I get, too, the complaint that something about the process--politicking, judgment by committee--continually appears to result in the championing of mediocrity rather than daring. In the last ten years the Best Picture award has gone to: No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, and American Beauty. That's a depressing list to contemplate.
I also understand that disaffection may be strong this year because the whole crop of nominations appears particularly weak, meaning that those who had films they actually valued will have their irritation level raised before it even has to settle on a particular target.
All that said, the scorn heaped on this year's front-runner, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, strikes me as particularly intense. And given the fact that, unlike, say, at least six of the films on that list two paragraphs ago, Slumdog Millionaire is not (at least in my opinion) a bad film even if it is also not (again, in my opinion) the best film, I guess I feel roused to move beyond my initial "begrudging" thumbs up to say a bit more about what I liked about this film.
First up, though, some disclaimers:
I do not claim here that anyone should like this film. How many times does this bear repeating? Affinity and critical estimation are not the same thing. You can like something (even a lot) that you don't think is very good for all sorts of reasons. You can recognize the craftsmanship in something that you nevertheless feel antipathy for. If you didn't care for Slumdog Millionaire, you aren't alone. Nobody is asking you to hand in your critic's card, or human being card. By the same token, though, recognize that a lot of people did like it. And either they are all simpering idiots, none of them is smarter than you (or even smart enough to think something you haven't thought of first), they are all deliberating lying to try to pull one over on you, or they are capable of appreciating and enjoying something that you don't. Why is the latter such an offense to so many people's sensibilities?
In talking about the critical response surrounding a film, one inevitably generalizes, stereotypes, and is selective with, others' readings of the film. This sort of survey of criticism is one of the lower forms of responses for that reason. It pretty much always comes off as more arrogant than one means it to, because it places the writer (in this case, me) in the role of adjudicator rather than participant in the debate.
Why do it, then?
Well, because my response to a second viewing was markedly different from my initial response, and in that development of opinion may (or may not, but hey that's what the delete button is for) provide some insight into where these critical divisions lie and why the gulf between them is so sharp and nasty.
My first comment is that we live in a cynical age, and sentimental works of art, by their nature, tend to be very divisive. Dictionary.com defines sentimental as:
1. expressive of or appealing to sentiment, esp. the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia: a sentimental song.
2. pertaining to or dependent on sentiment: We kept the old photograph for purely sentimental reasons.
3. weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender: the sentimental Victorians.
4. characterized by or showing sentiment or refined feeling.
Now certainly these definitions in the aggregate do not mandate that the term must be prejudicial, but I think it has mostly become so. I would not be the first to suggest that the sentimentality of the Victorians (think Dickens on a bad day) was concurrent with (and in part wrapped up in) the rise of a less sophisticated commercial audience and is so wed in our historic consciousness with a sheen of inferiority. There are, in fact, however, works that are dependent on sentiment not simply as a gloss to cover over technical inferiority but which are combined with technical ability to great great sentimental art. (Think George MacDonald on a good day. Or Robert Burns. Or Frank Capra.)
It seems perfectly acceptable to me to say of such works that we don't care for them. But there is a difference between not caring for the genre and denigrating the artist, between saying "I don't like pop music" and "Celine Dion can't sing." The first is a defensible personal taste. The second is a snooty prejudice masquerading as a critical opinion.
One reason we don't like sentimentality may simply be personal taste. I would argue, though, that we are enculturated to dislike it, because sentimentality is the direct opposite of cynicism, and cynicism is the defensive posture of the day. It is the default attitude to which most modern viewers are calibrated. And it views sentimentality as not merely naive but false.
I read some comment somewhere from a viewer who said he or she liked the film well enough but would have liked it more if Jamal had gotten the last question wrong. Even when recognizing it as a genre piece, there is a part of us that recoils at the happy ending, that feels as though all happy endings must be "earned" (whatever the heck that means) or are not realistic.
I had one friend call Slumdog Millionaire the world's most depressing feel-good movie. I think she was right. Part of what I think she meant (or what I think she recognized if she meant something different) is that we are so uncalibrated to sentimentality, that we tend to think of it only as incessant, upbeat, Pollyanna cheerfulness--a denial of the darkness and painfulness of life rather than merely a(n increasingly foreign) response to it. Boyle's film doesn't sugarcoat the poverty, the suffering, the weight of environmental determinism and so we have a hard time dismissing it on purely sentimental grounds because it doesn't fall into the trap that bad sentimental art does.
Sometimes, too, I think we go to the other extreme. If a film refuses to be fantasy by simply denying pain, suffering, or obstacles, we insist it be cynicism by saying that those things are not just real but preeminent. Or, we put the weight on them to explain rather than merely testify to the presence of pain and suffering in the world. Now, I'll rail against films that I think play fast and loose with (or exploit) the mystery of suffering, either by offering false answers or pat ones that are really no answers at all. (Signs is one of my favorite whipping boys in this regard.)
If I've softened a bit towards films that are realistic about human suffering but sentimental in their conclusions (and certainly Slumdog Millionaire fits the bill here) it is because I can sometimes bring myself to see them as embodying the mysteries of the vagaries of providence (I use the word deliberately rather than "fate") rather than depending upon either false answer (i.e. that the innocent never suffer or that the reward is somehow and apt compensation for and hence justification of the suffering).
The essence of Slumdog Millionaire, its central theme, is announced right at the beginning. How did Jamal arrive where he is? It is the sentimental rejoinder to the much (too much in my opinion) celebrated "profoundness" of Anton Chigurgh's taunting inquiry of what use is one's philosophy if it has brought one to the point of despair (or hasn't prepared one to face the ultimate fate that awaits us all--doesn't have answers to the only questions that really matter).
