this light, Eastwood succeeds as a unique stylist rather than a literary virtuoso–a Jimmy Page rock star with deeper inflections, not a Miles Davis master with lighter leanings. (Also, jazzy west-coast hipsters are getting pretty old.)

    It’s fine to see the film boring or otherwise to walk away from what it offers. I agree its structure and writing fail on their own as rather uninteresting, and I’m not praising it to friends. But I’m also not warning people against its spell. I found entrancement in its remarkably slow pacing and quietly deceptive clarity. That was enough for me for two hours.

  • Eric Olsen

    super comment Isaac, worthy of the review and that’s saying something

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I haven’t the slightest idea why anyone has problems with the structure of Million Dollar Baby, and Alan’s statement that the script is “too cumbersome for Eastwood to manage effectively and too disjointed to bear the significance he wants it to” doesn’t make a grain of sense.

    If there’s one thing the movie has, it’s a very clear, direct, and thoroughly traditional story line, which is precisely why it is as effective as it is.

    In fact, part of the effectiveness — and I haven’t noticed anyone else saying this — can I think be summed up by another very successful picture: The Shawshank Redemption. Whatever its flaws, that movie showed the power of telling a big story with Morgan Freeman serving as both an observer and a voice-over narrator. (Up and coming screenwriters are taught to hate voice-overs; supposedly they’re a cheap way out. But some of the greatest movies in the world have them, and they are respobsible for some of the most memorable lines.)

    Effective to me, however, is not effective to Alan, but I can’t see movies through Alan’s eyes. He squints too hard. Alan is an utter genius, but he’s wasting himself writing about movies; he ought to move to France and make instructional videos for the abstract philosophy department at the Sorbonne or something. You learn less about a movie from his exhaustive, colon-blowing reviews than you learn about his somewhat constipated aesthetics — which, I’ll admit, are not entirely without interest. The main thing I learn from Alan’s reviews is the kind of movie he wishes it could have been, and I very often find myself grateful it didn’t get made that way.

  • Eric Olsen

    agreement with judgment passed has very little to do with my judgment of a review

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Eric, I read and admire criticism everyday I don’t agree with at all. I admire it because it’s a different way of seeing the movie. With Alan’s reviews you just keep seeing Alan, scrubbing the movie down with a toothbrush and then imagining some underpainting that isn’t to his liking.

  • dbcooper

    You learn less about a movie from his exhaustive, colon-blowing reviews than you learn about his somewhat constipated aesthetics — which, I’ll admit, are not entirely without interest. The main thing I learn from Alan’s reviews is the kind of movie he wishes it could have been, and I very often find myself grateful it didn’t get made that way.

    Nice job Rodney.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    More later, but for right now, 2 points:

    1) A “very clear, direct, and thoroughly traditional story line” is an odd claim given how much people have been making of the hairpin turn-around in the plot; and

    2) Both “colon-blowing” and “constipated”? Who wouldn’t squint?

  • Eric Olsen

    perhaps these were meant to be sequential

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    1.) Getting the hell beaten out of you, winding up in a wheelchair, and asking for a mercy killing is a perfectly logical sequence of events. One thing follows quite credibly from another, eventhough it may not be exactly what we expected. And the story is highly traditional as boxing movies go, or as sports movies or cop movies go: the grizzled old cynic who first discourages the young up-and-comer and then admires his/her spirit. It’s a pairing you see in movie after movie, and the familiarity actually works in the movie’s favor: we settle into it, and what starts as a movie about beating the odds becomes a movie where the odds are suddenly raised. It notches up the drama, too, and it manages to do so without sentimentality.

    2.) Precisely.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Hey Isaac,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Not trying to understand why people like a popular movie is indeed a failing in critics. I did try to suggest what the appeal is–Scrap and Frankie’s banter, Frankie and Maggie’s relationship, Eastwood’s feelings about ageing.

    With respect to its “vast audience,” however, it’s a mistake to overstate Million Dollar Baby‘s popularity. Like Mystic River, it’s primarily a success with critics and people who give awards. Look at its box office performance: it has just made back its (low) cost, and despite adding 15 screens since last weekend made 29% less money. In two weeks Hide and Seek has made more than Million Dollar Baby has made in eight and Hide and Seek even made more last weekend despite a 59.4% drop in its revenue. Of course, the number of people who have seen Million Dollar Baby is “vast” compared to how many people read me, but not in mass audience terms. It’s 79th on the 2004 box office list and has made half of what White Chicks made. Less than half of what Garfield: The Movie made. About one-eighth of Meet the Fockers.

