What’s inside those “sculpted spaces of dark intimacy”
A reluctant old coach trains a not so young woman, turning her, for good and ill, into the boxing champion that both knew she could become. But here the play is not the thing.
The settings, the era, and the characters may change, but in every film Clint Eastwood directs we see the same urge to recreate a world, to compose frames where shadow lighting sculpts spaces of dark intimacy, allowing a brief corps à corps.
Since he’s begun directing (staging) himself, Eastwood has put at the heart of each film the man-woman relationship: lovers, husbands and wives, and fathers and daughters. A world separates the characters he has played for other directors from those he has chosen for himself. His body now is like an old tree, no longer lean but gaunt, his scratchy voice now so thin as to be almost inaudible. For 30 years, directors used that body to incarnate the archetypal man, the man without a name, family, or origin, and to define relations between men, competitive, violent, western, the man who eliminated all possible form of masculine competition. Can it be a coincidence that Clint Eastwood is an anagram for Old West Action?
When he first picked up the camera in 1971, although the violence lingered for awhile, the struggle became man against woman — Play Misty for Me (right), or die. It’s unsurprising that his favorite movie is The Beguiled, directed by his mentor Don Siegel, which sets one man (Clint) against a tribe of women. The Lawrencian-style wrestle between man and man, the subject of the films in which he merely acted, seems simple compared with the larger exploration of the often seemingly impossible relationships between men and women: the husband (doomed); lover (abandoned); father (inept); children (resentful). There lies the real challenge, which takes a lifetime, or at least a whole movie, to comprehend and overcome. As a director he’s approached this gulf with verisimilitude, usually through substitution: the stand-in husband in The Bridges of Madison County and many other films; the symbolic head of the “family” in Bronco Billy and The Outlaw Josey Wales, and here, in Million Dollar Baby, the surrogate father. His body has become a discourse in itself, with his pelvis thrusting forward, torso thickening, arms too heavy to fight and too muscled to embrace.
In Million Dollar Baby, the hole left by the unexplained absence of Frankie’s (Eastwood) daughter is filled by Maggie (Hilary Swank). His initial reluctance (“I don’t train girls”) owes more to a subconscious fear of fathering again than to any professional misgiving, as seen in his vocabulary changes from “girl” to “you’re a good daughter.” She’s a child/woman of 32 whose legs shake when she sits in the corner and who smashes all the adversaries (toys) her father buys for her. “You’re my blood,” he inscribes on her body from the beginning (on her boxing robe). He sits close by with his Yeats (a touchstone for Eastwood) as doctors work on her bleeding nose, the way he might have on his child’s skinned knees. He reads, perhaps:
My dear, my dear, I know,
More than another,
What makes your heart beat so.
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know . . .
And murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child,
When sleep at last has come,
To limbs that had run wild.
Then, deftly switching point of view, Maggie comes to accept Frankie as her father in the beautiful sequence in the gas station where so much is said without a word (the film is a master class in direction). After a disastrous meeting with her mother and sister, Maggie is filmed through the wet windshield that Frankie is wiping (it’s her face he is wiping, symbolically and at a distance, because she doesn’t know how to cry, only how to fight). She sees a little girl in another car, then herself as this little girl (this is cleverly suggested through the use of the model, a ’60s truck, and may be a memory). They smile and we see a transference in which she has left her family and adopted Frankie. He takes the wheel, his little girl is now grown up, her name is Maggie. “You’ve got me”; neither is alone in yet another of Eastwood’s substitute families, which work so much better than the real thing (in A Perfect World, even his escaped convict made the better father to the kidnapped child).
Eastwood explores the bonds continually tied and untied between men and women, and the attempt to reconcile family and professional life. That he draws from the well of his life is clear since so often his main characters are themselves artists, whose professional life can be more private than their family life, making the conflict even more acute: the photographer in Madison County, the musician in Honky Tonk Man (surely he would have wished to play the lead in Bird), the director in White Hunter, Black Heart, the boxing guru in Million Dollar Baby, and even the legendary killer in Unforgiven. In all these movies, the conflict between the creator and the people around him leads to self-destruction (often by alcohol) or the destruction of the family, or of the creation.
Maggie is both family and creation, but it’s not making her a boxer that destroys her but making her his daughter. It’s when she looks prematurely for his approval that she forgets to protect herself, and, as with the family in Josey Wales and the mother in Unforgiven, and many more, blood ties engender bloodshed. Eddie’s (Morgan Freeman) plea that, unlike most people, she “got her shot” (she can die because she has already lived), might console the coach but never the father. Why give life at all (why make her a boxing champion) if it means to father death as well? A father could not measure life by intensity rather than duration. Slowly, Frankie overcomes his instinct to keep Maggie alive, even if entombed in a broken body. When Frankie administers the coup de grâce (the creator taking away what he has made), we understand that Eddie’s narration is a letter to Frankie’s real daughter to tell her how he yearned to be a real father. He has become one by accepting this heavy sin and, as the priest had warned, is now lost forever. As in Madison County , Unforgiven, etc. his character can only disappear at the end of the reel through a curtain of mist. Character and film end in the same movement, the creator merges into his creation, and the reading of the letter stops where its writing had started.
Eastwood has himself kept creation and family whole by combining them, as you can see in the credits: Morgan on screen (Eastwood’s daughter, she plays the little girl in the truck that Maggie identifies to…), Kyle (Eastwood) for the score. And Allison, Francesca Ruth, Kimber (7 or 8 children), Dina, Frances, Sondra (3 of his wife /mother), here and there, and for the last 20 years, Joel Cox (editor), Tom Stern (photography), Lennie Niehaus (music)…
“A tall, quiet American,” John Malkovich said of him, who with each film seems even taller and quieter.