Cupla Focal

by Henry Farrell on January 22, 2005

I saw Clint Eastwood’s _Million Dollar Baby_ last night – an extraordinary, savage little film – but there was one element that left me puzzled. When I read the Washington Post’s “review”: of the film a couple of weeks ago, I’d been amused by the reviewer’s description of Eastwood’s character, Frankie, as someone with ‘hidden depths,’ who “reads Yeats in Gaelic.” I’d assumed that this was a mistake made by the reviewer – Yeats didn’t write in the Irish language, and if my memory is correct, his ability even to read in the language was scanty to non-existent (unlike his friend, Lady Gregory, whose translations of Irish myths Yeats relied upon). But the reviewer was correct – the film does depict Frankie as reading what seems to be an Irish language book of poetry, including Yeat’s “The Lake-Isle of Innisfree.” The film leaves the viewer with the very strong impression that the Irish language version of the poem is the original – Frankie starts reading it in Irish, and then gives the English language version for the benefit of his non Irish speaking audience. I’d put this down to traditional Hollywood ignorance except that Eastwood is a careful film maker, and the meaning of another Irish phrase is at the heart of the film. So what’s going on? A little bit of dramatic license (the most probable explanation – but a bit disappointing)? Or is Frankie a little bit of a fraud (certainly when he reads the Irish language aloud, it’s almost unrecognizable – he doesn’t know how to pronounce it at all)? Or is there something else going on entirely?

Update: some spoilers in the comments thread below.



Kieran Healy 01.22.05 at 5:28 pm

Interesting. I don’t know the answer to the question. On a tangent, I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard a recording of Yeats reading _The Lake Isle of Innisfree_ himself. It’s just atrocious: sing-songy and mannered like you wouldn’t believe. Very strange to hear it delivered that way, especially seeing as one of Yeats’ great talents was his ability to abide by tight constraints of metre and verse while making the language sound easy and unforced.


jonk 01.22.05 at 5:38 pm

It seems to me a stretch to claim that the film leaves the viewer with a “very strong impression that the Irish language version of the poem is the original,” Frankie (Eastwood) makes no claim that Yeats was some exemplary Irishman. Imagine the thousands of representations of non-english texts that are consumed in translation, thus leaving the reader with a “very strong impression…” Even if this were the case, what does this matter? How does it effect our social fabric.

As Henry states, Eastwood is a careful film-maker, and there is something else going on – MDB leaves the very strong impression that the murder of disabled persons is an act of charity, as Frankie “euthanizes” (as assuredly Eastwood would have us believe) his newly quadriplegic “baby” (thus infantalizing his “girl”) Maggie (Swank). Check out the Not Dead Yet (NDY) analysis and background, including info about a protest they held before a gathering of Chicago film critics – this link, I think, is the most informative. For those of you who don’t follow the links, NDY points out that Eastwood has been sued and lost for ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) violations, and has done work to weaken ADA mandates.

I don’t believe that this is addressed in the NDY pages, but the mere fact that the film’s turn of Maggie becoming a quadriplegic is largely left unaddressed, or that the film is about euthanasia (again, as a sympathetic audience would have you believe), has the effect of pulling us so much more into the “magic of cinema” building sympathy for the characters, especially Frankie.


Gary Farber 01.22.05 at 6:38 pm

I would like to give a cordial, and as polite as possible, fuck you to whomever it was who instantly started commenting with major spoilers with no warning whatsoever (that Eastwood’s character reads Yeats, in whatever language, is in no way a significant plot spoiler; talking about who kills whom — and I may be wrong here — likely is; if it isn’t, at the very least a warning that spoilers won’t be given in a comment, even if they seem to be, is warranted. (I don’t intend to return to this comment tread to read any further discussion of it, since I can’t trust that the film won’t be ruined for me that way.)


jonk 01.22.05 at 6:57 pm

Gary, and all else who have a problem with the “spoiler, I do apologize for “spoiling” the film for you. Though as I point out in my critique, the fact that this is information that is seemingly meant to be a secret to movie-goers is troubling in that it builds up our identification with Frankie, the killer, which I see as problematic.

Do we as cultural consumers have an obligation to let the “author” do all the ideological priming for us? Do I owe Eastwood the courtesy of letting his able-ist fantasy play out? Am I obligated to other potential movie-goers? I think not.

If knowing this information spoiled the film for you, and you do not go, then that is that much less money for the Eastwood coffers. If you still go, I do not believe the film will be “spoiled” for you, going in I knew that it was about euthanasia, I still thought the film was thoroughly entertaining, well-made, but ideologically messed up. This, of course, is not to say that you will agree with my read of MDB as a misogynist, able-ist film.