  • Phil Latio

    I must echo Rodney’s comments. Alan’s reviews belong only in some quarterly film criticism journal from a pompous Ivy League school (not a shock when you consider the institutions Alan attended). They scream, “Look at me, I’m smart and can pick a movie apart with my flowery prose!” He tries for a Scorsese-like knowledge of film history, but it comes off like he’s toggling back and forth from imdb.com. I read his reviews only to watch all of you slob his knob after one of his novel-length borefests.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

    –Oscar Wilde

  • Phil Latio

    “The merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.” —

    Alfred Whitehead

  • Eric Olsen

    Alan has a specific, consistent personal style that is exceptionally erudite, rewarding and subtle. I find it never less than fascinating and edifying and while highly intellectual, never precious, stilted or pretentious. He is what he is and I don’t see it changing much – what I see in these complaints is kind of like criticizing water for being wet.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Oh Eric, stilted and pretentious aren’t the HALF of it. Alan doesn’t even write like a human being; he’s like some whirring old IBM machine that’s been programmed to produce the most pedestrian possible thoughts with the smuggest possible attitude in the wordiest possible way.

    Know what you want to say and say it as clearly as possible, that’s the old rule, but it’s apparently lost on anyone who writes sentences like the following one:

    He has thus taken a romance form and filmed it as though it were naturalism while using it as the vehicle for both an out-of-focus epic vision and a symbolic elegy for his own decline.

    Movies antagonize Alan, I think. They defeat him. They pour more thoughts into his head than he can control, which not only pisses him off but sends him flying in several directions at once, hurling grab-ass literary references at whatever target he can find. I mean, come on — this fucking thing pulls in Harper Lee AND Richard Wagner AND G.B. Shaw AND Dickens AND Spanglish and every other other thing under the sun, and it does so without an ounce of passionate engagement, just a lot of dot-matrix blather spewing out of Alan 2.7.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Now for the negative stuff. Let me first point out that I predicted lanced-boil comments like these in the last paragraph of my Million Dollar Baby review b/c I’m criticizing a movie in terms that the people who like it will feel put down by–though that is not at all my intention. Mostly what’s being vented isn’t reasoned critique but abuse: I’m a useless bore, I’m pissed off but as incapable of passion as a computer, I’m pompous, I’m a show-off, I shit too much and I don’t shit enough. Rodney, in particular, has created a whole fantasy version of me. Has it not occurred to him that knowing me personally might be a prerequisite to writing about me, as opposed to my opinions, or that at this point his escalating vituperation says more about him than about me?

    If true, everything these people have said would be true of my writing when they agree with me as well, but people never write to abuse you when they agree with you. Which probably accounts not only for the belligerence but the anti-intellectualism and the incoherence of the defenses of the movie as well. (Maggie doesn’t get the hell beaten out of her by the German; what does it mean to say the “odds” are raised–did he mean the stakes? and what would that mean?) Rodney isn’t any more precise in his criticism of my writing. The sentence he quotes in his fourth comment isn’t meant to be understood out of context. (I’m not writing blurbs for movie ads.) That sentence is a summary of the argument leading up to it and the point is that an accurate description of all the elements of the story is “cumbersome.”

    Movies don’t “antagonize” me, they bore me when they aren’t more than conventional product, and “pompous” and “flowery” are about as far from describing my writing accurately as words can get. Talk about robotic responses! How consistently do you have to write favorably about slapstick, scatological humor, and pornography, before people stop saying you’re a typical Ivy League academic? I think my writing is perhaps most unusual in that my fundamental outlook is ironic. (Which is one form that a “passionate engagement” can take. The fact that I go against the market is a sign my writing is personal rather than the reverse.) Movies are mostly crap, always have been, probably always will be, certainly as long as the majority of the audience, like Rodney, think that a movie’s use of devices already familiar from movie after movie can work in its favor.

    What I write, however, doesn’t even border on philosophy (which is always abstract, isn’t it?). It’s literary structuralism. This is the main reason for the references to books and movies, etc., because structuralism requires an overview that stretches back farther than The Shawshank Redemption, all of ten years old in a history of western narrative dating back over 3,000 years. In addition, it’s an attempt to do for others what I appreciated having done for me. In her reviews Pauline Kael referred very widely to older movies and literature and I was grateful to have someone point me toward them and put them in context so they were more than just data from a database like IMDB.

    It’s funny in a sick kind of way that this would draw fire on a website devoted to criticism. It’s like the way Eric Olsen was attacked for comparing two of Johnny Depp’s performances last week, as if this were an outrage in the course of criticism rather than one of its basic approaches. And as for the common charge that the critic is “just” trying to make the movie over into the kind of movie he wishes it had been: Well, duh. If someone says, “That movie sucked!” he is inherently saying he wishes it had been a movie that hadn’t sucked. Pressed even a little bit, he’ll start describing what was wrong with the movie, which again implies how the movie could have been better. Children do this. Everyone does it. But if you try to tease out your reasons for thinking it sucked, and if you refer to stuff outside someone’s range of reference, then, pal, you can just go to … France. (The critics who have meant the most to me are almost all Anglo-American, by the way.)

