Monday, December 1, 2008

Slumdog Weekend

An equal parts long and relaxing as not-long-enough and too hectic Thanksgiving weekend wrapped up with a very rainy, very sleepy Sunday (three distinct naps went down) over in these parts. Four days of mostly eating and drinking and movie watching and dog walking, and even a bit of hockey playing, came to its inevitably melancholic and depressingly necessary end. We celebrated the occasion by watching Danny Boyle’s new one, the much talked about and Oscar-buzz gathering Slumdog Millionaire. Though Trainspotting remains an all-time favorite, I can’t say I’ve seen anything he’s done since The Beach, and I can say that I absolutely abhorred that silly stupid movie. Nonetheless, an onion interview and a couple internet convos later, and I was pretty looking forward to seeing this one.

Big mistake. This shit was disappointing. First off, I find it somewhat perverse for an Englishman to make a movie that uses very broad strokes to essentially show how fucked up India is. It’s kind of like what I imagine an American movie proselytizing about how horrible a post-Arbenz Guatamala, or modern day Iraq for that matter, is. Luckily, Hollywood has not been so brazen, yet. That said, that’s not what does this film in. It’s the never-ending dramatization of nearly every single event in nearly every single scene, ultimately giving the movie a caricatured part-fairy-tale, part-horror movie after-school-special feel, and depriving what I imagine are its real characters in what is certainly a real setting from the meaningful impact it deserves, that is Boyle’s biggest crime. Though I am admittedly a bit squeamish, I’ve seen enough of cruelty and gruesomeness on film when used appropriately and not heavy-handedly (think Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song), to not be averse to it, per se. But while seeing teenagers tortured and kids having their eyes gouged out is not particularly enjoyable on its own, it becomes even more deflating because the characters are so one-dimensional and the entire film is clumsily framed by a hopelessly na├»ve and immature love story that is never given real substance to make the audience believe in it. Nothing ever really happens on screen, especially in light of everything else that does happen, that makes the protoganist’s destinal quest for love anything but hard to believe and wildly unjustified, and yet how it will play out becomes so obviously predictable. Think of a Bollywood film where the dancing and costumes are replaced by suffering and filth.

An obvious comparison point is Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, a very gritty look at a similar if not the same slum in Bombay. The difference in the films is striking, however. Nair worked mainly with street children and rather than use a series of catastrophically tragic events to push the narrative along and frame the story of the childrens’ lives, she takes a much less dramatized approach and simply offers a wider-lensed (both technically and metaphorically) look at the struggle, pain, joy, and hope that fills the daily existence of the participants. The film is just as depressing and fucked-up as Slumdog, if not as visually jarring, but it does not have the same cartoonish feel; one never gets the feeling that the directors are using time-tested tricks to pull at your emotions as in Slumdog. There doesn’t appear to be anything contrived in Salaam; Slumdog, on the other hand, in part from its structure as a re-telling, appears at times to be nothing more than contrivance. Nair showed her street children turned actors Truffaut’s The 400 Blows before they began filming. If Boyle were to engage in a similar preparation, one gets the feeling he would have chosen something along the lines of The Notebook.

All that said, it’s not a terrible movie. One thing it does really well is show how terrible a place India still is, notwithstanding rapid industrialization and the emergence of a class of luxury product consumers. Though I suppose that’s shooting fish in a barrel. So on a weekend of giving thanks, I suppose I’m obligated to say I’m thankful for the English and Dutch and other Europeans involved in fucking up the country of my ancestors so bad that my parents were forced to emigrate half-way around the world to raise their family and live their lives. So that I could spend a weekend slumdogging it from the confines of my Park Avenue apartment. Thanks.

12 comments:

Mr. Hari said...

You're completely right: one should never pass on an opportunity to make a dig at The Notebook.

can't wait for the review of Zoo

rananda said...

how surprised were we when we tried to watch this but wound up watching Zoo instead? boy, was that strange.