"It is written" can be taken as just a cheeky reminder that what we are watching is a genre piece, a fairy tale. Jamal got here because there is an author and he wrote the script that way. And the reason he wrote the script that way is because that is how fairy tales are written. Certainly that's how I took it on a first viewing, and I laughed at the winking joke to the audience right before the fourth wall came down and everyone (from those playing happy Jamal to those playing trash heap living orphans) came out and did a happy boogey dance.
The film is very meta-fictive, even more so (for me) on a second viewing. And one quality of much metafiction is that it instructs you on how to read it (in the reader-response sort of way). The film is not just a depiction of the story, it continually breaks from the story to depict people watching the story and commenting on how and why they are watching it. From Jamal's early interactions with the police who are poring over the episode on tape to try to demonstrate their critical and intellectual superiority (but who evidence only their snobbishness and the way it threatens to blind them to a truth that is openly proclaimed right in front of them), to Latika's glossing of the show as a means of "escape," to the countless shots of people congregating around televisions in the build up to the final question, Slumdog Millionaire treats Who Wants to Be a Millionaire not just as the story within the story but as the means to be a story about stories. (Even the little bit about Jamal being fed the wrong answer by the show's host can be interpreted as a sort of meta-commentary on the determinedness of stories as one character within the story tries to usurp for himself the role of story author and finds, like we all do when we lose track of whether we are authors or characters in our own narrative that having all the answers isn't the same thing as being able to control what will happen in life.)
Still, most of my reservations about the film on first viewing, were tied to the show frame which not only showed Jamal on the show but insisted on interweaving the answers to the questions into his life experience. While this makes sense as a narrative hook, I was a bit too hung up on assuming that by underlining those events, by structuring the film around them, the story gave them a thematic significance that somehow made the game's outcome a quid-pro-quo. Sorry you got orphaned, but hey that experience got you past the $100 question. Your friend's blinding and slavery was not in vain, it led to the $50,000 answer.
If some were to read the film that way (and I can totally see how some might) I would totally understand why they might not only dislike the film but actually outright despise it. I don't think that is the film's message though, both because the final question's answer is not the product of some life experience (though it does reinforce the theme that the most important things like the most important questions, are the ones that were before us all along if we just could have eyes to see them) and also because Jamal, post answer, is not radically changed. The next shot of him is of him waiting in the train station, still alone, still unfulfilled. The money isn't the reward for the experiences, the girl is.
But isn't that the same thing? It's still happiness, whether it comes in the form of a check or a kiss. Perhaps. If that were delivered whole, all at once, and without a spot shadowing of the scars that remain as evidence of the past pain. Jamal does not so much overcome suffering as escape it. Neither--and this is important for me--is his suffering (or Latika's for that matter) portrayed as redemptive. It is not as though he is able to use the money to extricate her from her mobster's prison. Jamal is faithful through the suffering, but that faithfulness doesn't enact change so much as it makes him present and available when change becomes possible. (In large part through the agency of others.)
If Jamal's (and Latika's) progress is an escape from suffering (as opposed to a defeat of it), then my nagging doubts were about the singular and peculiar nature of that escape. Why do some live and some die? This, too, is a question that film ponders itself. Both when the blind boy says "I'll sing at your funeral" and when Salim looks down on Mumbai from the skyscraper with wonder at how they got from there to where they are now.
We need there to be some explanation, some reason, that ties that seemingly arbitrary providence to human agency, and hence merit. He need this so that we can feel not just that it is a fortuituos thing that some (including us) are rich and happy while others are not but that it is an appropriate thing.
Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy:
It is deeply revealing of how we think about God to see the way translators struggle to make this condition of "spiritual poverty" something good in its own right and thus deserving of blessing [...] This struggle with the translation reflects our intense need to find in the condition referred to something good, something God supposedly desires or even requires, that can serve as a "reasonable" basis for the blessedness he bestows. But that precisely misses the point that the very formulation of the Beatitudes should bring to our attention.
Jesus did not say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit." He did not think, "What a fine thing it is to be destitute of every spiritual attainment or quality. It makes people worthy of the kingdom." And we steal away the much more profound meaning of the teaching about the availability of the kingdom by replacing the state of spiritual impoverishment [...] with some supposedly praiseworthy state of mind or attitude [....]
In so doing we merely substitute another banal legalism for the ecstatic pronouncement of the gospel.
Yes, Ken, but Willard is talking about the kingdom of God, not earthly blessings. Are you saying the film is some sort of spiritual allegory?
Well, no. If by that do we mean was Vikas Swarup thinking of Matthew 5 when he wrote the novel? I don't think the film is necessarily about the New Testament beatitudunal teachings, but I do think Jamal can be a figure of them, and thinking of him as such reminds me (particularly the cynic in me) that "realistic" is not the same as "true" and that cynicism is not the same as wisdom.
You know, we don't have an answer for why the rain falls on the unjust as well as the just, but we don't reflexively sneer at films that depict it doing so. When a work of art shows the unredeemed or the unrepentant sharing in some universal blessing, we may, like Solomon (or Quoheleth, if you prefer) question why it should be so, but we don't (at least in my experience) chastise the artist for lying to people about the way things really are.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people. That sucks, but that's life.
Sometimes good things happen to bad people. That can be hard to bear, but that too is life.
Sometimes, though, good things happen to good people. Not merely because they are good. Not necessarily as a reward for their goodness, but because for one soul-lifting moment the veil is lifted and the fog of so many things we can't understand rolls away to give us a glimpse of the universe we know must be latent somewhere beneath the dirt, and death, and shit, even if we too often despair from the weight of doubt borne out the infrequency of such glimpses.
This, too, is life.