    These commenters are entitled to their opinions, but no amount of abuse gives me any reason to do anything differently. (As the last presidential campaign showed, I think, personally directed invective works only on people who already agree with you.) I would suggest that if I drive them as crazy as they claim they should pass on by next time, unless, of course, they enjoy hating me as much as they seem to.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    I find Rodney’s comment somewhat aggravating – good writing utilizes allusions and devices such as subordinate clauses, as Alan’s work does, to capture a specific idiom or set a frame of reference. That alone, cannot be cause to question the writing ability of the poster. There are far worse writers out there.

    Film criticism, like all art criticism is prone to the same mud-slinging and abusive communication as politics – a good case in point is the New Yorker review of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    First of all, let me congratulate for writing with force and clarity — feels good, doesn’t it? If you could write all your reviews this way, you would become interesting rather than merely academic.

    On to your arguments:

    Let me first point out that I predicted lanced-boil comments like these in the last paragraph of my Million Dollar Baby review b/c I’m criticizing a movie in terms that the people who like it will feel put down by–though that is not at all my intention.

    And let me point out that I said earlier that it wasn’t mere disagreement that got me going. There are several critics who don’t like it, don’t feel it worked for them, whatever, and they said why. Fine — if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. What bothered me was that you keep trying to intellectualize and contextualize what is, or should be, a somewhat emotional response that has something to do with the movie, that comes out of the movie. One yearns for a critic to respond personally; you don’t. You respond as the fatheaded academic you dream of being. You keep force-feeding your thoughts through the wood-chipper of Western art and culture, and the associations you make aren’t even very interesting.

    Has it not occurred to him that knowing me personally might be a prerequisite to writing about me, as opposed to my opinions, or that at this point his escalating vituperation says more about him than about me?

    Well, tit for tat: you’ll recall I said earlier that your response to the movie said more about you than the movie itself. Let me elaborate: your review was self-indulgentr and the only person who could (so far as I could tell, although some disagree) gain anything from it is you. It didn’t illuminate the movie, it just illuminated your own precious sense of yourself as the eternal student.

    If true, everything these people have said would be true of my writing when they agree with me as well, but people never write to abuse you when they agree with you. Which probably accounts not only for the belligerence but the anti-intellectualism and the incoherence of the defenses of the movie as well.

    Actually I have agreed with you in the past and even said so, but eeither I’ve become dumber or you’ve become more and more dense. as for the “anti-intellectualism” of the comments — does that also go for ones who praised you?

    Maggie doesn’t get the hell beaten out of her

    Really? Did I miswatch that fatal blow to the head that sent her flying to the mat, never to get up again?

    what does it mean to say the “odds” are raised

    The odds are against Maggie succeeding as a boxer; when she becomes crippled, they are increased.

    The sentence he quotes in his fourth comment isn’t meant to be understood out of context.

    I have never in my life heard an admission of this kind. At any rate, dude, it isn’t understandable in context. You are following some crazy train of thought (or thoughts, a pile of them) that, in the first place, are not interesting in and of themselves and at any rate are not communicated in a clear and intelligent way.

    That sentence is a summary of the argument leading up to it and the point is that an accurate description of all the elements of the story is “cumbersome.”

    No, it’s your writing that’s cumbersome. This is part of what made the review so odd in the first place, that you’re trying to explain in the wordiest, dullest possible way why Eastwood’s film is “dull.”

    I’m not writing blurbs for movie ads.

    Don’t give up. A little work and you’ll be as good as they are.

    I think my writing is perhaps most unusual in that my fundamental outlook is ironic.

    Only if you can wade through it.

    Movies are mostly crap, always have been, probably always will be, certainly as long as the majority of the audience, like Rodney, think that a movie’s use of devices already familiar from movie after movie can work in its favor.

    That’s a fact of Western art, and it’s no different with film. I’m not talking about using cliches; I’m talking about the use of certain familiar forms. Books and movies can and do command the interest simply because these relationships are so familiar to us that they’ve taken on a kind of classical status. You can respond to a movie because you relate to it, and you can respond to it because you’ve heard this kind of story before — the interest comes in what the artist does with it, what he brings to it, just as Shakespeare brought his own genius to stories that were very familar to his audiences.

    What I write, however, doesn’t even border on philosophy (which is always abstract, isn’t it?). It’s literary structuralism.

    Well, that explains everything, because I don’t even know what that is, and it may well be you are writing for an audience of literary structuralists. If this is the case, it may be that my emphasis on writing in an interesting or intelligent way have been wasted.

    This is the main reason for the references to books and movies, etc., because structuralism requires an overview that stretches back farther than The Shawshank Redemption, all of ten years old in a history of western narrative dating back over 3,000 years.

    I’m sorry I was the one to inform you, Mr. Literary Structuralist, that the structure of this particular movie has more to do with The Shawshank Redemption than it does Die Walkure. That must have come as a blow to one who has absorbed three millenia of narrative art. You are going to have to take a whip and make your overview do your bidding and not the other way around. The references are clotting up your prose and inspiring responses such as mine.

    In addition, it’s an attempt to do for others what I appreciated having done for me. In her reviews Pauline Kael referred very widely to older movies and literature and I was grateful to have someone point me toward them and put them in context so they were more than just data from a database like IMDB.

