Thursday, February 10, 2005

Dirty Harry - "Pinko" American Movie Star

The weekly Frank Rich media column is up on the NYT site as of today, otherwise wait until this Sunday's paper to read one of the more insightful commentators we have on popular culture. He really nails it in his latest offering, the surprising conservative backlash against Clint Eastwood's new movie "Million Dollar Baby." Far-right discourse appears to have taken a nefarious turn, attacking even fellow Republicans who beg to differ on an important moral issue and I, for one, was a bit shocked to see Clint labelled as something akin to a "pinko." It's back to the 1950s.

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. Always a sentimental country, we're now living fulltime in the bathosphere. Our 24/7 news culture sees even a human disaster like the tsunami in Asia as a chance for inspirational uplift, for "incredible stories of lives saved in near-miraculous fashion," to quote NBC's Brian Williams. (The nonmiraculous stories are already forgotten, now that the media carnival has moved on.) Our political culture offers such phony tableaus as a bipartisan kiss between the president and Joe Lieberman at the State of the Union, not to mention the promise that a long-term war can be fought without having to endure any shared sacrifice or even too many graphic reminders of its human cost.

Rich is really correct to comment on the saccharine quality of American sentimentality (the British version might be called "treacle"). We have drifted ever-more into an Oprah-like treatment of emotion, where even the most inner thoughts and feelings have to be packaged in a consumer-friendly format, and dragged out into the camera lights of morning network shows. Where is the privacy? Where is the personal reflection without need for public display?

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.

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