February 27, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

I don't often feel huge enthusiasm for the film that wins best picture at the Oscars. They seem to me mostly such timid and compromised choices. I'm rarely quite so pissed at them as I was in 1972, when I thought it scandolous that The Ruling Class didn't swep every major category. Best adapted screenplay? There certainly wasn't one that year--few any year--so brilliant and incisive as Peter Barnes' adaptation of his own stage play--just as there've been few plays in English that come close to the wit intelligence emotional-philosophical range of The Ruling Class--and five at least of those that did were written by Peter Barnes. (A couple were even written by Shakespeare.) Best lead actress? Coral Browne, hands down. Lead actor? Peter O'Toole. Supporting actress? Carolyn Seymour. Supporting actor--Alastair Sim and Arthur Lowe would have to duke that one out. Direction? Editing? Soundtrack? Cinematrography? Set design, costume design? Nothing else that year came anywhere near The Ruling Class in any of these categories and I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting. But I was angry at a larger injustice than an Academy snub: the loss to a wide popular audience of a genuinely great popular classic.

The Ruling Class had been too weak a draw at the box office to drum up much Academy buzz, and why is a puzzler. Indifferent promotion's the culprit I suspect, by movie executives who had no clue the film's merits--made it at O'Toole's insistence in exchange for his agreement to play the lead in Man of La Mancha. You tell me: was A Clockwork Orange a huge hit? Was Life of Brian? why shouldn't The Ruling Class have been, since it fuses the virtues of both?

Slumdog Millionaire didn't evade the same fate by much. It was slated to go straight to video when a People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (my home town, yay!) got the money boys thinking they might have a viable property on their hands after all. Good that this time around a truly splendid popular entertainment has its chance, a film whose intelligence is not whittled away by compromises aimed at mass acceptance, but amplified by its wide-ranging appeal. Big pictures like Dark Knight or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button almost never have that kind of potency.

Then again some of the people I've been chatting with virtually think Slumdog Millionaire is a big picture masquerading as a small one. The helicopter scene is cited. Here it might come down to your definition of big and small. Through most of the history of movies, $15,000,000 would have been a very big budget indeed, and as recently as fifteen years ago I think it would still have been a mid-sized one. And of course it's still possible to make a film for much less if all involved tighten their belts, defer their salaries and bring their own lunches along. Maybe The Wrestler was made for less, but every other best picture nominee cost more, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button cost ten times as much. (Way more money for sure than ever got out through FEMA for relief of Katrina victims.) And there's this: the entire cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire attended the Oscars. I think they took up roughly a single row of seats. What secondary hall would you have hired to seat everybody else if the entire Benjamin Button cast and crew had turned up? Slumdog aims at epic proportions, which necessitates a certain bigness of frame and scope; but it's always resolutely on a human scale.

Somebody else communicating cross-continentally said he had no interst in seeing "feel good shit" like Slumdog Millionaire. I won't presume to guess what he'll think of the film if he ever does get round to seeing it, but if he still dislikes it he'll have to modify his reasons. "Feelgood shit" has as near as it can come to no emotional range, that would be too unsettling; it doesn't take you on a propulsive roller coaster ride, and it certainly never ends with a disturbing fusion of tragedy and triumph. (The best fairy tales, on the other hand, often do, which is why I have no quarrel with people who call Slumdog Millionaire a fairy tale, unless they mean it derisively. "Just a fairy tale"--why do people say things as silly as that? They never say a story is "just a tragedy," "just an epic" or "just a magic-realist fable". And what, pray tell, is a magic-realist fable when it's at home? a fairy tale. What's the difference between a flutist and a flautist? $50,000 a year.)

I admit to being of two minds about the film's title. I like the classic purity of Q & A, the title of the novel it's based on; but would enough people have lined up to see a film called Q & A for it to win a Peoples Choice Award at TIFF? And the in-your-face quality of the title the filmmakers settled on has its appeal: we're dogs, we're scum, we're from the slum, but you who'd sell your nearest and dearest for some additional cash, we can out-think you any day of the week.

No theme's more richly explored in the movie than the global economy and its frenzies; its easy cohabitation with the gangster element; the uneasy points of comparison between gangsters and the respectably wealthy (Maman who captures stray orphans to set loose in the city as beggars, blinding the sweetest singing ones so they'll fetch more from sentimental passersby, is the psychological twin of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? host Prem Kumar, which is why Jamal with his experience of Maman knows Kumar's offer of help on the ten million rupee question can't be trusted); the empty towering shells it erects and sheathes for quicky mass housing. But the main critique of a money obsessed ethic in Slumdog Millionaire is the lead character Jamal, the film's calm intelligent centre, who apart from what's necessary for survival has zero interest in money. He's known for months if not years how to become a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, but only uses that knowledge as a last ditch measure to reach, in the battlement tower where she's imprisoned, his lost love.