    READ KAEL, then! Yes, she did refer to other books and movies, but she didn’t let them get in the way of her own voice.

    It’s funny in a sick kind of way that this would draw fire on a website devoted to criticism.

    It’s even funnier that a critic would mind being criticized.

    And as for the common charge that the critic is “just” trying to make the movie over into the kind of movie he wishes it had been: Well, duh. If someone says, “That movie sucked!” he is inherently saying he wishes it had been a movie that hadn’t sucked. Pressed even a little bit, he’ll start describing what was wrong with the movie, which again implies how the movie could have been better.

    You have to deal with the movie that is, the movie before you. You always sound like you’re upset that you weren’t personally consulted for input.

    The critics who have meant the most to me are almost all Anglo-American, by the way.

    Consider imitating them.

    These commenters are entitled to their opinions, but no amount of abuse gives me any reason to do anything differently.

    Stay in your intellectual ghetto then, Alan. You seem to have made a home there.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Aaman —

    As I try to point out above, there is a great difference between using references and letting the references use you. Besides being impersonal and dull, Alan’s writing is overwhelmed with literary references to the point that they cripple whatever style he has left.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Maggie is holding her own when the German fighter hits her from behind after the bell has rung. Maggie falls–in slow motion–and accidentally hits her neck on the crossbars of the stool in her corner. No “fatal blow to the head.” And “fatal”? Did you mean “fateful”? She doesn’t die from it.

    In Die Walküre a father raises his daughter to be a fighter. Acting on his wishes she does something in battle that he feels requires him to put her to sleep.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I concede this plot point. Please keep in mind this sprang from me pointing out to you that the film had a clear, logical sequence of events that defied your poorly-argued idea of a cumbersome narrative.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    The so-called cumbersomeness, by the way, sprang from what you yourself applied to it: you seem to have imagined a Clint Eastwood who thinks in terms of “Hmm, I’ll go for a naturalist style” or “Hmm, I’ll try a Romantic style” or “Hey, this has kind of a Die Walkure thing going for it” and then you condemn him for failing to make the kind of movie you would have made had you been in the same position. This is the essence of my problem (among many) with your review. I think you are, possibly, the only one in the world who could see such a totally unencumbered narrative as being cumbersome.

    I see Eastwood’s style as clear and you see it as cumbersome; I see your writing style as cumbersome to the nth degree and you think it is rich in irony and intellectual history.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    And what does this mean?

    > It’s a movie for people who think of “guilt” as a profound “theme.”

    Ever heard of Bergman? Wake up, Alan — it IS a profound theme.

  • Joey

    Without writing a diatribe, I’d like to echo the sentiments of Rodney. This isn’t film criticism. Its like cinema reconstruction by way of root canal. And why is it necessary to bold certain lines. Are they more important than the rest of the article? Shouldn’t the gaudy words be able to stand on their own without the bold typeface? Can you do that in the Harvard Review?

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    A final note: One of the major problems with vituperative exchanges is that they make it difficult for all parties to think clearly. Thus, Rodney insisted on his mistaken memory of the plot of Million Dollar Baby, while I, for my part, failed to recognize that what he said about “certain familiar forms” is what the literary structuralism I’m interested in is all about. Apart from our divergent responses to Eastwood’s movie and to my writing, the difference seems to boil down to the fact that I look for correspondences among works as widely, and going as far back, as possible. Otherwise it seems to me you risk making generalizations on the basis of non-representative samples. (Not to mention it’s fun to make connections that seem improbable on the surface.)

    I find the way structuralism works appealingly straightforward. To simplify it, if an accurate and reasonably detailed plot paraphrase applies equally to two works, then the two works belong to the same genre (even if only in part). Thus, I believe this paraphrase of the father-daughter romance in Die Walküre also applies to the father-daughter romance in Million Dollar Baby: A father raises his daughter to be a peerless fighter; in the climactic battle she breaks a rule he has laid down and as a result he ends up feeling called on to put her to sleep. (Remember, this applies only to the father-daughter romance, not the Siegmund-Sieglinde first act of Die Walküre, for instance, or to the melodrama involving Maggie’s mother or the kid from Texas in Million Dollar Baby.)

    By contrast, The Shawshank Redemption is a Christ story: An innocent man is unjustly punished but miraculously escapes from his stone “tomb”; in the process he both brings punishment on the wicked man (the warden) and frees the man who believes in him (Morgan Freeman). (Hence the use of the religious term “redemption.”) The fact that Morgan Freeman does the voice-over narration in both Million Dollar Baby and The Shawshank Redemption doesn’t address underlying narrative structure. How would the structure be changed if different actors had appeared in the two movies? The plot of an opera is unaffected by the rotation of the casts.