Anonymous said...

big words on how messed up india is - so when was the last time you toured around the country again?

rananda said...

1994. what's your point, anonymous? ive also never lived under slavery-based or feudalistic or totalitarian or monarchical societies. but i can imagine how awful they must be w/o direct experience. what's your point? i'll give you that a country in which one of the largest states, uttar pradesh, can elect an executive from the untouchable cast is quite impressive, especially compared to what passes as democracy in the usa. but vast discrepancies of wealth, extreme poverty, lack of social mobility, preponderance of rural/farm suicides and ridiculously high infant mortality, illiteracy, and prolonged internal and external religious-based war with its neighbors, it paints a bleak and dire picture. to say the least.

dk said...

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy wrote Slumdog Millionaire with the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup as the premise. To hone the script, Beaufoy made three research trips to India and interviewed with street children, finding himself impressed with their attitudes. The screenwriter said of his goal for the script, "I wanted to get (across) the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up on is this mass of energy."

i will say that it's clearly a director's vision of the story based on the novel as well as his thoughts about india (like most films) but the comment above as well as the interview you cited have some reality based truths. so, i feel your pain - but i still loved it.

dk said...

ps.....what with my logging in and forgetting my password i left out the line that said first paragraph is a complete quote. and i still like the movie.

rananda said...

beaufoy wrote the full monty, which i really enjoyed. go figure. though i guess subtlety is not the hallmark of that movie either (and robert carly can basically carry a movie on his own, though he needs to be in more than one scene, cf, the aforementioned the beach).

as i told you the other day i would have preferred slumdog to have been about just the years jamal and salim were working around the taj mahal before they move back to bombay. that could have been interesting. instead beaufoy tried to write a cervantes film. ive actually never read anything by cervantes so i may be wrong on that. but hopefully the point remains.

Sir Fantastic said...

I just saw Slumdog last night. I wouldn't say it was terrible if not for the incommensurate praise it's getting in relation to it's quality. Seriously formulaic movie towards the end, and some ridiculous slow motion/montage stuff depicting scenes that the audience had just seen 15 minutes before. I'm planning an Oscar preview post, so I'm going to save more of my incredible insights but yea man, Slumdog sucked. Can't way for it to win best picture.

rananda said...

that's funny, josh. because literally minutes before i read your bullshit i was engaged in a pretty innocuous turned heated discussion of the piece of shit known as slumdog. and let's just say, it didn't end well.

rananda said...

oh, and re your point about the incommensurate praise affecting my/our take on it, i think is pretty accurate. it's not a particularly good or interesting movie by any means, but it's also not the worst steaming pile of garbage to win or to be considered for an oscar, but the near unanimous adulation from people i essentially think are either dumb or not well-traveled/versed in the world or film or both certainly makes me hate this movie a little (lot) bit more. the only real concern is whether the additional cultural face-time given to indians as a result of this nonsense will make it harder/easier on my future children in terms of socially integrating in this country x number of years from now. i think the jury's still out.

Sir Fantastic said...

Yea I really wonder about that universal adulation. That's what my post is going to be about when talking about slumdog, cause I really can't figure it out at all. Like no one else thinks it's an immature love story? No one else thinks the brother's sudden change of heart makes no sense given everything we've ever learned about him? Anyways, I just can't pinpoint why everyone loves it so uncritically. The incommensurate praise reminds me of Crash, but for that one I just assumed it's because everyone in this country has an unrealistic understanding of race relations because we don't have meaningful relationships with people of other races (or pretty much any other human being). Anyways, if you can come up with a theory on the adulation for slumdog please let me know. And yea man, I hope your kids can socially integrate into this country, but remember, even for us white guys that's a tall order.

Sir Fantastic said...

OK, blatant plug to my blog here, but I just posted the world changing Oscar preview post I was talking about. Does Slumdog get slammed! Man, I really hope it wins best picture so I have something to argue about for years to come.