Film: Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

It’s time to clarify that the review of Milk I posted several weeks ago was a joke from start to finish, a sarcastic response (full of suggestions to that effect, I hope) to my belief that Van Sant might have made a nearly flawless film – and that Penn has never, ever, been more effortlessly natural.  I say this now because the sarcasm was lost on many, and because I want to make it abundantly clear that there is no sarcasm involved when I say that Slumdog Millionaire is a vigorously obnoxious movie, a grab bag of cliches and sparkly popness mechanically designed to wring all manner of thick, buoyant emotions from our unwitting selves.  There’s no resisting a film like this; there’s nothing, in fact, that actually touches us.  Instead, we’re bombarded with stimuli to the point where our conscious brains quit, resigned to the knowledge that they are irrelevant compared with the blunt force trauma of pop spectacle.

I admit I put off seeing this movie, for two reasons.  One, I was advised not to by a friend who grew up in Bombay, and who found Slumdog‘s flavor a touch unsavory; and two, because it became as popular as it did.  In the summer of 2000, I spent five weeks at work on an archaeological site in Greece with a curmudgeonly Midwestern archaeologist who insisted, when pressed, that if a film was popular, it wasn’t worth seeing.  His attitude seemed elitist at the time.  But over the years, his logic has begun to make at least theoretical sense.  If a film works for a broad audience of such divergent interests and backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures, languages and ideologies, what on earth does it know that so many other films don’t?  Have these films struck universal chords consistent among people as a species?  Is that even possible?

I guess a fella’s answer to that question would say a lot about his attitude as a whole, and I’m not deaf to the pessimistic overtones I’ll incur by saying that I don’t think it’s wholly possible, no.  I think what such entertainments latch onto are common escapist fantasies, where real violence never kills, cute kids embody innocence, song and dance is the greatest imaginable expression of joy, and social disorder affects no one in the face of a united cause.  Affirming these fantasies is no crime, but it hardly makes a film insightful, or even honest for that matter, especially when a film like Slumdog – like so many Western entertainments, and now, frequently, indigenous ones too – sashays so casually over content that should be treated with at least respectful complexity.

Opening Slumdog with the onscreen text that asks whether the following story is a function of luck, cheating, smarts, or fate is a fairly sinister way of coaxing us to think of dramatic license as moral dilemma – sinister because it prefers that we shut down our intellect first.  No amount of narrative preparation should preclude us from seeing that this movie consciously mixes a coming-of-age story with a rags-to-riches story and a crime thriller for no better reason than that they’re all recognizable genres with inevitable conclusions (one way or the other), and will thus keep us mindlessly on the edge of our seats until each preordained question is answered: will the guy get the girl?  will he win the money?  will the bad guys lose?  Furthermore, no amount of sexy canted Dannypants photography or rhythm-busting editing should distract us from the fact that, whichever way each of those posed questions goes, there is nothing to be gleaned from them except the resolution of posed questions.

So why do I care?  Maybe because I suspect Danny Boyle doesn’t really care, that he’s only in it for the fun of the whole thing.  There are directors who build movies on the peaks and call it drama; there are also those who, in defiance, build them on nothing but troughs and call it art.  But there’s a realm between both, the whole damn wave, where unique emotions happen and peculiar experiences incite mysteries, ones not to be solved.  It’s a broad place, and it demands patience and breathing room, two things Slumdog scornfully represses in favor of hopscotching from one dramatic high point to the next, in a high-wire act impressive for its consistency alone.  I suppose there’s something to be said for uniformity.  But it’s the kind that makes “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” popular, where there’s no space for anything but tension.  And it’s also the kind that draws such enormous audiences to “American Idol” or “Top Model”, where the tension lies in seeing who will fail and who will rise to meteoric success as a flagbearer of pop nonsense.

Boyle’s made an appreciable career out of nonsense, from the amusing darkness of Shallow Grave (1995) and Trainspotting (1996) to the silly visual pleasures of The Beach (2000) and the terrifying first half of 28 Days Later…(2002).  What he’s never shown was much interest in or aptitude for artistry or intellect, content to settle for slapdash kineticism over narrative logic or depth.  Slumdog is no different, cut together from incongruous shots of little particular rhythm, with an atrociously aggressive sound mix (I spent whole scenes with my hands over my ears to dull the physical pain) laden with a World Beat score cynically crafted to undermine any real taste of modern India in favor of a more familiar taste of Western influence on modern India.  Yes, one could argue that that is modern India.  Having never visited, I couldn’t say.  But in my travels I’ve found that the divergences from my own culture have been more interesting to me than the McDonald’s or the Coca-Cola.  And language confusion aside, I’ve never had trouble understanding the people as human beings – a problem Boyle conveniently sidesteps by casting the cutest postcard Indian children alive, lest a Western audience be turned off by unattractive Mumbai slum kids in a film about them.

It’s not even that any one of these problems on its own would kill the movie.  It’s that collectively, they reveal just how calculated and contrived Slumdog really is, a movie as formulaic as Titanic and as manipulative as The Cider House Rules.  It’s also willfully disdainful of the full capacities of cinema: to accomplish worthy insight into life through sound and image alone, by capturing behavior and, yes, even spectacle, that reveals complicated truth.  If Slumdog weren’t so peacockishly proud of its simplicity I might not care so much, but I suspect I’m doubly annoyed by its popularity as an apparent cultural icon of some sort.  The Oscars have never been a reliable barometer of cinematic artistry (Kramer vs Kramer over Apocalypse NowGladiator over Traffic?), and we all know this, but at some level they are an indicator of our year-to-year attitude toward the part movies play in our social mood.  It may be that the Academy burned away its quota of taste last year with No Country for Old Men, though we were clearly more willing, for some reason, to grapple with darkness last year.  No Country might not be much deeper a film than Slumdog, but it wasn’t afraid of disturbing our illusions of pervasive goodness by suggesting that sometimes good is just irrelevant compared with the blunt force trauma of evil.  I wish that wasn’t the case, but I also wish we weren’t so uncomfortable with that fact.

One Response to “Film: Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)”

  1. giles khan Says:

    you have hit the nail with the sledgehammer it deserves.
    giles (bombay boy)

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