    The point isn’t that Clint Eastwood consciously thought he would use one genre or another (though the movie might be better if he had), or that anyone involved with Million Dollar Baby was familiar with Wagner. The point is an almost anthropological one. Humans tell stories in only a limited number of ways and it’s interesting (to some of us, anyway) to tie new works into the 3,000-year-old tradition in order to think about the basic urges behind storytelling.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Alan, I understand what you’re saying, but I think this literary structuralism business — which I only understand insofar as you have described it — is something you should leave in your dust. It’s a dead end. The first thing anyone notices who writes about books or movies with any regularity is the similarity between story forms; the connections that can be made between them are interesting and sometimes illuminating, but it’s a limited interest, and if you stay there you’re just going to be stuck in second or third gear. So many times I’ve read or seen something and I could immediately see that the writer or director was riffing on a particular narrative model — like Scorsese using Citizen Kane in The Aviator, just as Oliver Stone did with Nixon, or in seeing any number of movies that are the result of watching Vertigo way too many times — but that’s so completely on the surface that it’s barely worth mentioning. There’s something a little too medical about the idea that you can get to the heart of a movie by charting its influences; diagnosing a movie by examining family history, you might say.

    My comparison between Million Dollar Baby and The Shawshank Redemption doesn’t have anything to do with the stories. I just got the impression that Eastwood saw how the gravity of Freeman’s voice and supporting presence served to anchor one movie, and he thought it would work for him. Nothing deeper than that.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    The old ‘there are only six stories, and seven characters’ argument – a terrifying thought to any writer, if true.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Another thing, Alan: “Rodney insisted on his mistaken memory of the plot of Million Dollar Baby…” — well, crow if you wish, but it was hardly a fundamental error and I’m not even sure saying Maggie got the hell beaten out of her was an error at all. You will recall she was sucker-punched by a dirty fighter, which is why she was thrown off guard to begin with, which is why her head hits the chair and why she winds up immobilized. What happened to her happened because of the German.

  • Skeptyk

    If anyone is still reading this thread, here is two more cents to stir the pot:

    Everyone brings themselves to the experience of reading literature or seeing cinema, and criticism, hopefully, can enhance the experience.

    I have a hard time seeing “Million Dollar Baby” as a great movie, or even as a good one, when Clint Eastwood drops all pretense of authenticity during the last half hour. Maggie, as a person on a ventilator, did not need Frankie to sneak into an oddly unsecured rehab center (no locks? no security staff?) and do what her dad had done “for” the dog, i.e., kill it. She could have made the request herself, and would have been given sedatives (not “adrenaline” as seems to have been said in the movie) to ease the death. So, we can assume that the character Maggie had a horrific death, suffocating while her heart raced wild. Some “mercy killing”, eh?

    The “better dead than disabled” attitude is riding high in the awards this year, with “The Sea Within” and “Million Dollar Baby” winning nominations and awards. While the former is part of the author’s publicity campaign for his own “right to die”, the latter looks like another step in Clint Eastwood’s contempt for people with disabilities. After spending $600,000 to fight the lawsuit that noted that he should have spent about $7,000 to make his hotel accessible (and he had half a decade after the ADA to do this, but says he should have had more warning, go figure), and spending more money in his ongoing campaign for a “notification” amendment to the ADA (give me 90 days notice that you are going to sue me under the ADA), even though the ADA has no other enforcement mechanisn except that a disabled person sue the offending business…well, now he makes a movie that looks to me (and to the National Spinal Cord) like “Clint Eastwood’s Revenge”.

    Some folks get situationally depressed after a spinal cord injury, no surprise there, and soon after the injury, some express suicidal desires. But there is a pervasive, and wrong, idea that “better dead than THAT” is a reasonable, widespread, opinion among folks with SCI (spinal cord injury).

    In some famous cases where someone not terminally ill requested “right to die” (such as Larry McAfee), the despair was likely more related to lack of services than to disability. When one is not offered assistive technology, personal assistive services, et cetera, or when one is told that one is “a burden”, when we abandon our responsibility to one another as a society, forgetting that about a third of us will become disabled at some time in our lives, denying that disability is a normal consequence of being breakable biological beings, then it becomes easier to “help” one another die.

    Why do we not praise the “bravery” of other depressed folks who off themselves? Why is it a tragedy for queer/fat/bullied teen to kill themselves, but a reasonable choice for someone “wheelchair-bound” to commit sucide, and an act of love/despair/bravery for the parent of a disabled teen to kill their child? (Christine Busalacchi’s death, among many others.)

    Of course, it is more satisfying, more like movies and books, if we have a conclusion, and death of an individual is a conclusion. In life, messy and contingent and unpredictable and long, there are lots of little stories overlapping. And if we do allow some real life disability into our popular movies, it had better be all “inspiring” or all “tragic”, because the day-to-day lives of folks with disabilities are as boring and mundane and bad TV as anyone else’s.

    BTW, as a parent of a disabled adult, I have a “million dollar baby”, too. Yes, indeed, he has “cost” all of us who pay taxes and insurance premiums about that much money, and has contributed little financially as yet (most of his classmates have also contributed little; teenagers have only had a short time to work). So, in the words of the old eugenicists, he has been rather a “useless eater” for nearly two decades.