Hopefully, this discussion of the ethics of spoiling does not distract too much about the film’s (Eastwood’s) stance toward disability.


washerdreyer 01.22.05 at 7:04 pm

I’d seen the film, and I don’t know if Crooked Timber has ever had a need to put together a spoiler policy, but I really think that the three above posts should have the words, “Spoilers” inserted above them in large type.
As for the actual topic of the post, I was wondering about the Yeats issue when I saw it, and considered looking into the issue when I was posting about the movie on my site, but I was too lazy.


eszter 01.22.05 at 7:26 pm

Henry, you may want to insert an UPDATE line to your post that lets readers know that spoilers follow in the comments.

I’m conflicted about such spoilers. I had no idea where the plot was going when I sat down in the theater, but I certainly didn’t realize it was going to be as serious as it was. (Based on the previews, it’s not the kind of movie I would’ve gone to see, but as usual I’m indebted to friends with very different interests for expanding my horizons. Then again, my friend had no idea either, he wanted to go because he’s a boxer.)

That aspect of the movie reminded me of Stepmom. [Warning: spoiler!] Had I known that it was about a mother dying of cancer I may not have had the wherewithal to go and see it. I certainly didn’t appreciate that the previews made it seem like a romantic comedy and I ended up sniffling through half the movie. It’s not that I won’t go see difficult movies, but for the most part I would prefer to choose when. That said, I had no idea what to expect of Million Dollar Baby (and wasn’t too enthusiastic going in) so it was a welcomed twist.

As for your frustrations regarding the mistake, I can relate. I’m afraid I have no answers for you, I don’t know much about the specifics here. It reminds me of my grievances with the movie Chicago. (That blog post was the #1 hit on Google for search on that movie for a long time attracting so many hostile commenters that I had to shut the comments down.)


ponte 01.22.05 at 7:35 pm

Jonk strikes me as the kind of asshole who talks loudly in movie theaters.


Henry 01.22.05 at 8:46 pm

Kieran – I’ve never actually heard the recordings, but I’ve read about them (I think there’s a bit in the first volume of the Foster biography). Apparently Yeats had a fully developed theory of how poetry should be read aloud – my impression is that most people who’ve actually heard the bloody recordings share your reaction.

Spoiler warning duly inserted in body of main post.


jonk 01.22.05 at 9:14 pm

Keiran’s fresh post “Pharyngula on Larry Summers”, like nearly any other thread on “academic” texts on CT (of course, elesewhere, for that matter) will provide us with “spoilers”:

‘Erin Leahey and Guang Go’s paper “Gender Differences in Mathematical Trajectories” which reviews a lot of evidence about the gender gap in math and analyzes some big data sets to find that it’s not nearly as large as you might think.’

Hey, I wanted to read that paper -fresh – discover on my own; come to my own conclusions!

Why should we read the paper? Because it debunks progressive assumptions about gender disparities in math and science. Likewise, why should I see MDB? Becasue it deals with euthanasia. Clearly, folks will feel free to provide a synopsis or analysis of “academic” work, without concern for “giving away” the argument. We consider this helpful, pointing one another to interesting and important ideas, digesting texts and summarizing our thoughts so others can determine if they want to give them closer looks for themselves. Is it the case that film must be always treated as entertainment instead of cultural text? That we should not – clearly dare not – share analysis and ideas? Must we treat mass cultural texts as entertainment?

I would argue that film has a greater social impact on ideology than most academic work; if you agree with this point, shouldn’t we have a different relationship to the authorial privilege of these texts?. Film, like academic work, is educational and ideological. Think about the scepticism that we treat research that is funded and distributed by the interests of big business (especially big pharma), why should we not treat the multi-million dollar ad campaigns for high-profile film similarly?

Ponte, I don’t talk during the film or the previews, though I do during the advertisements preceeding the (differently advertising) previews.


keef 01.22.05 at 10:39 pm


Shouldn’t your nick be “jerk?”

Don’t give away major plot developments of movies, particularly since no one asked your bloody opinion about anything in the flick except for the Yeats angle.

I’m sure you could point out many ways that it be pedagogical for you to pick your nose and fart in public, but please restrain yourself.

