Sunny Days in Heaven
Spiritual/Political/Philosophical Blog on the Nature of Truth and Falsehood and Heaven

Saturday, January 15, 2005  

Interesting review

These concluding thoughts at the end of a review of Million Dollar Baby give some lift to my own thoughts about serious storytelling.

This is an honest portrayal of what the world looks like to those whose faith in a benevolent God fails. Million Dollar Baby may not be an inspiring movie, but it is at least honest about the consequences of giving up on God, and about our responsibility to be brave examples of love and grace to those who are suffering and afraid.

The film's closing act does not justify the condemnation that the film is sure to receive from reactionaries. Just because a character commits a sin does not rob a story of all of its virtues, and even a misguided tale can create opportunity for rewarding discussion. Nevertheless, it is important to note that a desirable end does not justify deplorable means. The final actions of Frankie and Maggie, while understandable and in some ways appealing, demonstrate a failure of hope, a lack of faith, a collapse of courage, and the loss of an opportunity for God to work wonders. Frankie would say he just "stepped into the punch," but I say he "threw in the towel."

Fortunately, even when human beings give up on God, he doesn't give up on them. Hopefully, the despair at the end of this story will coax viewers to choose a different path if they ever face similar trials. We can also hope that these storytellers, who seem so disillusioned with God, will stop worrying about "protecting themselves" and instead trust that God will be there to catch them when they fall. Such fatalism fades when we see that Christ has robbed death of its sting.

It is important to honestly portray a world without faith in God, yet for the faithless, such a story acts to confirm nihilism and despair; not point the way to hope.

Yet, it is unbearable that stories be obviously didactic; and conversion stories are all the same. So the dilemma is how to show the world as it is, and faithlessness as it is, and the desire for Truth and meaning as people have it while entertaining (engaging interest) at the same time?

That is what makes Citizen Kane the best movie of all time. It follows the natural arc of a promising but faithless life. It does so by assuming a moralistic foundation that goes unspoken which the audience naturally accepts as accurate.

Kane's adultery is not presented as an especially evil action. We understand and to some extent sympathize with Kane, we also clearly see that it is cheap and tawdry, and a clear nmoral failure on his part. We do not hate Kane, but our admiration for him dims and keeps dimming as he declines into darkness and egotism.

By the end, we have an absolute sense of a wasted life that began in innocence and joy (Rosebud). Our sense of what is best for people (and ourselves) to do and be in life becomes explicit. As Kane's life narrows and diminishes, our own sense of moral clarity, meaning, and purpose grows.

I haven't seen the Million Dollar Baby, but I am doubtful that that is what occurs at the end for the audience.

Citizen Kane is a kind of anti-conversion story. By illustrating Kane's descent, it seems to convert us to want a meaningful and truer life. That is also one effect of reading Hamlet. (Many people do not consider the play presentable on stage. It is an epic poem.)

The problem for movie makers, though, is that Citizen Kane has been done. Any attempt to follow the template is an imitation bound to be less compelling than the original.

Far more compelling drama would be for the Frankie character to discover just how wrong his action with the girl was. If he could have a moment of revelation to illuminate the folly of faithless behavior, then we might actually be getting somewhere with the story; that despair is not the inevitable outcome of suffering.

posted by Mark Butterworth | 10:36 AM |