    How much easier and cleaner and more like a story if I could have spent these last two decades with the halo of tragic motherhood which would have been mine to wear if he had just died during one of those many times he came close. Maybe I could have written a screenplay about my wonderful son, my angel, instead of using my writing time actually living with him. And, how much more money, after all, is this kind, intelligent, creative person going to cost us “normals”?

  • Eric Olsen

    very powerful Skeptyk, thanks for sharing with us. I too am extremely skeptical about the morality and certainly the “heroism” of “mercy killing.” As you demonstrate, in many ways it’s just the easy way out and life isn’t supposed to be always about the easy way out, as far as I can tell.

    Regarding critical philosophy, I feel very sympathetic to Alan’s approach because my mind works in many of the same ways, but I don’t have the energy or knowledge, usually, to pursue these thoughts to their logical and fleshed out conclusions. Perhaps I too take the easy way out.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch


    You know your stuff from personal experience, so your qualms about the ending sound reasonable, and I can’t argue against them, except to say that this particular rehab center was run a bit on the cheap.

    Your comments about Eastwood, however, do not make good sense; neither does the right-wing talk show rhetoric you seem to be spouting, figures intact. Whatever his problems with the ADA, it sounds perfectly loony to say he’s now getting “vengeance” on the disabled. Vengeance how? By taking a poor woman with a dream, having her realize it, and then putting her in a wheelchair so he could kill her? The idea is stupid on its face.

    I agree with much of the rest of what you wrote, and I don’t agree with the decision of Hilary Swank’s character. I do, however, think it was true to her particular character. it seemed believeable to me that a woman who had reached her success in life through purely physical means, by making her body the only instrument she had, could conceivably want to die after her body had been rendered virtually useless. By the same token, I could see her manager, after struggling with the idea, deciding to do as she wished. I’m not saying it is right at all — but fictional characters don’t always do what I want them to. They make their own decisions, and the best we can ask is that those decisions do not seem contrived. In my opinion, the movie delivered in that regard.

    And Eric — I think it is Alan who is taking the easy way out. The kind of approach he’s using is nothing more than a digression.

  • Incredulous

    Oh my God this is the most amazing piece of shit I have read lately. I am flabbergasted.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    Hey, I’m all for death. The more people of whatever description who take themselves out of our overcrowded society the better.


  • Tom French

    The popularity of this movie can only be explained by the unwillingness of American audiences (and Mr Eastwood, apparently) to belive that good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things. This movie’s characters are so polar, they are completely unbelievable. Frankie and Scrap are too good, the only thing that made Frankie bad was that he screwed up his relationship with his daughter and wasn’t sending her letters like he told the priest (who he good naturedly harrassed). Then we find out he is sending her letters. Even in the scenes where he was supposed to be gruff and reveal a side of himself that must have caused the rift with his daughter, he directs himself to say it with a smirk, so we know he really doesn’t mean it. How can anyone believe he did anything wrong to alienate his daughter? The characters of maggie’s family were so unbelievably evil. You mean to tell me even an uncaring mother will show such callousness to go to Disney world and show no sadness seeing their quadrapelegic daughter for the first time? The only reason I could ever see to have such one dimensional characters would be to portray some great truth. I didn’t see the great truth in giving up on your one dimensional life and the man who helps you. Would have been much richer to see her use her power of determination to change her life into something else when her first obsession is taken away from her. Swank was great but she was dealing with terrible lines in a terribly written and directed movie.

  • Skeptyk

    Hey, Rodney, this is a first for me. I have never been accused of spouting “the right-wing talk show rhetoric you seem to be spouting, figures intact.” Yikes. Lest all my anarcho-socialist queer atheist credibility be lost, let me say that I did not find those figures (about how much $$$ Eastwood spent to fight inconvenient wheelchair users) on a right-wing talk show, but in Mary Johnson’s radical, rational book on disability rights, “Make Them Go Away”
    Johnson has a good essay on Ragged Edge Online about the curious experience of being left out of the Left, and she, Marta Russell and others have been asking why neither the Left nor the Right seem to grok disability rights. To the loudest mouths on the Right (those religious bigots who hijacked the Republican party) disability activists like Not Dead Yet are seen as a little, weird subset of right-to-lifers, which they are decidedly NOT.

    As for the Left, there is a history of identity politics, and folks who identify as, say, anti-war, may also be gay, disabled, Latina…different identities are ascendent politically in one person at one time. In the early 70’s feminists argued about the sexism in the anti-war groups, in the 80’s gays argued about the homophobia in the anti-nuke groups, et cetera. It is a complex discussion but maybe you get the idea.

    I have complained for years about how frequently the meetings of anti-war and civil rights groups are held in inaccessible places. Still. This complaint is ignored usually, or resented: since I know the group has little money, I should not complain, and since “you are not in a wheelchair, and no one else here is, who is being excluded?” Or folks offer to carry a wheelchair user up the steps, as if every transfer is just a matter of brute strength, as if that is as good as a ramp and/or an automatic door.