“Film, like academic work, is educational and ideological. ”

It’s primarily entertainment, which is spoiled by people like you revealing major plot details. At least wait until the film has left general theatrical distribution.



djw 01.22.05 at 10:59 pm

Jonk: Personally, I don’t disagree with your most recent post, and unless a movie is a mystery or a puzzle piece, I don’t really care much about encountering spoilers beforehand. What makes you a jerk is that you’re so arrogant to think that because you approach film in a certain way, everyone else should to, and if they don’t, screw’em.


jonk 01.22.05 at 11:54 pm

djw, fill me in on where I claimed that others should “approach film in a certain way” – I did not. As keef pointed out “no one asked [my] bloody opinion” – does this mean I cannot give it? I did not ask keef to respond, he felt that my action was unethical and wanted to correct it. Likewise, I feel there is something unethical about Eastwood’s “twist” whereby we are lulled into, and advertized to, that this is a story about a “white trash” girl coming into her own under Frankie’s tutelage, to be KO’d 2/3s through. My divulging this plot narrative was not meant to “spoil” the film, instead to share information that I feel is important for viewing.

As some of the Not Dead Yet information suggests, Eastwood has a less than cozy relationship to the disabled community – should I have avoided the “spoiler” and instead concentrated on that? Or, one step beyond, would it have been acceptable to leave the characters un-named and state that the film is about euthanasia, or, as I prefer, the killing of a disabled person.

I do apologize for my aggressive tactic, but I really am sickened to see the way this event is treated as a plot twist and how it is largely uncommented upon. For the three of you who I “spoiled” the film before the warning was posted, feel free to backchannel me and I will happily mail you a movie ticket for a fresh and unviolated screening of your choice.

I am doubly saddened that folks are so wrapped up in not getting a spoiler warning that they have been unable to engage in the issue of disability in MDB. Barring that, the possibility for a conversation regarding the ethics or philosophy of spoiling could be interesting.


Ajax Bucky 01.23.05 at 12:15 am

“Film, like academic work, is educational and ideological.”

“It’s primarily entertainment…”

No, film is a prostheticized vestige of storytelling, which has become, in a mercantile culture, a trivialized thing in a legal sense though its centrality to the experience of almost all of us belies that trivialization emphatically.
Films are stories, stories are not entertainment, and they most certainly aren’t “educational and ideological”.
They can be treated that way, they are, but people can be treated like products as well, reduced to objects and bartered, and they are. Children can be sold and bought, adults too, they can be bent, to their detriment, to the will of manipulating agencies – and stories can be reduced to intellectual property, and the living momentum that stories are and that film is, can be bottlenecked, owned, and used to indoctrinate and divert.
Think how less valued work in the public domain is, in a legal sense, and look at what Disney has done to the work of A. A. Milne.

More simply – neither of you has the dimmest idea of what it is you’re talking about, what film really is – it’s storytelling in a prosthetic age; what storytelling is is a mysterious thing, part magic part medicine, holy and human at the same time; that’s what it’s been from the beginning, from the time when it was all we had to carry our memories and our lessons, to keep them with us – to give them as whole as we could to our young, to ourselves.


djw 01.23.05 at 12:56 am

jonk: I’ve no interest in debating the merits of NDY’s objections to the film. Suffice it to say I haven’t given the matter enough thought to have an opinion informed and thoughtful enough to bother with.

I can assure you, however, I have political objections to numerous other films, some rather strident, but I’ve never allowed it to interfere with the common courtesy of not gratuitously revealing major plot points to groups of people that include many who haven’t seen the film in question. You didn’t overtly claim others should approach film in a certain way, you revealed that view by casually revealing a major spoiler without warning, which is disrespectful to the many, many people who enjoy their plot twists fresh.


Mill 01.23.05 at 6:05 am

Jonk HAS been a bit of a tool about his/her spoilers, but come on, y’all. If the post says “Hey, can anyone explain this facet of Movie X to me?” spoilers in the comments are all but guaranteed (at least if there is to be any worthwhile discussion, and there usually is at CT). Just sayin’.


Ray Davis 01.23.05 at 10:51 pm

Smells like a typical in-production script change to me: “Who the hell is Nuala Ni Dhomnhaill? Fuck that shit! YEATS!”

I for one get a kick out of Yeats’s goofy-but-catchy reading style, although it certainly had deleterious effects on his editorial judgment and on Pound’s reading style.


David Margolies 01.24.05 at 6:03 pm

Amost entirely off topic, but this does remind me of a friend who was very pleased to have found a recording of `Marriage of Figaro’ in the original German, rather than the more common Italian translation. (The liner notes pointed out that in order to make the German fit, the music had to be modified in quite a few places.)


