Thursday, September 29, 2011

A million dollar friendship

The ancients prized filial love, or friendship, above all the other types of love. C.S. Lewis picks up on this in The Four Loves, and one senses that for Lewis too filial love belonged in a special category. He points out that unlike the more natural loves -- familial (storge) and romantic (eros) -- friendship isn't a necessary part of human survival. Lewis writes, "It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival."

Freud on the other hand viewed friendship with suspicion, believing it to be merely the repression of homosexual or heterosexual eros. In the Freudian universe there's no such thing as "just friends." Our modern society is deeply influenced by Freud so it's not surprising that Hollywood portrayals of unalloyed filial love, particularly between a man and a woman, are few and far between. If there's the possibility of a sexual subtext you can be sure our hyper-sexualized entertainment culture will exploit it. Which brings me to Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film written by Paul Haggis and directed by Clint Eastwood.

It tells the story of an unlikely relationship between boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (played by Eastwood) and female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald -- a memorable Oscar-winning performance by Hilary Swank. Morgan Freeman plays Dunn's colleague Eddie Dupris "Scrap Iron", and it's through his eyes and voice-over narration that the story is told. Enough time has passed that I don't think I'm spoiling anything by describing the ending of the film, in which Dunn "pulls the plug" on Maggie at her request -- following an injury in the boxing ring which renders her a quadriplegic. When the film came out it was accused by some of being a tract in favor of assisted suicide. In retrospect that was a silly charge. Frankie ends Maggie's life realizing that by doing so he may be damned to a darkness from which he'll never emerge. He's been warned as much in a conversation with his priest (Frankie's conflicted Catholicism is a prominent subtext of Haggis's script). We're not told what happens to Frankie only that he's in a place "somewhere between nowhere and goodbye."

Million Dollar Baby is a boxing picture, but fundamentally it's a most unconventional love story. Yes, Frankie comes to love Maggie like a daughter, but even more as a friend. The film is refreshing in the way it shows the relationship of teacher/student evolving into one of deep filial love unclouded by even a hint of eros. Well, you might say, he's old enough to be her father. True enough, but that's never stopped Hollywood from presenting a view of male/female relationships in which carnal instinct always prevails in the end.

A few nights ago I watched the movie again for the first time in a long while. It's an example of the kind of elegant uncomplicated filmmaking Eastwood the director has become known for. Swank, Eastwood and Freeman are as superb as I remembered, and the movie holds up well, primarily I think because of the beautiful doomed friendship at its heart. Here's the scene where Frankie finally reluctantly agrees to be Maggie's trainer.

No comments: