H. Paul's Review of Slumdog Millionaire
So I just sat down with Slumdog Millionaire for the first time. Even if I adore the cinematic medium, I avoid the Academy Awards like the plague, and when that time came I decided to watch this film instead which happens to have won in 2009's major categories. As the film came out, I was into the thick of travel, and moreover the film didn't seem to me like a good fit for Danny Boyle's style. No less, it is one of those films about foreign poverty, with a grand conscience, and those can turn out just awful. My perception is that, inevitably, people patronized (and then patronized) the film with work-righteous emotions fit for the occasion, and its distributors piled onto that package with the moniker that it was the "feel-good movie of the year." No thanks.
But I watched it anyway, because it was just remastered onto Blu-Ray and I became an admirer of Danny Boyle's wild directorial style from his science fiction masterpiece Sunshine, which ranks with Kubrick's 2001 and Tarkovsky's Solaris as perfected speculative fiction, lacking any mess of cowboys and indians in space with noises magically permeating vacuums.
Something surprised me about Slumdog Millionaire, though I ultimately found it flawed from its failure to resist utter sappiness with a hyper-romantic disregard of reality (too many perfect coincidences; it might as well have tried to be a Greek drama about gods and fates). The surprise for me was in its brash, stylistic disregard for the culture. Boyle shot the film with agitated camera movements, super-wide-angle lenses (practically fish-eyed), avant-garde compositions, skewed framings, and so forth -- in other words, idiomatic to Boyle's modernist style. (His cinematographer is the genius who shot Lars von Trier's brilliant prelude to Antichrist.) Yet, if the original vision were that of the typical Birkenstock-armored documentarian, all of these stylistic measures would be a violation. It is in fact only at the end of the film (train station dancing sequence) where the Hindi cultural sensibility of Bollywood bridges the gap, and it becomes a merged work of cinema.
And that is the whole point. A Westerner visiting India arrives a Westerner and leaves a Westerner -- show me exceptions and I'll show you a skeptic. The pretense of all filmmakers, composers, authors and visual artists who immerse themselves for the purpose of divining native art is perfectly inauthentic. (Notably, my favorite living composer, Philip Glass, "invented" the last major movement in serious contemporary music -- Minimalism -- under the guidance of Ravi Shankar when tasked with transcribing microtonal indigenous ragas into Western notation. Minimalism, and Glass's Minimalism, does not sound Indian, yet those Eastern fingerprints are all over the place.)
It only increased my otherwise simple affection for the film when I surfed around a bit only to find significant mass criticism against it for failing (in one fell swoop?) to "capture" the spirit and the desolation of Mumbai. I also find it comical as well as hypocritical that many are quite furious to know that the untrained child actors are still living amidst the depicted poverty. Surely they can only be prosperous and happy in comparison to Western standards of heavyweight wealth! And surely, snatching them from that "slumdog" environment will solve it all. Yet in truth, actors are merely work-for-hire, and only an organized labor force with the full faith and credit of an adoring pop culture (I'll say it: the Hollywood Establishment) could twist that vocation into something of hocus-pocus and when-you-wish-upon-a-star.
In short, this is a subversive film -- and on that level, I rather enjoyed it.