Monday, February 14, 2005

Million Dollar Commie?

No sooner did I spend last Thursday bemoaning the team mentality of zero sum game politics, a mind set that drives participants on both sides of the divide to defend inconsistent positions and view the world through a black and white prism that allows for no nuance, credit given the opposition, or admission of culpability no matter how minor, than Frank Rich brought the most recent example of the up-is-down state of American politics to my attention.

Rich notes, sardonically, that the wind has been taken out of the sails of right-wing culture crusaders by the somewhat unexpected snubbing of Fahrenheit 9/11 at this year's Oscar awards. Not only did Moore's polemic get passed over but, despite the frothy
hate-filled rants of the likes of William Donohue president of the Catholic League, Mel Gibson's The Passion received three nominations. This was Donohue a couple of months ago on a Pat Buchanan hosted episode of Scarborough Country, pre-emptively blaming the Jewish elite for The Passion's predicted rough treatment:

"Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, explained in a colloquy on the subject recently convened by Pat Buchanan on MSNBC. "It's not a secret, O.K.?" Mr. Donohue continued. "And I'm not afraid to say it. That's why they hate this movie. It's about Jesus Christ, and it's about truth."
Donohue's anti-Semitic charged bluster was apparently much ado about nothing since The Passion was thrice recognized. So the culture hawks were left scrambling for a new bogeyman, and you'll never guess who they came up with:

So what do you do? Imagine SpongeBob tendencies in the carefully sanitized J. M. Barrie of "Finding Neverland"? Attack a recently deceased American legend, Ray Charles, for demanding that his mistress get an abortion in "Ray"? No, only a counterintuitive route could work. Hence, the campaign against Clint Eastwood, a former Republican officeholder (Mayor of Carmel, Calif., in the late 1980's), Nixon appointee to the National Council of the Arts and action hero whose breakthrough role in the Vietnam era was as a vigilante cop, Dirty Harry, whom Pauline Kael famously called "fascist." There hasn't been a Hollywood subversive this preposterous since the then 10-year-old Shirley Temple's name surfaced at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in 1938. [emphasis added]
That's right folks. In today's America, Clint Eastwood is a raving liberal. Clint Eastwood. Really. If Clint Eastwood is a liberal, what the heck am I, Uncle Joe? Rich is right to analogize this outlandish cultural policing to McCarthyism. It shares all the logic, or lack thereof, though thankfully less of the potency - at least for now. A closer look at "Dirty Harry the Commie":

His own politics defy neat categorization. He's supported Democrats (including Gray Davis in the pre-Schwarzenegger era) as well as Republicans, professes the libertarian creed of "less government" and "was never a big enthusiast for going to Iraq but never spoke against it once the troops were there." In other words, he's in the same middle as most Americans. "I vote for what I like," he says. "I'm not a loyalist to any party. I'm only a loyalist to the country." That's no longer good enough, apparently, for those who feel an election victory has empowered them to enforce a strict doctrine of political and spiritual correctness.
Nevertheless, the pundit parade is out hunting witches, and even members of their own congregation are not safe from the finger of accusation:

Rush Limbaugh used his radio megaphone to inveigh against the "liberal propaganda" of "Million Dollar Baby," in which Mr. Eastwood plays a crusty old fight trainer who takes on a fledgling "girl" boxer (Hilary Swank) desperate to be a champ. Mr. Limbaugh charged that the film was a subversively encoded endorsement of euthanasia, and the usual gang of ayotallahs chimed in. Michael Medved, the conservative radio host, has said that "hate is not too strong a word" to characterize his opinion of "Million Dollar Baby." Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a longtime ally of the Christian right, went on MSNBC to accuse Mr. Eastwood of a cultural crime comparable to Bill Clinton having "brought the term 'oral sex' to America's dinner tables."
Just what, you might be wondering, is so subversive about Million Dollar Baby? Prepare yourself for this radical neo-Trotskyite manifesto (warning: the following description may reveal parts of the movie not portrayed in advertisements or trailers):

