My squeamishness about violence and competition doesn’t stop me enjoying martial arts films. I skip quickly through the big fights, and concentrate on what I’m really there for: the training scenes. There’s place in my heart for anything that fetishises hard work and long hours: the West Wing, the Devil Wears Prada and Press Gang all fit the bill. But martial arts is the only film genre to really place this on a pedestal (with other sports films coming in a distant second).
I’ve just discovered Million Dollar Baby, a boxing film with a particularly harsh light on the training process. Maggie Fitzgerald is a female boxer, who with difficulty persuades washed-up coach Frankie to train her.
Frankie’s gym has the low-rent grubbiness typical of boxing films. So as Frankie starts to clock up the hours — training late into the night after everybody else has left — she’s doing so in an impressively unglamorous environment. Just a punching bag, a dim pool of light, and Frankie.
We don’t rely on gritted teeth or fixed stares to show how determined she is. Because determination — here and in reality — is present less in the moments of peak work, than in months and years of hard work and sacrifice. It’s present in her diet of leftovers filched from the diner where she works, in the monastic environment of her home, in the dollars saved for boxing equipment. Above all it’s in that late-night pool of light, the activities she returns to because she doesn’t have — doesn’t believe she _can_ have — anything else in her life.
To make a fighter, you gotta strip ’em down to bare wood. You can’t just tell ’em “forget everything you know”, you gotta make ’em forget it in their bones. Make ’em so tired they only listen to you, only hear your voice, only do what you say, and nothing else.