Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Million Dollar Baby- Rumination on an Unseen Movie

I've always been a big fan of movies and being a critic comes quite naturally. I can remember even at an early age typing out some "mini-reviews". Back then I really didn't know how to evaluate a movie. I hadn't yet developed a philosophy of life, nor had I lived enough to be able to relate to many things I was seeing portrayed on screen. So how could I know what to make of them? Part of growing up means learning how to evaluate the meaning and value of things, not only in movies, but also in life.

For example, it seems there are a number of criteria one might use in critiquing, let's say, a film-- aesthetic values, morality, entertainment value--it really depends on what one is looking for. Now what one looks for says much about the person-- what they consider important.

It seems safe to say that today's movie going public (which generally ignores critics) mostly goes to movies seeking "entertainment". What this means to them is hard to determine, since what's popular among moviegoers is constantly changing and seems so subjective. Judging from the films that usually fare biggest at the box-office, most of the time people seem to be looking for thrills, chills and laughs. Why is that? What does that say about popular taste?

The big wins for Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" at the recent (77th) Academy Awards (director, actress, supporting actor, picture) caused me to ponder the following: What exactly makes a movie worth seeing? It's been reported that Million Dollar Baby was not a big box office draw. Why then did it win so many awards? Is it worthy of them?

I have read evangelical Christian commentaries about Million Dollar Baby-- many stating that since the film apparently endorses the idea of assisted suicide, it is not the kind of movie Christians ought to see, let alone one meriting a Best Picture award. Some also complain that this picture is being so lauded, while Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was pretty much snubbed by the Oscars.

As a Christian, I certainly understand this complaint. So many films today lack a traditional morality. And the storytelling gift of talented filmmakers enables them to portray characters who make evil, or at least morally questionable decisions, in a sympathetic light; thus their choices don't seem so wrong after all. This is a very insidious and dangerous thing. So I'm all for seeing more films made about characters who are morally upright and who make good ethical choices. Nevertheless, a film with a "good" character may be a bad film. Why? Because one may have ethically decent characters, but to make a great film requires many other elements : fine acting, a well-written screenplay, strong dialogue, skillful cinematography, and so on. The art involved in doing these things well can be learned; surely some of this ability derives from that mysterious thing known as talent.

I haven't yet seen Million Dollar Baby-- when I heard what is was about, I was a bit put off. But it's not because I reflexively decided that a film containing a certain message about assisted suicide would be morally wrong to see--- it's mostly because I hate getting attached to a character and then seeing them get killed off. Now as a Christian I don't agree with assisted suicide [though giving someone the right to choose whether or not they want to be kept alive by machines-- when otherwise they would die-- might be a different story]. Yet having seen other Eastwood films, and having seen these actors in other productions, I wouldn't be at all surprised if all the accolades and awards regarding the film's direction, acting, and storytelling are indeed well deserved. So my feeling is that the desire to see, or even actually seeing the movie, doesn't equate with endorsing it's pro-assisted suicide message (if indeed that is the film's message). Perhaps viewing the film might give me an opportunity to discuss the film's meaning with someone who's not a Christian, and enter into a constructive dialogue. But I think that what I'm really trying to say is that I want to see quality films--sure, I'd prefer if the movies were more Christian-- more decent, less selfish, embodying biblical values--but Christians ought not to expect the world to produce such movies; we've got to make them ourselves.

But as we move in this direction, let's not lose sight of the fact that certain skills are required. A noble story and characters does not a great movie make. The influence of decency that comes when Christians fulfill their God-given calling as “salt” in the culture will help elevate the moral and aesthetic standard of what constitutes entertainment nowadays. We see today a world of entertainment propelled by what the Bible calls the “lusts of the flesh”; Christian artists must operate on the higher plane of the Spirit, yet without becoming overly mired in didactics and without neglecting the development of true artistry. Bible narratives suggest a possible model for the Christian artist wanting to convey truth. The Scriptures show us people who love God, yet are human, flawed and make mistakes. Often they become heroes--not because they achieve moral perfection, but because in their determination to follow and realize God's higher purpose for their lives, God's grace works out that purpose. Evildoers and their negative ends are presented as warnings, not romanticized or glorified. Of course, the stories of the Bible are ultimately meant to instruct. Though at times literary, entertaining or poetic, the Bible is not Art, at least not as we traditionally understand art. Yet the Bible might be viewed as a collaborative work of art, one fashioned by God and man. However, its unique authority as divine revelation gives it meaning that transcends merely human creations. But perhaps the best art can aspire to reflect truth with the same degree of honesty and decency as the Bible. As artists who are Christian, this is a worthy goal.

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