Friday, January 23, 2009

A Window and a Magnifying Glass

I’ve never been a terribly voracious carnivore, but the best way that I think I can explain what the movies mean to me is to bring up steak. Imagine for a moment that you are a person who loves the stuff. You’d probably have all of your favorite restaurants all lined up in your mind, ranked from best to worst or worst to best, based on the quality of the steak. But the thing that would probably stick out in your mind was the one steak that stood out above the rest; the one steak that started this great love affair. I bet you’d know exactly where it was and how wonderful it tasted. In fact, I bet that every other time you’d go out to eat, that one steak would be in the back of your mind, poking at you. Sure, you might go to Carl’s Jr. to enjoy a hamburger now and then, but you’d know that the strangely named “Six Dollar Burger” didn’t even compare to “the one.” Even if you went to an upscale restaurant with excellent cuisine, while you might enjoy the food, that steak would still be in your thoughts. Then, just when you’d just about began to give up hope that you’d ever have one that good again, you go out and VOILA! Brought to you on a plate that might as well have come borne on the wings of an angel comes another that you’ll remember for a long time, maybe forever.

That is how I feel about the movies. “The one” directly correlates to the films that have left such an imprint on me that I consider the time when I watched them to be a life-altering event. I have often been told that my love of the cinema is misplaced and that the devotion that I bring to the films I love (and the films I hope to love) would be better placed elsewhere. People have said things to me like “it’s only a movie” and “there’s more to life than movies.” By their own statements, they have implied that the type of things that they love and value are somehow inherently more important than the one thing that has become the great passion of my life. I disagree. While I cannot dispute that there is more to life than thinking about, talking about, and watching films, I find it troublesome that these other people feel a need to discredit my connection with the cinema because they do not understand it. At the end of the day, I have decided that I am truly a very fortunate person to have found something that I have connected with on such a personal level. If those individuals who don’t understand have never felt such a passion for something in their own lives, then I sincerely feel sorry for them.

I’ve been blessed with many “steaks” in my life, some of which I have spoken with you about here. I would like to talk about the one that is most prominent in my memory and left the deepest impression.

It was January 7, 2005. My sister and I went to a 1:15 showing at the Block of Orange in Orange, CA. We bought our tickets at 1:00 and entered one of the multiplex’s larger theaters, which was mostly empty, due to the time and the fact that the movie was in limited release. The film was Million Dollar Baby. I sat there in my seat for 2 hours and 12 minutes, and when I left, I was a different person. I don’t think it was something that I really realized at first. My sister and I, who normally don’t have any trouble finding things to talk about, drove the 15 minutes it took to get home in relative silence. The rest of my day was spent thinking about the film. I literally could not take my mind off of it. Even when I tried to think about something else, I just couldn’t do it. The film seemed to be demanding my attention, even though it had been over for hours.

Million Dollar Baby is the story of three people whose lives come together in a boxing gym. Frankie (Clint Eastwood) owns the facility and manages boxers that he deems worthy, and Scrap (Morgan Freeman) serves as the gym’s janitor. Maggie (Hilary Swank) comes to the gym and begins training in the hopes that Frankie will help her become a professional fighter. Frankie reluctantly agrees and the two begin working their way toward a title fight.

What makes this film a tricky one is that, for much of its duration, it’s a conventional boxing picture, albeit a very good one at that. Then, around the midpoint, everything changes. Everything. Million Dollar Baby becomes not only a look at the prices one must pay to get to the top, but also becomes a meditation on the meaning of friendship, loyalty, and what happens when someone is forced to give up a dream. I don’t feel that I am justified in going into detail about exactly what takes place in the film, despite the fact that it’s been out for several years. A part of me seems to rebel against that, due to having had a number of films spoiled for me in that way. However, what I will say is that the film shook me to my shoes, so to speak. It took a very complex issue that, to that point, I had very brusquely presumed that I knew my feelings on and turned it upside down. For the first time, I was forced to truly consider it and question my old assumptions. Easy answers weren’t enough. They couldn’t be. Somehow, Frankie, Maggie, and Scrap didn’t deserve that. For the first time, I became aware that some questions cannot be answered. Some decisions are too terrible to be justified, whether the decision is to do something or not to do something. Either way, with some things in life, perhaps with too many things, someone loses.