    Don’t even get me started on little things like asking for a closed captions or even just a transcript for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing folks when a film is shown. Every time I hear “No, no one else ever asked for that…”, I realize again how resigned most folks with disabilities are to being left out a lot. Not to mention the internalization of oppression.

    I, of course, do not know what is in Eastwood’s head. The man has good taste in music, some fine scoring in his movies using old jazz recordings. He did not write the original story from which he spun this movie, but he chose it. And Maggie is not the only character in the movie associated with disablement, there are also Danger and Scrap. But for a guy who prides himself on telling a tale with authentic detail, Eastwood spends the last part of the movie wallowing in anachronism. Is that so he could tell the story from the book, which was written decades ago? Then why not film the whole thing as a period piece, of a period before the ADA, before the Bouvia case, before the disability rights movement?

    Like any other work, viewers bring themselves to the viewing, and I found myself wondering about all the newly disabled folks returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeing this film. Maybe the reduction in VA and other services will politicize them, but the popular media prefer stories of “overcoming” or despair, treating disability rights like special rights, accomodations like a medical problem rather than a civil rights issue.

    BTW, those who want to suicide themselves after such disablement are almost always the newly disabled, (or folks who have been disabled a long time and have new issues, physical or otherwise).

    I hope folks also go see “Murderball”, a documentary about quad rugby. Maggie/Hillary could have been only a slightly different story and the movie could have ended with her slamming her chair into other athletes on the rugby pitch. Ka-pow!

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  • MakeMyDay

    CTOBER 6, 2000

    By John M. Williams

    The Clint Eastwood Verdict Makes My Day
    A jury has found in the actor’s favor, and that sends a strong signal about the Disabilities Act: It’s a good law, but don’t misuse it

    Famed film star Clint Eastwood couldn’t have scripted it better himself. On Sept. 29, a U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., ruled that the Academy Award-winning director and actor wasn’t liable for damages in a case filed against him by Diane zum Brunnen. A resident of Alameda, Calif., zum Brummen alleged that Eastwood’s Carmel Mission Ranch Inn violated title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (see BW Online, 5/10/00, “Now, Dirty Harry Is Gunning for the ADA “) and 5/17/00, “Clint Eastwood Explains His Beef with the ADA “).

    Disregarding a closing argument from zum Brunnen’s attorney that compared her to Rosa Parks, the five-man and three-woman civil jury found the disabled woman had suffered no harm at Eastwood’s inn. The jury did find Eastwood guilty only of two minor violations — lack of a wheelchair-accessible ramp and not having a sign to point disabled patrons to wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Eastwood has long since remedied both of these situations.

    The verdict makes my day. Many in the disability community have voiced outrage over this outcome. As anyone who reads this column knows, I strongly support the ADA. I believe every building and bathroom should be accessible to the disabled. Access to public and private buildings is a right, and it should be protected.

    That said, I also believe that sometimes attorneys and people with disabilities abuse the ADA. The Eastwood case is one of these instances — and never should have gone to court. Furthermore, I believe these ill-advised lawsuits do far more harm than good by frightening business owners, encouraging expensive litigation, and making cooperation on compliance far more difficult to achieve.

    The battle between Dirty Harry and zum Brunnen, who has muscular dystrophy, started when she and her husband arrived on a Sunday afternoon in January, 1996, to spend the night at Eastwood’s inn. According to documents filed in the case, the couple didn’t have a reservation and learned the only room for wheelchair users was occupied. They stayed for dinner. Afterward, Mrs. zum Brunnen claimed she was directed to an inaccessible bathroom. There was a wheelchair-accessible bathroom closer than the bathroom to which she said she had been directed, but no one told her about it, according to filings submitted in the case.

    NO ANSWER. The zum Brunnens left the hotel and sent several letters to Eastwood complaining about the inaccessible bathroom. When the letters went unanswered, on Jan. 21, 1997, zum Brunnen’s attorney, Paul Rein, who has initiated more than 20 ADA cases, filed a federal suit against Eastwood. John Burris was brought in for the trial. He specializes in litigating complaints of ADA violations and believed Eastwood had broken the law. “There was a clear violation of the rules when Mrs. zum Brunnen visited, and Mr. Eastwood, as owner of the Mission Ranch, is responsible for the violations of those rules,” said Burris during the trial.

    For more than two years after the complaint had been filed, zum Brunnen and her attorney sought a cash settlement from Eastwood. Last spring, Eastwood told a congressional committee that zum Brunnen wanted an out-of-court settlement of $576,000. It wouldn’t have been her first. Previously, zum Brunnen had won an ADA lawsuit filed against Mendocino’s historic Heritage House Hotel, which paid $20,000 to her and $48,000 to her lawyer. In that case, zum Brunnen complained that a doorway was too narrow and an ocean-front path too rough for her wheelchair.

