Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Between Rock and a hard place II

We’re down to the wire on the Oscars. Just a few days left and then we will know the winners of all those gold statuettes. Can things get any more exciting???


Sorry. Dozed off there. Where were we?

Oh, yeah, the Oscars. Whatever.

Anyway, I’m tempted to rewrite last week’s column and do a better job of it. As you may recall (or maybe you don’t if didn’t read it, which I hope you didn’t if you haven’t yet seen Million Dollar Baby, for which major spoilers were included, as they are with this follow-up), that missive was mainly about (assisted) suicide. And that is a topic that recent events have conspired to keep in our collective consciousness. There is that poor woman in Florida, apparently in a vegetative state, whose husband and parents keep fighting over whether to keep her on a feeding tube or to take it away. And then there is the case of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who ended his own life on Sunday in Colorado.

I have written about the topic of suicide before, when I commented about how a minister in the Irish government more or less had his career stopped in its tracks because he had the audacity to opine that maybe young people shouldn’t kill themselves. Okay, that summary spins the story way off in one direction. There are a number of reasons why that particular fellow’s political career went pear-shaped (as they say here), and the uproar was actually less over his position on suicide (nobody here actually came out in favor of young people killing themselves) than over his “insensitivity” toward survivors of young suicides. But the whole episode echoes how the issue has become a hot-button political topic, especially in the US these days. It’s amazing how the usual punditry suspects have lined up on one side or the other on the issue. While the question of suicide in general (and assisted suicide in particular) is a highly personal one and therefore wouldn’t seem to lend itself to the usual liberal/conservative divide, it appears to be happening anyway. Commentators on the left treat the right’s aversion to assisted suicide as some kind of religious intrusion on secular society. While the sanctity of life (with the notable exception of capital punishment) does stem from certain Christian beliefs, the religious angle is somewhat belied by the fact that conservatives who are not associated with the religious right have also lined up on the side of preserving life at all costs as well.

Now, this is a topic that I am not exactly disinterested in. As it happens, I spent the first two weeks of the current year sitting at the bedside of a woman, who was dying but who was not doing it nearly quickly enough to suit her. My emotions caused my thoughts on the subject to flip-flop more than once. My personal instinct had always been that the human will is to survive and that this is for a reason. During my deathbed vigil, however, I found myself thinking that it was plain cruel (even with the best pain medication) to allow a person’s inevitable death to be prolonged needlessly. Then, at the moment of death itself, something strange happened. In the last hours, it seemed as though she was working out a lot of things in her soul that needed to be worked out. And, when she expired normally and naturally on her own, there was an incredible air of peace about her. I don’t pretend to begin to understand it, but it seemed as though the process of death happened the way it did for a reason. Now, this could simply be my perception, and I know that not all deaths are like this. But it was enough to confuse me all or over again about the right and wrong of euthanasia. But I think I am in the mainstream of most people’s opinion that killing someone else is, on the face of it, wrong, but that doesn’t mean that a clear and true act of assisted suicide should always or necessarily be criminally prosecuted. Politicians and pundits on both ends of the political spectrum don’t do themselves, or anybody else, any favors by trying to turn this topic (or its flipside issue, abortion) into a polarizing issue And, anyway, as Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and Roger Ebert have correctly pointed out, Million Dollar Baby was just telling a story and not delivering a political manifesto. The film no more endorses euthanasia than it does welfare fraud (which it also depicts). Sure, no bolt of lighting comes out of the heavens to strike down Clint Eastwood to show the audience that what he did was wrong. But it’s not at all clear what repercussions he, or anybody else, for good or ill, experienced as a result of his action. And, even if the film did deliver a ringing endorsement of mercy killing, that would be the filmmakers’ right. It is after all, at least the last time I checked, still a free country.

As it happens, literally seconds after I published last week’s homily, I came across Medved’s response, published in The Wall Street Journal of all places, to all the criticism he had gotten for his criticism of the movie. He clarified that his main objection to the movie was its advertising campaign, which he called “misleading” (hello? welcome to Hollywood!) because it gave the impression that the film would be uplifting (à la Rocky) even though it was, in Medved’s view anyway, depressing. Sorry, Michael, but that’s pretty weak. If you were just a run-of-the-mill right-wing radio commentator, I could let it slide, but you are actually a film critic of long standing. If you’re going to start trashing movies now purely because of their ad campaigns, you’re on a slippery slope indeed. Have a nice slide.

Anyway, more interesting than all this brouhaha over Million Dollar Baby is the continuing chatter over Academy Awards host Chris Rock. The New Republic (no less) saw fit to dust off a four-year-old opinion piece by Justin Driver, for no apparent reason other than that it was quoted by Ed Bradley last Sunday when he interviewed Rock for 60 Minutes. In that piece, Driver criticized Rock and fellow comedian Chris Tucker for “attempting to shuck, jive, grin, shout, and bulge their eyes all the way back to the days of minstrelsy.” This “controversy” dovetails nicely with the one over Million Dollar Baby. Apparently, Driver wants (or at least wanted four years ago) to make Rock and Tucker and presumably every other African-American comedian conform to behavior that doesn’t offend his personal political agenda. Now, Driver (just like Michael Medved) has every right to have an opinion on what Chris Rock does as an artist and entertainer and to express that opinion publicly. But (again just like Michael Medved) he would be better off criticizing the quality of Rock’s work rather than insisting that it meet a political litmus test.

On the other hand, what better time for entertaining the notion of politics triumphing over art than on the eve of the Oscars? Being in the time zone I’m in, I just hope I can stay awake for them.

* * *

Speaking of movies with “million” in the title, I have revised my ranking of movies I saw during the year 2004. My top movie of the year was Danny Boyle’s wonderful Millions. I had included it in the 2004 list because I generally follow the Internet Movie Database’s practice of assigning movies’ release year according to when they were first screened in the world. But it has become clear that, apart from a few film festival screenings (including Cork’s, where I saw it last October), for all intents and purposes the wider world will consider this movie a 2005 release. So, it now becomes my No. 1 film for 2005 and Million Dollar Baby now becomes my No. 1 film for 2004. And that is mainly because there was no fourth installment of The Lord of the Rings.

-S.L., 24 February 2005

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