I think that my experience watching Million Dollar Baby makes a larger point about what I love about the movies. When I watch a film, I am not interested in merely being entertained, although I hope to enjoy the films that I watch. What I want is a window and a magnifying glass. The window is an opening into the life of another person or group of people. This person might be a lot like me, or we might have nothing in common. The magnifying glass is that chance to do the single most important thing that one person can do for another. It gives me the chance to understand. It is not the enjoyment of seeing beautiful people in exotic locations or seeing people escape dangerous situations with explosions going off all around that entices me. It is that chance to understand that makes going to the movies so special for me. The other stuff may be enough for some people, but not for me.

That’s why I refuse to watch some films. Some friends of mine present the idea that I need to broaden my horizons and watch more movies. However, I remind you of that steak I mentioned earlier. That’s what I’m after, not the cheap imitations. Sure, I might go get “fast food” sometimes by going to see a film that’s just trying to be funny, entertaining, and harmless, but that steak is always in the back of my mind. In fact, I think it’s in the back of my mind every single time I watch a new film. I’m always hopeful that whatever film I’m watching will be another life-changing moment. With high hopes like that, I’m usually disappointed, because those moments are few and far between. Of course, I know that certain films won’t be able to meet those standards, but I always hold out that hope.

4 years later, Million Dollar Baby is still one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. Since that overcast January afternoon, I’ve seen a few films that have stopped me in my tracks, but those that have impacted me like Million Dollar Baby are fewer still. I believe that that connection is the highest aim and goal of cinema, and that’s why I go to the movies.


Anonymous said...

"People have said things to me like “it’s only a movie” and “there’s more to life than movies.” By their own statements, they have implied that the type of things that they love and value are somehow inherently more important than the one thing that has become the great passion of my life. I disagree. While I cannot dispute that there is more to life than thinking about, talking about, and watching films, I find it troublesome that these other people feel a need to discredit my connection with the cinema because they do not understand it"

Hahahaha! You are a kindred spirit indeed, my brother.

Baby was a fine film indeed, and I was happy to see Clint get all the accolades he deserved for making it.

As for "the one", I know what you mean but at the same time I was also raised on American junk cinema and although I can much better appreciate some of the films that would have put me to sleep as a younger viewer, I still don't mind going back to my roots and watching some of the films that inspired me as a child as corny or cheesy some of them are to some people.

When reviewing a film, I try to be fair since you really can't compare a film like Million Dollar Baby to something like say.....You Got Mail. However, you can compare it to other films in its genre, past work of the director/cast, or other films in the series.

I also find it funny, how sometimes the most disposable and forgotten of films can sometimes have the most signifigance on some future critically acclaimed director but I guess that's part of the reason why I enjoy reading other people's reviews of films so much.

Adam said...

I actually haven't watched some films for years that I loved as a child. I want to keep remember just how special they were, instead of realizing how corny they are. :-)

Actually, when I rate a movie, I do do it on an absolute quality scale. I know that some critics prefer to use a relative system, but I think that'd just be too complicated for me. My mind doesn't work that way very easily.

So, if I was going to rate "You've Got Mail" and "Million Dollar Baby," YGM would get 4 stars and MDB would get 5 stars. Of course, I do recognize that each film has completely different goals, themes, and genre conventions. I'm not pretending that either film is trying to "be" the other, but, at the same time, both are films, so a comparison on that is possible.

However, while I might rate on an absolute scale, the review itself would be where I would make the comparisons to other films in the genre. For example, if I was reviewing "You've Got Mail," in the review, I'd be sure to mention that it's a superior romantic comedy and a great example of what the genre is capable of. I'd probably mention that it was head and shoulders above most of the romantic comedies that this decade has turned out.

So, while my ratings are on the absolute scale, my reviews tend to be somewhat more on the relative scale.

Anonymous said...

That's exactly what my aunt does, if its a bad film she has no problem seeing it again but if its a great one, she'll only see it once.

Of course. I tend to show more leniency towards something that's going for something new instead of following a formula but at the same time its almost more painful when one fails doesn't live up to its full potential.

That does seem like a very unbiased way to rate them. Then of course there are those few that actually make you reconsider what you said about them the first time around which is frustrating but also one of the more interesting things about film reviews.