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.

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