I don't often feel like climbing on the bandwagon for an Oscar pick, but it's the rare rule that isn't sometimes best observed by breaking it.

February 8, 2009

25 Random Things

1. I have no intention of telling you 25 random things about myself. On the other hand. . .
2. Approached as a compositional idea, it has a certain temptation. . . which is a major revelation about how I approach the creative act of writing.
3. I try not to repeat myself too much because I'm easily bored.
4. Also I find that if you repeat something for emphasis or to make a point, it often has the opposite effect: either each repetition diminishes the impact, or the point being made is obscured by the reader's attempt to look for a hidden meaning.
5. If I remember, I roll my socks in pairs when they come out of the dryer. If I don't, which is often the case, in the morning I'm trying to find two matching black socks in the dark, not wanting to wake Marysia an hour earlier than she has to get up.
6. I get up an hour earlier than I strictly need to because it's a good time to catch up with work on the computer.
7. I wake up in the middle of the night with story ideas, perhaps direct from my dreams to me. Sometimes I go back to sleep, sometimes I get up and write out at least a beginning.
8. I'm a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Still can't understand, except as an index of his pretentiousness, a maven of the National Post. lamenting the triumph of trash culture, whose crescendo argument at the end was that scholars write studies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They write studies of The Brothers Karamazov too, what's your point?
9. I like both shaggy dogs and shaggy dog stories.
10. If I had any brains I'd be an idiot, they seem to get all the best jobs.
11. I've thought for years the fundamental unit of meaning in language is not the word but the rhythm, or more precisely the breath. Same in all the other arts really. If a research facility offered me a huge sum to study this for a year or two I'd produce some interesting results.
12. The fundamental unit of all artistic expression really.
13. Of all expression in life, even conversation.
14. I've been known to worry at the thread of an argument an inordinate length of time.
15. At least I don't have any red socks in my drawer. Two black socks, people have to examine the patterns pretty close to know they don't match, and even in the dark I can tell which of my socks are white.
16. I wonder how entropy really
17. I sometimes wish I'd been born in a different galaxy. The trick would be discovering just the right one, with a site available for live births.
18. Is a question ever a random fact?
19. I know how to count but putting the numbers right there on the side helps keep track for sure. Very few people could keep count while speaking 19 consecutive sentences, and I'm certainly not one of them.
20. I like to play slightly subversive games with formal literary exercises.
21. Even informal ones.
22. If I'd been editing Frida Kahlo's diary, I'd have put the translations of the extensive text on facing pages instead of at the back of the book. As it is you have to flip back and forth too much, unless your Spanish is tip top, and the whole point of these illustrated pages overgrown with jungle thickets of text is that you should be reacting to the images and the words simultaneously. Somebody else would have to do the translaation.
23. I have my suspicions about the Universe. I think it may be a collective noun to which no collective unity can be ascribed.
24. I'm listening to Fats Waller right now. The Dadaists could have learned a thing or two from him.
25. So could just about everybody else.

February 2, 2009

Tradition Busting at the House of Lords

So there's a plan afoot to reform the British House of Lords by ousting members convicted of felonies:

"A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: 'In the House of Commons, if you break the criminal law or, for example, it's found that although you haven't broken the criminal law you've been doing something completely improper then the House of Commons can, in extremis, expell you. We're saying that most apply, too, to the House of Lords also."

--Julia Belluz, London Feb 2 '09
(Special to the Globe and Mail)

Dangerous, precedent-shattering idea! Pretty much violates every tradition on which the House of Lords is founded. Those Nobles who don't owe their titles and estates to appropriations from the looting and sacking of monasteries in Henry VIII's time owe it to the pillage and plunder of an entire nation by William the Waster (Alasdair Gray's more apt name for the king usually styled William the Conqueror); or to some lesser episode in the gleefully kleptomanic history of the nobly armed and wealthy. True, there are titled families that have kept their noses clean since, sometimes for as much as a century at a time, and they're to be commended for the fresh spirit of innovation they embody. The trouble is these titles are hereditary. Strip a fourteenth, seventeenth or nineteenth century Lord of title for crimes against humanity, you've pretty much stripped the current Lord of the same title. What to do with a House of Parliament suddenly bereft of Members? Make a jazzy site for a commercial mall. Dibs on the Starbucks site eh?