John Isbell 01.24.05 at 6:43 pm

If Eastwood is stumping for euthanizing paraplegic babies, I think that warrants discussion other than calling the person who made that observation a nosepicker. Call me crazy.


Brian Zimmerman 01.25.05 at 3:43 am

Now that the issue of spoilers has been done to death, I think I’ll throw in a few comments about what a crap movie Million Dollar Baby is.

Basically, it’s the “Wallace Beery wrestling picture” that Barton Fink never got around to writing. Part of the reason for Eastwood’s ridiculous and vile depiction of quadraplegia is that he’s making a 1930s movie. He gets love from the critics for throwing in two “twists”: the boxer’s a woman, and Eastwood dares to be dark and kills her in the end.

Let me point out a couple major points that Eastwood invents for this movie. First, it’s been settled that people on ventilators have the right to demand the machine be switched off; we all have the right to refuse medical care. Second, bedsores are not exactly unknown to modern nursing. I imagine there are places where someone might end up losing a limb due to neglected bedsores within a few months of becoming paralyzed, but I’d say that doesn’t speak well of Frankie’s paternal care.

Obviously enough Eastwood has artistic license to tell his own story, but there is a point to the changes he makes to reality, just as there is a point to the story he’s telling: disabled lives are not worth living.

Of course, you can tell me that that’s not the point of the story — the important thing is the (creepy) fatherly relationship between Frankie and Maggie. That’s what really pisses me off. Endorsing the death of disabled people isn’t a point to be made for this movie — it’s a cliche to be exploited, something that the movie simply takes for granted as true.

FYI, I was actually at that little Chicago protest. It was a fun little event — very meta. Protesting film critics for praising a movie. It is a silly idea, but, of course, it worked; it got attention. Nothing the media like like a media story.


Realish 01.26.05 at 9:30 pm

I wasn’t going to give Jonk — who is, as others have pointed out, an asshole — the courtesy of a reply, but Brian’s comment sent me over the edge.

This is absurd. How on earth is Maggie’s death an “endorsement”? She begged Frankie to do it. When he wouldn’t, she tried everything she could to kill herself. She didn’t want to live that life. She. The character. To interpret that as a general endorsement that the life of a paraplegic is not worth living is the kind of self-righteous confusing of ideology and aesthetics that leads some folks to believe that Spongebob Squarepants is gay.

It’s a story — indelibly acted, I might add — about individuals, individual relationships, and individual choices. There are lots of different kinds of individuals… no doubt lots of different paraplegics, lots of different boxing trainers.

I thought the left was past this kind of formalist, self-stroking, politically correct hackery.


jonk 01.27.05 at 5:01 pm

realish, funny that you conflate the issue of “endorsement” with the fiction that unfolds as the film’s plot. the endorsement is a function of the real choices eastwood makes for what the characters “choose” within the film’s plot.

we see eastwood creating a character that begs to be killed once she becomes a quadriplegic. i am asking the question about why eastwood made a film where a quadriplegic is killed, about a man that kills a disabled woman. the entire film eastwood constructs is brimming over with the belittling of women: “i don’t train girls” (note, he calls women “girls”, that maggie is the titular “baby”, i suppose both because she is a she and because she becomes a quad); “you punch like a girl”; the issue of frankie’s “daughter” – are we to believe that she is a fiction of the fiction? is it merely a plot device so that we see frankie recieving letters “from his daughter,” through himself, of course, but in light of the daughter role that maggie takes on, that say “return to sender” – obviously telegraphing that maggie should be “returned to sender” thus frankie’s arrival at the killing, out of the light, into the foregrounded darkness into maggie’s room, and back into the light. here we see disability played to emphasize the devalued female.

the film’s other disabled character, danger barch, why “danger”? clearly it is meant to be ironic, he is only dangerous in the sense of a cautionary about “letting disabled folks live”; i could go into the “savings” that eastwood’s frankie espouses every 15minutes, to emphasize the construction of “social dead weight”, but you get it. danger is played for laughs, and a bit of sympathy. laughs because he is disabled, his sympathy through his maleness. so not only are disabled characters used by eastwood for their associations with “weakness” and “unworthy life” but also to refiy male privilege.

i don’t disagree with realish that this is a story, well acted and directed, but choices were made about which story to tell. had eastwood made a film valorizing a different “white trash” character, perhaps a member of the kkk, with certain moral conflicts, but killing a black person in the ring, i imagine the film would easily be read as racist – though it would still be “about indivdiuals, individual relationships, and individual choices.”

still, i can hardly believe that the film would have us believe that yeats wrote in gaelic.

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