Thursday, October 22, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire, Belatedly

As much as any aspect of parenthood, I've struggled with the sudden lack of time. Once you've got a completely dependent human being on your hands, your time is no longer your own. Books gather dust on your nighttable. The TV stays off longer than it used to. Scheduling becomes much more difficult, even with only one child. That's just how it is. As Hunter S. Thompson used to say, buy the ticket, take the ride.

So it took me a year - and eight months after its Best Picture victory at the 2009 Academy Awards - to finally watch "Slumdog Millionaire." I was curious, I wanted to watch it sooner, but I just didn't get to it.

I've had other opportunities. It was on DirecTV Pay-Per-View for awhile, and then I almost picked it up a couple of times in Blockbuster, but it just never felt right. I can't say why. I'd heard parts of it were kind of depressing but that it was really uplifting in the end, but I picked up both "The Wrestler" and "Milk" before ever seeing "Slumdog," and both of those movies are pretty depressing too. So the darkness of it shouldn't have scared me away, especially since I knew it ended pretty happily.

Again, something inside me was just lukewarm about the film, despite all of the accolades and awards.

It wasn't because of any dislike for any of the actors, because there aren't really any names in the picture.

It wasn't because I don't like director Danny Boyle - I personally own "Trainspotting" (talk about depressing) and liked "Sunshine" a good bit, along with "28 Days Later"--neither is a world-beater, but they're both pretty solid entertainment, and come to think of it I have a copy of "28 Days Later" around here somewhere, too. And I maintain that "The Beach" is a lot better than most people give it credit for being - it would've been much better if the movie had retained the book's ending, and there was some stuff that just didn't work, but also a lot of pretty cool ideas.

It's not the only Best Picture winner I hadn't seen, not by a longshot. There's a lot of stuff that has won the top Academy Award that I'm just not interested in, which I suppose makes me not that much of a cineaste. But even if every now and then I think I ought to try to be a little more well-rounded, I just can't force myself to sit through something that I have a really good feeling is not going to work for me, no matter how many awards it's won, in the same way that I can't force myself to try to read David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" or Thomas Pynchon. I'm too old for homework. When I get free time, I want to spend it on something I actually think I might enjoy on some level.

So anyway, "Slumdog Millionaire." It's a small thing, but I always kind of like it when a movie doesn't hit you with its title right away. I think it shows confidence on the part of the filmmakers to not start off by broadcasting the title of the thing (although plenty of good movies have done exactly that, like "The Godfather" and "Star Wars" and "Jaws" and "The Matrix" to name a few), and I love confident filmmaking. Let's say you didn't know anything about "Slumdog Millionaire" and didn't have any kind of Guide button on your remote control or didn't have a newspaper or TV Guide, you wouldn't know what the movie is called until you were quite a few minutes in.

And Danny Boyle is an interesting director because he's always trying something different. Like Ang Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson, he's got a checkered resume. "Trainspotting" (heroin addicts) isn't like "The Beach" (rebel backpackers on an island paradise), or "28 Days Later" (zombies) or "Sunshine" (straight-up SF). That's not his complete resume, either. I find any artist that challenges him or herself to be interesting, so there's another point in the movie's favor.

It's got a good look, too. It's well shot. The cinematography really lets you feel the stink and grime of Bombay or Mumbai or whatever it's called now.

And Frieda Pinto, the girl who plays the mature Lathika - she had to be amazing to inspire this years-long quest, and she is, absolutely. What a beauty, even with a knife scar on her face. I mean, just flat-out stunning. You can see a guy going to great lengths for a girl like that.

So, why didn't I like the movie more?

I'm still trying to figure it out a week later. It wasn't bad, not at all. I didn't hate it. But something about it just left me kind of cool. I sensed something a bit glib about parts of it, a little bit facile. Part of that, I think, is because it's such a large tonal leap between comedy and stark human drama, and it's very difficult to stick that landing, especially if you're doing it multiple times over the course of two hours or so. In the end, a movie that tries can feel like it's just dabbling between the two without fully committing to either.

And there's also what I call the Catcher in the Rye syndrome. You know The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger's iconic novel, even if you don't really know it. It's assumed an almost mythical status in American fiction, is perptually cited as an influence both good and horrible (Mark David Champman, for instance), and only gains stature from its creator's impenetrable mystique.

All of the hype that has accrued to The Catcher in the Rye since its publication may well make you think that you're going to read something staggering, something immense, something that pushes the boundaries of prose with every single line, something that's going to change your perception of the world, but it really isn't so. It's really a pretty straightforward and not very hard-to-grasp story.

It wasn't bad, I kind of liked it, but that's all.

I think that happens quite a lot in our culture. Books, movies, and music all get digested by the mainstream and ribboned with this outsize applause. But if you miss the initial wave, and all you get is the hype for months or years, you can't separate it from the work itself.

So if a movie wins awards and gets great reviews, and months go by before you see it, you're probably going to be expecting something immense, profound, life-changing. Just being good isn't going to be good enough.

It's not fair to the work itself. Everything deserves to be judged on its own merits.

There's a larger point to be made about prejudice and the power of suggestion, but I think I want to leave that for another day. For now, it's enough to say that "Slumdog Millionaire" was all right. I doubt I'll ever see it again, and I don't really think it's going to leave much of a lasting mark on cinema, but that's OK.

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