    Not only did Eastwood refuse to settle but he also turned the case into a media war and a four-year legal slugfest. “I’m doing this to help protect small-business people from the same kind of lawsuit,” he told this columnist before the trial. Eastwood’s attorneys warned him that if he fought the case in court, he could end up stuck paying $1 million worth of zum Brunnen’s legal bills. Under the law, the complainant’s attorneys in ADA cases can collect their legal fees from the other side if they win. This double-whammy is why businesses often settle out of court rather than fight.

    During the trial, Eastwood’s attorney, Chuck Keller, told the jury that zum Brunnen may not have even visited the hotel. “There are many discrepancies in her story, and there is a lack of corroboration,” Keller said. “For zum Brunnen to win, she must prove that she visited Mission Ranch as a bona fide guest, not on a pretext, setting the stage for this lawsuit.” For her part, zum Brunnen had pledged to give her legal winnings to charity.

    READY TO APPEAL. The jury took only five hours to deliberate — and it came down squarely on Dirty Harry’s side. “The verdict was correct. I hope I set an example for other small businesses to follow,” said Eastwood, adding he would have appealed if he had lost. And he’s right on the money. All along, Eastwood says that he has supported the ADA’s access requirements and continues to. And the facts support him: Eastwood’s hotel did have a wheelchair-accessible bathroom and a wheelchair-accessible room. When notified of existing problems, he fixed them, as mandated by the law. And zum Brunnen’s offer to settle for nearly a half-million dollars seems excessive to this columnist in light of the circumstances.

    By standing up and taking the case to trial, Eastwood sent the right message. Since Congress passed the ADA in 1990, the disabled community has filed thousands of lawsuits against businesses, most of which have been settled out of court. The vast majority of ADA lawsuits have rightfully served as a last resort to force business owners to put in place legally mandated equal-access provisions. And this strong legal crowbar has played a major role in literally opening doors to the disabled across this country.

    But the outcome of this trial should serve both as a warning to trial lawyers and a wake-up call to businesses, especially small ones. The ADA is a landmark law. People with disabilities should resort to it as a legal weapon only after they truly have been denied access and have exhausted all other remedies. And small-business owners should understand that they have rights and recourse to reasonable remedies under the ADA, too. Lawyers who knowingly — and repeatedly — misuse the ADA to try to collect cash settlements should be dealt with by the American Bar Assn.

    At the end of the trial, zum Brunnen’s attorney declared that the case was a victory for the disabled by raising awareness of the issues. It sure did, in more ways than he realizes.

    What do you think about this issue? Let us know at BW Online’s Assistive Tech Forum. Or drop John a line
    Edited by Alex Salkever

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman



    While the comments went far outside the original post, it is nice to see assertions regarding Eastwood’s legal matters answered, at least as far as we know, by legal fact. If anyone follows up on this, I’d like to know about it.

    I am just glad I can have a Do Not Resuscitate order alongside my organ donor card if I am ever disabled to such a terrible extent. I am not for taking the easy way out of a tough situation, but if I could no longer care for myself in a semi-vegetative state, I think I’d rather not live in such a manner, nor burden my family.

  • MakeMyDay

    Btw, the best Million Dollar Baby review I’ve read, Dale.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Thank you.

  • sydney

    ya I agree with SFCSKi on this one,

    More people have to be aware of the legalities surrounding their deaths/or incapacitation.

    My mother works in intensive care and she says it outrgeous how many millions we waste on people who are brain dead and comatose, and only thier heart is going. By law they have to keep rescusitating and it’s a major drain on health care not to mention a miserable way to go.

    People fill out the cards and check that box that says “let me die a reasonable, and natural death”, and the other box that says “donate my organs to the smoker who wasted his”.

    oh and.. if hillary swank dies, i think she should donate her boobs to someone else. Those are nice boobs.

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    I’ll take ’em!

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Okay, the last two are my favorite comments in the whole string.

  • Eric Olsen

    you hit the motherlode (not sure of what exactly) on this one Alan

  • hz

    This is an interesting piece which reveals to me, all at once, why film critics are real scholars and why they are irrelevant. The simple fact is that people like Alan Dale has seen so many movies, and tried so hard to sort throught and make sense of them, that movies became something totally different to them than to the average audience. In other words, their reaction to a movie bears no resemblance to that of a real human being for which this movie is produced. This is not a unique phenonemon but one that troubles all kinds of scholars. They’re nice people and know a whole lot, but they’re simply out of touch and irrelevant. If nonsense is defined as unfounded statements, scholars don’t talk nonsense – their comments are well researched. But most of them end up in the same place: when they talk nobody listens, but they keep on talking to themselves, gaining self-righteousness as they talk.

  • Pretentious Reviewer

    This has to be the absolute shittiest review I’ve ever read. I hope you’re not getting paid for this.

  • http://www.livedigital.com Henri Duong

    This was a great movie BTW:)and great critics here!

  • Linda Lam

    Feelings – if you fall for everything, how do you know when it’s true?