At Issue

There are a number of troubling things about the backlash against Million Dollar Baby, ostensibly on behalf of the disabled and in high dudgeon over the issue of assisted suicide. Whether the backlash was fueled, in any part, by one of the other film studios in competition for the top Oscar (the finger of suspicion, on automatic pilot, turns toward Miramax and The Aviator) is the least of those things. To ascend the ladder of severity, we would come next to the more troubling question of giving away, without compunction, the ending of the movie (high dudgeon plays by its own rules); and next, to the still more troubling question of judging a movie solely on the basis of the ending -- as if Million Dollar Baby, to stick to our example, would have been a significantly better or significantly different movie had the suicidal assistant mounted the same high horse as the movie's protesters and refused to co-operate: a "happy" ending, or in any event an unprovocative one. Anyone who knows anything about the critical evaluation of movies will know that most of the decisive factors may be fairly judged within the first ten or fifteen minutes. That's generally plenty of time to figure out whether or not you're in good hands.

Most troubling of all, however, for anyone who cares about aesthetic rights and wrongs as distinct from moral ones, is that this protest has been launched against a movie that could well stand as the very model of how to broach a Big Issue on screen. The chosen issue, be it capital punishment, racism, alcoholism, abortion, domestic abuse, drug use, or what-you-will, should never be positioned front and center, should never crowd out everything else, should be approached only through well-paved avenues of character and plot. That way leads away from generalizing and polemicizing and sermonizing, and toward particularizing, humanizing, dramatizing. It leads away from dogma and toward art. Vera Drake, in waiting twenty minutes or so to identify its protagonist as an abortionist, and letting the entire movie go by without hashing over the rights and wrongs of her actions, might have stood as a decent model as well (and might have had to withstand some attacks of its own if it, too, had been nominated for the top Oscar). Yet in the end it's pretty plain that there would have been no movie were Vera not an abortionist. Million Dollar Baby, with a few more legs to stand on and a few more ways to turn, will serve as the better model.

The Sea Inside, wrapping up its second lean week at the Hillcrest, can serve as a convenient contrast. Dealing likewise with the issue of assisted suicide, it deals with that alone and with nothing else. It has seemingly escaped the yapping of the moral watchdogs by virtue of its being Spanish (i.e., a small potato or patata pequeña) and perhaps, also, because its rivals for the foreign-film Oscar are apt to wield less leverage or waste less effort. Given its intrinsic limitations -- a factual story of a quadriplegic in a Catholic country who, after twenty-some years of paralysis, took his fight to the courts for the right to die -- the film is well directed (by Alejandro Amenábar), well photographed (by Javier Aguirresarobe, who collaborated with this director on The Others), and well acted (by Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera, and Clara Segura). The protagonist, acting as a spokesman for the artist rather than for the Issue, says a good thing: "Who said anything about quadriplegics? I'm talking about me!" And his relationships with, primarily, four very different women are sharply defined: the empathetic lawyer who herself suffers from a degenerative disease (and with whom our hero explores the boundaries of untactile sexuality), the simple factory worker who insinuates herself at first as a pro-life advocate, the pregnant representative from Death With Dignity, and the silently devoted sister-in-law who, together with a moody nephew, cares for the invalid round the clock. And the out-and-out debate of the Issue with a quadriplegic priest is cleverly staged: the priest's wheelchair won't fit up the staircase, and our hero won't come down, so a messenger must shuttle upstairs and down with the points and counterpoints, until the debate degenerates into a shouting match, with no more need of an intermediary. There are further attempts to cinematize the material through flashback and fantasy. Still, for all its valiant struggle, the film is almost as confined as its protagonist: not so much by restriction of movement as by narrowness of scope.

Born into Brothels, a do-gooder documentary by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, focuses on eight children in the Calcutta red-light district. Their lives and prospects are as awful as you would imagine, and the film's image is as awful as you have come to expect in the DV era. (The concealed-camera footage of the prostitutes on patrol looks roughly on a par with the video of a vice-squad sting.) The focus widens to include, as the heroine of her own film, the very photogenic Briski, or in the pet name bestowed on her by the children, "Zana Auntie," who devoted her time, when not working on her own photography of the district, to teaching her craft to the children, promoting their photos worldwide through Kids With Cameras (as well as interspersing them throughout the film), trying to place the children in boarding schools, and trying to obtain a passport for one of them to visit a conference in Holland. (The boy's mother, midway through the process, gets burned alive by her pimp.) The kids, naturally, are likable; the on-camera filmmaker is likable; the film itself is another matter, raw, ragged, and a bit of a chore to sit through. No doubt Zana Auntie deserves some sort of trophy for her efforts, but an Oscar, for which the film is in contention, is not the right sort.

Travellers and Magicians, the second film from Khyentse Norbu (The Cup), and the first film ever to be shot in beautiful Bhutan (no irony), tells of a lowly government official who, posted in a remote mountain village, wants desperately to be elsewhere: "There's nothing here, no movies, no restaurants, and most of all, no cool girls." A narrow window of opportunity opens on his dream of going to America, and he moves to squeeze through it with his spotless white athletic shoes, his blue suitcase, and his trusty boombox and tapes ("Gotta go, gotta get out, gotta get outta here!"), but he misses the one-a-day bus and is stranded on the road in the company of a shrivelled old apple peddler and a Buddhist monk. The latter, to pass the time, spins a tale-within-the-tale about another man who lived in a "dreamland," a tale of marital infidelity, illegitimate pregnancy, and homicidal poison, a sort of Far Eastern Postman Always Rings Twice. The parallels of this steamy tale to the outer tale -- a charming low-pressure comedy -- are not always very apparent, yet the protagonist learns his lesson anyway, helped along by the arrival of another fellow traveller, a girl, if not in the least a cool one. His pulse slows; he gets into the rhythm of the journey itself; he settles into the present. The viewer's pulse slows, too, though he would be justified in feeling that the lesson of the movie could have been taught just as well without the monk's tale, or at any rate without the arty affectations with which the director adorns it.

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