Here is what so scandalously intrudes in the final third of Mr. Eastwood's movie: real life. A character we love - and we love all three principals, including the narrator, an old boxing hand played by Morgan Freeman - ends up in the hospital with a spinal-cord injury and wants to die. Whether that wish will be granted, and if so, how, is the question that confronts not just the leading characters but also a young and orthodox Roman Catholic priest (Brian F. O'Byrne). The script, adapted by Paul Haggis from stories by F. X. Toole, has a resolution, as it must. But the movie has a powerful afterlife precisely because it is not an endorsement of any position on assisted suicide - or, for that matter, of any position on the disabled, as some disability-rights advocates have charged in a separate protest. The characters of "Million Dollar Baby" are complex and fictional, not monochromatic position papers outfitted in costumes, and the film no more endorses their fallible behavior and attitudes than "Ray" approves of its similarly sympathetic real-life hero's heroin addiction and compulsive womanizing.
When you consider the reaction, and then the subject matter, it is hard to conclude anything other than the fact that the outrage itself is more important than the underlying incident, which is increasingly a secondary player in these melodramatic morality plays. And frankly, I am outraged at the outrage. Clint too.

"What do you have to give these people to make them happy?" Mr. Eastwood asked when I phoned to get his reaction to his new status as a radical leftist. He is baffled that those "who expound from the right on American values" could reject a movie about a heroine who is "willing to pull herself up by the bootstraps, to work hard and persevere no matter what" to realize her dream. "That all sounds like Americana to me, like something out of Wendell Willkie," he says. "And the villains in the movie include people who are participating in welfare fraud"....

"I never thought about the political side of this when making the film," Mr. Eastwood says. He is both bemused and concerned that a movie with no political agenda should be construed by some as a polemic and arouse such partisan rage. "Maybe I'm getting to the age when I'm starting to be senile or nostalgic or both, but people are so angry now," he adds. "You used to be able to disagree with people and still be friends. Now you hear these talk shows, and everyone who believes differently from you is a moron and an idiot - both on the right and the left."
Eastwood might be too generous. It's not even people that believe differently, it's people that have the same basic beliefs, but differ in any minor regard. The standard requires ever more discipline and loyalty. Stray from the reservation even for an instant, and you're fair game. Clint Eastwood is more a Republican than a Democrat. He actually held office as a Republican, and his political beliefs are still consistent with the libertarian/traditional conservative point of view. I guess that's not good enough anymore. In the new America, Mr. Eastwood, you're a liberal. Frank Rich scratches the surface and discovers that there is something else that the neo-Right and the morality police find so troubling:

But the most unintentionally revealing attacks on "Million Dollar Baby" have less to do with the "right to die" anyway than with the film's advertising campaign. It's "the 'million-dollar' lie," wrote one conservative commentator, Debbie Schlussel, saying that the film's promotion promises "'Rocky' in a sports bra" while delivering a "left-wing diatribe" indistinguishable from the message sent by the Nazis when they "murdered the handicapped and infirm." Mr. Medved concurs. "They can't sell this thing honestly," he has said, so "it's being marketed as a movie all about the triumph of a plucky female boxer." The only problem with this charge is that it, too, is false. As Mr. Eastwood notes, the film's dark, even grim poster is "somewhat noiresque" and there's "nobody laughing and smiling and being real plucky" in a trailer that shows "triumph and struggles" alike....

What really makes these critics hate "Million Dollar Baby" is not its supposedly radical politics - which are nonexistent - but its lack of sentimentality. It is, indeed, no "Rocky," and in our America that departure from the norm is itself a form of cultural radicalism....

Mr. Eastwood's film, while also boasting great acting, is the only one that challenges America's current triumphalist daydream. It does so not because it has any politics or takes a stand on assisted suicide but because it has the temerity to suggest that fights can have consequences, that some crises do not have black-and-white solutions and that even the pure of heart are not guaranteed a Hollywood ending. What makes some feel betrayed and angry after seeing "Million Dollar Baby" is exactly what makes many more stop and think: one of Hollywood's most durable cowboys is saying that it's not always morning in America, and that it may take more than faith to get us through the night.
And for that, he is Unforgiven. President Bush's defiant proclamation that he doesn't "do nuance" has become a cultural rallying cry, and the undertones are frighteningly fascistic. At the very least, such narrow-mindedness is un-American. Now if the Left could silence their own sanctimonious, holier than thou types, we might just be able to add another wing to our tent to welcome all the middle of the road, right leaning Clint Eastwood types who don't espouse such a simplistic black and white view of the world (somehow, I never thought I would be saying that). The opportunity is ripe: while they're clinging to a Fist Full of Hubris, we can make gains in a new coalition of the willing. Now let's go for the knockout.

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