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Days of Being Wild ***

Maybe it's mean of me, but I was pleased that Martin Scorsese failed, for the fifth time in five tries, to get his coveted Academy Award. If they gave out statuettes for Best Overdirector, he should have a shelfful. The outcome on Oscar night was particularly pleasing -- in what was touted as the hardest-to-handicap race of the evening, and one which afforded a clear alternative to Scorsese and his methods -- in that the award went instead to Clint Eastwood, his second. I dimly remember saying at the time of his win for Unforgiven, twelve years ago, and I could certainly be saying it again now, that it seems almost unfair, unjust, unnatural, that Eastwood is able, while not being in the least esoteric or elitist, to make exactly the kind of movie he wants to make, in exactly the way he wants to make it, without kowtowing in any fashion to popular taste, and without (so I'm told) test-screening it for a kibitzing crowd of commoners -- and yet also to receive an Academy Award for it! Unforgiven was simply not the "type" of movie that collects an Oscar. Nor is Million Dollar Baby, notwithstanding any impression, in conjunction with the triumph of The Sea Inside in the foreign-film category, of rabid Academy support for the cause of euthanasia.

Scorsese on the other hand, in his increasingly obsessive pursuit of Oscar, has been turning himself wrong side out, attempting desperately to impress other people, making outsized Prestige Pictures of the "type" that traditionally woo and win Oscars: The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, Gangs of New York, and now The Aviator, with its added lure of holding up a mirror to narcissistic Hollywood. He, in short, has sold his soul. In that sense, he probably "deserves" an Oscar, but I personally will be content if he has to settle for one of those lifetime-achievement, career-contribution deals that Sidney Lumet, this year, had to settle for. And frankly, in my view Scorsese still has a ways to go to match the résumé of Lumet.

In all the anguished reasoning of the handicappers (Clint had already won one, Marty was overdue, etc.), I never heard any whisper of the possibility that a nod to Million Dollar Baby would serve as a sort of make-up (a standard line in handicappers' reasoning) for the bypassing last year of Eastwood's Mystic River, when it, and he, lost out to Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, really a collective award to three movies in one, an award to monumentalism, an award to money, a "typical" award. I like to think, all the same, that some kind of recompense may have factored into the vote. Mystic River must be one of the very best movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture in the entire seventy-seven years of Oscars. Million Dollar Baby, good as it is, isn't that good.

Speaking of recompense: the suspense of Oscar night, for me, was doubtless diminished by my dragging in from the airport after the finish of the show and having to watch it later that night on videotape, fast-forwarding through commercials, Beyoncé, and acceptance speeches by sound technicians and such. But I was amply compensated for this by having been in Wichita, Kansas, on a family errand, the very day of BTK's arrest and only one day after I had taken a tour of all the known murder sites. There cannot have been a better day in all of recorded history to be caught alive in Wichita.

Determined at all costs to avoid a repeat of last year, when I saw only one new movie more than once, I herewith disclose that I prodded myself to go back for a second look at Million Dollar Baby. I cannot say I got much more out of it, although it did mean more to me when Eastwood mutters to himself, and to no one else, the words "Mo Cuishle," a short while before he spells these out on the back of his fighter's new silk robe. Even the first time through, however, it struck me as inconceivable in this day and age, even in as marginal a sport as women's boxing, that a fighter could ascend all the way to a title bout without some enterprising journalist digging up the meaning of those words, and spoiling the lovely moment when Eastwood finally reveals it.

As accomplished and polished a director as he is, or has become, Eastwood still is not the most distinctive visual stylist -- not a Hitchcock, not a Welles, not even a Scorsese -- and Million Dollar Baby is more toned down, more levelled off, more straightened up than usual: his customary diagonals, more precisely, are a bit closer to parallels and perpendiculars. This filmmaker lacks, all through his output, what we might call a theoretical base, or what we might otherwise call intellectual pretensions. If he thus never quite inspires my complete confidence, he all the more inspires my admiration. Every step is a potential misstep; he proceeds on instinct, not on doctrine. An example of a lapse, rare though it may be, would be his switch into slow-motion at the turning point in the title fight. That's not the stamp of a master. Ninety-nine out of a hundred other Hollywood directors would have done the same thing, the conventional thing, the trite thing, although admittedly those other ninety-nine directors, Scorsese included, would have been switching into slow-motion in the earlier fights as well. And while I have my quibbles with the dreamlike ease and convenience of the final scene at the hospital, I am compelled to point out that the Eastwood character's vanishment into oblivion -- into the mists of guesswork and rumor -- carries powerful reverberations of the ending in Unforgiven. I ought to have pointed it out in my initial review.

I also went back for a second look, albeit after an interval of twelve years, to the first Wong Kar-wai film I had ever seen, Days of Being Wild, retrieved from the vaults for national circulation now that Wong commands a following. I will save myself some effort if I reprint in full my remarks from May of 1993 after seeing it in a previous incarnation of the San Diego International Film Festival:

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